Lesson Plan: Lost Childhoods: Exploring the Consequences of Collective Violence (Part 2)

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Three films that are part of the POV series on PBS are featured in this resource. All three document childhoods lost as a result of war, collective violence, or oppression. Through these stories, we encounter disturbing and painful histories that are too often overlooked in history textbooks. These are not stories about people in distant places but about individuals who are a part of our own country. They live in our neighborhoods and contribute to our communities in large ways and small.

For over 25 years, Facing History and Ourselves has been bringing the stories of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides to classrooms across the nation and around the world. Although we know from experience that those stories are difficult to hear, they can literally change the way students and teachers view history and themselves. The stories told in Lost Boys of Sudan, Discovering Dominga and The Flute Player reveal that the devastating events we read about in the newspaper or watch on TV did not happen to faceless numbers. They happened to real people, people with names and faces and families and dreams. They happened to people just like us.

These thought-provoking films teach empathy and compassion. They help us understand the difference between coping with memories of a painful history and actually confronting the past. Each also offers valuable insights into the meaning of such terms as resilience and courage. And each reveals, in the words of a refugee from Sierra Leone, "the world is a spider web. A break in the web affects the whole." Mending the web-preventing future genocides and acts of collective violence-is central not only for the survivors but also for the world as a whole.

The Documentaries

All three documentaries focus on individuals who were orphaned as a result of a war in their homeland. Each came to the United States as a refugee. Refugees are persons who flee to a different country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, social group, or political views.

Lost Boys of Sudan

For the last twenty years, a civil war has raged in the East African nation of Sudan, killing an estimated two million people and displacing more than four million. The Dinka tribe has been the hardest hit. Lost Boys of Sudan follows two young Dinka refugees, Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, through their first year in the United States. As small boys, Peter and Santino lost their families in the war and were forced to flee their homes. Along with 20,000 other orphans, they wandered across the desert seeking safety. After a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp, nearly 4000 came to the United States as part of a resettlement effort. The documentary follows Peter and Santino as they, along with a few other boys, set out to make new lives for themselves in Houston, Texas.

Discovering Dominga
A young Iowa mother discovers she is a survivor of one of the most horrific episodes in Guatemala's 36-year civil war. In 1982, Denese Becker was a nine-year-old Mayan Indian girl named Dominga Sic Ruiz. That year, soldiers killed her parents and more than 200 other residents of Rio Negro, who resisted relocation to make way for a dam. A United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission later termed the massacres at Rio Negro and about 440 other villages "genocide." Genocide is an attempt to murder an entire people and remove all traces of their culture. Dominga escaped to the mountains. Months later, surviving relatives brought her to safety in a nearby town, and at the age of eleven, she was adopted by a couple from Iowa. Years later, haunted by nightmares and scattered memories, she returned to Guatemala with her husband and a cousin. Their journey to uncover the truth about her past changed her life. She has become a witness in a landmark human rights case, which seeks to prosecute the military commanders responsible for the genocide.

The Flute Player
In 1975, when Arn Chorn-Pond was just nine years old, the Khmer Rouge, a Communist guerrilla army, took over Cambodia and began to reconstruct Cambodian society by "cleansing" the population of ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities. The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, also targeted people who were educated, lived in cities, or belonged to the middle class. In all, nearly two million people-one fifth of the nation-were slaughtered. Among them were members of Arn Chorn-Pond's family. He survived in a forced labor camp. Later, he was forced to serve as a child-soldier in a war with Vietnam. In 1979, he managed to escape to Thailand, where he met the American minister who adopted him. After twenty years of living in the United States, he returned to Cambodia to revive its musical heritage.

Organization of the Teacher's Resource

This resource is divided into four lessons. The first uses a poem to introduce an idea central to all three documentaries. Each of the remaining lessons highlights a single film. The four lessons can be used individually or in any combination depending on course objectives and student interest. Suggestions are provided for adapting the three film-based lessons to the needs of classes unable to view the documentaries in their entirety. Suggestions for evaluation and a correlation to curriculum standards follow the lessons.

Subjects: world history, language arts, sociology, psychology

Grade Level: 9-12



  • To understand how one individual has struggled to come to terms with his history;
  • To explore the relationship between a nation's cultural heritage and its identity;
  • To consider how one can learn from the past to build a safer future.

Correlation to Standards: See Standards.

Duration: 3 class periods (includes time to watch the entire film in class)

Options: For classes unable to view the entire film, the lesson may be adapted by sharing a brief synopsis of the documentary with students and its key concepts (see "Introducing the Film") and then show the part of the film that focuses on a meeting between Arn Chorn-Pond and a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge (1:38:53-1:44.21). The first Teaching Strategy can provide a basis for a discussion of the clip and ideas for using it to deepen an understanding of what it takes to rebuild one's life after a tragedy.

