Two more movies from the incredible young women of West Marredpally!

You may remember the entry I posted about my West Marredpally class’ first video “Our Stories Our Important.”   I’m pleased to report that the conversations around sexism, representation and girl power that project continued long after we wrapped.

In the above noted entry, I wrote about impressed I was with the ability of the girls to recognize the need for complex, honest female characters, rather than simply strong female characters.  For our second video, a fast-paced action flick about four super-heroines taking on two evil villains planning to commit infanticide against baby girls, the students worked hard to create characters that were not only tough, but also relatable: one hero struggles with her parents having doubts in her.  The students were also adamant about creating two female villains because they wanted to disrupt the portrayal of girls as sweet and nice.  Their sense of empathy and ability to write and portray complex characters stems from a true self-awareness that many of the girls possess.  They are immensely capable of thinking and working independently and I had no trouble sending small teams out on shoots by themselves.  Despite the fact that the story was rooted in fiction, many of the actresses drew on their own experiences or those of women they knew well when approaching a scene instead of copying what they’d seen in the theater or on their televisions.

Four Superheroines from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

With this in mind I decided to propose a final project that would center on self-representation.  Many of the students wrote poems about themselves and they worked in pairs to frame self-portraits.  In stark contrast to the trepidation they displayed at the beginning of the semester, most were ecstatic to be totally in control.  Their willingness to present themselves as they are astounded me; I loved seeing that some of them wrote lines like “Angry (sometimes!)” in their poems.  I hope you enjoy learning more about them as much as I have!

West Marredpally self-portraits from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Jai Ganesha: to Boston and Beyond

Hello there!  Way back in July my students at Seethaphalmandi and I became fascinated by the idea of cross-cultural sharing via Digital Postcards.  Lucky for us, Hyderabad’s festival season swung into high gear just as we were getting ready to embark on our second video project.  When the neighborhood around the school began to be crowded with pop-up sweet shops and Ganesha temples, I was confused, and immediately turned to my students for the low-down.  They explained that Ganesh Chatruthi: the 11-day celebration that would culminate in a massive citywide celebration at Tank Bund, was almost upon us!  Because our surroundings were so teeming with potential material (beautiful statues to photograph, plenty of folks to interview, spontaneous dance parties to film) we decided to devote our energy to educating the masses about this incredible festival.

Jai Ganesha from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to go along with the student’s insistence on incorporating photography, interviews, videos and stop motion animation into the project, but they quickly divided themselves into teams and proved they were more than up for the task.  Apart from one special field trip that we all took to some of the neighborhood idols, the students honed their skills in small groups, dutifully checking off items on our production checklist.  The final product is not only visually stunning, but also provides a wonderfully comprehensive understanding of the festival.

The class with their letters from Breakthrough students!

The class with their letters from Breakthrough students!

One of the most rewarding aspects of this project, however, was actually getting to send the postcard to a group of Digital Storytelling students in a Boston, facilitated by our own Piya Kayshap.  The students were thrilled to share this aspect of their culture and even more elated to receive letters and power points about Halloween and Thanksgiving.  We had a great time comparing and contrasting the holidays and drafting letters to our new friends!



Three Cheers for Uma Rani!

Yesterday was my final class at Bansilalpet School. I’ll reserve a separate post for their final project but just for now I want to highlight one student in particular. We spent the class preparing for today’s final presentation and party: making a snack list, finalizing and retouching all the videos, and deciding who would give the welcome address to fellow students, the entire faculty, and the headmaster. Almost before I could finish asking for a volunteer, Uma’s hand shot up.

“I’ll give the welcome,” she quipped.

My co-teacher Geetha and I were both (pleasantly) a little shocked. From the beginning, Uma has been excited about the class and eager to learn, but also slow to raise her hand and very prone to blushing. She never quite got comfortable in front of the camera, but, slowly, she did make strides: first volunteering to be camerawoman, than to direct, and finally, to take the lead on writing our last fiction story and recording the voiceover. Still, if someone had asked me whom I would have pegged as a willing public speaker back in July, I would never have guessed Uma.

