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Inside a critical thinking workshop

October 25, 2017

Gender issues from Field mission for Developments in Literacy – Khairpur, rural Sindh
DIL School location: Rind–Nowa (local ngo partner)
Newsrooms skills workshop and the inspiring content the students of DIL’s Rind school generated.
Workshop in Confidence Building, designed to develop and sharpen critical thinking skills and challenge gender issues around a woman’s ability and right to analyse situations and make quick, effective decisions, also teaches students to identify relevant information quickly.
Workshop title Newsroom skills, workshops is disguised as a game where students pretend to report on crisis. Their teachers participate as interview subjects
Workshop leader: Fatima Najm/ Co founder, Creatives Against Poverty
Participants: Two combined classes of teenagers: 23 students
Participants: Six teachers, including English teacher Momal and head teacher.


“Stand up straight girls, shoulders back, spine straight, you’re reporters, you have to look confident,” the facilitator says.

This declaration is followed by giggles, a pulling back of shoulders and then a sudden slouch back into their original positions.

“This scrum is not convincing, I refuse to answer your questions.” The facilitator is playing the role of a policeman during a newsroom crisis-reporting workshop where students have to report live on breaking news.

Twelve year old Iqra says to the girls, “Come on straighten up (chalo, seeday ho jao sab). Ask questions more loudly girls.”

She sounds authoritative but the twenty girls participating in the confidence-building workshop don’t look particularly convinced. More giggles. Nervous twitters run through the group.

The facilitator asks: “what stops you from asking an interview subject for information? What stops you from straightening up and looking me in the eye? Why cant you request information from a stake holders? From authority figures? You asked me to play a police officer, you are reporters. You said you love how Geo News reporters report the news… so show me how you would do it.”

Twenty sets of teenage eyes widen, staring out creamy brown faces encased in white headcoverings. The sound of breath being sucked between uncertain teeth. A few whispered consultations, and then the question:

“Can we really be Geo News reporters?”

“For today, for now, in this classroom, with all the power that we have in our imagination, I make you Geo News reporters. Now can you do as I ask?”

The answers come stumbling out of uncertain mouths that shape words and leave sentences trailing. They stop and regroup, giving each other long meaningful looks before 13- year-old Qurat al ain says: “We are girls, we are supposed to look down, and not raise our voices too much, we shouldn’t be attracting that much attention…”

Another student says, “but we want to talk about many issues that are wrong in our community and if we were reporters, we could talk about the problems and no one would stop us, but we are shy to do it right now…”

The facilitator asks: “If there is a crisis in your village, will you stand up for those who are vulnerable or will you slouch into yourselves and do nothing and watch the crisis unfold?”

There is a resounding “NO” from the girls. There is a fire in their eyes now. There is a chorus of voices that agree: “we will help, we will act.”

The facilitator smiles: “What worries you about your community?”
“Child marriage.”
“Police corruption”
“Lazy police”
“Inaction from police unless you pay them to act”
“No will to educate girls…except at DIL schools”
“Lazy government teachers, our sisters and cousins are not so lucky like us we are in DIL school, the government teachers don’t even show up to teach.”
“Mean government teachers.”
“Policemen worried about their own safety, not safety of village people.”

Facilitator: “So if there is one member of the community you want to hold accountable, who would it be? And what do you want to ask – I will play that character and attempt to answer your questions.”

“Lazy police officers” is the overwhelming consensus.

The facilitator continues: “So what are you afraid of? Square your shoulders, straighten your spines, raise your voices, and ask me where I was at the time of the crisis when I should have been managing the crisis, evacuating students from the fire and ensuring everyone’s safety. Show me how you will stand up for those who are weak. The newspapers are a tool to make sure you are heard…”

One of the students says: “That’s right, we are girls, not cowards. We can speak up, we do speak up if something is wrong. And when someone reads it in the newspaper, what happened, the crisis, then the senior police may get angry at the junior police and the next time the crisis will be managed better!”

