The goal of this lesson is to introduce students (Grades 4-12) to the possible impacts of any executive order that targets a specific group of people. During the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens of the United States, were evacuated from the West Coast and “relocated” to detention camps established by the U.S. Government. As captured in Ansel Adam’s iconic photos, many internees would spend the next three years behind barbed wire. Their stories of discrimination and forced removal provide a window into a time when our nation failed to uphold the rights guaranteed to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution — regardless of nationality, race, religion, or ethnicity.
As students delve into the lesson by watching the I’m American Too – Stories from Behind the Fences documentary and exploring the primary source interviews in the TOR WWII Archives, they will gain an understanding of how virtually overnight West Coast farming communities were forever changed, with very few internees returning to their former homes. The students are then tasked with capturing a “story from behind the fences” by drafting a letter in the voice of the internee to someone, real or imaginary, outside of the camp. Using Dwight Okita’s “In Response to Executive Order 9066” poem as a model, their final task is to transform their letters into letter poems.
The lesson is also a call to action. Students are warmly invited to take their letter poems beyond the walls of the classroom by submitting them to the TOR Student Gallery for publication to a national audience. If you work with students, I am pretty sure you will agree that when we support students in speaking out on issues of social justice, we are often providing a lens to view the impact of bystanders and the difference a single upstander can make.
During the month of March, many West Coast school districts and museums commemorate Japanese-American internment with activities and exhibits. And, of course, probably all school districts celebrate April as National Poetry Month. Whatever the occasion or lesson might be, if you are a teacher, I hope you will encourage your students to create letter poems in response to Executive Order 9066 and to publish them to an authentic audience, such as the Time of Remembrance Student Gallery.
Seventy-five years ago today, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent, many of them citizens, from the West Coast. Virtually overnight, an entire group of people lost their jobs, their homes, and their constitutional rights.
Thanks to a beautiful article in today’s SacBee from California farmer, journalist, and author David Mas Masumoto, I am reminded of the importance of standing up and speaking out on behalf of targeted groups. I teach in a school district that was once home to a hard-working community of Japanese-American farmers, who transformed the region into beautiful, productive strawberry fields. Following the signing of Executive Order 9066, the history of the Elk Grove-Florin region was abruptly and forever changed.
In honor of the many contributions of the Japanese-American community and in recognition of the need to stop history from repeating itself, I am proud to co-direct my district’s Time of Remembrance Oral Histories Project (TOR). David Mas Masumoto’s words complement the purpose of the TOR project:
“We remember through stories. They frame events, add context to the past beyond a history of facts. Stories add rich and personal details that generate an emotional connection to what was and what can be.”
America is a nation of immigrants. In response to the current political climate and an executive order that is similar to 9066, the TOR project invites youth from across the nation to interview an immigrant or refugee and then share their stories on our TOR Student Gallery. We’ve created On Coming to America, both the lesson and teacher’s guide/toolkit, as an opportunity to showcase the sacrifices and contributions of immigrants and refugees. Again, David Mas Masumoto’s words sum up our commitment to documenting stories from our communities:
“To recognize today’s stories of hate against a class of people, to demand these stories be heard is a first step to building a more democratic and just nation. To be American is to remember all our stories.”
We are a nation of immigrants.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.
The greatest gift we can give someone is the gift of their history.” HmongStory40
Yes, we are a nation of immigrants. I am fortunate to work in a school district that is yearly enriched by its history of cultural diversity. Last year, in recognition and celebration of the experiences, challenges, and contributions of those who have come to America, I collaborated on the Coming to America – Small Moments, Big Meanings Lesson and Teacher’s Guide. This year, I am adding another resource: On Coming to America Hyperdoc.*
Both these online lessons are invitations to your students to interview, document, and publish the story of an immigrant or refugee, with a shared goal of:
Introducing students to the differences between an “immigrant” and a “refugee”
Providing a collection of primary source interviews (videos) with recent refugees
Providing guidelines for students to step into the role of oral historians by conducting an interview
Encouraging students to publish their Small Moments, Big Meanings projects to an authentic audience via several online options.
