Reader’s Guide

EXP Stones into Schools

EXP Stones into Schools

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Picking up where Greg Mortenson’s inspiring first book, Three Cups of Tea, leaves off, Stones into Schools takes readers into the heart of Afghanistan during the last decade and explores Pakistan’s tragic 2005 earthquake, offering a vivid picture of the daily activities of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and its ragtag team of unlikely heroes as they work and struggle with isolated communities to promote girls’ education and build schools in one the most challenging environments on earth.

Like Three Cups of Tea, Stones into Schools is fueled by a 1999 promise, this time to Abdul Rashid Khan, leader of the Kirgiz nomads, to bring a school to the high Pamir, one of Afghanistan’s most remote and desolate areas. Abandoned by the Afghan government and foreign NGOs the Kirgiz are impoverished and live without human services of any kind—no hospitals, roads, communication, electricity, or schools—but their desire to educate their children is unshakeable. Mortenson’s promise to build a school for them, or to help them build their own school, turns out to be painfully difficult to keep and took a decade to fulfill. But a promise, and the trust and faith it implies, are profoundly important to the Afghan people and indeed to Mortenson as well. The narrative arc and trajectory of Stones into Schools follows the superhuman efforts of Mortenson’s local CAI cohorts to fulfill this promise.

The CAI’s philosophy of “last-place-first”—to start their work not in cities where infrastructure and services already exist and then move outward into more remote villages, but to begin at the end of the road and move inwards toward urban areas—makes their efforts all the more daunting. It brings them into contact with those who need schools the most, communities where illiteracy is high, especially among girls, and where the flame of hope is perilously close to dying out.

Mortenson admits that he knows, at the outset, almost nothing about these communities—their subtle religious, cultural, and tribal affinities—which makes his method of asking questions and listening to the local people, especially the village elders and religious leaders, all the more important. Indeed, listening and letting the local people become their teachers proves to be one of the CAI’s keys to success.

While many nongovernmental organizations and government agencies assume they know how to “fix” the problems in distant countries like Afghanistan and take a top-down approach, Mortenson’s humbler method is not only more appealing, but also more effective. Afghan communities end up being not so much passive recipients as cocreators of their own schools, and for a proud, long-suffering, and above all resilient people, such self-agency makes all the difference. The CAI engages the local people to help plan and build the schools, and its track record speaks for itself: As of 2010, CAI has established 165 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, educating more than 68,000 students, 54,000 of whom are girls—in a region where Taliban resistance to girls’ education is so fierce that they have destroyed over 2,200 (mostly girls’) schools since 2007, poison and gas female students, and even throw battery acid in their faces.

If Mortenson’s approach—working with the local people, getting his hands dirty, learning the culture of Afghanistan—makes for better schools, it also makes for a better read. Stones into Schools bristles with the energy and commitment Mortenson and his cohorts at CAI bring to their work and lets readers in the West who will never set foot in Afghanistan or meet the extraordinary people who live there feel deeply connected to them. We feel not so much like were reading about Mortenson’s efforts in Afghanistan as participating in them.

Throughout the book we see the seemingly insurmountable logistical and cultural obstacles that it takes to initiate girls’ schools, the tremendous risks Mortenson and his colleagues choose to take, and the courage and commitment of the Afghan people as they fight to educate their children. We see, in short, a completely different Afghanistan than the one presented in the Western media. Indeed, in writing Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson has done nearly as much to educate American readers as has been done to educate Afghan children.


Greg Mortenson is the director of the Central Asia Institute, founder of Pennies for Peace children’s program, and the author, with David Oliver Relin, of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea. A resident of Montana, he spends several months of the year in Pakistan and Afghanistan, when not home with his wife and two children.

  • A frequent criticism of Mortenson, offered by some Three Cups of Tea readers, was that he essentially abandons his wife and children in pursuit of his work away from home. Mortenson’s wife Tara vehemently disagrees, says she supports his efforts 100 percent, and that hundreds of thousands of spouses who serve in the military or humanitarian work are separated from their families for years or months at a time and those families and their sacrifice deserve our collective support most of all. What are your thoughts about this?

  • Three Cups of Tea was written in third person, but Stones into Schools was written in first person. Mortenson was encouraged by his editor, Paul Slovak, and the publisher to write in first person in his second book. Part of this decision was due to hundreds of book clubs who expressed a desire to read a first person narrative. In what other ways does Stones into Schools differ from its predecessor, Three Cups of Tea? What themes remain constant through both books?

  • Mortenson writes: “Simply put, young women are the single biggest potential agents of change in the developing world—a phenomenon that is something referred to as the Girl Effect and that echoes an African proverb I often heard during my childhood years in Tanzania: ‘If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community’ ” (p. 13). Why would this be true? What are the broader benefits to educating girls in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan? What are the consequences of keeping girls out of school?

  • Why does Mortenson choose locations for new schools on a “last-place-first” basis? What qualities does he admire in the people who live at the end of the road?

  • What enables Mortenson and CAI to be successful? What principles guide their decisions and ways of working? Why would a larger nongovernmental organization (NGO), U.S. military, or governmental agency possibly be less effective than the ragtag team of CAI?

  • What roles do Wakil and Sarfraz play in the effort to build schools in Afghanistan? What motivates them to work with such passion and commitment and to be separated from their families for ten to eleven months annually?

  • Thousands of letters, e-mails, comments, and criticisms about Three Cups of Tea from readers, women’s book clubs, educators, and more were considered in the writing of this book. Because of those suggestions, this book has more diagrams, charts, maps, photos, as well as a who’s who, glossary, and an addendum with extra information about girls’ education, and a Web site, Do you think these additions, in response to thousands of readers, helped to create a better book, and help the readers relate more to the people in the book?

  • As well as being an inspiring, uplifting story, Stones into Schools is also a great read. What did you like best about the book, and what do you think could have been done to make it even better?

  • How does Mortenson build and sustain suspense over the course of the book? Who are some of the most colorful, engaging, admirable characters we meet in its pages?

  • Mortenson and Sarfraz always take time to consult the shura (elders) of the villages where they plan to build schools and invite the people of the area to become their teachers (p. 191). Why is this type of humble listening important? How does this approach differ from that used by many larger NGOs?

  • What are some of the greatest acts of kindness and dedication in Stones into Schools? What makes these acts so moving and inspiring?

  • Why is it so important that the people of Bozai Gumbaz finish building the school themselves?

  • How does CAI respond to the devastating earthquake in Pakistan? What makes a relatively small effort like “Operation School Desk,” which was initiated by a child, so poignant and important?

  • Most of what we in the know in the West about Afghanistan comes through the mainstream media. In what ways doesStones into Schools give us a more human portrait of Afghanistan and its people? In what ways do the Afghan and Pakistan peoples we meet in the book defy the Western stereotypes about themselves and Muslims in general?

  • How has reading Stones into Schools changed your view of Afghanistan and the American involvement there?

  • A big component of Mortenson’s effort is to encourage Western children to read more and to appreciate the value of education and respecting elders, an idea that he has learned from the communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.Three Cups of Tea has a young readers’ and children’s picture book, and Penguin will publish a young readers’ and children’s picture-book edition for Stones into Schools in late 2011. Do you think it’s important that Western children learn about poverty, war, slavery, and extremism and that families and communities can do collective readings of the same book?
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