Facilitator says, “Yes – future improvement of a system is one reason for reporting a crisis and what went wrong. Tell me, how else does the news serve the people? What is the function of a news report?

“If there is a fire and we hear it on the radio, it’s a warning not to go into that area…”
“It’s a signal, for all those who can help to show up and help.”
“If we don’t report on the crisis the police officers wont ever show up – the police will only act if the crisis comes on the news – so the news reporter can actually save lives!”

Facilitator: “Ok. So in two minutes I will be holding a police press conference aimed at answering the media’s questions (facilitator turns around and pops on a police man’s hat and vest).”

Facilitator: “At 10 am today a horrific fire (bhayanak see aag) enveloped a local school building, 200 people including teachers and students are said to be trapped inside, but we hear that 40 people have been evacuated safely.”

The students gather around and form a scrum, surrounding the ‘police officer’:
“Where were you at the time of the fire?”
“We heard that the police officers were busy drinking, and didn’t show up at the scene of the fire…”
“What do you mean you heard that 40 people were safely evacuated? Why didn’t you evacuate them? Where were your men?”
“Can you explain why no police officers showed up to help. We were on the scene of the fire and we only saw DIL teachers helping out. Its always like that when there is a crisis, it’s the DIL teachers who help the community. But you are police officers, you are pain to help us, why weren’t you there?”
“Police officer” pretends to be taken aback by the barrage of questions:
“Errr no comment. Ummm please questions one by one. Wellll…. You have to understand we needed back up, we were not sure how bad the fire was, so we were waiting for reinforcements… (the facilitator must go with the flow of the student’s questions and allow the workshop to take shape according to the students’ imaginations…)”
“Reinforcements? Back up? While children and teachers’ lives were threatened? What kind of police officers are you?”
“This is the problem with our country today, no one who is paid to protect us does anything. Politicians don’t care and police officers don’t care.”
“Don’t you know this school is important to us, because of this school we can prevent early child marriage, don’t you care as the police to protect our school?”
Faciliator as police officer: “Err this police press conference is now over…I see some eye witnesses from the fire shouldn’t you be interviewing them.”
The teachers at Rind School are playing the role of victims of the fire and eye-witnesses to the fire as well as courageous teachers who risked their lives to save students. All six teachers who have memorised a few standard lines and will make up the rest as they are asked questions take positions at opposite ends of the school yard and a classroom so that the students are forced to make decisions as to who to interview in the time available. The students have to collect the “who what when why where and how’s” that go into a story and have to figure out how to ask the right kinds of questions, ie, open ended questions.

As they go through the motions of interviewing, running between witnesses, a fire brigade captain, community volunteers, and teachers; two separate camps emerge. One is a group of students determined to report on the story as hard news, trying to expose the impact of police inaction and systemic corruption of the law enforcement agencies paid to protect their communities. Another is a group of students that is bent on shaming authority figures that they are identifying in the story by satirising the story. The student’s collective imagination is on fire, and it’s a privilege to watch their minds at work.

One of the students says: “Its not just the police. If this was a fire at a government school then the teachers and the principal would be worried about the furniture and their make up rather than the students’ well being. Can we talk about this? I used to go to a government school, I remember what happened when there was a crisis. Apnay singhar key fikr hotee hay teachers ko, apna khayaal karteen hay aur kisee ka nahin. Our DIL school is different, but it doesn’t represent reality in Khairpur.”

So we decide to put together two news broadcasts, one hard news style and one satire piece. The result is a lot of laughter, the groups appear to be relaxed (the same girls afraid to speak up and straighten their shoulders are firing questions at each other now, coming up with sobering ideas, and generating an over all sense of intense bonding over the open sharing of ideas.

At the end of the reflections and lessons learnt session, the facilitator asks:
“So a student mentioned that this school is the only thing that stands between early marraiges for girls, or child marraiges. Can someone elaborate on that for me?”

