Teaching Three Cups of Tea:
A Study of the Effect of Literature on Student Learning in a
Time when it is Much Needed with a Focus on Best Practices
in Middle Level Education
A Graduate Capstone Experience
What Delivered Me.
I have always known the power of a good book—books have fulfilled the wanderlust of my landlocked legs, widened my view on worldly beliefs, and challenged me to do and be more.
With this firm belief, I set out into the classroom daily, hoping to instill the same wonder and guidance through life, but I often have wondered if I am successful. Intuition does not always drive good instruction, and recently I have thought about this a great deal, wondering if I am, in fact, impacting my students’ education in a positive way through the literature they read.
This came under serious consideration for me in January of 2009. I had just finished Three Cups of Tea. I undertook the book as part of a series of readings about Islam I had picked up after my sister’s recent conversion to the religion. I had found myself uncharacteristically, but quickly judging the religion, and wanted to explore it beyond what was playing out before my eyes and on the news. Greg Mortenson’s book did the trick. I saw that the people of Pakistan were not warring people, and that education for women, in particular, truly is the way out of cyclical poverty and oppression. My ideas of what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to live in Central Asia (a term I learned from the book, as I would have considered that area of the world “The Middle East” prior to my reading) began to evolve. A picture quite unlike the one painted on daily media shows and a tactic defying the military version of attack for liberation slowly unveiled itself. Mortenson believes that for any society to improve itself, change must be owned and supported by the people who live there. He believes that when schools are part of communities and supported by the members of that community, that an evolution of progress will naturally occur. He believes that when women who tend to make the schooling, eating, and healthcare decisions within a family are educated, lower birthrates, lower poverty levels, and healthier children will emerge. In Pakistan, this also means less radicalization of Islam, as fundamentalism tends to grow out of poverty and desperation. This methodology of implementing educational practices to overcome war is such a practical, affordable, reasonable, and inspirational means to find peace. It changed my views on how the wars our country is involved in should be handled, and I wanted this message to be instilled in my middle school students. Pakistan and Afghanistan will continue to be in the news when they are grown—and I want them to be adults who are knowledgeable and prepared to make decisions about a culture that is very different than ours. And so I wondered if Mortenson’s philosophy of education could be applied right here in our classrooms—if my students are educated, will they grow to change their culture as well?
I had not been the only one to grapple with concerns about Islam. While I mainly focused on the oppression of women, I had overheard my students comment on “towel heads” and “terrorists” within the same sentence. It was clear that this student body held its own stereotypes. This furthered my passion to find out: Could it be possible for literature—mainly, Three Cups of Tea—to change the misperceptions and stereotypes my students had?
Holderness Central School houses a 99% white, Christian, middle class student body of approximately 200 children, K-8. Parent involvement and support is extraordinarily high and teacher turnover is extraordinarily low. The grade 6-8 wing, where I teach all three grades in Language Arts, works under a much-embraced middle school philosophy. Four subject area teachers and a special education teacher routinely pull together multi-disciplinary units, lead advisory groups, and offer inclusive classes focused on differentiation to meet all needs. Teachers write across the curriculum and meet daily to discuss student needs. I wasn’t sure if my team would be as interested in teaching the young adult version of Three Cups of Tea as I was, but I didn’t feel that a message as large as Greg Mortenson’s should be pigeon-holed to just my classroom. I was hoping that my colleagues might embrace the idea of an interdisciplinary unit with me, and I was not disappointed. Social studies, math, science, art, and music all voiced a desire to lead this unit together. And so we embarked.
In Which My Beliefs are Further Challenged and Lifetime Friendships are Formed
Coincidentally, I am fortunate enough to live in a town with a university that is the home to 20-40 Pakistani educators every summer for a US State Department sponsored educational leadership institute. Knowing that in the fall I would return to school to lead a multidisciplinary unit that involved Pakistani education, I thought it might be wise to become involved with the local institute.
