Afterward, one student said, “I loved how he didn’t diminish our stories.” Another nodded in agreement and responded, “Yes, everyone has a story.” Still another took away a different message: “I loved what he said about everyone having to get along and treating each other like siblings.” The last student brought the comments full circle, to a class of talented ninth graders that had been struggling recently, behaviorally and academically: “Our grade needed that.”
These unsolicited reflections followed Arn Chorn-Pond’s presentation for my students, part of an Immigration Expedition they had recently started. In Expeditionary Learning schools, outside experts are essential to student learning; experts put classroom learning in context and deepen students’ understanding on specific topics by drawing on their life and work experiences. In this case, the expedition is about immigration’s impacts on national, state, and local communities, as well as on individuals, and Arn’s experiences and work perfectly complemented the content.
For a case study of one type of immigration, students have been reading Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, a fictionalized account of Arn’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge and his adoption and resettlement in New England. From the outset, the book made an impact; it is a gritty account of real-life horrors that students had previously encountered only in dystopian texts. The book reads like a novel, but students responded to the fact that the depicted events actually happened.
But, the impact is multiplied when students can listen to the book’s protagonist talk about watching his sister starve to death, and being forced to kill others to save himself, and being beaten and called “monkey” once he arrived at high school in what he calls “the jungles of New Hampshire;” when they can ask how the experiences continue to haunt him; and when they can tell their own stories, with Arn responding to each with focus and compassion.
One student spoke of his German ancestry, with palpable pride in his family’s heritage. Another said she was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1999, and was adopted before she was one. She wanted to know what the city was like during the Khmer Rouge and in the 1990s. A third spoke about his love of dance and said that he was never accepted by his peers until he arrived at Four Rivers. All three had never shared those stories in any comparable setting.
These are the outcomes of a quality expert speaker, and Arn was one of the best I have ever worked with. He told his own story, then he encouraged them to tell their own stories. My students gained a deeper understanding of the refuge experience, but even more important to the expedition and to the school in general was Arn’s message of our shared humanity. “Inside of us, we all have Hitler and Pol Pot, and we all have the Buddha,” he said. In their lives at school and beyond, it’s now up to the students to decide which side to choose.