Japanese Relocation

Short Story Contest: Exploring Students’ Imagination Through Primary Sources

The picture above is from the Ansel Adams’ Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar collection at the Library of Congress from 1943. The bibliographic page describes the picture, “Man stands on top of bus loading luggage while a group of people gather to say farewell, guardhouse in the background.”

During World War II, between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese descent on the Pacific coast were forced into relocation and incarceration due to anti-Japanese sentiment after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. These internment camps were put in place after Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized Executive Order 9066, which was issued on February 19, 1942 and allowed regional military commanders to “prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for deportation of Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, and German Americans to internment camps.”



This classroom activity can be done with just about any primary source. The key is to find a picture or document that gives a bit of information, but not too much to cloud the imagination of your students. The fun in this activity really comes out when students are allowed to discover the primary source on their own and come to their own conclusions about what the picture is saying to them. However, for some pictures, students will need a small bit of context depending on when you are introducing this activity to them. More below.

This one is a little long, but completely worth it, so bear with me.


Classroom Activity

Give the students the primary source document that you want to use, without any context, and have them analyze the picture either on their own or in groups for 10-15 minutes. Have them write down things that stick out to them – anything from the setting and time of the picture to the individual objects and people. Encourage them to recognize the feeling behind the people’s faces, how it makes them feel, and what they think the picture is all about. There is no wrong answer here.

Note: Having a class discussion about what the students notice can also help spur ideas about the picture that other students might have missed or not recognized on their own.

After the students have analyzed the picture on their own, give them just a couple of clues about what the picture is about. Only a couple of keywords is all you need to tell them. For example, if you are going to use the picture from above, give them the keywords: ‘Japanese Internment Camp’ and ‘World War II’. Let them figure out the rest on their own. However, make them use the keywords in their story so that there is a common element among all of the stories.

This activity is best done during the span of a couple of days. So, after analyzing it on their own, have them do some research as homework. Don’t give them too much guidance except to say that they should be using the keywords in their research. They also don’t need to read a great amount about the topic. Even a little bit of historical context is enough to create a story.

As a homework assignment, have them create a short story from the picture and bring it to class. Allow them to write about anything that comes to their mind. They can write about someone in the picture, what it would be like if they were there, a fictional character in the same situation, etc. 

Limit their word count to one page, double spaced. No more, no less. One page is plenty of content for the student to show that they know about the subject and are able to create a story-line. Plus, making them write one full page and only one page will force them to be concise, informative, and creative writers, which is a valuable skill to hone for any college class. Also, have them print off one page with their name to turn into you, and one page without their name to share. Make sure that they include a title for their story as well. 

Here comes the fun part!

On the day their short story is due, collect all of the short stories without their names and hand them out randomly to the students. Have the students read the story they were given aloud, one by one, to the rest of the class. When everyone is finished, have students vote on their two favorite stories anonymously. On the next day of class, or later in the day, announce the winners and give them some sort of prize or extra credit.

Remember, this is meant to be a story – fiction with elements of historical context. Grade them on character, plot, creativity, setting, etc.


Key Questions

  • What are the people thinking in the picture?
  • What do you think they have been through to make them feel like they do?
  • What are their hobbies? What do they like to do for fun?
  • Imagine a day in the life of someone in the picture. Put yourself in their shoes. What is the first thing that comes to your mind?



  • Don’t let students go over the one-page count. Anything longer than that is too much to read, especially out loud. Remember, being able write concise and informative is one of the most important aspects of being a successful writer, whether it be academically or creatively.
  • Depending on the age of your class, you might want to consider integrating a primary source that speaks to something that they can relate to. For example, if you are teaching middle school students, consider using a source that has kids of their age in the picture, like this one or this one from the Dust Bowl Collection at the Library of Congress.
    • For high school focused pictures you could use this one, which shows a groups of high school football players in the locker room with the look of gloom from 1950, or this one, which shows a group of teenage girls adding graffiti to the bottom of an Elvis poster from 1956.
  • This activity can also be done with an enlistment poster, or really anything where your students can put themselves in the shoes of someone living from that time period.  
  • Giving vague keywords can be fun for creating insightful and imaginative stories as well. For example, if you are using the picture above, you could simply use the keywords, ‘internment’ and ‘war’. Or, give them a couple of context keywords like mentioned above, and then make them use other words in their short stories, for example, ‘home’ and ‘guards’.
  • If you want to do this for Elementary students, consider making your assignment requirements more lax since they may not have the writing skills as older students.
  • Want to have students pick their own primary source? Give them a topic and make them find their own! Then they create a short story from whichever they choose.


Grade Level Recommendation

  • High School, Middle School


Skills Used

  • Creativity
  • Writing, Research, and Literacy
  • Critical Thinking and In-depth Analysis
  • Reading and Vocabulary
  • Learning How to Handle Criticism
  • Improves Confidence


Helpful Links

1 thought on “Short Story Contest: Exploring Students’ Imagination Through Primary Sources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.