Steve Jobs once said, “The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” And Nusser Abbas Sayeed (affectionately known to me as Nusser Apa) seems to have taken it upon herself to try do just this with her love for storytelling and her latest venture Goread.pk
She spoke to us at ChalkTalk about her firm belief in using stories to educate children in academic and non-cognitive skills such as tolerance, social responsibility and compassion. Here is what she had to say about education in Pakistan and her storytelling venture, Goread.pk:
Q. Nusser Apa, please tell us a little about your involvement in the field of education. How long have you been working in this field and what prompted you to enter it?
A. I cannot say that I always wanted to be a teacher and yet, it has been over 25 years that I have been involved in this field in a variety of roles. I have been a teacher, student of education and a teacher trainer.
After completing university, I was interested in becoming a Product Designer. At that time I believed it to be a more creative field than becoming a teacher. However, jobs in the design field required a full day’s commitment and once our first son was born I resigned from my role as a product designer.
Raising a young family was a full-time commitment. I started working as a free-lance designer, taking on small jobs. It was when the children started school, that I started working as a teacher myself. It just seemed like the most convenient occupation at the time. However, I soon realised that I loved teaching and being around children. I also realised how wrong I was about education not being a creative field. In fact, I learned that a teacher must be as creative as any designer (if not more) – the more creative the teacher, the more effective his/her teaching.
Q. You have taught in schools abroad and in renowned local institutions like C.A.S. and Bay View Academy in Karachi. As an educator, what are some of the problems you see around you – in educators, students and parents – as compared to the international arena?
A. Firstly, I would like to thank C.A.S. and Bay View Academy for giving me the opportunity to work with them, despite having no teaching experience at the time. I was lucky to have mentors like Rumana Hussain and Shahpur Jamall. To see Shahpur teaching was an institution in itself. Growing up in Pakistan and being a product of the local education system, which was rather authoritarian, I was amazed to see the way he conducted his classes. He was respectful yet firm. He was creative, students enjoyed his lessons and the learning outcomes were ambitious.
I find it sad that even today, most classes at the ‘best’ schools in Pakistan are based on the limited visions of school administrators, teachers and often, even parents. The pursuit and near obsession with academic grades overrides the crucial development of children’s non-cognitive skills (character traits).
Regarding my work experience in schools in the UK and US, I definitely noticed a systemic difference. While I have come across some amazing teachers in Pakistan, overall, I couldn’t help notice that teachers there often had a more professional approach towards their teaching career. They came to school earlier than the students and left a couple of hours after the school day was over, making teaching a full day’s work. This made sense, as effective teachers do need to spend considerable time preparing for lessons and the overall learning of the students they serve. Students’ learning differences and individual learning styles were appreciated and schools took responsibility for all students’ learning. As there was more awareness about the subject of learning difficulties, I noticed there was more compassion as well as a structured professional approach.
The criteria for successful practice was often measured against set benchmarks and not just what the principal, teacher or parent had in their head!
Q. How different has the teaching environment become in recent years in Pakistan, in terms of thought processes, classroom involvement and parent involvement in your opinion?
A. I have been seeing and hearing more progressive conversations around teaching practices in schools for privileged children in Pakistan, which is encouraging. There definitely seems to be increased parent involvement – which can be both, positive and negative at times.
My personal experience with this sector has been limited over the last few years since I am currently more involved in education projects for the masses in Pakistan, that is, the underprivileged sector. This is a very different world from what you see in the elite and private schools of the country.
Q. In recent years we have seen a rise in a certain ‘class’ of schools catering to a certain ‘class’ of students. How would you rate these schools in terms of academic performance and overall child development?
A. I touched on this earlier with regards to overall child development. I believe in a general sense this often suffers due to the primary focus on academic achievement. While the percentage of students achieving high grades is on the rise, so is the culture of out-of-school private tuitions, which raises many questions.
Independent study skills, problem solving and self-management are skills that enable students to achieve successful outcomes as they move on to university, training and professional careers. Over-scheduling children and young adults – signing them up for a large number of support activities – disempowers them and makes them dependent, in my opinion.
Seeing that issues like student anxiety and negative behaviour are on the rise, I would encourage parents and teachers to place equal, if not more, emphasis on the emotional development of children and focus on nurturing them to grow up with positive mindsets in order to empower them to make the best choices as they grow into adults.
Q. You are an author of children’s books as well. What role do you think storytelling and reading plays in a child’s development?
A. I am a great proponent of the power of stories to teach children. I believe that stories are effective springboards to teach children academic knowledge and skills as well as character traits. When students are interested in a story, they engage with the content on an emotional level. And this leads to deeper and more lasting learning.
Q. Tell us about your most recent book?
A. I wrote a story titled Olive and the Dreadful Plogre in response to the menace of plastic waste polluting our environment. Plogre is a character I created from the words Plastic and Ogre and I have written a number of stories around this character.
Olive and the Dreadful Plogre is a fictional story inspired by a true incident – when an Olive Ridley turtle got stuck in a plastic sack in the Indian Ocean and was rescued by four WWF trained Pakistani fishermen. The story is published in Urdu and English and will be available for sale soon.
Q. Tell us about your experience at Teach for Pakistan and what role (if any) did it play in your current venture Goread.pk?
A. The four years I spent at Teach For Pakistan (TFP) are among the most powerful professional years of my life to date. Prior to this I was involved with education in the privileged sector and although I don’t undermine that experience at all, what I saw at the grassroots level as a TFP staff member, was eye-opening. It made me realise how ignorant most people (including myself) are regarding the quality of education that the majority of our children receive.
