Activities & Lessons

8 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Activities

7 Min Read
Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month Hero

There are 22 million Asian Americans and 1.6 million Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. today. Their contributions have shaped American history.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It's a time to recognize the challenges the AAPI community has faced and celebrate their part in the American story.

A Look Back at AAPI Heritage Month

Congress established what was called Asian/Pacific Heritage Week in 1979. The week-long observance took place in the first 10 days of May. These days were chosen to honor two milestones in AAPI history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transatlantic railroad, thanks in large part to the contribution of 20,000 Chinese immigrants, on May 10, 1869.

In 1992, Congress extended the observance to a month. Jeanie Jew, whose Chinese immigrant great grandfather helped build the transcontinental railroad, deserves a lot of the credit for this change. She suggested the idea to New York Representative Frank Horton after observing that contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders went unrecognized in U.S. Bicentennial celebrations of 1976.

Make sure the AAPI community is recognized in your classroom. Share these Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month activities with your students during the month of May and all year long.

AAPI Heritage Month Activities

Need some celebration ideas? We've got you covered with activities spanning Grades Pre-K–12.

1. Explore the AAPI Term (Grades 3–12)

Tell students that AAPI includes anyone of Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander ancestry. Asian people can have roots in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the subcontinent of India. Pacific Islanders have origins in Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Invite students to explore these regions. You can display a world map for younger students on MapChart and have older students use the website to create their own detailed maps.

2. Great Reads (Grades Pre-K–12)

See the lists below for suggested fiction and nonfiction books for students in Grades Pre-K–12 along with questions to spark discussion. Older students might also enjoy the picture books so don't let the grade levels stop you from doing a reading aloud in your classroom. Linked titles lead to videos of the author or actors reading the book. For more options, check out picks from HMH's archivist, the We Need Diverse Books website, and the Smithsonian's BookDragon blog.

Fiction Books

Activity: Have students complete a story map as they read (or listen) to the story. This will help them to break down the setting, characters, plot, problem, and resolution. Afterwards, challenge them to draw pictures illustrating the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Older students should write a sentence describing what is happening in each picture.

Start a Class Discussion: What experiences do the characters go through? Why? What emotions does the main character feel? When have you felt a similar emotion? What did you learn about the Asian American experience from reading this book?

Aapi Heritage Month 1.jpe

Nonfiction Books

  • It Began with a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way by Kyo Maclear (Grades Pre-K–3)
  • Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma by Joanna Ho (Grades Pre-K–3)
  • Queen of Physics by Teresa Robeson (Grades K–3)
  • Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story by Paula Yoo (Grades K–3)
  • Yes We Will: Asian Americans Who Shaped This Country by Kelly Yang (Grades K–6)
  • Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku by Ellie Crowe (Grades 2–7)
  • We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu (Grades 8–12)

Activity: Have students complete a graphic organizer as they read (or listen) to the story. For instance, you might challenge students to find facts and opinions or instances of problem and solution in the book and record their observations in a T-chart.

Start a Class Discussion: What obstacles did the person in the book face? How did they overcome them? What is the person's biggest accomplishment? How has the person made an impact on history?

3. Life Stories (Grades K–12)

Have older students research Asian American and Pacific Islanders in sports, government, STEM, entertainment, the arts, or another field. They should take notes on the person's early years, major accomplishments, obstacles and how they overcame them. Then challenge students to come up with a way to share what they learned about the person. They might write an essay, design a presentation, make a graphic book, create a video, or do a podcast.

For younger students, read aloud a picture book biography. Check out the nonfiction book suggestions above for ideas. Afterwards, have them draw a picture of the person's biggest accomplishment and share it with the class.

4. Game Time (Grades K–12)

Tell students that sipà, which means “kick” in Tagalog, is a Filipino game that is similar to hacky sack. Sipà is also the name of the ball used in the game. It's easy to make a sipà. Follow the directions and step-by-step photos below.

Materials: a metal washer; yarn or thin strips of plastic cut from a bag of rice; ruler; scissors

Step 1: Cut about 30 6-inch strips of yarn or plastic strips.

Step 2: Thread the yarn through the hole in the washer and tie it in a knot.

Step 3: Continue tying pieces of yarn until the washer is completely covered.

Rules of the Game: The aim is to kick the sipà using your legs and feet, keeping the ball in the air. Partner students up to play the game. The player who keeps the sipà in the air longest wins. To make the game easier, allow students to use their hands and elbows.

Challenge older students to research games from an AAPI origin country of their choice and teach the class to play.

Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.jpe

5. Treasured Objects (Grades 3–12)

Tell students: Objects can bring history to life. Ask: What does this mean? Can you think of an example?

Have students watch at least one video featuring a Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) community member talking about the personal significance of an object, including a Chinese chess board game, a jade necklace, an embroidery hoop, and a Hunan steam pot. Tell students to take notes on the object, where it came from, its significance, and what the object tells them about the person highlighted.

Next, have students choose one object that tells their own story and share it with the class. Students might even choose to create a video series similar to MOCA's and share it with another class or with the school.

6. A Paper-Crane Project (Grades 4–12)

Tell students that in Japan, origami paper cranes are a symbol of healing. Encourage students to do research to learn more about the history of origami paper cranes and share what they learn with the class. They can also try their hand at making the cranes by following these step-by-step directions. Japanese legend has it that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, you will be granted a wish.

Challenge students to work together to create 1,000 cranes to display in your classroom or school hallway, along with messages of hope for the future. Alternatively, the cranes could be donated to a local hospital, nursing home, or community center.

Older students can research painting, sculpture, film, or other art forms by Asian Americans or from an AAPI origin country of their choice.

Aper Cranes Aapi Month Activity

7. The AAPI Debate (Grades 6–12)

The AAPI label aims to include a wide range of people and cultures. Some see value in the label, while others feel it doesn't represent the diversity within it. Have students write an essay (or create a video or recording) explaining the different sides of the debate. Tell them to include:

  • An introduction that describes the debate and its history
  • Various positions in the debate (i.e., what opinions about the term can they find from people of Pacific Island descent, for instance, or from Chinese or Indian descent?)
  • The reasons people give for their positions
  • A summary of what they've learned from studying the debate

8. Bite-Sized PD for Educators

More AAPI Heritage Month Ideas

We'd love to hear your ideas for celebrating the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the classroom. If you've got a mini-lesson, in-depth project, writing prompts, or another resource that you think fellow teachers will find useful, let us know about it. Ready to share your best AAPI Heritage Month ideas? Connect with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook or email us at shaped@hmhco.com.

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