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We All Wear the Mask: Connecting Poetry to Japanese Internment Camp Survivor Stories
By Sarah Kuhlman



To review standards, see the California Department of Education’s website: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ .

RS3.5b: Contrast the major periods, themes, styles and trends and describe how works by members of different cultures relate to one another in each period.

En route to RS 3.6c: Evaluate the philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences of the historical period that shaped the characters, plots, and settings.

TIME REQUIRED: This lesson is designed for a 90-minute English 11 class during the Spring semester/term. The lesson can be split into two 45-minute lessons for a teacher on a traditional schedule.



  • Students will be able to explain and evaluate the connections between two cultures/time periods.
  • *Students will be able to evaluate and discuss many of the philosophical and political influences in America during the late 1800’s as well as the World War II era (1939-1945) and how those influences affected American citizens.



  • What kinds of "masks" have people had to wear throughout American history?
  • How does American society encourage or create the wearing of "masks"?


  • Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet and writer who lived during the late 1800's. His parents were former slaves, and the impact of slavery, and post-slavery America, influenced much of his writing. Dunbar is known for both his dialect and standard English poetry. Though Dunbar was a gifted well-noticed poet, he had trouble finding work and publishers due to society's inability to accept people of color. Some of his poetry celebrates his culture, while other poems, such as "We Wear the Mask" discuss the frustration felt by many African-Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • Reiko Nagumo is a survivor of the Japanese Internment Camps created during America's involvement of World War II. She and her family lived in the Los Angeles area until they were relocated to a camp. In her interview, she discusses the impact the camps had on her, her family and the Japanese-American community as a whole. While, on the surface, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Reiko Nagumo seem to have little in common, their reflections on, and experiences with, American society are strikingly similar. These reflections are what we will be studying within this lesson.


Start with a quickwrite. Place the following question on the board (overhead, Power Point, whatever you use): What "masks" do you wear in your life? Are there ever times when you feel you have to act one way, but feel the exact opposite way inside? Explain your answer in a short paragraph and use details to support your claims.


  • Start the class by having the students respond to the quickwrite stated in the Anticipatory Set (give about 10 minutes to write answers). As a class, discuss the students' answers for 5-10 minutes depending on how much the students have to say.
  • Next, review the markers of the Realist and Modernist movements in American literature. Dunbar's poem straddles the two movements, and later on, the students will be discussing how this poem fits into either movement.
  • Hand out the poem "We Wear the Mask." Ask a volunteer to read it out loud, then have the students read it one more time to themselvs silently.
  • When students are finshed reading, discuss the poem as a class. Start by asking questions about the tone of the poem (students should see that the tone is frustrated, impatient, condescending, resigned, etc;). Also discuss motifs (recurring topics, ideas, or symbols) found in this poem.
  • Next, ask students what they know about the Japanese Internment Camps (who created them, why they were created, how long they exsited, where they were, etc).
  • Show a clip from the DVD "Here, In America?". Start the DVD from the beginning, and play until 5:27. Have students take notes as they watch the clip. Discuss the clip as a class and answer any questions.
  • Remind students of the quickwrite they completed earlier in the lesson. Show Reiko Nagumo's clip 4. Students should take notes on her interview, noting what masks she felt she needed to wear. Discuss the clip as a class.

 As a homework assignment, students should write a short, one-page essay on the following prompt:

" 'Mask-wearing,' or pretending to be something you're not, is a necessity for survival in modern-day America. For example, American society expects actors to be flighty and eccentric, CEOs of large corporations to be ruthless, athletes to be egocentric. The actors, CEOs and athletes who fit these descriptions are the ones who are most successful.  The only way to succeed is to play the part that other people expect of you." (W.L. Redde)

In a short, one-page essay, explain Redde's argument and the extent to which you agree or disagree. Be sure to use details from literature and your personal observations and experiences to support your claims.

To differentiate this lesson, you could direct the discussions with a think-pair-share, or answer the study questions together as a class, rather than individually. EL students will probably need more time to read the poem and may need some vocabulary instruction.

To evaluate and assess this lesson, collect the study questions that the students used to help their understanding of the poem and the interview. The class discussions are also a form of checking for understanding.

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