Lessons from Japanese American Internment | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G8:M4

Lessons from Japanese American Internment

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In Module 4, students learn about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. They study the experiences of survivors of internment, focusing most centrally on the experiences conveyed in the anchor text, Farewell to Manzanar. This memoir, told through the eyes of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, chronicles the experiences of her and her family at the Japanese American internment camp Manzanar. Through close examination of this text and of other supplemental texts that provide context about the impact of internment, students deepen their understanding of this dark time in history and of the lessons that can be learned from it.

In Unit 1, students are introduced to the anchor text. They analyze how the text makes connections among and distinctions between important individuals, ideas, or events, tracking these connections and distinctions in a note-catcher. They also begin to develop an anchor chart to highlight significant ideas that emerge from the text, including the ways in which Jeanne and her family members are impacted by internment. To further develop the background knowledge needed to interpret the events described in the text, students examine images and primary source documents that center on other Japanese American internment experiences. Also in Unit 1, students watch two segments of the Farewell to Manzanar film. They focus on key moments, noting the extent to which the film stays faithful to or departs from the text. Students also examine how significant ideas from the text are conveyed in the film. The assessments of the unit evaluate students’ abilities (a) to analyze the connections and distinctions made in a new chapter of the text and (b) to discuss the causes and impacts of Japanese American internment in a collaborative discussion.

In the first half of Unit 2, students finish reading the anchor text and watch the two final segments of the Farewell to Manzanar film. They continue analyzing connections and distinctions, identifying significant ideas, and evaluating the film’s depiction of events in the text. They also analyze the points of view of different individuals in the text. The Mid-Unit 2 Assessment challenges students to demonstrate these analytical skills with a new chapter of the text. In the second half of Unit 2, students revisit the Painted Essay® structure to analyze a model literary argument essay that addresses the following prompt: One significant idea in the text Farewell to Manzanar is that Jeanne’s youth impacts her understanding of events in the text. How effectively does the film Farewell to Manzanar convey this significant idea? Using a similar prompt about the significant idea that Papa feels conflicted loyalties to both the United States and Japan, students write collaborative argument essays that prepare them to produce their own independent argument essays during the end of unit assessment. These essays work with the same question but invite students to choose a different significant idea on which to focus.

In the first half of Unit 3, students engage with supplemental texts that help them better understand the impact and legacy of internment. First, students read about the efforts of some Japanese Americans to seek redress, or reparations, for their incarceration. Then, they read about the negative psychological effects of internment and about the protests of internment survivors against modern-day migrant detention centers. With these supplemental texts as well as the anchor text in mind, students develop a list of “lessons from internment”: enduring understandings that can be taken away from the study of Japanese American internment. For the Mid-Unit 3 Assessment, students collaboratively discuss these lessons from internment and how they are embodied by the redress movement. In the second half of Unit 3, students apply this learning to their own communities. They conduct research about and then interviews with activist organizations whose work embodies, in some way, these lessons of internment. Students present their findings during the End of Unit 3 Assessment.

For their performance task, students participate in small group discussions during the “Activist Assembly.” With classmates and members of the local community, students discuss the best ways to apply lessons from internment to their own communities, using evidence from their research of local organizations to support their ideas.

Notes from the Designer

Farewell to Manzanar conveys the first-hand experiences of young Jeanne Wakatsuki, who was imprisoned at a Japanese American internment camp with her family. The experiences described may be upsetting for students or challenging for them to process. Teaching notes throughout the lessons provide suggestions for how best to support students as they make sense of difficult content. Preview the text in advance, and speak with students and families in advance.

Note that this module uses the term internment to describe the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This term may conflict with some ideas of how to name this time in history most appropriately. Some recent debates have asserted that the word internment is too specific and thus not inclusive enough of the distinct types of Japanese American imprisonment during this time. Suggestions for alternative terms have been proposed; these include incarceration or concentration camp. EL Education recognizes the importance of appropriately naming sensitive topics and wishes to do so with sensitivity. In this case, the term internment was selected because it reflects the language choices of the authors of the anchor text. Note, however, that when the authors of supplemental texts read in Unit 3 begin using the term incarceration, the curriculum materials begin to use this term as well. If productive, discuss with students the issue of naming, examining how the way in which we name someone or something can validate or undermine the subject’s perceived worth. As an extension, consider inviting students to conduct further research into the debate surrounding the naming of internment and allowing them to determine, based on their research, which term would be most appropriate to use in this module.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

What were the causes and impacts of Japanese American internment camps?

  • Japanese American internment camps were ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans in the western United States. These camps were established out of fear and prejudice toward Japanese American people after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • Internment camps uprooted people from their homes and communities, stripped them of their rights, confiscated their personal property, and forced them to live and work as prisoners.

What are the main lessons that can be learned from Japanese American internment?

  • It is wrong to view entire populations as homogeneous.
  • Upholding the rights of other human beings is critical work.
  • In times of terrible struggle, people can draw strength from their identities and communities.

