Lesson Plan: Lost Childhoods: Exploring the Consequences of Collective Violence (Part 1)

Download the Lesson Plan

Jump to:


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 learn about history and memory through the experiences of one woman;
  • To trace the impact of one woman's experiences on her identity;
  • To trace a journey of self-discovery to gain insights into decisions about judgment;
  • To explore what it means to recover a lost identity.

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 first part of film (1:00:00-1:24:43). It describes Denese Becker's early life and her first trip to Guatemala since her adoption by an Iowa family. The third Teaching Strategy can provide a basis for a discussion of the clip and ideas for using it to deepen an understanding of what it means to witness a crime.

Introducing the Film

Discovering Dominga describes Denese Becker's efforts to recover her lost identity. It is a journey that leads to the exposure of a genocidal crime and a new quest-this time for justice for her parents and other victims of government-sponsored massacres. In 1982, Denese Becker was a nine-year-old Mayan Indian girl named Dominga Sic Ruiz. She lived with her parents and baby sister in Rio Negro, a remote village in the mountains of Guatemala, a country in Central America. That year, soldiers and paramilitary patrollers murdered her parents and 200 other villagers for resisting relocation. The government wanted to tear down the village to make room for a new dam. Similar massacres took place in 440 villages nationwide. A United Nations' Truth Commission later labeled the killings a "genocide." According to a 1948 convention on genocide, a genocide is an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. In this case, the army wanted to destroy the Maya people.

Young Dominga managed to escape into the mountains. Months later, her surviving relatives brought to safety in a nearby town. At the age of eleven, Dominga became Denese, after a couple from Iowa adopted her. She had not only a new name but also a new identity and a new life. Yet her nightmares and scattered memories of violence suggest that the past continued to haunt her despite her efforts to focus on the present.

Before showing the film, orient students by helping them locate both Guatemala and Iowa on a map of the Americas. As students watch Discovering Dominga, ask them to pay attention to the details of each step of Denese's journey of discovery: (1) her first trip to Guatemala as an adult; (2) her return to Rio Negro for the commemoration of the massacre during which her mother was killed; (3) Denese's decision to testify in the genocide case; (4) Denese's return to Guatemala for the exhumation of the bodies of her father and two other men in the village; (5) Denese's return to Iowa. Encourage students to jot down their impressions as they watch her journey unfold.


Discovering Dominga is a powerful film that raises troubling and often painful questions about memory and identity. Allow time and space for students to react personally to the film by discussing it with a partner or writing in journals or notebooks. When students are ready, have them 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 Denese's experiences?
  • What did Denese, her husband Blane, and her cousin Mary learn on their journeys to Guatemala? How did their new knowledge affect their lives?

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?

Teaching Strategies

  1. Since she was eleven years old, Denese Becker has coped with a painful past by trying to ignore her history. Over the years, she has forgotten her native language, Mayan customs, even the details of her parents' death. Yet she is haunted by nightmares that seem too terrible to have really happened. As an adult, she sets out to confront her history. It is a difficult, often frightening, journey. Working in small groups, students might be asked to trace Denese's journey by creating a chart. For each part of her journey, have students identify the people who helped her; what she learned; her responses to the information she gathered; and the choices she made.

    Ask students to reread "The Past" by Ha Jin (Download the PDF.). Then have them use their charts to decide which stanzas best describes Denese's relationship to the past at the beginning of the film, after her first trip to Guatemala, and at the end of the film.

  2. Four months after Denese and her husband Blane return from Guatemala, they spoke at a church in Algona, Iowa. Ask students what Blane shared at that meeting. How do they account for his anger? What does the audience seem to learn from his talk? How important is that learning? Is it enough to know that a wrong has been done?
  • Share with students the following lines from a poem by Tich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who was born in Vietnam. He now lives in exile in a small community in France where he teaches, writes, and works to help refugees.

    Flarebombs bloom on the dark sky.
    A child clasps his hands and laughs.
    I hear the sound of guns,
    and the laughter dies.

    But the witness

    (From The Witness Remains, Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thick Nhat Hanh. Parallax Press, 1999, 26.)

    Copy the poem onto large sheets of paper. Divide the class into small groups and give each one large sheet. Ask groups to engage in a silent conversation by writing their explanation of how the poet defines the word witness. How do students define the word? Is a witness someone who knows what happened? Or is a witness someone who not only knows what happened but also testifies to what happened? What is the difference between the two definitions? How important is that difference? In what sense was Denese's husband a witness? To what extent was Denese's cousin Mary a witness? How does the term apply to Denese? Give students 10 minutes to complete their work and encourage them to respond in writing to one another's comments. Then invite students to walk around the classroom silently reading the comments of other groups.

    When students have completed their rounds, discuss as a class what the poet mean when he writes that "the witness remains." In what sense does a witness remain? For what purpose? To what extent are those who tell Denese's story witnesses?



  • 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?
  2. 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.