Maybe Uma’s transformation stems from the fact that, as a class, we’ve all gotten more comfortable with each other. We’ve worn insane costumes and had too many spontaneous dance parties to count.  The girls and boys have not only learned to work together, but have found that they enjoy it.  Maybe it’s simply that she’s six months older now. But whatever the reason, in the video below she proves herself to be an incredibly confident and articulate young woman.

I’m missing my students at Bansilalpet already, but it’s no small comfort to have walked away knowing that Uma and her classmates, who taught me so much over the last six months, truly are confident excited and excited about continuing to tell their stories.

Near the end, the beginning.

Tieing up loose ends, I realize I never did publish a blog entry about the first videos of Railway or Seethafalmondi schools! I suppose at the time my mind was still too preoccupied by new accents and auto-rides and spicy curry to keep track. But as both schools finish up their final projects, it’s a good chance to look back at where we came from.

We are lucky that Railway was our first experience with Hyderabad government schools; the girls’ confidence showed us the potential of 8th class students, and caused us to push for more creativity at other schools. As an artmaker myself, I ask a lot of questions about how and what others make. RW girls were happy to share their favorite art practices at school: classical Indian dance, muggu, and friendship bands. Looking back, I see behaviors that held true through all projects: Priyanka will do the most animated voiceover, Thanuja and Srujana will rewrite and rewrite until I physically remove the script from their hands, and Sunaina and Manaswini will always shyly volunteer to act the roles of best friends.

Our Culture & Art from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Seethafalmondi started out chaotic, mostly because of the language barrier (mainly Telegu-medium) and the inconsistent and limited classroom space at their school. Both these factors led us directly into physical making, and the re-telling of familiar stories. The students are smart, hard-working, creative, and the work they composed clearly shows it. The first project was an illustrative photo story of poems which shows the diversity of languages spoken in the school. There are poems in Hindi, in Telegu, and in English. Each group of students took on two poems; one of which they illustrated with a series of paintings, the other of which they acted out. I will follow up more with the final project, but it is fascinating to see how, despite different prompts and new equipment, we ended up in a very similar place.

Languages of Poetry from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Many Tiny Movements

Of all the schools at which I teach, Railway students are the most vocal advocates of girl power. When the discussion of this project began, the group was overrun with injustices against girls and declarations of what should be. As such, it was difficult for them to develop the succinct plot that this animation required. However, I firmly believe that the ideas not included this particular story will continue to be lifted up by these students as they become adults.

This project was mostly led by Asma, our long-time TMS assistant teacher (check her out on our team page!). Asma has done much of her own graphic and animation work, and was able to share that experience with the students. Awesome! I am so grateful to have worked with her.

Ah, stop-motion animation: one of the most time-consuming video-making processes on the planet. To produce one takes patience and determination, but in return we experience the truly magical moment when illustrations come to life. Eight girls at Railway GGHS had that patience and determination – now check out their magic.

Brave Girl: Every Girl Have Their Own Rights from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Watch out, Cartoon Network, there's a new animation team in town. From brainstorming to final credits, eight illustrators, voice actors, and editors from Railway GGHS have done an enormous amount of work to create a simple but powerful story.

Tour of Tamil & Vast Rewards

We are weeks late posting this entry, so it falls out of chronological order; please forgive. Its appearance now heralds two things: the upload of the last videos from our 3-week teaching trip Tamil Nadu, and the upcoming Hyderabad arrival of our amazing new friend Adriana from Communities Rising! This experience was productive and rewarding in innumerable ways, but I shall try to number some of them.

# days with SAMSSS / Communities Rising = 14
# students = 180
# videos produced = 12

Anilady primary school students. Most of our time was spent with the 5th to 8th classes of Anilady, a combined primary and high school associated with the Catholic ministry. The school was not English-medium, an obvious challenge, but we were assisted diligently by Brother Philip and the computer teacher, Siva. We had a new class and thus new video project every day of the week. They produced Favorite Things, Feeling Thankful, When I Grow Up, Bodies, Our School Anilady, Colorful, I Can Fly, Memories, and a short welcome video for students in Piya’s new program in the U.S., Breakthrough. In our spare time (yes, jokes) we spent two days with students in Periyatchioor village making a video about animals, two days with students in Sengadu village making a song + dance music video about beauty, and five days of after-school time at the SAMSSS center with students from Vikravandy village making Fever, and This Boy Fever. Oh, also, the photo walk project.

