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Gathering Fireflies: Home


Gathering Fireflies


La Crosse Tribune article July 20, 2015 by Mike Tighue

The 32-year-old Central High School graduate, who was pleased to be able to teach art at her alma mater and Longfellow Middle School last school year, is just as excited about her next assignment at Lincoln Elementary and Logan Middle.

“I love the kids,” Mai Chao said. “It’s amazing to see them be creative and find out who they are.”

The mother of two attributes her own interest in art to the impact of moving more than 8,000 miles to a lifestyle and climate that contrast sharply with those in her homeland.

“When we came here, we didn’t know English, and art was the only thing that allowed us to be who we are,” she said during an interview at the dining room table in her Onalaska home. She lives with her husband, Reid Duddeck, who also is a teacher, and their children, 5-year-old Ari and Ander, who is closing in on his first birthday.

In contrast, the Thai refugee camp where her family languished after the Vietnam War was an enclave of bamboo huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors, she recalled.

“I remember drawing on the floor with a stick,” Mai Chao said. “I remember having no electricity and being outdoors all day — I loved that.”

The climate was hot and dry, so much so that the children celebrated the infrequent rainstorms, rushing outside to frolic in the rivulets of water they imagined to be rivers as they launched the tiny boats they had fashioned from sticks, she said.

“That life seems so far from what we have here,” she said. “I would like to experience that again, but I’m so thankful that my parents brought us here.”

The oldest of six children of Shoua Lor and Chia Vue said, “If not for them, I would be a farmer’s wife with a houseful of children. I wouldn’t even know this life existed.”

This life includes a network of students and former teachers who find her inspirational, although she insists that she draws her own motivation from those same students and teachers.

She credits retired Central art teacher Joe Kuhn with cultivating the skills and confidence that she now passes on to her students.

“I loved him so much. If we didn’t understand, he didn’t reprimand. He went over it again with us.

“He opened my way to communicate who I am. By thriving there, I was able to communicate. Coming to art and making something creative means what can you produce that comes out of your experience,” she said.

“He continued his legacy as one of my mentors,” Mai Chao said. “Our lifelong relationship is vital to the success of who I am.”

Mai Chao’s admiration of Kuhn is mutual, with Kuhn saying in an interview, “She had a great work ethic, and she still does.

“She is an inspiration for her students — and not just the Hmong students,” he said. “I still substitute teach, and I have substituted for her, like coming full circle.

“You can always get a feel for a teacher when you substitute for them, and she is an inspiration for them,” said Kuhn, a noted a painter, sculptor and visual artist beyond his nearly four decades of teaching.

Mai Chao explained her decision to write a book as a logical extension of art.

“Writing is one of my passions,” she said. “It’s painting with words. You have to be so careful using words to convey the imagery.”

Her book features a verse writing style, which has a poetic appearance on the page and conveys a sense of rhythm to the reader.

Told through the multi-generational eyes of a bi-racial son, a mother, a grandmother and a grandfather, “Fireflies” details the conflicting perspectives of the old vs. the new.

“It’s almost a way of preserving my parents and my own life,” she said.

The grandfather had a lot of power in his native land but not in America, where the language and customs are foreign to him, she said.

“He feels lost, a 50-year-old child led by a child, and it’s detrimental to his own ego,” she said.

Cultures clash as the parents want a daughter to marry young and have a lot of children, while she wants to become a professional, Mai Chao said.

“They want her to listen to the male voice because they know best, while she wants to be an educated, independent woman,” she said. “Nothing is wrong with being a wife, but she wants a choice.”

The term “fireflies” in the title is a metaphor for dreams, Mai Chao said.

Publishers balked at taking on the book, saying its audience was too limited, she said, so she eventually self-published it through Amazon, where it is getting good reviews since it hit the Internet on April 30.

From a reader’s perspective, the 218-page paperback has broad appeal, potentially teaching as much to an American audience about the new citizens as it encourages immigrants to maintain their historical roots.

“I wrote this book in hopes of inspiring people to remember the past while honoring those who have paved the way for future generations,” she said.

Mai Chao, who is considering a sequel to her initial tale of hope, also envisions her book as a useful text in social studies classes.

Mentor Kuhn said he was surprised that his former student also chose to jump into the writing pool, too, adding, “I was real proud of her, and she persevered. It’s hard to be a mother and a teacher and writing a book.

