San Diego 11th-grader Keala Minna-Choe looked at the Zoom screen last fall and saw about 300 Afghan girls crammed into a classroom. In the image, the room was so full that girls had to peer in through the windows, desperate to see and hear their friends in California and Hong Kong.
This meeting was one of the largest Zoom sessions her classmates had had with their Afghan students since the Taliban issued a decree in August of 2021 forbidding girls to attend school.
In the spring of 2021, before the Taliban took over, Flowers for the Future began as an informal cultural exchange between students at Canyon Crest Academy, a public high school in San Diego, and students at a learning center in Kabul.
In the beginning, the students shared their writing and art, talked about what music they liked and described what their daily lives were like.
Students become teachers
After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, most women and girls were banned from attending high school. While the Taliban had repeatedly promised the international community that the ban was temporary, in March the group announced girls would be permanently forbidden from attending school.
Despite the Taliban edict, the students in Timothy Stiven’s AP history class wanted to continue meeting with their Afghan peers and even offered to provide academic lessons in English, STEM and humanities.
Now Flowers for the Future, a student-run organization, meets on Zoom for live lessons twice monthly. In between Zoom sessions, the students produced lessons for the Afghan girls delivering lectures over YouTube and using Google Classroom for assignments.
Canyon Crest Academy was soon joined by students at Victoria Shanghai Academy (VSA) in Hong Kong and a school in Massachusetts.
The lessons are based on the Kankor exam that Afghan students take for admittance to university.
Most of the students at the learning center in Kabul are Hazara, a Shiite Muslim minority who are discriminated against and attacked by the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Hazara schools, mosques, and celebrations are frequent targets for bombs.
Risking it all to keep learning
In September of 2022, a school next door to the learning center in Kabul was bombed. Two of the learning center’s students were killed and many more were injured. The students who make up Flowers for the Future took time to grieve. When they met again, the California and Hong Kong students held a memorial, wearing traditional black clothes and carrying white flowers.
This time there were fewer girls in attendance. Some were injured or had family members who were injured. Some had fled to nearby Pakistan. Others were just too afraid to return.
“It was a huge setback for us because we had to consider if we are endangering lives,” says Minna-Choe. “But when we met with them again, we saw the perseverance on all the faces of the girls who showed up. Even if it meant endangering their lives, they wanted to continue learning. They want to get the education that they know they deserve.”
The school year in Afghanistan begins in March. Although the decree closing school for girls is still in effect, Flowers for the Future expects around 100 girls to resume Zoom meetings to continue their education.
Learning to teach
The Zoom sessions are all run through a single laptop in Kabul. The technology typically cooperates, although there are glitches sometimes. As high school students themselves, Flowers for the Future volunteers didn’t necessarily know how to teach. Through close observation and trial and error, the volunteers have learned what works.
“On Zoom, it’s not as easy to ask questions if you’re confused about the content,” says Leila Zak, 11th grade leader for the Hong Kong contingent.” That was something we had to keep in mind in this experience. We had to make sure we assessed and make sure they understood the concepts so we could develop our teaching style.”
The thoughtfulness and intention with which her students approached this project impressed Shirla Sum, principal at Victoria Shanghai Academy. The students reflect on methods that work and methods that need improvement. They developed assessments to make sure the girls in Afghanistan understand the material.
“The more the girls get involved in this, the more they realize things may be more complex than what it seems on the surface,” says Sum. “What has stood out to me is that these students have a lot of self-initiative. They are so self-driven because they find meaning in this.”
The volunteers have to keep in mind that many of the girls have limited English. They have developed techniques to overcome the language barrier. Their presentations include slides with pictures and key words in Dari, the language of the Harazas. During live Zoom presentations, they speak at a slower pace and allow time for local teachers to translate.
