The Modern Story Fellowship

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. 


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.

The Moving Bus

Getting around in Hyderabad is always an adventure. From crossing 8 lanes of full-speed traffic to colliding with a motorbike during a late-night auto rickshaw ride, getting from point A to point B often includes moments of mingled terror and excitement. The bus, our most frequently-used form of transportation, is by far the most unpredictable. Sometimes it’s so crowded that you miss your stop because you can’t squeeze your way out. Sometimes a fight breaks out because a man refuses to give up his seat in the section of the bus reserved for women. And very often, people jump into the open doors of moving buses. Recently, I decided to mimic this last behavior. I was headed to class, almost but not quite at the bus stop when I saw the 8A, my ride to school, begin to pull away. In the few seconds of sprinting to close the distance between us, I psyched myself up to do something I had seen so many others before me accomplish. I leapt onto the bus, just barely making it onto the step. My body slammed against the side of the bus and I gripped the railing for dear life. When I finally managed to pull myself inside, I was met with a mix of shocked, confused and concerned faces. But along with a wave of embarrassment and a badly bruised leg came another important lesson about life in India: things won’t always stop for you. Sometimes you just have to jump in.

This is definitely a lesson I’ve had to put into practice in the classroom. Holidays and a collection of unexpected hurdles have made working on schedule for our first project a challenge. But time doesn’t stop to give me another 20 minutes to talk about point of view or another week to get to know my students before I ask them to photograph their hopes, worries and desires. As a class, we’ve had to jump onto this bus already in motion. But unlike the gasps, chuckles, and stares that greeted me on the 8A, our big jump has produced two projects I can’t wait to share, and a level of trust between myself and the students I could not have imagined to find so early.

This new ease with jumping carried beautifully into our plans for this past weekend. The majority of my travel experiences have taken months of planning and preparation. But in this life of objects already in motion, deciding on Sunday to go to Mumbai on Wednesday  seemed perfectly reasonable. And though the overnight bus did stop to allow me, Karis and Dara to climb on safely, the experience still required a leap. The decision to jump is always rewarded, whether by a weekend full of memories, a productive and supportive classroom, or a fun story and battle scar. In all cases, I’m glad I managed to coax my feet off the ground.

Meet Karis

When you’re young, you’re likely to have big dreams. Mine were pretty much as big as you can imagine. From year to year I decided I was destined to be a professional soccer player, a fashion designer, a CEO, and even a dolphin trainer. However, throughout all of these ambitious career choices, I kept doing one thing, just because I loved it: storytelling. I made newspapers for my friends, classes, and family starting at age seven, and started taking photos daily when I was 12. Finally one day I wised up and realized that I should probably think about doing what I did everyday anyway for a living. So I decided to become a professional storyteller, or as I usually call it, a journalist.

That dream has become a reality in some of the most incredible ways. I’ve reported for major newspapers and radio stations, and traveled to every corner of cities and around the world in the search for a story. To me, storytelling is the best way to make sense of your life, explore a new place, and interact with others. If you can put a human face on an issue or explain a complicated idea in a simple way, oftentimes you have made sense of it yourself and you can convince people to make a difference in the world. I’m motivated by action, and I’ve found a notebook and camera is the best way for me to spur action in the world. Storytelling was also the only way that I dealt with some tough issues in my life. Growing up, especially when you’re young, can be quite challenging. Asking questions, writing down thoughts, and expressing yourself in words and pictures is one of the best ways to explain your feelings and show the world the importance of your story. With that in mind, while I did journalism on my own, I also volunteered and worked with students to help them tell the stories of their communities and their lives in order to empower the next generation of storytellers.
So when a friend sent me information about The Modern Story, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for me. I’m so excited to travel to a new place, meet new people, learn about Hyderabad (and India), and instill a love of storytelling in more young people. Though it will be quite a bit hotter than my current home, Minnesota, I’m ready and absolutely thrilled to brave the temperatures and travel to Hyderabad to work with The Modern Story and its partners.

Meet Dara

Last summer I heard the story of Cho, a Tibetan refugee, who walked by nightfall for two months to India from a Chinese-occupied Tibet. I was studying abroad in northern India and this service project, a simple language and culture exchange, was meant to serve as an integration method to help prepare us for living in a nearby village. However, for me, hearing his story had a profound impact. Cho told me: “Please tell others my story. I want others to know”. I remember wishing that I had the tools and the proper platforms to get his story out into the world, and not just my small connections to it.