“I think it’s a wonderful book,” he said.

Mai Chao the artist/teacher/author says education is a two-way street in her classrooms.

“The kids are not the only ones learning,” she said. “I’m learning, too. The kids inspire me.”

In turn, she urges them to gather their own fireflies, saying, “If people have dreams, do what you want. Never give up. Never once did I think my book would not be published.

“If nobody else did, I would,” she insisted.

And she did.

Link to article here

About Mai Chao Lor Duddeck

Mai Chao is a Hmong-American artist, writer, and teacher. Her family came to the United States from a refugee camp when she was ten years old. She wrote this book in hopes of inspiring people to remember the past while honoring those who have paved the way for future generations. The time has come for Hmong people to write their own histories and tell their own stories so they will be recorded authentically. Mai Chao has lived happily in Wisconsin since her parents brought the family to America in 1992. She has two beautiful sons and a wonderful husband. Please feel free to email her at

Hmong Traditions: Understanding a Way of Life

Journal of Undergraduate Research X 2007

Mai Chao Duddeck

Faculty Sponsor: Shin Seung-Ryul, Department of Art

ABSTRACT From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, the Vietnam War affected nearly the entire Hmong population in Laos. Many people had to depart their homes on a moment’s notice leaving everything behind. They hid in the jungles and stayed alive by eating plants, berries, and roots. My parents survived this traumatic experience, eventually making their way into the refugee camps in Thailand, and finally bringing our family to the U.S.A. During my research I interviewed people about the Hmong culture and our traditions. With the information collected, I wrote an autobiography and illustrated pictures to document this significant chronicle. I have a responsibility to search for rich experiences within the Hmong community and share them with students and community members to honor our history. 

A link to the article is here

Story Retrieval

Story Retrieval

Story Retrieval (based on activity from Teaching for Joy and Justice)

Directions: In the chart below, keep track of the stories of a character from Gathering Fireflies.  

Questions to keep in mind:

  • Who has to change and/or modify their beliefs, traditions, and/or culture?  
  • Who doesn’t?  
  • What does each individual have in common?

 Use one sheet for each character and note page numbers or quotes you want to return to later.

Story Retrieval

In the chart below, keep track of the patterns in the narratives of the characters from Gathering Fireflies as we read them.  

Questions to keep in mind:

  • Who has to change and/or modify their beliefs, traditions, and/or culture?  
  • Who doesn’t?
  • What does each person have in common?  

Note page numbers or quotes you want to return to later.

Immigration Project

Immigration Project

Immigration Project (based on Linda Christensen’s Reading, Writing, and Rising Up)

In this unit, you will work with a self-chosen group to study the history, politics, and stories of a past or contemporary immigrant group (from Asia).  You will conduct research in and out of the library. You will find and read poetry, novels, and short stories, and watch videos in order to understand their lives and circumstances more clearly.

During your presentation, your group will teach the history and stories of these immigrants to your classmates.  Listed below are the questions your group needs to research, the criteria for your presentation, and a list of related individual tasks to complete on your own during the duration of this project.

Content Questions to Research

1. Background history: Why did this group come to the United States? What was happening in their home country that caused them to leave?  Famine? War? Poverty? Political disagreements? What was something happening in the United States that encouraged them to come?

2. Treatment in the United States: What kind of reception did this group receive in the United States?  Any problems entering?  Who else was coming at the time? Any quotas on the group?  How has this group of immigrants been treated since their arrival in the United States?  Give examples, tell stories.

3. Where did these people find work? Did their work pit them against workers of other racial or ethnic backgrounds?  Were they able to find work that matched their occupations in their home country?

4. What did this group of people bring with them from the “old country”: Did this group bring particular values? Traditions? Beliefs? Did the group hold on to its language? What aspects of this group’s culture are “visible” in American society today? (e.g., St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, Hmong New Year)

Lesson Plan:

Each lesson plan must include the following:

____1. Story, movie, or speaker: Bring the ‘voice’ of the group to our class - either as part of the historical background information or as a way of showing us the group’s culture and/or living situation.

____2. Background information: Present the history of the people and their struggles (as outlined by the three content questions above) as a lecture, a reading, a movie, a timeline, a role play, or a series of stories.

____3. Class discussion: After your presentation, plan some discussion questions that will explore the subject of immigration more thoroughly - relate it to previous presenters or past units of study or link it to broader social issues.

