Sunday, July 19, 2009

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan

I usually quote Thomas Friedman in my blog Sustainable Rays about environmental issues, but in today's New York Times he is reporting in Teacher, Can We Leave Now? No, on a trip to Afghanistan to join Greg Mortenson and Adm. Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to open a new school for girls in Afghanistan.

Since their previous education had been in the mosque, which would have precluded their desire to become doctors and teachers, this is one of many big steps that Greg Mortenson is providing in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As he says:

“When a girl gets educated here and then becomes a mother, she will be much less likely to let her son become a militant or insurgent,” he added. “And she will have fewer children. When a girl learns how to read and write, one of the first things she does is teach her own mother. The girls will bring home meat and veggies, wrapped in newspapers, and the mother will ask the girl to read the newspaper to her and the mothers will learn about politics and about women who are exploited.”
Admiral Mullen was visiting, because, as Mortenson says, the military finally "gets it." They realize that winning in Afghanistan (and Pakistan for that matter) has to be through building relationships, not imposing power, which is what Mortenson's work has been all about. Friedman concludes that if this is how we're in Afghanistan, then we can't leave yet.
So there you have it. In grand strategic terms, I still don’t know if this Afghan war makes sense anymore. I was dubious before I arrived, and I still am. But when you see two little Afghan girls crouched on the front steps of their new school, clutching tightly with both arms the notebooks handed to them by a U.S. admiral — as if they were their first ,dolls — it’s hard to say: “Let’s just walk away.” Not yet.
I'm wondering why it has to be the military doing this. It should be a big UN humanitarian effort instead involving NGOs and grassroots. But I guess since the Taliban is armed (initially by us) then they have to be kept in check?

Coming back to our own world, how many little girls would clutch a notebook as if it were their first doll? What are we doing wrong when girls think that having a baby is a prerequite for becoming an adult, instead of having a good education? In our classes at Claremont Graduate University, we talk often about "Social Justice," but we have a big job ahead of us not only providing a good education, but even more, motivating the students to want it. These Afghani girls need no motivation.

Education in this country has become more motivation than the three R's. We are trying to teach the students to think as well as to know facts, but they have to be dragged to the trough. "Why do I need to know this?" one of my more directed students asked. "I'm going to cooking school. All we need is to know measurements and ratios, not all this algebra stuff." Another one informed us that she was going to marry a rich man, who, we reminded her, would leave her with four kids and no money, if he was anything like most of the other fathers in her neighborhood.

I just created what I hope qualifies as an "Authentic Assessment" (not test, mind you!) in which students can show that they really understand how to simplify rational expressions with cognitive deepness. It was really difficult to relate those skills to "authentic" real life.

But we are trying to use math to teach thinking, logic, organization, steps to solve a (any) problem. Math is brain exercise, just like the exercises athletes use long before they get out on the field to play a game. But I think it would be delightful to teach students who so eager to learn as those Afghani girls!

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