April 25, 2009

This week for the first time, I got to see how Densho’s teaching materials are used in the classroom. It was an eye-opening experience. Our education consultant, Sarah Loudon, and I visited the first of a half-dozen schools to observe the teaching of our Social Studies lessons that incorporate interview clips and documents from the Densho collection. We’re carrying out a grant-funded assessment of our elementary, middle school, and high school units on Constitutional and immigration issues.
The portable classroom at Washington Middle School was full of squirmy, eager, sleepy, goofy, serious, and mostly curious middle school students. Teacher Kathryn Ellison guided the diverse students through viewing a government newsreel that explained what a good idea the World War II incarceration was. The kids laughed at the blatant propaganda tricks. These “pioneers” were happily moving to a “fertile desert”? They wanted to know, “Were there snakes?” They called out, “That’s so not fair!” when the teacher told them Japanese Americans had to live in horse stalls.

I was surprised at some of their questions. For instance, the students kept asking “Why didn’t they try to escape?” “To where?” asked the teacher. “Over the Rockies.” ” To Canada.” No, they are told, Canada sent their people of Japanese ancestry into captivity too. [Silence.]

Watching the kids work through assignments, Sarah and I realized some of the written questions in our curriculum need to be sharpened. And in talking with the teacher afterward, we agree that more work needs to be done in helping the students understand an important point. When the teacher asked one boy how he would feel if his family was locked up for looking like the enemy, he replied, “But the Japanese attacked us.” Right. It seems some lessons need to be taught, and retaught, and retaught.

Washington Middle School sits in an urban, multicultural neighorhood. The next test school is across Lake Washington in a prosperous suburb. Other schools participating in the evaluation project are in rural areas. I have no doubt we will gather surprising and highly useful data for improving Densho’s message. This will be more than interesting.

Densho thanks the Washington Civil Liberties Public Education Program for a grant supporting this curriculum evaluation project. We are grateful for additional funding from the City of Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, Civic Partner program.