____4. Written activity for class: As a culminating activity for your group, give your classmates a writing assignment that grows out of your presentation.  

Individual Tasks

____1. Short story: Write a short story or play based on a real person or a creative combination of people that you researched. This is required of every student. You must include the following in your story:

A. History - some background to let us know about this group.

B. Dialogue

C. Blocking - locating the characters in the setting as they speak: Where are they? What are they doing as they speak?

D. Description of character and place

E. Flashback - revealing past action to shed light on present situation

F. Interior monologue - the thoughts and feelings of a character from her/his point of view

____2. Final Essay: Write about immigration. Explore the three content questions above using specific examples from your research and/or the presentations of your fellow classmates.  You may choose to focus your essay on one or more immigrant groups. You may choose to compare the treatment of immigrant groups or you may choose to focus on the issue of immigration.  Your essay must be grounded in specific evidence from your research.  See the essay critieria sheet below for details.

___3. Profile (extra credit): Was there someone we should know about from this group who displayed extraordinary courage or leadership?  Write about this person or people somehow.

Frame Poem Activities

Frame Poem Activities

“Write that I …” Reflection Poem based on Linda Christensen’s “Unleashing Sorrow and Joy”


Sometimes, the opening to a poem is the hardest to write. Well, in this activity, the opening is no problem, the first three words of this poem are provided for you:

“Write that I …”  

Choose at least one character from Gathering Fireflies and write a poem using the first-person perspective of the character. Consider choosing to write from the perspective of Kashia, Pa Ying, Mai Lia, Ginu, and/or Josh.

Consider writing the poem from the character’s perspective 10-or- so years after the book.  

Details to consider adding:

 names of people and places

 dialogue from the novel

 character’s thoughts, actions, and feelings

Write That I …

Dual Identity Activity

Dual Identify Classroom Activity

Dual-Identity Classroom Activity

In an illustration from Ellen Forney’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the main character in the book, Arnold/Junior, is seen with a line drawn down the middle of his body.

From The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007, p. 57) by Ellen Fortney.

As you can see, the left side is labeled “white” and drawn and labeled with “appropriate” characteristics. The left side is labeled “Indian.”

In the image below, a high school student in Linda Christensen’s classroom visually depicts the process of “assimilation.” In this image, assimilation appears to be a process of leaving behind one’s language, culture, and other beliefs/traditions in order to “fit in.”

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation Guide


Pre-Reading Anticipation Guide for Gathering Fireflies by Mai Chao Duddeck


Directions: Read each statement below. Do you agree or disagree with each statement?

Explain your reason(s) for agreeing or disagreeing in the space provided.

Additional Questions

1. Based on the statements above, what do you think Gathering Fireflies by Mai Chao Duddeck is about?

2. Choose one of the statements that you feel strongly about from above and write it here.

3. Now, explain why agree or disagree with this statement.

Directions: With a partner, choose a statement from the anticipation guide that you both have different opinions about. Then, fill out chart below.

Statement chosen:

Tea Party

Tea Party

Tea Party 

Directions: For this activity, you will be introduced to key characters from the novel-in- verse, Gathering Fireflies. For each character, you will read a few sentences from the first-person perspective of each of the characters. After reading your role, you will take notes on the handout about your character and prepare to introduce yourself to others in character. As you mingle with others during the “tea party”, you will take notes about who they are and questions you have of them.


My name is Kashia. I am a twelve year old boy (going on 13) and I am in middle school. My favorite pastime is basketball, and I am tall for my age (almost 6’). My mother is Hmong-American and my father is European-American. I am trying to decide what my topic for the National History Day project will be. My mother has suggested that I investigate my family’s history through the project.

Pa Ying:

My name is Pa Ying. I am a Hmong-American, and I am Kashia’s mother. Before arriving in the United States, I lived in the Ban Vinai refugee camp and created story cloths (p. 95). As a 9-year- old in the camp, I took great pride in selling the story cloths and contributing to my family’s income. When I was a teenager in the U.S., I felt that I was always fighting with my family, because they believed that I was abandoning my family history, heritage, and culture by embracing “American” norms.


My name is Josh. I am a white American. I first met Pa Ying in high school. We began dating in college. I loved her very much, but I had a hard time seeing the tension between her and her family who did not approve of her relationship with a white man. In an attempt to merge our cultures, I approached Pa Ying’s family and respectfully asked for their approval in our marriage.

