December 2018

With a book in their hands

The library period in Venkatesh Nagara school ignites the interests of students in reading and engages them in creative activities

A student enthusiastically shares his work of creativity

Venkatesh Nagara school is in Lambani Thanda, situated a few kilometres away from the town of Yadgiri. There is a government primary and higher primary school located in this village. Unlike most government schools, this school has a functioning library. The book collections in other schools are confined within cupboards, and in some cases, do not even see the light of day after purchase, except during annual stocktaking. However, in the library at the Venkatesh Nagara school, the books are in open shelves, and clearly visible. Children come to the library to read books whenever they have free time.

There is a dedicated weekly library period for every class in the school, where a teacher engages children in activities like read alouds, book talks and storytelling. Children borrow books to read, something that isn’t usually encouraged, since teachers are often fined for the loss or damage of books. The books in this library are carefully curated, keeping in mind that they should appeal to children. The collection boasts of large illustrated books with well-written stories on diverse themes. The library also holds art, craft and writing activities that encourage creative expression integral to a child’s meaning-making process of the world.

Path of revelation

For children, this is the only place where art and craft happen in the school, so it is a place of joy for them. Hussain Babu, a class 7 student from Nandepalli school, says, “The art activities in the library made me realise my passion for drawing, and this was the reason I started visiting the library. Reading came in later through many activities.” It seems evident that libraries play a crucial role in the education of children.

A teacher enthrals the students with her storytelling skills

This experiment with libraries has been a revelation for all those who have been part of its development and implementation. It started as part of an effort by Parag, an initiative of the Tata Trusts, and Kalike, a non-profit organisation based in Yadagiri district, to initiate library programmes in government schools in the district. Yadagiri, carved out of the southern three taluks of the erstwhile Gulbarga district, scores quite low in the all-India socio-economic indicators including education. So, the choice of location for such an experiment was judicious and challenging, with the school holding the possibility of standing as a model for similar work elsewhere in the country.

Library programmes can also serve as links to independent learning components of languages and other academic subjects in school, while at the same time symbolizing a space of joy and creativity, distinct from traditional structured classrooms. Armed with this understanding of the role of libraries in schools, the fundamental development of the Kalike libraries programme emerged from significant inputs by pioneering children’s librarians Usha Mukunda and Sujata Noronha, who had independently worked in different contexts to realise the potential for libraries.

Through their design inputs, the programme is approached in a two-pronged manner. In one set of 40 schools in villages and communities largely clustered around Gurmitkal town, referred to as the ‘intensive cluster’, a designated library educator is appointed from the local community to maintain the library and roll out the reading programmes along with supporting activities. In the other set of 60 schools from elsewhere in the Yadagiri taluk, referred to as the ‘extensive cluster’, a school teacher is given an additional role of being in charge of the library programme and serving as a library educator.

The library educators and teachers are supported by a dedicated team of coordinators from Kalike, who make daily visits to different schools to keep them updated with library work, and to provide feedback and support on the programme rollout. During workshops, practitioners in children’s libraries equip library educators in intensive schools, and teachers in extensive schools with approaches to library activities and books. Most schools covered under the programme have designated a separate room for library activities, and Kalike, along with contributions from the community, displays wall paintings to make the space attractive for children. Kalike provides books, display racks, notice boards, and periodic supplies of stationery and art material.

A two-pronged approach

In both extensive and intensive clusters, children play an active role in shouldering the responsibility of running the library. Children’s library clubs undertake the task of maintaining registers and lending cards for issuing books. They maintain the space and play an active role in recommending books to each other and to the rest of the school through word of mouth, book reviews and book talks conducted in library sessions and during the daily school assembly.

While this programme has tremendous potential, it has also faced challenges on the ground, especially considering the fact that these children are not academically at par with their peers. This does impact the ability of children to process content due to limitations in fluency in reading and vocabulary. The library programme includes graded reading books, wordless picture books and bilingual books that can help students improve their reading skills if used effectively by language teachers.

Local communities have been instrumental in supporting the library programme since they recognise the hope it offers for their children's future. Like Srikanth, a teacher at Nandepalli school, says, “Libraries have a way of opening the world to children in a manner that can take them everywhere.”

The original version of this story was first published in the Deccan Herald —
https://www.deccanherald.com/book-their-hands-709422.html