Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Young Nasreen has not spoken a word to anyone since her parents disappeared. In despair, her grandmother risks everything to enroll Nasreen in a secret school for girls. Will a devoted teacher, a new friend, and the worlds she discovers in books be enough to draw Nasreen out of her shell of sadness? Based on a true story from Afghanistan, this inspiring book will touch readers deeply as it affirms both the life-changing power of education and the healing power of love.

Click here to read the Worlds of Words review.

9 thoughts on “Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

  1. Emily Suchevich and Allyson Meighen says:

    Nasreen’s Secret School is a great book that would be very beneficial to have in a classroom. This book tells the story of Nasreen, who had to sneak to school because girls are not allowed in Afghanistan. This story can be used to teach students things about different cultures and practices to the students. For example, Winter references the Koran, which the teacher can explain to the students. The story also mentions Allah, who is a religious figure in Afghanistan. We really enjoyed reading this story because not only is it interesting, but there are many parts that can be teaching moments for students. Another example of this is the illustrations in the book. This shows the types of clothing that women have to wear in Afghanistan. Also, one of the illustrations depicts the teacher writing in a different language on a chalk board. These things would be a great connection into teaching students about different cultures practices and how not every person in the world speaks the same language. Also, the story shows how Nasreen is very shy and quiet, which can relate to students in the class as well. Even though the story takes place in Afghanistan, the teacher can easily make connections to the students in the classroom as well. By reading this book to students, teachers are opening a world of knowledge to their students.

  2. Abbie, Liz, and Katie says:

    After reading Nasreen’s Secret School we all agreed that there was a wealth of valuable information to introduce the topic of Taliban concentration in Afghanistan, as well as the difference in culture between the United States and the Middle East. For example, the book referenced the Koran and Allah – which are their religious idols and beliefs. It would also be interesting to demonstrate to students that children similar to them in a different country don’t have the same educational privileges as they are accustomed to. When reading this story we saw many parallels to The Breadwinner, such as: the restriction on females to walk freely and receive education, the capturing of dominant male figures, and also the everyday struggles of oppression. One common theme that we noticed between the two texts was bravery. Nasreen attended a secret school with the knowledge that she could be persecuted for doing so, similarly to how Parvana consciously agreed to dress as a boy to be able to support her family. After reading both books and having a class discussion in Dr. Camardese’s class, we were surprised to find out that not all areas of the Middle East are victims of the same situation. It was enlightening to learn more about the Taliban, in general, as well as see how those persecuted view their own culture. The book would be a great choice to share with young students. It includes authentic cultural references, colorful and consistent illustrations, and featured dominant female characters. It was also written in a way that would be easy for children to understand and relate to, without dimming the severity of the situation. Nasreen’s Secret School opens many doors for class discussion and further discovery of Middle Eastern culture.

  3. Emily Scharf says:

    Nasreen’s Secret School is a great book to have in your classroom. It is a book that children of all ages can relate to in one way or another. Nasreen had a fairly normal life until everything changed. The Taliban soldiers took her father away and her mother did not return after trying to find her father. Nasreen had no control or power over these tragic situations, and she felt lost. Through all her family struggles she loses part of herself. Luckily, her grandmother was there for her and helped her in a big way, by having her attend a secret school for girls. Through school Nasreen is able to become a bit more of herself. She begins to talk again and makes friends. This book contains heavy material, but Jeanette Winters does an excellent job of making it understandable for children. Education is a thread seen throughout the entire book. For Nasreen, school was a place where she felt comfortable and safe. She began to see a whole new world. This book can show how other students are living around the world and what their life’s entail. It is a good book for elementary students.

  4. Abigail Buckholt says:

    I think that this book is a great resource to show children that there are children of different cultures and that not everyone has the same opportunities that they may have. This book did a great job of showing young children that kids there are go through different things and that we aren’t all alike. This story provides children with a serious issue that some children may be going through, but the situation is portrayed in gentle way and in a way that young children can understand. One idea I liked was that the importance of education was addressed! It is so important for children to understand that there is a reason why children go to school, and that all children around the world are going to school. Some children may have difficulties when it comes to school, but all children find ways to go to school. I think that this would be a great book to share with young children because it represents so many different topics that can help children to understand the trials and tribulations that other children their age are going through, both positive and negative. I would definitely use this book in an elementary setting and I would use this book to show children that they are very lucky to have what they have and that they should cherish it every day.

