The Power of True Literacy

“Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read…” (Luke 4:16)

Have you ever thought about what Jesus’ ministry would have looked like if he had been illiterate? How could he have spoken the word of God with authority, if he’d been unable to read that word? I first considered this insight, and the idea of a girls literacy project, in a Community Development class with Gregg Garner. True literacy is powerful. It goes beyond simply pronouncing scribbles on a page, and it allows a person to critically analyze the symbols that scream meaning at them every day.

Think about it. A young girl walks down the road and to her right a giant billboard rises up from the landscape. The subject of the billboard?  A beautiful woman with flawless complexion. While her hair is jet black, her skin is as white as porcelain. The advertisement is for face-whitening cream, and the billboard is in a city in Delhi. The symbol to be interpreted? White skin is beautiful. More beautiful than brown skin. So much more beautiful that it is worth spending hard-earned money to purchase face bleach, in pursuit of lighter skin and the confidence it would bring.  The literate person has the skills to look at that billboard, recognize it for what it is, and reject the inherent claim it is making.

I used the above example in India this summer to introduce the idea of literacy to a classroom of bright-eyed, junior high and high school girls. As young ladies in India they are especially vulnerable to the often degrading messages relayed in media, advertising, and even deeply-rooted cultural tradition. I emphasized to them the confidence that comes with being able to interpret the values communicated in books and pictures, and even be able to use those mediums to communicate something of value themselves. Thus began a wonderful summer project of 15 students that resulted in the production of two illustrated children's books.

  The project incorporated elements of language arts and visual arts, all with a heavy emphasis on cooperation within a team dynamic. Here, girls work together to storyboard a plot and arrange an appropriate length for a children’s book. 

The project incorporated elements of language arts and visual arts, all with a heavy emphasis on cooperation within a team dynamic. Here, girls work together to storyboard a plot and arrange an appropriate length for a children’s book. 

First the girls learned the elements of a story. Together we poured over popular children’s books and analyzed the parts of a story (setting, characters, plot, themes). We observed their illustrations and discussed the values being communicated in each story. I taught the girls a simple overarching principle; the best stories are ones that teach good lessons. Then, it was time for them to create their own stories, with good lessons!

After dividing the girls into two groups I gave them the task of coming up with a name for their teams. They proudly chose the names ‘Angels’ and ‘Barbies’. I laughed with them when they announced these names, but a part of me was sad as well. Even the names of their groups reflected figures they have been taught to consider admirable.

  Energy in the room was palpable as students shared story ideas! They discussed settings and themes they were familiar with: village life, the school day, family dynamics. 

Energy in the room was palpable as students shared story ideas! They discussed settings and themes they were familiar with: village life, the school day, family dynamics. 

The Angels and Barbies worked very hard on their stories, coming up with three potential storylines each. After sharing them with the class, they then received feedback until each group settled on one story that they would together develop and illustrate.

Their first story, “The Lesson" tells the tale of a class of young students who attend ‘school’ under a tree with a wise old instructor. One day the teacher sets the students up in a race, charging them to race over a hill, through a cave, and back to him as quick as they could. Off gallop the students, only to begin stumbling on small rocks when they enter the dark cave. The ambitious, selfish students bypass those who are tripping and falling, and run on to win the race, while the kind students slow down to gather up the dangerous pebbles. When the slower students finally arrive back to the old teacher, he calls them up to the front and, holding his stick in hand, tells them to open their hands. When they do, however, it is not stones but shining jewels in the students’ hands! Their selfless concern for others led to blessing, and praise from the old teacher.

  Working on this book gave girls a chance to share about the daily challenges that females face in India. But in picking up a pen and writing a different story, their minds explored new possibilities.

Working on this book gave girls a chance to share about the daily challenges that females face in India. But in picking up a pen and writing a different story, their minds explored new possibilities.

When the girls told this first story my mouth dropped open with delight at the end. What a rich lesson for young children, to put concern for others above self-promotion! We all agreed that this lesson should move forward to be illustrated and shared with younger students.

The second story was much more sobering but equally important to be told. “Myrah” tells the story of a young girl who was unwanted by her father, escaping a sex-selective abortion only because of her mother’s protection -- protection which was needed through infancy as well. This is a common story in India, despite the illegality of sex-selective abortions and infanticide. As Myrah grows, her father refuses to send her to school, but she sits outside the school’s windows each day, carefully listening to the teacher. When the time comes for her to go to college she approaches her mother and reveals the truth: she has been learning on her own for many years. Her mother is shocked, and agrees to give Myrah’s dowry money to her to go to college, where she becomes a doctor.

As I listened to my students tell the rest of the story I was sobered by the details, details the girls were obviously all too familiar with. Myrah experiences discrimination in college as a woman. When she returns to her home village, her mother moves in with her to escape her husband’s beatings. Myrah’s father refuses to reconcile with his daughter, years later still furious that she went behind his back to get an education. In the end Myrah does open a school for girls as well as a hospital to serve her community, and becomes an honored figure in the village. Her father even experiences a dramatic change of heart in the last moments of the story--a detail which felt more like wishful thinking than a natural part of the story.

  After creating their stories together, the girls received a series of art lessons from Mrs. Stephany Dailey, a high school art teacher. They loved practicing art! Each girl took one page of the storyline and earnestly created the illustration that would enhance the storyline. They worked together to create a consistent look and feel in their pictures.

After creating their stories together, the girls received a series of art lessons from Mrs. Stephany Dailey, a high school art teacher. They loved practicing art! Each girl took one page of the storyline and earnestly created the illustration that would enhance the storyline. They worked together to create a consistent look and feel in their pictures.

Because of the length of the “Myrah" rough draft, and consideration for our audience of 8-10 year olds, I encouraged the girls to consider cutting out some of the more graphic details, especially the allusions to abortion and infanticide. In the end, it is Myrah’s strength of character in pursuing an education that is highlighted.

“Myrah” is a unique story in the scope of Indian narratives -- including movies, TV shows, books or comics. Because Myrah is the main character, and she is a woman. She is able to offer aid and education to others, rather than playing the role of victim. All too often females are portrayed as the helpless one, desirable because of their beauty, rescued by a male protagonist who sweeps in to save the day. Myrah is a different kind of story, one that the girls were proud to create.

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This project culminated last week when we were able to present each of the girls with their own personal copy of the book. Joy and excitement radiated from the room as the girls eagerly flipped through their book. Each of them found the page of the book that they illustrated and held  them up with pride, showing all of their friends and teachers. Perhaps the most rewarding moment came when we heard the girls exclaim, "Look! I'm a writer now! I'm a writer!" In a society that wants to silence the voice of women, we are so thankful to empower girls to confidently use their voices to speak messages of truth!