For the past five years a focal point of The Modern Story Fellowship experience has been the weeklong workshops that we conduct with Communities Rising in rural Tamil Nadu. Every September or October we work with children of a variety of ages in the villages surrounding Villapuram (near Pondicherry) and come together for several days to produce a film about their communities. Additionally, we live and work with Communities Rising staff, who help to keep up comfortable, feed us, and also act as helpers and translators in our classroom. We all really enjoyed our time at Communities Rising, with the students and also with the staff. Here are some of our personal experiences from our journey to Tamil Nadu! From: Dara
Coming to Communities Rising, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. After our bus being postponed due to bunds and riots in Tamil Nadu, I was more than a little nervous. Not just nervous about getting there, nervous about connecting with two new groups of students, of teaching them in one week to do what I had been working with students in Hyderabad on for months. I was nervous about finding out where we’d be staying and who we’d be staying with. Sitting on the curb at five in the morning, after our bus from Cochin dropped us off in what felt like the middle of nowhere, my nerves reached their peak. But soon, a group from Communities Rising came to pick us up, placed some beautiful flower garlands around our necks, and initiated the feeling of welcoming that would dispel my nervousness for the remainder of the week. As we drove to the CR center, watching the sunrise and listening to Tamil music, my nerves gave way to a feeling of comfort. I was so impressed with every aspect of the CR experience. From adding time for afternoon naps to our schedule, to stocking the kitchen with chicken nuggets and chocolate chip cookie mix, to providing translation help in the classroom, and even treating us to pizza in Pondicherry, the staff did a wonderful job making us feel very well taken care of. And the students, with their instant acceptance of the TMS fellows, their quick grasp on the camera equipment and editing software, and their eagerness to share what characterizes their villages, made the experience truly feel like a success. I’m so excited to share the videos the students of Anilady and Vikrivandi produced, and to see what great work the CR/TMS partnership produces in the future.
A 40 minute drive through the idyllic Tamil Nadu countryside (a pastoral dream of coconut trees and cows, set to the tune of Mario’s favorite Tamil pop oldies) led us to the first of our schools, Anilady, and set off a whirlwind week of brainstorming, filming, production, and editing. Though Communities Rising seemed to be a very different experience from our usual schools in urban Hyderabad, immediately the staff and extended friends/family of CR, and fantastic students set us at ease. Anilady was quick to brainstorm both things they were proud of and things they wanted to improve in their village, and we were able to start filming on the second day– an impressive feat for students just learning to conceptualize making a film. At Vikravandi, the wide range of students’ ages posed a bit of a challenge but also an opportunity to find a way to bring out every filmmaker’s talents. We decided on a film that showcased the flora and fauna of their beautiful surroundings, and allowed us to document neighborhood safaris (an activity I would highly recommend to those at home). After a week, I was so impressed at what the students from both schools were able to produce. As a teacher, it really taught me that sometimes the best method is just to dive in and worry about the details later–hands on learning is key. I also will never forget the little moments of downtime with the kids, where they shared a bit of their culture with us through mehendi, bike rides, making pongle, and plenty of dance movies. I’m so grateful to all the staff at Communities Rising for being incredibly hospitable and generous with their lovely (bright pink) home, and all the students at Anilady and Vikravandi for their enthusiasm and smiles, even on a school break. It was a week I won’t forget.
During our incredible week with Communities Rising, I found myself reflecting on what made our experience so unique and what had prepared students to jump right into their video projects. From many thoughts, two recurring themes include:
Access to a safe space
Our time in Anilady and Vikravandy got me thinking about how important it is for children to have access to safe spaces for creative play and engagement with others, the kind that stimulates learning, collaboration, and self-confidence. Of course, many children will find and create these settings for themselves, but a community center provides an alternate space, outside of the home and school, that brings resources into the area where they live – whether it is through technology, teachers that offer new skills, CR staff who serve as role models, or fostering new friendships. A testament to the importance of the community center in the children’s lives, I think, is that so many showed up for class despite it being their week off from school!
Access to technology
At both centers, I was surprised to walk in and find students already on the computers, working on Photoshop projects (at Anilady) or on Microsoft Paint (at Vikravandy). It was a contrast to go from urban schools, where many of our students have limited and highly regulated access to the few working computers available in their labs, to arrive in a rural area with well-equipped labs, where students seemed very comfortable using different programs. At Anilady, I noticed a couple of students had small chits of paper, where they had written down basic steps for functions like saving a document, which they referred to when in doubt. I was especially impressed by how quickly students grasped the basics of using Wondershare, a video editing software. Clearly regular and open access to functioning equipment, paired with excellent computer teachers and a decent student-computer ratio, all made a difference in what students were able to learn and achieve in such a short time.
Ultimately, I was struck by how well the children worked together, even in mixed groups of boys and girls; by the boldness of some of the younger children, especially young girls, in sharing their ideas; and students’ commitment to their projects, particularly the zeal with which they searched for the right props, costumes, and locations to showcase their communities. CR’s programming and resources, as well as the familial environment that it creates, played a large part in setting the conditions for our projects to be successful in this way. A big, heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in shaping this wonderful experience!