Three Cups of Shazam, Dude, You Rock!
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Three Cups of Shazam, Dude, You Rock!

Three Cups of Shazam, Dude, You Rock!

During the course of Greg Mortenson’s winding tale of his journey from a childhood in Africa to international builder of schools he asks the question, “Why is education so hard to sell?” Dr. Carter, Executive Director of ASCD, supplies the hard truth of it: Even through research shows a return of 8-10 dollars for every dollar invested in education, the effects of quality education cannot truly be felt for 1, 2, or even 3 generations.

Mr. Mortenson, known as Dr. Greg in the small Pakistani village (Korphe) where his legacy began, goes on to tell a story of Pennies for Peace and Central Asia Institute so moving that I swear I heard pennies being fingered in pockets throughout the vast auditorium.

Littered with a mix of anecdotes and facts, his story spills off the pages in every direction.  Any attempt to contain, encapsulate, or even wholly understand the full effect of his school building efforts is certain to meet failure. This is partly because of the already living web of ancillary arms radiating out from it and partly because it is a movement still picking up considerable momentum.

It sprawls in new directions even this second.

Over 3,000 schools are now engaged in the Pennies for Peace project (which is currently writing curriculum complete with correlated standards).  This number is up well over 1000 percent from just a couple of years ago.  While we can back slap each other here in the states over the efforts of our kids (which is to be celebrated), the real impact is overseas.

More than 32,000 students have enjoyed access to basic literacy in over 70 schools, schools constructed in collaboration with local builders, designers, and community members in some of the most impoverished and least educated pockets of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  And to think that it all began with one school in one small village downhill from Dr. Greg’s failed attempts at climbing K2 and following his porter.

While literacy was his theme de la creme, when he talked about educating girls his eyes flashed.  As he told us that two-thirds (22,000) of the students impacted have been girls we glimpsed inside his other-worldly presence and could feel his fierce passion for this path he’s on.

Above all else, he wanted for attendees to remember an African proverb: If we educate a boy we educate an individual, but if we educate a girl we educate a community.

So important was this quote to his efforts that he repeated it nearly 20 times (okay, maybe only 5). And for good reason.  In many villages nearly 1 in 3 children die by the age of one, and it is not uncommon for women in isolated villages to die in childbirth.  The literacy rate among girls and women in these remote regions hovers around 2-5%.  What’s more, when women marry they severe their ties to their maternal families simply by leaving to live someplace else.  With no ability to read or write, these women effectively become cut off from all but their immediate environment.

Mr. Mortenson related to us that one of the first things girls do when they learn to read is to teach their mothers how to read. Additionally, newspaper makes up the majority of food packaging in markets, and such access to print is no longer lost to girls who can now read to their families (this is especially important since so many boys/men must leave the villages for long periods in order to find work).  Also, the ability to read and write opens up new worlds for maintaining contact with family.

Considering these most basic of necessities, our impassioned debates about US education may seem trite and ineffectual when held up against the fact that over 110 million children do not have access to education worldwide.  We definitely need to keep some perspective.  We’ve got it pretty good.  How badly would educators in Afghanistan love to be debating NCLB rather than digesting this fact: since 2007 over 500 schools (mostly for girls) have been destroyed in Afghanistan? Pretty badly, I imagine.

I’m not trying to downplay the relevance of the challenges we face here in the states. It just seems that we also need to make sure we keep some perspective.  The obstacles we face are the obstacles of the fortunate.

Even still, if we can find and implement innovative (or tried and true) methods for providing quality education for a broad spectrum of students, perhaps we can be more effective worldwide.

Consider this fact: 800,000 boys (aged 5-15) attended school in Afghanistan in 2000.  By 2008 that number had grown to 7.2 million, 2 million of which are girls. (No wonder the Taliban felt threatened.) Those gains are to be celebrated and should provide us with some ideas about where to move next.

While talking with Mr. Mortenson after his talk, he commented on the methodologies used by the Taliban to recruit students to its extremist madrasah’s (madrasah is simply a school and very few are actually religious extremist institutions).  One of the main ways is to find pockets without a school and then to pay to village chief or elder $100 for every boy sent to the school.  Considering most of these areas cannot afford the $1 a day cost of a teacher, such a sum can be quite enticing.  By severing naive and ignorant boys from their homes, the Taliban is then able to breed the fanaticism that leads to terrorism.

For many in these impoverished regions the options are: Taliban or school.  When such a choice exists, Dr. Greg reports that 95% choose school.  But where there are no schools, Taliban it is.  And it is this reality that gives him such motivation.  We need to continue to seek out areas with no schools and find ways to provide access to literacy for all the world’s children.  This is the “battlefield” on which a preventive war can be “fought”.

But Greg made clear he is not fighting terrorism.  That is based in fear.  He promotes peace.  And that is based in hope.  For him the real enemy is ignorance, because ignorance breeds hate.

With access to men like Greg, we can truly say that ASCD has lived up to its conference theme, Learning Beyond Boundaries.

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