Teaching teens and tweens about what life is like for other people is one of the best ways to help them develop empathy. I believe that reading is critical here. Reading lets us experience the life and feelings of someone different from ourselves. It teaches while, hopefully, entertaining. And knowing more is the first step to creating social justice.
Recently, I read the book They Called Us Enemy by George Takei. This is a piece of American history that was hidden from most of us for a long time. As part of teaching my children a better American history, we are going to be studying this book. And help my children relate more to the story, there are a few things we will be doing to go along with the book.
About the Story
I was surprised to learn that They Called Us Enemy is actually a graphic novel, suitable for sharing with your teen or tween. Even a student who struggles with reading can appreciate the story, as much of it is told in pictures, like a comic book. In the book, Mr. Takei ties the present to the past as he tells his story of growing up in the United States in the 1940s. His family was forced into a camp for Japanese Americans. He lived in those camps for 4 years while World War II was fought.
This is an intense subject but the story is made easier to hear because Mr. Takei has taken the time to show it to us through the eyes of a child. He clearly indicates to the reader that his parents were with him, loving and caring for him through the whole process.
Making it Relatable
First, we are going to go back and watch an episode or two of the original Star Trek. The original show is pretty campy, IMHO. However, discussing with the children how the show was a step forward for equality is important. Nichelle Nichols’s role as Lt. Uhura on the show was also groundbreaking. Gene Roddenberry created a show where his characters were not racial stereotypes but actual people with backstories and emotions. This was extremely rare for television in the 1960s.
We will also eat some Japanese food, find Japan on a map and learn about modern-day Japan. Honestly, my kids will probably teach me this part, as they enjoy Manga and sushi. I am pretty sure they will be happy to be my teacher for a day. Reversing the roles, and asking them to teach me what they know of Japan will give them a chance to work on their oratory skills. This reverse teaching activity is one of my favorites, when working with teens and tweens.
We will also do the hard lesson of learning more about World War II. Looking into what happened at Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima is hard. I honestly don’t enjoy teaching about war. But if they don’t understand what happened in World War II, my kids won’t understand the context for the autobiography we are reading. Both of these are worth pausing in our reading to look up. Sometimes, when Americans talk about World War II, they only discuss what happened in Europe. The Pacific Theater is often overshadowed. It is my job as their teacher to make sure my kids know the whole story. Both what happened here in America and abroad.
I hope that by going further than just reading the book, my kids will get more out of this lesson. They Called Us Enemy is an amazing book that stands on its own merits.
Here at Five Senses Literature Lessons, I talk a lot about teaching younger students. Someday, I hope to offer curriculums for all ages of students. I don’t have that, yet. So, I offer this to those of you looking to teach a better history through all of your senses to your middle-school aged-child.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.