The students begin speaking all at once, adrenalin still shooting through their systems.
Facilitator raises a hand.
“Ok, everyone is going to close their eyes, and try a breathing exercise with me. Breathe deep and think about the ideas in your head. Try to stay on one idea. The one that is most important you to as girls. And tell me by raising your hands one by one what that is.”
Eventually early marraiges come up.
The students says:
“Our DIL teachers go from house to house encouraging parents to send girls to school, this makes the girls do something other than think about their marriage.”
“In our community most girls are engaged at birth or when they are small.”
“Because our teachers are young and educated they can change the minds of our mothers, our mothers like our teachers and can imagine us as teachers and some of us don’t have to get married like we were supposed to, very early.”
“Sometimes our teachers find out a girl is pulled out of school too early and the teacher always goes and fights in a nice way. Our teachers try to convince our mothers to send the girls back to school, and to wait. At least till the girls get bigger and become women to marry them off.”
The English teacher Momal elaborates:
“Girls are betrothed at birth or when they are too young to have a say in their marriage. Sometimes we have a brilliant student and she is twelve and unbetrothed and one day we find her in tears because he father will have settled a debt by allowing her engagement to a man unsuited to her, or double her age. At this point we go speak to the parents and try to keep the child in school. We have largely succeeded, that is why we are now asking for this school to go from grade five to grade ten. So that we have a reason to give our mothers for why they shouldn’t marry their girls off. So that we have an option to give them. So that we can say, wait, and your daughter will get a metric certificate. Girls have no other means of empowerment here. If they are pulled out of school, they will just sit at home. The government school teachers don’t care enough to engage and convince parents, once the girls leave us, their fate is marriage, it’s a certainty, and its too early. We only go upto grade five right now, but we know that DIL’s management is working to change this and we are hopeful.”

The discussion then turns back to their community and how we can bring out appositive change.
Facilitator: “What is the best way to ask questions? It is better to be loud or well informed? Who do you think gets a better answer the loud person, or the person who has thought about and framed their question properly?”

Obvious answer: “well thought out questions get information.”

Facilitator: “What happened when you were loud or aggressive with me?”
Students: “you stopped answering questions.”
F: “Right, you intimidated me. And I wanted to protect myself. So what happened when you asked smart questions based on your own observations…”
“We were able to collect a lot of information.”
F: “What did you do with this information?”
“We used it to check the truth of the witnesses and police statements and tested what we knew about the situation (accuracy).”
F: “You said your teachers convince your parents and help you solve all kinds of crises. Do they do this by shouting? Or being aggressive?”
A loud “No” from the students.
F: “How do they do this?”
S: “First they ask us a lot of questions about our situation.
F: “What does this help them do?
S: “Collect the information they need (a few facial expressions show facilitator they know where this is going now) to figure out what is really happening.
F: “Right. Information is power, information helps you make decisions and helps you design your strategy, helps you figure out who to convince and how, helps you figure out how difficult the problem is. What else?”
S: “Our teachers are very gentle, and they always try to persuade our parents in discussions, our parents like how tameezdaar our teachers are.”
F: “What else works in terms of your teachers’ methods?”
(This answer is a paraphrased collection of several answers by girls coming in at the same time in urdu): “They don’t give up. They are female, we are female, we look at them we feel we can do it too
role modelling) They come again and again to try and convince our parents to keep girls in school (activists). They don’t get discouraged when they hear ‘no’ the first time, and they tell us to have ‘hosla’ to hold on, and be patient and have hope (persistent).
F: “And what do you like about your teachers?”
S: “They encourage us to discuss our issues and problems, we know we have someone to come to. No matter how difficult we feel the issue is, we feel better after we talk to our teachers and we know they will try to help us. Sometimes as girls our parents dont ask us, they ask our brothers and uncles, even if they are younger than us, when it is a decision about our own lives (women have no stake in decision making, they are not stake holders in their own lives, critical thinking is stunted at an early stage. They are also conditioned to believe they have no decision making skills and their input has no value.” 

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