The first time I met the twenty Pakistanis who were spending the month of July in Plymouth, NH, I raced to the library, where they were gathering, a bit late. One man, Munir, sat in the computer lab with the leader. Out of breath, I shook his hand and made small talk about his arrival into the United States. Slowly, women dressed in brilliant scarves began to trickle in. They shook my hand by taking it within both of theirs. They smiled warmly. Men in button down shirts and khaki pants arrived. Some of them shook my fingertips, and looked away distantly. Some took my entire hand and smiled gratefully. It took the entire group about twenty minutes to gather. I would come to learn that Pakistanis do not necessarily value being on time, and they always would like to speak to you before settling in, much to the consternation of the American leaders.
I spent a large portion of nearly every day over the course of the next month, with these Pakistani educators, eager to find out more about their culture and their beliefs, sometimes seeing them more than my own family. The women were all-embracing. They hugged me at each encounter, kissing my cheeks and asking after my family. When we sat next to each other in a class or at a dinner, they put their arms around me or held my hand. Their warmth was overwhelming. Sima, one woman I felt particularly close with, told me her story one day. She was one of the very few women in her village who left home to become educated because her father believed it necessary. She returned home to become the headmistress of an all-girls’ school in which only 25% of the female population attended. By the time she was ready to come to the United States, 100% of the girls from her area attended school—that was 1200 girls in total. But one month before she departed for the U.S., Taliban forces attacked the school and leveled it. There was no school left for Sima to teach in. The week before she departed for the U.S., another Taliban attack killed her mother—the primary caregiver for Sima’s three children while she was away. Devastated, she still came to Plymouth. I could not believe her strength. She had a raspy voice and sharp wit about her. She painted her nails brightly and loved Obama. She did not cover her head. She picked on me about my foreign ways. She defied every stereotype about Muslim women I had ever struggled with, and within one short month I grew to love her and feel as though I had known her my entire life. Humanity and friendship defy culture.
Another woman, Kasaur, was one of the most brilliant women I had ever met. Her father closed the door on neighbors who showed up to wail when she, the third girl in the family, was born. All three of his daughters now hold their PhD. Kasaur told me of her arranged marriage—she had been married now for nearly 30 years. I couldn’t make the arranged marriage and the PhD coincide in my brain, and Kasaur was the kind of woman I could explain that to. She, in turn, explained the value of marriage and the respect her father held for her. She explained arranged marriage in a way I had never thought of before, and challenged my own views. Perhaps I do not agree still, but I now at least understand and respect rather than judge. Kasaur showed me the detriments of judging by playing devil’s advocate with me and judging my own customs. She made me realize how ethnocentric I can be.
My experiences with the men in the group were very different, as was to be expected, but also became the most informational, as they were more eager to speak politics with me. Talat, an overbearing grandfatherly type, told fascinating stories. I was drawn to his large personality immediately, only to find that he was very dismissive of me—he would loosely shake my hand, look in another direction while I was speaking, and even cut me off midsentence. It was not until he met my husband that he began to take notice of me, and then we had a very frank conversation. Talat later told me that he had judged me for not only being a woman, but for looking young. When he saw that my husband treated me with a great deal of respect, he acquiesced into doing so as well. He was apologetic about his earlier behavior and began to spend a great deal of time getting to know me. One day he hugged me in greeting and while the other men around him stiffened uncomfortably, he laughed and said jokingly, “When in Rome…” Talat was the man who patiently gave me history lessons on Pakistan. He explained the beliefs of Islam. He let me challenge his ideas. He was obviously biased against India (“Did you know that we have fewer people but more cell phones in Pakistan?” “Did you know that our leader never went to jail like Gandhi?”), but he knew his facts and helped me navigate the nuances of politics and social practices with him.
There were other men who ranged from being extremely comfortable in my presence to being much more formal. The one man who impacted me most, however, was Munir—the first Pakistani I had met in the library. He did not feel embarrassed to be alone with me, and while he would not hug me in greeting, he would take my hand in camaraderie when we walked together. He called me his sister, and he was as inquisitive about my culture as I was about his. He brought with him hundreds of pictures of Pakistan and let me pour over them, answering all of my questions. We discussed his concerns about poverty and brainstormed ways he could bring clean water to his schools. Munir is a generous man who does not accept war in his heart. “We do not understand these people who attack us,” he claimed one afternoon. “They are desperate and they are violent. It is very dangerous.”
