Before entering the sixth grade, students read Deborah Ellis’ novel The Breadwinner about the oppressed life of an Afghan girl. After discussing this book and related articles, the sixth-graders heard a young Afghan woman speak about her childhood experiences living in Kabul under the Taliban. Staff from a local nonprofit, Barakat, Inc., helped students learn about the identity, education and opportunity of Afghan girls (including the startling fact that nearly 57 percent of Afghan males are literate but only 13 percent of Afghan women and girls can read and write).
After conducting further research, students decided to help Barakat with education, outreach and fundraising. Their service-learning project complemented the district’s grade 6 social studies curriculum, which involves the study of Islam.
Staff of Barakat maintained close communications through letters, e-mail, and return visits as each student committee met 2-3 times per week and formed sub-committees as needed. “These subcommittees did impressive independent work,” teacher Melissa London reflects. “Once their initial tasks were completed, they often devised additional tasks for themselves!”
Education Committee members got feedback from classroom teachers on three lessons they developed (one aimed at K-2 students; a second at 3rd-4th graders and a third at 5th-8th graders). Fundraising Committee members planned events to generate both attention and money: raffles bake sales, garage sales, a school-wide envelope drive and using the customized fundraising website FirstGiving. To encourage participation in Barakat’s Walk for Literacy fundraiser, students posted a “Wall of Walkers” announcing how many people had registered.
Outreach Committee members worked with the school’s technology specialist to create a blog, PHAR: Pierce Helps Afghanistan Read, and wrote letters for the school newsletter and local newspaper. Students from all three committees used the group blog to share observations and celebrate their achievements. “There were enough genuine moments of positive press or feedback along the way that students never lost interest or momentum,” observes London. “The enthusiasm was organic and largely self-generated and self-sustaining.”
Partners at Barakat shared their feedback in appreciative letters to students, writing in one: “It was pretty amazing what you’ve been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Everything that you’ve accomplished in your school speaks to the power of working together as a part of a team….”
The impact of students’ efforts was clear at the Walk for Literacy event in October 2009, where 40 percent of participants came from the Pierce School community. Barakat publicly acknowledged the students for raising $8,000—helping fund a year of schooling for more than 200 Afghan girls. Students later reflected on their learning by completing a project summary and a longer narrative reflection.