How can people effectively apply the lessons of internment to their own communities?

  • The Redress Movement, which began in the 1970s, has aimed to restore the rights of, issue an apology to, and/or monetarily compensate the survivors of internment.
  • Local organizations can uphold human rights, celebrate diversity, and support community.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English language arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. But the module intentionally incorporates social studies content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D4.3.6-8. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations on topics of interest to others to reach audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).
  • D4.6.6-8. Draw on multiple disciplinary lenses to analyze how a specific problem can manifest itself at local, regional, and global levels over time, identifying its characteristics and causes, and the challenges and opportunities faced by those trying to address the problem.
  • D2.His.1.6-8. Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.
  • D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, are the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
  • D2.His.4.6-8. Analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
  • D2.His.6.6-8. Analyze how people's perspectives influenced what information is available in the historical sources they created.
  • D2.His.14.6-8. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.
  • D2.Civ.1.6-8. Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of citizens, political parties, interest groups, and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts.
  • D2.Civ.6.6-8. Describe the roles of political, civil, and economic organizations in shaping people's lives.
  • D2.Civ.10.6-8. Explain the relevance of personal interests and perspectives, civic virtues, and democratic principles when people address issues and problems in government and civil society.
  • D2.Civ.12.6-8. Assess specific rules and laws (both actual and proposed) as means of addressing public problems.
  • D2.Civ.13.6-8. Analyze the purposes, implementation, and consequences of public policies in multiple settings.
  • D2.Civ.14.6-8. Compare historical and contemporary means of changing societies and promoting the common good.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Online word processing tool: Students complete their note-catchers and write their essays and narratives online.
  • Speech-to-text/text-to-speech toolAids students in reading, writing, and note-taking. Students listen to audio (or text-to-speech) versions of texts to assist with fluency and comprehension. They also use speech-to-text technology to assist with writing and note-taking.
    • Many newer devices already have this capability; there are also free apps for this purpose.
  • Online Densho archivesStudents can explore archived images and written documents to build background knowledge and better understand the experiences of Japanese American internment survivors.

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance. 

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Widen the audience for the Activist Assembly by creating opportunities for students to conduct mini presentations in other classrooms of their school. These mini presentations can highlight ways for people to apply the lessons from internment to their own schools and communities.
  • Support links between ELLs’ home languages and countries and major tasks of the module. Ways to do this may include the following:
    • Helping students locate activist organizations that serve populations who do not speak English as a first language.
    • Inviting class research into the language-specific experiences of Japanese American internment. This research could center around questions like “Were prisoners allowed to speak Japanese in Japanese American internment camps?” or “How did language differences among older and younger Japanese American prisoners affect feelings of community within the camps?”
    • Inviting bilingual figures from the community to share their module-related expertise (e.g., about Japanese American internment, about local activism).


  • Reach out to an organization like Densho (http://eled.org/0263), whose mission is to preserve the stories of interned Japanese Americans. See if a representative of the organization would be willing to host a webinar or in-class Skype call to answer students’ questions about Japanese American internment. This exchange could be formatted as an interview to serve as a model for the interviews students conduct during Unit 3.


  • Research local exhibits centered on Japanese American internment, and arrange opportunities for students to visit and reflect upon exhibit material. Challenge students to conduct additional research to contextualize their understanding of the exhibit.


  • In Unit 3, students identify the best ways to get involved with the local activist organizations they interview. If feasible, set up an opportunity for students to get involved themselves (i.e., through a class volunteer day at one of the organizations).
  • Challenge students to work with the school librarians to develop book displays or reading lists of texts about Japanese American internment. Refer to the Recommended Texts list for suggestions.


  • Support and challenge students’ understanding of the ways in which a text’s significant ideas can be represented in a film version of the text. Students can, for homework, read a popular text and watch and analyze its film version. Invite students to track the strategies they use for comparing the film to the text and analyzing the film’s representation of key ideas in the text. These strategies can be applied to the work of Unit 2.
  • Encourage triads to transform their Activist’s anchor charts into a more artistic visual piece that can be displayed in a public area at the school or elsewhere in the community. Students can include, or build off of, the visuals they created for the End of Unit 3 Assessment presentations.
  • With support, students can conduct research about modern-day internment, both in the United States and abroad. Students can apply their understanding of Japanese American internment—its causes and impacts—to the new contexts that they investigate. Make sure that students are drawing responsible, evidence-based conclusions and upholding the distinct and personal experiences of different interned populations.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including guidance for supporting English language learners throughout this unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Activist Assembly

This performance task gives students the opportunity to participate in an activist assembly to share, negotiate, and refine ideas for meaningful engagement in their own communities. The ideas that students develop should embody and apply lessons learned from Japanese American internment and aim to contribute to a better world.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
Farewell to Manzanar (DVD)
by John Korty, director
one per classroom
ISBN: 0000000230021
Farewell to Manzanar
by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
one per student
ISBN: 9781328742117


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

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