How Much Are Students Learning About the Chinese Exclusion Act? It’s largely up to teachers.

A tableau of immigration documents, coaching papers in Chinese and interrogation records set up for filming at Angel Island. Photo by THE CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT Producer Robin Espinola.
The Chinese Exclusion Act and its significance to the U.S. is not included in a majority of the U.S. social studies and history curriculum in K-12 education.

Preschoolers and their parents at a Head Start program in New York Chinatown use clay to make models of something that reminds them of home. Some children formed the clay into jewelry and pieces of clothing. The squishy white clay reminded some of them of dough, and a surprising number of preschoolers rolled out dumplings. Judy W. Yu, who runs REACH education consulting and also and is also a professor at Queens College, created the program in 2012. She points to it as an example that students of all ages can be introduced to the Asian American experience and think critically about what it means to be an American.

The release of The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary has proved particularly relevant to educators this spring. Although President Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim countries was overturned and the proposal to build the controversial wall along the Mexican border has not yet been funded by Congress, these measures have sparked discussion in classrooms from elementary school to universities. Since CAAM launched the Who is American? Educational and Community Outreach Campaign along with Ric Burn’s and Li-Shin Yu’s documentary The Chinese Exclusion Act, over 150 K-12 and college teachers, community organizations and libraries have requested DVDs, curriculum, toolkits and screenings from CAAM on the topic.

“While the Common Core does provides a social studies and history framework for K-12 education, the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its significance to the U.S. is not included in a majority of the U.S. social studies and history curriculum in K-12 education,” says Judy Yu.

Disparate but passionate groups of educators around the country are having discussions on how to better teach K-12 students about the Chinese Exclusion Act, a precedent-setting law that has continues to influence current immigration discussions seventy years after it was repealed. The most obvious places to find discussions about the Chinese Exclusion Act are in high school Ethnic Studies courses in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Oakland. The San Francisco Bay Area, with San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, was the birthplace of the Ethnic Studies movement in the late 1960s. Nearly two dozen school districts in California already offer some version of Ethnic Studies, and Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that will create statewide Ethnic Studies curriculum by 2019.

At a planning meeting for Ethnic Studies teachers in San Francisco Unified School District, copies of anti-Chinese flyers from the 1880s are among the papers available to decoupage light switch covers and pencil jars. Nikhil Laud, who teaches 9th grade ethnic studies at Balboa High School, uses the papers printed with NO! NO! NO! CHINESE! to decorate a light switch cover, to be used in his classroom. “Hopefully, kids will think about it when they go to flip the switch,” says Laud, noting that outside of Ethnic Studies courses it’s difficult to know exactly how many teachers include anti-Asian legislation in their lessons. The Chinese Exclusion Act is mentioned in the California social studies framework that was adopted in 2016, in fourth grade California history, ninth grade California Studies and Ethnic Studies, 11th grade U.S. History, and 12th grade Government.

Students in a NY head start program made dumplings as part of an activity around identity and who is an American.
Students in a NY Head Start program in conjunction with MoCA and Cool Culture made dumplings as part of an activity around who is American. Photo Credit: Judy Yu.

With Common Core standards, California—like many states—has also moved away from content based standardized testing, which makes it nearly impossible to track how much students are learning about specific topics, such as the Exclusion Act.

“Sadly, it’s not brought up in most high school classrooms in terms of analyzing the experiences of inclusion and exclusion,” Laud said. He is part of a growing movement of educators who want to go beyond just memorizing laws and dates to re-thinking American history. Ethnic Studies courses not only teach historical events, but also introduce concepts such as power structures and critical thinking about the sources of common narratives about America.

With Common Core’s emphasis on reading different types of text, Laud uses sources as varied as news articles about President Trump’s attempted Muslim ban and op-ed pieces such as one written by Columbia University history professor Mae Ngai for CNN titled “Muslims are the New Chinese,” as well as original text of the Chinese Exclusion Act that was debated in congress over 100 years ago. Students also watch Ken Burns’ series to learn the relationship between the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the anti-Chinese sentiment that led to the Exclusion law. In addition to more traditional assignments such as research papers, students also have the opportunity to create a comic strip based on the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But outside of Ethnic Studies courses, it’s often up to individual teachers to decide whether or not to include the Chinese Exclusion Act in their social studies curriculum—a difficult task with the large amount of information they need to cover in just a few months. “Time is one of the greatest challenges for high school history-social studies teachers,” says Elizabeth Humphries, Oakland Unified School District social studies specialist, who is working on creating curriculum around the new documentary on the Chinese Exclusion Act, directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and co-produced by CAAM. “They’re asked to cover a huge amount of content, which can sometimes lead to sacrificing depth in favor of breadth, or to leaving some content out completely.”

Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State where nearly one-third of students are AAPI, notes that many of his undergraduate students had never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act before college. “Most students comment that they never learned about racial and ethnic histories. They realize they had a whole history omitted,” says Jeung. “Students are surprised at amount of legislation specifically targeting Asians.”

Time and again, educators say that teachers are more likely to include the Chinese Exclusion Act if they already know about the history and have high quality resources to draw upon. Equipping was the goal of the Museum of Chinese in America last summer. In July 2016, 25 teachers and librarians from around the United States gathered for 11 days in the heat of New York City to learn more about the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Images like these were common during the Chinese Exclusion Act era. Some teachers today are grappling this long span in U.S. history with their students.
Images like these were common during the Chinese Exclusion Act era. Some teachers today are grappling this long span in U.S. history with their students. Photo courtesy of Steeplechase Films.

Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the seminar gave teachers a chance to preview the The Chinese Exclusion Act documentary with co-directors Burns and Yu. The teachers also visited sites such as Ellis Island and the former Eugenics Records Office on Long Island to understand how anti-Asian laws fit in with other U.S. racial policies. “In order to integrate these complex concepts and discussions of ‘exclusion’ in the classroom and its parallelism to U.S. history such as Japanese American internment, the international eugenics movements in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and the current push for the Muslim ban in 2017, these curriculum practices largely depends on a teacher’s educational training and its school administration in advocating for a social justice curriculum,” explains Judy Yu, the creator of the Chinese American history program for the Head Start preschoolers in New York. She worked closely with Museum of Chinese in America co-founder Jack Tchen to create the NEH seminar for teachers.

Viewing the graphic xenophobia of old political cartoons was one of most effective tools, says NYU professor Jack Kuo-Wei Tchen, who is also the director of the NEH summer institute. “Meat v. Rice by Samuel Gothridge, those kind of images are very powerful and can be used in a range of school subjects,” says Tchen, who is also author of Yellow Peril, which examines the history of anti-Asian imagery. “Teachers can incorporate images not necessarily U.S. History.”

While states like California may have been directly impacted by the Chinese Exclusion Act, teaching about the history of anti-Asian legislation—or Asian American history in general—isn’t relegated to just the East and West coasts. In Michigan, the Department of Education is reconsidering how public schools teach civil rights, after a 2014 rerport by the Southern Poverty Law Center gave the state a failing grade in that subject. The state reached out to different groups, including the Arab American National Museum, Charles Wright Museum of African American History, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, and APIA vote. Anna Pegler-Gordon, Director of the Asian Pacific American Studies Program at Michigan State University, is working with undergraduate students to develop curriculum for high schools. The students are in their second through fourth year of college, and two-thirds of them are not Asian (neither is Pegler-Gordon, who is white and originally from England). “You might not think Chinese American history is part of U.S. history, but it is,” explains Pegler-Gordon. She hopes that next fall, some of her students – many of whom grew up in Lansing, where MSU is located — will be able to visit their former high schools to share Asian American history lessons.

Still, there are shortcomings. While the curriculum was initiated by the Michigan Department of Education, which is currently revamping its social studies standards, schools will not be required to use it. “I’m not sure how much it will get picked up,” worries Pegler-Gordon. “At the K-12 level I think it is a real struggle. Even in schools that have a significant Asian American population, those students do not see themselves represented.”

The teachers who attended the NEH summer institute have had almost an entire school year to use the lessons they learned. Sam Cass teaches English as a New Language and coordinates programs for new immigrants at KAPPA, a public International Baccalaureate high school in the Bronx. When she came back to school last fall, she shared her new knowledge with her colleagues. As a result, the school revamped its U.S. History curriculum, now teaching ideas thematically, instead of simply in chronological order. Cass says, adding that many of the same concepts are discussed in the English curriculum. This year, the U.S. History course included a five-week theme of inclusion/exclusion. “We really did tweak our curriculum a lot to include things that got skipped over, such as Japanese Internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act. We did a whole chapter of exclusionary laws, including the Indian Removal Act, the period of McCarthyism,” she says. The English as a New Language class spent eight weeks reading about the individual experiences of groups, including the current travel bans.

While many teachers from California to New York report that students quickly draw parallels between anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim sentiment or efforts to keep out immigrants from Mexico, the topic is still tough for some high school students to swallow. In Atlanta, where Confederate markers are reminders of the state’s slave-owning past, some students are merely surprised to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act. Others react more defensively. “Their race and class butts up against the narrative,” says Rachel Peterson, Dean of Students at Paideia School, a private K-12 academy. “You’re just planting seeds. Some kids, all of the sudden their mind is blown. Some kids, there’s so much dissonance.”

But for teachers to even know how students will react to the history lessons, the teachers themselves will first need training. In Oakland, educators such as Humphries are working with CAAM to create lessons that will complement the Chinese Exclusion Act film and meet California state standards. And in San Francisco, the Chinese Historical Society of America opened its new permanent exhibit Inclusion/Exclusion in November 2016. Docent tours will help visitors learn about Chinatown landmarks and also get them thinking. “The hope with our docent tour is to have participants explore the idea of exclusion and be able to identify how the idea of exclusion can negatively affect a group of individuals,” says William Tran, CHSA education and programs coordinator. “Another goal that we have for the docent tour is to have participant identify how the idea of exclusion shows up in our society currently, and what does it mean when another group has to go through this alienation?” The museum also offers workshops and field trips, hosting over 1500 visitors from around Bay Area, as well as places such as Virginia, Michigan and Utah. CHSA had offered teacher workshops on using art to introduce students to the Chinese American experience and will also be leading teacher workshops at the National Council of Social Studies conference in San Francisco this November.

While Tchen is unsure about future NEH funding to hold another summer institute to train teachers, MoCA hopes to make curriculum available online in the future. “I’m weirdly optimistic because people realize the importance and the stakes,” says Tchen. “The reality of American history has come alive again.”

+ + +

Grace Hwang Lynch is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance journalist and essayist, with a focus on race and culture. Her work has been published by PBS, PRI, NBC Asian America, and Salon. She also blogs about mixed race Asian family life at HapaMama.com. Follow @GraceHwangLynch on Twitter.