Introducing the Film

Explain to students that Arn Chorn-Pond is a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. In 1975, a Communist named Pol Pot and his guerilla army, the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the government of Cambodia and systematically killed about two million people as part of their efforts to rebuild the nation as a Communist state. They targeted artists, minorities, urban dwellers, people with some education, and the middle class. As the terror spread, towns were emptied, schools closed, and temples destroyed. At the age of nine, young Arn became one of thousands of orphans held in forced labor camps.

In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge responded to the attack by arming orphans like Arn and sending them into battle. Most of the children did not survive. Arn not only survived but also found a way to escape in the confusion of battle. He eventually reached a refugee camp in Thailand. There, Peter Pond, a Lutheran minister and an American aid worker, befriended and later adopted him along with several other orphans. Help students place the story in a geographical perspective, by asking them to locate Cambodia on a world map and then trace Chorn-Pond's journey from Cambodia to Thailand to the United States on a world map.

As the film opens, Chorn-Pond is seen playing the flute. In a voice-over, he recalls how important the flute was to his survival. Invite students to use their journals to record how they view the role of music in a society. How important is it to personal identity? How important is it to national identity?


After watching The Flute Player, invite students to use their journals or notebooks to answer one or more of the following questions:

  • What incidents in the film helped you understand what motivates Arn Chorn Pond's work?
  • What do you remember best about the film? What individuals, images, or events stand out?
  • What role does music play in Arn's journey?

Ask students to share their observations with a partner. Was everyone struck by the same images and events? The same stories? How do you account for differences?

How is traditional music used in this documentary to establish mood? To introduce the audience to Arn Chorn Pond and other musicians? How would the documentary be different if the music were omitted? What does it add to the story? Why do you think the Khmer Rouge targeted musicians and other artists in their attempt to rebuild Cambodian society?

Teaching Strategies

  1. There are scenes in every film that offer viewers insights into a character
    or an event. Ask students to read aloud one such scene from The Flute Player (Reproducible 2- Download PDF). Have partners take turns reading Arn's words and those of the former child soldier. What does the meeting seem to mean to Chorn Pond? To the former soldier? How does the scene help us understand what Chorn Pond means when he tells people, "Somehow sharing the pain has been the way in which I could find myself again and commit myself to the world"? If time permits, invite students to work in small groups to identity other scenes that offer insights into Chorn Pond, the various people he encounters, or the music. Ask each group to explain the significance of the scene they chose to the class as a whole.
  2. Judith Thompson is an activist who with Arn Chorn-Pond founded Children of War, a group that helped young refugees heal by confronting their past. She believes that one path to healing after the kind of pain and terror Chorn-Pond experienced is by telling the story. In the film, he is shown doing so in a variety of settings. What does he learn from these experiences? Thompson also believes that it is important to find an ally on the path of healing. She told an interviewer, "It really doesn't matter who it is, as long as there is sense of connectedness to a person or people over time who are walking that path with you." Who are the people who have helped Arn Chorn-Pond "walk the path"? Thompson believes that for some people there is another element in healing that she calls the "survivor mission." These people use the experience of pain and suffering to reach and teach others. She describes Arn Chorn-Pond as such a person. Ask students to find examples of that mission in the film. How does Chorn-Pond describe that mission? How does it shape his identity? How does it help him deal with his pain?



  • To explore the relationship between history and identity;
  • To analyze a poem;
  • To relate the ideas in a poem to personal experiences.

Correlation to Standards: See Standards.

Duration: 1 class period or less

Introducing the Poem

Reproducible 1:

Download the poem as a PDF file

What is the relationship between our past and the way we live our lives today? How does our history shape our identity -- our sense of who we are and what we may become?

Xuefei Jin was born in 1956 in a part of China then known as Manchuria. He came to the United States in 1985 as a student and remained as a refugee from the oppressive government of the People's Republic of China. Although English is his second language, he is an award-winning novelist and poet who writes only in English under the pen name Ha Jin. In a poem entitled "The Past," Ha Jin reflects on the relationship between past and present, history and identity:

Teaching Strategies

  1. Give students a copy of the poem (Reproducible 1). Ask volunteers to read aloud the poem stanza by stanza and then discuss the meaning of each. What does it mean to view the past "as a shadow"? How does one "wall" the past "into a garden"? How does one set up the past as a "harbor"? What might prompt someone to "drop the past like trash"? To regard it as a "shroud" or burial garment?
  2. After students have analyzed each stanza, discuss the poem as a whole. How does the poet view his own relationship with the past? What does he mean when he writes, "the past cannot be thrown off and its weight must be borne, or I will become another man"? How does he seem challenge that idea in his poem? Why do you think he decides to "stitch" his past into "good shoes," "shoes that fit my feet"? Invite students to describe their relationship with their past in a journal or notebook. Encourage them to edit, revise, or expand that description as they learn about the relationships other individuals have had with their past.


