Global Literature and Content Area Literacy: Exploring the Pedagogical Possibilities of Content Area Classrooms

“Best. Book. Ever.” Exploring Culture and Conflict through Reading Words in the Dust

By Eryn Willow

I teach in a rural school district at a small middle school with 7th and 8th graders, while outlying schools house grades K–8. In my district, crime and poverty are not significant unlike surrounding districts where the delineation between the economic classes is more defined. Students have little connection to the world outside their insulated community and as a result have limited understandings of the world beyond what they experience through the popular media. Their perspectives were guided not only by their undeveloped views of the world, but their reactions to it. I found myself pondering how I could use engaging literature about adolescents from other parts of the world to help my students explore alternate perspectives and experiences of teenage life and what that encompasses: friends, family, responsibilities, strengths and weaknesses, moments of courage and fear.

Using the opportunity given to me through World of Words Global Literacy Communities grant I purchased a set of classroom novels that shared the story of a young girl living and learning in a different part of the world: Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy (2011). With this novel, I hoped to help the students expand their understandings of their American lives and what it is like to have the rights, freedoms, and educational opportunities they seem to take for granted. I also wanted to invite students to discover that we share similar values and dreams, whether from Oregon or Afghanistan.

In the novel, the narrator, young Zulaikha, is living in post-war Afghanistan. The Taliban still threaten the edges of the people’s memories, but the people fear the American soldiers with their brash manners and big guns more. Zulaikha, suffering with a cleft palate, lost her mother to Taliban soldiers’ ruthless strictures. Zulaikha’s older sister, 15-year-old Zeynab, is set to marry a rich 45-year-old man. When the American soldiers try to help get Zulaikha’s cleft palate repaired so that she can eat and breath more easily, they bungle many Islamic customs, angering her father and putting her chances for a “normal” lip at risk. To further complicate life, Zulaikha is meeting in secret with Meena, a seamstress near the market. Meena, once a literature professor in Herat, has been teaching 11-year-old Zulaikha. Meena shows Zulaikha the beauty of Afghani poems written thousand of years ago, and eventually convinces the young teen to continue her education. In the novel’s concluding chapters, Zeynab is severely burned by her husband because she cannot conceive a child and dies. This cataclysmic event helps Zulaikha to realize that even with a “normal” lip, her destiny in Afghanistan will not change without the influence of education. This novel provided students with a picture of what it means to grow up poor in relation to material possessions, but rich in family and tradition.

The makeup of my classroom is a mix of very active seventh and eighth grade students. Due to a rapidly approaching summer break, I chose a novel that I felt best suited my class. I wanted a tale that had an engaging story for both boys and girls. Many of this year’s students were reluctant and struggling readers, so it was important to choose a book with which they had some familiarity. Many of their parents and friends’ parents are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and so they are very aware of the conflict occurring in the Middle East. They viewed their military relatives and friends as heroes. While I didn’t wish to upset this image, I wanted to challenge it in order to help them see the complexity of war and conflict for all involved. The boys were immediately won over by their curiosity – they wanted to know about our soldiers, of course, but were also intrigued by the unfamiliar culture. I tackled a range of questions about the Taliban, Afghani soldiers, and children living in cities full of constant danger. The girls immediately identified with Zulaikha. Most of my female students come from families who expect them to attend college or some sort of trade school when they finish high school. To read a story in which the female character must fight for a right to learn caught their attention.

Students asked thoughtful questions, explored big ideas, and exhibited genuine enthusiasm for the issues and content in the text. Worried about general reading comprehension, I decided to place students in groups organized around themes we identified together. In this way, students could focus on one big idea while we read together, rather than trying to consume many themes at one time. Students read along with me for a portion of their class time and then separated into small discussion groups to talk about issues from the novel that pertained to their group’s theme. As I explained the book to the students (as well as several others books that were available and connected to the novel) they immediately focused on several major themes. The girls wanted to know about gender roles and education, the boys were interested in issues related to war, poverty, and cultural differences. One of my female students, born with a cleft palate, was interested in the country’s access to health care. This student had her cleft palate repaired by the time she was two. Our protagonist was still suffering with hers at the age of eleven. I also supplemented the novel with picture books, such as Biblioburro by Jeanette Winter (2010), that connected to the themes for each group to read, discuss, and compare with the events in the novel. After reading the novel, students surprised me by suggesting it would have been a good idea to add the theme of bullying to the six we’d discussed.

