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Teachers prepare for new Asian American history requirements at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign

One session within Tuesday's workshop at the University of Illinois focused on how to distinguish between helpful Asian American children's books and books that promote stereotypes.

URBANA — Illinois public schools were supposed to start teaching a unit of Asian American history at every grade level last year, but some haven’t yet.

University of Illinois College of Education professor Yoon Pak co-organized a day-long workshop on Tuesday to help out.

University of Illinois College of Education professor Yoon Pak.

She hopes teachers learn to emphasize how interrelated Asian American history is with other American histories.

“It’s not teaching Asian American history in a vacuum or an isolation, but thematically through [questions like] what does citizenship mean? And how did this affect various groups?” Pak said.

The state passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act in 2021, in the context of anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois was the first state in the nation to require a unit on Asian American history.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has become one of a few key organizations creating curricula and resources for teachers as they implement the TEAACH Act. 

About 80 teachers and other educators attended Tuesday’s workshop online and in person at the U of I Urbana campus.

Some sessions focused on how to teach amidst political backlash, while others helped attendees learn which children’s books were helpful and which promoted stereotypes.

Unit 4’s International Prep Academy teachers Christina Cañas (left) and Abby Heras attend a workshop on Asian American children’s books on Aug. 1, 2023 at the University of Illinois College of Education in Champaign. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Abby Heras is a music teacher at International Prep Academy in Champaign Unit 4 School District. She joined to build on curricula she found herself – including music she taught during last year’s Filipino Heritage Month.

She recalled the reaction of a student whose dad and grandmother are Filipino.

“When I introduced this one song, she just sat up taller. I was like, oh my God, you know this song,” Heras said.

She herself is Filipino and says she didn’t feel seen in school growing up.

Fellow IPA teacher Christina Cañas heard about the workshop from Heras and decided to tag along.

“It surprised me that there are people who think this is just one more thing we have to teach,” she said. “It’s not a list or a task. It’s something that you should just want to do. It’s inclusive.”

Cañas said she would like to see further professional development on the topic from the Unit 4 school district.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt.

Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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