How to teach kids about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 3, 2021

The news cycle around the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has been devastating in recent months, save periodic flashes of brightness such as Chloé Zhao’s recent groundbreaking Oscar win. (Zhao is the second woman in Academy Awards history to win Best Director, and the first woman of color to claim the prize.) 

And while I am very much of the belief that inclusive exploration should be at the forefront all year-round, given said news cycle, learning about and elevating the contributions of Asian American and Pacific Islanders couldn’t come at a better time. There are so many everyday opportunities to teach kids about Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures. Here are some fun and simple ways to get started.

1. Start with a quick history lesson

There are all manner of celebratory months and days, and while many are unofficial (and sometimes completely silly!), others have meaningful origins and were brought to bear through legislation. Set the context with kids with a quick history lesson. 

The commemorative period was originally signed into law in 1978 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week by President Jimmy Carter, and then in 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a bill to extend it to a month. The month of May was chosen as the celebratory month to commemorate the first Japanese immigrant who arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843 and the May 10, 1869 completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States, an effort largely fueled by Chinese immigrant laborers. In 2009, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month was changed to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

2. Give kids a sense of geographical scale

Due to the pandemic, our worlds have been very small for so long, which is why it’s more important than ever to show kids the scale of the world. For an accessible, beautifully produced video approach, check out National Geographic Kids’ Destination World. This site features two to three minute video snapshots into the seven continents of the world, weaving in key geographical information and interesting facts from each landmass. Britannica offers further descriptive information about the Pacific Islands, including a helpful visual map showing the three ethnogeographic groupings — Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia — comprising the Pacific Islands. 

3. Learn about animals

A great way to enhance learning is to connect with a child’s existing interests. If you have an animal-loving kid, tap into that passion by investigating animals from Asia and the Pacific Islands. If you’re able to do some research at your local zoo, great; otherwise, many zoos have focused on making animals accessible from the comfort of home. (I may or may not be a little obsessed with the Smithsonian Zoo’s giant panda cam, where you can watch giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji.)

4. Read books

Books are one of my very favorite ways to teach kids about, well, anything! Local libraries are a treasure trove, and I have always found the children and young adult librarians to be incredible resources when looking for specific material. 

Mia Wenjen, author of “Changing the Game: Asian Pacific American Female Athletes,” shares three favorite titles spanning different age ranges: 

  • Eyes that Kiss in the Corners,” written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho, is a picture book for ages 3 and up that models self-acceptance. 

  • Middle grade (ages 8 and up) title “Step Up to the Plate Maria Singh” by Uma Krishnaswami shares a biracial family story about a character who learns that softball represents more than just playing a sport. 

  • And “Dragon Hoops” by Gene Luen Yang is a graphic novel for ages 12 and up that addresses issues such as the #MeToo movement, diversity and inclusion and making choices in an uncertain world.”

5. Listen to music

As a former violinist, music teacher and music and brain scientist, it’s no surprise that I appreciate how powerful music is as a means to explore different musical traditions and instrumentation. Though geared towards educators, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has an amazing resource page where you can browse a map to find world music curricular experiences. Click on the Asia and Pacific Island pins, and the PDF lesson plans offer lots of information and links to sound files so kids can listen to music from other areas of the world. 

6. Try different food

Food offers a wonderful way to explore different cultures. Support a local restaurant or try a recipe at home. Author Thien-Kim Lam recommends busting your pandemic food rut by exploring new recipes. "Even though I'm the Vietnamese food expert in my family, there are so many dishes I still want to add to my repertoire,” says Lam. “When I want to learn a new-to-me recipe, I turn to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen's Viet World Kitchen and Bryan Huy Vu's Hungry Huy. Nguyen's website has a wide range of AAPI recipes!"

7. Connect with someone in your community 

There’s so much to be gained by strengthening ties within one’s community. While I advise against asking people of color to explain racism or speak for an entire culture, simply being curious about someone’s experience is a wonderful way to learn and expand your perspective. 

Educator and writer Leticia Barr shares, “My favorite way to teach Chinese culture is by sharing who I am with my students. So many times the best learning happens through informal conversations in the classroom, rather than formal lesson plans.” And there are additional benefits of sharing yourself to others. Barr notes, “I’ve found that my willingness to share about who I am encourages my middle schoolers to open up and tell me more about themselves. Teaching in a diverse area means that I’m often learning as much from my students as they are from me! We’ve had conversations about our favorite snacks to buy at H-Mart, debated the best flavors of Hi-Chew and eagerly anticipated the opening of the first Jollibee (a popular fast food restaurant from the Philippines) in Maryland.“

While the news of the world can feel overwhelming and difficult, small moments of learning about different parts of the world and different cultural traditions will help us grow into more connected, empathic human beings.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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