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Teaching Asian American History in and Beyond May

The following is a Q&A by Lin Wu, Ph.D., member of AACTE’s Global Diversity Programmatic Advisory Committee and assistant professor in the College of Education at Western Oregon University in reflection of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month and how teaching Asian American history extends beyond the classroom and timeframe designated to honor AANHPI history. Wu recently interviewed Noreen Naseem Rodríguez, Ph.D., assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education, Sohyun An, Ph.D., professor at Kennesaw State University’s Bagwell College of Education, and Esther Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor at William & Mary School of Education, whose research in teaching Asian American history culminated in a collaboration spanning the course of a decade.


(Top) Noreen Naseem Rodríguez, Esther Kim (Bottom) Sohyun An, Lin Wu

Lin: What is your advice for teachers to strategically teach Asian American history, especially those who live in states with legislation that banned the teaching of historical truths?

All: It’s difficult to give one-size-fits-all advice for teaching no matter the topic, so this is even more complex when it comes to highly variable responses to teaching and learning about race and ethnicity. We have all taught pre- and in-service elementary educators in the U.S. South, so we deeply understand the complexity that many teachers face, in and beyond the South, because it’s important to remember that pushback to the teaching of race is happening across the country, not just in Florida and Texas.

Esther: I learned a few strategies while teaching in a conservative Christian private school in “liberal” California for several years where I was approached by administration about parent concerns several times. There will always be families that will challenge any teacher who teaches the truth in the classroom. However, what I found was that building relationships with families was key. As soon as parents and guardians came to trust that I genuinely cared for their children, they became my biggest supporters. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t terrified of losing my job every time my department chair came in with another parent complaint, but it helped knowing that most families knew and trusted me with their children and would make that known to others.

Noreen: My go-to advice is that learning about the different groups in our nation is part of the democratic project of schools. Recently, a colleague asked about when it was “age appropriate” to teach about race in elementary schools – that concept itself is a social construct normed to the conceptions of a particular subset of white middle-class Christians. For communities of color, conversations about race, skin color, and hair often begin very early, before children even enter elementary school. As I often tell my preservice teachers, if kids are asking teachers about things like race and war, it’s because they want to know more and they trust teachers’ expertise and willingness to find answers to students’ questions. So rather than starting from a place of fear, teachers need to start with their students and consider what is possible in the communities where they work. It’s always easier to start with the familiar, so think about the Asian American histories and communities where you live and make those your starting points because they are the most obviously relevant, then extend from there.

Lin: May is the AANHPI Heritage Month. How can teacher education programs honor diverse Asian American histories, cultures, and heritages in preparing teachers in and beyond this month?

All: While May is a great time to uplift AANHPI heritages and histories, no ethno-racial or other marginalized group should only be taught in isolation in a given month. In fact, when most schools wrap up the academic year in May, that may make coverage of AANHPI topics even more challenging. Teachers and teacher educators should take advantage of the increase in recommended resources in May that often appear in local communities and social media and share/engage with those when possible, but also think about how to use them in the next school year, all year long.

Lin: Which Asian American pioneers have influenced your scholarly inquiry and personal advocacy, and why?

All: Discourse is always evolving and we continue to learn how we can be as responsible as possible with our language. Terms like “pioneer,” which is linked to “frontier,” have historical origins and implications in colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy. Thus, rather than “pioneers,” we choose “elders” in our response.

Sohyun finds inspiration in everyday people who go about their lives with ethics of care and love for others. She recently learned about Frank Matsura and Shoki Kayamori, Asian immigrants who settled in Washington and Alaska respectively in the early 1900s. They lived and worked alongside indigenous peoples and became town photographers. Unlike white settler photographers during that time whose photos depicted the west as an empty land for white settlement and Indigenous people as a “vanishing race,” Matsura’s and Kayamori’s photos reveal Indigenous presence, power, place, and political nationhood. It was possibly because of their racialization as perpetual foreigners and legal exclusion from U.S. body politics that Matsura and Kayamori probably had little investment in furthering white settler colonialism; instead, they had an affinity with indigenous peoples and lived as what Mashpee Wampanoag Elder gkisedtanamoogk calls “neighbors with legitimacy.” People like Matsura and Kayamori inspire me to live ethically and responsibly and do scholarly work in solidarity.

