Lesson Plan: Lost Childhoods: Exploring the Consequences of Collective Violence (Part 3)

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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.

Note: POV documentaries can be recorded off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast. In addition, POV offers a lending library of DVDs that you can borrow anytime during the school year -- FOR FREE!

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.


  • To analyze the connection between history and identity;
  • To explore what is gained and what is lost in learning a new culture;
  • To develop a working definition of the word refugee.

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


Lost Boys of Sudan follows Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, two boys from the East African nation of Sudan, during their first year in the United States. When the film opens, the boys have been living in a refugee camp in Kenya for ten years. As young children, they fled the country after losing their families in a long, bitter civil war. Before their departure for the U.S., the elders in the camp try to instill in them the importance of returning to Sudan one day to help their people. Immediately after their arrival in Houston, Texas on September 1, 2001, the boys begin to face the challenges of life in a place very different from any they have known.

The "lost boys" are refugees. Dictionaries usually define a refugee as someone who flees his or her homeland in fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions. How is a refugee like an immigrant? What difference seems most striking? Ask students to list some of the challenges a young refugee might face in the United States, particularly in a large city like Houston.

To develop geographic understandings and deepen an appreciation of the distances the "lost boys" have traveled, locate Sudan on a map of the world. Then ask students to trace the boys' journey step-by-step as they watch each part of the film.


After watching Lost Boys of Sudan, allow time and space for students to react personally to the film. For some, it may raise painful memories. Invite students to use their journals or notebooks to answer one or more of the following questions:

  • What do you remember best about the film? What individuals, images, or events stand out?
  • What details or incidents in the film helped you understand the boys' identity, history, and experience?
  • Before you saw the film, what challenges did you think the boys might face? What challenges did they actually encounter? Which proved to be the most difficult to overcome?
  • What values, character traits, and attitudes seemed to help the boys succeed in their new lives? What seemed to hinder their efforts to succeed?

Encourage 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 do we learn about another culture? How do we learn to see the world through someone else's eyes? According to many psychologists, it is natural to view others as representatives of groups even though we see ourselves as unique individuals. Throughout the film, the boys make judgments about life in the United States and Americans based on limited knowledge. The Americans who have dealings with the boys make similar judgments. To what extent are those judgments stereotypes? A stereotype is a label or judgment about an individual based on the characteristics of a group. Stereotypes tend to divide a society into us and them. Ask students to identify at least two stereotypes in the film. What does the film suggest about what prompts someone to alter a stereotype? What helps someone see others as individuals rather than as members of a group?


  1. "Who am I?" is a question that each of us asks. In answering, we define our identity. Divide the class into small groups and ask each to create two identity charts for Peter or Santino-one before he arrived in the U.S. and one a year later. The diagram below is an example of an identity chart. Individuals fill it in with the words they call themselves as well as the labels society gives them. Have students list both sets of words. Then ask them to circle the words the boys use to describe themselves and underline the labels others attach to each boy.
    sample identity chart for lesson plan

    Sample identity chart. Page 11 of downloadable lesson plan PDF

    Most people define their identity by using categories important to their culture. They include not only "race," gender, age, and physical characteristics but also ties to a particular religion, group, and nation. How do the labels others attach to Peter or Santino influence the way he sees himself? The choices he makes? How do past experiences shape his identity?

    Have students compare and contrast their two identity charts. How do students account for the changes in each boy's identity? Invite groups to use their identity charts to decide which stanzas in Ha Jin's poem (Reproducible 1 in the PDF file) best describes the way Peter and Santino have defined their identity at various times over the year of filming.

  2. Replay the first few minutes of the film (1:01:13-1:02:49) and discuss the paintings featured in this part of the film. The narrator is Santino. What do the drawings add to our understanding of the story he tells? How did the artist use color to underscore the mood at various points in that story? Invite students to use art-music, poetry, storytelling or drawings-to tell one boy's story from his arrival in the United States to the end of the film. Divide the class into small groups. Ask half of the groups to focus on Santino's story and the other half on Peter's story. Remind each group to give its story an appropriate title. Encourage each group to share its work with the class in much the way Santino shares the drawings in the film. To what extent are the two stories similar? How do students account for differences?

    Ask students to imagine a meeting between Peter and Santino ten years from today-perhaps at a reunion like the one shown in the film. Have each group use art to describe the meeting and then share its work with the class.

  3. Discussions about the status of refugees today may be a sensitive topic in some schools. If appropriate, ask students what challenges young refugees face in the world today. Encourage students to draw not only on the film but also on their own experiences or those of people they know or have read about. To gain further insights into the difficulties refugees face, share with the class two stanzas from an anonymous poem (see below). The author was one of 10,000 children sent to England as part of an effort to save young Jews from Nazi-controlled nations just before World War II began in 1939.

    Write the two stanzas on the chalkboard and then invite a volunteer to read them aloud. Ask students to identify the key word or words in each stanza. What does it mean to "survive alone"? To see oneself as "a ghost adrift without a country"? Use the key words to discuss the title of the poem. What does it mean to be "cast out"? In what sense is the author "lost"? Have students compare and contrast the poet's experiences with those of Peter and Santino. What similarities do you notice? How do you account for differences?

Cast Out

Sometimes I think it would have been

easier for me to die

together with my parents than

to have been surrendered by

them to survive alone...


Sometimes I feel I am a ghost

adrift without identity

what as a child I valued most

forever has escaped from me

I have been cast out and am lost.

From We Came as Children: A Collective Autobiography. Edited by Karen Gershon. Harcourt.


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?


  2. Reread "The Past" by Ha Jin (Reproducible 1 in the PDF file). 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.