Promoting Service Projects through Content Area Literacy

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time

A Comparison Review of Three Cups of Tea

            Greg Mortenson is an unlikely hero.  Failed K2 mountain climber, unorganized, and controversial are a few descriptions of the Three Cups of Tea co-author.  According to the book, Mortenson has lost supporters such as Jennifer Wilson, Jean Hoerni’s widow and board member of the Central Asia Institute.  Wilson’s support was withdrawn because she felt that Mortenson didn’t manage his time or the Institute very well (Mortenson, 2006, p. 229).  On 17 April 2011, 60 Minutes aired a segment about the possible fabrications about the number of schools built, financial accountability, and questioned certain events within the book (Fager, 2011).  In a PBS story, Mortenson allegedly admitted that he was not a good manager and should not be in charge of the finances of the Central Asia Institute (Warner, 2011).  With that said, Mortenson also has his supporters.  For example, Senge Hasnan Sering from the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies in Washington D.C., has spoken openly about how much good Mortenson has done for the people of the Baltistan region, more good than the government.  He also praises Mortenson for his efforts to promote education, especially for girls (Sering, 2011).

Despite the criticisms, this paper will concentrate on the merits and parallels between a heart warming story and content area literacy.  Three Cups of Tea is a story which can be lauded as promoting the education of those who are underprivileged and grossly underserved.  In this epic tale of adventure and educational discoveries, Greg Mortenson finds himself an integral part of the lives of several communities within Pakistan.  There he discovers a people not unlike other people around the world.  It is a story about parents who want their children to receive an education which will help them live a little easier than past generations.

The tale begins after a failed attempt to summit a mountain known as K2 in which afterwards Mortenson found himself lost.  He stumbled into a Pakistani village called Korphe where he was nursed back to health and unceremoniously adopted by its leader, Haji Ali.  Despite their abject poverty, the people of Korphe shared their food, fellowship, and tea with the American mountain climber.  Later the title of Mortenson’s book would be named in honor of the symbolic adoption and acceptance of the people in the Balti area.

While in Korphe the mountain climbing adventurer learned that “the first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest.  The third time you share a cup of tea you become family” (Mortenson, 2006, p. 150).  Once he discovered that the children of the community spent their school time outside on top of a hill completing their lessons in the dirt with sticks, this tea philosophy and compassion for the people who cared for him would define the way Mortenson approached the children of Korphe and the rest of the region.

As a result a promise was made to help build a school in Korphe, Mortenson then returned to the United States, gave up his worldly belongings, and spent his time raising money so he could return to Pakistan and begin the building process.  What he didn’t know at the time was how he would become personally affected by the business of educating the youth in Balti.  He learned that through education he could help combat poverty (Mortenson, 2006, p. 200) and with an increase in literacy there was a decrease in terrorism (p. 228).  His home country of America later would wage a physical war against terrorism, but Mortenson learned that the true enemy was ignorance of the mind (p. 310).

Ultimately, over the years a vision for Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan developed for Mortenson and the nonprofit organization he helped create, the Central Asia Institute.  That vision encompassed a world in which every child would have an opportunity to attend school and learn how to read, (p. 333) especially girls because Mortenson learned that through women a community can truly combat poverty and poor hygiene (p. 209).

Three Cups of Tea is a beautiful story about how education can work.  Throughout the book, literacy is described as the key component to success.  Much like the title, there are three key components featured within Three Cups of Tea which fit nicely with the study of Content Area Literacy, CAL.  These components can easily be observed when compared to the K-W-L + method, also known as Know/Want to Know/Learned/ Plus a Graphic Organizer (Manzo, 209, p. 103).

The first component is that when you take the first cup of tea you are a stranger.  When Mortenson first stumbled upon Korphe he too was a stranger and much like the “know” in the K-W-L + method, Mortenson began the adventure of helping to build a school based on his prior knowledge.  Similar to schema activation, activating background knowledge, Mortenson used the information he had stored in his mind and applied it to the situation at hand (p. 29).  For him, he compared the struggles of the Korphe children to that of his sister who had suffered her entire life from illnesses, and had struggled for every accomplishment (Mortenson, 2006, p. 31).