For Esther, two elders are especially inspiring. Mabel Ping Hua Lee was born in China, and immigrated to the U.S. as a child, thus she could not naturalize as a U.S. citizen until the law was changed in the 1940s. Still, in the early 1900s, she fought for women’s rights in the U.S., even knowing that she would likely never have access to them. Another inspirational elder is Kiyoshi Kuromiya. Almost his whole life was dedicated to fighting whatever injustice he saw. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr, he worked with the Black Panthers, and he was an advocate for LGBTQ communities and AIDS research that would include people of color. He made sure that medical information about HIV and AIDS would be accessible to everyone. Kuromiya was also active in anti-war protests, truly centering human rights. His life was dedicated to “telling the truth to power.”

Noreen is inspired by elders like Larry Itliong and Yuri Kochiyama who fostered solidarity across ethno-racial groups and dedicated their lives to disrupting injustice. Kochiyama is especially compelling because she was so dedicated to learning about injustice and incarceration and was so skilled at connecting people. In terms of contemporaries, Noreen loves how folks like Taz Ahmed, Alok Menon, and Phil Yu use the internet, social media, and pop culture in ways that make Asian American content accessible to all and is indebted to the mentorship and support of academic “big siblings” like Roland Sintos Coloma, Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Leigh Patel, and OiYan Poon who paved the way for her work and are models of scholar-activism.

 Lin: What drew you to write Teaching Asian America in Elementary Classrooms (Rodríguez et al., 2023) at this moment, individually and collectively?

All: Honestly, we’ve been “working” on this book for the last decade – it’s just that we didn’t know that publishing a book was an option until after Noreen had some experience publishing other educational monographs, and frankly, publishing many of our academic manuscripts has been a struggle simply because many reviewers don’t understand the significance of our work or dismiss the need to attend to Asian Americans in general (An, 2016; Rodríguez, 2018; Rodríguez & Kim, 2018).

Noreen: The success of my first book Social Studies for a Better World (Rodríguez & Swalwell, 2023) revealed how practitioner-focused work could have a tremendous impact on pre- and in-service teachers, but writing books is not something that early career educational researchers are typically encouraged to do, and therefore the path toward that route is often unclear. When the editor of my book’s series asked me what I wanted to publish next, I confessed that my dream book was about how to teach Asian America – this is something I’ve been thinking about since my first year on the tenure track, but something so broad required a team with a wide range of expertise. Enter Sohyun An and Esther Kim, colleagues with whom I’ve worked extensively since graduate school. Due to our many previous collaborations, working on this together seemed obvious, and surprisingly, the book poured out of us quite quickly over the summer of 2022.

Sohyun: We were also compelled to write this book because of anti-Asian racism and violence that became highly visible in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing movement for teaching and learning Asian American histories in response to that. While we were cautiously excited to see Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey and others mandate Asian American history in K-12 schools, we wondered if our teachers were ready and supported to do the work. As former K-12 teachers and current teacher educators, we know most teachers including ourselves did not formally learn Asian American studies or ethnic studies pedagogy in teacher education programs. Further, there were very few resources that offered content and pedagogical knowledge for elementary school teachers. We decided to write what we wanted ourselves and our teachers to have.

Lin’s Reflection & Recommendation

I first read some of the research by Noreen, Esther, and Sohyun during my doctoral studies in multicultural education. I found a scholarly affinity with their commitment to uplifting Asian American (counter)stories in social studies education, a field still largely dominated by white voices. Many preservice teachers I taught, especially Asian Americans, also expressed their gratitude for reading the three interviewees’ scholarship because it made them feel seen and challenged their conceptions about teaching Asian American history. One of my first publications was under the guest editorship of Noreen and Sohyun with “Social Studies and the Young Learner (Wu et al., 2022). It was the first time that this National Council for the Social Studies flagship journal published a theme issue on teaching Asian American history. Given the page limit, Noreen and Sohyun ensured that this special issue attended to the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic, and (im)migration diversity within the Asian American community. The sustaining research of Sohyun, Noreen, and Esther has empowered many Asian American and diasporic scholars to tell their own (counter)stories. It continues to influence my scholarly advocacy for Asian Americans (Wu & Carano, 2024).

