Nine-year-old Elizabeth Pierce and her classmates traced the steps of the Hmong on Friday as they scurried into the jungle when communists attacked.
They crossed the Mekong River on garbage bags and hand-made rafts, only to find themselves in a crowded refugee camp.
"I think it's amazing that they survived," Pierce said. "I didn't know all of this happened."
La Crosse fourth-graders are learning about Hmong culture and history through a collaborative project developed by the school district and the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.
"We were not offering within the school district a consistent educational program with regard to Hmong history and culture," teacher Wendy Mattison said.
It is not mandated that Hmong culture be included in Wisconsin curriculums, but Mattison said teachers and others in the La Crosse community want to know more about those who have settled here.
Representatives from the HMAA, school district, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and community worked to create the experience that shows students what village life was like in Laos before taking them into the jungle, to a refugee camp and eventually the U.S.
"I think it's pretty cool because I'm learning about my culture and people get to learn about it, too, with me," said Peter Xiong, 10.
"It's important so you actually know."
This effort "gives the past life" but also offers Hmong elders a chance to do something they haven't done before, said Thai Vue, executive director of the La Crosse Hmong Mutual Assistance Association.
"To them, children have always been teachers because of language," Vue said. "Here they have things to teach."
Watching the children go through the stations and learn about Hmong life in Laos was wonderful for Vue. "All these things help children understand better their friends, their friend's parents, grandparents," he said.
Students from Summit Elementary School, School of Arts and Technology I and Coulee Montessori visited the project Friday. La Crosse's remaining fourth-graders will see it later this month.
"The goal is to have every fourth-grader in this district be able to have a learning experience to help them understand why the Hmong came to join us," Mattison said.
"It is going to be something that will enlarge the conversation about who we are as a community."
The project received some funding from the La Crosse Public Education Foundation Rotary Works.