Daily Updates

From Hyderabad to Kumasi, Ghana

In July when I came to Hyderabad from West Africa I knew that I wanted to facilitate a cultural exchange between students in India and students in Ghana. My prior organization, Exponential Education, runs a great Girls’ Leadership Program with girls who are the same age as the students at Railway Girls High School. This foundation provided a great platform for the girls in both countries to explore what girls life is like in India and Ghana, both the good and the bad.

Admittedly, this was an emotional project for me. My last year was spent in two vastly different, yet uniquely amazing and welcoming cultures. At Railway Girls school, we spent time learning the Ghanaian language, Twi, while digging through many of the pictures I had of Kumasi. They also learned their Akan names (pertaining to the day of the week that they were born on), which required me and Rachel to learn an entire new set of names. And their questions never ran dry. Why do they shave their heads in Ghana? What festivals do they have there? What kind of problems do they have? What do their dresses look like?

The result is highly personal and intimate. Girls from both sides share the very real problems that their communities face, while also revealing what makes them proud to be both Indian and Ghanaian. They share their language, their dress, their problems, and they also ask good and honest questions. Take a look to learn something about both of these amazing groups of girls.





Happy Halloween from Hyderabad!

Back in July after my first class at Audiah Memorial High School I road the bus back home with a lump in my throat. My first day did not go so well. My entire introduction lesson that I had planned fell apart in an instant when I realized that, as a Telugu-medium school, my students understood very little English. Explanations of The Modern Story, of me, and of our classroom goals were completely lost upon them with no translator present. How was I going to generate classroom discussions? How was I going to get to know these students? How would they get to know me? How would we learn?

These worries all vanished the moment I put them in front of the camera. Some of these students are born-actors. And some are incredibly creative about experimenting with different camera angles. After doing a few photo and video scavenger hunts, I knew I wanted to give them the opportunity to write, create, and act in films that they were truly interested in, and to keep them actively working in-front of and behind the cameras as much as possible.

Last week several of my students asked if we could do a film about ghosts for our final project. They were so passionate about the idea that within one day they created a story outline and a shot list. Ultimately (with guidance from the TMS Team), I decided that we should choose a different topic for the final project. As a compromise, I came to Audiah the next day and told them that we would spend one day in production for their horror film in the spirit of Halloween. This is what we created! Enjoy! Happy Halloween!





The Day That Hyderabad Stood Still

Ask any of us fellows to describe Hyderabad, and inevitably one of the adjectives will be “chaotic.” Hyderabad is notorious even among Indians for its complete lack of traffic etiquette, in which everyone from the pedestrians to busses to cows thinks they have complete jurisdiction over the road. Walking, biking, and driving as though everyone should get out of your way is not a choice, but the only means to survive in the gnarly traffic congestion. Aside from the traffic, the city’s diverse population offers different languages, religions, and cuisine on every corner. In our schools, cramped classrooms, and constant festival interruptions can also foster a sense of chaos while teaching. Combined, it is a lot for the brain to handle, but rest assured it is never boring. Which is why we have all come to love it.

But that all changed for one day this week. On Tuesday, Rachel and I decided to run an errand. We had class off due to a government-mandated holiday, but different holidays and festivals pop up quite often so we didn’t think much of it. Then we actually walked outside.

Our normally bustling street was entirely deserted. Not a single auto, car, motorbike, or even a stray dog in sight. There were one or two people walking silently, alone, down the block and a man at a nearby samosa stand quietly frying his snacks, but that was it—Hyderabad had shut down. As we walked to the main road, the silence and lack of traffic persisted, and became almost creepy. We made it to the main four-lane road that usually teems with traffic, but on Tuesday we could have walked down the middle of the avenue safely for miles. We quickly realized the errand wasn’t going to happen.

The reason for this shut down was a massive survey of Telangana. It was sort of like a census, but with more economic implications—government workers asked for things like bank account numbers and property owned. It was both to take measure of how many people qualified for welfare programs, but also to fully understand who makes up the state of Telangana and what they need. For the newest state in India, taking note of these statistics will be key to making the state successful in the future.

But in the meantime, students and teachers are especially feeling the growing pains. One of my principals said he feels the current group of students may become a “lost generation” as their schooling may end up riddled with assessments and surveys to better understand how to improve Telangana’s literacy rates and school systems. As Andhra Pradesh and Telangana grapple with dividing electricity between two separate states, frequent power cuts darken classrooms and cut into any digital learning efforts. Teachers are also being tasked with many of these extra efforts. While Rachel and I were able to at least go home and continue lesson planning, teachers at both my schools were appointed to conduct the survey because they are government workers. This meant taking precious days off to knock on citizens’ doors and ensure they had given their information to the government.

