Questioning the Status Quo

Do you still remember being in class and listening to a lecture for an hour at a time? Wasn’t it a little difficult to maintain focus? Surely you found it easier to stay engaged when a teacher incorporated games, music and other participatory techniques into the daily agenda.

Traditionally, lecturing is the style of teaching in Pakistan, even for teachers, like ours, who are trained as educators in formal Teacher Training Institutes. Students repeatedly memorize what they are taught, and fail to retain knowledge once the examination is over. At Barakat, we want to move our teachers away from this simple but ultimately counter-effective teaching/learning strategy, which focuses rigorously on memory-based examinations.

While in Afghanistan, Barakat incorporates interactive teaching methodologies as part and parcel of the annual Teacher Training for Human Rights; in Pakistan, this is the first in a series of planned teacher trainings that will lead our schools in this direction over the coming years. Furthermore, it will be supplemented by more comprehensive grading systems that include exams but are also cognizant of class participation and attendance.

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With this long-term goal in mind, Barakat ran a four-day workshop on interactive teaching/learning techniques for all teaching staff at schools in Pakistan during the month of July. Schools are closed in July for the long summer vacation, so teachers were able to congregate at Barakat Elementary School for intensive day-long sessions run by an experienced, local, female teacher trainer, Gulfam Naqvi, who has led teacher training workshops in government and private schools across Pakistan.

Trained by the Intel Teach Program and having won the award for Best Teacher in Attock District of Punjab several times, Gulfam began the process by first conducting a needs assessment with the teachers and principals who were to be her participants in order to better understand their needs, interests and area of maximum learning potential. She then tailored training agenda to meet her participants’ requirements.

“Students can learn more in a student-friendly environment, through group work and interaction – where they feel confident,” Gulfam spoke passionately about the importance of integrating question-answer based methodologies, among others, that bring teachers and students into a closer relationship.

In response, Humera Sharif, 8th grade teacher at one of our schools in Pakistan, said, “When we apply these activities like (class opening) warm-ups and action songs, it will make a huge difference and students will enjoy learning.” “It was an amazing experience which we should continue regularly to keep us updated,” added 4th grade teacher Anila Tabassum who took part in the workshop as well. The consensus among participating teachers was that these workshops will enhance their efficiency in the classroom and will “improve the classroom environment.”


Ramadan: Sacrifice, Forbearance and Peace

The original Arabic root of the word ‘Ramadan’ denotes intense heat and shortness of rations – this year the word’s original meaning holds very true in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the soaring temperatures and long daylight hours of August have made it even more challenging to fast sans water and food.

Stepping into the home of a typical Barakat beneficiary in Pakistan, you will find that the pace and pressure of life has become more hectic, despite the fasting. For women in the household, the day begins around 3:30 a.m. They get up and prepare a meal for sehri, the pre-dawn feast that commences the day of fasting.

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Shukurullah, his wife and their five children (three of who go to Barakat schools), are quite familiar with this routine. They describe a regular day during the month of Ramadan as being ‘tough.’ They start weaving carpets early in the morning around 4 a.m. and continue the work right into the hottest part of the afternoon: 3 p.m. “Then,” says the mother, “other household work needs to be done; we cook food for iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset, around 7 p.m.) then, following the meal, we return to our weaving until 10 p.m.”

Healthy children above 12 years are expected to participate fully in the fast, which is anything but easy. Rukhsana, a 14 year old Barakat student, says, “During fasting, we become tired, as we have to go to school and then weave carpets.” However, she adds, “It’s holy month for Muslims and it teaches us patience and how to remain cool and calm.”

For parents, the upcoming festival of Eid-ul-Fitr is a time of celebration, but also of increased expenses: “We become busier during Ramadan, as we have to finish the carpets on looms to meet the Eid expenses.” Additionally, “the prices of food and everything are very high (at this time of the year).”

As temperatures soar to 110 degrees in Attock, it becomes harder to go without water for the entire day, especially since most people work in non air-conditioned environments. Shukurullah’s family testifies that “it’s very hot in August and power failure is too common,” so that even the comfort of an electric fan is denied them as they sweat over daily chores.

As the month of August comes to end, Eid-ul-Fitr is much awaited and children anxiously anticipate a delicious feast: pulao (meat and rice), dried fruits and sweet dishes like saivayyain (a dish of fine, toasted sweet vermicelli noodles with milk) are prepared in celebration of the end of the month-long fast.

Shukurullah’s family gave us a true feeling for what Ramadan really means to our students, beyond the fasting and hardships that they face daily. Shukurullah’s teenage son Zakhir says, “It means Patience and to feel the hunger of those poor people who cannot eat their daily meals.” Coming from a family and community that struggles to make ends meet on a daily basis, this explanation humbles us. The consciousness of privilege, the ability to empathize with those who have less then ourselves, and the inclination towards charity is not limited to the well-off in the developed countries of the globe – it is a perception that is shared by others in the world, who may own less but believe themselves to be blessed in the true sense of the word.


Measuring Our Foot-prints

Walking into a 9th grade classroom in Barakat’s Besh Kapa Surkh School located in a small district of Jowzjan province in remote Northern Afghanistan you may well be taken aback to hear a female teacher speaking frankly on the taboo subject of forced under-age marriages of young girls in the area. In her own words, the young teacher told Barakat staff:

“I spoke about forced marriages; my students were ignorant about it, but after hearing about this subject, there has been a change in their mind-set. For example, in my village, there was going to be a forced marriage. After talking to the bride and informing her of her rights in the constitutional laws, the matter was resolved and the forced marriage was avoided. ”

This would not have been the case three years back when Barakat first started implementing Workshops on Teacher Training for Human Rights, with special emphasis on Women & Children’s Rights – the minority, marginalized populations that Barakat is dedicated to serving.

A total of 21 workshops reaching out to 404 teachers and trainers from Barakat educational programs as well as from Government schools and district-level Departments of Education have made an impact which today is felt in the classroom by students – both boys and girls alike.

Barakat has partnered with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to do these workshops and has been funded over the last three years by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Our efforts with these partners continue to flourish and we are proud that 56% of the total number of teachers that we have reached out to is female.

In a bid to understand what the workshops translated into in real-life teaching-learning situations, Barakat conducted numerous focus group interviews in May of this year with a random selection of teachers who had participated in the human rights teacher training workshops at some point since June 2008 when these were first started. The findings were revealing as to the extent of the impact that these workshops have had – not just in terms of the content-based knowledge with which teachers are now armed; but also in terms of their level of confidence in speaking about human rights issues both inside and out of the school room.

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The topics that they choose to bring up in the classroom vary and are adapted by the teachers for the age of the target audience. While one teacher recalled teaching about ethnic relations among the complex and diverse society of Afghanistan the other focused on equality in Islam:

“I taught about discrimination in my class, because in Islam, all people enjoy equal rights whether they are wealthy or poor, nobody can claim superiority over others. For example, all people on the face of earth are created by God. ”

While Barakat’s human rights workshops cover a variety of topics from the Constitutional protection of human rights in the fledgling democracy of Afghanistan to the international human rights conventions ratified or ignored by the country’s government; the spotlight is on the rights of women and children – the section of the population that has been traditionally kept silent. It is our hope that focusing on issues such as forced marriages; the right to inheritance for females; children’s right to education and against child labor will speak loudly through the voices of the teachers, as has been the case indeed:

“I taught about women’s rights and girls’ rights to education, because in my class there was a girl whose parents were preventing her from continuing her education due to her age. I asked for her address from her classmates and I paid a visit to her family. They were happy to see me, and after talking with them, they allowed their daughter to return to school. ”


Dedicated to Succeed

Remember when you or your kids were studying for the SATs If you do then you will probably be able to relate to eighth grade students in Pakistan, who undergo a similar experience, as they prepare themselves for the Board Examination. The Board Examination is a test administered by the central government across the nation, similar to the SAT’s or the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

Last year, 100% of Barakat students passed the exam, a rate that no other school in the region was able to achieve. A large part of this success can be attributed to extra classes that have been offered during the summer months to prepare students for the Board Exam, which is usually held in February.

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This summer, the extra classes have been held at Ersari Elementary School. 44 seventh and eighth grade students have enrolled and a wide array of subjects, such as English, General Science, Arabic, Math, Social Studies and Islamic Studies have been covered. The curriculums of these classes are designed to give students the additional guidance they require to succeed as they aspire to follow in the footsteps of last year’s eighth graders. The classes being held six days a week for four hours a day speaks to the intense nature of the Board Exams. Those who take full advantage of the classes will have endured a rigorous but hopefully rewarding process by the time they take the exams.

In collaboration with principals and teachers at our schools, Barakat’s local staff in Pakistan have been running these classes since 2000. Sumera Sahar, the Country Director for Barakat Pakistan, notes that “students are at a stage where they can realize the objective of these classes. They are willing attend the classes because they understand the value of good 8th grade results.”

“The heat irritates me a little bit,” joked 14-year-old Nazeefur Rehman of the 7thgrade, “but the benefit is greater than the heat. With these classes we can prepare ourselves well for the final Board Exams.”