Carlisle students present at 2014 Boston Book Festival

by Karina Coombs

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(From left) Razia’s Ray of Hope author Elizabeth Suneby,
Carlisle School students Maggy Barry, Tillie Golnik, Ella White, teacher Liz Gray and student Elana Alevy surround Razia Jan (center), the founder of Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation and the Zabuli Education Center for Girls in Afghanistan at the Boston Book Festival on October 25. (Courtesy Photo)

Can books lead to action? That was the question four students from the Carlisle School answered during one of the programs held during the recent Boston Book Festival. Accompanied by sixth-grade language arts teacher Liz Gray, Elana Alevy, Maggie Barry, Tillie Golnik and Ella White spoke during the October 26 session, “Inspiring Young Readers to be the Change.” 

The session focused on two childrens’ books on global issues: Katie Smith Milway’s One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference and local author Elizabeth Suneby’s Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education. Suneby invited the students and Gray to participate in the program. Razia’s Ray of Hope was read throughout Carlisle’s sixth grade during the 2013-2014 school year, providing a first-hand account of one girl’s desire to go to school in a country where education is reserved for males. 

Razia’s Ray of Hope

The book is based upon real accounts and a real school, the Zabuli Education Center located outside of Kabul. The school was created by Razia Jan and is funded through her non-profit, Razia’s Ray of Hope. Both Suneby and Jan visited the Carlisle School this past spring. (See “Afghanistan girls’ school founder visits Carlisle,” June 25.)

The students presenting at the October 26 session, now seventh graders, explained their reactions to Suneby’s book as well as the sixth-grade fundraising efforts that raised $3,000 for Jan’s school. Each of the students had an opportunity to speak to the session audience of approximately 50 before they held a brief question and answer period. “They represented the Carlisle School very well,” said Gray.

Students research poverty 

Gray explained that each year Carlisle sixth graders conduct interdisciplinary research on poverty, looking at the full range of causes by incorporating math, science, social studies and language arts. “[It] gives meaning to a word that might not be familiar,” said Gray, adding that some students over the years have asked what poverty is and the research gives them a better understanding of a complex problem.

Last year, students and teachers turned their attention to Afghanistan—the first year a single location was studied. Students read Suneby’s book and others and were motivated to help. Gray emphasized the students’ decision to help was not part of a community service project or for a grade. “It was done from their hearts. They wanted to help.” They decided on raising funds for Jan’s school, allowing more girls to attend.

After receiving an invitation from Suneby to present their experiences, Gray reached out to her former sixth-grade students, four of whom were able to attend. To prepare for the festival, she asked each to identify a quote in Suneby’s book that was the most meaningful and led to their desire to act. The students then drafted their individual presentations and practiced them in the car on the way to the Alewife train station with Gray on the day of their session.

A call to action

“One quote in the book that stuck in my head was, ‘Every night I fell asleep dreaming about going to school like my brothers.’ It seemed sad to me that a girl would only dream of going to school, [that] she probably would never experience an education first-hand,” wrote White.

“We really wanted to find a way to help girls in Afghanistan go to school,” explained Golnik during her presentation. “The more girls that go to school, the more they can teach their communities to read and write. Once whole communities are better educated, they can help fight poverty together and make everything better.” Added Alevy, “If [the character Razia] could be brave, we could be too, to help other girls.”

Barry explained that the students could have supported any charity, but Jan’s school made the most sense when looking at a lack of education as one cause of poverty. “A line that caught my attention was, ‘If men are the backbones of Afghanistan, then women are the eyes of the country. Without an education, we’d all be blind.’”

Renewed appreciation

The students also shared how the research project and fundraising experience created a new appreciation for what they have, something else Suneby hoped the book would do for students in developed countries. “We realized how fortunate we are in the United States, being able to go to school and learn so many things,” explained Golnik. “We have something very special.” Added White, “It shows you how valuable education is.”

At the conclusion of their presentation, the girls were given signed copies of Suneby’s book and a warm thank you by Jan, also in attendance. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to the students of Carlisle who recognize that all children deserve an education,” wrote Jan in an email to Gray after the event. “Because of their initiative and hard work now more girls attend school and are on a path to improving their own lives and the lives of their families.” ∆