A common focus: Hamilton Middle School students use digital storytelling to build Bridges to Understanding other cultures.

How do you grab the attention of 120 middle school-aged students?

The answer at Aki Kurose Middle School auditorium last fall was not MTV or a movie star but rather student-made documentaries from the Dharamsala, India; Ollantaytambo, Peru; and Alaska's Arctic Village.

Local students from Hamilton International Middle School in Wallingford, The Evergreen School and Aki Kurose Middle School Academy watched with rapt attention as stories of Tibetan girls playing soccer, Peruvian girls selling handmade dolls and boys fishing in the frigid Arctic were told in the teenagers' own words.

The documentaries were made with the help of a Seattle-based nonprofit organization called Bridges to Understanding, which connects youths worldwide through digital storytelling. You can view their students' work on www.bridgesweb.org.

Sharing stories

Students from three of the five schools participating in the Bridges program came together for the first time in October to participate in a Digital Storytelling Workshop.

As the 120 students initially filled the auditorium, Hamilton's Sharon Greenberg helped the students see their common bonds by asking them to stand if they speak more than one language, have friends from different cultures and have pets (among other questions).

Languages spoken by Bridges students include Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Filipino, Hebrew, Italian, Swedish, Laos, Arabic and North African languages.

After this and other introductory remarks, they watched the documentaries mentioned above. Evergreen's Marty Kelly Peterson asked students to pay attention to the technical elements of the stories, as well as their content.

In response to the stories, Hamilton student Loretta Aho said, "It is really interesting to hear about people from other countries. I liked the football (soccer) movie the best. In other countries, women aren't allowed to do things, but they found a way to do it."

Ash Harris, from The Evergreen School, liked how the movies use digital technology to show movement from still pictures so the effect is more like a movie than a slideshow.

Getting interactive

After discussing the video as a group, the students broke up into small groups and participated in three workshops: letter writing, digital portrait-taking and story-boarding.

The students also wrote letters to Bridges students around the world, explaining their favorite game, as "Games of the World" is a theme for this year's stories. Themes allow the students to compare their experiences with those of others around the world; past themes include "Water Made Visible" and "Our Communities."

In the digital portrait-taking workshop, local mentors showed students how to use light and to frame a shot before letting the students take pictures of each other. Some students laughed nervously and gazed shyly away from the camera, while others enjoyed the spotlight. A group of eighth-graders from Aki Kurose even gathered together to rap energetically about their pictures.

Microsoft's Tim Grey used his company's computers and software to print the students' pictures on the spot.

Students then learned how to organize pictures into a coherent "storyboard," or outline for a story. They took pictures from local magazines with loose themes, such as sports or making food, and collaborated on figuring out how to order the pictures and write a coherent narrative. This is an essential element of organizing the documentaries students make through Bridges.

Typically, mentors from Bridges (often professional photographers) teach groups of middle school students the skills at the workshop through weekly classroom visits.

After taking pictures from their lives and putting them together into a logical narrative, they pre-sent the finished product to a global audience of their peers via an interactive on-line forum.

Marshal Copeland and Philip Rudio, both from Aki Kurose, both agree that "talking to people on the Internet" from around the world is their favorite part of the program.

In the forum, students engage each other and ask questions about each other's cultures, as well as the techniques used in their finished products.

A moving experience

Photographer and human-rights advocate Phil Borges founded Bridges in 2000.

After many years photographing people from vastly different cultures and witnessing the lack of geographical awareness characteristic of many youths in America today, he asked, "What would happen if young people were able to meet on a platform that allowed an equal exchange? What if they could learn with and from each other, not just about each other?"

He created Bridges with that vision in mind, and the success of his vision was evident in the children's enthusiasm. Some students showed this energy through rapping and chattering noisily about how to best frame a portrait, while others quietly pondered the significance of what they had seen.

Aaron Cohen from Evergreen, said that seeing how people fished in Alaska surprised him because he didn't know they used chainsaws to cut through ice in such remote areas.

The videos made him ask, "Where do they get electricity? How do they charge their saws? How do they charge their cameras?"

Hamilton's Elaine Flacker said that watching the video about girls making and selling dolls in Peru to support their families made her think about "how I can help my family."

Ash Harris, of Evergreen, said he felt "sad for the children who have to sell for a living." He said he felt his lifestyle was almost the "exact opposite."

After the children had piled into their buses to go back to their schools, Susan Olivier Hirasawa, executive director of Bridges, remarked that, "It was really exciting to have a physical manifestation of what we have been trying to do with Bridges and to see all the students work together in a creative way. I was very moved."

Cheryl Chow is a Seattle School Board member representing Southeast Seattle, which includes Aki Kurose Middle School Academy.

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