One of the things I learned during this fellowship was to meet a class where it’s at and proceed keeping this in mind. I was already trying to practice this philosophy with individual students, but it took a little while for me to grasp that it is also true when working with groups. The same exercise doesn’t work the same way in different classes. What is stretching for one class might be easy for another. The way you measure progress and growth is different. The boys at Model Aliya repeatedly demonstrated their storytelling skill to me and inspired confidence that they were capable of addressing some tough issues. We had some very interesting discussions in our class, on everything from skin colour to marriage to police violence. It helped a lot that I could understand Hindi, of course. I regretted that my Telugu was too limited to have these kinds of conversations at my other school. But it was not just about language. The boys in this class were enthusiastic about discussion and open to sharing their opinions, especially when posed questions that they could comprehend. Coming prepared with simple but thought provoking questions was key to this process, but the students were also willing to share and put themselves and their thoughts forward, which really helped.
For their second project, the boys chose to address bribery and corruption as important community issues. The topic was huge, but students’ ideas for stories neatly split into different levels. From mundane, daily-life activities to the larger scale abuse of power in public services, institutions, and leadership. This class had a lot of natural actors and some very focused directors who took their roles seriously and thought carefully about the best way of telling their story through video. They filmed so many scenarios that a lot had to be left out of the final video to keep it a decent length! I was very impressed by the details they included – the offer of chai after a bribe is paid, the swift checking of the watch to say “time’s up, you’ll have to pay” – and it struck me that these are things students may have observed first-hand. The research section of their video focuses on the impact of this problem on poor families and the statistics are disturbing. When one group told me their idea for a story on hospital corruption, I initially wondered whether it was too far-fetched but dismissed my doubts after learning about some real-life cases. When it came to proposing steps for addressing the problem, the boys had no trouble coming up with ideas. The final video truly demonstrates their creativity and intelligence, as well as their burgeoning skills in camerawork and editing.
If there is one thing the girls at GHS Afzalgunj love, it is singing and dancing! At times, I would leave the room and come back to find students distracted from the task I’d assigned them, filming themselves performing various film songs and dances instead. I figured it made sense to try incorporating this passion into their second project, so I encouraged the students to create part of the soundtrack themselves. They relished this task – taking popular songs about water, partially rewriting the lyrics, and performing them. Other students were more drawn to the news format and interested in interviewing and taking documentary-style footage of their neighborhood. The class’ second project thus took on a loose news program format, sort of like what you might see on a student-run MTV, with a specific focus on the topic of water.
Although many classes have addressed the subject of community water problems, each project has been unique. This video combines a music video PSA, fictionalized interviews inspired by real-life events, and some documentary footage of a school rally, while touching on serious issues like access to clean water and the impact of heavy rains on electric power failure. The video will certainly give the viewer an insight into some of the water challenges that students are exposed to in their community, as well as the importance of this topic. Further, the progression from photo to video pushed many of the students to experience new roles, practicing their skills in front of the camera (speaking, acting, interviewing, and presenting) and on the laptops (editing). The final video perhaps doesn’t reveal the full extent of effort put in, especially by some of the more reserved or shy students, to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. However, you can still make out the combo of nervousness and excitement that comes with creating something for the first time, while demonstrating your newly developed and emergent skills.
I’ve been a terrible (largely absent) blogger over the course of this fellowship, but it is not for a lack of things to say. In fact, quite the opposite. My experience in the last 6 months inspired so much thinking and searching and obsessing and turning things over in my head; it often left me with too many words and feeling a bit stuck on how to express myself in that succinct, entertaining style one expects from a blog post. However, dear readers, in particular those of you who may be thinking of applying to be a Fellow next year (check out our Fellow Experience video!), I hope you will excuse my tardiness and accept this series of #laterblogs.
To start, let me share a video made by a group of children in Vikravandi, Tamil Nadu, where we were invited by our partners, Communities Rising, to lead a week-long workshop. The students were between 7 and 13 years old – though by the end of the week, there were definitely a couple of 5 year olds hanging around as well – who visit the local community center, SAMSS. When we first walked into the center, many of the children were sat at the computers, engrossed in the joys of Microsoft Paint. They showed off those tech skills in how quickly they learned to use the Kodak cameras we brought with us. Living in an agricultural area, the Vikravandi kids deeply value the nature that surrounds them. It plays a significant role in their lives. Their project, it was decided, would be about this topic. The children had so much community knowledge, generational knowledge: from which plants can help cure jaundice to what a pomegranate tree looks like! It was such fun watching them run around trying to capture all the diversity in their neighborhood, with older children helping out the younger ones. Together they wrote scripts, took photos and video, and even partially edited this immersive, adorable (just look at that face!) video. A word of caution: Be prepared to have a very unique song about trees stuck in your head for some time.
Government High School Afzalgunj is located in Puranapul locality of Hyderabad, south of the the River Musi and not too far from the High Court for the States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (as declared by fresh signage outside the Court, following the creation of India’s newest state). Purana Pul means “old bridge” in Hindi and Urdu. The locality is in the older part of the city and the bridge you cross to reach it was the first to be built in Hyderabad city, back in 1578.
The school itself is tucked away in a small residential colony. To reach it, you pass under an arch and past a temple dedicated to Goddess Durga. Initially, I confused the sound of temple bells with the school bell, that’s how close it is. I’ve been told that the community surrounding the school is economically-deprived; teachers often refer to it as a slum. Like children in all the schools we work in, many of the students face challenges in their lives and must work hard both in school and outside of it. GHS Afzalgunj is a small school and one truly gets the sense of family when you spend time within its walls. It is clear that the teachers care deeply for their students and the students love their school. No surprise then, that for their first project, the 9th class students were eager to highlight their school in this photo essay about different aspects of their school lives.