“Are you talking about the Taliban?” I asked him. His face changed and his eyes became hard.
“Taliban means ‘student of God,’” Munir furthered on vehemently with spit heavy on his tongue. “And no student of God would destroy schools or kill young girls. No student of God would bring war to his people. These are not ‘Taliban,’ these are scoundrels. Miscreants. We wish you Americans would stop calling them ‘taliban.’”
I took this conversation to several other Pakistanis and got the same reaction. And over the course of the month a certain feeling of anger emerged: the people of Pakistan do not want their children to die. They do not want to be scared. They do not want to live in a country of war. No more than you or I do. They want it to stop.
And while I learned of their religion and their customs, while I experienced part of their culture and their food, what struck me most powerfully during my time working with them, and what I knew must be the seed of what I teach my students is this simple fact: nobody wants to live with war and terrorism and fear. This yearning for peace and safety stretches across cultures. It is a basic desire for all forms of life across this globe.
October and November, 2009—
Teaching the Book
To begin with, we gave the students no prior knowledge before commencing our unit. Instead, I sat them down with paper and pen and asked them to write for a few minutes explaining to me what they thought of Muslims. I was not surprised by their product. Out of the seventy five students who did the writing prompt, one child alone, wrote, “I know a Muslim, and she is like everybody in this room. Muslims are no different than you or me.”
Most students, however, came away from this prompt with very different answers. Several children were completely unaware of what Islam is. Their papers consisted of one sentence: “I don’t know.” I didn’t know whether to be discouraged about the fact that they didn’t have any perceptions for me to challenge or excited that their first exposure would be one that included inquiry, history, and unbent truths.
As expected, the majority of students wrote to the negative misperceptions I had anticipated them having. Several of them made the connection between Islam and terrorism, with a subgroup believing that terrorism is part of the religion. One boy wrote, “If you don’t believe the same thing as a Muslim, they will kill you or attack your country.” Some of the girls, in particular, wrote about their concerns with women not being educated or being oppressed. “In Islam,” one girl wrote, “girls are not allowed to show their faces. They do not have the same rights as men.” There was also a cultural connection between Islam and my students’ perceptions. One girl wrote, “Muslims are poor and dirty. They cannot afford to go to school. They live in shacks.”
It was this entry alone that made me realize I needed to start further back than I thought. Clearly, this student had no idea about the wealth in Saudi Arabia. She had no idea that Muslims live in France and Indonesia and the United States. And when I read these aloud to the class (they were written anonymously—they only wrote boy or girl at the top for my purposes), and I saw shakes of the head, I realized that this girl was not the only one who did not realize this.
The task ahead of our team was a vast one, and I was nervous about our success. I did not tell the students that I wanted to challenge their beliefs. I did not make any comments about their initial writings. I simply read them aloud, answered any questions without my opinion, and embarked on the unit.
The social studies teacher had the first responsibility. He taught an entire unit on Islam—the history of the religion, the beliefs of the religion, and the regions where the greatest populations of Muslims lived currently. He then moved on to teach the history of Pakistan, along with the geography and regions. Our students emerged knowing more about Islam and Pakistan than the average TV or radio host who decides to embark on long tirades against its people.
The science teacher took over from there, studying the Himalayas and their creation. Our students understood that because of plate tectonics, those giant mountains are still growing. She covered altitude sickness and its effects and compared the mountainous region with the mountains near us. They looked at the Indus River and the pollution problems that Pakistan currently faces. Our students emerged from her unit again knowing more than the average US citizen who has an opinion about the land of Pakistan and the issues that affect the country environmentally.
From here, I began the novel with our students—every child in grades 6-8 received a copy of the book. The young adult version of Three Cups of Tea bolds all words that are defined in the glossary and includes pertinent pictures to help adolescents visualize this nonfiction book. In the beginning, the reading was difficult for them. Despite their background knowledge, reading about a foreign culture with names that did not curl around their tongues proved trying in the beginning. They were lackluster about the material initially. But as they encountered Greg Mortenson’s challenges with building schools, their interest grew.
