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Yearbook PHL trains teens to tell stories of student life

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Student Union has been running a multimedia workshop series called Yearbook PHL, which uses student narratives to compile snapshots of how teens are experiencing the public school system.

“People have a certain idea of what schools are like, but the only people who actually know what it’s like in school are the people that go to school,” said Mahala Papadopoulos, a Masterman 10th grader.

In the workshops, students learn how to express their school experience through photography, filmmaking, and blogging. Available to any District high school student, the workshops take place on select Tuesdays and Saturdays until the end of the school year. The courses are designed so that students do not need to attend sessions sequentially.

“We’re here to help not only train the kids on how to have the skills to make media. We want to encourage them and create an environment where they create media that is exploring the budget crisis,” said Sarah Milinski, a program facilitator.

Media serves as a tool for students to critically examine what is happening in schools, said Milinski. Beyond the impact of budget cuts, students are exploring subjects like over-policing and schools not following disciplinary codes, she said.

Papadopulos said she joined the class to pursue her interest in photography. “I want to see if it works. I want to try to help people understand what it’s like in our schools via photo narrative."

In the first class, held on March 17, students used their camera phones as devices for documentation, said Papadopoulos. While not every student has a large camera to carry with them daily, many students do have cameras on their phones. So students have learned how to creatively use them to document what they see, she said.

They have also learned the fundamentals of filming, including the how-tos of setting up different shots and camera angles and recording interviews.

Milinski and co-teacher Lendl Tellington, who facilitate the course, both have backgrounds in teaching and filmmaking.

“[The students] are getting media skills, but they’re getting those skills as a means to amplify their voices.”

Following the program, the student narratives will be posted on the Yearbook PHL website run by PSU. The prompts used throughout the course will be available for other teachers to use, and they too can add their students’ stories to the site.

In an effort to create a collective narrative by students from all around the city, the PSU is also accepting films, photos, and video blogs related to these topics from District high school students, even if they do not attend the workshops.

“It is an unprecedented time for education in Philadelphia where we’ve come to a point of crisis in our school system and I think that making sure people understand how this affects students and how this affects their lives is important,” Milinski said.

To sign up, submit or learn more information about Yearbook PHL, contact Beth Patel at

Camden Copeland interned at the Notebook this spring.

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