As an AACTE Global Diversity Programmatic Advisory Committee member, I strategize with colleagues on helping teacher educators develop preservice teachers’ knowledge of global cultural diversity and racial literacy to better serve all students in U.S. K–12 schools. Here are my recommendations on how teacher education programs can support the teaching of Asian American history and Asian American faculty members based on this interview:

  • Teacher educators can strategically incorporate Teaching Asian America in Elementary Classrooms (Rodríguez et al., 2023) and other publications such as Made in Asian America (Lee & Soontornvat, 2024) into their curricula. Though this scholarship fits social studies methods, science methods instructors can extrapolate content from these books to spotlight Asian American scientists’ contributions to U.S. society, despite the bamboo and glass ceilings imposed on them. Literacy courses can also use some of the recommended children’s books to illustrate Asian Americans’ enduring humanity. In so doing, preservice teachers may be better equipped to teach all students, especially Asian Americans, to read the word (skill) and the world (power).

  • Deans of colleges of education can systematize resources to recruit, support, and retain critically-conscious Asian American teacher educators. First, they can provide equitable funding for research on Asian American education. Second, they can ensure that Asian American faculty members are assigned courses based on their expertise and protected from white backlashes when teaching “difficult” histories. Third, they can create faculty affinity groups so that Asian Americans can bond with colleagues of color to counter the pervasive whiteness in teacher education. Finally, they can create sustaining opportunities to develop Asian American teacher educators’ leadership capacity. These strategies will likely enhance Asian American teacher educators’ career satisfaction and longevity.

  • Ultimately, teacher education programs must walk their talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Besides implementing the suggestions above, teacher educators must teach accurate, nuanced, and complex Asian American history in and beyond May so that all preservice teachers, including Asian Americans, become multiculturally competent and racially literate to serve K-12 students. Rather than silencing Asian Americans’ struggle, resistance, and contributions or checking on Asian American colleagues only during a national crisis impacting their community, teacher educators should remember that many Asian Americans, alongside many other people of color, “are the leaders we’ve been looking for,” as our elder Grace Lee Boggs (2012) eloquently stated.


An, S. (2016). Asian Americans in American history: An AsianCrit perspective on Asian American inclusion in state U.S. history curriculum standards. Theory & Research in Social Education, 44(2), 244-276. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2016.1170646

Boggs, G. L. (2012). The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first century. University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.1525/9780520953390

Lee, E., & Soontornvat, C. (2024). Made in Asian America: A history for young people. Quill Tree Books.

Rodríguez, N. N. (2018). From margins to center: Developing cultural citizenship education through the teaching of Asian American history. Theory & Research in Social Education, 46(4), 528-573. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2018.1432432

Rodríguez, N. N., & Kim, E. J. (2018). In search of mirrors: An Asian Critical Race Theory content analysis of Asian American picturebooks from 2007 to 2017. Journal of Children’s Literature, 44(2), 17-30.

Rodríguez, N. N., An, S., & Kim, E. J. (2023). Teaching Asian America in elementary classrooms. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781032662695

Rodríguez, N. N., & Swalwell, K. (2023). Social studies for a better world: An anti-oppressive approach for elementary educators. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781032677941

Wu, L., & Carano, K. T. (2024). Reimagining the COVID-19 pandemic as a portal to justice for Asian American students. The Social Studies, 115(1), 34-46. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377996.2023.2245341

Wu, L., Hsiung, H. C., & Bogucharova, T. (2022). Finding light among uncertainty. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 34(3), 3-7.

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