Ending & Beginning

This past week was our final one working with our TMS Boston scholars in the Computer Clubhouse at the South Boston Boys and Girls Club. On Monday and Thursday, we held our final classes of the workshop, and on Friday we hosted our finale showcase, where our scholars had the opportunity to share their completed “Where I’m From” digital stories with their fellow Club member peers, with Club staff and administrators, and, most importantly, with their family members who were able to attend the showcase.


Our scholars spent the final two classes in post-production, working with Fellows and interns on taking their digital content and editing and organizing it all into a final product in iMovie. After reviewing each others’ draft versions of their digital stories, scholars provided each other with feedback on how they could improve their stories. All of the scholars’ agreed that their stories could benefit from more scholar-produced imagery, and so we worked together as a TMS team (scholars and Fellows and interns alike) to take photos and videos, with everyone rotating the responsibility of being the camera operator or the director or an actor. Once these last acts of production were finished, scholars focused the rest of their class time (as well as some of their free time outside of class) in post-production. Fellows and interns worked with scholars to help them learn the intricacies of iMovie, and slowly but surely each scholar’s digital story came together. By the end of class on Thursday, our scholars had completed their “Where I’m From” digital stories, and were ready to share them with the world.


The next day was the finale showcase, and each scholar arrived early for TMS class. It was evident to all of us that they were both excited and somewhat nervous to share their digital stories. We had each scholar cue up their digital story on separate iMacs on different tables in the middle of the Computer Clubhouse. We discussed how scholars should introduce their stories, and encouraged them to share with their audience about the process they went through in making their digital stories as well as what they learned in doing so.


At 3:00 pm, one scholar’s father and another scholar’s grandmother arrived right on time for the showcase. We explained to them that they could view their scholar’s and the other scholars’ stories at that time, but that we would wait for more audience members to arrive in order to share all of the stories at once. Thus, in the meantime, we would encourage visitors to view scholars’ stories in a “gallery walk” fashion at their leisure. The scholar whose grandmother had arrived first wanted to wait for his father to be present to show his story, and so his grandmother graciously respected his wish and waited. Over time, some Club members and staff filtered into the Computer Clubhouse and rotated to each scholar’s table and watched their digital story with them. Our scholars did a great job of explaining the genesis of their stories and the process they went through in making them. By around 3:45 pm, we reach a critical mass of audience members in the room, including South Boston Boys and Girls Club leadership and the father of the scholar who was anxiously awaiting his arrival. At that time, I asked for everyone’s attention and welcomed them to our TMS finale showcase. I explained what TMS does as an organization, as well as what our scholars did over the course of our workshop. Then, each scholar was presented with a certificate by a Fellow or intern who had worked closely with them on their digital story. And finally we held a mass viewing of each scholar’s digital story.


The last story to be shown was that of the scholar who had his grandmom and his father in attendance. I could tell that he was both excited and anxious to show his story. Even I was somewhat anxious, as I knew that the scholar shared some very personal things about his family, and his dad in particular, in his story. What made me slightly nervous was when the scholar speaks about his father’s occupation as an electrician, and how his father has always pushed his son to do something “more than” being an electrician. The scholar speaks eloquently and powerfully about how his father and mother want what is best for him, and want him to succeed, and don’t want him to struggle in the same manner that they have had to struggle at times to provide for themselves and their family. I was slightly nervous because you can never truly tell how someone who is not completely familiar with digital storytelling will react when part of their story is being told by a loved one. I watched the family as they and the rest of the audience watch the digital story. From the very beginning, the scholar was sitting in a seat in front of the computer, and his father stood behind him with his hands on his son’s shoulders, while the scholar’s grandmom stood to their side. All three of them watched and listened intently throughout the story. When it came to an end, amidst the applause of the audience, the scholar looks up at his dad who was looking down at him. He told his son that he was proud of him and that he loved him, and he gave him a kiss on his forehead.


After the applause died and the crowd dispersed, the scholar took his father and grandmom into the media room to show them how he mad made his digital story. As he did so, I watched from afar. I was proud of him for telling his truth, and happy for him that he got to share it with his family that cares about so much, and who obviously love him beyond my ability to comprehend. I was proud of my scholars, each of whom had opened themselves up and given their all to their digital stories and to each other. I was proud of Franklin, Nicole, and Sam, and all the hard work they had put into guiding and supporting our scholars. I was proud of TMS, as much a movement as it is an organization, and one that has amplified the voices of youth near and far.


