La Ngonpo project - connecting students worlds apart

Photo: The Multicultural Center Prague

When is the last time you wrote to a pen pal? Fifteen or twenty years ago, getting letters from peers from the other side of the globe seemed so exciting and almost magical. But in today’s overly connected internet-driven world, children have so much information and knowledge at their fingertips that sending letters to other countries to make friends may seem a bit pointless.

Photo: The Multicultural Center Prague
The Multicultural Center Prague disagrees. They feel that in our quickly globalizing world it is that much more important to put a human face on distant lands and cultures. Their project La Ngonpo helps Czech school teachers show their students another part of the world, and also maybe teach them something about their own lives.

I spoke to the project coordinator from the Multicultural Center, Romana Vylitová, who explained what it offers students:

“La Ngonpo is an international education project, and its main aim is to connect students in the Czech Republic with students in India and to enable them to communicate together over the internet. Through this communication they would get to know various aspects of life in another part of the world, they would be able to compare the differences between them and to find similarities.”

The project tries to be as holistic as possible in reaching its goal. The Multicultural Center and its partners create a methodology for teaching global developmental topics, they train teachers here and in India, implement the methodology within school curricula, create video projects, photography exhibits and more. In a school system that has been struggling to reform in order to respond to the needs of modern-day students, La Ngonpo found a way to teach Czech kids about issues like globalization, migration and sustainability in a fast-paced, multi-media format that is more naturally digestible for them. But the main message, according to Ms Vylitová, is oddly timeless:

Romana Vylitová
“We try to show them that we have so many similarities and that the world is connected so closely that the basic elements of life are very similar. The kids in Ladakh have the same needs, wishes, plans; they spend their time quite similarly, and so on. The children can learn about people they would have never met personally. We also believe that personal experience is much better than watching a documentary or a film or hearing from other people about what it looks like over there.”

Before starting La Ngonpo classes, some of the Czech students had an idea about what life in India was like. But for Jakub, who goes to a school in a small town of Úvaly right outside of Prague, the differences he noticed also revealed something about his own life:

“Students in India have a different relationship to their school and teachers than we do. We go home and turn on the computer and play computer games, but they do homework and help their family with chores.”

One of the thematic modules that the students in the Czech Republic and India went through was about heroes. At an opening of a photo exhibit in Prague connected with the project, other Czech students talked about what surprised them:

“Our classmates had heroes like singers or actors, while the Indian students had often the Dalai Lama or Gandhi,” said one boy.

His classmate added: “Or often they put down someone from their family, their mother, for example.”

There are currently 21 Czech schools that have joined the project. And they partner up with one of the nine participating schools in the north Indian Ladakh or in Nepal. Czech and Indian teachers of different subjects like English, Social Studies or others can use materials provided by the Multicultural Center to supplement their regular lessons. The program is broken up into thematic blocks that explore topics like water sustainability, personal heroes, migration, and the concept of beauty. The students are constantly in touch with their Indian or Nepalese counterparts throughout the year.

La Ngonpo is looking to not only change the students’ mentality, but it also helps teachers find new inspiration as well. Most of the Czech teachers participated in preparatory workshops directly in Ladack in the local schools.

Jana Sigmundová, one of the teachers involved in the project at the Úvaly school, spent seven weeks in Ladakh. The experience changed some of her approaches to teaching.

“It was a very big surprise for me to see the children there. They all wore uniforms. They were very polite. It’s very different from our schools. The kids there want to study, which is very different from our students, because at our school, and in our education system, you have to say – you must study. But in Ladakh, I saw that students want to be educated. I now want to teach my students that it is not a must, but that they should want to study and be educated. And I’ve spoken to them about it.”

The creative approach to the lessons not only engages students, but also helps in developing closer ties with their teachers.

“The children enjoy the project very much. I think my students know very well that it is not something to be taken for granted. And I think they are very proud of being involved in the project. I think our relationship is better as a result. And I believe they admire the fact that I visited Ladakh.”

Children in both countries also get an opportunity to learn outside of the classroom. Romana Vylitová told me about another interesting activity:

“Another part of the project was teaching the students about working with a digital video camera to make their own films. Filmmakers from Poland went to the Czech Republic and to Ladakh and taught them camera work and the basic rules for writing a script. Together they created several short films.”

The filmmakers, Elwira Niewiera abd Piotr Rosołowski, used some of the short films made during the workshop and their own material from several visits in Ladakh and Brno to create a documentary film. The film entitled “Out of Dreams” had its Prague premiere this month. The documentary shows the two worlds this project is trying to connect through the eyes of two boys who participated in it.

Here is a small taste of the documentary:

- My name is Stanzin Rinchen and I come from the Zanskar Shun region in India. When I was five years old, I was chosen from the whole village to study in the city.

Czech students at a workshop
- My name is Honza Žalud. I was born in Brno and my big dream is to study at a university, and to earn a lot of money, so I could start realizing my dreams.

“Out of dreams” follows two boys in their everyday tasks, in their schools and homes, and also watches them as they exchange video messages about their lives. I spoke to Piotr Rosołowski about some of the challenges of making a film that spans two faraway counties, and it turned out the biggest challenge became a blessing in disguise:

“In India, it was really difficult from the very beginning. When we arrived there three years ago, it was just before the big flood in the area. And a couple of days after our arrival, parts of Leh city were destroyed and many people died. Nothing was working and our workshops were delayed. After, we did find a group of school children to do the workshop. And of course the flood was the most important topic for them. So, they made a couple of films about it.

“It was an interesting coincidence that we arrived before the flood with the cameras.The students ended up often being the first witnesses with the cameras after the flood. They made short, I would say, exercise videos, but they are, I think, till today important for the community, because they portrayed what happened in the city.”

Working with young adults in both Ladakh and the Czech Republic, many of whom had little or no experience with being in, let alone, making films, proved to be one of the most interesting parts of the project for the filmmakers:

Teachers from participating Indian schools visit Czech students
“For me, it was maybe even more exciting to work with the children who never had any experience, rather than with those who did. Some of them are really talented. Especially in framing. For me it was interesting to see that some people just have these skills or this way of thinking about pictures. Especially in India, I met a couple of children who never had a camera in their hand, but after a couple of hours they were making really nice shots, which were framed very well.

“It was very exciting to work with the children who never had a camera before, because you can witness the process of how they get into video work, how they really start to understand it. And if someone had already had the experience, for them it is not so new, they are already used to filming with a camera. So, sometimes he or she films something in a way that they had done before, on vacation, for example. So sometimes, we struggled with those preconceptions.”

Another challenge was to actually find the points of intersection between the lives of two boys from very different places and with very different concerns. But after teaching video-making workshops and shooting the documentary in Leh and in Brno for almost a year, Rosołowski came to similar conclusions as the creators of the La Ngonpo project, and conveyed it in the documentary:

“I think that the message is quite simple. I think that even in the world where communication is developing – nowadays you can call, you can Skype, you can google almost everything and you can also have a virtual friend or a virtual partner school – the differences between cultures and our lives are huge. But on the other hand, we are still human being, and some things in our lives are the same, no matter where you are from.”

A lesson at an participating school in Ladakh
The documentary has already been screened in Plzeň and Prague and will be touring other Czech cities. The film was also shown at the participating Indian schools and will eventually travel to Poland. Although neither the Czech nor the Indian students from the La Ngonpo project have met yet, they now know quite a lot about each other, and have probably discovered a few new things about themselves. As ambassadors of the Indian partner schools, a few of the teachers came to Prague in June of this year to attend an exhibit featuring works of all the participating students. We will end this report with a traditional Ladakhi song they performed at the Lucerna Music Bar in Prague for the launch of the exhibit, right before a Czech pop band Toxique came onto the stage.

You can find out more about the project at

Photos: The Multicultural Center Prague