To keep presentations lively, they try to include an interactive experiment with every science presentation. They have extracted DNA with the girls, as well as made “elephant toothpaste” with concentrated hydrogen peroxide. They choose experiments with readily available materials so the Afghan girls can experiment right along with their American counterparts.
“Oftentimes they’re just reading about a concept in a textbook, but they don’t get the opportunity to see it applied the way students in America would,” says Canyon Crest senior Asya Anderson, one of the STEM leaders. “It’s great to see their faces when they see these chemical reactions because they’ve never had the opportunity to see that before.”
The language arts team found that when reading American classic literature, there was a cultural disconnect, and the students in Afghanistan would not understand references in the American literature. To adjust, the volunteers provided vocabulary, and cultural and historical background before beginning a book.
“Now their answers to discussion questions tend to be more in depth,” says Canyon Crest 10th-grader Kimia Mostowfi of the humanities team. The vocabulary also helps them prepare for the English portion of the university entrance exam.
At first, the volunteers didn’t want to overburden their students with too many assignments. Now, they see that the girls are motivated by assignments and assessments because they know they are being taken seriously.
“When Leila [Zak] told me about the diagnostic test and how they are getting inspiration for the design of the curriculum, I was impressed,” says VSA’s Sum. “These are things that you could do in a very simple manner, but they are constantly reflecting on what’s going well and what’s not going so well and how to improve. That makes me know this can be a long-term project.”
Becoming citizens of the world
For the Flowers for the Future volunteers, it is not all academics. The cultural exchange and friendships they're making are life changing.
“Many of us have been inspired by the [Afghan] girls,” says Canyon Crest senior Caroline Yao. “In practicing their English skills, we are having normal conversations and finding the comfort of talking to a friend. For me, I’ve grown to see the importance of educational empowerment and gender equality globally.”
Eleventh-grader Emily Khossravi was one of the first Canyon Crest students to volunteer. As a student in Stiven’s AP history class, Khossravi jumped at the opportunity to use her Farsi language skills. Farsi, which Khossravi learned at home from her parents, is similar to Dari.
Khossravi gave an introduction during the first Zoom meeting and has continued to help with translation. She has also become friends with an 11th grader in Afghanistan who goes by the pen name Andishour. The two started exchanging poetry.
Andishour has written more than 100 poems about gender disparity in Afghanistan and about searching for peace in her war-torn country. Khossravia is helping translate Mohebi’s poems and assemble an anthology called, “Why Was I Born a Girl?” The two are currently looking for a publisher for the anthology.
“I wish I was a boy because being a girl has no value,” reads Andishour's poem, which was reprinted in the New York Times. “Why should a girl study? Why should a girl work? Why should a girl live free?”
Andishour is not only a poet; she would like to become a cancer researcher. She told the New York Times what Flowers for the Future means for her. “They have motivated us to achieve our goals — and for me, my goals are very big,” she said.
Of course, Andishour's dreams, or those of her classmates, are not guaranteed. There is no certainty that she will even be allowed to take the university entrance exam when she is ready. And if she does take the exam, she cannot attend university in her country. She would have to go overseas.
As the September suicide attack demonstrated, their lives are in constant peril. Flowers for the Future, through their nonprofit Eileen Murphy Foundation, is raising money to help beef up security and shore up infrastructure at the learning center.
The lessons for the American and Hong Kong volunteers are challenging. It’s an opportunity to recognize the privilege of living in peaceful countries where they can attend school with no barriers. They are not only making friends, they are doing the hard work of understanding the world around them and becoming global citizens.
“Flowers for the Future is an example to illustrate how we have technology, which is a powerful tool, but when it comes to cultivating student agency and motivation, it’s really about the purpose behind the project,” says VSA’s Sum. “Technology increases our impact, but as educators we want to get students to think about why they are doing what they are doing.”
Jennifer Snelling is an education blogger based in Eugene, Oregon, who explores how technology enriches and enhances learning. Photos by Georgiana Zhu in Hong Kong and the learning center in Kabul.