Photo Stories

Meet Rich

We are all scholars. This is what I tell the students, families, and educators whom I’ve served as a scholar myself. We all have knowledge of value to share with one another, and we all have the capacity both to learn and to teach. It is only by engaging each other as scholars – to learn as we teach, and to teach as we learn – that we can begin to access the innumerable learning networks that surround us. I believe that there is never a time nor a place that we are not learning, and as such I’ve always been in “school,” and I’ve always been a scholar.

My first teacher was my mother. Not because her profession deemed her so – as she has always been a teacher, and a great one at that – but rather because of her approach to how she raised me. The places she brought me and the experiences to which she exposed me were all focused on my development as a learner. Whether it was reading to me every day, or her encouragement of my love for Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, or our frequent trips to parks and the local library, I learned from an early age that learning was not a compartmentalized practice within this act called “living,” but rather the essential element of life itself.

For as long as I can remember, stories have been my favorite form of learning. As a child, some of my most cherished memories are of my mother and father and teachers reading stories to me, and the best gifts I received were the books that transported me to far-away lands and introduced me to amazing characters and cultures. As an adult, I regularly immerse myself in all manner of storytelling, from novels to short stories to to documentary films to op-eds to interviews to simple stories told by elders at the kitchen table or over an evening fire.

I first joined TMS not as a Teaching Fellow, but as an ally who shared a vision for developing transformative models for community-based education. Having served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Zambia and as a community school director in West Philadelphia, I was immediately drawn to the work of The Modern Story and the stories of its students when I first met Remy and Piya in 2013. As I got to know TMS’ founders and as I gradually educated myself about digital storytelling, I couldn’t resist my growing desire to play a role in helping The Modern Story grow and evolve so that it can serve children like my scholars at Wilson Community School in West Philly, and my families in Katukutu village in Central Province, Zambia.

So, having spent the past year and a half working on various strategic planning projects, I now face my most challenging TMS role yet – to do the work that is most important and serve as a TMS Teaching Fellow. Over the course of the month of July, I have the great responsibility and incredible opportunity to work with TMS scholars in the Computer Clubhouse at the South Boston Boys and Girls Club. We will be learning about digital storytelling, watching and discussing the digital stories of TMS scholars from Hyderabad, India and other communities around the world, and creating our own personal digital stories. With that in mind, I am proud to share the first digital story I’ve ever made. I’d like to dedicate it to my family, my friends, my teachers, and my scholars. In so many ways, there are all but one in the same. Because we are all scholars, and I am because we are.


Audiah Memorial: “I am” Visual Poem

What are you curious about?

To me this question seems nearly too open-ended. Everyday in Hyderabad something new will peak my curiosity or make me pause in thought. Sometimes it’s cultural (Why are we putting statues of Ganesh, the elephant God, into the lake?). Sometimes it’s food related, often along the lines of “What is that?!” and “I wonder how they make chicken biryani…” No really, though. How do they make chicken biryani?

When I posed this question to students at Audiah Memorial High School, I wasn’t sure what kind of response I was expecting from them, but I certainly didn’t expect what I heard that day!

Click here to view our first photo project! In addition to their curiosities, they also explore their collective and personal identities in the form of a Visual Poem. Enjoy!


Seetaphalmandi: Brothers and Sisters

Here is the first project from Seetaphalmandi Government High School in 2014. Though we got started a little bit later than other classes due to some administrative confusion, the late class schedule corresponded perfectly with a popular festival in India called Raksha Bandhan which celebrate the relationship between sisters and brothers.

Essentially a sister ties a “rakhi”, which is an embroidered bracelet, to her brother’s wrist and the brother gives the sister gifts. They both promise to protect and support one anther. Since all of the students at Seetaphalmandi have siblings and celebrate this holiday, we decided to show off an important tradition by explaining the Raksha Bandhan holiday and exploring what it means to be a good brother and sister. Enjoy!

MGM: “Our Precious Parents”

Proud to show off the first project by MGM Government Girl’s High School in 2014, “Our Precious Parents.” Initially I wasn’t sure what we would do our project on. MGM is filled with many unique and multi-faceted students that surprised me with new thoughts everyday. I wasn’t sure what would bring them together. For homework I asked them to draw a picture of something that was precious to them, giving an example of my bike as something that was precious to me. However, as they worked on their drawings it became clear what, or should I say who, is most precious to them: their parents.

Almost every student had something kind to say about their mother or father and sentences about lessons they had learned and experiences with their parents. With that in mind, I thought why not look into this relationship? So students brainstormed lessons their parents taught them, a poem about parents, and what makes a good daughter. Here is the final product. Enjoy!


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.


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.




Watch Out Ramoji: The West Marredpally Girls are Ready to Take Over

Did you know that India is the world’s largest producer of films?  Or that, as a matter of fact, Hyderabad is home to the second largest film industry in the country?  Not to mention we’ve got Ramoji Film City, the world’s largest film production facility and the world’s largest 3D IMAX Screen, which, not surprisingly, is also the world’s most attended screen.

What I’m trying to say is: movies are a really big deal here and film has proven to be an easy conversation starter with my students.  My class at West Marredpally was perhaps the most enthusiastic, though; the students launched into vivid mile- a-minute descriptions of their favorite Blockbusters without any prodding.  They were eager to get started on the behind the scenes work as well.  I can’t quite remember how exactly it came up but at some point I asked them how many of their favorite movies featured heroines or had a girl playing a pivotal role.  When that failed to elicit any raised hands I asked how many movies that fit that description they could think of.  We ended up with just a handful of examples I asked them why they thought that was.  They were quick to answer that people don’t want to make “those types of movies.”  I asked them why that was.
“They wouldn’t make money because there would be no one to see them.”
“Most women work too much to go to the movies.”

I pressed them on why they thought only women would go to see movies about heroines.
“Men would not be interested to see them.”
Again, “Why?”

The conversation was at times thrilling, at times exhausting and definitely a challenge for all of us but we eventually got ourselves right to the center of the vortex we were struggling to define.  The students realized that many filmmakers and moviegoers operate under (and the former therefore perpetuate) the same assumption that women make less capable, less complex, less convincing, and therefore, less lucrative heroines or even principle characters.

Then, these cross-legged, wide eyed soon-to-be directors and writers and actresses and camerawomen and editors decided that they could try and convince folks to produce movies about women and girls- and what better way to do it than by making one of their own?

Over the next few weeks we talked about all of the reasons that common assumptions about women and girls are false.  We talked about ourselves and told stories about moments in our lives that we’re proud of.  Hema Prabha is only twelve but she can speak seven languages.  M. Swathi is a great cook.  Devi tells gripping stories.  Hemalela aced all of her exams.  Swathi is a talented runner.  They told me about all of the women they admire.  To help bridge the language divide, I borrowed a move from Hyderabad for Feminism and had them scrawl their thoughts on whiteboards in English or Telugu and take photos of these alongside their action shots.  Finally, they recorded their voiceover, picked a powerful instrumental song to accompany, honed their editing skills and here’s what we came up with:

Our Stories Are Important- W. Marredpally from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

Around the time we were starting post-production, an article entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” was published.  I was reluctant to read it at first, too, but the basic argument is this:

“Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.”

In their video the girls place equal value on the fact that they are physically strong as they do on the fact that they can cook, or that they value relationships, or that they’re sincere.  They get to be themselves, not faster, stronger, meaner, more butt-kicking but also more callous tropes of themselves.  I am so grateful for the conversations these students have allowed me to have with them and I can’t wait to see what fascinating characters they come up with as we embark on our first short fiction video.