Later when Mortenson began raising money to build the school he once again used the knowledge he had at the time to gather the necessary information about materials and pricing for the school.  He would use this information and due to his naivety would produce 580 donation request letters which he randomly mailed to politicians and celebrities.  Unfortunately the knowledge he had was not efficient, and he had no idea what he was doing (p. 47-52).  This lack of understanding resulted in wasted time typing on an ancient typewriter, writing to the wrong people, using language which did not convey his need effectively, and as in the figurative schema netting example much of what he was learning slipped through because he was having difficulty understanding how to connect each relevant need (Manzo, 2009, p. 28).

However, much like the second cup of tea, Mortenson was becoming an honored guest of this adventure to build a school (Mortenson, 2006, p. 150).    His schema netting was becoming a tighter weave as he learned how to use a computer and how to formulate an understanding of how to ask his self what he wanted and needed to know.  This “want to know” step is the second in the K-W-L + method (Manzo, 2009, p. 103).  It was best demonstrated when Mortenson was faced with the challenge to build a bridge for Korphe before the school could be built.

The bridge challenge was posed to him when he was ready to deliver the building materials for the school.  Haji Ali pointed out the obvious dilemma of getting the supplies past the wide and deep gorge which dropped into the Braldu River.  At the time the only way to cross the gorge was via a rickety homemade basket which swung dangerously when in use (Mortenson, 2006, p. 103).  Much like that of a reader at the frustration level (Manzo, 2009, p. 23), Mortenson was faced with a problem which he was having difficulty understanding how to fix.  This resulted in him falling into a depressed and angry state for not realizing sooner that it would be impossible to cross the building materials in the current mode of transportation across the gorge (Mortenson, 2006, p. 103-105).

Despite the monumental challenge, Mortenson learned how to overcome, and the bridge over the Braldu was completed.  As a result it opened the world to the people of Korphe (p. 124).  Metaphorically, such bridges also exist in CAL through the use of graphic organizers and writing to learn activities in addition to the K-W-L + chart.  Each method helps activate previous knowledge and arouse curiosity (Fisher, 2008).  Much like the bridge over the Braldu providing the avenue for exploration and understanding of new experiences, CAL methods provide important and relevant information through authentic tasks.  It is not enough to only teach students how to read and study, we must also help students understand why they are learning to read and study.  This can best be accomplished by connecting what they are learning to real life activities and through high challenging tasks (Parsons, 2011).  One way to connect text to real life situations is to emotionally connect students using the RAFT method by encouraging students to put themselves into the topic at hand.  With the instructor providing good modeling skills, students can connect to the topic as well as one another by sharing their creative writing experiences.  These methods encourage students to become animated and excited about learning (ASCD, 2002).

In Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson helped students young and old connect their learning to real life with the building of female vocational centers in addition to schools.  These centers were designed to help the women learn and continue their traditional sewing and weaving crafts (Mortenson, 2006, p. 193).  In addition to these centers, Mortenson learned the power in teaching the importance of health education for the citizens of Pakistan, which lead to better living conditions and helped with the conduciveness of learning (p. 249).  Although many of these lessons probably did not involve direct contact with literature, each shows the power of modeling apprenticeship training.  Through modeling the students in Pakistan learned how to keep a traditional craft alive and practice good hygiene skills by observing and doing.  Through CAL’s Mental Modeling strategy, students learn proper language skills by listening, observing, and imitating.  In the case of RAFT, modeling the physical as well as the language skills, students learn that “inquiring minds beget inquiring minds” by practicing what they see being modeled (Manzo, 2009, p. 66).  At this point, much like the third cup of tea which inducts the person into the family, students are now ready to examine what they have learned using the K-W-L+ method and in essence become a part of the body of knowledge.

Greg Mortenson learned how to build not just a physical school for communities within Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan; he also learned how to effectively build educational foundations for communities.  The lessons were difficult and sometimes the completion of some projects appeared to be impossible, but through persistence Mortenson’s efforts proved successful.  Similarly, reading and writing to learn, using CAL methods takes time and they can be difficult to understand, but upon completion the rewards are rich.

