Dear Miss Breed Lesson Plan
The letters which are at the core of the book Dear Miss Breed provide readers with an eyewitness account of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
About the Book
Dear Miss Breed illuminates a chapter in American history many students know little about. In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941, the military feared the Pacific coast was vulnerable to espionage or attack. Concerned that Americans of Japanese descent would be disloyal and aid the enemy, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which led to the forcible relocation of all people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. He handed their fate over to the military. The War Department removed over 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, and incarcerated them in bleak camps in the interior of our country.
Clara Breed was the supervising librarian at the San Diego Public Library. She had strong friendships with the Japanese American youth who were regular, devoted visitors.
When the evacuation orders were posted on doors and telephone poles on April 1, 1942, Miss Breed despaired. Families she knew to be loyal to America had one week to sell or leave their homes, businesses and belongings. Japanese American children were pulled out of their schools; no one knew where they were going.
On April 7, 1941, as the evacuation began in San Diego, Miss Breed came to see her friends off at the train station. She handed out stamped, self-addressed post cards and encouraged the children to write her of their experiences. Amid the anti-Japanese hysteria Miss Breed’s presence was reassuring. As one of “her children” recalled, “She gave me a warm feeling to know someone cared about us…She promised we wouldn’t be forgotten.”
Most Japanese American families from San Diego ended up incarcerated at a camp called Poston in the brutally hot Arizona desert. Miss Breed became their lifeline. She regularly sent books, which were treasured and shared, and fulfilled requests for much needed supplies. Hundreds of letters were sent back and forth detailing the challenges of life in the camps, and the struggle to create a sense of normalcy while isolated from the rest of the world. These simple, persistent acts of caring lifted the spirits of dozens of Clara’s young friends over the course of their incarceration.
Miss Breed was an ordinary citizen, a young librarian who was sparked into action by injustices during a painful time when our nation was at war. Appalled that Americans could be deprived of their civil liberties, Clara Breed spoke out by writing articles and letters in their defense. Most of all, she never stopped writing to “her children,” who in turn wrote more than 200 letters to her. Dear Miss Breed makes this private correspondence public. Weaving together the children’s letters, and Clara Breed’s articles, as well as oral histories and Congressional testimony, Dear Miss Breed ensures that this story will never be forgotten.
Classroom Activity (Grades 4 –12)
Touching the Lives of the Past: Teaching About Primary Sources With Dear Miss Breed
“The use of primary documents exposes students to important historical concepts. First students become aware that all human history reflects an author’s interpretation of past events…Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past.”
- “History in the Raw” National Archives and Records Administration
The letters which are at the core of the book Dear Miss Breed provide readers with an eyewitness account of the Japanese American incarceration. By completing this activity students will:
- Recognize that primary documents give an authentic voice to past events.
- Understand that the writers of these, and all historical documents, bring their own biases, points of view and personal experiences to their accounts.
- Develop skills in interpreting primary documents.
- Learn about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II and how different individuals responded to their difficult circumstances.
Process (One 45–60 minute session)
1. Provide your students with background information about the incarceration by referencing About This Book (above).
2. Explain the significance of using primary documents to your students:
- Primary sources are the letters, journals, photographs, and other written and visual accounts that document a moment in time by a person who was there. Primary sources describe one person’s experience. They are the eyewitness account, the actual documents that have survived from the past. Secondary sources are books and other writings created long after historical events took place. Their authors usually rely on primary documents to recreate events. Textbooks are secondary sources usually written with an objective voice of authority. Other history books can be written with more subjectivity and voice the author’s opinions on historical events.
- The Dear Miss Breed letters open a door into the daily routines, concerns, and hopes of ordinary young people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Like all primary sources, the letters demonstrate the personal and subjective nature of each person’s experience. These documents put a human face on history by allowing participants to tell their own story in their own words.
3. Present the Lesson Plan
Step 1: Make copies of the following two letters: September 7, 1942, pp. 118-119 (Tetsuzo Hirasaki aka Tets or Ted) and August 27, 1942, p.112 (bottom) to 115, (Louise Ogawa)
Step 2: Divide the class into small groups; each group works together to interpret the two letters.
Step 3: Instruct each group to make a Document Analysis Chart. Assign a secretary to write. Hold a paper horizontally, fold it in thirds. Write “Questions” at the top of column 1, “Tetsuzo” at the top column 2 and “Louise” on column 3. Under “Questions” write out #1-5 below on the front and #6-9 on the back of the paper leaving room for the answers:
- Date document was written
- Location of writer
- Purpose of this document (Why was it written?)
- Write a quote that indicates the writer’s “point of view” or opinion of their circumstances.
- Describe how the writer adapted to unfamiliar daily routines.
