Behind the Wire Fence

In 1942, 11-year-old Bill Shishima and his family were forced from their home and sent to a prison camp in the Wyoming wilderness—simply because they were Japanese American. Through Bill’s eyes, this powerful article tells the story of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. (780L)

By Kristin Lewis
From the May / June 2017 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will learn important details about a terrible episode in American history and a boy caught up in it, and consider why the author wrote the article.

Lexile: 780L, 670L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50

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More About the Story


author's purpose, text features, vocabulary, close reading, key details, author’s craft, text evidence, critical thinking, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors


"Behind the Wire Fence" provides information about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and tells the story of one boy who experienced it. It also reveals conditions and attitudes that led to wrongful imprisonment of an ethnic group.


The text is mainly chronological but begins with a flash-forward. It includes both narrative and informational passages.


The article includes challenging academic and domain-specific vocabulary (e.g. immigrants, citizen, frigid). It also uses rhetorical questions.

Knowledge Demands 

Prior knowledge of World War II and U.S. geography will aid comprehension.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary; Watch a Video (40 minutes)

  • Ask students to look at the photos and read the headline on pages 4-5. Invite them to describe what they see in the large photo and what feelings it creates.
  • Read the subhead together. If students are confused or upset, acknowledge that this is a disturbing story, but that they will find out why it’s important for them to know about.
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 5.

Watch a Video (15 minutes)

Preview Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  • Show our vocabulary slideshow to preview challenging words from the article. Follow up with the vocabulary activity, now or after reading.
  • Highlighted words: internment, immigrants, citizen, suspicion, descent, rustic, frigid, remote, barrack

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Ask students to read the article and answer the close-reading questions in small groups. Discuss the critical-thinking questions as a class.

Close-Reading Questions

  • What is surprising about the first sentence of the article? Why do you think the author started this way? (author’s purpose) The first sentence is surprising because it says an 11-year-old was in prison; children that age are usually not in prison. She probably started this way to make readers wonder what Bill is doing there.
  • Reread the section “Attacked!” What major event happened on December 7, 1941? How did Bill react? (key detail) Japanese planes bombed ships and planes at U.S. bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. More than 2,300 Americans were killed and 1,200 were wounded. Bill was horrified and angry.
  • Reread paragraphs 3 and 4 in “Loyal Americans.” Why does the author include questions in paragraph 4? Who might be asking them? (author’s craft) The author includes these questions to show what suspicious and fearful people were asking about Japanese Americans.
  • What did President Roosevelt do in February 1942? How does it relate to this sentence on page 6: “What Bill couldn’t imagine was how it would change everything for him and his family”? (key detail) President Roosevelt signed an order that gave the military the power to move all Japanese Americans from the West Coast into prison camps. Bill never imagined that the bombing of Pearl Harbor would mean he and his family would be forced from their home into a prison camp.
  • In the section “Crowded, Smelly, Dusty,” why does the author include the detail about Bill looking at the movie theater? (author’s purpose) The detail shows how Bill suddenly went from being free to being a prisoner, and how difficult the situation was.
  • What hardships did Bill and others face at Heart Mountain Relocation Center? (key details) Bill and his family were crowded into a tiny room in cold barracks. Bill got dangerously sick. Thousands of people were packed into dirty housing in a lonely wilderness. Bill had no privacy, even for showering and using the bathroom.
  • In “The End of the War,” what had Japanese Americans lost once they were allowed to go free? (text evidence) They had lost their homes and businesses. They had also lost their trust in the government to treat them fairly and keep them safe.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • According to the article, why does Bill feel a responsibility to tell the story of what happened during World War II? What does this suggest about why the author wrote this article? (author’s purpose) Bill wants everyone in America to know what happened “so it never happens again.” This suggests that the author wrote the article so readers will be informed about this terrible part of American history and not let anything similar happen again.
  • What role did people’s fears play in the way Japanese Americans were treated during World War II? Was this fair? Explain your answer. (critical thinking) Because Japan had attacked the United States, some people feared that Japanese Americans would take actions to hurt the U.S., even though many, like Bill, were citizens and “thought of themselves as Americans.” There was no evidence that Japanese Americans were anything but loyal; the caption on page 9 even says that thousands of Japanese Americans fought for America in World War II. But the government acted on fear and prejudice to imprison innocent people like Bill. This was not fair.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Author's Purpose

  • Distribute our author’s purpose activity and have students complete it in small groups.
  • Invite students to respond to the writing prompt on page 9. We will forward letters we receive from students to Bill Shishima, making this a truly authentic writing activity!
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Distribute the lower-Lexile version of this article. Read it aloud as students follow along. Pause at the end of each section and prompt students to summarize what happened in the section.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to choose five details from the article that they find important or interesting. For each one, have them write a brief explanation of why they think the author included it. What does it add to the story?

For ELL Students

Prepare students to read by walking them through the photos in the feature as you retell simply what the article is about. Then read the lower-Lexile version of the article together as a group.

Literary Connection!

Pair this article with Dash by Kirby Larson. Have students compare Bill’s experiences with those of Mitsi, the main character in the book, who is also relocated to a Japanese American internment camp.