Girls Rising in the Classroom- by Augusta Thomson
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”—William Butler Yeats
Imagine: You are 14-year-old girl living in Chakouri, a remote hill station in the Pithoragarh district, an area in the Kumaon Division of Uttarakhand, India. You wake to a view of mountains—the Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot. You dream of climbing, not the mountains you see in front of you but a different set of mountains. You dream of exploring the world, of becoming a teacher, of one day returning to help other women in your community find a way out of poverty and heavy labor.
One day, you get a chance. Your Himalaya Public School partners with the Himalayan Education Foundation. You are given a scholarship and the opportunity to attend high school with other girls and boys in your community. You suddenly have access to a whole new set of resources—books, Internet, and films. You have the support to nurture your unique dreams—and you are told that those dreams, however different from those around you, matter. Work in the fields. Become a teacher. Become a mother. Become a scientist or doctor. Do what speaks to you.
In September 2013 the documentary film and social action campaign Girl Rising officially launched a curriculum in partnership with Pearson Foundation. This curriculum is free, available for download, and aligned to the Common Core Standards. It is one education component in a larger global social action campaign and grassroots movement to promote girls’ education, with the ultimate aim of alleviating world poverty. Like other related movements such as Miss Representation and Half the Sky, Girl Rising is both a powerful social-cause documentary and a wider campaign to raise awareness about the barriers that stand between girls and education, in an effort to use grassroots momentum and policy change to break down those barriers.
Right now the curriculum consists of two stories from the nine-story film—the Nepal segment, which focuses on the tale of Suma, the victim of Kamalari, and the story of Senna, a young poet growing up in the mining town of La Rinconada, Peru. Tara Abrahams, deputy director of Girl Rising, notes that the current curriculum highlights two of the stories that best convey “the power of education and how it can create hope out of seemingly nothing” but that Kayce Jennings, Senior Producer of Girl Rising, is currently working with the Pearson Foundation to expand the curriculum to include all of the nine segments from the film in a revamped edition, which she hopes will be available in the fall of 2014. Already, feedback from screenings around the world is making it clear that the curriculum has great potential to amplify the messages in the film, if adapted suitably to the needs of specific communities.
In November, 2013, 60 high-school girls and 30 female teachers at the Himalayan Public School in Chakouri, India were given the opportunity to see Girl Rising. Dr. Kathy Bollerud and Jeff Williams, trustees of the Himalayan Education Foundation, brought the film to the remote mountain village. Through the stories in Girl Rising, the students had their first view of the international movement to educate girls and confront issues of gender inequality. They saw that they were part of something bigger than themselves and their local and personal challenges. The students and teachers identified with the issues that the girls in the movie faced. They, too, have struggled to receive an education; have seen the impact of illiteracy in their families; and have dealt with poverty. Using the guided discussion questions, they were able to critically consider their own situations beside those of the girls in the film. The following day, Manju, one of the Himalayan Education Foundation 12th grade scholarship students, confided that she was trying to imagine how she could help. As the child of a widow in India, she knows the hardship of being marginalized. Her dream is to serve people as a pharmacist. She was exhilarated by the strength of the girls in the film. Identifying with them, she gleefully announced, “I am your local hero, reporting for duty!”
The relevance of the curriculum to diverse domestic audiences is also becoming evident. Laura E. Stephens, an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York—a college that caters to a large community of immigrants, first-generation Americans, and economically marginalized students— recently saw Girl Rising. She recognized the parallels in the experiences and challenges of her students and those of the girls in the film; like the Girl Rising protagonists her students frequently face familial responsibilities, lack of support, environmental challenges, financial complications, and stereotypes about their abilities or lack of abilities. Like Stephens, Carol Anschuetz, a teacher at a small continuation high school in San Diego county for “at risk” secondary school students, decided to introduce the curriculum to her own school community after seeing Girl Rising. The results were profound; the curriculum and chapter screenings sparked dynamic conversations about the relationships between civil rights versus human rights, about the UN Millennium Development Goals for eradicating poverty and illiteracy. Anschuetz found that the curriculum’s success stemmed from its adaptability. It spoke to a diverse body of students—a model UN student, the student body president, a girl who consistently fails to complete her classwork, and a girl who lives in a gang-plagued neighborhood and struggles academically. Now, that same body of students is going the extra mile and starting a club at school to target education for girls in developing nations. The curriculum not only opened their eyes and heightened their awareness, but it inspired them to act. Based off of their respective experiences, Stephens and Anschuetz see the curriculum as a launching pad for conversations that could ignite community-based solutions to very real problems faced by their student demographics.
Not only does the curriculum have potential as a local educational tool, but, according to Faisal Al-Juburis, the Executive Leader of Bridges of Understanding, a not-for-profit organization aimed at ‘bridging’ the cultural divide between the United States and the Arab World, via storytelling and youth-focused educational programming. Through its core educational program, Youth Talk: A Bridges of Understanding and Global Nomads Group initiative, the organization successfully adapted the Girl Rising curriculum to fit the India segment of the film, which highlights the strong central role of a male figure (a father) in supporting the story’s female protagonist; it used this segment as an educational tool to connect current public high-school classrooms in Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Tunisia with those in Alaska, California, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, Texas, and Virginia.
Bollerud, Williams, Stephens, Al-Jaburi, and Anschuetz are in consensus that the Girl Rising curriculum is a powerful tool for linking the classroom to the wider world, for turning education into a platform for global action. Much of this power comes from its adaptability and creative outlook. The Girl Rising curriculum has a valuable role to play in connecting diverse classrooms around the world to each other and to a more extensive global community; it works because girls’ education is not only a universally-relevant cause but one which has personal resonance for people everywhere.
Imagine: You sit in your classroom at your school in Chakouri, India, dreaming out the window. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine what the future will look like, and the view outside is comforting. Today, you have a visitor from the Himalayan Education Foundation—someone who is going to show you a film about girls like you, and teach you a lesson about the film. Your teacher tells you that you will be asked to write an essay on ‘freedom.’
Usually essays scare you, but today you are excited. You are excited to watch a movie, but you are also excited to write about ‘freedom’ because you already know what you will write. For you, ‘freedom’ is the chance to climb a mountain. You look at your tools—a pen, some paper, and the community teaching you to use them.
Augusta Thomson is currently reading for a B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford University. She spent the last year living and working in New York City, where she served as Director of Corporate Outreach and Distribution at 10x10/Girl Rising and is currently Girl Rising UK Regional Ambassador. She has written for The Oxonian Globalist, The Huffington Post, and Wellesley Magazine, and is the Director of Nine-Story Mountain, a documentary film about an Oxford University and Royal Geographical Society-sponsored research expedition she led across the Tibetan Plateau in July 2012.