Culturally Responsive Teaching

How to Approach Teaching About the Japanese American Incarceration

These strategies and resources for educating students about this period of history can help ensure an inclusive and safe atmosphere in the classroom.

June 11, 2024
Everett Collection Historical / Alamy

The incarceration of people of Japanese descent during World War II can be both a challenging and rewarding topic to teach and learn about in classrooms. It can be explored in a variety of contexts, including history and English language arts, and across many grade levels.

Fortunately, there are many resources and strategies educators can use to ensure that they are creating a safe and inclusive environment that supports historical thinking and empathy. Here are some strategies and resources to support implementation.

Sourcing and Resources

It’s important that educators collect a variety of resources to share with students, with a particular emphasis on primary sources. In Washington state, we have the Kip Tokuda Memorial grant, which provides resources to support the development of materials for teaching and remembrance of the Japanese American incarceration. We have an Open Educational Resources Hub that has many helpful resources—interviews, plays, lesson plans, and more—all free for educators to download, use, and customize. Below are some other helpful sites.

  • Densho—This nonprofit organization, which was started in 1996 with the initial goal of documenting oral histories from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, has many lessons and primary sources. 
  • Washington State Historical Society—This organization supports a museum that has a virtual exhibit and teaching resources. 
  • Wing Luke Museum—This art and history museum provides many resources focused on the culture, art, and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.
  • HistoryLink—While focused on Washington state, this site has many secondary articles. 

It’s also important to consider what is age appropriate. If you are wondering, reach out to your colleagues and leaders to check if a photo, video, or other source would be suitable for the students you teach. 

Take Time to Learn for Yourself

As you are able, try to learn before and alongside your students. Be vulnerable and ask questions that you can explore. You can learn from the above sources or find others online.

Start with a documentary or a series of articles, and then take time to dig deeper based on your own questions. You can then model inquiry for your students and colleagues. 

Proper terminology: Words matter, and they can either illuminate or cast a shadow on the reality of a historical event and its impact on people. It’s important that educators use proper terminology so as not to inadvertently harm students and their communities when teaching this topic. The Japanese American Citizens League offers the guide “The Power of Words,” which shares both proper terminology and explanation. One key example is the word incarceration versus internment:

“The word incarceration more accurately describes those held in War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps. Incarcerate is generally defined as to confine or imprison, typically as punishment for a crime. This term reflects the prison-like conditions faced by Japanese Americans as well as the view that they were treated as if guilty of sabotage, espionage, and/or suspect loyalty.”

Balancing Resilience and Struggle

As educators, we have the opportunity to set the tone and stage for learning about challenging topics. A pitfall that many experience is focusing on the gloom and doom without attention to stories of hope and resistance.

We should all take the advice of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” When we tell a story from a single perspective, it can cause people to generalize and make assumptions about a group of people and their experiences. This is true of teaching the Japanese American incarceration. In line with sourcing, educators should select a variety of sources that tell a tapestry of experiences that highlight struggle and resilience. 

Use Inquiry Tasks

These types of tasks are short lessons that focus the inquiry on one or two questions that require students to draw conclusions from sources. I shared an elementary example of this in a previous blog on integrating social studies in elementary schools.

This approach provides the opportunity for student voice and ideas based on the sources. It also allows students to ask questions and center learning through inquiry rather than telling students what occurred during the Japanese American incarceration. As mentioned above in sourcing, choosing the right source can help mitigate trauma. Below is a sample focused inquiry I constructed by modifying Remembrance: What can we learn about characters from their thoughts and actions?” by the Washington State Historical Society.

  • Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.4.3 Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions). D2.His.10.3-5. Compare information provided by different historical sources about the past.
  • Staging the question: Show students the front cover of Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee. Ask them: How would they describe the boy on the front cover? What do they know about him? What can they guess about him? Tell students that they will be spending the next few days getting to know this character. 
  • Supporting question: What can we learn from the character’s thoughts and actions? 
  • Featured sources: Baseball Saved Us and selections from the virtual gallery from the Washington State History Museum exhibit on Executive Order 9066.
  • Formative performance task: We describe characters with adjectives, also called character traits. As a class, describe the character of Shorty from Baseball Saved Us.
  • Summative performance tasks: Construct a detailed character map of a second character, using their thoughts and actions to support your description.
  • Extension/taking action: An epilogue is something that continues a character’s story after the events of the book. What did Japanese Americans do after incarceration? What kind of epilogue would you write for Shorty?

I encourage all educators to engage students in this topic. Day of Remembrance is February 19, and it calls us to never forget that on that day in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the forced removal of all persons deemed to be a threat to national security from the West Coast to relocation centers farther inland, which resulted in the incarceration of Japanese Americans. We owe it to our students and ourselves to learn about Japanese incarceration so we never forget and remain vigilant in protecting rights and freedoms for all.

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