- Write a quote that shows the writer’s resilience during a time of hardship.
- What does each writer want the recipient to know about their experience?
- What do these letters tell us about American history at this time?
- What questions would you like to ask the writers if you could?
Step 3: Ask students to read the letters aloud in their small groups. Encourage a lively discussion. Remind the class to record their responses on their chart. When completed, compare and contrast the class’s responses. Conclude with these questions: How did these two students bring their own opinions and perspectives to their experience at Poston? How did each respond to their circumstances? Did reading both letters give you a more complete picture of life at Poston? Would your understanding of these events have been different if a historian had described this, rather than the participant? How?
4. Hearing The Author’s Voice: Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources
Primary sources are the eyewitness historical accounts that endure over time. Historians and other writers of history interpret these primary sources when they write their accounts of historical events. All history is subject to interpretation and is filtered through the opinions and experiences of later historians and writers. Inevitably, there are differing points of view on “what happened” and how we should understand events decades or centuries later.
Step 1: Read together the letter from Fusa on p.124 and the letter from Katherine Tasaki on p. 125 (Note: Nisei are second generation Japanese Americans born in the U.S. and therefore citizens.)
Step 2: Ask your students to think like a historian and interpret the letters. Discuss:
- What do you think are the main ideas in each letter? Why did you choose that?
- How do these letters inform the reader about what life was like in the camp?
- What are Fusa and Katherine’s primary concerns?
- What do these letters tell us about how the incarceration affected the Japanese American students?
Step 3: Collect a variety of responses and opinions from your students. Point out the range of viewpoints and interpretations in your class.
Step 4: Read Ms. Oppenheim’s interpretation of these documents in the paragraphs following each letter. Discuss:
- What are the main ideas and issues that the author addresses?
- Like all writers of history, Ms. Oppenheim has a “voice” or a “point of view”— a perspective on historical events she presents to her readers. Can you detect the author’s voice and her point of view?
- How can this awareness of the interpretive aspect of history be applied in other areas of study?
Extensions at Home: Finding Our Family’s Primary Sources
1. Search through family records to locate a letter written to a family member. It could be a letter written generations ago by an older relative, or a letter written by a relative or friend in another country. It could be a letter written home from camp or a trip. Ask relatives if they’ve kept any interesting family letters. If you can’t find a letter look for other documents that speak of your family’s history: birth or marriage certificates, immigration papers, etc. These are your family’s primary documents.
2. Read the letter (or examine the document) carefully and conduct the following analysis: Who wrote the document? Date, origin, recipient and purpose. Why was this letter or document written? If a letter, identify a quote that indicates the writer’s “point of view” or opinion of events or circumstances. What does this document tell us about the past?
Suggested Activities from author Joanne Oppenheim
Joanne Oppenheim has written over fifty books for and about children. Dear Miss Breed came about when Joanne was planning her high school reunion and began searching for Ellen Yukawa, a Japanese American friend. Through her search she discovered the website of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the letters to Miss Breed. With the National Museum’s help, Joanne eventually found her friend and discovered that Ellen had spent the war years at Poston as well, before moving to Joanne’s hometown in 1945. Eager to write about and share these stories, for three years Joanne Oppenheim worked on this book, locating and interviewing many of Miss Breed’s “children.” Joanne hopes that her readers view this story, not as an isolated event of the past, but rather as an event to keep in our collective memory to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Joanne Oppenheim suggests the following activities for students to further explore the themes in her book:
Miss Breed’s Missing Letters
The book is based on the many letters written by the children to Miss Breed which have survived and are now in the collection of the Japanese American National Museum. By contrast, only one of Miss Breed’s letters to “her children” has survived; the upheaval made it difficult for families to keep things when they moved. We can, however, imagine Miss Breed’s letters by reading the children’s responses. Select a letter on page 152 or pages 140-142. Make a list of the questions Miss Breed might have asked to inspire these letters. Then turn these questions into an imaginary letter from Miss Breed. Additionally, give voice to the concerns Miss Breed might have had about their well-being; describe how Miss Breed’s neighborhood and library might have changed after the Japanese Americans were evacuated. Look at the questions the author came up with on page 82 for ideas.
Ordinary People Who Made a Difference
Miss Breed was not a celebrity. She was not a soldier or a politician, but she found a way to touch the lives of hundreds of other people. She was one woman who made a difference. Research and develop a creative presentation about one of the seemingly ordinary people who have changed the lives of many through their acts of courage. Consider Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez, or a person in your family, school, or community who has made a difference in your life or the lives of others. Write an essay, poem, illustrated story, one act play, or fictitious journal which tells their story and honors their life.
