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WHEN ALMA GALAPON was growing up in Salinas, Asian American history was rarely covered in school. The few references in textbooks were “cold and dehumanizing,” she recalls. The Filipina daughter of immigrant farmworkers wondered why people like her were excluded — and observed that even family members were reluctant to discuss the past.

“My family experienced a lot of hurt and trauma and didn’t want to call attention to what they had been through,” recalls Galapon, a fourth-grade teacher at Carroll Elementary School in Elk Grove. “But our history is important because it is American history. My family worked in the fields and made enormous sacrifices to succeed, like thousands of other families from the Philippines. I don’t think we should hide our history or be ashamed of our stories. I think we should learn, accept and recognize just how hard it was, to inspire our students.”

The Elk Grove Education Association member is helping students do just that through focusing on Larry Itliong, a Filipino American labor leader.

“By the time students reach fourth grade, they have heard about Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, but not Larry Itliong,” she explains. “He organized West Coast farmworkers, starting in the 1930s. He became well-known in the ‘60s for spearheading the Delano grape strike.”

“I don’t think we should hide our history or be ashamed of our stories. We should learn, accept and recognize just how hard it was, to inspire our students.”-Alma Galapon

Galapon’s project for students, Journey for Justice with Larry Itliong: Problem Solving, Taking Action & Revolution, was funded by a grant from CTA’s Institute for Learning. The 180 fourth-grade participants received Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, a book by Dawn B. Mabalon, PhD, with Gayle Romasanta, and illustrated by Andre Sibayan. Galapon created curriculum for the project and held a training for all fourth-grade teachers at her site. Soon she will offer training districtwide.

Last year, during a read-aloud, five Filipino American students in her class were beaming. “Their faces just lit up,” Galapon says. “They finally felt seen.”

Students admired Itliong’s decision to stay in America and fight injustice. They observed that “people with white skin were paid 12cents an hour to be a janitor while people with dark skin got paid10 cents an hour to pick vegetables in the hot sun.” Some reflected that Itliong was favored more than other Filipinos, yet still spoke out against unfair treatment.

Galapon’s project goes beyond Filipino American history: It encourages students to delve into their own cultures, reflect on their own communities, identify oppressors and develop projects that benefit others.

“My hope is that students can talk about injustice and then make their community a better place by helping other people. I challenge them to come up with ways to make their communities better.”

Fourth grader Emmerson Noya organized a park clean-up day with her classmates and family. “It felt great to know that we had an impact on the neighborhood,” says Noya.

A culminating activity is planned for the school’s multicultural fair later this year, when all students are encouraged to share stories, history, clothing styles and pictures that reflect their heritage.

With rising hate crimes committed against Asian Americans, teaching Asian American history has never been more important, observes Galapon.

“The more you see people as human beings, the less likely you are to dismiss someone that looks different— and the more likely you are to treat others as you want to be treated.”

Galapon is vice chair of CTA’s Pacific Asian American Caucus. She looks forward to working with fellow educator and caucus chair Jayson Chang, who as a team member of the Asian American Education Project helps create Asian American history lessons for teachers at multiple grade levels throughout the state.

“It’s a massive job. But it’s exciting to be part of this project.”

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