How about your school or district? Have your students had the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and do the work of an oral historian? If not, I can promise that in the process of interviewing an immigrant or refugee, they will discover what I have learned: history happens one story at a time. It would be an honor to showcase your students’ On Coming to America projects.
Questions? Suggestions? Please leave a comment. Let the conversations begin!
*Note: The term “hyperdoc” stems from the ever-amazing Lisa Highfill’s commitment to use tools (such as Google Docs/Slides/Sheets) to create lessons with access to “instructions, links, tasks… to get kids thinking.”
Treasure Languages Event: Storytelling in two voices
“Each language is shining a little torch somewhere. These are treasures for the whole of humankind.”Nicholas Evans (Language Matters, PBS)
I’d like to start this post with a shout out to language researchers Robyn Perry (University of California, Berkeley) and Steven Bird (University of Melbourne, Australia) for the incredible work they are doing through the Aikuma Project to preserve dying languages. Robyn has been a featured guest blogger on the TOR Talks blog (a project I co-direct with my school district colleague Kathleen Watt) and has also joined us,with Steven, for a Google Hangout. So Kathleen and I were thrilled when Robyn invited us to come to Oakland (California) for the Sunday, December 13, Treasure Language Storytelling Event.
I was born in Oakland and grew up in Orinda, part of what is known as the “East Bay.” So I was surprised to learn about one of California’s “hidden histories” (not included in history textbooks): The storytelling event was taking place in an area once inhabited by the Chochenyo (a new word for my spellchecker), a division of the Ohlone tribe of Northern California and the first inhabitants of the East Bay. The Chochenyo language died about 70 years ago. But thanks to the efforts of Vince Medina and Louis Trevino, Chochenyo is re-emerging as a spoken language. Vince opened the event by welcoming us in Chochenyo.
Next on the agenda was Leiz (Marc) Yauz-Cing and Lai Saephan, who represented Sacramento’s Iu Mien community. Two years ago, Lai spent 6 months studying the Mien language with Marc, who taught him not only the spoken language, but also how to read and write in Mien. Together, Lai and Marc told a Iu Mien story in two voices. Fortunately, their telling of “Hieh Mienh Gouv” (Wild Mien Story) was recorded.
Before Marc and Lai started their story, the wonderful Koy Saephan, Lai’s big sister (sitting next to us in the audience), shared that becoming fluent in his native language had changed Lai’s life. Their family had fled Laos to Thailand after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War. When they were granted permission to come to the United States, Lai was only 9 months old. Like many refugee and immigrant children, his older siblings took care of him while his parents held multiple jobs. With the siblings naturally wanting to fit into American culture, they spoke English with each other. Therefore, as a child and into his adult years, Lai could not fully communicate with his Mien-speaking parents. Six months of studying Mien changed that – and his life (see more below).
The closing activity, the Language Champions Panel, was equally powerful. Vince Medina and Lai Saephan were joined by Tigisti Weldeab, an immigrant from Eritrea. As soon as the video is posted, I’ll add it to this post. I still have a lump in my throat from Lai sharing that before he learned his native language, he used to stutter. No more.
Tigisiti shared what it was like arriving in Seattle as a 12 year old, wanting nothing more than to fit in, which meant speaking Tigrigna as little as possible. It was not until she started college and saw that her younger brother was losing the Tigrigna language that she realized the importance of keeping and promoting her native language.
It will be a long time to come before I forget these “treasure language” stories. Each story is now part of our shared community history. And each story provides a window into the challenges of losing one’s native language.
I’ve already marked my calendar for the February 21 Treasure Language Event, which coincides with International Mother Tongue Day and will therefore focus on women storytellers. I look forward to attending the event, both as a learner and as an educator. Given the diverse populations in California schools, with more than 88 languages and dialects spoken in my district, the “treasure language” stories should resonate with all who work with English Learner populations.
Please help spread the word about the Aikuna Project and the February 21 Treasure Language Event. If you, or someone you know, speak a “treasure language” (endangered language) and would be willing to be interviewed, please contact Robyn Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 831-332-4208.