For their first project, Railway Girls High School is proud to present a photo essay exploring unique cultural aspects of 3 states where students have roots and family. Not only did they cover geographic breadth in highlighting the states of Telangana, Maharashtra, and Bengal – located in the south, west, and east of the country – but students also showcased diverse topics, from food and dance, to language and history. They worked incredibly hard on this project, taking full ownership of developing their ideas, scripting, photography, recording sound effects, and also creating props. This video even features mini-animations and a student’s rendition of a popular Telugu revolutionary song! From the outset, the project was an ambitious one, but Railway’s 8th class girls certainly proved that they were more than up for the challenge.
Just wait till you see what they’ve been working on for their second project… coming soon!
It’s long overdue on this blog, but with our second project in the final stages of post-production, I wanted to make sure that everyone had first been properly introduced to the 9th class at Aliya, Government Model High School for Boys. What better way than through this beautiful mixed-media visual poem about the places, people, objects, stories, and traditions that have shaped them, both as individuals and as a class. For their first project, students began by writing individual poems using a template adapted from the original George Ella Lyon poem, “Where I’m From.” While this is no simple task in one’s second or third language, and students may have initially struggled a bit with the sentence structure, they eventually brought out some true gems. After selecting their favourite lines and recording themselves reading these out loud, they added visual components to their poem using photography, clay modeling, and illustrations. So, from the smell of biscuits, from believing in yourself, and from studying hard to grow in life… please meet the creative and intelligent boys of GMHS Aliya.
The previous week in Hyderabad was a humid, hazy one, punctuated with rain. At our apartment, we’ve grown accustomed to planning around the power cut cycle, with regular 2-hour outages in the morning and just after noon. What we can’t always anticipate is the furtive nighttime outage, which leaves us in darkness save for the light of our laptops, until those run out of battery as well. We have not yet invested in recently purchased candles. For me, after the initial frustration at losing our internet connection (!), I began to enjoy the momentary pause that being cut off from technology provided. It was a chance to clear my head, reflect, and remember the value of stillness in preparing yourself for action.
In many schools, we began work on our photo stories – the first major project, marking completion of Unit 1 in the TMS curriculum. Students in different classrooms are gearing up to tell stories about friendship, family, school, and the different states of India, among other topics. It was exciting to see students’ progression as they worked through the pre-production phase of their projects. After some action-packed, hands-on classes where they learned about and practiced their photography skills, we were now asking them pause from using technology and use the time to think and plan.
For some of our classes, the process of writing scripts and storyboarding were new concepts. It took some time for students to wrap their heads around what we were asking them to do, on top of the responsibility we were putting into their hands, in place of equipment. Still, their creative energy was in full-force and there was a palpable thrill in the air as ideas started coming together. Mental work spurs a new sort of dynamism, but it is hard, time-consuming, sometimes plodding. Although we impressed upon the students the importance of planning for the production stage, we also had to trust that they might not fully understand that lesson until they get there. In that way, the first project truly represents a landmark, not only for what students can create, but also to help them reflect on what they have learned along the way.
Part of the journey in discovering a new place is discovering who you are there. Change can test you, but it can also be rejuvenating. It can reveal you to yourself. Returning to India, where I have not lived since I was 3 years old, has had me thinking a lot about how I will be tested here and what I will learn about myself as a result.
In our first week, this included understanding how to cross traffic here (audaciously), pull oneself up onto a moving bus, and make dal-chawal for four. Many more lessons will come, I’m sure, as we begin teaching, interacting with students, and working in the schools. There have also been moments ripe for reflection: over an afternoon chai sipped leisurely, seeing the full moon glowing between laundry hung up on our terrace, or when the urban geography suddenly opens up, like it’s taking a deep breath, as we ride Bus 8A beside the Hussain Sagar.
Someone I met here last week described Hyderabad as a city that’s hungry for opportunities to unleash all of its creative energy. I’ve felt that way myself in recent years and that energy is certainly evident in the students that we’ve met so far. I’m excited to nurture that creativity, build something together, stretch our imaginations, and discover new capacities in ourselves at the same time. Perhaps we are well-matched then, this city and I?
When my sister and I were growing up in Bahrain, my father made up bedtime stories for us using characters from comics he read as a child in India. For the longest time, I believed that Chamataka the Jackal was entirely his own invention. Now I see how those stories let him keep alive something from his past, while connecting us to something we had never truly known. By linking generations and places, stories – both real and fictional – become central to the migration experience.
My parents also took many photos and videos over the years, zealously documenting our life in a new country that became home. Looking back, it’s no wonder I was drawn to visual media. I was already a voracious reader and video and photography opened up the world even further. One of the most fulfilling educational experiences I had in high school was working with friends to make a short documentary about local reactions to the imminent invasion of Iraq. In addition to digital skills and new perspectives on our teachers, classmates, and each other, the project let us take action in our community and speak back, in our own small way, to events that left us feeling powerless.
In my experience as an advocate, I learned more lessons about the power of storytelling. It was a critical tool, whether working with families who were fighting to save their homes after being targeted for predatory loans, or organizing with immigrant students for access to higher education and their families’ safety. Telling your story can provide an invitation, a catharsis, or a catalyst. It can bring people together and expose obscured truths. When we share the experiences that give meaning to our lives and define the changes we want, it creates space and strength for others to do the same.
The first stories that we learn might be about wily animals and their forest adventures, but we collect stories throughout our lives. Considering this abundance of narratives, we might wonder about the significance of our own. In those moments, I believe, it helps to remember how storytelling can transform us, and how the personal can be political. I can’t wait to embark on this journey with the TMS fellowship and collaborate with the young people, educators, and community organizations of Hyderabad.