HAVE you ever thought about how telling your child a story is the first step towards lifelong literacy? Stories are narratives that we construct to understand the world around us; we tell our children stories to help them grow and learn; we pass on knowledge, history and culture on to future generations through stories. Storytellers and stories are teachers when we absorb what wisdom they offer.
It is clear that Pakistani children need more stories, embedded in a sound curriculum and a safe environment that gets children excited about learning. But how to get them to read more books, when schools seem unable to impart even the basics of reading and writing?
Alarmed by the “current, failed method” of teaching Urdu which schoolchildren found burdensome and outdated, writer and publisher Musharraf Ali Farooqi developed the Unesco-approved Kahani se Kitab Tak programme to introduce Pakistani children to Urdu, ranging from folklore to classical literature, through a series of age-appropriate books for primary, middle school and high school students.
Primary school children study a picture book; middle school children get the same story in the form of a chapter book, and high school students read the original text, with annotations, learning proverbs, idioms and expressions of Urdu. Children learn vocabulary, then how to make their own stories, developing their own cognitive abilities. Their language skills grow hand in hand with a grasp of our local body of literature, which is rich and unique to our part of the world.
It is clear that Pakistani children need more stories.
Farooqi then created the StoryKit programme in 2015; he further developed the programme as a Harvard fellow in 2017. Story Kit sends storytellers into schools in underserved areas and brings the books into the children’s lives in a direct manner, instilling a love of Urdu language and literature in schoolchildren. I was privileged to watch a StoryKit session at the Government Girls School in Gizri, PT Colony, where a storybook called Podna aur Podni was read aloud to 25 Class 6 students by Maham Zehra, who works with StoryKit. Through a spirited re-enactment of the story, getting the children to come to the front of the class and act out their own scenes, and lots of laughter, the girls heard a story, learned some vocabulary, and had fun together.
At the end of the session they each got a copy of the book kit, which included the book, a game, and a link to an audio version of the story they could access on a mobile phone. Those books and games will go on to benefit not just the girls in the class but their siblings, too, and will be passed around the community to children who don’t get the chance to go to school.
Horror stories about government schools abound: run-down, unsafe facilities, including no electricity or water, ghost schools where neither students nor teachers show up, corporal punishment, and corruption and mismanagement, never mind an ineffective curriculum and antiquated learning methods. These aren’t just stories; they are the reality of our education system today. The government has been frantically trying to reform this system in light of the global educational SDGs and MDGs, which Pakistan keeps missing because of a combined lack of will, resources, and effort.
Some government schools, especially the ones that have been adopted by TCF or other private organisations, are thriving, while others are places you wouldn’t send your worst enemies to. The school I went to was clean and well-maintained, although overburdened, with eight separate schools operating in two shifts, morning and evening, out of the same building. The principal, a government officer who had been recently promoted from teaching high school, had clearly set the tone for the school’s performance, with daily inspections, the careful logging of teacher and student attendance, and personal involvement with the teachers and classrooms.
The school has been benefiting from the Badal Do programme, a consortium of seven organisations working together to train teachers to become better educators, using creative and interactive methods to make classrooms more diverse and tolerant spaces. This collective believes that the change in the education system starts with teachers, who are woefully under-supported in their work. Though they have only managed to reach 20 schools so far, the organisation hopes through private sponsorship to work with 300 schools by the year 2020.
The government has recognised that it doesn’t have the resources or workforce to fix Pakistan’s broken education system. A mix of public-private partnership between the government and the private sector is the solution that civic bodies, concerned with the state of education in Pakistan, have engineered. Their expertise, experience and experimentation is what will write the story of Pakistan’s education system. Our children are depending on our vision, our support and our perseverance for that elusive happy ending.
The writer is the author of Before She Sleeps.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2019