Saturday, July 18, 2015

History Lessons my Students Taught Me

"The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. That’s equal to a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years. How does a country recover?"


When I accepted the job in Laos, I knew very little about the country. In high school and college I became familiar with Vietnam by studying the war and the protests and politics surrounding it; I volunteered with a non-profit that had schools in Cambodia as a result of my interest in helping the country recover from the Khmer Rouge; and as soon as I began daydreaming about travel, Thailand was on my list. But Laos? I never heard anything about it.

And that, frankly, is appalling, considering America's secret war there. When I first began researching Laos in Albania, I was in utter shock that I had no idea what had happened there, and what is still happening there as a result. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita, in the entire world- and they were bombed relentlessly despite being declared a neutral country. They were bombed as a convenience, as a strategy, as a simple calculation of efficiency, as an inadvertent strike against Vietnam. People lived in fear for nine long years as death rained down on them for no reason other than the unfortunate geographical positioning of their country and intervention from outside forces. They farmed at night, for fear of being targeted. They lived in caves, abandoned their homes, frantically moving trying to keep out of reach of the bombs.

"For survivors of the war, such as 84-year-old Kampuang Dalaseng, memories are still vivid. “I hate Americans to this date. They bombed, burned and destroyed everything. If their president was here, I would slap him in the face.” A former professor of French, he was forced to flee the bombardments, abandoning the village of Bat Ngot Ngum in 1964 and taking shelter in a forest cave with his family and fellow villagers.
Whenever the American bombers targeted the area the group would move, in an endless cat-and-mouse game. Exhausted and demoralised, the family fled to Vietnam in 1969, embarking on a month-long walk only four days after Dalaseng’s wife had given birth to her second baby. The landscape around them was apocalyptic. “The bombs had destroyed everything,” he remembered. “There were no more animals or villages.” source

Laos still lives with the damage of these bombs every single day, as they continue to maim and kill. The U.S. has donated about $82 million to clean up the area. Do you think that sounds like a lot of money? No. No it isn't. This is a lot of money- spending between $13 and $18 million PER DAY to drop bombs on Laos for nine years. That is a lot of money. $82 million looks like a cheap band-aid in the face of those numbers. It is a token. It is a shame.

I undoubtedly have an ulterior motive, a definite agenda, as an English teacher. Through books, news articles, poems, watching documentaries, writing, and any number of other creative endeavors in the classroom, my highest goal is that my students become critical, compassionate thinkers who look for ways to improve themselves and others. This is far more important to me than the grades they get, how quickly they can recall four examples of adverbs of frequency, or how well they can memorize the unreasonably insane spelling rules of the English language.

This school year, my year 10 students all told me they wanted to volunteer in their communities. I try my best to foster a student led classroom- basically the students express interest in certain topics and activities and I find a way to tie it back into learning English in some way. This is how we found ourselves poring over Emily Dickinson poems and analyzing Sylvia Plath's emotions in our poetry unit. For the volunteer project, I wanted to help them find a cause they would enjoy researching and supporting, so we kicked around some ideas together. Nothing was really drawing them in. The previous school year, when I thought I would be leaving, I had found a job posting for the organization Lone Buffalo, a free English after school program in Phonsavan, the most bombed area of Laos. I suggested Lone Buffalo to them and they were instantly drawn in to the school- kids their age, playing football, learning English, and doing it all in a rural, remote part of their country which only 2 of my students had ever visited.

But they were particularly inspired by the story of Manophet, the Lone Buffalo himself, the man who spent his days translating for UXO Lao, which clears the endless bombs from America's secret war. His evenings were dedicated to the local children, teaching them English and coaching them in football. It was his dream that they would compete at the Gothia Cup in Sweden, and his students and athletes were set to go. But Manophet would not be going to Sweden. He died unexpectedly of a blood clot in his brain. His friends stepped in and created the Lone Buffalo Foundation to take the boys to Sweden, and from there they determined that Manophet's legacy had to live on. They set up a school, which is now thriving in Phonsavan. I reached out to the director, Mark, who was in town promoting the school's UXO awareness film "Don't Touch!" at the Vientiane Film Festival. He was supportive and interested and with his permission my students and I moved forward with our project- to raise enough money to sponsor one class for one full year.

We started with research. We read articles, we studied about America's secret war, we had lots of discussions and wrote about our plans, and I showed them this video.




This is a picture of my students as they watched that video, as well as another video showing an animation of just how many bombs America dropped on their country over almost a decade. Look at their faces. I can't tell you how hard it was for me to stand in there with them as they watched this- some of them tearing up, the boys furrowing their brows and blinking hard, the girls covering their mouths. They watched both the video and the animation twice through and the room was silent.


As soon as our research was over, we began talking about writing presentations that would inspire others to donate. We talked about being fact based, passionate, approachable, and trustworthy. We designated partners to go into specific classrooms, we had class treasurers and accountants, and we maintained journals about the experience. The students diligently collected money and spread the word for three months.

One of the most touching moments came from my Year 9 students. Earlier that year, I had helped them communicate respectfully, via persuasive, critical letters, with the administration of the school as to how their class business funds were being managed. As a result they had a meeting with the secondary department head, they were given new directions, and allowed greater autonomy over their earnings. They learned how to advocate effectively for themselves, even when it came to standing up to authority (something normally not done in Lao culture, especially for students interacting with teachers). When Year 9 learned of Year 10's fundraising, they told me in class one day that they wished to donate all of their funds to our project.

Thanks to a supportive and involved administration, active participation from all staff, the organization, diligence, and commitment of the students, and the assistance of Lone Buffalo Foundation in visiting our school, we met our goal. The Year 10 students were able to fully sponsor one class for a school year, and next year they will travel to Phonsavan to volunteer with those students, to learn more about the area, and to make connections with children leading very different lives.

I am constantly humbled by how my experiences in the classroom with my students can continually enrich me on deeper and deeper levels. Just when something happens and I think "This is it- it can't get any better, this is amazing" my students show me even greater things. Doing this project with my Year 10 kids- students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching for two years- was an absolutely perfect way to end my time at my school. I couldn't be more proud of them.

If you want more information on Lone Buffalo Foundation, or are interested in sponsoring a class, you can check out their Facebook page here. 

You can read more about the impact of the secret war here.

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