In a small package

Sufia dictated that this is the closest allowed photo

The tiny girl in front of me was learning to read with incredible speed. Though she only knew three letters when she started, by the second lesson she could identify ten letters and combine them to form words. By her 16th lesson she had memorized the entire alphabet (there are more than 50 letters in ours) and could read four-letter words so long as they didn’t include vowel marks. That was twice as fast as the average student, and our program is already one of the fastest literacy programs out there.

Little Sufia was just 6 years old at the time, but she was also developing a reputation for getting herself into trouble. Sometimes she teased other students who didn’t read as fast as her. Other times she refused to read herself. She delighted the most in teasing me. There were two or three incidents where it got so bad I had to kick her out of class just so the other students could get the chance to learn.

Despite the trouble, Sufia’s reading never slowed. By her 34th lesson, less than two months after she started, she was certified as literate at a 3rd-grade reading level. Of the hundred or so students who I’ve taught to literacy through our program, only three completed the program faster, and none of the others did it with anything like the smooth fluency that Sufia showed.

I could watch her read, remember how little she had known just a short time earlier, and think, “Sufia just might be the smartest kid I’ve taught here.”

As we got to know Sufia, we were also getting to know her family.

Sufia’s dad wasn’t in the picture anymore, and we never heard exactly what had happened. Her mom struggled and was often fighting with family, once getting so beaten up it left her arm in a sling and her face looking like she’d been in a car accident. Rumors related to the dis-functionality of the family abounded, though we didn’t know how to sift truth from fiction.

And yet Sufia continued to thrive in our class. A year after she’d learned to read, she was hanging out in my classroom when another student complained that they had been waiting too long. Sufia offered to teach her. She proceeded to give a pitch-perfect imitation of my teaching style, nailing every phrase and inflection and using them all at the right time for the right reasons. There was no doubt that she could have taught anyone if she had the patience.

Of course, she didn’t have that patience. The second day she tried to teach a student, she got frustrated and started insulting their lack of ability to read correctly. The student got upset and asked to have someone else teach her. Thus ended the experiment.

I mentioned the story to my boss, and she was inspired to show Sufia off to demonstrate the program’s potential. At our next big conference, 8-year-old Sufia got up in front of hundreds of educators and mock-taught me how to read, again using perfect technique. The organizers gave her an award up on stage alongside all the wealthy private-school kids who towered over her. Later she would be featured in a video about the program.

Sufia has outgrown our program and rarely comes to read anymore, but she is still attached to our family, especially baby Shakeenha. Peregrine writes:

The other day a little neighbor girl named Sufia, one who likes to call me her mom, came over with some origami gifts. She had made them for our baby — a small purse, a boat, an airplane, a camera. Never mind that baby Shakeenah loves to crumble up paper and eat it, but this was the gift that Sufia had to offer. She clearly is in love with our little girl, and wanted to give of what she has, in resources, time, and her ability, and I was touched.

It reminded me of the “little drummer boy” Christmas song.

Sufia has so much character, and so much intellectual potential. And yet…what will happen in her future? I taught her how to read, but I’m convinced with her talent that she would have learned anyway. She’s doing well in school now…but to what end? The schools teach little other than to obey the teacher and memorize facts. Will she be married off at 18 or 17 or 16 or 15 like so many of her neighbors? Will she be able to leave the basti if she so chooses? Will she have dreams in her life or just do as society expects her to? Can I hope for more for her, and how can I help her to reach it?

What kind of opportunity does a kid like Sufia need? I am about to start adding new activities to our classes, activities that enhance critical thinking skills and problem solving and creativity. It’s something I’ve been meaning to start for three years. The long-term objective is to help these kids think more critically about their own lives, what they can change, what choices they have. But I know that adding a few activities will not be enough to really change anything.

It’s been making me consider whether I need to start a whole school.

5 thoughts on “In a small package

  1. Karen

    To teach critical thinking skills….. you’re definitely onto something there. It’s a way to help them help themselves their whole life long.


  2. Oscar Delaney

    Thanks, Stranger. Of course, I too love critical thinking and other ‘higher order’ skills and while it was a long while ago my vague recollection of my local school was of a pretty boring classroom environment with little to no expectation for individual thought or self-expression.
    To play the devil’s advocate though, teaching kids creativity and thinking for themselves is nice, but pretty useless in the country’s job market for poor people, where the literacy skills you teach may well be useful but there is probably little demand for inventive or creative employees?
    Furthermore, given that for the foreseeable future there will be plenty of illiterate kids and adults there, is it justifiable to invest lots of time and energy getting a few people to be more creative and inventive, rather than simply upscaling your existing and successful literacy work to more people?
    BTW, especially given my current life choices to study in Australia I realise I am in no position to criticise whatever paths you take, but certainly interested in your thoughts and how they compare to how I would respond to my own (exaggerated for effect) critiques.


  3. I am primarily not thinking about job opportunities, as the market is such that there is little impact I can make on that anyway. And even if I do help get someone a job, in how many cases does that merely mean there is someone else out there who now doesn’t have a job?

    Primarily my thought process is, assuming they can come into some money somehow as nearly all of our neighbors do. who do they spend it? What decisions do they make with it? How can they keep themselves out of debt, or out of illness? How can they make life decisions that are best for their children and their community? Earning money might be the factor of their lives they have the least personal control over, but they have a lot more autonomy in the rest.

    Though I do home that better critical thinking and problem-solving skills will also give them much more flexibility and open-mindedness in income-earning options among the limited options available to them.

    In terms of literacy vs. other skills, it is an ongoing, often heated debate. There are people who believe that literacy is the end-all and there are people who believe that literacy is almost meaningless. I can give you some papers that would blow your mind. My current boss is of course more towards the pro-literacy side, the people I’m getting skills training from are more from the literacy-in-itself-is-overrated side. I’m pretty much in the middle.

    The grand hope is that if I do something really well, I will not just help a few people become more creative and inventive, but help to change their lives in such a way that they themselves change the lives of many others. And if the school I create is a good school, then hopefully that will be the #1 thing I can do to convince other schools to be like it. I’ve already been involved in a small degree to trying to improve the work of government schools, but there’s only so much you can do to help without showing them what a better way looks like.

    When you read Mountains Beyond Mountains there will be a number of principles floating around there that may inform the debate.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s