While we were reading the book, I was continually giving them more background knowledge to connect to the book. I showed them daily news clippings. I brought in post cards and read them shorter pieces of writing as well as longer passages from the adult version which I felt gave more in depth information. We talked a great deal about terrorism, and any question I could not answer factually, without my own opinion tainting the answer, I researched and brought back the next day.
Not only were students reading and talking each day, but they were writing as well. Students kept daily journals in which they recorded their reaction to the reading and our classroom conversations. Each grade also did a longer writing component for the unit. The eight graders took all the knowledge they had about research and completed intricate research projects with a visual component that ranged from topics like mountain trekking to the Five Pillars of Islam. Seventh graders complete their poetry unit by writing different styles of poems in reaction to the book and other images I showed them. Some of the most startlingly beautiful poetry I have ever had seventh graders write grew out of this unit. Sixth graders wrote paragraphs—reflective, informative, and persuasive. They wrote several for each style on different topics and then chose the ones they were most proud of to complete.
And while they were busy in my room with all of this reading and writing, they were busy elsewhere. A group of students interested in promoting what we were studying, visited all of our K-5 classrooms to read Listen to the Wind, the children’s picture book version of Three Cups of Tea. They talked to the younger students about everything they had learned so far and left penny jars in each classroom to begin our Pennies for Peace campaign. They made daily visits and collected the pennies, returning them to my room to roll during lunchtimes.
In math they studied area and determined how many pennies would fit in a square foot. They then started measuring places around the school—the gym floor, a classroom tile, countertops, mirrors, computer screens, and anything else they could and began posting signs around the school that said things like, “If you covered this tile in pennies, you could buy a child’s school supplies for an entire year in Pakistan.” The eighth graders studied volume as well, and signs on the bathroom sinks and toilets began appearing too!
In chorus, the director had hunted down a Pakistani song about peace and was busy leading the chorus in mastery of this beautiful haunting sound. They learned that Pakistani music does not follow the same chord steps as ours and so sounds dissonant to our ears, but embraced the music so that the spirit made it alive.
In art class, the teacher took on three different projects, each imitating traditional Pakistani art. She showed slideshows of Pakistani buses, famous for their intricate paintings; she showed them pictures of architecture and tiles; she watched them fall silent as they awed over the beauty of Pakistani art. Each student created a piece of artwork that would be on display the night of our final dinner.
While students were surrounded by Greg Mortenson’s story, they kept one foot in today’s world as well. For extra credit, students could bring in a current event article from a newspaper, magazine, or the Internet, with a one page written response to it. Some students actually encountered articles about Greg Mortenson because he had a new book about to be published, but other students brought in articles about decisions the Pakistani government was making. One student wrote a hopeful response to an article about the United Stated government beginning to invest in education in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The responses were well written and showed a level of higher thinking that many people don’t exhibit when vocalizing opinions. I was very proud of them.
Even though the students were engaged in the reading of the book and the activities we had created, I still felt as though they weren’t completely connected. I still felt as though we were studying “those people.” I wasn’t sure what to do about this. But when I thought back to my own progression, I remembered that meeting the Pakistani educators was what made the most impact on me. I decided I needed to bring my friends to them. During our studies, northern Pakistan, mainly Peshawar, was under daily attack from the Taliban. Sima and Zaki, two delegates from the Pakistani institute both lived in Peshawar. We started up routine correspondence about how the violence affected their daily lives. They spoke to the constant fear and loss, and I posted those heartbreaking emails on a board outside my classroom next to their current events. When I looked out my door, I often saw students reading and discussing the emails. It was a little more real to them.
The turning point, however, came when I showed them video footage of the Pakistanis I had worked with. With their permission, I had videotaped them in discussion; I also interviewed several of them about their religion and their lifestyle. When I showed these to my students, they watched Zaki get emotional about the state of his country. They saw Sima jump because she was scared of my dog and almost choke on a cherry. They viewed Talat as he told them some Pakistani history and then looked down at his stomach and asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me to sit up? Your students will think I am a fat, old man now.” They laughed when Munir, staring into space looked back at me and said, “I’m sorry. What was the question?’ They ooohed and aaahed as the Pakistani women modeled their bright colors. They giggled when one woman grabbed my son’s cheeks and said, “Oh, how I miss my children,” with tears in her eyes. I watched my students become different kids after this. Suddenly, Pakistanis were no longer “those people.” They were just people.
