Dear Miss Breed: Using Primary Documents to Advance Student Understanding of Japanese Internment Camps

By Westcott, Patrick; Viator, Martha Graham | Social Education, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Dear Miss Breed: Using Primary Documents to Advance Student Understanding of Japanese Internment Camps


Westcott, Patrick, Viator, Martha Graham, Social Education


The history of the United States includes myriad examples of courage and selflessness as well as instances of prejudice and discrimination. Many students believe that prejudice and discrimination are limited to individuals and do not realize that these can form part of government or national policy. As stated by Sonia Nieto and Patty Bode, "The institutional definition of racism is not always easy to accept because it goes against deeply held ideals of equality and justice in our nation." (1)

The internment of American citizens during World War II is a case in point. However, this traumatic period is generally boiled down to three key dates for today's students:

* December 7, 1941--Japanese airplanes attacked Pearl Harbor;

* February 19, 1942--President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066;

* August 6, 1945--U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.

Most high school textbooks devote little more than a page to the Japanese American experience; consequently, few students understand the impact Executive Order 9066 had on the people who were interned or how it affected and continues to affect the Japanese American community. In his content analysis of six high school U.S. history textbooks, Masato Ogawa discovered that only one-half to four pages were devoted to Japanese internment. And he notes that no textbook addressed the racial prejudice and rampant anti-Japanese sentiment that existed. (2)

Middle school and high school students should be exposed to the tragic history of Japanese internment camps so, as Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada states, we "never allow any group or individuals to be deprived of their civil liberties and rights again." (3) Arguably, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp exemplifies the manner in which history repeats itself.

A two- to three-week inquiry study of the Japanese internment, with a focus on equality and social justice, is extremely relevant to middle and high school students, particularly in the wake of the September 11th attacks (often compared to the bombing of Pearl Harbor). In an inquiry study, the teacher provides enough structure to help students sustain a constructive direction, while students actively participate in exploring questions, ideas, and events.

One powerful teaching tool for the study of U.S. Japanese internment is Joanne Oppenheim's Dear Miss Breed--a 2007 winner of the NCSS Carter G. Woodson Award (reviewed in this issue on p. 187), given annually for works of nonfiction that promote understanding of pluralistic values. Oppenheim recounts the stories of 19 children of Japanese ancestry who, along with their families, were interned in U.S. concentration camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The book contains correspondence to Clara Breed, the San Diego children's librarian, from her incarcerated Japanese library patrons--in response to her own letters and care packages. The author intertwines the letters with a broader narrative, augmented by photos, archival materials, and poignant quotations from the later reparation hearings. The text contains valuable information about the camps, including a discussion of the semantic differences between incarceration and concentration camps, the location of the relocation camps, in addition to the story of Clara Breed, her young patrons, and their ongoing correspondence. Consider Dear Miss Breed as a touchstone to which you can return.

While it is unreasonable to expect that individual classrooms purchase multiple copies of Dear Miss Breed, nonfiction trade books of high quality should be used in the social studies classroom. Research has stressed the importance of context in the presentation of history, noting that trade books support student understanding beyond what could be accomplished by textbooks alone. (4) Linda Levstik notes the power of the narrative in relating history as a story that emphasizes the human connection to events rather than as disembodied facts. …

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