Though these steps are necessary for the greater good of the state and students and India, it made me think about how we ensure students learn, even while we search for solutions to education’s issues.

Here in India, being as consistent as possible has been key. Even though the last month has been riddled with holidays, interruptions, and festivals, whenever we show up to class students seem increasingly confident that we aren’t going to let their sometimes helter-skelter schedules get in the way of making films. Talking about it is good too—both with teachers and students. Teachers appreciate a well-deserved sympathetic ear and students are eager to talk about their festival celebrations. Other than that, the basics of being a good teacher apply: be as enthusiastic as possible, encourage thoughts outside of class, convince the students to be as hungry for TMS class as possible—a task not too difficult given they get to take photos and videos most days. Even after a two-week break from Railway Girl’s School due to holidays and an Independence Day celebration, I was so impressed that students jumped right back into their project without missing a beat.

I also think this has implications in the United States, where education reform is a divisive topic. Right now public education is being tested, prodded, and examined from every possible angle by activists, politicians, and business owners. Think about the methods we are trying out as solutions: Common Core, charter schools, Teach for America. Will they work? Many are gambling students’ only education in hopes that these programs make a difference.  Who’s to say we may look back one day at kids who are currently in class and call them the “lost generation” of students in the US?

It used to be that thinking about the attempted solutions in the US gave me more worry than hope. I still remain skeptical about most solutions, especially when they come from business-backed initiatives or claim to solve the problems of underserved districts by closing public schools. But being an educator has actually given me faith in one area of education: teachers. If teachers can create a sense of excitement passion and about learning that extends beyond the classroom, students will thrive even if a charter school ends up shutting down or assessments don’t provide conclusive results.

I’m still getting to that point in my own teaching, but I do feel that TMS has curriculum and projects that bring out intrinsic motivation that can carry with students for the rest of their lives. Critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to visually convey ideas far outlast any power cut or missed class. The key anywhere in the world, to me it seems, is supporting teachers that bring that out in their students, regardless of the policy solution of the day.

Packing “jugaad” in our toolbox

They said it takes about three weeks before you feel comfortable in front of a class, comfortable with the language barriers, surprise holidays, and commuting confusion.

Well we’re about three weeks in, and I’m happy to say that I, along with my fellows, have started to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Classes have been cut in attendance and size due to holidays and festivals that have dotted nearly every weekend of this month (particularly in Hyderabad, as the sizeable Muslim population has been celebrating Ramadan). Miscommunication with school administrators led to some classroom snafus. The language barrier has led to many an altered lesson plan, finding ways to communicate with students who have so much enthusiasm but without a verbal way to convey all their ideas.

But part of the beauty of these moments, while infuriating, has taught us the importance of thinking on our feet, and embracing “jugaad.” Jugaad is a Hindi phrase that Piya and Remy taught us when we first went though training. Roughly, it translates to “an innovative fix or a simple work-around” and is used to signify applying creativity to make something simple work. I’ve found that this is something learned best by experience, and the last few weeks have offered experience by the ton.

Then, when something finally works, the reward is that much more gratifying.

For example, in our Railway class last week, Nandini and I spent two classes devoted to audio recording and photography. The tasks were simple (record a sentence about something you like to taste, smell, touch, hear, or see, and take a photo of the drawing that represents the student’s sentence), but it didn’t entirely go as planned. Many students were thrilled for the chance to use the equipment, but struggled to record audio without cutting off their sentence and not burst into giggles, or take a satisfactory (in their minds) photo. Regardless, all the students completed the task, and Nandini and I put together a short video that combined all their recordings and photos into one video montage that showed off all the things that Railway Girls like to taste, smell, touch, hear, and see (ranging from smelling lotus flowers to seeing new words –see below). When we brought the finished project into the class to show the students, they watched it over and over, grinning with pride at their work and brimming with ideas about how to make it better. All were filled with a newfound confidence on the equipment. It was a good reminder that even if it feels like your creative solutions do not work, these little efforts pay off in the end.


Outside of class jugaad has also come in handy. From realizing that Uber is much less likely to overcharge you than an auto driver to Rachel’s impressive creations on our one-and-a-half burner stove, adjusting has just become a part of everyday life. And going with the flow has led us to meeting some wonderful new friends and exploring Hyderabad. Below, you can see one of our adventures, a trip to the Bonalu festival in Secunderbad.

From here we move onto our classes’ first project: photo essays. No doubt it will bring little challenges, but at least we have jugaad in our toolbox.

The Beginning

This week met the first of many milestones. First, was the end of our training period. Piya and Remy took us out for an outrageously delicious Farewell-and-You-Survived-Training Dinner and then dropped us off at our apartment where we said our goodbyes. The Fellows all agreed that the feeling reminded us of when our parents dropped us off at university for the first time. We were, somehow, on our own.

The beginning of the week was spent rickshawing acrossed Hyderabad to visit our schools. We survived our first week in India, and now we were to begin our navigation into the government school system, and into teaching. Each of us had to meet with our respective headmasters and teaching assistants, and also to finalize the class schedule.

By Wednesday all of our schedules for the next six months had been finalized. Between the four Fellows, we each have two schools where we will be teaching. Additionally, all of us are teaming up with one other Fellow to teach at The Railway Girls School.

This marked another important milestone; our first class. Rachel and I were paired up to teach at Railway, and spent all of Wednesday scripting our lesson plan for our first class on Thursday. We spent a lot of time thinking about important teachers in our life. What makes a good teacher? Which activities will be the most effective? How can we create a classroom environment that is fun and welcoming, but also one that will create equal learning opportunities for all students? How can we be liked, but respected?

Luckily, the Railway girls were welcoming, attentive, and ready to learn. We spent the first two days of class doing icebreakers, learning names, and preparing to dive deeper into the art of digital storytelling. The girls were just as excited as we were, and I can tell that we are going to have a great semester with them! Here are two pictures that we took to commemorate the first day of class!

TMS Fellow Dara and the girls from Railway pose for a picture on the first day of class.     Rachel and the Railway girls on the first day of class.


Hello Hyderabad

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?

Finally, in Hyderabad.

Greetings from India! Even as I sit here now, inside the fellows’ apartment in Hyderabad, there is an element of disbelief that I made it here at all. Amongst our daily activities which has included training, school visits, and searching for the best local coffees and delicacies, every once in awhile when I step back I think to myself: “Wow, I can’t believe that I am actually here.”

Two weeks ago I was stuck in West Africa without my passport. When I found out that I would be joining The Modern Story in India I began the visa process from abroad, which required me to send my passport and visa application from Ghana back to the United States. Generally this process, applying for the visa by mail, should take about ten working days in total. But due to the switching of visa outsourcing companies and the huge backlogs of applications as a result of the switchover, my application (and passport!) was held hostage for nearly two months.

Between the frantic emails to Piya and Remy about the unknown status of my application (and thus, actual arrival date in India), and my emotionally draining more-than-three-times daily calls to The Big Bad Visa Outsourcing Company, my stress and anxiety levels skyrocketed. All of this while also being alone abroad in Ghana. I felt like a stateless person; unable to go, and unable to leave.

On June 27th I finally got word that they had processed my application and everything moved very quickly from there. I had a good friend of mine get my passport in New York and ship it to me in Ghana. And three days later I booked another ticket to Hyderabad, picked up my passport in Kumasi on Wednesday morning, and traveled straight down to Accra, where I left Ghana the next morning. After I boarded the plane in Accra, I had no more worries. I was finally on my way.

I arrived in Hyderabad on Friday morning. Remy picked me up, we dropped off my bags at the apartment, and we went straight to Railway Girls School. Even though I was pretty exhausted from the journey (I couldn’t sleep on the planes!), I was so happy to finally meet Piya and Remy, and of course my new co-Fellows!

Even now, as I sit here at 3 o’clock in the morning, unable to sleep from jet lag and the migraine I had this afternoon, I can’t help but think about how lucky I am to have finally made it here. I am so happy to be here in Hyderabad and to be connecting with my co-Fellows, and to share this journey with friends, family, and other followers. Until next time!


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.



Hi friends!

Great news- all of our classes have finished (or just about finished) production on their first video projects!  In the past few weeks our students have participated in some great guest workshops, conducted some hardcore research and interviews, pulled together some truly incredible costumes and demonstrated knacks for everything from camera to directing to crying on command.  Unfortunately, they’re all about to have a week of exams followed by two weeks of holiday and we’re headed to Tamil Nadu to facilitate TMS workshops with Communities Rising so you won’t get to see their final edits for a little while.  We’ve created this outtakes reel to tide you ever!

Video Story Outtakes! from The Modern Story on Vimeo.


Welcome to Bansilalpet!

After I finish my morning class at West Marredpally I hop into an auto, stop for a quick dosa from the delicious cart right where the main road forks, head to the right and push open the gate to Bansilalpet School.  Most days, I’m instantly welcomed by the headmaster, a cluster of primary school students, and Geetha, my TA.  Photos of school functions, certificates of achievement, and charts proudly displaying how well the students have performed on state exams cover the walls of the main office and staff lounge.   When I asked my class, a group of 18 rambunctious 8th graders, to write about one thing they liked about their community, the vast majority chose to write about their school.  I wish you could all feel the sense of pride in and love for this school that I get to every time I walk in that gate, but since you can’t, our class has produced the next best thing: a photo tour! Enjoy!

Welcome to Bansilalpet from The Modern Story on Vimeo.