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What are you curious about when it comes to education in the Milwaukee area?

Should Wisconsin require schools to teach Asian American history? These students think so

University School of Milwaukee Chinese teacher Haiyun Lu spent two months delving into the incarceration of Japanese Americans with her students. "In a language class, we can use language as a vehicle to explore any topics," Lu says.
Emily Files
/
WUWM
University School of Milwaukee Chinese teacher Haiyun Lu spent two months delving into the incarceration of Japanese Americans with her students. "In a language class, we can use language as a vehicle to explore any topics," Lu says.

A bill is pending in the Wisconsin Legislature that would require public schools to teach Asian American history.

Through a law known as Act 31, schools are already required to teach Native American, Black and Hispanic history, but Asian Americans are left out of the mandate.

At the private University School of Milwaukee, one class recently learned about the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Now, the students are advocating for more lessons like this.

You might think it's a history or English class. But it's not — it's Haiyun Lu's upper-level high school Mandarin Chinese course.

Lu says, in her class, students use Mandarin to explore a variety of topics, not necessarily related to the language itself. Students write papers and have discussions about the topic in Mandarin.

"In a language class, we can use language as a vehicle to explore any interests, any topics," Lu says. "Whatever they want to explore, I say 'OK, let’s go there. We’ll figure it out.'"

Earlier this semester, the class of eight high schoolers spent two months learning about the U.S. government incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II.

Lu showed students a documentary, planning to spend maybe a week on the topic. But student interest drove them deeper.

Azara Mason, 17, says she knew hardly anything about the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans.

"I was, like, shocked to see the fact that the majority of the stuff I was hearing about was my kind of first time hearing about it," Mason said. "And that sparked a bunch of questions we proposed and discussions we had afterward."

When I visit the class, they’re reflecting on what they’ve learned from a series of guest speakers. They're speaking in English for my benefit, but would normally be talking in Mandarin.

Juniors Jackson Darr, Coco Raube-Van Bekkum, Azara Mason and Brynn Fitzsimmons are in Lu's upper-level Chinese course. The four seniors in the course had graduated by the time of this class visit.
Emily Files
Juniors Jackson Darr, Coco Raube-Van Bekkum, Azara Mason and Brynn Fitzsimmons are in Lu's upper-level Chinese course. The four seniors in the course had graduated by the time of this class visit.

"One thing I noticed, it all came together towards the end of the unit, through hearing all these different speakers, was the loss of identity," says Mason. "And that’s something you can’t ever get back to the extent of before – like your generation prior – before being imprisoned."

Student Coco Raube-Van Bekkum chimes in.

"It’s a very essential part of American history," Raube-Van Bekkum says. "As one of our speakers said, learning history is not just about looking in a mirror. You also need to look out the window to understand the world around you."

One of the speakers the class heard from was Ron Kuramoto, president of the Japanese American Citizens League, Wisconsin. Kuramoto says it’s rare for students in the U.S. to read more than a few sentences about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

"Asian American history is American history, in a lot of cases," he says. "The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War 2, but also the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1887, the Vincent Chin murder — all of these are events that are key junctures in American history that are not currently talked about or taught in our schools."

One schools district even limited what students learned about Japanese American incarceration. The Muskego-Norway School Board excluded a novel about the subject from an English class, which led to protests from Kuramoto and others.

"It makes people uncomfortable because it can portray the American government in not totally positive light," Kuramoto says. His own parents were incarcerated during WWII.

Kuramoto has been advocating for a bill pending in the Wisconsin Legislature, which would require schools to teach Asian American history in addition to the history of other minority groups.

When Lu’s students found out about the bill, they spent their free periods making an advocacy video, which they shared with State Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), who is a co-sponsor of the legislation. (See the video below.)

"It is more important than ever that students learn about our country’s history of racism," the students say in the video. "It is up to us to ensure the legacy of Asian Americans is not forgotten … Reach out to elected officials and advocate for legislation that mandates the inclusion of Asian American history in school curriculums."

Lu is proud of her students’ passion. She says, moments like this are what teachers strive for.

"To teach students how to think, not what to think," Lu says. "So that is my job — to help them develop their critical thinking skills, research skills so they can form their own opinion."

Advocates who are following the Wisconsin bill are hoping for a public hearing soon, in the Assembly Education Committee. You can keep tabs on the bill here.

Some USM students may testify about the gaps in their knowledge about Asian American history, and how Lu’s class has given them a fuller understanding of their country.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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