Propaganda and the Press
Many reports in the Press painted a rosy picture of the evacuation. Santa Anita was a former racetrack for horses, which was turned into a temporary transit camp before the inmates were relocated to Poston. Read the account in the L.A. Times on April 4, 1942, “Santa Anita Gates Open to 1000 Japs” (Dear Miss Breed, p. 71) and the account of a later interview with Babe Karasawa, (Dear Miss Breed, p. 63). Additionally, read “650 Japs Depart; S.F. Exodus Starts Like a Picnic” and the following testimony which begins “My twin brother James and I were students….”(Dear Miss Breed, p. 73)
Discuss: Why did the Press need to portray a sanitized version of the camps? The author refers to these neutral phrases as “doublespeak.” They are also called “euphemisms.” The Encarta World English Dictionary defines a “euphemism” as “the use of a word or phrase that is more neutral, vague, or indirect to replace a direct, harsh, or offensive term.” How were euphemisms used in both articles? Can you find examples of euphemisms in articles about current social problems?
Can This Happen Again?
During her testimony for the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens, Grace Nakamura said,
“My students ask me if this could happen again to another group of people. I must answer, yes....we cannot take freedom for granted. Until you lose your freedom, you do not realize how dear it is. There is no price tag for freedom.”
Dear Miss Breed, p.249
1. Have laws been changed so this cannot happen again? Is there a difference between the concept of civil liberties and the minimum rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Three Japanese Americans challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration: Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Mitsuye Endo. Research their court cases. What were the results?
2. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was enacted by Congress to acknowledge the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation and internment of Japanese Americans and to apologize on behalf of the people of the United States. This Act granted restitution of $20,000 to each person who was incarcerated. Read the full text of this Act. (See the National Archives website below.) Review Chapter 14 in Dear Miss Breed. Discuss how the Japanese American community responded to this Act.
3. Do you think this can happen again to another group? Are there parallels between then and now? Can you give any related examples in the news since 9/11? Consider the debates over imprisoning people without formally charging them with a crime, or the Patriot Act that allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects, or differences between treatment of citizens and aliens, etc. Find an article in the press that explores this, or a related issue. Write a position paper articulating your opinion, or argue both sides in a classroom debate.
“Put Yourself in Their Shoes”
Assign the role of narrator, Miss Breed, Louise, Margaret, Katherine, Tets and Fusa. Multiple students can play each part. Their bios and photos are in the book’s introduction. Use the index to locate each person’s letters and quotes from interviews. Select a few examples from each person in the cast. Organize the text thematically: leaving San Diego, the Assembly Center at Santa Anita, life in Poston (education, social life, parents, conflicts over military service, conflicted feelings toward the American Government, proving their patriotism), leaving the camps and creating a new life. Take turns reading; imagine you are “in their shoes.”
After hearing the varied concerns and perspectives of the Japanese American youth,
imagine yourself in their position. Select a specific issue, such as reconciling incarceration with democratic principles, racial prejudice in the nation, challenges of education in the camps, conflicts over military service, etc. What is your opinion or point of view? Write a fictitious “letter to the editor” to a local newspaper. Clearly state your position and support it with convincing reasons you have learned about in Dear Miss Breed and through additional research.
The Japanese American Experience by Brimmer, Larry Dane. Voices From the Camps: Internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.
Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. (See also other works by Roger Daniels cited in the bibliography.)
Inada, Lawson Fusao, ed. Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2000.
Niiya, Brian, ed. Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.
Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese American Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.
The "Rights & Responsibilities Curriculum" lesson plans explore the question "What responsibilities do individuals have to uphold human rights? From "Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas.”
Dear Miss Breed. Video directed by Veronica Ko. Hosted by Marcus Toji.
13 min. UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Japanese American National Museum, 2001. Includes Teacher's Guide.
For additional resources and information please see the Bibliography, p. 82 in Dear Miss Breed, or contact the Hirasaki National Resource Center at the Japanese American National Museum www.janm.org.
Using Primary Resources in the Classroom
The Learning Page of the Library of Congress features extensive lesson plans as well as over 7 million historical documents for classroom use.
The National Archives website has a collection of standards-based lesson plans and inspiring articles on teaching with primary documents. They have reproducible copies of hundreds of documents that tell the American story.
© Creative Ways, 2005. This teaching guide was written by Shari Davis, co-founder of Creative Ways – a Los Angeles based organization which develops educational exhibits, programs and curricula exploring themes of culture, history and identity. Publications include Boyle Heights: The Power of Place—Tools and Resources to Investigate Community History for the Japanese American National Museum and Nourishing the Heart: A Guide to Intergenerational Arts Projects in the Schools. Davis has also recently produced a traveling exhibition and curriculum on global rites of passage titled Passageways: Growing Up in the World. Shari Davis can be contacted at
A co-publication of Scholastic Inc. and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA.