Illinois First to Require Asian American History in Schools

The new Illinois’ TEAACH Act has been called a ‘life saver’ for students.

After watching the PBS documentary about Asian Americans, 14-year-old Sophie Lobo — who uses they/them pronouns — planned to present a class project about Asian Americans’ contributions and struggles during the 1920s. But they couldn’t find enough research and had to change their project.

Sophie began campaigning for the TEAACH (Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History) Act in early 2021 through the Indo-American Center.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill July 9. Illinois is the only state to require Asian American history curriculum in public schools.  

For Sophie, TEAACH means they, along with other Asian American students, won’t be responsible for teaching their own history anymore.

“It will be in the classrooms, being talked about, being discussed more,” says Sophie, an incoming freshman at Lane Tech College Prep High School. “People will understand the backbone and the suffering of the Asian American community, what they’ve done for the U.S. and what they’ve faced.”

What is the TEAACH Act?

The act goes into effect Jan. 1 and schools must teach Asian American history in Illinois and the Midwest and their contributions in “advancing civil rights” beginning with the 2022-23 school year, according to the legislation.

Multiple Asian American organizations pioneered the act, with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) leading the way.

The act “pairs with the five-hour PBS film series and K-12 curricula,” according to the AAJC website. It “will ensure that Asian American stories and experiences are highlighted in Illinois, not just stories of Asians outside the United States.”

Sophie’s mother and executive director for the Indo-American Center, Angie Lobo, thinks the legislation will help combat the rise in anti-Asian American hate, which surged 164% in early 2021, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Introducing Asian American history — both their contributions and their struggles — is long overdue, Angie Lobo says: “Painting that full picture of what the community brings to the table is essential, not just for Asian American children growing up … but also for other communities to understand what a positive impact the Asian American community has had on this country, not just in the last 20 years but for centuries.”

“This legislation is in many ways life support or a life saver — something for students to hold onto,” she says.

Nida Hasan, the civic engagement coordinator and community organizer at Indo-American Center, grew up in a post-9/11 world at odds between her Pakistani background and her identity in the Illinois public school system. Hasan hopes the act will help current and future Asian American students and children of immigrants find their identities at school.

Angie Lobo and Hasan say seeing Pritzker sign the act felt like a sense of peace and relief after decades worth of work from Asian American organizations lobbying for legislation like TEAACH.

Northwestern University’s associate dean for teacher education, Kavita Kapadia Matsko, thinks this act “feels like a missed opportunity until this moment — that no stories of our own history and their connection to the United States were virtually absent from our textbooks.”

Matsko, who is Indian, thinks it will help Illinois teachers face implicit biases they may have about Asian American students. Small acts, like asking for a student’s correct name pronunciation, are significant, Matsko says.

“The name ‘Asian American’ encompasses so many different groups of people — it’s Chinese, it’s Indian, it’s Filipino, it’s Vietnamese, it’s Indonesian, it’s Korean,” Matsko notes. “[Teachers] have to do the work on a personal level so we can support curriculum changes and ultimately a positive cultural identity development for our students as well.”

While Sophie knows TEAACH will take time to fully enter the classroom — each school board decides the minimum instruction time and what “qualifies as a unit of instruction” — they’re excited to see more Asian American history being taught.

“I didn’t see much of my culture being talked about and the lack of that caused a lot of teasing, misunderstanding and bullying from classmates,” Sophie says. “I’m hoping as I move forward in high school in a more progressive setting, there will be more appearances of Asian American history, especially with TEAACH starting to come into play.”

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