  5. Erin Gerst says:

    I really loved this book because it tells a serious story in words that a child could relate to. I think this could help students even if they do not understand the severity of Nasreen’s family situation because they can relate to how Nasreen is feeling. It explains her parents being taken away in a gentle manner even though it is not. The book also stresses the importance of school; even in what seems impossible times, Nasreen attends school and finds happiness there. The story has a lot of beautiful parts about people helping one another and finding peace with an adverse situation. Teachers could use this book to show students that they are safe in their schools and can find happiness in their work there because not everyone in the world is as fortunate as them. I would definitely read this story to an elementary class.

  6. Stephanie Barda says:

    This book provided the reader with a stong message. I think it was very powerful in representing the importance of education. It really puts life into perspective and allowed me to feel very fortunate. I thik this is an important message for students to learn not to take things for granted. Also, it allows them to become exposed to a very different culture, which can help them live in our diverse country. I do agree with the other posts that children may begin to stereotype all men who wear turbans. It is important that they have more knowledge on the middle east before they read this story to obtain a better understanding.

  7. Endrizzi et al says:

    Diana Reed
    I see Nasreen’s Secret School as a useful springboard into a discussion regarding the power and value of education. It also can become a springboard of discussion regarding potential racial bias portrayed in illustrations. In this book, Nasreen and her grandmother endure the plight of women under the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am struck by two topics Jeannette Winter offers readers: one is the power of education and the second, the power of illustrations.
    I am delighted with the theme of strength in education. It begins when Nasreen loses her will to speak after her father is taken from the family by Taliban soldiers. Then her mother does not return home after leaving to search for him. Nasreen’s grandmother is desperate to find a way for her granddaughter to express her grief and to discover the world beyond the mayhem of the immediate surroundings. The secret school for girls becomes a safe haven for Nasreen as she makes a friend in whom to confide and also learns to read and explore the world outside her village. What a wonderful point to explore with primary age children! When many in the United States know only the accessibility of public school education, this theme may garner the beginning of appreciation for the education that is often taken for granted. Teachers can pose the question, What is the value of a free education?
    Regarding the second point, I am apprehensive about the illustrations in this book. For young readers, the pictures, although culturally representational and artistically beautiful, represent all Taliban soldiers with long black beards, demonic looking dark eyes and turbans around their heads. As educators we must be intentional about what images and illustrations we share with children and be prepared to discuss the background information to offset generalizations. In this case, I believe we must discuss the variety of men that may wear turbans. Children may see men with the same physical characteristics on television, when traveling or in their communities. All men with these attributes are, of course, not soldiers that carry guns, take away parents from families or force girls out of schools. I am concerned that without enough explanation, there may be fear and inappropriate racial or cultural bias. Therefore I recommend sharing this text carefully with readers in second grade and older.
    I strive to ensure preservice teachers are introduced to many excellent children’s books, offering multiple illustrations and perspectives of men, women and children in many cultures and differing roles. Silent Music, by James Rumford, focused on a young boy in Baghdad, offers rich and beautiful illustrations with varied Middle Eastern people. What an excellent book to read within the same time-frame as Nasreen’s Secret School because it offers positive images of men in the Middle East. Rumford’s illustrations present a smiling father shaving, a grandfather reading with his grandson and Yakut, a famous calligrapher in turban and beard, enjoying pen and ink. These images, although similar in dress, hair and skin color, offer a completely different representation than the images of men in Winter’s book.
    Charlene Klassen Endrizzi
    Like Diana, I was drawn to Jeannette Winter’s spotlight on the need to re-open educational opportunities for girls and the broader potential of education with this statement, “Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom.” I too work to create classrooms as spaces where window of possibilities are constantly flung open. Like Deborah Ellis and Karen Lynn Williams in our previous two book dialogues centered on Images of Girls in the Middle East, Winter implores those outside the Middle East to not forget the current struggle of providing girls with an education. Last week I rediscovered a stained glass window in our college library with this a parallel thought. “Without knowledge, there is no freedom.” Actually this notion also describes my evolving insights on the Middle East, following a recent research trip to Israel.
    Winter’s opening Author’s Note bluntly reveals Afghanistan’s educational struggles. Changes the Taliban instituted that impact Afghan women (i.e., Before the Taliban, 50% of students at Kabul University were women versus the present day Taliban decree of not allowing girls to attend school or university), enable readers to more readily grasp Nasreen’s, Lina’s, and Parvana’s life and educational struggles. Our nation faces a different educational quagmire in the midst of a significant push to privatize schools. Recently I heard Diane Ravitch remind us, “Education is a public responsibility,” nudging me to re-examine my efforts to speak out against a different tyranny – the tyranny of testing gripping teachers’, parents’ and children’s minds.
