The first few minutes of a fourth period World History class in room 237 at Oakland Technical High School Monday were spent discussing the question, “How did the attacks on 9/11/2001 affect you or your family?”
While many students discussed increased security at airports and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Sikh student mentioned hate crimes. “Sikhs all over the country were attacked because people thought they were Muslims,” she said. “There were discussions in temple about the men getting rid of their turbans.”
Patrick Friedman, the teacher, chalked the hate crimes up to ignorance. “Learning about the different peoples that are in the U.S. is key to preventing stuff like this from happening,” he said.
This was made a little bit easier over the weekend. On Sept. 8, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will require the state Department of Education to adopt an updated curriculum framework for history and social science by June 30, 2014, in time for the 2015/2016 school year.
The curriculum framework is a set of guidelines, with educational content as well as suggestions for teaching techniques, that teachers can use when creating history lesson plans to fulfill state requirements for each grade, from kindergarten through high school. The new standards are intended to ensure that the material teachers provide students is relevant and historically accurate.
“The current standards are from 1998,” said Rebecca Baumann, a legislative aide in the office of Senator Loni Hancock, who first proposed the bill. “In basic textbooks, there is no mention of 9/11 or Barack Obama. Teachers have to use supplemental materials.”
Tina Jung, a representative of the California Department of Education, said that the new curriculum guidelines include additional content on civic education and financial preparedness, as well as updated information about groups who were previously underrepresented, such as Sikh Americans and Korean Americans.
“The updated history-social science framework will help insure that instruction in history-social science is based in current and confirmed research, addresses the diversity of our state, and reflects the positive values of our society,” said Jung via e-mail.
Work on the new curriculum guidelines got underway in 2009, but was abandoned because of state budget cuts. The guidelines were developed by a group of teachers from all around California who went through the old curriculum to update it. For much of 2009, monthly curriculum meetings in Sacramento included public forums, where those interested in the issue could speak about what they thought should be changed.
And among those with a special interest in the update were leaders from California’s community of Sikhs, a religious and ethnic group originally from Punjab, India. Sikhs first immigrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. Today, the largest Sikh population outside of India is in California.
Dr. Onkar Bindra, a retired entymology professor who is also a Sikh, was one of the main developers of the new guidelines. He said he worked in consultation with the California Department of Education and met with several legislators while developing the curriculum guidelines.
“In the current curriculum, the word ‘Sikh’ is barely mentioned,” he said. “When there isn’t an effort for integration, there is the possibility of hate. When there is the possibility of hate, there is the possibility of hate crimes.”
The guidelines, now complete and available to download online, have been updated to include information about California in contemporary times, such as the diversity of its population, immigration policies and environmental issues, and the controversies around them.
In part because Sikh tradition obliges men to wear a turban and keep a beard, Sikhs found themselves mistaken for Muslims and occasionally targeted in anti-Muslim hate crimes directly after September 11, 2001. In an April 2012 letter to the state Senate Appropriations Committee in support of SB 1540, Kavneet Singh, managing director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, cited cases of vandalism, bullying, death threats and even shootings of Sikh Americans.
He mentioned contributions of Sikh Americans that were included in drafts of the revised guidelines—the first gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) was established in 1912 in Stockton; and the first Asian American elected to the U.S. Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, a Sikh American from California.
“It is our hope that the inclusion of Sikhism into the education curriculum can reduce the level of school bullying directed against Sikh American students every day,” the letter stated.
Korean Americans have also been active in the curriculum updating efforts. Mary Connor, a co-founder of the Korea Academy for Educators, a non-profit California organization that helps educators learn and teach about North and South Korea, joined the 2009 Sacramento meetings to develop the framework; she called the new curriculum guidelines “critical.”
Connor, who taught U.S. History for 35 years, said developing educational materials and techniques to teach about minority communities is necessary in today’s multicultural world. “If California moves forward with this and, eventually, with its textbooks,” she said, “the rest of the country will follow.”
Though this new material, including the contributions of Sikh Americans and other minority communities, will be provided in the guidelines for teachers to use when they teach California, national or world history, there is no requirement that teachers use the new curriculum in any specific way. The framework provides standards they must consider, for their lesson plans and teaching topics, but they can usually choose when to cover each topic, and what media to use to cover it.
“The implementation of the new guidelines depends mostly on whether or not the department chairs push it to the teachers enough, though it will be a helpful tool for understanding how to teach about minority communities,” said Friedman, who has been teaching at Oakland Tech for seven years. “Our current textbooks are very euro-centric. Even other countries are seen through Europe’s viewpoint of colonization.”
Art Choi, Immigrant Integration Program Coordinator at the Korean Community Center of the East Bay in Oakland, said the new frameworks would help not just on an academic level, but also a cultural level.
“There are aspects of Korean culture that are just not understood by Americans—the high respect of elders and the strong connection to family,” Choi said. “This might lessen the cultural barriers that are still in existence today.”
Though the curriculum framework is complete, two 60-day review periods are required before the California Department of Education can adopt the revised framework. The review periods will allow legislators and educators to read the framework and updated information.
Dr. Jogeshwar Singh, a retired engineer and contributor to the new curriculum, said he hopes the guidelines will eventually be implemented nationally to create more understanding of all the faiths in the U.S.
“When we started building the gurdwara in El Sobrante in 1979, we had each of the four foundation stones laid down by four people, each of a different faith,” he recalled. “That’s the America I know, and the one I want my grandchildren to know.”