Hostel boys at SAMSSS: "Hi-i-i-i Teacher!!"

Hostel boys at SAMSSS: “Hi-i-i-i Teacher!!”

Somehow, despite this huge workload, the time in Tamil Nadu was one of the most joyful I’ve experienced. This is due, in part, to the quiet and the beauty of rural India; a welcome break from the everlasting noise and smoke pollution of Hyderabad. But more, the joy came from the feeling of family that is fostered so warmly by

Learn Something New From the Railway TMS Girls!

The first week it was counting to five in Telugu with Shalini. Soon after it was the entire “Chikni Chameli” dance routine with Anuradha. Followed by a step-by-step tutorial on how to make chapatis from Jyothi. Our students at Railway Girls High School are brilliant and they love to teach as much as they love to learn. So it came as no surprise when they decided that, for their second project, they wanted to make not one but two how-to videos.

The girls are immensely talented so settling upon subjects to teach was no small feat. Lot’s of great ideas were vetoed in favor of our final two: a video on the history and artistry of mehendi, and one covering popular Indian sports. Rather than straightforward documentaries, the girls chose to incorporate all of their knowledge into narratives. Plots were concocted, characters were conceived and scripts were written. The Indian educational system is heavily focused on rote learning, which is something that the TMS curriculum generally discourages. However, all that practice at memorizing paid off in spades as everyone had their lines down and was ready to show off their acting chops within a few days.

The production phase of our projects has never been easy, logistics and time constraints are always looming, yet the girls’ lack of ego and great work ethic paid off and the outcome is two fantastic short films. After editing was finished we set aside class time to show the final videos, so that each group could see what the other had been working on. Everyone was so supportive towards the work of their peers, but the girls were surprisingly quite shy of seeing themselves on the screen! We hope you enjoy these videos and leave comments, we’re sure it will do nothing but boost the confidence level of these amazing girls.

TMS SPORTS from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Railway Mehendi from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Tee–eMm–esS N E W S ! N E W S !

The News Room.

Tech and prep work in the News Room.

In the “Photos Of Students Working” folder I keep on my desktop, the number of Hill Street photos overwhelm the rest, but it’s not because they work more. In the inevitable minutes of downtime when Sunita and I are preoccupied and the students have cameras in their hands, they don’t take photos of their friends awkwardly smiling or staring stony faced at the camera with their arms wrapped around each other. They document what’s going on in the classroom: boys using microphones, girls setting up tripods, teachers looking sweaty and frazzled… I don’t know why this practice is so consistent at Hill Street, but I appreciate it (minus the latter example). It makes sense that their first video project should skew towards documentary.

In Hyderabad, the Telangana conflict is always around us. Sometimes it is more present than others  – when groups of military police shadow a protest, or when bahnds (strikes) close school and bus service. As our first project continued to get derailed by bahnds, a conversation arose. Why was this happening? Who did it hurt? What were the students’ opinions? It soon became clear that the majority (if not all) students were pro-Telangana. But in the same way that I parroted my family’s beliefs at 12 years old, it was clear that the students’ beliefs were based on what they had overheard at home, rather than full comprehension of this complicated issue. When I asked too many “Why?” questions, the conversation petered off. And thus, research became our first focus. I brought in Andhra Pradesh maps, and news or opinion articles written in Telegu that presented both sides of the conflict (or at least I hope they did; I was pretty dependent on my friend Ravi at the copy shop to translate). A group of students conducted eight interviews of teachers and one auto wallah, and we watched them as a class to understand where everyone was coming from.


“What is your opinion about the Telangana separation?”


“Why do some people want the state to stay together?”

Here is what we discovered: After Indian independence, when the country was divided into states, three regions came together to form Andhra Pradesh: Andhra, Rayalaseema, and Telangana. The Telangana region wants to break off and form their own state. This conflict has been ongoing since the state formed in the 1950s, but came to a new place on July 30 and October 3 of this year, when government officials voted to move forward with separation. Some say this is a political move to get votes and not a real decision, but still – it has raised the stakes. Currently, Pro-Telangana supporters feel they are being cheated. Their land supplies a bulk of the resources for Andhra, and encompasses the city of Hyderabad, but they feel that the benefits of the state (mainly government jobs), are primarily being given to Andhra people. Unite-Andhra supporters feel that over the last sixty years they have been a valuable part of building the government and the city of Hyderabad. If the state were to split, they would be forced to leave the capital city of Hyderabad, and would lose all they have worked for in that time.

