After several years of advocacy, the Asian American Pacific Islander Literature class has finally started at Berkeley High School. The class is taught by Matthew Laurel, an English teacher and Academic Support Coordinator. According to Laurel, the class was championed during the pandemic, at a time when solidarity in the AAPI community was critical, given the large number of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
The AAPI Literature class used to exist at BHS in the 1990s, as a semester-long class that was taught by current ethnic studies teacher Dana Moran, followed by two other teachers for a few semesters. But, by the early 2000s, it was removed from the course catalog. Now, the class has been revived under Laurel with a new curriculum.
“It feels really good because it has been an idea floating around, [but now] it’s a safe space for AAPI students. It’s here, it’s solid, and it’s happening,” said Julianna Loretto, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) and student advocate for the class.
Loretto said that she hopes the books and excerpts that she’ll read in this class will connect her more to her Asian heritage and the Asian community at BHS. Her desire is that the materials will expose her to different aspects of her culture, as well as allowing her to visualize and gain a new understanding of experiences that may be similar to her.
Shai Eastman, another senior in AC, echoed these sentiments, explaining the significance of this class to representation at BHS, as well as the importance of connecting students to their cultures.
“It feels really good [to have this class],” Eastman said. “It’s very important to represent AAPI students and get them more in touch with their culture and with authors who have similar backgrounds as them.”
According to Eastman, the class has started reading “Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong, which is a series of essays about her experiences as an Asian American, growing up in a Korean household and dealing with shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She added that the books the class will be reading are very profound and distinctive.
“It educates people to a deeper and more personal level,” Loretto said, adding onto Eastman. “If it is someone writing about an experience, then the reader is given insight into someone’s way of life that is different from their own. It shows the significance and impact humans have on each other.”
Sakiko Muranaka, a former Berkeley International High School (BIHS) English teacher, created the curriculum in collaboration with Le Tran, a former social studies teacher at BHS, and Diane Kung, an Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) English teacher. According to Laurel, they incorporated many student and teacher ideas, building a curriculum that still allowed for flexibility.
“Ms. Muranaka created a general template of what books we wanted to read. She talked to other AAPI teachers about texts they think would be the best to introduce, but the curriculum is not necessarily set in stone,” Laurel said. “A lot of it is kind of dynamic, so depending on how we feel, we could decide to do a different book, we can change things up.”
Kung added on, saying that the curriculum deeply examined AAPI history and explored subjects including US imperialism and the portrayal of Asian Americans in the media. She described how she is particularly interested in highlighting movements of AAPI activism and breaking stereotypes of the community, such as the view that all Asian Americans are passive and law abiding.
Laurel added that one of his goals is to use social media in boosting the visibility of the class and the AAPI community at BHS.
“I’m trying to use social media as a tool for the class, like I put up some work by one of the students who’s a great visual artist,” Laurel said. “A lot of students use Instagram, so [I’m] trying to use social media in a positive way where we can help show some of that representation.”
While expressing his excitement and hopes for the impact of the class, Laurel also commented on the challenges faced so far. He added that another of his goals is to encourage more AAPI educators to come to BHS because of these new course offerings.
“We should have had this course long ago. It feels late to the party, to be honest,” Laurel said. “I’m not bitter about it, but I’m tired of being tired, of always feeling like it’s uphill. We were late to the course catalog, which was why we only had one section signed up. … I want to make a big impression on BHS. I want to make some noise. I want all the smoke.”