During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.
For some of her students, Gina Cynn was the first Asian they had ever gotten to know.
“I have taught in schools where I have been the only Asian teacher and Asian person in the school,” Cynn, who is Korean American and teaches in Orlando, Florida, told TODAY Parents.
Because of this, Cynn, who has been teaching for over a decade, starts every school year by introducing herself but also by discussing Korea and her family background.
“I addressed any questions they had for me ... Korean food, culture, language, customs,” she said. “This would lead into a continuous discussion about stereotypes, discrimination or racism we might have experienced.”
Cynn said the conversations would lead to opening up about emotions and discomfort through painful experiences.
“Humanizing the Asian race, to students who never saw or talked to an Asian before, allowed my students to look past the exterior and see the heart,” she said.
As anti-Asian hate and violence is on the rise, schools across the country have been feeling pressure to step up and take action. In 2020, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased 15 percent and the number of anti-Asian hate incidents hit nearly 3,800 over roughly a year during the pandemic, according to data from the reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate.
In March 2021, a series of spa shootings in the Atlanta area killed eight, six of the victims Asian women, stirring fear and outrage amongst Asian Americans across the nation.
In the wake of violence in their own backyard, Atlanta Public Schools, a district with approximately 52,000 students, took action. They became the first district in the nation to add equity work to their existing social justice initiatives.
"We understand that the key to ending racism and racist acts of violence is to examine what is taking place within our classroom, because it is in the classroom that students come to understand the true meaning of our democratic and pluralistic ideas, and where they can come to appreciate the diversity that makes up our communities," Atlanta Public Schools told TODAY Parents in a written statement.
Led by superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring, the Atlanta school district also is reaching beyond the walls of school campuses, working with the high-school level Asian Student Union and a school-based parent and community organization on an event in reaction, and in memory of, the Atlanta Spa shootings.
Cynn agreed that addressing and condemning racism in the classroom is of utmost importance.
“A teacher's actions and words can be incredibly impactful to students,” she told TODAY, adding that students take on mannerisms of their teachers by watching, listening and learning from actions. “Addressing anti-Asian racism should be intentionally discussed. Having open and honest discussions about the anti-Asian attacks and correcting any misconceptions can lead to growth within the classroom and possibly into their communities.”
Cynn suggests that teachers can open the pathway of communication with students for these conversations by first building a trusting relationship where students feel comfortable talking about struggles or asking questions.
"Teachers can address a sensitive topic like racism and anti-Asian racism by regularly addressing the beauty of differences," Cynn said. "This cannot be just a one time discussion, but a progressive approach of continuously teaching students about different cultures, beliefs, and different people around the world.
In California, where the Asian American population is the highest in the United States, eighth grade history teacher Codie Cox feels fortunate to be part of a district where leaders and administrators have been proactive at diversifying the curriculum and offering active support to students.
"As a Hawaiian-Chinese female history teacher, I cannot tell you how much it excites me to know that I get to take part in developing new learning experiences and curriculum for our students," she said, adding that her department recently incorporated "Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism, and You" by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds to their curricula.
"After using a few excerpts in the book to teach students about the origins of racism in our country, we decided it would be a great resource for our classes to have and the district allowed us to buy class sets for each of our classes," Cox said. "This book has been helpful in opening the conversation in the classroom about the role race plays in our country...while also breaking down how racism developed in our country and how we got where we are today. It sort of takes down the curtain that some textbooks hold up to avoid some of the uglier parts of our country's history."
Cynn added that she feels exposure is one of the most helpful tools educators can use to combat racism.
"The more students are exposed to different ethnic groups, the more they will become open-minded and empathetic," she shared. "Creating a culturally responsive classroom by offering students a diverse library of stories and authors will expose students to a world outside of their own, regardless of their race."