Have you ever heard of an international Hollywood celebrity writing to a group of middle school girls in a low-income Government School in India?
When Afeera Maryam joined the Teach For India Fellowship in July 2015, she was assigned to a group of 40 fifth grade girls in a Municipal Corporation School in the Mandawli community of Delhi. For Afeera, working with 10 to 11-year-olds was a life changing experience.
Within the first few weeks in the classroom itself, Afeera realised how far behind the girls were in terms of the exposure they had to the world outside their school and immediate community. “I grew up reading much beyond what I was asked to read in school, and that opened a range of opportunities for me as a child”, says Afeera.
One of the stark difference between her own experience as a student compared to that of these children was just the sheer lack of exposure to diverse reading materials.
But Afeera’s own journey towards becoming an avid reader had also been a unique one. “Till the time I was 10 years old, I myself had never been to a proper private school. I entered a Convent School in fifth grade, and that’s when things changed. I came from tiny town, so this was a massive change– making friends was tough and I was that awkward kid who used to turn red whenever anyone would talk to me! And on top of it all, I was not good at English and was therefore struggling in nearly all subjects.”
During that same time, she noticed that the ‘good’ kids of the class loved to go to the library and read a new book each week. She still remembers entering her school’s library the first time — the grey marbled floor and smell of books!
The first book Afeera’s teachers gave her to read was a book of short stories revolving around a Donkey and a Monkey. She quickly moved on to an abridged version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as a challenge and used the pictures to help her through it.
Before she knew it, she joined the world of Heidi, Famous Five, Asimov’s robots, and the Hardy Boys. These books not only became Afeera’s friends, but also added a great deal to her learning. “Ask me who taught me, and I will tell you I had about 500 teachers – each hidden in the books I read. Ask me what haunts me in my dream, the answer is ‘the books I could NOT read as a child’!”
Afeera wanted to do the same for her students and started a book club. Initially, this was very difficult given that most of the fifth-grade students were still reading at first-grade level. Therefore, Afeera’s challenge was two-fold: to not only build joy and passion for reading, but also to simultaneously improve the reading and comprehension levels for all her students.
Afeera worked closely with all 40 students and in just three months period of Fellowship, her girls were reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter! What started as an experiment to expose students to reading materials beyond their textbooks, led to a yearlong project where her students were immersed in every single character of Rowling’s Harry Potter. “It was fascinating to see how students were glued to the fiction, and became so well versed with every single character”, says Afeera. When she stepped into her second year of Fellowship, her girls were already reading other parts of the Harry Potter series.
In one of the schools, her students inquired if they could get in touch with Hermione, one of the central characters in the Harry Potter series. “I never realized that my students meant it seriously”. Over the next few weeks, Afeera recalls her girls chasing her every single day, expressing their interest to speak to Hermione.
Inspired by her girls, and their passion to learn, Afeera wrote multiple emails, made numerous phone calls to get in touch with Emma Watson, the actress who played the character of Hermione in the Harry Potter series. “For over 4 months, I was in touch with multiple people to get in touch with Watson’s publicist Luxe Windsor”.
On Jan 27th this year, Afeera suddenly received a card with Emma Watson’s picture and a personal message from the actress herself. “Emma Watson has now become a role model for my girls to dream big”, says Afeera.
“And it has also been incredible to witness the progress the girls have made in the last year and half – the expanded sense of possibilities, the ability to be bold, along with the will and persistence to keep working towards what they value.” As she completes her Fellowship in the next 2 months, Afeera is all set to now help her students get in touch with J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series!
In another government school in Tughlakabad, Ankita Nawalakha, another TFI Fellow from Delhi, has also had a similar transformative experience in the Fellowship but through a different medium. Ankita believes that the place where her students come from should not determine their educational opportunities. She also believes in learning herself, every single day, through the process of facilitating strong experiences for her students.
“I want my girls to be dedicated learners, socially active citizens and compassionate individuals”, says Ankita.
Ankita has been passionate about theatre and music and her excitement for the two was so contagious that it quickly transferred over to the students she’s been working with.
“Arya is a girl who wants to fly, but is mocked by others.” She decides to embark on the magical journey to the flying mountain herself. But it is not all that easy for her. She has to face 5 hurdles before she reaches her destination.
“What started off as a fleeting idea with my kids, is now turning into a larger-than-life musical, a published book and a value-based curriculum for students”, says Ankita.
On April 22nd, Ankita’s students will perform a Broadway-style musical ‘Arya’ in front of more than 300 people in the audience for the first time in their life.
Afeera and Ankita’s works are great examples of how our passion, whether in books, theatre, music or dance, does not have to be separated from our core education and learning. Afeera and Ankita have used reading and theatre as a vehicle to improve their students’ reading skills along with strengthening performance across all subjects over the last two years.
They are a testament of what is possible when those of us who work with children begin to dream and relentlessly work towards achieving that dream themseleves along with the children.
– Authored by Vignesh Krishnan – Program Manager Coach, Teach For India
Applications to the Teach For India 2017-19 Fellowship program are now open. Please visit http://apply.teachforindia.org/ to submit your application before March 21st, 2017.
Click here for education related news.