Professional Development

An Immersive PD Program Changed These Teachers. Here’s How It Will Change Their Practice

By Ileana Najarro — July 17, 2023 5 min read
In this May 1943 photo, Aiko Sumoge, an assistant teacher, leads a kindergarten class to sing an English folk song at the internment relocation center for Japanese Americans in Tule Lake, Ca., in during World War II. Roughly 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were sent to desolate camps that dotted the West because the government claimed they might plot against the U.S. Thousands were elderly, disabled, children or infants too young to know the meaning of treason. Two-thirds were citizens.
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A small group of Oregon teachers got to experience an immersive workshop focused on best practices in teaching about Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

The programming included participation in an annual pilgrimage of incarceration survivors, their descendants, and allies at the Minidoka National Historic Site in southern Idaho, where over 13,000 Japanese Americans were once held. It was a first-of-its-kind of professional development for Oregon teachers. The state recently edited social studies standards to require instruction on histories and perspectives of traditionally marginalized groups, including Asian Americans. The training was put together by the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Minidoka National Historic Site, and Friends of Minidoka.

Three educators wrote letters of gratitude to capture their reflections on the experience, including how it will change how they teach. Here are excerpts from those letters, edited for length and clarity.

A teacher whose ancestors were incarcerated

Ashley Hayes, in Portland, Ore.

With such a personal connection to this horrific moment in history, I have spent much of my adult life feeling unprepared to take a deep dive into the lived experiences and history behind the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII.

When I found out about this workshop, I knew that this experience would teach me so much, but I also understood that it would be incredibly challenging. While I have worked through complex emotions connected to my ancestors’ incarceration throughout this workshop and pilgrimage, I am walking away feeling connected to community (both the Japanese American community and Oregon educator community), a sense of release and healing, a renewed interest in learning about Japanese American history, and a determination to ensure that, as an educator, this moment in history is portrayed accurately and understood by all generations so that history does not repeat itself.

I also wanted to express how powerful it was to experience this workshop alongside such a passionate, compassionate, and knowledgeable group of educators and colleagues.

I have not only grown my factual knowledge of Japanese American incarceration, I have grown in my ability to step outside of my comfort zone, to be vulnerable, to listen and learn from the experience and wisdom of others, and to think critically and question what is in order to work towards what is right.

A concrete change to one teacher’s lessons

Jen Winchell in Albany, Ore.

I learned more than I could’ve imagined from listening to the research, stories, and ongoing work of the survivors of the Japanese American incarceration and their descendants. Over and over again I found myself marveling at the very concept of the pilgrimage—because it seems so rare for people to gather to share and discuss and treasure and honor and experience history together. And I have never before witnessed that happen intergenerationally. That was an amazing and powerful way to learn, one that I wish we utilized more in our society.

One question that has stuck with me is: When is the first time a Japanese American student sees themselves/their community in our classrooms? And I realized that in my class it was incarceration. But it won’t be in the future. Because in addition to teaching the truth of the incarceration and the history of camps like Minidoka, I will bring in the voices and history of Japanese Americans outside of this horrific injustice.

And I hope to inspire my students to take what they learn and use it to help others, improve their communities, and prevent future injustices. (I know, that’s a lot for my 2nd year of teaching, but I like having a high bar to ensure I always keep growing).

I know that programs like this take a significant amount of money to run. In favor of funding this workshop in the future I offer this: Investing in one teacher like me means that 100-150 students will learn this history every year (up to 300-400 students when I help my colleagues learn and improve their own curriculum). Compounded over a career (hopefully a long one), that is an incredible reach.

The power of words in teaching history

Elizabeth Atkins in Stanfield, Ore.

During our teacher workshop, we talked a lot about words, and the power of words, as well as the power of the press. This session clearly explained the differences between an internment camp and a concentration camp. It also reinforced the articles we had read before coming, about the language our government uses to make its actions seem alright. I think that is very important for my students to learn, because they are inundated with news, with advertisements, and through it all, propaganda. They need to be able to think critically about what is being presented to them.

This connects to the question asked during the discussion about the imprisonment of refugees on the border: Who does it benefit? I would also like to add to it, who does it hurt, and how? What is the actual problem that needs to be solved, and what can we do about it?

I re-walked the tour, thinking about what the Japanese Americans had gone through. I walked the paths they had walked. I stood on the baseball field thinking about the book by Ken Mochizuki, Baseball Saved Us. I was able to meet him, one of my favorite authors, I was able to tell him how much I loved his work, how much his books meant to me, and to my students. That they helped my students understand, that they helped me teach otherwise difficult concepts.

I thought about how I would now be able to tell my students I had been there. Show them the picture of Mr. Mochizuki holding the book he had written, and the place he had signed it. There is something powerful that happens when you meet people in person rather than a screen.

Now I have heard some of their stories, stories about their own experiences, or their family’s experiences in the concentration camps. Stories from their own lips, rather than a screen. Now, I can tell my students I went there. I met people. It made their history even more real and personal for me, and will be more real to my students.

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