November 23, 2013
I have spent the past two weeks teaching my students how to analyze two or more texts that address a similar topic. The objective is to have students identify and explain how and why texts disagree on the same topic. Since cross curricular lessons are now popular, I worked with the Social Studies teachers to determine the topic, and I went from there. In Social Studies class these past two weeks, my students were learning about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. So, that was the subject I chose.
Here is a brief history lesson for those of you dear Readers who need a refresher. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which permitted the military to exclude from the West Coast, persons of Japanese ancestry, in the name of national defense. This led to the evacuation and incarceration of over 110,000 persons of Japanese descent, most of whom were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
These U.S. citizens, or Americans, were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs. They were interned, or confined, in camps spread across several states. It was from within one of these camps, located in Arizona, that I chose the literature for my lesson. At least three of the confined teenagers, kept in touch with their public librarian. I choose a letter from each of the three, two girls and one boy, to begin my lesson.
Although imprisoned, the two girls wrote about the food, the uncomfortable sleeping accommodations and going to school. The teenaged boy wrote about the ineffective medical care, the barbed wire and the armed guards.
Here is where I will insert my disclaimer. It is the same disclaimer I gave to my students. I am an American and I love America. I honestly believe in what America stands for and am proud of what we, as a nation, have accomplished. That being said, I think one of the things that makes this such a great country is the fact that we, the people, have certain rights, one being the right to free speech. I have the right to speak of America’s past mistakes; I want generations to come, to learn from them.
After a week’s worth of lessons and discussions in both Language Arts and Social Studies, my students collectively decided that holding Japanese-Americans in camps was wrong and they should have been allowed to go home. Here was my students’ final assignment in this unit. Each student was to write a persuasive letter to President Roosevelt asking him to release the Japanese-Americans and allow them to return home. Here is where I began to learn a lesson of my own.
Several of my students wrote something along these lines:
Dear President Roosevelt,
Please let the Japanese people go home. They do not need to be here. They should go back to Japan.
All week long, I had put the emphasis on the fact that Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their homes and imprisoned, and the students had put the emphasis on the fact that Japanese-Americans were being interned.
Several of my students explained it to me the same way, “But Ms., you said they were Japanese. They should go back to Japan.”
“I said they were Japanese-Americans. Besides, some of them were born here,” I managed to say. “And others became citizens, you know, American citizens.”
They were unmoved. “They should still go home. They should’ve stayed in Japan.”
I was saddened, dear Readers. You see, I work with predominantly Hispanic students, first and second generation Americans, and I naively thought that they would sympathize with the Japanese-American immigrants, if for no other reason than they, themselves had experienced an immigrant’s journey. However, I’ve since learned that the label of ‘immigrant’ has become such a stigma to my students, that once assimilated, they are reluctant to see themselves in the faces of any immigrant. In fact, once assimilated, my students are even reluctant to help translate for my Spanish speaking language learners. My students who have become enculturated, work very hard at distancing themselves from their newly arrived counterparts.
When I began writing this post dear Readers, I did not know where it would end up. Now that I see where it has taken me, I am unwilling to put the genie back in the bottle. Why are my students unwilling to help their peers, when they were in the exact same position not long before? I believe this is a learned behavior, but learned from who, and why? I don’t have any answers dear Readers, but I would sure love to hear some. We are a nation of immigrants, both willing and unwilling. We are what makes (made?) this country great. Are we so short-sighted that we can’t see past our own migration? our own journey? our own story? What gives, dear Readers? Anyone? Peace, ~v.