But what I felt more viscerally than any other emotion was a simple but powerful awe. Awe at the stories of our scholars. Awe at the power of their stories. Awe at the power of storytelling – to create, to connect, to liberate.


And awe at the fact that while this moment was in many ways an ending, it was also a beginning.


And for that, I am beyond grateful.


Ever onward.


– Rich


Intern, Sam’s reflections on the experience of working with The Modern Story:

Since TMS was essentially my first job working with kids, it really taught me about the challenges and numerous benefits of this practice. It taught me that to work with kids you must put yourself out there and although that is difficult at points, you will see results and wonderful relationships form as a result. The Modern Story aims to get children to see themselves and their world through a different lens that they may not always have the opportunity to use. During my time with TMS I saw that this ability lies within all of the children we worked with and they simply needed someone to hand them the tools to express it. 


Students Against Corruption

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.

GHS Afzalgunj focuses on H2O

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.

An apology, and Vikravandi Children’s Safari

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.

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.




TMS students take on ‘freedom’ in final projects

Azadi. Swecha. Freedom.

No matter the language or dialect, freedom (or lack thereof) is an idea that humans around the world grapple with everyday. For students at Seetaphalmandi Government High School in Secunderabad, Hyderabad, and MGM Girls Government High School in Nampally, Hyderabad, this idea lent inspiration for their final projects.

Students at both the schools participated in a social media campaign called #TMSFreedomIs. Using this hashtag, students reflected on what freedom means to them, took photos representing this idea, and shared their thoughts on Instagram. This allowed their ideas to extend to a wider and more interactive network of people. We also talked about what it means to be responsible on social media, an important lesson as kids start to use social networks at a younger age than ever before. The campaign lasted about three weeks and we saw responses from people in Delhi, South Africa, Minnesota, and Boston. It was a great lesson in how to use social media to create productive conversation.

Then students reflected on how they wanted to share their ideas of freedom with the world, which is where the two schools differed.

MGM: Freedom for girls has always been a point of lengthy discussion at this all-girls school. As we talked more and more about what freedom means to us, it became clear that freedom for girls is an issue that the class cared deeply about. Due to this, students at MGM split into various groups and completed interviews, research, and creative interpretations of freedom in order to create a varied look at freedom from a girls’ perspective. Though there is a ways to go, the girls agreed that talking about the issues is a very important first step, especially since issues like child marriage and the ability to go outside the home stem from family. The girls created a print magazine to accompany the documentary in order to show their families and community to start the discussion about freedom for girls at a local level. Check out their ambitious film here:


Seetaphalmandi: Since the students devoted a few weeks to a classroom exchange with a school in Thailand (and had already done a documentary project), we focused more on letting the kids dictate what they wanted to see from the project. In their video, you will see their social media contributions, a poster project, and interpretations of what freedom means to them. Students at Seetaphalmandi are always enthusiastic about using the cameras and creating stories, which definitely shines through in this final project:


Overall, these students took on a very tough subject and were able to express some very nuanced ideas. I am proud of their work and I know that this discussion will continue as they grow in their education and lives. Interested in seeing more? Check out the hashtag #TMSFreedomIs on Instagram.

Seetaphalmandi says it is time to end dirty water

Students at Seetaphalmandi were armed with questions and a camera, and the mission to find out how dirty water is affecting their community. After two full days of interviewing community members both in their school and in their surrounding area, the answer was clear: dirty water is an issue and it is time to let the world know.

Dirty water can stem from old, overused, and broken drainage pipes resulting in stagnant water on the streets (especially after a rainfall) and can mix with drinking water. This can lead to an increase in mosquitos, which can cause an increase in diseases such as malaria and Dengue fever, and can lead to sickness if drainage water mixes with drinking water. Not to mention, it smells bad, looks ugly, and can inconvenience people trying to access their home and the main roads.

This video shows the issues in the Seetaphalmandi area, as well as interviews with community members and suggestions for how to prevent dirty water-borne diseases.

