Bringing Stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Into Classrooms

A UCLA organization is creating a free AAPI multimedia textbook with lessons for high school and college students that will cultivate a sense of belonging among Asian Americans.


California has designated $10 million of the state budget to a UCLA organization developing resources to help instructors bring the experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders into high school and college classrooms across the country.

The AAPI Multimedia Textbook is a project of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. It is expected to launch in 2023 and will be available online for free.

May Lee, an award-winning broadcast journalist and adjunct professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has been leading the charge for teaching AAPI studies in schools at every level.

"There's just a true lack of education when it comes to AAPI history in schools," Lee told NBC4 in a video interview. "None of us are brought up in schools knowing anything — or very little — about any Asian American history."

Lee grew up in Ohio during the 1970s and was one of the only Asian children in her town. She said she often experienced racism, feeling "otherized" and treated like a "perpetual foreigner."

Motivated by anger and frustration following the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic and the media’s coverage of the 2021 Atlanta-area spa shootings that left six women of Asian descent dead, Lee created a groundbreaking course that she taught in the fall of that year: “Evolution of Asian Americans and the Media.”

The new class explores how media coverage or lack thereof has played a role in the racism that Asian Americans face. Ted Chen reports for the NBC4 News on Friday, May 28, 2021.

She set out to accomplish what the UCLA organization is doing now. But, she did so without the funding and did it in record time — just a matter of weeks — without having previous experience developing a college-level course.

“When you see a need, and you see this huge gaping hole in education that is a part of the problem, you have to act,” Lee explained.

Curated by members of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, the AAPI textbook will contain lessons and learning activities with visual, audio and archival artifacts.

“The textbook will be the most comprehensive, scholar-informed, online history of AAPIs that redefines the American narrative and opens unlimited possibilities for building a just, multiracial and democratic future,” said Karen Umemoto, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, in a news release.

The one-time state funding will go towards broad curriculum development, multimedia materials, building and testing the online learning platform and launching a training program for teachers nationwide.

Instructors will have flexibility in customizing their lesson plans since the chapters are standalone. They can use the textbook for a single class period or a week-long series.

In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101, making California the first state to require completion of a semester-long ethnic studies course to graduate high school. The law came after a decades-long push to create a curriculum that closely reflects the state's diverse population.

California State University campuses and community colleges in the state also added an ethnic studies class to general education requirements.

Megan Zhang, 20, is a second-generation immigrant and the internal vice president of USC's chapter of the Chinese American Student Association. She remembers learning about Asian American history for the first time in one of her college general education courses titled “Race in America.” In an assigned article, she read about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law restricting immigration into the U.S.

“I was shocked,” Zhang said in a video interview with NBC4. “I was like: ‘Wait, why don’t I know this? I feel like it’s a pretty essential piece of American history that I’m just not familiar with, even though I’m Asian American.’”

Lee said this is a common realization among Asian Americans that shows how there is an information gap among everyone, not just people outside of the AAPI community, that needs to be filled.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans could not name a prominent Asian American, according to the 2022 Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S. Index -- a survey that Umemoto helped conduct as a part of the academic advisory committee. Forty-two percent could not name a significant Asian American historical moment after the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the survey found.

Zhang said the AAPI multimedia resource could be a step in the right direction to increase the visibility of Asian American contributions and thinks educators should embed AAPI history into every college major's curriculum.

“I feel like it’d be cool to learn how diverse people impacted those fields of studies,” Zhang said. “So when we, as college students, go out into the real world, we can understand more context surrounding that.”

Lee, who made strides in bringing AAPI history into the context of journalism, hopes organizations will use funding and resources to their advantage and push to get Asian American history into public schools, grades K-12.

Illinois and New Jersey will require AAPI history as part of their public school curriculum starting this year.

“You have to start young because as you get older, you’ve already been programmed a certain way,” Lee said. “If you educate them properly, then they’re already going to have that sense and knowledge right from the beginning — and that’s crucial.”

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