Learning from the Past to Help the Future

In her many years of teaching students about Japan and Japanese culture in her 2nd grade classroom, Cathy Davidson realized she never spoke about Japanese internment camps during World War II. She annually covers a unit on Freedom and Justice in her class, so she took the opportunity to tie these topics together to benefit her students.

Working with Lower School Literacy Specialist Heidi Byrnes-Cloet, Davidson discovered three picture books for kids about the camps told from a child’s perspective, and the duo decided to use the picture books to instruct students in book groups. Working closely with their teachers, students read Baseball Saved Us, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow and So Far From the Sea, and enjoying them as an introduction to the sensitive topic of internment camps. Since their initial exploration, Davidson and Byrnes-Cloet have been using these books with 2nd graders for three consecutive years.

This year, Davidson added a layer of context to their classroom study of Japanese internment camps when she invited Jean Mishima,
president of the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society and Japanese-American survivor of an internment camp, to share a firsthand account of her experience and answer student questions.

Mishima spoke about her family being forced to leave their home in California when she was six years old and relocate to an incarceration camp 600 miles away in Gila River, Arizona. She described the crowded, austere conditions and the ways occupants made the best of their situation—erecting schools for the children and working the adjacent land to supplement diets of mostly canned foods. She passed out photos of the camp she called home and shared books featuring photos of other camps in the States. She also passed around a copy of her 2nd grade report card from the school in the camp.

Students’ questions for Mishima included: Did you ever feel scared and why? How did your family react? What did you bring with you? How did you keep busy? What was it like leaving your friends?—all of which she answered with honesty, humor and candor. She also complimented 2nd grade students on the thoughtfulness of their questions, commenting that they were more thoughtful than those posed by some of the college students she speaks to on the same topic!

This recent classroom experience helped to expand this classroom work with additional meaning and context that Davidson’s 2nd graders won’t forget anytime soon.
Francis W. Parker School educates students to think and act with empathy, courage and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community.