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Teaching Farewell to Manzanar: Addressing History, Japanese Americans, and Narrative Style

Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the WWII Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

Farewell to Manzanar is the difficult account of what life was like for one Japanese American family in an internment camp during WWII. Told through the eyes of Wakatsuki Houston's younger self, readers follow this child and see what she experiences and observes as she grows up behind barbed wire. Although the camp experience is difficult in itself, what seems more compelling is Wakatsuki Houston's seemingly impossible task of gaining acceptance into a post-war and post-camp society during her teenage years. Readers have to imagine her experience is not unlike many other Japanese American people at the time. Her struggles were so complex that it isn't until Wakatsuki Houston is a 37-year-old adult that she can sit down and digest what happened to her and her family along with hundreds of other Japanese Americans.

It seems to me that this book and other materials of the like are a necessary read for students to clearly understand what was happening in America during the WWII era. If our students, and so many do, read The Diary of Ann Frank and watch Schindler's List to gain a better sense of the true story of the Holocaust in Europe, shouldn't we supplement that with material showing the Holocaust-esque experience here in the US? Hopefully, this article will help teachers do so.

Before diving into the challenges that arise when teaching this text, I must bring to readers' attention the wealth of resources available on the web. Below I link to what seem to me to be some of the better options out there according to the challenges highlighted.

Challenge: Teaching History in the Language Arts Classroom

It’s true that history and literature go hand in hand. Appreciation is deepened by understanding the cultural context. The difference with Farewell is that we are dealing with the persecution of Americans, and in a sense, don’t need to study another country. However, it is necessary to gage students’ knowledge of WWII events, especially that of Pearl Harbor and how that bombing changed how people treated the Japanese Americans in the United States.

Teaching English does mean teaching high culture, popular culture, mass media, history, and addressing the issues in our society including inequality, racism, and stereotypes. As English teachers take on these responsibilities they may want to collaborate, history and a language arts teachers working together. The benefits of using cross-curricular teaching to maximize learning are endless. A well thought out and executed cross curricular unit has the potential to yield a teaching and learning masterpiece.


  • The Middle School Experience: Many middle schools across the country already work in teams. This opens up a great opportunity for teaching several WWII texts, including, but not limited to, Farewell to Manzanar and The Diary of Anne Frank. The team aspect allows students to see the WWII experience from several perspectives. An eighth grade unit called “Yes, Virginia, There Was A Holocaust: Is Anyone Out There? An Integrated, Interdisciplinary, Thematic Examination of Persecution During World War II” is an invaluable resource for this task. Please note that although this is a cumulative unit, bits and pieces of teachers can take some or all of the activities to use with their students.
  • Do Your Research: Seek out a colleague from who you know you can learn and with whom you can work well. Develop a set of goals and objectives that meet the needs of the students and decide how you will execute this task. See additional resources below to help you with this.

Challenge: Understanding Japanese American Experience

Many school districts across the country are starved for diversity, and, in turn, many students have difficulty relating to the minority experience, especially an experience during WWII. So, it is vital that we give students enough knowledge of the Japanese American experience during WWII and a way to apply the knowledge or make it real in their own lives. As writer and philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."


  • Use a Webquest: Webquests are often a thoughtful, interactive way for students to research and gain insight into what they are studying. Of course, teachers need to consider the availability of technology in their districts, but overall many webquests yield an excellent learning opportunity all while bringing technology into the classroom. Of the many available on the web for Farewell to Manzanar, this one by Anna Wilder seems most intriguing.
  • An Oral History Project: Oral history projects allow students to connect with members of the community. For a project relating to Farewell, contact (or have students contact) community members who lived through WWII. Most elders will appreciate telling their stories to a younger generation. Things to consider:
    • once students contact a source, develop questions to ask
    • discuss as a class positive interviewing strategies
    • suggest using a tape recorder
    • have students share their findings with the class
    • use a writing activity to reflect on the experience
    • remember to have student send a thank you note

  • Multimedia: Show students what they are studying. Use movies, slide shows, etc. to stress what the Japanese Americans had to live through. Ansel Adams, for example, captured the Manzanar internment camp in a powerful collection of pictures called Born Free and Equal. Of course, using multimedia in the classroom should be coupled with meaningful discussion and reflection.
  • Multi-Genre Projects: In Tom Romano’s book, Blending Genre, Altering Style, teachers can learn how to implement a multi-genre project into their curriculum. Student can implement both research skills and creative writing into one large project. See the examples in the book to fully understand the profound effect of a multi-genre project.
  • Compare and Contrast: When 9/11 happened, some of the same injustices done to the Japanese Americans during WWII, America was again doing to Middle Eastern Americans. Most current students can recall how the United States reacted after 9/11 (and continues to act throughout this endless war) and will be able, with a little research, to compare the measures taken by the US. Consider having students practice their persuasive writing and higher order thinking skills and write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, or perhaps starting an online discussion group where they can post reactions and/or reflections to what they discover in their research. "Face to Face" is a stunning website to help students see some of the similarities.

Challenge: Addressing the Authenticity of a Child’s Voice in Memoir

If students have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, they may question the legitimacy of Wakatsuki Houston’s voice, since her memoir is told from a child’s perspective. Naturally, as a child she didn’t see or hear all that occurred at the camp; what’s more, Manzanar wasn’t the only camp in the country at that time. So, as teachers, what do we do?
  • First, we let students know that of course this book doesn’t represent every Japanese American’s experience at the time, and we should supplement the book with a myriad of resources that show the full spectrum.
  • Second, it is important to discuss why Wakatsuki Houston decides to separate the book into three parts and tell the bulk of the story as a child. Raise the question for students if they think this choice is appropriate--does it work?
  • Third, look carefully at her experiences with “reentry” and reflection. Do these aspects speak more powerfully to the full effect? Promote discussion and analysis of these three topics.

Additional Resources For...


"Manzanar: Desert Diamonds Behind Barbed Wire" is an online field trip geared to 5th-9th graders.

Children of the Camps is a PBS movie. Website offers historical information as well.

Picture Slide Show that also includes background information.

Teaching Asian American Literature

"Asain American Literature: Sources for Research" is an article with many resources and suggestions

More Background

"Dear Miss Breed: Letters from Camp" looks at actual letters written during internment.

"Executive Order 9066" information on the order that sent Japanese Americans into camps.

"Information on Manzanar"

"Manzanar National Historic Site" government site

"Virtual Tour" of the camp found on the government site.

Web Exploration of the camps. Great site.

"Life Interrupted" is a fabulous site about the internment experience.

Lesson Plans

SCORE lesson plan. Very detailed.

by Nicole Ziegler