There is a lot of sensitivity around the potential separation, obviously. At the outset of this project, my amazing assistant Sunita expressed real trepidation. She worried that there was too much desperate anger around the topic to make it a safe and viable school project. But we talked with other teachers and with the students and made a plan to proceed… and a plan B if it seemed unsafe at any point. From the beginning, it was emphasized that while there would be space in the movie for the students to share their own beliefs, this was a news piece. Students were expected to act as researchers or objective reporters.

Although the topic was heavy, spirits are consistently light at Hill Street GHS. The students have a buoyant and mischievous creative energy. The TMS News theme song is a testament to this. After massacring a few news theme songs as an example, I handed a flip camera to a group of four tween boys and told them to record the intro music. What they came back with is awesome.


Tee–eMm–esS N E W S ! N E W S ! from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Live from Hill Street Government High School! Telangana’s desired split from Andhra Pradesh continues to cause turmoil throughout Greater Hyderabad. To explore this complicated cultural and political issue, students conducted interviews with teachers, auto wallahs, school visitors, and fellow students.

Walking the walk, talking the talk.

In a Tamil Nadu village that was strung with clotheslines
stood more than fifty boys in five straight lines
(and one tiny girl)

In five straight lines they walked Vikravandi
and photographed fruits, cows, busses, and beyond-y

Strong beginnings.

Strong beginnings.

Nametags + pride.

Nametags + pride.

On Thursday we met students from St. Mary’s, a crowd of ten that karate-chopped their way into our hearts. On Friday we met The Hostel Boys, a roaring mass of energy that rolled into SAMSSS for after-school learning and hijinx. On Saturday, the two groups joined forces to participate in Worldwide Photowalk, an international event that took place on October 5. As groups of photographers from dozens of countries documented their communities, we marched through Vikravandi, passing seven cameras from student to student. Their photos are amazing. From Aathvan to Vikram; from Infant to Karl Marks, the students captured images showing Vikravandi as the quintessential yet special place it is.

Although this was our rowdiest challenge to date, with the aid of the SAMSSS crew (Father Felix, Agni, Sabinesh, Priya) and Communities Rising intern Adriana Ganci we ended the night with hundreds of photos, most of which you can see here. The photos taken by kids 14 and older will be entered into Worldwide Photowalk’s prize competition – we will be sure to keep you updated as that progresses.


Vanakam from Vikravandy!

After a few languid days spent eating croissants and learning new things (surfing and motorcycle driving!!) in Pondicherry we’ve arrived at SAMSSS (the South Arcot Multipurpose Social Service Society) in Vikravandy.  We’re here to conduct mini TMS classes as part of the Digital Education and after school programs run by Communities Rising, their (and our) amazing partner organization.  My excitement for this week has been building up since I found out I would be working with TMS last spring- I spent a few weeks volunteering here at Communities Rising two summers ago and it’s just the most wonderful place.   Seeing familiar faces at the schools, catching up with old friends and learning all of Vela, the cook’s, and dosa-making tricks feel something like a homecoming for me but I know it’s been a great change of pace for all of us.

Nicole at CR in the summer of 2011

Nicole at CR in the summer of 2011

The laid-back, almost bucolic atmosphere at SAMSSS is appropriately tempered by the excitement of our new students.  On Monday and Tuesday we went to Periyatachioor where we had an eager group of 5th and 6th class students who showed up even though they were technically on holiday.  I was nervous about the language barrier but we were more than able to circumvent it with the help of song, dance, drawings, and, of course, our two excellent junior translators Seenu and Saran.  Once we taught the students how to use the cameras, which they took to right away, they taught us about the village by taking us on a walking tour.   We had such a blast producing this photo story about the animals of Periyatachioor and I’m so impressed that the students managed to finish it in two days!  E-I-E-I-O, enjoy!

Animals from The Modern Story on Vimeo.