Mai Lia:

My name is Mai Lia. I am the grandmother of Kashia. While I was born in Laos, following the Vietnam War, I emigrated to the United States with my husband and children. Like any marriage, my relationship with Ginu had its ups and downs. Out of cultural pride, I carried out my duties as a wife and mother to the best of my ability. I am thankful to be in the United States, but I have struggled at times with the pressure we face to conform to “American” values. My daughter, Pa Ying, has started a family with a White man (Josh), defying traditional Hmong cultural practices.


My name is Ginu, and I am Kashia’s grandfather. Before leaving my homeland in Laos and arriving in the United States, I was a soldier fighting alongside the United States in a Vietnamese civil war. After years of fleeing persecution, Mai Lia and I found safety in a refugee camp in Thailand where we started a family and I established myself as a prestigious jeweler. When I came to America with my wife and children, I felt that I could not fit into the American culture (e.g., language barriers, education system, social ladder, loss of traditional culture). My daughter, Pa Ying, decided to marry an American, and I felt ashamed. I am the leader of my family, and no member should believe they are more important than their family or culture.


1. Read your role and write the passage or key points about your character in the space below.

2. Write some questions or thoughts you have about your character after reading the description.

3. Write about each of the other characters you meet at the tea party. Write notes as the person introduces him or herself to you.

1 st Character name: _________________________________


2 nd Character name: _________________________________


3 rd Character name: _________________________________


4th Character name: _________________________________


4. In the space below, draw a diagram, graph, tree, picture, or some kind of visual

representation that shows the connections between the characters. Feel free to add

other words into your creation.

5. Write an explanation of your ‘visualization’.

6. Write four questions that you have about the characters or the book.

7. Write three predictions about the book or the characters.

Academic Controversy

Structured Academic Controversy

Structured Academic Controversy: Syrian Refugee Crisis

Introduction to Syrian Refugee Crisis

The Syrian civil war that has been going on for four years has been labeled the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. The war is responsible for the death of approximately 320,000 Syrians, including the lives of 12,000 children. In addition, over 1.5 million people have been permanently disabled or wounded.  As foreign powers join in the conflict, the war has become more deadly. The conflict has resulted in a collapsed economy, as various infrastructures, including health care and education, have crumbled amidst the instability and chaos.

While many Syrian refugees (approximately 4.1 million people) remain in the Middle East in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, thousands of families (approximately 10% of the total refugees) have fled Syria for various European countries. According to CNN, in accepting approximately 1.9 million refugees, Turkey has embraced more refugees than any other nation. Lebanon has seen a 25% increase to their total population of 4.4 million as they have been inundated with 1.1 million Syrian refugees into their country.  Jordan, a country with a history of taking in refugees, has accepted 629,000 refugees, and asylum seekers to the tune of 259,000 have found a new home in Iraq.

In Europe, Germany has been the face of humanitarianism, as approximately 100,000 displaced Syrians have requested asylum. Other European countries, including Sweden, have demonstrated a high standard of responsibility during this crisis as nearly 65,000 displaced Syrians have sought asylum within its borders.  While France has currently accepted 6,500 Syrian refugees, it has pledged to host nearly 24,000 asylum seekers over the next two years. The figures in the United Kingdom are comparable to the figures in France.

How has North America responded to this crisis? Since the start of the conflict in 2011, the U.S. has admitted approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees.  In 2011, 23 Syrians were admitted to the U.S; 41 were admitted in 2012; 45 in 2013; 249 in 2014; and in 2015, approximately 1,200 Syrian refugees were admitted. In the face of questions about the small numbers of Syrian refugees being admitted to the U.S., President Barack Obama has ordered his administration team to increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S to 10,000 during the 2016 fiscal year. Importantly, the U.S. has allocated more aid than any other nation, donating approximately $574 million or about 31% of the total aid donated. Now, some have argued that the U.S. should increase the expected number of refugees from 10,000 to 65,000; at the same time, others - following a terrorist attack in Paris, France - have suggested that the U.S. impose a moratorium on Syrian refugees. This particular crisis, then, brings us to the primary question guiding today’s academic controversy:

Should individual U.S. State Governors allow or oppose Syrian refugees into their State?