One day at the beginning of class, a boy approached me. He was a below average student who came from a tough history of abuse and divorce. His parents had no formal education after high school, and he often lacked outside knowledge to relate to books we read in class. “Mrs. Miller,” he said grimly. “There was another attack this morning in Peshawar. Are your friends okay?” I told him I hadn’t heard anything that day, but as he walked away, I couldn’t believe the transformation. He was one of the students who told me he didn’t know much about Muslims, but thought they were mostly terrorists. He didn’t know anything about the geography of Pakistan or even where Pakistan was a month prior to this. And yet, here he was, catching a piece of news and understanding where it occurred and whom it impacted. If nothing else came out of this unit, this alone made me feel successful. This student was aware of his world and cared. What greater impact could I have hoped for?
November 13, 2009—
The Dinner: Our Culminating Event
In my original vision of our culminating dinner, I had thought that we would have a small pot luck for our community with student work on display. But when I gathered a group of students who were interested in organizing the event, I was surprised by the enormity of the carefully planned event they created. They decided to ask local businesses to donate soup, removing the burden from parents. Parents were asked to contribute bread and desserts. They moved the event from the cafeteria to the gym, a much larger space, and bought table cloths to cover our bland tables. They created table tent cards with facts about money and education in Pakistan on them. They invited the local bookstore to sell copies of Mortenson’s books and pre-order his new book, Stones Into Schools. The bookstore agreed to sell them to us at 20% off and donated that 20% to our cause. They created stations for small children—in one corner sat all of our collected pennies and a small group of students showed younger children what they had learned in math. In another corner, some girls sat with brown, fine-tipped markers and created intricate henna designs on visitors’ hands. In another station, brightly colored material was cut into scarves and lessons on the different ways of wearing a scarf were given.
For planning all of this, I had hung large sign-up sheets in the hallways at school, and nearly 100% of our student body volunteered to set up, cook food, serve food, clean up, run a station, collect money, or sell books. They hung posters all around the town and brought their friends and parents.
That night I couldn’t have been more proud of our student body. They educated visitors as they cleaned and served and worked. Upon visiting this event, one would never know that 10-14 year olds were in charge of planning this event. The professionalism and seamless execution spoke to a certain level of maturity and awareness.
The students were very excited that not only their principal and teachers attended the event, but that a representative from Congressman Charlie Bass’s office came in honor of their work, as well as their state senator, Senator Deb Reynolds. They realized that dignitaries believed that their work was important, and this validated their entire experience.
Even though the dinner took place in the middle of flu season and turnout was therefore limited, the students raised a total of $1816.76 of which they sent entirely to Pennies for Peace—Greg Mortenson’s school program. The energy in the room that evening was nearly palpable; the food was delicious; generosity abounded; and students felt successful in their endeavors of educating the public, exhibiting what they had studied, and helping in a meaningful way.
December 13, 2009—
Greg Mortenson Himself
On October 30, a friend telephoned me to say that a second talk by Greg Mortenson had been added to The Music Hall, a venue that is a couple of hours from our school. Tickets were available to NHPR members that day only.
Without a phone call to my principal, I quickly called The Music Hall’s phone number and proceeded to impulsively order 50 tickets. When I walked into school the following Monday and told my students they could go see Greg Mortenson, first come, first serve, they clamored to sign up. In the end we had 47 students with only 3 teacher chaperones to bring them there. We had a waiting list of 15.
We had hoped to present Mr. Mortenson with our check, but when I contacted NHPR (who was in charge of the interviewing) and The Music Hall, I was told that they would not be able to make that possible. My students were disappointed. But a couple of days later, The Music Hall called me back and said that she could get me into the VIP session after to meet Mr. Mortenson—I could bring only one student though. I left it up to the kids. If they wanted me to go, I would go. But I didn’t feel right getting to meet him without them along behind me. They would not hear of anything but me going. “At least one of us needs to meet him, Mrs. Miller,” they said. As far as the one other person I could bring, my daughter, a middle school student herself, was the obvious choice.