The following suggestions may be used to evaluate understanding of a single lesson or two or more of the lessons provided.

  1. A theme is the main idea of a work-it is often repeated in different forms throughout a poem, a book, a piece of music, or a film. In each of the three documentaries, it is reflected in the title of the work. Write a paragraph explaining the title of the documentary you watched.
    Students should answer the following questions in their paragraphs:
  • The Lost Boys of Sudan: In what sense are the boys "lost"? What have they lost?
  • Discovering Dominga: In what sense does Denese "discover Dominga"? How does her discovery change the course of her life?
  • The Flute Player: How has being a flute player shaped Arn Chorn Pond's identity? How does it connect him to the family he lost in the Cambodian Genocide? How does it connect him to the years he spent in forced camps and the army? How does it connect him to the next generation of Cambodians?
  • Reread "The Past" by Ha Jin (Reproducible 1). Write a three-paragraph essay that compares and contrasts the relationships that the "lost boys," Denese Becker and Arn Chorn Pond have with their past.The essays should:
  • Identify how each of the three views the past
  • Identify similarities among the three views
  • Identify differences among the three views
  • Relate the three views to the poet's view and their own

Correlation to
MCREL's Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks


1 refers to Past and Present
2 refers to Lost Boys of Sudan
3 refers to Discovering Dominga
4 refers to The Flute Player

Historical Understanding Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns

1. Knows how to identify the temporal structure and connections disclosed in historical narratives. 2, 3, 4

2. Understands historical continuity and change related to a particular development or theme. 2, 3, 4

Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

1. Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history 2, 3, 4

3. Analyzes the effects that specific "chance events" had on history 2, 3, 4

4. Analyzes the effects specific decisions had on history 3, 4

5. Understands that the consequences of human intentions are influenced by the means of carrying them out 3, 4

10. Understands how the past affects our private lives and society in general 1, 2, 3, 4

11. Knows how to perceive past events with historical empathy 1, 2, 3, 4

Behavioral Studies Level IV (Grades 9-12)

Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity, and behavior

1. Understands that cultural beliefs strongly influence the values and behavior of the people who grow up in the culture, often without their being fully aware of it, and that people have different responses to these influences 2, 3, 4

6. Understands that heredity, culture, and personal experience interact in shaping human behavior, and that the relative importance of these influences is not clear in most circumstances 2, 3, 4

7. Understands that family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, institutional affiliations, socioeconomic status, and other group and cultural influences contribute to the shaping of a person's identity 2, 3, 4

Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions

1. Understands that conflict between people or groups may arise from competition over resources, power, and/or status 2, 3, 4

3. Understands that intergroup conflict does not necessarily end when one segment of society gets a decision in its favor because the "losers" then may work even harder to reverse, modify, or circumvent the change 3, 4

10. Understands that the decisions of one generation both provide and limit the range of possibilities open to the next generation 2, 3, 4

11. Understands that mass media, migrations, and conquest affect social change by exposing one culture to another, and that extensive borrowing among cultures has led to the virtual disappearance of some cultures but only modest changes in others 2, 3, 4

Language Arts Level IV (Grades 9-12)


Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

11. Writes reflective composition 1, 2, 3, 4

12. Writes in response to literature 1, 2, 3, 4


Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.

8. Understands how themes are used across literary works and genres 1, 2, 3, 4

9. Makes connections between his or her own life and the characters, events, motives, causes of conflict in text 1

10. Relates personal response or interpretation of the text with that seemingly intended by the author. 1

11. Uses language and perspectives of literary criticism to evaluate literary works 1

Listening and Speaking

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes

1. Uses criteria to evaluate own and others' effectiveness in group discussions and formal presentations 1, 2, 3, 4

2. Ask questions as a way to broaden and enrich classroom discussions 1, 2, 3, 4

3. Uses a variety of strategies to enhance listening comprehension 2, 3, 4

5. Makes formal presentations to the class 2, 3, 4

9. Uses a variety of verbal and nonverbal techniques for presentations 2, 3, 4

9. Understands influences on language use 1, 2, 3, 4

10. Understands how style and content of spoken language varies in different contexts 1, 2, 3, 4

11. Understands reasons for own reactions to spoken texts 1, 2, 3, 4


Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

1. Uses a range of strategies to interpret visual media 2, 3, 4

2. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate informational media 2, 3, 4

4. Uses strategies to analyze stereotypes in visual media 2

10. Understands how images and sound convey messages in visual media 2, 3, 4

12. Understands the effects of visual media on audiences 2, 3, 4

Source: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning


Facing History and Ourselves would like to thank Kaethe Weingarten, associate clinical professor in Harvard University's Department of Psychiatry and the author of Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day: How We are Harmed, How We Can Heal. We appreciated her thoughtful insights into the films and her ideas for making the films relevant to students.

Copyright ©2003 by Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc.