AAPI Literature celebrates culture and teaches new perspectives 

Berkeley High School’s Asian and Pacific Islander literature class began in the fall of the 2022-23 school year to offer students an opportunity to study AAPI experiences through literature.


Berkeley High School’s Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) literature class began in the fall of the 2022-23 school year to offer students an opportunity to study AAPI experiences through literature. This year, AAPI Literature teachers are reflecting on the past two years of the class and continuing to develop the curriculum. 

“I never even read Asian American or Asian authors in high school except for like Amy Tan, “Joy Luck Club”, which is the stereotypical book that people will turn to when you think of Asian literature,” said Matthew Laurel, a former Academic Choice English teacher who currently teaches AAPI Literature. “(The class) elevates the awareness about the experiences of the broad diverse identities of our student population, of Berkeley as a whole.”  According to Camille Jacala, a student in the AAPI Literature class, the content of the class provides  unique benefits to students. “This class is important because its curriculum and discussions allow us to learn about perspectives that are not usually highlighted in regular English classes,” Jacala said. 

This class reads a wide range of literary works, including poems, short stories, and novels. The curriculum includes a short story called “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston, and studies the work of other writers including Cathy Park Hong, Ocean Vuong, and Ken Liu. Literature is paired with historical timelines of events impacting AAPI peoples; students learn about Chinese immigration, the Cambodian genocide, and the impacts that racism has on Asian Americans. 

The course also provides students with the opportunity to go on field trips; this year, students took field trips to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and Angel Island. AAPI Literature also hosted renowned poet and writer Cathy Park Hong to come to BHS and speak to students as well as the greater BHS community. 

“I love that this class goes beyond the classroom,” BHS teacher  Le Tran and co-founder of the class said.  “The class facilitates the invitation of many wonderful authors and activists, (and brings) them to BHS and expos(es) more students to brilliant creative and political work by AAPI folks.”

Laurel explained the class can serve as both a learning space and an affinity space. 

  “First of all, I’m an Asian teacher,” Laurel said. “I’m a Filipino American. So for Asian students to see a mentor, a mentor or a teacher that looks like them, that understands … it’s like an affinity space almost,” Laurel said. 

Some students in AAPI Literature share a similar experience. “Mr. Laurel shares his personal experiences with us which empowers students because we are able to relate to them,” Jacala said.

The class emphasizes providing students with the opportunity to connect literature to their own lived experiences and the experiences of their friends and family. 

 “The ethos of the class is to tell your story, center your story, and to relate it to this idea,” Laurel said.

Since the class’s creation, it has continued to expand and change, according to Laurel. This year, students visited Washington Elementary School and read AAPI stories to the students there for the first time. These books included “Eyes That Speak To The Sun” by Joanna Ho and “Bee-bim Bop!” by Linda Sue Park. Students attended field trips to support Asian-owned local businesses, including U Cha, a local bubble tea cafe. This year, AAPI Literature also hosted authors Thien Pham, Gene Yang, LeUyen Pham, and Michael Ogata to present to the BHS community and members of the AAPI Literature class. 

Since the class’s creation, they have also shifted their curriculum focus to shorter pieces as opposed to longer novels in order to increase the number of topics covered. AAPI Literature continues to grow and next year will be expanding to two periods instead of one.

“So how can students support the class?” Laurel said, “Sign up for the class… (and) honestly, read, watch and absorb more work by Asian American Pacific Islander authors and artists.”