Social Studies Q&A

To Teach a Fuller American Story, Teachers Grapple With Japanese American History

By Ileana Najarro — July 14, 2023 7 min read
Park Ranger Kurt Ikeda leads the teachers through a tour at the Minidoka National Historic Site's Visitor Center on July 6, 2023.
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In an effort immerse teachers in history so they can best teach the subject to students, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Minidoka National Historic Site, and Friends of Minidoka put together a workshop for Oregon-based teachers earlier this month focusing on the legacy of Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

Held July 5-9 in Twin Falls, Idaho, at the Minidoka National Historic Site, the workshop was a pilot program that started with funding from the National Park Service, which preserves the Minidoka camp. The site once held over 13,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were forcibly relocated from their homes in Oregon.

It featured sessions on best instructional practices when teaching about this chapter of American history and included participation in an annual pilgrimage that gathered incarceration survivors, their descendants, and allies to honor the experience of Japanese Americans.

“It is a special opportunity for folks to not only engage and understand how they could teach this curriculum to students, but then to also understand by experiencing something that is just beyond them, and beyond just a community,” said Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong, the executive director of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. “It’s almost on a different plane of existence of trying to find the humanity in learning from these stories.”

Six Oregon teachers participated this year in what organizers hope can continue.

(Although Oregon state standards don’t explicitly require instruction of Japanese American history, the state board of education added in requirements in 2021 to teach histories and perspectives of traditionally marginalized groups, including Asian Americans. The requirements are set to officially start the 2026-27 school year.)

Wakatsuki-Chong and Elissa Dingus, the director of education and engagement at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, spoke with Education Week about the summer training, and why it’s important for teachers to engage with Japanese American history.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why offer summer training to teachers?

Dingus: In working with teachers, you’re not only affecting and improving the learning experience for the students who are in your own class, but who are in so many other classes. And you hope that there’s a snowball effect where there’s a spark that is lit and then carries even beyond the teachers who attended the workshop directly. But then it grows as a learning community beyond there as well.

Wakatsuki-Chong: When teachers have the buy-in then they’re more willing to teach it versus ‘Here’s a lesson plan, go teach.’

You can still ask adults today, ‘have you ever learned about this,’ and there’s only a handful of people who barely even touched the surface of understanding those in incarceration, let alone truly understanding what happened. So trying to get teachers to get engrossed in the story, and fully understand it is what we’re trying to do.

Elissa Dingus

What are K-12 schools doing right or wrong when teaching about Japanese American incarceration?

Dingus: If you have a Japanese American student in your class, what is the first way that they see themselves represented in a curriculum, and often that is with learning about the story of incarceration, and that might be the only time that they encounter any sort of Japanese American history within their school setting.

The new Oregon ethnic studies standards, have some broad themes that they all kind of fall under. And one of them is this broad theme of histories. It really focuses on telling the histories, knowing the histories of people beyond and before moments of oppression. And so I think that that was something that we were really trying to bring into this as well. This is not the full history of Japanese Americans in the United States, there is so much richness that came before and has extended far beyond into today, that is worth looking at as well.

What did you cover in your summer training for teachers?

Dingus: In the first half day, we came together, got to know each other, set some community agreements, and had a screening of the film Betrayed, which is about Minidoka. And there was a discussion that followed about things that resonated with you.

The following day, we drove out to the park site Minidoka, and had a little workshop space set up there. And the teachers had four different sessions.

The first one was about goals they have for students when they’re teaching Japanese American history in the classroom, and identifying the value that they see in covering this content. Then we spent some time connecting those goals and those values to the Oregon state standards. Oftentimes when you’re covering hard histories there can be a fear of diving into things like that, because people are concerned about pushback. One of the ways that you can prepare for that is by being not only very knowledgeable about what the standards are, but knowing that the work that you’re doing is heavily rooted in those Oregon state standards.

[We then] introduced the Betrayed curriculum that is geared more for middle school and high school but I think that there are a lot of really rich resources there that can be adapted for students of any age. There was also a tour of the Minidoka historical site.

Session three was on pitfalls and best practices that come with history instruction. We gave teachers some time to analyze existing lesson plans about Japanese American history, identified the strengths of them, identified potential pitfalls, and then talked about how they might adapt those lessons to fulfill the same objectives and utilize more best practices.

The final session [was] basically about how you can respond to people when you are challenged about something or when someone asks you a hard question.

Wakatsuki-Chong: [The pilgrimage that teachers participated in as part of the week’s events involved] two full days of programming and then a one-half day of programming that was for the closing ceremonies … They had genealogy programming. They had programs that talked about threats on different historical sites, learning about historical figures, etc.

Teacher Hanako Wakatsuki-Chong pictured at the Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, Idaho.

What are your thoughts on the growing number of states requiring Asian American history instruction?

Wakatsuki-Chong: It’s great to hear that other state legislatures are starting to pass Asian American Studies and other aspects like that for education, because it’s long overdue. In the past, and I guess sometimes today, we’re only learning about the white, heteronormative stories that built America, but not necessarily the communities of color that also helped build America.

When we talk about Japanese American incarceration, yes, we’re talking about the civil liberties, rights, and violations that occurred. But then we need to contextualize that we had Japanese Americans coming out here to help build the Transcontinental Railroad and they’re part of the infrastructure of the United States.

Should there be more partnerships between museums and schools for training and other programs?

Wakatsuki-Chong: I think it’s really important to make sure that we are doing partnerships, because sometimes there’s funding in areas that you may not recognize, and education funding is always limited.

It was pretty fortunate that the National Park Service has this funding source that allowed us to do this as a pilot. But I do encourage whether [it’s] school districts or teachers just to reach out to other institutions, because you never know. Sometimes people always had these ideas, but they just never found people who were interested.

Dingus: I know lots of other local museums who are working to do more of that active outreach and seeking out those partnerships or seeking ways to provide educational resources and support to people far away. It’s also extremely important to have things that are accessible to people all over. Because this is not a story that is limited to just the West Coast, even though I think it is more widely known on the West Coast than in other parts of the country. But the removal and incarceration story is why there are Japanese American populations in other parts of the country. And that makes it such a larger story.

Wakatsuki-Chong: There are also the implications with other communities. Let’s look at the separation at the border of women and children. They’re using the same infrastructure as the Japanese American incarceration of placing people. Even starting with the forced removal of Native Americans.

There is a quote that’s at the top of the Minidoka National Historic Site’s entrance: ‘This is not just a Japanese American story, but an American story with implications for the world.’

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