We drove down there on that cold December evening and the students were shaking with excitement. Mortenson had risen into hero status for many of our students, and they couldn’t believe that they were going to see him speak.
Forty seven students sat for over an hour listening to Mortenson tell stories about working with tribes in the most remote areas of Afghanistan. They heard him tell of children in the United States who have begun their own charity organizations for what they feel strongly about—from the homeless in Florida to students in Africa. They listened intently as he talked about future plans for his organization.
After his talk, I walked my students down to the school bus. An eighth grade boy came up next to me. “Mrs. Miller, when you talk to Greg Mortenson, will you let him know that I’ve always known I can grow up and change the world? But tonight he told me that I don’t have to wait until I grow up. I can start right now. Tell him I said thank you.”
With those words in my heart, I then went down to the area of the theater where we would wait to meet Greg Mortenson. With me, I carried a photograph of our entire middle school student body framed with a thank you note and kind letter for Mr. Mortenson. When our turn came to meet him, I was surprised by his size. He is a large statured man, but his spirit makes him appear larger. I presented the picture to him and he hugged me. He then gave me new copies of his books, signed, for our school library. He gave my daughter the same for her school library. It was brief, but calming. He is a giant hearted man; this much was obvious.
The End and Reflections
My students once again sat in their seats with pen and paper. They once again responded, anonymously to the prompt What do you think of Muslims? Student answers were drastically different from the earlier ones:
“Muslims are people who are like you and me, but have other people in their religion who are giving them a bad name.”
“You can’t define Muslims. They’re people and nobody fits into one definition.”
“A Muslim is somebody who just prays to a different god than I do. But that doesn’t mean they’re not a good mother or father. They love their children just like my parents love me.”
“When I think of Muslims I think of bright colors. I think of different beliefs. But I also think of you and me.”
“Muslims have good people and bad people. Just like here.”
The list of responses could go on—but the evidence is clear. My earlier question of whether or not I could change student misperceptions through literature was clearly answered. Yes. But I don’t think their perceptions were changed through literature alone. My multicultural literature on my bookshelves remains to be the least checked out. I wonder about this frequently, but the Three Cups of Tea unit made me realize why. Students need background knowledge. They need connections to their literature. They need to see people—even if just through videos and emails—for who they really are. They need to see the vulnerability of humanity, and once they do, they will read the book with fervor and it could change their lives.
This unit affected me and my students in many different ways. For me, it opened many unexpected doors. I was asked to speak at several venues after our dinner—the annual Lakes Region National Educator Association conference and the One Book One Community opening ceremonies in Moultonborough, NH. I have been asked to teach workshops on the experience, and I have had many educators contact me from other schools who heard about what my students accomplished. I was nominated as New Hampshire Teacher of the Year.
But the most rewarding experience came when we were done with the entire unit. Several students in all three grades asked if I would do this again in three years when a new group of students would be in the middle school. I asked them if they thought I should, and their response was, “Every student should have the opportunity to do this.” Later in the year I had students approach me and ask if we could study another area of the world the following year. “I want to know as much about other countries and people as I know about Pakistan,” one student explained in earnest.
And so, Holderness Central School has adopted a new agenda because of student request. This year, 2010-2011, we will be studying Sudan. A Lost Boy who now resides in Vermont will be addressing the students, and another dinner plan is under way. Already the excitement is building.
This is the way middle school should run. Units should be student driven. Learning should be multidisciplinary. The arts should be integrated. Community should be involved. Strengths should be showcased. Service should be a component. Writing should occur across the curriculum. Students should be excited about learning and should have the privilege of being responsible and having their ideas validated. This is our philosophy at Holderness Central School. Once teachers allow this to happen, they will be surprised at the depth of learning that takes place and the ability of their students to transform. In this day and age of testing, student-centered, community based learning is often pushed to the side. But we must remember that this is where learning becomes relevant to our students, and if learning is relevant, students will perform well. Guaranteed
This happened here—in a small, New Hampshire town. It seems larger than life—it seems impossibly grand with only a handful of teachers and a young student body, but we did it. And we’ll do it again!