The living speakers of today’s disappearing languages are equipped to preserve their voices, their unique perspective on the world, and how they have managed to live sustainably in their homeland for centuries.” Steven Bird, Ph.D., Aikuma Project
Twenty years ago, I started on an amazing, ongoing professional development journey by applying for the Area 3 Writing Project’s Summer Institute (SI). I knew from the opening day that my SI experience would provide me with exceptional best practices in teaching writing and, equally important, with an incredible professional learning community. But in 1995, I certainly had no idea of the life-changing connections that would come my way as a result of my joining the NWP community. I’d like to share one of those connections.
At the close of the SI, A3WP director Jayne Marlink invited our group to a celebration at her home. As I entered her hallway, I was completely drawn into an elaborately decorated wall hanging. The intricate embroidery depicted groups of people clearly fleeing an area and attempting to cross a river. Soldiers were everywhere. That was my first time to see a Hmong story cloth. It was a gift, Jayne explained, from a former student, a Hmong student whose family had fled Laos after the U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. It was in the news during my high school years. By college, the war dominated the media, with an escalating protest movement on and beyond campuses. So I thought I knew about the Vietnam War, including its extension into Cambodia. But I do not remember any news coverage from Laos. The Hmong story cloth hanging in Jayne’s hallway was a new chapter for me. Over the years, I continued to “read” about the Hmong migration from Laos, mainly at Sacramento area farmers’ markets, where Hmong often sell story cloths along with their produce.
In 1998, I transferred from a small, semi-rural school district in the Sierra foothills to the Elk Grove School District, a rapidly-growing district in the south Sacramento area. Prior to World War II, the Elk Grove-Florin area had been home to hundreds of Japanese-American families who farmed the region’s strawberry fields. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all citizens of Japanese heritage from the West Coast, the history of this community overnight and forever changed. Few were able to return and reclaim their farms.
History does have a tendency to repeat itself. Two wars later, the strawberry fields of Elk Grove-Florin are primarily farmed by Hmong and Mien. They are refugees of the “Secret War in Laos.” This year, 2015, marks the 40-year anniversary of the Hmong and Mien migration from Laos and Thailand to the United States. During the Vietnam War, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency formed a secret alliance with the Hmong army to fight Laotian communists and the North Vietnamese. Shortly after the U.S. military abandoned Laos in 1974, the communist group Pathet Lao announced plans to wipe out both the Hmong and Mien. Their only option for survival was to flee Laos.
It is through the vision and support of Steve Ly that have I become actively and deeply involved in researching and documenting the stories of the Secret War refugees. Steve’s family fled Laos when he was four. Thirty-eight years later, he was elected to the Elk Grove USD School Board, the first Hmong member. In his tenure, he introduced Board Resolution 59 to commemorate the critical role the Hmong played in supporting the U.S. during the Vietnam War, to celebrate relocation of over 100,000 Hmong to the U.S., and to encourage teaching students in grades 7-12 about the Secret War (in alignment with California AB 78). Forty years later, Steve now serves as the City of Elk Grove’s first Hmong City Councilman. Through text messages, emails, and phone calls, he keeps me in the loop on upcoming events in the Sacramento area, such as a recent CSU, Sacramento, presentation by author Gayle Morrison, or a local hosting of a Hmong Story 40 celebration.
To commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the Hmong and Mien exodus from Laos, my colleague, the very talented EGUSD graphic designer Kathleen Watt, and I have been developing and curating a new section on the TOR website: the Vietnam War. We currently have completed interviews with 10 Hmong and Mien refugees and are in the process of annotating each interview so that teachers can easily locate and share specific parts of the interviews. We’ve posted snippets of several interviews, and should have complete interviews available within the next few months. Thanks to Steve Ly, we’ve even connected with and interviewed five Ravens. Ravens were the U.S. fighter pilots used for forward air control in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency during America’s Vietnam War. The Ravens provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets.
It is through Writing Project networks that I’ve come to understand the value and importance of telling our stories. It is through the support of my department (EGUSD Technology Services), in partnership with our Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium, that I’ve been able to digitally document community stories from two separated yet connected wars.
As California commemorates the 40-year legacy of the Secret War in Laos, through projects such as Hmong Story 40, I eagerly anticipate expanding the Time of Remembrance Oral Histories Archive and facilitating discussions on the TOR Talks site. Your input is warmly invited.