Afghan illustrator brings reading to life on Ministry of Education curriculum team


November 28, 2016

KABUL — Growing up, Beheshta always dreamed of becoming an illustrator.

“I always wished to illustrate my dreams in color picture,” she says.

She also dreamed of making a contribution to her community. Today, she is realizing both of those dreams.

Beheshta is serving on a team of 56 illustrators, curricular experts and book designers at the Ministry of Education that is working to develop early grade reading curriculum as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Afghan Children Read project.

Started in April, the Afghan Children Read project will support the Ministry of Education’s development of an evidence-based reading program in Dari and Pashto for students in grades 1 to 3 in both formal and community-based education schools. It is implemented by Creative Associates International.

“Producing materials which are technically sound and visually engaging is essential in supporting achievement for children in the early grades. This activity has ensured that the illustrations are not simply colorful and attractive, but that they support the development of reading skills such as predicting or making inferences,” says Susan Ayari, Senior Associate in Education in Conflict at Creative.

The 56-person Ministry of Education team includes 3 illustrators and several curricula experts and book designers.

As an illustrator on the curriculum development team, Beheshta’s goal is to create compelling content that engages young students and helps to build a culture of reading. For example, one of her illustrations shows a father encouraging his son to study.

“My desires through illustration to contribute to helping children enhance their knowledge and skills in reading and learning. That’s why I am here! I believe books with color pictures will help the children to learn quickly and catch easily the core message of the topics while reading,” she says.

Though her family supports her career, Beheshta says she battles against the lack of community support for her profession as an artist.

“The unfair traditions and numerous violations against women in the country have always been a barrier to fulfilling my dreams. But now I made my dreams come true and can help early grade students through my profession,” she says.

She is intent on proving to her younger siblings and other youth from her community, especially girls, that they can follow their dreams and make a difference. While school enrollment for girls and boys has risen greatly since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, girls face unique barriers to continuing their education, such as a lack of female teachers and girls’ only facilities and sociocultural attitudes that keep girls at home.

In her work, Beheshta hopes to set an example about the power of education and believes that her illustrations can play a part in keeping girls engaged in learning.

“Girls can bring changes in every aspect of education development. I do my best to illustrate the books in order to easily grab and hold the attention of early grade readers,” she says.

As part of five-year Afghan Children Read project, three illustrators including Beheshta, along with curricula writers and books designers, have been involved in a six-week training and on-the-job support program for the development of materials for students in grades 1 to 3.  

Through the training, Beheshta has gained the technical know-how and skills necessary to illustrate stories based on new early grade reading standards. She uses her training to sketch and color curriculum stories into pictures that will engage early grade readers and enhance their learning outcomes

Over the course of the next two years, the materials will be rolled out in 433 schools to 867 teachers in Herat and Nangarhar provinces. They were field tested in a November pilot in Herat and Kabul provinces.

Ministry investment in early grade reading

Emerging from a devastating and prolonged period of civil war, Afghanistan has significantly lagged behind most neighboring countries in nearly all education statistics. Since the end of the civil war, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has structured its policy to focus on improving education and literacy skills at large in the country.

Despite increased primary enrollment rates across the country, the lack of trainings and resources has hindered teachers’ ability to learn and apply new knowledge on early grade reading principles in primary level classrooms. The Afghan Children Read project plans to address this by advancing national literacy and learning across the country.

Ministry of Education experts are working closely with the Afghan Children Read project to develop materials in line with international early grade reading standards.

During a three-day workshop in August, 55 key personnel from the Ministry of Education’s curriculum and research departments, including 15 women, worked closely with project education experts to prepare for the new materials development.

This collaborative learning workshop was a critical component of the materials development process and will set the stage for ongoing learning as the materials take shape, says the project’s senior multilingual education specialist.

 “Learning is not done by just listening to new information and discussing it. In the case of materials development, it also needs to be applied, reflected on and linked back to the teaching and discussion that happened before,” he says.

For Afghan children, the Ministry of Education’s investment in early grade reading through the new materisals development is a step toward better performance and better educational outcomes across the board.

One Ministry of Education workshop participant says that the materials, which reflect international early grade reading standards, will help to boost student reading skills and therefore also improve learning across subject areas. It is an investment worth making, he says.

“Improving learning outcomes in early literacy, like Afghan Children Read is doing, is one of the ways to ensure the future of Afghanistan’s children is bright.”

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