Though the documentary started a much needed conversation about dirty water in their community, students also created a brochure that explained the issues with dirty water. They distributed the pamphlets to over 40 community members and local business owners in hopes that more people would speak up about the issue. Very proud of these students for seeing a problem in their community and creating a powerful movie to speak up about this issue!

Bansilalpet: Crime Investigation Bansilalpet Unit

When I proposed the idea of doing a fiction film to the students of Bansilalpet High School, they were unanimously excited to begin screen writing, story-boarding, and preparing for their parts in the movie.

We chose to do a crime show to further utilize and explore the problems of pollution in Hyderabad. They were very familiar with the crime show trope, and were eager to play the roles of police officers, criminals, and victims, especially in the context of very real problems in their communities.

This project began with the question: “What is a problem in your community?” We discussed noise pollution, water pollution, drinking and smoking, and lack of jobs. Then we decided to look at the ones that were most common. Everyone in the class agreed that plastic pollution was the most rampant problem where they lived, and that the lack of dust bins (trash cans) and awareness were large contributing factors to this issue.

The students wanted to create this short crime piece to raise more awareness about plastic pollution.

Stay tuned for the third project, where they show and explain how to recycling your plastics into useful everyday items!

Mosquito Borne Diseases: Prevention is Better than a Cure

Sometimes, when negotiating make-up days for missed classes or lobbying for use of a computer , fellows are called upon to defend the TMS program. From curious teachers, to expectant headmistresses, to students who wander into the classroom, people often ask us to explain exactly what the TMS curriculum is and how it’s as beneficial to students as the English class or elective period or computer time it’s cutting into. I can’t think of a better defense than what I saw in the classroom I shared with Karis and our Teach for India partner Ramesh.

At Monarch, our TFI school, Karis and I had a really great opportunity to fold the TMS curriculum into what the students were already learning. Before our first class, we sat down with Ramesh over Osmania biscuits and talked about how to build digital storytelling into the curriculum Ramesh already had in place. When Ramesh told us he was working through a science unit on mosquito borne illnesses, we figured that would be the perfect place. Instead of just taking notes about mosquito facts and getting quizzed on disease prevention techniques, the students got to write narratives about mosquito borne illnesses and come up with ways to visually communicate the facts they learned.

Working at Monarch wasn’t always easy. The students there were a few years younger than students at the other schools where we teach, so we learned a lot about adapting the material to a younger audience. For example: having 12 and 13-year olds film mini stories around campus? Pretty solid way to let them practice their camera angles. Having 9 and 10-year olds do the same activity? Pretty solid way to end up with a group of children running around school and occasionally filming a few seconds of it. But Ramesh came ready with a handful of classroom management techniques that we ended up even bringing into our other classes.

One of the best things about the TFI partnership was seeing how the curriculum leads so well into students taking action. The students took the project outside the classroom and into the community, spreading their knowledge of mosquito borne illness prevention around their neighborhood. Watch the video to see how the students used their TMS skills to apply what they learned about mosquitos.

West Marredpally: Harmful Alcohol

When you’re pushing to get a project done, sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of why you’re making the project in the first place. This was definitely the case with my class at West Marredpally as we worked to complete our video on alcohol. In my rush to move through the process of choosing a topic and writing a script, we ended up with a story that felt a little disconnected from the students’ actual experiences with alcohol in their communities. So, instead of moving on to the next steps of pre-production, we took a day to just step back and discuss the message we wanted our video to send. We talked through reasons why people choose to drink, researched the long-term and short-term effects of alcohol abuse, shared personal experiences of peer pressure, and in the end rewrote the script to be something the students would want to show their friends to encourage them to make smart choices about alcohol. From there, we plunged back into pre-production with renewed excitement. The girls put their all into writing a shotlist, rehearsing the dialogue, and decorating the set. As an added bonus, we filmed the birthday party scene on the date of my actual birthday. The students made me wear a sari (which they had to retie when I arrived at school) and once we finished filming, they turned the set into a party for me. This was definitely one of my most memorable birthdays, and that’s due a lot to it capping off a project that meant so much to the students. It wasn’t a celebration for me as much as it was congratulating ourselves for our hard work.

Here I am cutting the prop cake (not super tasty after three days of sitting on set).

Here I am cutting the prop cake (not super tasty after three days of sitting on set).