Picture Book Text Sets Explored in Global Issue Theme Groups

Issue: Health

Wilma Unlimited

Thank you, Mrs. K!

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Issue: Education

Ruby’s Wish

Nasreen’s Secret School

The Story of Ruby Bridges

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Don’t Say Ain’t

Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys


Issue: War/Civil Unrest

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Librarian of Basra

Smoky Night

Nasreen’s Secret School

Boxes For Katje

Baseball Saved Us

Issue: Gender

Ruby’s Wish

Nasreen’s Secret School

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys


Issue: Culture

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Afghanistan: The People

Ruby’s Wish

I Come From Afghanistan

At the Crossroads

Raising Yoder’s Barn

The Other Side


Issue: Poverty

Boxes for Katje

Tight Times

Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan

Fly Away Home

At The Crossroads



Figure 1. Picture Book Text Sets Explored in Global Issue Theme Groups

When we first began discussing the area of the world that Zulaikha lived in, students focused primarily on the stereotypical aspects of the region and the Taliban soldiers (images viewed through American media and from stories they heard from family and community members). They were in awe of the way in which women dressed and wondered why the Taliban wanted their men to grow beards. They asked questions about the Taliban soldiers’ ruthlessness among their own people, but were puzzled by the fact that Afghani people did not see our American soldiers as they see them – as heroes. They asked me questions like, “Do they have to eat their pets if they get too hungry?”, “Where did the Taliban get their weapons?”, and “Why do women have to wear those burkas?”

Even though students read as a class, each theme group recorded their “noticings” from their readings and discussions on large pieces of butcher paper. Students also kept personal journals of their reactions and responses to the book as well. Reviewing students’ written comments from their groups and their personal journals, I saw shifts in attitudes as they connected with the novel’s characters. They empathized deeply with the characters and their comments were evidence that their perspectives on life and education were expanding and changing. They learned that girls and boys in different parts of the world are still struggling just as much as the characters in the novel, and that education, literacy, and access to medical care are vastly different in other regions of the globe. I also noticed I had fewer incomplete papers, less complaining about assignments, and no mention about whether the teacher bought treats for “good behavior.”

As students dug further into the story of Zulaikha’s life, their global and cultural perspectives shifted. They developed strong feelings for the same-aged characters in a different part of the world, and those feeling grew stronger with each chapter. Looking at life through an Afghani girl’s eyes made them realize how many freedoms – and privileges – they have in their own lives. One 13-year-old student wrote, “It makes me feel like we have so much that we don’t use, but they can! They [Zulaikha] thought getting a comb was awesome? We are so wasteful and rich compared to the poor people [in the novel].” Another female student who struggled through much of her school year and had very little by American standards wrote, “I used to think that everything I have wasn’t enough; that I needed more things. But after reading this book, I have been so grateful for everything I have.”

Both male and female students were amazed by the young character, Zeynab, who was married at the age of 15. The boys especially were stunned by this cultural practice, “What type of parent would consider having a child under 18 get married?! I think that their little girls should be given the freedom of who and when they want to marry,” wrote one 12-year-old boy. The girls however, were more than just troubled by young girls their age being married off–they were downright angry. A 13 year old girl stated in her journaling, “I would not like being married at this point in my life. Too much to handle. I’m just not ready for it. No one is.”

Students wondered why early age marriages happened in some regions of the world, but not all. We talked about what they planned to do with the next five years of life. They responded as any American student might: go to high school, get a job, and get into a good college. “How about a family?” I asked. Well, of course, all of them wanted to have kids someday. “Can you have a family in America when you’re in your twenties?” I inquired. They all thought that it was reasonable to have a family then. “What if your education didn’t last until you turned eighteen? What if you had to marry only when you had enough money to support a family and home?” That stymied them a bit. “Zulaikha’s nineteen-year-old brother has no wife, but he is almost twenty – Why?” After a bit of head scratching, students surmised that perhaps a man wasn’t suitable for marriage until he had enough money to support his own house and family like Zulaikha’s father supported her family. Once this idea came to the surface, they decided that perhaps people in Afghanistan showed responsibility in waiting. A girl marrying at a young age, they guessed, might have something to do with younger women being stronger and thus more capable of bearing healthy children.

