A Dash Headlong into History by Adam Shaffer
There are so many things to love about historical fiction. While all fiction helps us better understand ourselves and others, historical fiction adds the incredible benefit of helping us understand the events and issues that shaped our world. By reading historical fiction, we can grow our understanding of the present by expanding our understanding of the past.
Sometimes the historical fiction we read deepens our understanding of events that shaped our world, but feel far away from our lives. Number the Stars is a stunning work, but most of us have never traveled to Denmark, and maybe never will. By reading it, our knowledge of history and compassion for others will grow. But it’s still Denmark. One Crazy Summer is steeped in humor, history, and family, but northwest Washington State in 2015 is a long way from Oakland in 1968. By reading it, our understanding of struggle–of people in general, and for human rights in particular–grows. There is enormous value in reading these books. We are more knowledgeable, more compassionate, more understanding people when we read historical fiction.
To share historical fiction through read aloud is a wonderful experience. Collectively, we gasp in terror of situations we can hardly imagine really happened. Collectively, we smile at the joyous moments in history, which seem so similar to the comforts that we enjoy ourselves. Collectively, we seethe at the injustices of the past, while relating them to the issues we hear about in the news.
When I chose a historical fiction novel to read aloud to my class, I knew I want to share these collective experiences with my students. But I also wanted to go one step deeper into history. I wanted my students to feel fear and joy and anger, but not about something that happened long ago and far away. Let’s keep the “long ago” part (though not that long), but let’s learn things about our own backyard. So I selected Dash, the Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award winning novel by Kirby Larson, rooted in Washington State in 1941-1942, a chronicle of the experiences of our neighbors and families.
For those unfamiliar with Dash, it is the story of Mitsi Kashino and her family, forced to relocate from their home in Seattle to the Japanese internment camps, set up by the United States government following the attack on Pearl Harbor. While leaving friends and the comforts of home would be difficult enough, Mitsi also must leave her dog, Dash, with a neighbor, as pets were not allowed at the camps.
When we started reading Dash, we connected quickly with Mitsi’s experiences with both her beloved pet and the discrimination she feels. Good characters provide us with these varied feelings. However, we (and I) had little idea of how deeply we would tumble into history.
So, what is going on exactly?
To better understand the events and ideas surrounding the Japanese internment, we explored other texts. We watched several videos (like this one–the internment section starts at 14:45). After learning more background, we watched a propaganda film by the US government, and did a little close reading through the lens of “assumptions.” My students quickly identified moments when the film glossed over or manipulated how evacuees were really feeling.
We also read. Together, we read Barbed Wire Baseball, by Marissa Moss and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. Several students picked up I am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment, by Jerry Stanley, or Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II, by Martin W. Sandler. My students probably know more about Japanese internment than anyone else in their school.
Wrapped in a cozy blanket of 1942
Kirby Larson is a historical fiction master. Her research is so careful, so intentional, that it is easy to be transported. To help us on our time traveling journey, Kirby filled Dash with small references to culturally or historically relevant people, places, foods, and more. There were so many that I felt the need to help students visualize what they were hearing about. I made a Google Slides presentation full of pictures, information, and explanations referenced in Dash, and shared it each day as I added more items. Kirby’s careful attention to detail helped transport us to a different time.
The real time machine
I grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, site of some of the first evacuations of Japanese and Japanese Americans. Several years ago, the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial opened as a national historic site. I knew that the Bainbridge Island Historical Society (BIHS) was involved in presenting this history to the public. I checked out their website, and sent an email inquiring about a possible Skype with one of their educators. Here was their response:
I have been so excited for an opportunity like this! Although we have not Skyped with a class yet, this would be such a fabulous help for us since we are just far away enough that it is quite a challenge for Seattle students to visit.
We have several long-lived Island educators who have stories from when they left Bainbridge and/or from when their folks left and their family returned to Bainbridge.
We set up a Skype–the first ever for the BIHS–with two women who moved with their families to internment camps when they were very young. Frances Ikegami was five years old when the evacuation order was handed down, and her sister, Lilly Kodama, was seven. Amazing–Stunning–that we had this opportunity. As I thought more and more about this experience, I considered how lucky my students were. In ten years, twenty years, there probably won’t be any living survivors of the internment.
Our Skype with Lilly and Frances was incredible. My students, steeped in Dash and Mitsi, asked many questions and listened rapt to the stories of life in the camps. We blogged about what we will remember and what we learned. Some response highlights:
“I really liked that we got to Skype with internment camp survivors and I really liked that they talked about their life in the internment camp.” –C
“I learned how the Japanese were taken out of their homes, no warning. I think it is just wrong to do that to anybody.” –J
“I liked skyping with them because they gave out a lot of information to us about what the camp was like to them. And also because they shared stories to us and showed us old things that they brought to their camp and is still in the museum today!” –M
“I loved it because Lilly and Frances told us stories.” –G
It was an incredible moment, and my students talked about it for days afterward.
We wrote thank you notes, as we always do for Skypes, and Frances wrote back to us.
Dear Mr. Shaffer’s Skyping fourth graders,
Thank you very much for the wonderful letters you sent. I enjoyed skyping with you! My being only 5 years old at the time of internment was a little handicap in remembering experiences such as pets and new friendships. It was good that Lilly joined us as she was much closer to Mitsi’s age and does remember having to leave behind pets and making new friends at camp. I only remember that I was a happy, independent child and comfortable because I was surrounded by my family with love.
End with a rock star
We finished our time with Dash, Mitsi, and local history with a Skype with the person who inspired us to go on our wild history adventures, Kirby Larson. We were honored to have a chance to talk with her and ask her about her experiences researching and writing Dash.
It’s almost cliché at this point, but authors really are our rock stars. Skyping with Kirby was a perfect end to our time with Washington’s WWII history. Plus, we got to meet Winston the Wonder Dog.
Skyping with Kirby Larson cemented our feet in the indestructible concrete block of our memories. I know I will remember this month-long trek through history–written, read, heard, spoken, seen, learned, felt. I think my students will, as well.
Historical fiction can help us understand the world, the past, the present, the future. It can broaden our knowledge of the events that shaped where we are today. It can open our eyes to unknown experiences. It seems obvious, but there is something to be said for learning more about the world.
There is also something to be said for historical fiction that helps us understand our town, or our state, or our region. Then, we come to understand our world, our past, our present, our future. We can broaden our knowledge of the events that shaped our lives, and the lives around us. It can open our eyes to the unknown experiences of the person who lives next door, or sits next to us on the bus, or passes us on the sidewalk.
Thank you Kirby, and Frances, and Lilly, for bringing history home. Our immersion in your stories left deep changes that will benefit us for many, many years.
Now, #nerdybookclub-bers, what story will you dash into this year?
Adam Shaffer is a fourth grade teacher in Everson, WA. His classroom is a delightful, busy, mostly effective, and messy. He loves history, but doesn’t always know how to teach it well. Instead of text books, can’t our entire Social Studies curriculum be taught with historical fiction, biographies, and informational texts? He is on the board of the WWU Children’s Literature Conference, and founded nErDcamp Bellingham. You can find him on Twitter @MrShafferTMCE.