Sultana Jabeen, an English language teacher at the Aga Khan School, Murtaza Abad in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, says she is now used to getting calls from students who have finished reading their allotted books before the week is up and are eager for new reading material.
And it is not just the students who wait in anticipation of her weekly visit; “parents too start calling to ask when I will be around with fresh books from the school library”.
It is not often one hears of children being so excited about reading. But these are unique circumstances. As a result of the Coronavirus lockdown, students are discovering a wonderful way of spending their time productively: through reading books delivered to their homes by a teacher from their school, or volunteers from the Village Education Committee and local youth groups. As Tehzeeb Tariq, a grade 6 student at Aga Khan School, Murtaza Abad proudly tells us, she has read 6 books so far and “they help me spend time in isolation”. She says she is grateful to her teacher who comes around regularly with new books. Her brother, also a grade 6 student, waits for his turn to borrow science books while Tehzeeb looks forward to the storybooks.
Teachers and volunteers across Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral where Aga Khan Schools operate, pick up books from school libraries and deliver them door-to-door while taking all possible care to observe the recommended precautions of wearing masks and maintaining social distance. The students select the books they wish to read and maintain a log to be shared with their teachers once the schools reopen. They are also tasked with writing a short review of each book. To encourage the students, schools have announced a friendly competition and promised to reward the best readers.
Some students cannot wait till schools reopen to share their opinions about the stories they are reading. They have started dropping off their reviews at the homes of the teachers if they live nearby, or getting their parents to take a photo of the work and send it to their teachers via WhatsApp.
This reading frenzy is a result of the Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) programme, launched specially to utilize the lockdown for the benefit of the students. In places where students live close to each other, often the case in rural areas where the majority of the Aga Khan Schools are situated, students exchange books amongst themselves rather than wait for the teacher’s visit. Sher Aziz, who heads of one of the Regional School Development Units in Gilgit-Baltistan overseeing 25 schools, says that about 80% of the students in his cluster have been supplied with reading materials. Most clusters are reporting similar outreach.
DEAR has proved popular not just with the students and parents of Aga Khan Schools, but with the community at large in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. Zarb Ali, also a Regional School Development Unit head who oversees 26 schools, says that the head master of Government High School, Mominabad in Gilgit-Baltistan was so impressed when he saw a neighbouring Aga Khan school roll out the DEAR programme that he convinced teachers from his school to do the same for their students.
Now Zarb Ali is faced with a kind of challenge he had not foreseen: meeting the seemingly insatiable demand for books by students in his cluster. Given the lockdown, this challenge is not easy to meet. But being an educator, he could not be happier to be facing these demands and is trying everything in his power to make sure all the students in his region get to read to their heart’s content.