SPICE Webinar: Culturally and Experientially Responsive Pedagogy

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Khatharya Um in the documentary film "My Cambodia"
Khatharya Um in the documentary film "My Cambodia" (2014), which follows her journey back to Cambodia.
Photo credit: 
Bao Nguyen

This webinar was made possible through the Freeman Foundation’s support of the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA), a multi-year initiative to encourage and facilitate teaching and learning about East Asia in elementary and secondary schools nationwide. SPICE’s Jonas Edman and Naomi Funahashi coordinate SPICE’s NCTA seminars and webinars.


While walking along the hallways of the Ethnic Studies Department with Professor Khatharya Um at U.C. Berkeley on December 3, 2019, I shared some remembrances of my first quarter at U.C. Berkeley in fall 1972. I had enrolled in two courses in the Ethnic Studies Department that quarter: one focused on the Asian American experience with Patrick Hayashi and Colin Watanabe and the other focused on diverse perspectives on U.S. history with Professor Ronald Takaki. Most of the Asian American students in these classes were of Chinese and Japanese descent with a few of Korean, Indian, and Filipino descent. Through these classes, I was introduced for the first time in my life to Asian American literature like No-No Boy (1957) and America Is in the Heart (1948). I had enrolled at U.C. Berkeley less than three years after the establishment of the Ethnic Studies Department (1969) and during the anti-Vietnam War protests.

According to its website, the Ethnic Studies Department emerged from student and community members’ demands for scholarly programs that focused on the “understudied histories and situations of African Americans, Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans.” This year marks the 50th year since its establishment; 2019 also marks the 44th anniversary since the fall of Saigon (1975).

I was at the Ethnic Studies Department on December 3, 2019 because my colleague, Naomi Funahashi, had organized a SPICE webinar, “Culturally and Experientially Responsive Pedagogy: Teaching to Diverse Asian and Asian American Students,” that featured Professor Um. Approximately 30 educators from many states and also Pakistan and Japan participated. During her talk, Um pointed out that the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and continued through the early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. She noted that unlike economically motivated migration from other parts of Asia, immigration to the United States from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was largely due to flight from war, authoritarianism, and genocide. Largely as a result of these waves of immigration to the United States, the Asian American student population in U.S. schools and universities like U.C. Berkeley has become increasingly diverse.

To help meet the educational needs of this increasingly diverse population, Um argued for the importance of culturally and experientially responsive pedagogy. She explained that “culturally and experientially responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to teaching in which the students’ experiences and cultural strengths are identified, validated, and used to empower students, enrich and promote learning.” Like many other communities, Asian and Asian American students represent a wide spectrum of ethnicities, languages, histories, generations, cultures, and religions. She acknowledged that “Providing culturally and experientially responsive instruction to these students can be daunting… and schools are faced with both opportunities and challenges in providing instruction that is rich and meaningful. Diverse student populations offer valuable opportunities for classroom and community enrichment.”

Um interspersed some statistical information in order to show the significance and some characteristics of the Asian American population.

  • Largely as a result of ongoing migration, Asians are among the fastest growing populations in the United States.
  • The Asian American population has grown by 72% between 2000 and 2015.
  • Currently, the population is approximately 20.4 million.
  • The diversity among and within Asian American communities has increased with new immigration.
  • 59% of the U.S. Asian population was born in another country.

Um encouraged the educators in the United States to keep these statistics in mind and noted that “Effective learning depends on more than just the curriculum. It is about creating a space where students can feel safe, empowered, valued, and feel that they belong… It begins with knowing your students or at least knowing how to know… and it rests on knowing what to do with what you know.” The words, “knowing how to know,” brought back memories of a question—“What does epistemology mean to you?”—that Takaki raised to students in his first class lecture at U.C. Berkeley in fall 1972. After acknowledging a student’s answer, he replied that epistemology focuses on the question, “How do you know that you know what you know?,” and this has stayed with me since and continues to shape my work at SPICE.

While in Um’s office, I noticed some books on her shelf that I once read back in the 1970s—literature that was “culturally relevant” to me. But what most stood out for me was a copy of Um’s book, From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora. Other than America Is the Heart by Filipino American Carlos Buloson, there was no other Southeast Asian American-focused literature that we were assigned during fall quarter 1972. Um is the first Cambodian American woman to receive a PhD. I left campus thinking of how fortunate I was to have scholars like Hayashi, Watanabe, and Takaki who taught and empowered me, and also how fortunate Southeast Asian American students and others are today to have scholars like Um concerned about their education and advancement.

Following the webinar, Funahashi reflected, “I not only received overwhelmingly positive feedback about Professor Um’s lecture from participants, but I too gained a greater awareness of the growing diversity in our schools that is also reflected in my online class, the Reischauer Scholars Program. After listening to Professor Um’s thoughts on culturally and experientially responsive pedagogy, a big take-away for me was the importance of a teacher’s capacity for empathy as one works with students from very diverse backgrounds.”


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