Story festival in remote Pakistani village promotes literacy with 500+ books

By Noman Manzoor

May 20, 2016

Second grade teacher Akbar Ali stands in front of the book display at the festival with his seven-year-old daughter Sadaf. Photo by Noman Manzoor.

Matiari village, Sindh -The Dargah Dur Mohammad Shah Primary School has educated students from this 200-household village for more than 25 years.

But its walls have never been as colorful as they were covered from top to bottom with over 500 stories handwritten and illustrated by the school’s students.

On one special day, more than 200 students, parents, teachers, Ministry of Education officials and the media gathered for the school’s first “Story Mela”—a festival of books and reading highlighting tales authored by educators and learners in third through fifth grade.

There has never been such a Mela in the history of this school since its inception 26 years ago,” said second grade teacher Akbar Ali at the January festival, standing by his seven-year-old daughter, Sadaf, who beamed as she greeted visitors arriving at the event.

“There has never been such a Mela in the history of this school since its inception 26 years ago!”

Akbar Ali, second grade teacher

The Story Mela was organized entirely by teachers at the Dargah Dur Mohammad Shah Primary School. They were inspired to launch the initiative after training with the Pakistan Reading Project, where they learned techniques focusing on read-aloud activities, and story-making and storytelling to enhance reading skills.

The U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Pakistan Reading Project is a five-year project with the objective to support the provincial and regional departments of education throughout Pakistan to improve the reading skills of 1.3 million children in first and second grades.  It is implemented by the International Rescue Committee and its partners Creative Associates International, World Learning and the Institute of Rural Management.

To date, the project has implemented reading interventions in more than 1,900 schools in six districts of Sindh, reaching more than 121,000 children in the region. Across Pakistan, more than 501,000 children from 8,100 schools have benefited from this project.

Engaging communities, and cultivating a culture of reading is one of the major objectives of the project. The Matiari Story Mela is one of many community-driven, sustainable initiatives to support reading that have been sparked by its teacher training component.

Literacy initiatives like this are especially critical in Sindh, where students perform worse than their peers in any other region of the country. Research has shown that reading is the foundation of learning and, when taught in their mother tongue, students have an easier time learning a second language.

Inspired by collaboration & new reading techniques

First grade student Eiman demonstrates read-aloud storytelling techniques, a pedagogical approach her teachers learned through trainings by the project. Photo by Noman Manzoor.

After six months of implementing the USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project in their classrooms, teachers at Dargah Dur Mohammad Shah Primary School volunteered to arrange a Story Mela on their own.

“I learned a lot from the Pakistan Reading Project’s training,” said Abdul Karim, a first grade teacher at the school. “When I shared sample stories for the Mela and started working with a few kids, many other students approached me and volunteered to be a part of this activity. Team work has enabled us organize this colorful Mela.”

The Story Mela planning effort was led by head teacher Mohammad Ismail Waryiah, who was trained in a three-day orientation for head teachers. Mohammad Ismail was highly inspired by the project’s activities.

One key component of the project’s methodology is to support ongoing teacher professional development and support through collaboration among educators. This is often done through regular Teacher Inquiry Group meetings, where teachers work together to improve their lessons and the culture of reading within their school.

“Unlike other projects, the Pakistan Reading Project has a unique methodology. It not only conducts teacher trainings but also follows up regularly. Teacher Inquiry Group meetings ensure that activities learned by teachers and allied staff, are actually practiced in the classroom,” says second grade teacher Akbar Ali.

Ali says that these meetings provide teachers with the feedback they need to improve their lessons and boost opportunities for students to read and learn. The Story Mela grew out of this collaborative effort and guidance from the project, he says.

Books growing in the courtyard

More than 500 handmade books were displayed around the school grounds at the Story Mela. Photo by Noman Manzoor.

Among the crowds of young readers and their families, Ministry of Education Officials were among those touring the storybook gallery—a walk through the school courtyard where hundreds of handmade stories hung on display.

Impressed by the gallery walk, District Education Officer Mohammad Akbar Memon said that the need for the USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project and these types of literacy events in Sindh is great.

“Students of Sindh who still can’t read well are promoted to grade six or seven. Low enrollment, dropouts, poor standard of education, and issues of quantity versus quality—all of these are related to the basic issue of reading,” he said. “By addressing these we can solve many problems and kids will be happy to go to schools.”

“I consider the Pakistan Reading Project a backbone for children’s education as well as for teacher training.”

Abdullah Mallah, Taluka Education Officer

Around the corner from the gallery walk, students were busy creating and displaying fresh stories. Other young readers demonstrated their skills through a read-aloud activity, using a variety of reading techniques, including probing, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and more.

Witnessing the gains in literacy among the school’s students, due in large part to the USAID-funded Pakistan Reading Project, and the dedication of its educators to literacy education, Taluka Education Officer Abdullah Mallah commended the project.

“I consider the Pakistan Reading Project a backbone for children’s education as well as for teacher training, “he said, noting that the project methodology improves reading skills and creates confident and independent learners.

Students’ reading success fuels a desire to learn more and succeed, he said.

“Better understanding leads to motivation and happiness, and urges students to learn and read more. The Pakistan Reading Project is a wonderful project for [grades one and two] students and teachers alike.”

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