Reflecting Courage and Compassion – a Wordle

A new video has been produced by Single Arrow Productions, called “Mona’s Story” which is part of the Angels of Iran series. It sheds a more personal light on Mona’s story. Please enjoy this digital story…

Wordle: Amalia Giebitz

 This is the story that created the above Wordle:

Mona Mahmudnizhad

Mona Mahmudnizhad, Martyred 18 June 1983

“Mona Mahmudnizhad was a seventeen-year-old girl who was executed on 18 June 1983 in Iran, along with nine other women.  She had been in prison with these other women for one year, and though she was the youngest in prison, she was the one who ‘most frequently reassured the other women and helped them to be steadfast during their periods of imprisonment and interrogation’ (Perry).  During the third stage of her trial, the religious magistrate accused her parents of deceiving her with their religion, the Baha’i Faith. She responded that, though she learned of the Faith from her parents, in this Faith one adheres to religion after investigating it independently.  He demanded to know why she had abandoned Islam, and she calmly and peacefully explained to him that the foundation of all religions is one, and that Baha’is uphold the truth of Islam. ‘But,’ she said, ‘if by Islam you mean the prevailing animosity , murder and bloodshed in the country, a sample of which I have seen in prison, that is the reason I have chosen to be a Baha’i ‘ (Perry).

When she was arrested with her father after a search of their home, her mother protested, and begged to know why they would take a child to prison.  According to one account, one of the Guards replied, ‘Do not call her a child. You should call her a little Baha’i teacher. Look at this poem. It is not the work of a child. It could set the world on fire. Someday she will be a great Baha’i teacher’  (Perry).

On the night of their martyrdom, each woman was again given the choice to abandon her Faith and save her life. Mona asked to be the last so that she could pray for the others’ steadfastness as they faced their deaths, and so the last thing they heard in this world would be prayer. When her turn came, she was asked again to deny her Faith, ‘No,’ was her reply. She kissed the rope hanging before her and placed it around her own neck.   As her soul took its flight, silence echoed through the night.  Her crime had been teaching children the Baha’i Faith.”

The story of Mona Mahumudnizhad’s arrest, imprisonment and execution because of her refusal to deny her faith was first shared with me when I was fourteen.  She was only two years older than me when she was arrested in Shiraz, Iran.  More importantly, we shared the same faith, the Bahá’í Faith, and it was because she refused to deny that Faith that she died.  It became an important story to me again last month because I learned that the seven Bahá’í leaders in Iran, who have been imprisoned for two years without access to an attorney (one of whom is Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi), were sentenced to ten years this month.

Photos courtesy of

I am sharing this story because, though Americans are constantly made aware of Iran for its political and military aspirations, they are rarely aware of the official Iranian objective to obliterate the Bahá’í Faith from the planet.  The emotions I wanted to evoke were admiration for Mona’s courage and sympathy for the plight of the Baha’is in Iran.  The creative process began with trying to decide what story to tell.  I heard a song about Mona, and decided that was it.  In the writing of it, I had to do some research to remember details, and to decide which to include and what structure to use.  Then in importing it to Wordle, I had to think about what visual impact I wanted to make.  I wanted it to be a somber mood but also to illicit some of Mona’s personality.  By chance, the structure that appeared when choosing the font I settled on looked like upside-down lips.  It reminded me of the kiss she gave the rope that she placed around her neck before she was hung.

Finding the right story was the most challenging aspect of this assignment.  It was also the highlight of the experience.  Before I knew what story I would tell, I agonized.  But in the telling of it I was exhilarated and compelled to do the story justice.  I learned two important things from this exercise.  First, let inspiration be my guide.  Don’t force a story that doesn’t want to be told.  Secondly, let the technology do some of the inspiration.  Sometimes a random choice can be the best one.  But also, don’t rely on the technology to tell the story.  The words of the story make all the difference in Wordle, so choose them carefully.

Baha’i International Community. “Trial of Iran’s Seven Baha’i Leaders.” Bahá’í World News Service. Bahá’í International Community, 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.
Also used in research of Wordle story:
Perry, Mark. “The Story of Mona Mahmudnizhad.” “A Dress for Mona” Home Page. Web.  22 Sept. 2010.

Reflecting on Purpose

Louis Gregory, champion of justice

There are so many stories I want to tell!  I think of amazing women like Martha Root, Lua Getsinger or Tahirih.  How many people really know their stories?  What about Louis Gregory or George Townsend?  These names are completely unfamiliar to most of the world, and absolutely beloved by a small, but growing number of people.  Their stories are worth telling in a way that engages and transforms, because that is what these people did.  And I keep learning new stories that are ideally suited to digital storytelling.

But here I am, stumped for whose story to tell first.  I have learned many wonderful things about digital storytelling.  There are so many options!  This is both a blessing and a challenge.  Now I am also stumped for how best to tell the stories.

So I here is what I think I will do.  I will re-focus my blog on reflection.  This is Looking Glass Stories, after all.  But what I want to reflect are the qualities that make human beings so extraordinary: love, courage, honor, humility, truthfulness, compassion, justice.

Martha Root, lioness of courage

Over the next year, I will choose virtues in alphabetical order, then find stories that reflect those virtues.  Because the virtue is pre-determined, I can choose the stories as I find them, and match them with the right virtue.  I can begin to plan the method of telling the story ahead of time.  This will be an exercise in discipline, especially if I give myself  deadline of one per week.  This means I have to research the story, choose the storytelling tool and create the content in a consistent manner, no matter where I am or what I am doing.  It reminds me of that great movie (that came from a blog, incidentally) called Julie, Julia.  In that story, Julie Powell gives herself a challenge to make every recipe in Julia Childs’ cookbook, and write about it, one recipe each day.  Pretty intense discipline, if you ask me.  But that’s essentially what I want to do.  I want to create something and then present the story in this blog, as I have done to some extent with Mona’s story, and with The Heart Stone.  I will begin the first week of January, 2011, and finish the last week of December, to include 52 virtues, and 52 different stories.  And in doing this, maybe I will begin to reflect more discipline!  Ah ha!  Double bonus!

Let me know if you have stories that you think reflect these virtues, listed by the week covered.  (Special thanks to The Virtues Project for helping me come up with this list, and with learning more about them):

George Townsend, beacon of faithfulness

  1. Acceptance
  2. Assertiveness
  3. Beauty
  4. Caring
  5. Compassion
  6. Confidence
  7. Consideration
  8. Courage
  9. Creativity
  10. Detachment
  11. Determination
  12. Diligence
  13. Enthusiasm
  14. Excellence
  15. Faithfulness
  16. Flexibility
  17. Forgiveness
  18. Generosity
  19. Grace
  20. Helpfulness
  21. Honesty
  22. Honor
  23. Humility
  24. Idealism
  25. Joyfulness
  26. Justice
  27. Kindness
  28. Love
  29. Loyalty
  30. Mercy
  31. Moderation
  32. Modesty
  33. Obedience
  34. Orderliness
  35. Patience
  36. Peacefulness
  37. Perseverance
  38. Purposefulness
  39. Reliability
  40. Respect
  41. Responsibility
  42. Reverence
  43. Self-discipline
  44. Steadfastness
  45. Tact
  46. Thankfulness
  47. Tolerance
  48. Trust
  49. Trustworthiness
  50. Truthfulness
  51. Unity
  52. Wisdom

In the mean time, I will reflect in my next post on my favorite digital stories to date, and what they have taught me.  This will tie this year up, and prepare me for the next year of focused, disciplined reflection!  Wish me luck.

Reflecting Learning: A Classroom Experiment

 I teach conversational English to sophomore college English majors in Dalian, China.  We have been working on a lot of things this year, one of which has been “conversational presentation style”.  It has not been easy.  My students tend to be very formal when assigned a topic.  What I have instructed them to do is prepare an introduction to the main issues of the topic, different perspectives about it, and then their own opinions.  They should also include discussion questions for the class.  But most have only presented chunks of text they found on the Internet about the topic, either through memorizing it or reading.  I finally found a way for them to get talking!  Using a web-based audio-visual program called Yodio, I had my students create and present personal stories from their lives.  What a winner this experiment has been! 

Yodio displays photos with audio you can either record by calling their 1-800 number, or by uploading a file.  Each photo requires a separate audio file.  There are both advantages to this and disadvantages. One major advantage is that it helped my students to create storyboards.  First, they were to write a script of their personal story, then break it in to pieces and plan images to go with those pieces.  After that, they needed to find pictures and record their audio. 

