Baltimore teacher brings the Internet to children in Cambodia

A few years ago, my friend Diana was sitting at the coffee shop in Hampden with a map of the world spread out before her. When she was asked what she was doing, Diana answered, “Planning my future.”

That big world thinking didn’t just lead Diana to the cover of National Geographic as their pick for Traveler of the Year.

It also led her to a classroom in a small village in Cambodia.

There she opened up a map of the world to children who, before last October, had no idea what their place in it might be.

Cambodia was once a place where education was highly revered. While I was there in December, I visited Angkor Wat, the most ancient temple in the world, and I was struck by the fact that a library stands prominently beside it.

Unfortunately, during the horror that was the Khmer Rouge, most educators and spiritual leaders were taken from their homes and imprisoned, tortured and executed.

One of the results of that terrible time was two decades of struggle to find a way to replace the educational structure for the Khmer people.

 Diana Gross and the Global Citizen Media Project. (All photos by Nancy Murray)
Diana Gross and the Global Citizen Media Project. (Nancy Murray)

Most classrooms were taught by untrained, underpaid teachers in conditions not conducive to learning.

A large percentage of the children could not afford the cost of uniforms and books required to go to school.

The poor needed their children to work in order for their families to survive. Some statistics show that only 28 percent of girls and 33 percent of boys make it through secondary school.

Diana was a teacher at Baltimore’s Garrison Forest School when she decided to try to connect her students  with the students of the world via media access such as skype.

She traveled to several remote villages and provided workshops for several organizations including the Ponheary Ly Foundation whose objective was to put bundles of uniforms and supplies into the hands of those children who couldn’t afford them.

Once all children in the villages are in the classroom, the foundation works to support and enhance their educational experience as well as to provide water and support to their communities.

Children bike to school in Cambodia. (Nancy Murray)
Children bike to school in Cambodia. (Nancy Murray)

As the traveling teacher Diana brought media education, web research and online collaboration to children who, before last year had no idea what the Internet was.

Diana’s workshops were so successful that her Global Citizens Media project was born and the class was awarded a grant that allowed Diana to return for another year.

She developed the Tell Your Own Story program which taught the children how to use basic equipment for photography and video production. She encourage them to overcome their fear of speaking their minds so that they can produces videos, photographs and blogs that tell their truths and expand their potential.

Most recently, a girls team of 15 and 16 year olds completed a video about the obstacles girls way out in the countryside face while attempting to get an education. Their video premiered at the Angkor Wat International Film festival and was a part of theGlobal Citizen Media  screening. These students, who were afraid to say anything to a stranger just a year ago, stood on a stage and conducted a Q & A following the screenings.  They had found a voice and they were given the means to let that voice be heard around the world.

Diana speaks of the project with tears in her eyes: “These children did not know YouTube a year ago. They had never been on the internet. Most could not locate Cambodia on the globe. Now they have completed over 10 videos, begun writing blogs and taken photographic series telling their OWN stories. Their videos now have more than 8,000 views on YouTube and 100’s of comments from around the world. With just six months of classroom work and nurturing, the Tell Your Own Story project has changed them.”

I was fortunate enough to sit in with her class. It was a dusty room, no matter how often it gets swept and there is only one fan to cool them in the 100 degree heat.  They were un-phased as they gobbled up every kernel of learning they could glean from the basic equipment as water buffalo graze outside the classroom.

Bunpha is thrilled to show off his beautiful country (All photos by Nancy Murray)
Bunpha is thrilled to show off his beautiful country (All photos by Nancy Murray)

I sat with Bunpa, a delightful boy with bright eyes and a heartwarming smile, as he showed me, one by one, the photographs he had taken of his gorgeous countryside. He struggled with his words as he tried to explain why he took this picture (for the morning light coming up underneath everything) or that picture (for the way the afternoon sun blanketed the families in the rice fields). When I told him they were lovely I thought he might explode with happiness – that he had done well; reached me; shown me what he loves about his country.

Their English is broken and Diana’s Khmer is negligible. She doesn’t want to solely rely on Sokha, a brilliant young woman who serves as translator and Cambodian colleague , so Diana communicates with her expressive face and expansive hand gestures to explain to the kids that the walls of their dusty, hot class room will be made beautiful by their creative and inspirational photos.

When the kids understood what she was telling them they cheered and clapped their hands and so did I.

I cheered because I knew that many of these kids rode their bicycles for miles after taking care of their families or working in the fields just to have the opportunity do something beautiful.

Diana’s has lived in Siem Reap, Cambodia and worked with the students here for almost two years now. Her goal is to stay for one more year while she trains Sokha and others to run the program on their own with the help and support of PLF. Then she intends to expand so that she can work with other organizations throughout Cambodia and Myanmar.

If you have an interest in participating in this project now is the time please click here to see how to donate.