    Nasreen and her grandmother face numerous adversities in their struggle to overcome. Through an interview outlining her vision for another of her Middle Eastern books, The Librarian of Basra, Jeannette Winter offers a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s juxtaposition of the “pessimism of the intellect versus the optimism of the will.” This insight helps older readers consider the author’s rationale for depicting such a compelling journey. Across various books (Biblioburro, Wangari’s Trees of Peace, Diego), I see Winter offering students inspiration as she depicts the will to survive by exploring life stories of unsung heroes.
    One of my favorite lines, “Art and music and learning once flourished here,” reminds me of our nation’s fixation on Common Core State Standards, to the demise of music, art, foreign language and physical education classes. Diane Ravitch, on her current book tour for Reign of Error, reminded teachers, “Schools need to be places of learning and joy.” How can teachers refocus learning on the joyful aspects of our curriculum available through the arts?
    I relate to Diana’s concerns about avoiding stereotypes of Middle Eastern men but I also want readers to consider the complicatedness still gripping this troubled region. By exploring Jeannette Winter’s life history, readers could consider her ability to “make pictures that tell stories,” a childhood wish she continues to fulfill. Using Nasreen’s written and visual story along with Parvana’s journey can help students debate Winter’s struggle to honestly portray the turmoil wrought by the Taliban on women. As Nasreen’s grandmother explains, “My worry was deep,” letting readers know her grave concern for her granddaughter’s inner struggles to cope with the loss of her parents, we can consider the forces propelling Winter to draw angry Taliban faces. I see this text leading to potential collaborations with art teachers in order to study techniques for drawing human expressions of a range of emotions. I am left with an abiding sense of hope, portrayed vividly through the sustaining force of bonds between people.
    Amy Camardese
    Some of life’s best messages are learned through children. Nasreen’s Secret School is a poignant example of healing and resilience. Nasreen’s story explores how the most vital elements of her life (her family, her school, and the ability to be a citizen with the same rights and freedom as males) disappear almost overnight. I agree with Diana that her circumstances have the potential to become a dark and foreboding narrative about the evils of the Taliban. Instead, the reader is enticed with drawings that interact with the author’s words to render empathy for Nasreen’s situation and depict a very different culture.
    When Nasreen’s mother and father disappear Nasreen stops speaking. I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s book, Let the Caged Bird Sing, where the main character becomes a mute after being raped. It is intriguing how the human body and spirit react to traumatic events. Much like Diana and Charlene, I found inspiration as Nasreen’s life is directed toward learning and how the opportunity to learn becomes an avenue of healing. The wise grandmother’s firm belief in the educational rights of girls led Nasreen to connect with another girl, Mina. Eventually, Nasreen smiled and uttered a word, healthy indications of her ability to once again have relationships. This measurable step paved the way to Nasreen learning the joy of reading, writing, and math. Nasreen’s capacity to smile, speak, connect with a friend, and learn illustrate how people can move on when presented with unpleasant circumstances. We are left with a story of how one child, much like Pakistani teenager Malala Yusafsai, endured an appalling situation and managed to demonstrate resiliency and overcome adversity.

  8. Dreyer says:

    Nsreen’s Secret School was a good book for my students as a reminder of what a privelage it is to live where we live. They had a hard time understanding why she could not attend school. Here in the United States all can attend school and girls can do whatever they want. It was a challenge for them becuase they are only in Kindergarten and the story did not fit into what they already know. I felt it was importatnt for them to know not all children live like they do. We have so much in our country, and freedoms that others would love to have. They felt that family was important to Nasreen and her grandmother. They felt the Nasreen was very important to her grandmother. An education was important to the grandmother. These things were so important that they were willing to ‘get in trouble’ as my kids pharased it so that Nasreen could go to school. They were sad that Nasreen did not see her parents again.

  9. Marilyn Carpenter says:

    This story challenges us to consider how precious education is. It is dedicated, “To the courageous women and girls of Afghanistan.” Those females found ways to makes it possible for girls to learn in secret schools even though the Taliban forbade girls to attend school. Jeanette Winter writes in her Author’s note that begins the book, “…the girls, their families, and their teachers defy the tyranny by keeping the schools open. Their courage has never wavered.” This true story shows how education transformed one girl’s life. Two other books by Winter chronicle true stories of the courage of other women in the face of difficult challenges and conflict, Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa and The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq.

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