Teenagers of the world unite, digitally

How do you grab the attention of 120 middle school-aged students? The answer at Aki Kurose Middle School auditorium on Oct. 11 was not MTV or a movie star but student-made documentaries from the Dharamsala, India, Ollantaytambo, Peru and Alaska's Arctic Village.

Local students from Hamilton Middle School, The Evergreen School and Aki Kurose Middle School 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 youth worldwide through digital storytelling. You can view their students' work on www.bridgesweb.org.

On Oct. 11, they came together for the first time to participate in a digital storytelling workshop. As the 120 students filled the auditorium, Sharon Greenberg from Hamilton Middle School helped the students see their common bonds by asking them to stand if they spoke more than one language, have friends from different cultures, and have pets (among other questions). The languages spoken by Bridges students included Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Thai, French, German, Phillipino, Hebrew, Italian, Swedish, Laos, Arabic, and North African languages.

During the documentaries, Marty Kelly Peterson from the Evergreen School asked students to pay attention to the technical elements of the stories as well as their content.

"It is really interesting to hear about people from other countries," said Loretta Aho of Hamilton Middle School. "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."

After discussing the video, the students broke up into small groups and participated in three workshops: letter writing, digital portrait taking and storyboarding. The students wrote letters to Bridges students around the world explaining their favorite game. The theme for this year's stories is "Games of the World." Themes allow the students to compare their experiences with those of others around the world; past themes have included "Water Made Visible" and "Our Communities."

In the digital portrait-taking workshop, local mentors showed students how to use light and 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 Middle School even gathered together to rap energetically about their pictures. Tim Grey from Microsoft used computers and software to print their pictures on the spot.

Students then learned how to organize pictures into a coherent storyboard outline. 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 present the finished product to a global audience of their peers via an interactive online forum.

Marshal Copeland and Philip Rudio of Aki Kurose Middle School agreed that "talking to people on the internet" from around the world is their favorite part of the program. On the forum, students engage each other and ask questions about each other's cultures as well as the techniques used in their finished products.

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 youth 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.

Elaine Flacker from Hamilton Middle School 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 from the Evergreen school 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."

Freelance writer Cheryl Crow may be reached at editor@sdistrictjournal.com.

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