As we read the book in class, we stopped often to discuss. The students in each theme group elected a writer each day who would run to their slice of paper to jot down notes from our discussions. Kids from other groups would help point out different aspects of the novel that related to the themes. It was messy, it was noisy, but it was meaningful (which made the gobs of tape left on the windows at the end of the year worth every minute of cleaning.)

By the end of the novel, students began centering their discussions on education. They found it offensive that all children weren’t educated through at least high school. One boy quipped, “If we get to have this much school for free, it’s only right that they should get the same privilege.” One girl asked during a class discussion, “Why do the Taliban not want their people to be educated?” to which a boy at the back of the room replied, “You’re easier to control when you’re dumb.” This simple conversation floored me and brought the talk to a quiet halt. “So that’s what Meena meant,” a surprised student said at the front of the room. I asked what she was talking about, but another student in the class answered, “It won’t matter if Zulaikha has a pretty face. Without education she’ll still have to get married. She doesn’t get a choice because she’ll be too dumb to do anything about it.” And with that, my whole class sat stunned. “Was education that important,” I asked? No one spoke, but most of them nodded.

While we prepared for the end of our school year, students rushed to finish the novel. There was barely a dry eye as we read the final chapters. Even the boys admired Zulaikha’s bravery, and the girls huffed over her final decision regarding her own education. They all breathed audible sighs as we read the last paragraph together. One student exhaled loudly and leaned back in her chair as we finished. She looked to me and grinned, “Best- book- ever….”

I can’t sum up how this book touched the students and altered their idea of the world as globally connected. My students were provided the opportunity to experience the power of a great book to learn about themselves and their world.

Children’s Literature Cited

Banting, E. (2003). Afghanistan: The people. New York: Crabtree.

Bodecker, N. M. ( E. Blegvad, Illus.). (1998). Hurry, hurry, Mary dear!. New York: Margaret K. McElderry.

Borden, L. (A. Gustavan, Illus.). (2002). Thank you, Mrs. K! New York: Margaret K. McElderry.

Bunting, E. (R. Himmler, Illus.). (1991). Fly away home. New York: Clarion.

Bunting, E. (D. Diaz, Illus.) (2000). Smoky night. Lancaster, PA: Childcraft.

Bridges, S. Y. (S. Blackall, Illus.). (2005). Ruby’s wish. Guilford, CT: Nutmeg Media.

Coles, R. (G. Ford, Illus.). (1995). The story of Ruby Bridges. New York: Scholastic.

Fleming, C. (S. Dressen-McQueen, Illus.). (2003). Boxes for Katje. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hazen, B. S. (T.S. Hyman, Illus.). (1979). Tight times. New York: Viking Press.

Howard, E. F. (E.B. Lewis, Illus.). (2000). Virgie goes to school with us boys. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Isadora, R. (1991). At the crossroads. New York: Greenwillow.

Krull, K. (D. Diaz, Illus.). (2000). Wilma unlimited. New York: Sandpiper.

Mochizuki, K. (D. Lee, Illus.). (1993). Baseball saved us. New York: Lee & Low.

Reedy, T. (2011). Words in the dust. New York: Arthur Levine.

Smalls, I. (C. Bootman, Illus.). (2003). Don’t say ain’t. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Sullivan, M. (T. O’Brien, Illus.). (2008) Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan. New York: Bloomsbury.

Weber, V. (2007). I come from Afghanistan. Milwaukee, WI: Weekly Reader Early Learning Library.

Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. Orlando, Fla: Harcourt.

Winter, Jeanette. (2009) Nasreen’s secret school :A true story from Afghanistan. New York: Beach Lane.

Winter, J. (2010). Biblioburro. New York: Beach Lane.

Woodson, J. (E. B. Lewis, Illus.). (2001). The other side. New York: Putnam’s.

Yolen, J. (B. Fuchs, Illus.). (1998). Raising Yoder’s barn. Boston: Little, Brown.

Eryn Willow is a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Mark Twain Middle School in Silverton, Oregon. She teaches Language Arts as well as remedial math. Eryn holds a Master’s degree in Education with a Reading Endorsement from Western Oregon University.

WOW Stories, Volume IV, Issue 2 by Worlds of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *