Students Learn Constitution, History, Through Japanese Internment Lesson

UC Davis Student Teacher Takes a Personal Approach to 5th-Grade Curriculum

teacher 5th grade class
Lauren Yayesaki, UC Davis student teacher. UC Davis photo/Gregory Urquiaga

Quick Summary

  • Student teacher’s family was in an internment camp
  • Teaching illustrates creative approach to curriculum standards
  • Students take on social justice issues

When it came time for fifth-graders at David Lubin Elementary School in Sacramento to learn about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and U.S. history, their teachers had an idea. Student teacher Lauren Yayesaki’s family had been forced to live in an internment camp during World War II. Resident teacher Betsy Ronsheimer, learning of this, thought it would be a good opportunity to bring this part of history into the classroom in a very personal way.

The timing was appropriate, too, as 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for Japanese Americans to be placed in internment camps.

“What better way to learn about the Constitution, and people’s rights, than in learning about rights that were taken away?” asked Ronsheimer.

internment classroom
Kiyo Sato, a Sacramento woman who lived in an internment camp during World War II, tells a fifth-grade class about her experiences in a camp, where she was brought in her teen years. UC Davis student teacher Lauren Yayesaki looks on. UC Davis Photo/Gregory Urquiaga

UC Davis education program focuses on social justice themes in teaching

The UC Davis teaching program in the School of Education, where Yayesaki obtained her credential this past school year, is focused on integrating social justice into teaching, she explained. “We thought this could be a perfect combination: history, English language arts and social activism.”

During their project, the 29 students in the class read part of the book, A Dandelion in the Crack, by Kiyo Sato, a Sacramento woman who lived in a camp during World War II. They later had the opportunity to meet her, peppering her with questions about life in the camps during a classroom presentation.

The students saw photos from the camps, learned of 118-degree days in a desert camp, and saw a copy of then-President George Bush’s 1991 letter of apology for the country’s involvement in the camps and creating restitution for victims.

They also saw the identification badge that Yayesaki’s grandfather wore in the Tule Lake internment camp, where coincidentally, the family of one of the students had also lived. 

“One group of students held his picture up to my face and commented that he looked like me,” Yayesaki said. “I think knowing that my family was changed by this event made the students imagine what would happen if it was their family instead.”

They had been taught earlier in the school year about being “agents of change” and explored ways of making a difference in their community. This project, Yayesaki said, created an opportunity for them to act.

Poster of Internment
An image of Executive Order 9066, clearing the way for Japanese Americans to be placed in internment camps, is among the many items that were on display in the fifth-grade classroom. UC Davis photo

“I posed the question to the students, ‘Do you think the internment could happen again? And if so, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ After an amazing class discussion with differing views, the students concluded that a wrongful internment could happen again — and possibly to other communities,” Yayesaki said.

She suggested that the students write a letter to the mayor of Sacramento to ask for a memorial in a city park that would educate the Sacramento community and help prevent wrongful internment of another group in the future. Out of this, another lesson was born: How to write a letter, in proper format, to a government official; how to use historical knowledge to make your point in requesting an action — in this case, a memorial. The letters were written and sent to City Hall and members of the city council.

​In response to the letters, Sacramento City Councilmen Jay Schenirer and Jeff Harris visited the class.

Girls' presentation
Students present their ideas for a memorial in class.  UC Davis photo/Gregory Urquiaga

After that, students presented potential designs to the city, and received feedback from city staff about what types of landscaping and monuments worked best for their designs.

Although the city currently has a moratorium on memorials in parks, and the project is not moving forward at this time, city officials said they are continuing to look at ways to represent lessons from the Japanese American World War II experience. 

Nadeen Ruiz, Yayesaki’s supervisor in the teacher credential/master’s degree program at UC Davis, praised the project and students’ experiences in working with the city and others in the community.  She said two of the foundation pillars of the teaching program are equity and advocacy.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that these fifth-grade students understood the prejudicial and terrible treatment of Japanese Americans during this period of our history,” she said. “The students also saw that, despite their young age, they could be advocates on behalf of others.”

Editor’s note: As the school year begins, this story is one in a series on UC Davis’ role in K-12 education.

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