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All-Girls Palestinian School Bags Million Dollar Prize for Reading Revival

Talai al Amal high school honored in Dubai’s Arab Reading Challenge

The first word in the Qur’an, the Islamic bible, is “Iqra!” meaning “Read!” It is said by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed. According to tradition, Mohammed responds that he is illiterate.

Since then, Arabs, and especially Palestinians, have valued education. Palestinians have the highest number of PhD’s of any Arab group. Now a Palestinian girl’s school, Talai al Amal, has taken first place out of 30,000 schools throughout the Arab world, for the best initiatives to encourage reading.
The win comes with a one million dollar prize.

“Palestinians look forward to being number one in the world in everything – not only in reading, but in knowledge as a whole,” Maha Shahrouri, supervisor of the English section at Talai al Amal, told The Media Line.

From drama classes and puppet making to book discussions, the school beat out four finalists from Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco in the Arab Reading Challenge competition.

“(Winning) reflects the Palestinian educational system’s success,” Ali Abu Zaid, the general director of the Palestinian ministry of education, told The Media Line. “Palestinian people are very interested in education as an entrance to freedom and independence.”

“Education is part of the development of the Palestinian people. Palestinians participate in worldwide civilization,” Zaid added.

With a population of some 3,000 students, Talai al Amal, an all-girls school from the third grade on, encouraged 800 students to read, and summarize, at least 50 books each. The school created a free reading period, allocating 20 minutes a day for students to read, and even held drama and puppet classes as well as seminars to discuss the books, according to Shahrouri.

As part of the competition, students were given five “challenge passports” to log the titles and authors of the books. Each book had to be at least 40 pages long, and students wrote short synopses of the plots. The books came from local libraries, students’ homes, teachers, and from the three separate libraries at the school. In total, the students read some 1,200 extra-curricular books, for “pleasure.”

Shahrouri believes that the students have benefited from this challenge and says she has seen an increase in her student’s self-confidence. “We noticed that some of the weaker pupils, when they read books, got higher scores and became more active (in the classroom).”

The competition, known as the Arab Reading Challenge, was created by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashad Al Maktoum of Dubai in an effort to increase cooperation and knowledge among 21 Arab countries in the Middle East. According to the pamphlet outlining the challenge, the project is “dedicated to all Arab families and Arab students especially within Arab society.” The first of its kind, the challenge has encouraged a “reading revival,” requiring students to read extra-curricular books to widen their overall perceptions and knowledge bases.

“The Arab Reading Challenge aims to instill the culture of reading and build a new generation of knowledgeable, educated Arab youth…It aims at promoting reading as a core habit for youth in the region, contributing as a result to the building of generations that are enlightened, intellectual, and tolerant,” the Sheikh said at the awards ceremony, held at the Opera House in Dubai earlier this month.

The challenge, which ran during the last school year, and recognized the most outstanding student, teacher, and school, attracted some 3.5 million students from thousands of schools. It is believed that the students collectively read 150 million books.

This year, Mohammed Jallood, a seven year old Algerian boy, won the most outstanding student reading award earning him a $150,000 prize. He was picked to represent his school, then his district, then his country, and was, ultimately, crowned the winner based on the number of books he read, his knowledge of their plots, his critical and creative thinking skills, his level of Arabic, and his general knowledge of global issues.

Palestinians took home first prize for both the most outstanding teacher and school, crowning Hanan Al Hroub, who was previously awarded with the Global Teacher Prize, with the best teacher award and Talai al Amal as the best school.

“To win this award under the occupation, is a celebration of our community at large and for the school itself,” Renad Qubbaj, the General Director of the Tamer Institute of Community Education, told The Media Line. “Reading is a way to liberate people not just from occupation, but from all different types of occupation whether they be mental or physical.”

Talai al Amal is based in Nablus, a northern commercial and cultural hub for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, who are continuing to struggle for an independent Palestinian state. Palestinians like Zaid of the Education Ministry and Shahrouri of Talai al Amal believe that winning the Arab Reading Challenge is another example of the proof that Palestinians deserve independence.

“This is part of the process that we should have, or deserve, a state,” Zaid said, adding that reading is an important aspect of Palestinian culture in creating peace and communication between different nations.

According to Zaid, over the last ten years, the Palestinian Ministry of Education has updated its national curriculum, shying away from the Jordanian curriculum it had originally adopted. The ministry, in conjunction with other Palestinian officials, have developed and designed a new education system specifically tailored for Palestinian students that is used in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Government run schools are free for the 1.2 million Palestinian students from first through tenth grades.

“Palestine is a good nation and it deserves freedom,” Shahrouri told The Media Line. “(Palestinians) can rule themselves by education if they don’t have weapons.”

While Talai al Amal won the first ever Arab Reading Challenge, the Palestinian education system still has a way to go before it is up to par with the other leading countries of the international community.

“Kids who might have decent grades in the Palestinian system aren’t doing well on the international scale, which shows that the standards aren’t adequate,” Sari Bashi, the Israel / Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said.

Classes are often overcrowded, with some schools, especially in refugee camps, running two shifts.

One fifth of the prize money will be given to the school’s director and supervisors while the remaining $800,000 has been allocated for school support including benefiting the library along with activities to promote extra-curricular reading.

Katie Beiter is a student journalist with The Media Line