Ultimately the goal of CAL is to help students learn how to become self-teaching (p. 3).  When Mortenson finished building a school, stocking it with supplies, and locating an instructor his hope was for it to become self-sufficient.  About once a year he would visit schools to ensure that their needs were being met and that they were on target.  These visits are comparative to assessing students on what they have learned.  When the system worked, students would want to continue their education without being prompted.  For example, in one such case presented in the book, Jahan and Tahira were female graduates from the first Korphe class who went on to continue their education in a nearby community.  They defied many cultural mores (Mortenson, 2006, p. 311-312).  They also became leaders in their educational futures.  In CAL terms, they met the challenge of becoming literacy leaders (Manzo, 2009, p. 357).

However, becoming a leader isn’t the end because there is actually one more step in our K-W-L analogy and that is the inclusion of the “+”, the graphic organizer.  This step organizes learning and ensures that it won’t slip through the schema netting of the mind (p. 103).   Greg Mortenson’s vision to spend the next decade promoting “universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls,” did not grow overnight (Mortenson, 2006, p. 333).  Instead, this vision evolved over several years of hard work and learning from many mistakes.  One can imagine that Mortenson jotted notes and doodled along this journey.  Perhaps he brainstormed and drew lines connecting ideas.  This in essence is the process of creating a graphic organizer.

The graphic organizer really is a form of reading beyond the text within CAL methodology.  These organizers help students focus upon the learning and think about what to do with the information.  When thinking about Three Cups of Tea in comparison to a graphic organizer, one can see how it could easily be used in a library situation.  Upon finishing the book and using CAL methods during book club meetings, students could examine how to implement a similar visionary service project.  This project would not need to impact the world and it wouldn’t even need to be directly related to the book.

During an April Webinar, Mortenson mentioned several ideas of how he was helping to promote literacy and community within the schools of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  One project included bringing elders into the schools to tell stories (Boss, 2011).  Storytelling involves many of the same qualities found within the methods presented in content area literacy.  It is an old tool which can be used to teach values and analogical thinking which can help students connect what they are learning to the world (Manzo, 2009, p. 331).  Through this technique it is possible for students to also connect stories to their own lives.  Plus, since storytelling is also a form of entertainment, students are more likely to stay engaged.  While listening and watching the storyteller, students will hear effective language modeling, become interested in new concepts, and connect stories to prior knowledge as well as other stories (Ollerenshaw, 2006).

The library happens to be the perfect location to create a service project connecting CAL methods and the community through storytelling.  In this project, members of the community would be invited to tell students about their childhoods, past community activities, or family histories.  Before a speaker is announced, students would be informed about the general topic to be presented and discuss what they know about the topic.  This discussion will help students activate schema and get ready for the presentation.  Next students would listen to the storyteller while taking notes and video taping or voice recording the presentation.  Upon completion of the story students would be encouraged to ask questions so they can better connect their understanding.

Finally, students would take this information and create a digital story which can be shared with other classes as well as the community.  Thus the students will have created a lasting project that will benefit others for years to come, and in the process learn how to connect literature to the real world.  Greg Mortenson mentioned the importance of storytelling during his process of learning the culture while building schools.  Throughout his book he included several stories which were relayed to him.  These stories helped humanize the basic need to become educated which helped connect his project to others around the world.  He also mentioned that societies are loosing many stories because storytelling is no longer a part of our regular culture (Webinar), and a service project connecting the community to the students would not only keep these stories alive, but they would also helps students understand the importance of learning about the past.  Hopefully the community storytelling project would also inspire students to become curious enough to read and research further into the stories they hear.  These explorations would create inspired self-teaching moments.

Despite critics of Mortenson and the question of his honesty, Three Cups of Tea presents a story which parallels CAL methods.  His is a story about hope through education, especially through reading and the empowerment of people.  Sering stated that Mortenson brought about self-empowerment through the arts of reading and writing for the people, especially the women of the region (Sering, 2011).  If we can connect this same type of understanding to local communities, we as librarians and educators can help people of all ages connect with the importance of literacy.  As quoted by the UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg, Germany, “literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole, but also in the individual who is striving for fulfillment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write.  Literacy means far more than learning how to read and write.  The aim is the transmit knowledge and promote social participation” (UNESCO).  As librarians our dream should be to connect literature to students and students to the world.


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