Before I met Cho I understood how important personal storytelling and digital media could be in personal development. While living in New York City I volunteered to teach digital photography to inner-city junior high students. The transformation that occurred was stunning to watch – my students became more confident, it gave them a changed perspective on their world, and it excited them to learn more. It created passion. After meeting Cho I decided that I wanted to do more service for youth, and to help them find their voice in our ever-changing world.

This passion for service also propelled my interest in global education. Following university I moved to Kumasi, Ghana to work for an American NGO where I ran peer mentoring programs in rural villages. I spent seven months there working within the school systems, learning Twi, traveling West Africa, and hearing people’s stories. It was during this time that I learned about The Modern Story Fellowship, and knew that this would be the perfect next step for me to explore additional educational systems, listen to more people’s stories, and to also return to a country that I love.

I think that global education is an ongoing dialogue; it bridges cultural and religious gaps to achieve learning and understanding. I love teaching because I love being a part of that dialogue, and because I never want to stop learning about the world. I am so excited to be a part of The Modern Story, and for this new adventure!

Challenges to creative writing curriculum in India: Individuality, Borges, and the crowds of the city

Above the boy’s beds made of steel is written “The greatest men have always stood alone.” The quote, for me, lends weight to the tension between individuality and the teeming 1billion plus Indians in the subcontinent’s often overcrowded cities.  ‘Individuality,’ in reference to our students and their education, is often at odds with the overpopulated city and the lack of funds to provide enough teachers for individual learning. This week taught me the challenges of implementing a curriculum teaching individual expression, creativity, and a sense of individual value in our students in Nalgonda. A.P.R.S. boys school is a Muslim boarding school. Although they are not necessarily minorities in all parts of Hyderabad, there is a rich record of complementary and antagonistic histories between the many religions living side by side in the country’s urban centers. Whether or not they would express it themselves, it seems to me that religion plays into a sense of pride in both their identity and interests. They are fascinated by the pyramids and mosques of Cairo, tigers, Arabic and Urdu calligraphy, riddles and religious songs from childhood. So far they have been doing great individual and creative stories while in class. For homework, however, almost all the students copied poems out of their English readers claiming that they had written the poems themselves. For example, one boy claimed he was the original author of ‘The Road Not Taken.’

Plagiarism is not always an un-creative act. Some philosophers, such as those Jorge Luis Borges would often quote, believed that anyone who writes a line of Shakespeare is Shakespeare. One of Borges’ most famous stories is that of a man who tried writing the next great Don Quixote. Realizing his pride, the man decided instead to live his every thought as though he were Miguel de Cervantes until, without glancing at the text, his life would lead him to write Don Quixote word-for-word, exactly as the original. In most contexts, such a conjecture would seem ridiculous. However, in the teeming crowds of Hyderabad, the individuality of one person or one student can often get lost in the shuffle of government education. Plagiarism can also lead a teacher to suspend their belief in a student’s creativity. But this is not so much of an alarm for our classes. Yes, it was not easy for the students to internalize an emphasis on individual work, original ideas and creativity. But they have shown excellent promise while working in class. As supported by the America India Foundation’s Digital Equalizer Program, we as Fellows recognize the importance of bridging the digital divide but also recognize a more pressing issue  at the local level of our schools; the value ascribed to individual expression, and perhaps in proportion, individual worth.

There are daily news reports that emphasize a reduced value of human life in such a highly populated country; on-going fatalities on the highways, railroads, oppressive pollution hanging as thick as moss in front of pre-schools, the suicides after the Chief Minister died and the list goes on and is normalized. Granted, this is an outsiders perspective. Yet, on our daily rides home through the congested and chaotic streets of Hyderabad, I am reminded of the social context pressing in on the classroom once the bell rings and the day is over. For teachers, we return to our apartment in Abids. But the boys return to their metal beds and their walls where it is written: “The greatest men have always stood alone.” Success, it seems, comes when one has the privilege to live in a house with your own room, to ride in your own air conditioned car, to have the personal space to breath unpolluted air: indeed, it does seem the greatest men here strive to stand alone. There is a health related aspect to self-isolation. No wonder so many students perceive their solitude profiled in the city’s skyline; privacy is at a premium in India. Those who can’t afford it continue in the rush of the alley traffic beneath the high rises. Perhaps like our students they are fascinated by tigers, pyramids, and constructions of the mind that lead one man to believe, as Borges often dreamed, that he is any other man. For now, our challenge is to channel their energy into completing the assignments faithfully and honestly, doing their own work and showcasing their incredible capacity for wonder.

Danny Thiemann
2009/2010 Fellow