Students recording practice stories with their mobile phones

This was the first time many of them had heard their voices recorded.  It was also the first time they had heard themselves speaking English.  The need to record small chunks of audio helped prevent them from getting to overwhelmed with the “record-delete-record” cycle.  That cycle is also very helpful.  They did their very best to make sure their pronunciation was as good as it could be.  Some forgot to check whether they wrote grammatically correct scripts, but they worked very hard on making the recordings sound good.   One student said he recorded his audio 50 times.  His English benefitted from his efforts.  The main disadvantage to having one audio file for every photo is that the students want one continuous audio line so they don’t have to worry about variations in their recordings.   They also have a more difficult time including music, though some did it with some creative problem solving. 

When the students deliver their Yodios to the class, I ask them to introduce it by answering these questions:

  • What inspired you to tell this story? Why is it important?
  • What technical considerations helped or hindered the project?
  • What did you find most challenging? What was the highlight of the experience for you?

Students listening to their own voices telling stories in English

I also allowed the students who have not yet presented their Yodios to ask questions of the students who had just presented so they could learn from each other.  It turned about that the students learned a great many more things than I expected.  After a whole year of trying to get them to work together, they were seeking each other out to ask for help.  Those with more experience using computers were offering help.  One girl said that she had a great reluctance to do the project because of her fear of the computer.  After the project, and help from her classmates, she found it was much easier than she expected, and though she hasn’t completely overcome her fear, she is much further down the road.  They learned the benefit of planning work through the storyboard.  Many reported that the highlight of the experience was going through the struggle of creating, and then the feeling of accomplishment. 

Here are some of the great examples.  I wish I could post all 90 students’ work here.  Some worked harder than others, but they all put their hearts into their work. 

Rose – tells a story with a moral
Martina – created hand-drawn pictures with Microsoft Paint for her story
Cornelia learns to fly – a charming story from childhood
Felix tells a horror story!
Izzy donates blood
Una goes to Tibet

On a final note, one of the most heart-warming things about these stories is that they show the real China.  These students tell stories from their childhoods, their studies, their failures and their triumphs.  They are utterly human.  Over the past 16 weeks we have discussed the purpose of life, truthfulness, the media, the war on terror, globalization. and other such topics.  One conclusion that they keep coming to is that the earth is one country, that we are all its citizens, and should behave as such.  I am honored to be associated with these students, and hope that you will explore their home from their perspective, through their stories.  I will share your comments with them.

Reflecting Home

My home is the home of peace. My home is the home of joy and delight. My home is the home of laughter and exultation. Whosoever enters through the portals of this home, must go out with gladsome heart. This is the home of light; whosoever enters here must become illumined….

(From a reported utterance of `Abdu’l-Baha’, published in Star of the West, vol. 9, no. 3, 28 April 1918), p. 40)

In the early 1970’s, my grandmother challenged the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico to make city facilities accessible to those with mobility challenges, and won.  She raised seven children, five boys and two girls.  Her home was the defacto center for most Baha’is in central New Mexico, because there was no other meeting place.  That house on Carlisle was always filled with visitors, some looking for refuge, some looking for family far from home, some just coming to chew the fat.  Her home was a magnet…

And then, when I was eleven, she and my grandfather came to live with our family.  They had grown old, and their health was failing.  Though we lived in southern New Mexico, far from their old friends, my grandmother quickly went to work making new friends and transforming our home into a magnet. 

Many years later, I returned to New Mexico, following travels that had brought me a great deal of both joy and sorrow.  My grandmother had passed long before.  My only momento of her was a heart made of a pink stone which sat on her desk as a paper weight while she organized the multitude of projects she was involved in.  But her legacy followed me.  Soon after my return, I met and fell in love with a man who had been one of those who had both chewed the fat and sought refuge with my grandmother.  Her example became the model on which we built our home.

Grandma - Ruth Smith

What is most remarkable about my grandmother is not just her example of advocacy and hospitality, but that she accomplished so many things trapped in a body crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. As those who have  suffered from an immune disorder can tell you, it isn’t just about the pain.  The fatigue and exhaustion, the depression and lack of motivation can be debilitating, even in mild cases.  But  by the time she was thirty-five, she was confined to a wheel chair.  It was not a mild case. 

What gave my grandmother the impetus to accomplish so much?  I have to believe it was the Gift that was given to her by a woman named Rezi Sunshine when my father was young boy.  Many tell me that I am like my grandmother in tempermant- somewhat moody and sometimes overly dramatic.  I also have rheumatoid arthritis, though a much milder case, and currently in remission.  I know that my moodiness and histrionics come from a tendency towards depression and anxiety.  But my grandmother passed that Gift to me through my parents, and now it sustains me when I work in the world or open my home.

The Heart Stone – An Artifact Reflection

I have been wanting to tell the story of how my family first encountered the Bahá’í Faith.  This project gave me the opportunity to combine it with the story of how I received one of my most precious artifacts in a fictional tale.  The audience is my family, as they will most readily recognize the images that others may find obscure, such as the house in which Mulla Husayn first encountered the Bab, the Forerunner of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, thus initiating its first era.  The artifact, a pink, heart-shaped stone that fits in the palm of one’s hand, was passed on to me after my grandmother’s death.  This stone sat on her mantle piece when I was a child.  Whenever I visited her, she had other visitors to whom she showed the greatest kindness.  Though neither of us knew it at the time, my future husband was one of those visitors. 

I wanted to evoke a sense of connection in our family to the history of our Faith in a whimsical way.  The dragon’s story just flowed out from the idea of “The Heart Stone.”  I decided to use Microsoft MovieMaker as an editor because it allowed me more flexibility in transitions and effects than PowerPoint does.  The greatest challenge was finding appropriate images, especially from the family photos. This has also proven to be the highlight, as I have had to connect with many family members to find the right photos.  I would like to work more on the project, take more time on it, and perhaps incorporate it in to a larger family history website, where the “real” story can be more completely explored interactively, with family members able to recall what their memories are, much in the way the website “Remembering Nagasaki” does.  There is a collection of memories of when people first became aware of nuclear weapons or the bombing of Japan, as well as a forum of comments from people with different perspectives about the bombing.  Though the subject matter is dramatically different, the format is suitable for a family history.  It could include a place for comments from people who have been touched by the Smith Family because of its relationship with the Baha’i Faith.

If you’d like to contribute to the creation of such a site, please comment.

Works Cited

The Exploratorium, IDG Films, and Rupert Jenkins. “Remembering Nagasaki.” Exploratorium: the Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception. The Exploratorium. Web. 29 Oct. 2010.

Momma Bird Learns to Fly

I was sitting at my desk scanning Facebook one autumn morning sipping my coffee when my heart suddenly squeezed into my throat. A photo of my daughter had been posted by a mutual friend.  I hadn’t seen her face in two years, and I eagerly clicked through the images in the album for another glimpse of her.

My daughter singing

 To say that I “lost” my children is not correct. It is not as if I misplaced or forgot them somewhere. There are no words to describe this emptiness. It can only be communicated by mothers who know the constant craving for a child’s presence. I know well the blank stare that faces me and the words of baffled sympathy when I quietly tell someone that, because of a wretched divorce, I can no longer see my children.

The agony is like the strings of a violin fluttering lightly on the surface, a gentle mourning one moment, then groaning with deep-gut strains of lament in the next.  This is what I have of my children now, and memories. The way our baby (from my current marriage) twists her hair in her fingers as she falls asleep nursing  just like her older sister did,  or this startling sight of her singing in a photograph, more grown, more beautiful – these experiences rather than bringing pure joy tinge it with the longing for the missed moments of their lives.

Some memories sing to me. One spring day, during a rare visit to my home, we were in the breakfast area off the kitchen. Our house stood on a hill overlooking the town. A tall hedge grew outside the window, and that morning we found a surprise singing in its branches – a momma bird chirped with joy as she feathered her nest. Wee blue eggs nestled in its warmth, and the momma adjusted a twig or two, nudged an egg with her beak, and tucked herself in protectively.  My son and daughter watched with whispered sounds of awe.

“Do you think we’ll be able to see them hatch, Momma?” my daughter asked, her six-year-old wonder brimming with eagerness.

“I  hope so.  But even if we don’t see them hatch, the babies will be in the nest awhile before they fly away. So we’ll see them.”

Each morning we checked the nest. Momma Bird always sat on the eggs, or perched next to the nest, cleaning and feathering. I understood her devotion. For years I fought to have my children in my home again. This visit was a victory.

Several days before my children returned to their father’s home, the chicks hatched. We heard their peeping before we reached the window that morning, and our breakfast became a birthday party, complete with pancakes and birthday candles. “Where’s the momma?” asked my son.  I heard the concern in his voice, and maybe only imagined the fear.

“She’s probably getting them some food,” I said, wondering if he asks about me when I’m not there.  “She’ll be back soon.  Just watch,”  I added, wishing I could promise them the same about me. 

Sure enough, she appeared, breakfast in beak.  We watched her feed them and settle back in to nestle them under her wings.  My children and I ate our pancakes, giddy with hope for the newborns.

After my children departed,  leaving my nest empty,  I watched these chicks as if they were my own.  I worried when the mother was not there.   I wanted to reassure the babies that she would return.  I never expected to find the mother one morning, screeching alone on the branch where the nest had been.

I ran outside and skittered down the steep hill from the driveway to the side of the house, holding on to branches to keep from sliding.  When I reached the foot of the hedge, I saw.  The tiny nest lay on its side, the faded blue shells nearby, and the babies nowhere in sight.  The neighbor’s cat slinked guiltily by and meowed.  I didn’t need to see the tiny feather on its mug to know what had happened.

I had been kind to this cat before.  It was a friendly tabby with orange and white stripes.  Now I filled my fists with pebbles and dirt and flung it as hard as I could.  I lost my footing and landed hard on my backside.  And I wept, and was grateful that the hill hid me from the neighbors.  The mourning shrieks of the mother bird above me echoed the emptiness in my heart.

I don’t remember how long she stayed there crying for her little ones. It could have been hours or days. But I remember when she flew away, first to the power line nearby where the shrieking started up and faded, and then across the street to the neighbor’s wall. And after a few sharp screeches, she just spread her wings and flew away. 

Years later, I am still learning from that momma bird.  She was not trapped by the longing for her children.  Maybe it was just natural for her to move on and make a new nest.  Maybe for her there was no choice.  Nothing is as final as death.  I had a choice.  I could have stayed on the ground throwing clods of dirt and stone, fighting a losing battle.  But my children would still be gone. And there are still beds to be made, and children to be nursed and air to be breathed.  My nest is bigger now.  There are other children in it.  The two empty places in this nest will be kept, warm and feathered and ever ready to welcome them back, should my children wish to return.

by Marianne Dalton

"Empty Nest" by by Marianne Dalton

Reflect: Fire or Light?

Several elements came together to inspire me to tell this very personal story using Animoto.   First of all, in the seven step process described in the Joe Lambert’s Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community , I read that finding the right story to tell meant looking at your life for those moments of significant change (30).   Again, in the lifeline exercise in The Power of Personal Storytelling¸ by Jack Maguire (86-88), in which one identifies moments of decision that change one’s life, this moment came to mind because, though it is very significant, I felt I had no choice in the change.   This change defined my life for the next several years, and in processing the experience I learned far more about myself and the Universe than I ever could have without that calamity. I hope to reach an audience of people who have experience similar loss, to help them find the light in the experience. 

Using Animoto to create the project presented several challenges. First of all, there is little flexibility in the timing of the display of images with regard to the soundtrack. Secondly, only one soundtrack upload was available, and I wanted to include both narration and music. I used an external audio editor to create a two-track .mp3 file. Another challenge was the time limit of the assignment to 1 minute. I wanted to get as close to that as possible, but telling a story in one minute is hard! I had to edit the text and re-record it a number of times to get it down to near the right length. 
What I learned most from this exercise is to include only those details that are really necessary for the audience to connect with the story. I didn’t need to include a lot of background or explanation. I had to learn to trust my audience, essentially. That’s another way that this story showed me the “light”.
Works Cited

Lambert, Joe. Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community. Berkely, CA: Digital Diner Press, 2009.

Maguire, Jack. The Power of Personal Storytelling: Spinning Tales to Connect with Others. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.