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High School Confidential
In September, one month after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the new government allowed boys back into school—but not girls. Ever since then, female teachers and girls older than 12 have been waiting at home to hear if, and when, they can get back in the classroom.
Somehow, there’s a glimmer of hope. A set of rebellious—and very brave—teachers have banded together to secretly teach girls. Thanks to computers and the Internet, this feat is a bit easier than it was when the Taliban ruled in the 1990s. Started by the charity Learn Afghanistan, these undercover online classes will allow 100 Afghan girls ages 12 and up to learn science, technology, engineering, and math.
The charity’s main organizer is a 23 year-old named Pashtana Durrani, who started Learn Afghanistan in 2018. Before the Taliban took hold, the charity organized schooling for girls in poor and rural areas. This month, the classes, which are held three times a week, focus on technology—subjects like coding, Web site building, and graphic design.
For the safety of teachers and students, Learn Afghanistan can’t give away many details to the press. But one anonymous student was able to talk to The Times of London. “I’m so sad that boys can continue [to learn] but I cannot,” the student, an aspiring engineer, said. “I was so happy and excited to be able to attend this course.”
While 100 girls will learn how to code, solve for x, and build Web sites this month, the classes have an even bigger aim. “An educated mother ensures her children are educated,” Nazifa Rahmati, a 25-year-old teacher at Learn Afghanistan, told The Times. “I’m a computer science graduate… so I’m glad to be able to offer this to the next generation of girls and serve my community.”
Despite the risks, Learn Afghanistan intends to keep the classes going. As Durrani put it, these girls are “the future of Afghanistan.” —Elena Clavarino
Hot On the Trail
On September 19, a 70-year-old man who lives in La Palma, a Spanish island off the northwest coast of Africa, was out hunting with his three dogs when a volcano erupted.
Debris poured from the sky and lava flowed towards the man and his pups. Authorities forced the quartet to flee the area. But with the commotion of the evacuation, the man was separated from his dogs. After he reached safety, he couldn’t locate his pets. Naturally, the owner was worried the worst had happened to his dogs.
But dogs being dogs, these canines would not be stopped by a volcano. Ever the faithful friends, the three podencos—a popular Spanish hunting breed—relied on their sharp instinct and keen sense of smell to find their way down the mountain and back to their home. While their owner was relocated to a temporary home away from the lava, the dogs were living amongst an unfolding inferno in their familiar yard.
After being discovered alive, the dogs’ plight—and devotion to their home—made headlines, and inspired a pair of local companies to work together to keep them alive until a rescue could be mounted. One company even flew drones over the disaster zone to drop deliveries of food and water from the sky.
A Spanish company called Aerocamaras proposed using a drone to carry the dogs to safety. But, in an unexpected twist, when the flying machines returned to the property last week, the dogs were gone. Instead of podencos, they found human footprints in the lava and a banner that read, in Spanish, “The dogs are fine.” It was signed “A-Team,” a name possibly inspired by a 1980s TV show about U.S. Special Forces (or its 2010 movie adaptation starring Bradley Cooper).
“We knew that something strange had happened because we’d checked all the areas where [the dogs] could have been but didn’t find a thing,” Jaime Pereira, the chief executive of Aerocamaras, told The Times of London. “All we want to do now is see the dogs, check that they’re OK—and make sure that they’re really the ones we’ve been looking for.”
Pereira’s company has been keeping tabs on the temperature of the ground surrounding the property and, with infrared readings, found that some places have cooled down to at least 104 and at most 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Though unpleasant and unsustainable, it is walkable.
What’s the A-Team and how did they mount this miraculous rescue? The mystery still needs solving. “The main thing is,” Pereira said, “that one way or another the dogs have got out.” —Alex Oliveira
Learning the Hard Way
Have playgrounds become too safe? Have their soft, rubbery surfaces, reasonable heights, and general lack of danger produced a generation of timid children with poor motor skills? Would more skinned knees and a bloody nose here and there actually be good for kids?
Air Mail Pilot dimly recalls a long-ago childhood full of hard asphalt, iron jungle gyms, and undiagnosed concussions. In those days, if you were lucky, maybe you had tanbark to break your ten-foot falls. The safer playground designs of the last 30 to 40 years strike us, on the whole, as an improvement over what we grew up with. But a growing movement claims otherwise.
Rolf Schwarz, a professor of motor development at Karlsruhe University of Education in Germany, champions playgrounds with taller structures, more moving parts, less coddling, more peril. “If we want children to be prepared for risk, we need to allow them to come into contact with risk,” he recently told The Daily Mail in London.
A group of German insurance companies agrees, urging the nation’s playground designers to help children cultivate “risk competence.” Usually, risk is the last thing insurance companies want anything to do with, but the thinking seems to be that in the long run, a few more dinged-up kids will mean many fewer dinged up adults.
Believe it or not, this isn’t just a German idea. Rebecca Faulkner, an executive at a New York City non-profit organization called play:groundNYC, advocates for a literal school of hard knocks. “What the spongy playground surfaces don’t do is teach kids that there’s a consequence to falling, and they won’t learn anything from it,” she explained. “The spongy surface really just teaches them that the ground is soft, which, of course, it’s not.”
Faulkner’s group operates an “adventure playground” called The Yard on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. Judging from Web site photos, The Yard resembles a junk-strewn vacant lot with several rickety-looking wooden structures. Kids can build things with saws and hammers and nails, and also wreck things. While parents are kept out of this Mad Max meets The Little Rascals landscape, “trained playworkers” supposedly ensure that things won’t spiral too far in the former direction.
“One of the things we have noticed is that kids are really good at risk assessing their own behavior,” Faulkner said. Nevertheless, parents have to sign a waiver acknowledging the possibility of “physical or emotional harm, including serious injury or death.” No mention is made of splinters.
Leaving aside the pros and cons of saws as toys, some experts believe that safer playgrounds actually lead to more injuries, not fewer, because kids may feel overly confident when climbing on a fixed structure low to the ground rather than something tall and wobbly, where the prospect of falling half a story or more encourages focus.
As David Köhler, who owns a German company that makes ropey, web-like climbing apparatuses, explained, “Children may feel insecure when they first climb in our nets, but this is actually what makes the structures even safer. When you are feeling extra insecure, you are also extra careful.”
This point was seemingly confirmed by a study of accidents at a private school in Houston with two playgrounds, one safer, the other riskier, although the sample size was very small. (The study was commissioned by Pop-Up Adventure Play, a British non-profit.) Air Mail Pilot sends our belated wishes for speedy recoveries to the seven kids who broke bones or were otherwise injured falling off things, the two with badly hurt fingers, and the boy who put a small rock in his ear. In fairness, however, that last one could happen at any kind of playground. —Bruce Handy