The Pleasantries of Surprise

Is there anything more delicious than being pleasantly surprised by a situation or circumstance? The thrill of having your assumptions dashed away, like a dandelion when a puff of wind flutters by? My class at Audiah Memorial High School has been nothing but a series of lessons in the foolishness of placing stock in pre-conceived notions, and the spark of beauty that lies in a true surprise. Compared to the other classes that I teach here in Hyderabad, the kids at Audiah are outliers: they are mostly boys, where I otherwise only deal with girls. They are mostly Telugu-medium, while my other students are quite proficient in English. The children at Audiah are rowdy: students openly beat each other in the classroom, mini versions of Pacquiao and Mayweather. Children at my other schools appear to be oblivious to the outcome of a great right-hook. Thus, my earliest dealings with the nineteen students at Audiah were a veritable mixed-bag. They had little to no idea what the words that I was spouting meant: English was a foreign language in every sense of the statement. Homework was assigned, and then summarily dismissed by the students. Unlike the other schools I have been working in, I did not have proper teacher assistants that were able to help me on a day-to-day basis. I felt disrespected and alone. The hours I was spending on cultivating “perfect” lesson plans were for naught, and I felt as if I was failing those that needed failure the least: my students.


Frustration has a face!

Frustration has a face!

Then came a breakthrough, and it arrived accidentally, as most great things are wont to do. While frustrated at my lack of ability to convey the concept of a “point of view” I slipped in a phrase or two in Telugu. The kids were shocked at my hidden linguistic abilities, yet they gobbled up the information that I was presenting. The photography scavenger hunt that we were working on was a breeze, and resulted in some great shots. When friends and family ask about my experience so far with The Modern Story, they assume that most of my work is in teaching English. Strengthening existing language skills is certainly part of my job, but the focus is on digital skills and instilling creative confidence. By simply switching the mode in which information was being presented, students that I had deemed “difficult to work with” were transformed. My notions were dashed away in a flurry of surprisingly beautiful and engaging content.


Scavenger hunt challenge: "Find something beautiful"

Scavenger hunt challenge: “Find something beautiful”


The next great surprise came whilst we were deep in the bowels of producing our first photo story. The kids settled upon three topics: ‘Maths in Daily Life’, ‘What is Friendship?’, and ‘Welcome to Audiah’ (a love letter to their school). This entailed three separate production teams, all simultaneously storyboarding, location scouting, taking pictures, and editing final products. As mentioned above, we do not have teachers assistants at Audiah – the teachers are too busy with their own curriculum to undertake TMS projects. Thus, the decision to undertake three photo stories meant that I, as a facilitator, would have to rotate my assistance between the groups, and that at any given time two groups would be dealing with production on their own. I was initially terrified at this prospect, as previous projects had needed to be micromanaged, for the sake of creative integrity and the equipments own well-being. However, as this blog post’s title indicates, I was about to be surprised yet again. All three groups were exemplary in terms of efficiency. After returning with the ‘Maths’ team from photographing a local shop, I was thrilled with surprise at the photos that the ‘Friendship’ group had captured. The rowdiness that was once so prevalent in class had vanished. Students were patient with each other whilst editing their stories in iMovie. Fighting over notebooks and pencils had been replaced by helping one another detach audio or insert subtitles. The final results can be viewed below: the students hope you enjoy watching them as much as they enjoyed making them. My first two months at Audiah have been a lesson in surprises, and I cannot wait to see what else these kids have in store. Now it’s on to the first video projects! Cheers!

Welcome to Audiah!

What is Friendship?

Maths in Daily Life


That’s a Wrap!

We are so excited to be posting our first photostory!

One of the first assignments I gave my students at Seethaphalmandi was to bring in an object that was precious to them and share it with the class so that I could get to know them better.  The class implored me to do the same and, the next day, I obliged by bringing in a handful of postcards from my friends’ travels.  At first, the postcards were a simple tool to help explain the basics of creating a storyboard for a photostory.  I had my students shout out what they could infer about Portugal from an image of a white church next to a lighthouse, or Washington, D.C. from a shot of the capital building or Israel from a close-up of a decked out camel.  Then, I read the accompanying text aloud to demonstrate how even more can be gleaned from a detailed written description.  Immediately, the students began to reflect on their own surroundings and to quiz me on how much I was able to understand about the culture of Hyderabad based on what I had seen so far.  They wanted to know what my friends thought of India, what had I taught them.  One student asked: “Teacher, have you sent any postcards yet?

And thus, the idea for our digital postcard was born.

Many ideas were thrown out in that first brainstorming session and I really hope that we get a chance to return to some of them- but partly because these students are naturally inclined to be in front of the camera and the idea of dressing up at school was exciting and partly because of my inability to pronounce or spell any of the things I was wearing they decided first to educate the masses about traditional Indian dress.

Digital Postcard: Indian Dress from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

I wrote in an earlier post about creative confidence about our goals of serving more as facilitators than teachers, of actively listening more than we lecture, and of our desire to see students confidently share what they know and think and feel with us.  photo (1)And in this class my students really had no option but to muster that creative confidence (please refer back to my previously mentioned ignorance).  When we needed to write a scene identifying the pieces of a half saree or decide whether a photograph should be a portrait of one student or a group shot the students quickly realized that I wasn’t the one with the “right” answer- they were.  It was wonderful to watch them step up and be the experts that they are and it’s led to our classroom having a much more open and egalitarian feel.

On a typical Thursday I’ll come in and ask them about what’s happened in the city since the last time I saw them- it’s festival season so there’s almost always been something exciting.  One week, a Muslim student taught me as well as the Hindu and Christian students in the class about Eid.  The following week, I explained absurd and amazing spectacle that is Halloween.  And this past week, a student named Nityanand explained the upcoming Ganesha festival- he’s an expert and counts it as his favorite since it happens around his birthday.  I can’t wait to continue learning from and alongside these students, but I think we’ll start off this week with a mini celebratory festival of our own!


On AYV, creative confidence, and superheroes

Hello! Nicole here.  Last week Nelle, Shivani and I were really lucky to be at the Adobe Youth Voices (AYV) Training co-hosted with one of our other local partners, The America India Foundation (AIF).    As participants we learned so much about creative pedagogy and how AVY applies it and were thrilled to interact with our teaching assistants outside of the classroom and as educators we were able to lead several parts of the training.  I was especially excited to facilitate a workshop on Creative Confidence.

“Creative Confidence” at AYV from The Modern Story on Vimeo.

This idea of creative confidence, of ownership, of assuredness that your voice is the best voice for for folks to hear a story from is incredibly important to me.  It’s what drew me to digital storytelling when I first heard about it in college and it’s what informs every decision I make when it’s late at night and I’m lesson planning at our dining room table that’s always a little cramped with whiteboards, backup hard drives and student’s journals.  In each class we’ve tried to make a conscious effort to present ourselves as facilitators more so than teachers with all of the answers and in some it’s been easier than in others to get the students to step up.  For example, my students at Seethaphalmandi school are in pre-production on a series of “digital postcards” about the culture of Hyderabad and the first one is centered on typical styles of dressing.  It didn’t take them long to realize that in this situation they had to teach me.  They’re confident in their knowledge of the topic and they’re excited to share what they know with anyone who wants to watch their video.

Nithyanand storyboarding at Seethaphalmandi!

Nithyanand storyboarding at Seethaphalmandi!

At the school discussed in the workshop, West Marredpally, however, the task was a little bit more daunting.  My students were quick to point out to me that most people in their community give more freedom and privileges to boys and also very attune to the massive dearth of movies with strong female, particularly young female leads and so I pushed them to make the connection between the two issues.  I was scribbling their ideas on the board and pushing them to tell me why (“why don’t people make these movies?” “why won’t people go see them?” “why do you think only women would go?”) and on and on. At first, they seemed to think that every time I pushed on it was because they had the wrong answer and it was a bit of a challenge to assure them that they were so completely right and that I was excited about where we were getting, but we finally came full circle with five minutes left on our Tuesday class and one girl confidently pointed out that if movies can shape thoughts and thoughts can shape actions in a negative way then the opposite must also be true and there was the creative confidence I had been searching for.  The class is entering the production phase determined not only to take great photographs or speak clearly when recording the voiceover, but to use these tools that tells a story that will change the hearts and minds of those within and outside of their community.  Also, on the subject of determination, all of this talOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAk about the strength of girls has led to many a conversation about a girl gang of superheroes, which to me sounds like it has all the trappings of a great action movie for project #2.  Stay tuned!