I saw what being under-resourced in many public schools actually meant. There is no concept of children’s safety or well-being. Often furniture (if present at all) is broken and unsafe, school premises are dirty and with no clean drinking water for children or functioning toilets to use. Teacher absenteeism is common and there is more rote learning and little conceptual understanding. Corporal punishment is commonplace. In a nutshell, schools are often not joyful places for children and are not playing any role in providing them with quality education and better opportunities for their future.
But amidst these difficulties and challenges, I also met many champions including government teachers and principals who worked against all odds to provide these children with better learning opportunities. They are the ones that truly inspired me.
The most prominent champions I came across during my work with TFP as Academic Manager and Director – Training & Support, were the Fellows who had joined the organisation as teachers committed to teach in underserved classrooms in Karachi and Lahore for two years. I saw most of them give their best in the face of extreme challenges that went beyond the classroom. In addition to students being academically far behind, there were systemic problems which were deep-rooted and hard to fix.
The good news is that Teach For Pakistan has now re-launched their program in Islamabad under the outstanding leadership of Khadija Bakhtiar, one of the organisation’s original founders. I wish Khadija and her team the very best as they strive towards creating better opportunities for children in Pakistan.
And yes, my experience at TFP played a huge role in my desire to create goread.pk. When I visited schools and observed lessons, I noticed the absence of story-reading in most classrooms and children growing up without the joy of read-aloud sessions bothered me greatly. But eventually, through our efforts, story-reading became an essential component and we saw children benefitting from it. This eventually led to the conception of Goread.pk
Q. Please give us some detail about GoRead.pk. What is the project about, who does it target and what do you hope to achieve?
A. Goread.pk is a socially conscious, nationwide movement of registered volunteers (referred to as go-readers), who spend one hour a week of their time to read culturally and developmentally appropriate stories and other current news to children in underprivileged classrooms across Pakistan. The organisation also commits to sharing news-worthy and enriching reading resources with our volunteers thus, contributing to a knowledgeable and better-informed society.
Our vision پرھو اور پڑھاؤ (learn and educate) is of a Pakistan where every child in every village and city grows up with memories of joyful read-aloud story sessions. In classrooms and communities, caring and inspiring adults will read stories to children, engage with them, laugh and cry together over things that really matter. I have no doubt that children will listen attentively. They will see themselves as well as others in the characters and stories read to them, make connections to their own life experiences as well as learn about diverse cultures. Through stories we hope to shape childrens’ behaviour and develop positive mindsets.
Pakistan is blessed with a large untapped human resource pool; there are people who want to play a role in improving the quality of education but have limited time available. Goread.pk aims to connect such people with children in underprivileged communities, give them the resources (stories) and a schedule where all they need to do is give one hour a week of their time.
In this way, we hope to decrease the social and economic divide in our society, increase cross-cultural communication and help us take ownership of the less privileged that live within and around our neighbourhoods. When people from more privileged communities visit the less privileged ones to read stories, they are bound to see the challenges these children and their families face, most of which many of us are unaware of. Pakistani people are very kind and I am hopeful that they will come together to help these communities in other ways as well. Goread.pk hopes to change children’s lives for the better – one story at a time.
Q. How can people volunteer for GoRead.pk and what is your criteria when selecting volunteers (go-readers)?
A. Information for go-readers to register will be available on our website and Facebook page soon. Any adult, over the age of 16 who can read is eligible to apply. After a basic screening process, we will register volunteers and take each person’s NIC information and share it with the school, where reading sessions have been scheduled. This will ensure that the volunteers we send into classrooms and communities will in no way compromise the safety of the children we serve. Registered individuals will receive access to the goread.pk app. Stories, reading guidelines, schedules and connections to our partner schools in the vicinity of volunteers’ homes/work places will be provided via this app. So in a nutshell, this is a program that relies heavily on ICT.
Q. Which books will volunteers be reading in the storytelling sessions and who will be selecting these books?
A. Goread.pk will be creating content (stories) for the program. While there are scores of beautiful stories already written for children, purchasing rights to be able to share these stories is expensive. Given that goread.pk is a not-for-profit organisation, we currently do not have the funds to purchase stories. I have personally written several stories for children that are culturally and socially relevant.
We plan to support local authors and illustrators and encourage people to write stories in English and Urdu for our initiative. We will also conduct story-writing competitions and will share these opportunities via our website, Facebook page and posters in colleges and public spaces. Watch out for one coming up soon! In this way we plan to add to our digital library and encourage writers and illustrators to be a part of goread.pk’s movement to bring enriching story sessions into the lives of children. Our team will carefully select the stories to ensure that they are developmentally and culturally appropriate for children and aligned to our mission of developing character.
Q. Where will these reading sessions be conducted and will there be regular sessions at each location?
A. Reading sessions will be conducted in schools, hospitals, refugee camps – anywhere where children are present. Goread.pk is looking to develop partnerships with schools and communities where reading sessions will take place.
Yes, the sessions will be regular. A volunteer will have to commit to a minimum of three months for the program. Each volunteer will read to the same group of children every time in order to ensure that children engage with a specific caring adult over a period of time, thus encouraging positive relationship building between volunteers and children, their parents and schools.
Q. What advice would you like to give to parents and teachers?
A. For every decision that you take that affects your child/students, ask yourself this question – ‘How will this affect the overall wellbeing of my child/students in the long run?’
The aim of education, in addition to acquiring knowledge and skills, should always be to nurture and develop socially conscious, responsible individuals who are optimistic and capable, feel positive about themselves and are confident about their personal choices. Every decision you make for your children should be one that helps them grow into individuals who respect differences, cultural diversity, gender equality and are willing to appreciate and value the idea of shared humanity.
Only then will they be able to help improve the world they live in.
If you would like to know more about the Goread initiative, please find details below: