I can’t quite believe it’s been five years with the Writers’ Club at St. Mary’s School. I remember we had a maths teacher in class V who had been teaching there for FOUR YEARS. And I thought that it was pretty much forever. I’m there now.
My first batch was created for the sesquicentennial celebrations, and it led to the publication of Flickering Flames.
In the second year, we put together a book of our own, handmade, and we called it The Book that Speaks.
And in the following three years, I held a writing competition, with the results being announced during the very last session. Last year, I also invited a special guest to give away the prizes – and what fun that was.
This year, my batch was particularly enthusiastic and we had not one but two parties – one for Christmas and one yesterday for our very last session. I love how excited all the girls are about the competition results, even those who submitted nothing! Each year, I ask two girls from a previous batch to judge the entries. I provide them with detailed assessment criteria, and they take the process of judging seriously, which makes me glad. Each year, I enjoy reading their comments, discovering yet again how subjective judging is. This time, we had fewer entries than usual, but the results were just as eagerly anticipated. The two girls who won were thrilled; it’s grand how important it is to them.
And then, we went back to working on magazines, which is what we have been doing for the last three combined sessions (sessions for which I invite those from previous batches). I was so struck by some of their ideas! For instance, one girl insisted that the inside cover COULD NOT have the credits because it had to have an ad. So, she made an ad and somehow fit the masthead in too. Without that, she was convinced, her magazine would not look authentic.
I also realised how disconnected children are from the world of money. For instance, when a pair of them discovered that a magazine has a price marked on the back cover, they wondered whether to put ₹1,500 rupees as their price, only to learn that Champak costs ₹25! They made a joke of it and decided to price it at ₹1,500-million-crore. Which they felt was justified by the amount of work they put in.
We had magazines about dogs, activities, Harry Potter, book series, brands … I was amazed at the number of things they came up with. It took some prodding, of course, used as they are to the idea of making a school project. Some began by choosing topics like ‘deserts’ and ‘temperate zone’. We moved from there to more imaginative ideas, though many magazines were left incomplete. The girls promised to finish them in the holidays – we’ll see.
And that’s that. Another year of stories, plays and poems comes to an end. Each year brings me so much joy!
Five days late, but why can’t every day be read aloud day?
I happened to have a session with my Writers’ Club on World Read Aloud Day, so each of the girls chose something to read. It was delightful! Above all, I was struck by how well most of them read, without burying their faces in their books and without too much stuttering and stumbling. That is privilege, isn’t it? That level of fluency?
Also, this time, I loved that nearly all of them chose their pieces well.
While last year, I had children struggling to read an abridged version of King Lear aloud, fumbling with names like Cordelia and Goneril, this time, I found that their choices were, on the whole, quite good! Some read easy poetry; I had a couple of stories about Akbar and Birbal, and we had excerpts from Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton. I have written earlier about why children choose texts that are too difficult for them; I’m glad that did not happen this time!
And this year, I read an excerpt from The Prophecy of Rasphora to celebrate World Read Aloud Day. And unlike last year, I didn’t foolishly call it World Reading Day. In case you haven’t seen it yet, take a look.
I also used the occasion as an excuse to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I enjoy working with the book in class, exploring language and having fun with words. So, I decided to put a free printable handout online. Here it is. And if you’d like to read reviews of The Prophecy of Rasphora and find out a little more about the book before you decide to use it in class, here you go.
A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post for StoryWeaver about a training programme I have been conducting for the last three years for librarians in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, and the ways in which I use StoryWeaver and Pratham Books for the reading programme they implement in schools. I have grown so much through the workshops I purportedly conduct! Working with a range of librarians with limited resources has been an eye-opening experience for me, an experience that I treasure. Each year, I tweak the programme slightly, trying to make it more accessible to every level of learner and easier to implement.
This year, I continued with a theme-based approach, but I chose themes that were clearly linked with the needs of reluctant readers. How delighted I was when I learned about how the librarians took the ideas to their schools!
Linking the reading theme with the overall curricular theme ‘Cleanliness’, the story A Cloud of Trash was selected. For two weeks, the libraries focused on character emotions, then they moved on to identifying the problem in the story, discussed synonyms and antonyms and then tried to discover the solution.
And finally, the children were involved in a task that demonstrated their understanding.
- They presented a skit, trying to imagine what happened next
- They made a fresh book cover for A Cloud of Trash
- They made a poster for their school to highlight the importance of cleanliness
- They made their own stories and comics about cleanliness
- They created picture books of their own, revolving around the idea of a cloud of trash
My next training session with the librarians is two days away and I can’t wait to see what magic they will bring next to their classrooms!
Yesterday, to round off our letter-writing activity, we wrote two more letters.
One began with ‘Dear Reader’, and this is an activity I’ve done more times than I can count. I tweaked it slightly this time because of the idea of posting their letters to them. Instead of telling them that what they wrote would go into books in the library, I told them their letters would go in the mail to someone else in the room. They enjoyed it tremendously!
The second was a letter to a fictional character. I asked the children to choose any fictional character they love, and write a letter, sharing whatever they liked with that character. Among all the letters to Hermione Granger, Tom Gates, Silky (Faraway Tree) et al, here’s one letter I found:
I couldn’t stop chuckling at this! Of course, I’m thrilled that she chose to write to Chitra from my railway adventures, but more – I love that the most important thing she would like to share is about her pet cat Melody!
Chitra would love to read this, I think. I also find it interesting that Deven, the eldest of the four cousins in the series, is forgotten. Ah, the joys of being a writer and getting sneak peeks into readers’ minds!
I’ve been waiting to do this activity ever since I thought of it, and it was well worth the wait — particularly because two children said this was the best Writers’ Club session ever!
Receiving a letter is lovely. I enjoy every part of it – the anticipation, seeing something in the postbox, seeing that it is addressed to me, opening it and reading it. That’s why I decided to bring that to the Writers’ Club. I asked each of the girls to bring an envelope to class; I brought the rest.
For me, the first and biggest surprise was that children don’t know how to address an envelope! My instructions were poor – simply because I didn’t realise how clueless they would be. Many children wrote the address at the back of the envelope. Several others wrote their names in big bold letters and then somehow squeezed the address in below. Many didn’t know that a stamp would normally be stuck at the top right corner, so they wrote all over the envelope!
The activity itself was fun; it’s a variation of a grammar activity I often conduct. Each child has a sheet of paper on which she writes a question beginning with ‘what’. She folds it and passes it on. On the passed-on sheet she receives, she writes the answer to the question she asked, then she folds it and passes it on. Next, she writes a ‘who’ question and the same process follows. When we unfold the sheets, there’s always much hilarity! And this time, instead of unfolding and reading aloud, I will be posting them to the young writers.
After that, we also wrote a letter that began ‘Dear Future Me’, which I promised I would not read. Some wrote long letters; others just wrote notes – and they’ll get them in the mail!
They’re going to write one more letter during my next session with them, and then we’re done. I’ll post all their letters and we’ll see how they react when they receive them!
Meanwhile, last week, I also conducted a skill-building workshop for English teachers at Aurangabad. That was another fun event. I’ll do the same session soon in Mumbai and Pune too!
Excitement is so contagious! The Writers’ Club was full of energy today because of two activities we did based on the idea of how characters come alive to readers.
A week ago, I asked the girls to think of a character they would like to present to the rest of the club. We had a few rules and then, because we had about a thousand questions, we had a few more rules.
The bottom rule was this: try to make it fun for everybody. To work towards that, we had a few ‘suggested’ rules:
- Don’t say too much; don’t say too little
- Don’t choose obscure characters
- Don’t make your speech more than two minutes long
- Don’t read out a speech
As we went on, more rules were added, but eventually, today, many of the girls had (of course) forgotten everything. Some had forgotten to think about a character at all, and two were too shy to come forward unprepared.
Yet, we had Harry Potter, Geronimo Stilton, Captain Haddock, Slappy (Goosebumps, no, I didn’t guess this one), Phileas Fogg, Gulliver, Fantastic Mr Fox, Joe from the Faraway Tree … It was lovely. I did something similar a couple of years ago too, as a kind of Children’s Day celebration, but each set of young writers brings something different to the Writers’ Club, a different sort of excitement and energy.
Plus, this year, I took the activity one step further. Once everyone had revealed her character, I wrote the names of the characters down on sticky notes that I pasted randomly on girls’ backs. This almost didn’t work because the notes kept falling. But the children were so enthusiastic that they came to me with paper clips and asked me to clip the notes onto their backs.
Asking each other participant a maximum of one question, which had to be answered in a maximum of two words, they had to find out who they were. Of course, the one question they weren’t allowed to ask was ‘Who am I?’.
Utter mayhem ensued, but of the fun kind. Everyone was absolutely delighted at the end of it, including me!
This post first appeared on the StoryWeaver blog on 9 October 2019. You can read it here.
As a British Council trainer, I’ve conducted numerous reading workshops and facilitated many interactive sessions for theme-based reading challenges. I’ve worked in schools as well as at the British Library itself, interacting with a range of children, from those who devour books to those who yawn at the sight of a library.
So, when Anubhooti Learning Solutions (then ‘Experiential Learning Solutions’) asked me whether I would chalk out a reading programme to be administered by librarians at municipal schools in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai, I was interested. The project was a CSR initiative by D-Mart and the crux of the idea was to support a few schools through a library programme.
Excited, I drafted a detailed outline of what we could do. I devised a theme-based approach with detailed assessment criteria, for that was something that the reading programme team felt was crucial. I also worked out the learning outcomes, outline and structure of three training sessions for the librarians. All of them had worked in different capacities earlier and were to be associated with the library space for the first time. The purpose of my training sessions was to introduce them to their role beyond classroom management and discipline, emphasising that inculcating the habit of reading and a love for language is as much a part of a librarian’s role as the issue and return of books.
Yet, it was only as we launched the programme and began the first workshop that I began to understand how many problems the librarians face. A theme-based programme with assessment criteria was all very well. How would we deal with the other big issues, including the fact that many children did not even attend school regularly? As we went on, there were three problems that I was determined to address through the reading programme:
- One, children come from multiple linguistic backgrounds. For instance, in a predominantly Hindi-speaking area, children attend a school where the medium of instruction is Marathi. “In my class of forty, only five children speak Marathi,” one librarian said to me.
- Two, every class has students with varied reading levels. “The children who have been with us for some time are okay, on the whole, but new children come in all the time. If a child is ten years old, the school administration puts him in class five, even if he has not even learnt the alphabet yet!”
- Three, some schools have different languages of instruction running concurrently. “My first period is with Hindi-medium children, then semi-English, then Marathi, then Hindi again. Each week, I have Urdu-medium, English-medium, Hindi-medium and Marathi-medium children coming to the library!”
What could we do? How could we hope to tackle such a wide range of problems?
Additionally, what started as a small group of eleven librarians soon began to grow. This is the third year of my association with Anubhooti and the D-Mart initiative, and we work with 47 librarians: D-Mart now supports 68 schools through its reading programme.
It is at this stage that my use of StoryWeaver in libraries comes in. D-Mart’s vision for the reading programme includes providing a minimum of 200 hard copies of Pratham Books in three focus languages (English, Hindi and Marathi) for each library that it supports. Five schools also use StoryWeaver books offline. This was a huge boon to me, for at least I had a starting point. I could access the same story in many languages, and thanks to the Creative Commons licence, I could encourage teachers to work with each story in multiple ways. Teaching requires so many resources that access to free material is invaluable!
I was first attracted to StoryWeaver by the clear levelling of stories, and so, this was the first thing I introduced to the librarians too. In a single class, librarians deal with students struggling to read the alphabet as well as students who read stories confidently. With such a wide range of readers thrown together in one room, I find it particularly relevant that the reading level of books on StoryWeaver is not clearly linked to an age-group. This is important to me because slow learners are often targets for bullies. Reading a “kiddish” book, marketed as one for younger readers, leads to the shaming of slow learners, and a simple indication of reading level rather than age is an important step towards addressing (though not solving) this problem.
The first time we used StoryWeaver, we worked with three stories I love – I Am Not Afraid, Ammachi’s Amazing Machines and Farida Plans a Feast. We read each story many times, in three languages. Bilingual books are particularly wonderful in the context of this reading programme, for when a child is required to read in one language, even though s/he is more comfortable in another language, having both on the same page is a great aid to reading comprehension. All of us loved the simplicity and artwork of I Am Not Afraid. It allowed us to explore and enjoy the story without being daunted by complexity of narrative and vocabulary.
The main activity we engaged in after reading the books was to create simple stories of our own. Inspired by the sweet simplicity of I Am Not Afraid, librarians created wonderful picture books about conquering fear. This was just the first step because they took the idea back to their libraries and asked children to make books of their own. This was a huge boost to the reading programme, as it encouraged children to read more and write more. The most wonderful outcome was that even if they read nothing else, children wanted to read what their friends had created. An added bonus was that there were suddenly many more books in the school library!
Wordless Picture Books
Wordless picture books are all kinds of lovely. We “read” the charming I Can Dress Myself! and then looked at how to work on language skills using a book that is written in none of the focus languages. Beginning with simple questions and answers – giving the girl a name and naming all the pieces of furniture in the room – we went on to a storytelling session, where the pictures in the book became visual aids.
Next, to continue our exploration of the use of StoryWeaver without language, I showed the participants Deepa Balsavar’s vibrant picture of a busy market. With so much happening in a single image, the librarians could explore a range of vocabulary. Consequently, they came up with various ideas of how they could use pictures in class to increase attention and concentration. We discovered that wordless picture books and the visual treat of any detailed image would include both children with very low language proficiency and confident readers who want something new.
The lists on StoryWeaver allowed me to modify the reading programme in the third year, making the entire programme much more accessible. In the first year, the feedback I received from the librarians indicated that a huge majority of older students did not want to read fiction. Working with non-fiction and stories that clearly reflect the world we see around us thus became important to the reading programme as we moved forward.
In groups, the librarians chose a story to work with and present in a novel way. Some took the story further, imagining what would happen next. Others analysed the story in different ways, changing the setting to their own schools. Soon, through skits and quizzes, we had Chhakuli (the lead character in the Marathi translation of A Cloud of Trash) sorting out the garbage problem in a neighbouring village. We had Anand talking to his friends about taking pride in his work, and about there being no shame in working as a rag-picker. We had questions and answers about character motivation and themes. We discussed segregation of garbage and the role each of us must play in the process.
For Mathematics, we read It’s a Laddoo Party! enjoying the repetition and humour in the tale. Working with maths stories was an intriguing idea for many, one that they could not wait to take to their classrooms.
As a quick recall activity for vocabulary, we also played a ballgame. When a ball is thrown to a participant, s/he must quickly say a word that is clearly related to one of the four stories we read. So we remembered what Neema ate, recalled characters like Peter Uncle and Mihir, and discussed seasons of the year.
What happens next?
While I work with only the librarians, the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. As the librarians do not have easy access to audio-visual equipment, working with StoryWeaver remains, for the moment, limited to schools that have computer labs with books downloaded on the systems. Children read independently – either using StoryWeaver offline or hard copies of books in the library. Eventually, I hope that infrastructural changes will allow librarians to use StoryWeaver to the fullest, including the Readalong feature and YouTube channel.
Yet, exposure to all this material has ensured multiple gains. For one, the librarians themselves have begun to read. Their purpose is clear: using stories actively in the library so as to move beyond the rather monotonous role of distributing and collecting books. Secondly, a theme-based approach allows them to look at books in their collections in a new light and create new books that then encourage reluctant readers. Thirdly, access to the same book in all three languages makes the act of reading less daunting, especially when it comes to reading in a language that is not one’s mother tongue or first language.
And finally, feedback from the reading programme team at D-Mart is promising. Librarians and programme managers assure me that children now enjoy the books tremendously, and isn’t that the greatest victory of all?
The more workshops I conduct, the more I realise how much I learn from them and enjoy them. The last workshop post was about a guest at the Writers’ Club, but a lot has happened since then.
At the Writers’ Club, I am constantly struck by the role experience plays in the way I organise my sessions. For at least the last three years, in an attempt to get children to explore different genres of writing, I also push them to explore all kinds of stories when it comes to reading. To do that, I choose a theme for each month, and the theme for the first month was adventure. When I corrected their notebooks, look at the lovely surprise that awaited me!
The girl who reviewed it picked up a copy from the library. Unfortunately, the book is currently unavailable, which is why I haven’t linked it here.
Omkar CBSE School
A workshop on grammar can either be dull or great fun. Yes, I do love grammar. I think it’s exciting, and teaching it can be enjoyable. This one at Omkar was, happily, the second.
Working with Ratna Sagar’s Grammar Plus series made for a light-hearted and hands-on workshop because the books are full of grammar games and enrichment activities that make the teaching of grammar a natural process rather than a series of rules and exceptions!
My writers’ club at Books Meridian is progressing well too. I was sceptical about how it would turn out because this is a club completely organised by parents. There are just five children in all, which could become a drag, but all five are so enthusiastic and eager that I enjoy each session with them. For the September session, we worked with cryptograms, lipograms, pangrams and more. We’ve been working on poetry for a long time – we’ll move to stories next month!
A creative writing workshop with the students at Villa Theresa in Mumbai was everything it promised to be: engaging, interactive and rewarding. I was a little daunted by the idea of interacting with classes VIII, IX and X together, but it turned out to be exciting, despite the large numbers. We worked with language, explored character and discussed technique. An hour is never enough, but it was lovely, nonetheless.
I love inviting people to talk to my Writers’ Club – I think a new person brings a new kind of energy. With this being my fifth year with the Writers’ Club at St. Mary’s, I’ve started planning my sessions better, and involving previous batches each time we do something new and different.
Yesterday, I invited Samiksha Deshpande, an ex-Writers’ Club student, to talk to the girls. She was part of my very first Writers’ Club batch and wrote two stories for our sesquicentennial collection, Flickering Flames. More recently, her poem was one of the nine winners of the Book Trotters Club #SummerWriting2019 competition, which received 93 entries.
Samiksha chose to do a session on limericks. I love working with limericks, so I was delighted when she chose that as her topic!
I sat at the back of the class for a large part of the session, interfering only later to work with the girls on meter and rhythm. I loved Samiksha’s systematic approach, the amount of time she took explaining each section and the method she adopted to ensure that the girls understood what a limerick involves.
Older students working with younger ones is always lovely; I think everyone gains something from the experience. Last year, students from class X made big books for the prep school library, and I invited two of them to address the Writers’ Club.
A creative writing student from Lancaster did an activity with the girls last year (I wonder why I didn’t blog about that!), a NASA scientist spoke to them about science fiction, Ms Leela Gour Broome visited us … I love the number of new experiences I have thanks to the Writers’ Club!
I was unwell and could not stop coughing. Yet, armed with my enthusiasm (and a pill), I went for the Vidya Valley Lit Fest–and came back energised. The excitement pulsing through the school kept me going – and of course, the thoughtfulness of the team of parent volunteers in organising a mic helped!
Every time I speak to groups of children at lit fests, I realise how different one group is from another. During my three sessions with Class VI at Vidya Valley, I was struck by this yet again. One group was noisy and enthusiastic; the second was almost unbelievably good; the third was full of questions. And each session was wonderful.
‘Words and Worlds’ – that’s what my sessions were called. Working with the beautiful land of Rasphora was delightful, but we did so much more. We spoke of language itself and how we use our words to create worlds in literature.
Describing my journey as a writer, I took the children through my stories and how they’ve shaped me as a writer. As always, “The Dictionary” from my collection, The Story-Catcher, was great fun. Each batch got completely involved in the story, which, from the point of view of a storyteller, is magnificent. I love how the children listen, wide-eyed, hanging on to each word as I read letter after letter as part of the story. This time was no different!
Talking about picture books and the challenges involved in writing them was fun too, though my favourite part was introducing The Prophecy of Rasphora. We did activities around the creation of language, delighting in the sound of words and making up words of our own.
Lit fests are magical – I wish we had more of them in schools!
I’ve been resisting writing this post for ever so long because it sounds like some sort of advertising campaign. I promise it’s not. It’s just that I’ve used StoryWeaver so many times during workshops that I really wanted to share how easy it is to bring such wonderful resources into the classroom.
The first answer – it’s wonderful material that is free for use. Is that two answers already?
Considering the amount of material teachers require for class, free resources are a boon. We need them. We need to be able to share stories and ideas freely and easily.
Two, I can download and use resources from StoryWeaver offline. Many workshops I conduct are in places where the internet is patchy, to say the least. The last workshop I conducted, for instance, was at a school in Bhusawal. Earlier that day, when I was trying to check my email, I took 20 minutes to open one mail. Imagine needing that kind of time to get a page to load during class! Being able to use stories offline is excellent.
Three, I love the lists on StoryWeaver. Maybe each story in any given list is not perfect for me. Yet, having my choices narrowed down from about 15,000 available stories (and counting) is a huge advantage.
Four, each story I want to use is usually available in English, Hindi and Marathi. Particularly when I work in non-urban areas, having the same story available in multiple languages allows children – and teachers – to understand and connect ideas, and form a clearer picture of the subject of the story.
For me, this question is not even a question, but I’ve been asked it so many times that I want to address it here.
When there is a textbook, what’s the point wasting time on a story? Stories are frivolous. They’re entertaining, and perhaps useful in the larger scheme of things – like to build the habit of reading, but otherwise, they’re a waste of time. That’s the subtext of the question of why we should bring stories into class, especially while dealing with older children, who should be spending their time on “more serious” endeavours.
I’m not going to address the idea of reading in general here. I don’t think that everyone must develop the habit of reading. Sure, it would be useful as a writer if more people read, but I’m very far away from saying that your life is incomplete/unwholesome in some way if you don’t read. Sorry, I don’t feel that it is.
Yet, since time immemorial, stories have been used to teach. I don’t subscribe to the idea that learning something is the only – or even the most important – reason to read. Yet, in class, the learning element is relevant. When stories from Panchatantra to Aesop’s fables have been used for so many generations, why should the technological age be any different? Choosing the right story to use in class can do wonders. It can change the perception of theoretical ideas and convert vague concepts to ideas that are real, practical and relevant.
Importantly, stories are fun. They change moods. Don’t we all tell stories? Each child understands a story in a different way and takes something away from it. Some laugh and forget. Others learn. Still others mull over a story for days and come back with question weeks later. Stories have power.
Hundreds. I know that’s no kind of answer, but I’ve used so many stories for so many different workshops that recommending just a few is difficult. Yet, I’ll begin with the ones I used during my last workshop.
This one is a favourite. I’ve probably used it each time I’ve used StoryWeaver during a workshop. It has all the elements of a perfect story – fun illustrations, humour and lovely characters. Using it in class is an absolute delight too, for it ends with an introduction to simple machines. Which simple machines did Ammachi use? What machines do you use every day?
Savio Finds the Right Angle
Once more, the story and the illustrations go together beautifully. In each picture, I love the fun the characters seem to be having. Right angles are everywhere, if only we stop and look. This story is a lovely starting point for so much more.
This is another story that I’ve used many, many times because I love it. Whether I’m teaching literature, animals or counting, Farida Plans a Feast is perfect. I love the build-up of the plot. What could Farida be planning? I also enjoy the easy numbers – one to five – as Farida collects everything she needs for her feast.
I used just these three during my last workshop because I just wanted to introduce to the teachers the variety of stories they can access, but how can I resist the urge to recommend a few more?
- Chuchu Manthu’s Jar of Toffees – A lovely book about kindness, love and loss
- Friends Under the Summer Sun – A unique, beautiful book about friendship and identity
- I Am Not Afraid – The illustrations in this are stunning! And the story is sweet and tender
- The Best House of All – A fun introduction to different kinds of houses
- Ammachi’s Incredible Investigation – Featuring the same Ammachi as in Ammachi’s Amazing Machines, this is another delightful story about using logic and intelligence
That’s all for now, only because this will be a never-ending post if I don’t stop somewhere!
I am, of course, always on the lookout for more recommendations, so please write to me or comment here if there are exceptional books that you feel must be part of this list!
Last year, St. Mary’s School had its first lit fest, and I was delighted to be part of it. Talking to starry-eyed children is an experience like no other, and that’s why lit fests in school are special.
After addressing the children who were gathered together in the hall, we visited a few classrooms, met the girls and looked at the work they had put together. It was good fun, and I wished I had more time with each child.
In an hour, I could do no justice to 150 very different reading-related projects. Stories, 3-D projects, book reports, reviews … These girls from classes I to III had them all! (Some very honestly told me, ‘My father and I made this’ or ‘My mother did everything and I did the colouring’.)
Many of the children I met are now in my Writers’ Club, and I’m delighted to be working with them all year on their writing.
They were excited to meet me again, enthusiastically reminding me that I visited their classrooms last year, thrilled with the idea of joining the Writers’ Club.
Lit fests change children’s moods. Being immersed in literature makes children excited about reading and writing. More schools should have them!
Later this month, I will visit Vidya Valley School for their annual literature festival. I’ve been part of it twice; I can’t wait for what this year has in store for me!
Many children write poetry. Rhyme is fun, having your poem published in the school magazine is even more fun. Teachers and parents encourage children to write poetry, which is good. Of course there’s a ‘but’.
People have been writing poetry forever. Forget the ancient languages, in English alone, even those who don’t opt to study Old English begin by studying Chaucer et al, who wrote almost 700 years ago. When children write about rainy days and their favourite pets, what are they doing to make their work stand out? Why will their work be special? That’s what we work with when I conduct poetry writing workshops.
As we played with poetry, people kept popping in to ask what was happening. A Sunday afternoon at a library meant we had lots and lots of visitors.
Exasperated with the interruptions, the children finally asked me, “Why do so many people want to know what we are doing?”
“Because all of you look excited!” I replied. “If you looked bored or irritated, no one would come.”
Two of the children tried to discourage visitors by looking bored. They succeeded for about 30 seconds before they started trying out new funny poems once more.
What do I work with?
Reading and writing go together. Especially when I have a small group of children working with me, we have the space and time to share hundreds of ideas and work on them. Among other things, we work on rhyme, rhythm and form.
Rhyme and rhythm
Always learn from the masters. If you want to write in rhyming verse, read rhyming verse – lots of it. I always introduce my favourites to children – Roald Dahl, Julia Donaldson, Edward Lear … Sometimes, when I conduct a workshop at a library, other poets catch my eye too, and we read their poetry as well.
What’s the point?
The point is to avoid creating poems that rhyme but do nothing else:
Oh, I have so much honey!
Let me go to the store and buy a big jar of honey.
Do you see what I mean? The more we read, the better we can write.
Playing with different kinds of poetry is wonderful too. I turn to Shel Silverstein over and over again for experiments with form when I work with children. For one, there are wonderful downloadable poetry kits on his website – what more does anyone need? I cannot even remember the number of times I’ve used his poems. The Giving Tree is an exceptional story, but there’s so much more to his work, which is lovely.
Helping children write different kinds of poetry allows all me to explore what is poetic over and over again. Yesterday, we worked with epigrams, concrete poetry, non-rhyming poetry and more, and kept exploring why some epigrams sound like statements, almost scientific, while others are poetic.
Understanding, in whatever way, that elusive quality – “poetic” – I suppose that’s what my poetry workshops seek to explore.
Other poetry workshops
Stories are magical; we all know that. What is even more magical is when you can feel creative energy pulsing all around you and then see those ideas transforming into stories.
Creative Writing with Children
Yesterday, at The Story Station, I met a group of enthusiastic young children, bursting with ideas. One boy had made a list of ideas that he wanted to develop into stories. And as a writing exercise, he came up with a portal to Legoland!
A six-year-old told me she wants to write scary stories. Her first story was about Nina and the monster under her bed. The second was about falling through a wall into a place where it was Halloween! Terrified of a skeleton there, she ran back through the wall to safety.
Yes, she is six (okay, six and a half, she would insist) years old, and yes, she wrote it right there in front of me during my workshop.
Creative writing workshops are the most rewarding ones in so many ways. The range of stories children come up with in fifteen minutes is awe-inspiring. As a writer, it reminds me to get my act together and get writing. How can I complain that I’m short of ideas when children have a hundred ideas overflowing from them?
Teaching Literature: A Workshop with English Teachers
Last week, I also worked with a set of English teachers, and that was simply lovely too. As we tried to create a story together, I realised once more the power of the words, ‘Then, what happened?’ It’s such a lovely way to get a story moving!
From approaches to teaching literature to the joy of language learning, we explored so much, that I came away feeling refreshed!
Other workshops I’ve conducted at The Story Station
- Creative writing workshop, July 2017
- Creative writing, March 2019
- Exploring The Prophecy of Rasphora, April 2019
A few more language and literature workshops
It’s always fun to do workshops when I don’t have to organise them! Last week, I conducted a fun workshop at The King’s School in Goa. We worked with critical thinking – something that is close to my heart also because I taught Theory of Knowledge and enjoyed it so much.
Lots of people ask me what a critical thinking workshop involves. For me, it involves understanding our prejudices and assumptions. Of course we need to make assumptions all the time. But perhaps we could look at the ways in which we jump to conclusions, what fallacies creep in, and how everything we know and think is shaped by more factors than we can count.
An interesting assumption that cropped up during this workshop, for instance, was that almost everyone in the room assumed the store owner in a tiny written exercise we discussed was male!
I’m travelling to Chandrapur and Akola next week to do some workshops, and I’ve been invited to do a creative writing session for a bunch of children next weekend. I’m also looking forward to sessions with a group of young writers at The Story Station, and of course, the next batch of my Writers’ Club at St. Mary’s!
So often, I come across posts that talk about how lit fests are a waste of time for authors, and how lit fests exclude rather than include. For me, though, lit fests remain unadulterated fun. Does this have something to do with being a children’s writer, perhaps?
The Lit Bug Fest, Pune’s own lit fest, is in its fourth year, and I have been involved with it for the last three years. I love everything about it – the anticipation, the fest itself, and then, the high I’m left with for a few days after.
Writing about the day helps me relive it and remember. Here are my posts about the fest last year and the year before that:
What I did this year:
A Marathi Play
My day began with a Marathi play presented by students from classes V and VI. Honestly, when I sat down to watch, I did not expect to enjoy it much. It was a school production, how entertaining could it be? I don’t know if it’s just me, but sometimes, amateur performances are so over the top, that I’m embarrassed just watching them.
This one came as a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed how music was used, and I found myself chuckling more than once. It was a nice start to a day of stories!
A Dance Performance
Since the Lit Bug Fest in 2017, I have been meaning to watch Nikhil Parmar and Meghna Rao perform. Somehow, though, the timing has never suited me. Even this time, I could stay for only two of their three pieces, but how enjoyable they were!
The theme of this year’s Lit Bug Fest was languages, and the session was an exploration of the language of dance. The first piece Meghna and Nikhil performed told the famous story of the snake Kaliya, and Krishna’s triumph over it. The language of Kathak, together with the words, was lovely.
The second piece was based on a poem by Gulzar. A gentle, evocative rendition, Meghna performed through dance what Nikhil presented through vaachika abhinaya – words. I wish I could have stayed for the third piece too, but it was time to prepare for my own event – exploring the prophecy of Rasphora.
The Prophecy of Rasphora
With an enthusiastic audience, only too willing to participate, I had a wonderful time exploring language through The Prophecy of Rasphora. We played games around language, trying to create words in a brand-new language, Rasphoran. What words would you choose to translate? What words do you love?
The children (and adults) came up with words for life, love, thank you, mirror, hello, waterfall, painting … I loved it!
I did feel bad, though, that so much of my session depended on a handout. I had a visually impaired person in the audience, and such a strong focus on graphic material was not a good idea. I will do better next time.
A Multi-Lingual Storytelling Session
I took a long break after my session, for the loveliest reason of all – book signing! As usual, though, I took no pictures, but my heart is warm with the images in my head.
Immediately after the break, I attended Vaishali Kulkarni’s storytelling session. I was left wide-eyed with admiration. She gave the audience imaginary remote controls that would make her switch from Hindi to English to Marathi, at random! Her story was animated, fun and full of laughter, but what impressed me most was her skill with language. During this session, she did not speak Tamil, but she had a Tamil storytelling session later in the day – she is incredible!
Sanskrit Interactive Storytelling
The last session I attended at the Lit Bug Fest was another delightful one. Vinayak Walankar, the storyteller, told his tale entirely in Sanskrit, and the audience – most of which did not know the language – was enthralled. Fun activities, a dramatic story about a family whose wishes go awry, numbers, gestures … We were laughing almost throughout. What impressed me most was that no words from other languages slipped in, or at least, none that I noticed. It was lovely!
I left shortly after this session – with three performances next week, I cannot afford to skip a rehearsal. I’m sure the Lit Bug Fest will be back next year with more!
Last month, The Story Station invited me to interact with a group of young writers. I spoke about my journey as a writer and conducted an activity based on my latest middle-grade novel, The Prophecy of Rasphora.
A little about the book …
Three young girls stumble upon Rasphora, a land behind a waterfall. There, they begin to teach Rasphorans the languages they know, and slowly, they pick up the Rasphoran language and are soon speaking like natives.
Where the story led …
When Vaishali, founder of the Story Station, told me that the theme of this year’s Lit Bug Fest would be language, things clicked into place instantly. My focus, through Rasphora, is language, and the activities I conduct around it are all based on language. In many ways, language is central to the story – ideas are lost because of a dying language, and language becomes a pathway to a new world.
And so, naturally, I’m delighted to be bringing Rasphora to the Lit Bug Fest tomorrow! I’m going to be doing an activity around creating a new language, words we love, and deciphering scripts.
Venue: Yashada, Baner Road
Date: 20th April 2019
Time: 10 am to 7 pm
Ticket rate: Rs. 500 per head
Here’s the whole schedule of the Lit Bug Fest. There’s a wonderful line-up of storytellers who will be presenting tales in multiple languages. It promises to be exciting!
Book your tickets …
- Google pay – kshirsagarishan@okhdfcbank
- PayTM (Ishan Kshirsagar) – 9730190090 (Ishan Kshirsagar is the Co-Founder of The Lit Bug Fest.)
Carry a screenshot of the payment made when you come to the event on 20th April 2019.
Explore videos, photos and more on the Facebook page of The Lit Bug Fest 2019.
The Pen to Paper competition was a nationwide search for young writers, organised by Edupeer and ICICI Lombard. It received about 10,000 entries! These were narrowed down to 2,000 and 1,000 and then, finally, the top 150 writers from all over the country were selected to receive training from an author.
When FunOKPlease contacted me to ask whether I would be willing to facilitate the Pune chapter of the workshop, I hesitated. I don’t usually work with non-fiction; I find fiction more engaging, more fun.
Yet, I was intrigued. I do enjoy workshops with children who don’t yet know one another. When people get to know one another through the course of an afternoon, it’s exciting!
And this workshop was no different. Eleven teenagers got together and shared stories. We spoke of pranks, humour, mystery and poetry.
We asked ourselves crucial questions: What is the purpose of art? Are there rules art must follow? What happens if we break these rules?
Writing is full of contradictions!
I spoke of writing what we know – not setting stories in San Francisco and Philadelphia for no reason. But I also spoke of Toni Morrison’s advice to young writers – write what you don’t know.
We discussed the seven major themes of literature and finally came to the most important idea of all – finding your own voice, for that is what makes your writing unique.
The 150 writers then sat down to write fresh pieces. The top 20 will be published in a special volume by FunOKPlease!
The Lit Bug Fest, an annual literary fest for children that will be held at Yashada on the 20th of April.
I love ‘what ifs’.
- What if there’s another me on the other side of the mirror?
- What if a half-boy-half-deer wanted to fit in?
- What if someone experimented with smells and could create them?
- What if an old Bajaj scooter began to fly?
These were some of the what-ifs that inspired the stories in The Story-Catcher. What-ifs can go anywhere. We don’t need to rein them in and pull them back.
And so, during creative writing workshops, I love to see where they can take us. Here’s what a few children came up with yesterday.
I love ‘What if all my what ifs came true’! What’s your favourite?
The children then went on to write poems called ‘What if’, which were delightful. They played with opposites and humour, as well as beauty.
What if a boy could become a girl?
What if a speck of dust was as precious as a pearl?
Aren’t ideas magical?
The Lit Bug Fest, an annual literary fest for children that will be held at Yashada on the 20th of April.
What’s better than a creative writing workshop with enthusiastic children?
Two creative writing workshops with enthusiastic children!
On Saturday, I did a workshop at Meridian Kids Club for the first time. New place, new children – it’s always fun! An activity I love is creating monsters together, and this time was no different.
We played a game during which the children came up with a huge greenish monster with twenty heads, a hundred eyes, one tooth, no noses and just one foot. The interesting thing about this monster, though, was that he was ugly and good. He would clean up the world. Good and ugly was a wonderful combination, and I’m glad it came up. (I’ve written earlier about attempting to investigate why all the monsters children create at my workshops are black and fairies are blond.)
I asked the children to create the monster’s enemy too, for conflict is central to a story, and that led to a lovely discussion. There were 11 children there – six girls and five boys – but all the monsters, good and bad, were male. Not one female monster, except as the “monster’s wife”. How could I let this pass?
One thing led to another, and we had a fun workshop, full of laughter and imagination.
Here are a couple of other times that I worked with monsters, and what came of them:
On Sunday, I did a workshop at a place I love, The Story Station.
As always, the group was dynamic and excited, and we did many different things, including a brand-new activity based on my book, The Prophecy of Rasphora. I’ll share the activity on my blog as soon as the book is easily available for purchase.
Making up new words, imagining what made-up words could mean, and talking about words we love … What did I learn? I learned about how favourite words change all the time. While my favourite words include ‘enchant’, ‘chuckle’ and ‘magic’, the children came up with ‘lol’, ‘hangry’, ‘ttyl’, ‘awemazing’ …
Keeping up with the times is hard, and I’m just in my 30s!
Another year at the Writers’ Club has come to an end, and what a wonderful session we had to bring a creative year of stories to an end!
We began, as always, with an announcement of the winners of this year’s Writers’ Club competition. Competitions are such fun! They create a mood of anticipation and celebration, which ensures that the energy stays high throughout the session.
As before, two girls from a previous batch evaluated the entries, for I feel that learning to critique work is an important part of growing as a writer. Their responses and comments were heart-warming, as they paid attention to detail and identified why they liked what they liked.
The highlight of the session, though, was our special guest, Dr Sreeja Nag, dear friend, ex-student of St. Mary’s and research engineer at NASA. She was wonderful, warm and expressive, and we had a lovely hour with her.
“Do aliens exist?” one girl asked.
“If I wanted to make a joke, I would say that I’m not allowed to tell you.”
“What should I do if I get stranded on a planet?”
After patiently answering the question, Sreeja said, “I suggest you don’t get stranded on a planet, though. It won’t be fun.”
From telling us about the role of a bullock cart in a rocket launch to talking about different forms of science fiction, I think the loveliest thing about the session was her emphasis on story. Stories inspire us. Stories spark interest. “Imagine.” I can’t remember the number of times Sreeja used that word.
Imagine that a star fifty light years away emits light now. You’ll get light from that star only after fifty years go by.
Imagine something that defies vision.
Imagine living in a world where people did what computers now do.
“If I want to write a story about aliens, how can I make it believable?”
“If I want to write about humans meeting aliens, how could I do that?”
“How big is a space shuttle?”
“What happens inside a black hole?”
“What about the unidentified radio wave that we heard about? Was that an alien?”
We talked about the details of setting a story in a place without gravity. Tears would not fall. If you washed your hair, it would not fall neatly down your shoulders.
“If you want to write science fiction, set it really far away – in space or in time. Then, you don’t need to deal with questions of credibility. And write about women in science. Write about girls in science in India. We need these stories.”
Thank you for coming to the Writers’ Cub, Sreeja. We’re waiting for more stories that fill us with wonder.
Adults love data. They love graphs and statistics and numbers. During workshops with adults, the moment I put up a graph, I have everyone’s attention as if I’m finally saying something ‘real’.
And that’s why I started working with real-time polls through Mentimeter. I show my audience a question and all those with smart phones (usually nearly everyone in the room) vote. And they see numbers, which makes everyone happy.
Question One: What do you read most often?
For this question, I allow participants to choose more than one option. This helps them feel comfortable, not pinned down to choosing one and being ‘wrong’.
I give them four options:
- Blue – Newspapers, magazines, etc.
- Yellow – Facebook/WhatsApp posts
- Green – Storybooks
- Red – Other
As you can see, there’s nothing really, solidly conclusive about this. Yet, on the whole, have a look at this graph, which combines the results.
So, after this, it’s time to go to the next question.
Question Two: Why do you read?
For this question, I allow them to choose just one option. Once more, we have four options:
- Blue – To gain knowledge
- Yellow – For entertainment
- Green – To improve language skills
- Red – Other
Here’s a look at the combined data for this question.
We do have a small discussion, allowing participants to change their minds. But most don’t want to. They feel that gaining knowledge and improving language skills are proper reasons to read.
So, where do we go from here?
I then go on to ask the adults if they want children to read. As an answer to this question, I always hear a unanimous ‘yes’. Everyone wants children to read.
Why? The reasons are so clear above, aren’t they? They’ll gain knowledge! Their vocabulary will improve! Sentence structure will improve! Wasn’t this what the whole polling activity led to?
Yes and no.
My point is simple. Children go to school. They usually go for a thousand classes after that – drawing class, singing class, tuition, skating, yoga … Each day of the week is devoted to something.
What do we tell children about why they should read? The graphs above show that gaining knowledge and improving language skills are the reasons that win hands down.
After school, dance class, guitar class, badminton class and all the rest, does a child really want to learn more? Does a child want more ‘improvement’?
And that’s why the reason to read needs to change if we honestly want children to read. If you read only to learn, you make the link ‘Reading = Studying’. If reading=studying, I don’t want to spend my spare time reading, sorry.
But if reading equals entertainment … There’s something to think about.
Setting an example
The reason is as important as, if not more important than, the activity. Do you read? What do you read? Why do you read? When children learn by imitation, why would reading be any different?
If you read, they read.
If you read for pleasure, they read for pleasure.
If you don’t have time to read because you don’t make time to read, they don’t have time to read because evidently it’s not important enough to make time for it.
It’s as simple as that.
Do we need graphs to prove that? Only if we don’t already read for the joy of it.
Sometimes, I wonder whether secretly, I conduct creative writing workshops more to inspire myself than to inspire the children I work with. Whatever it is, I do know that I enjoy myself tremendously whenever I teach creative writing. I feed off the enthusiasm of the children and I come home ready to write, which is invigorating.
Children and Writing
Many children love to write. I was one of them, and I wrote all kinds of things, mainly inspired by what I read. I wrote about magic and school, and things that I thought would be moving – like earnest poetry about war and poverty. Writing is fun; it may even be good. But when publishing is so easy, I find that many parents and teachers think everything that children write is perfect. I don’t always agree. Here are my pet peeves:
I suddenly have a lot of money
I think I'll go to the store and buy a jar of honey.
Oh, isn't it funny?
My favourite pet is a bunny!
You get the picture. Rhyme without meter, plus rhyme that compromises meaning. Many children write poetry that rhymes but does not really make sense.
The plot gets complicated, convoluted, textured, rich … And it was all a dream.
This is the most annoying and the most common of all, with children and adults. Why do we do it? Because that’s the easiest way to end the story, right?
I woke up in the morning. Then, I brushed my teeth. Then, I went to school, but my best friend was absent. I was so sad! But I had so much fun in class that I forgot she was absent. When I went home, I said, "Oh, my best friend was absent. I missed her so much!"
There are various forms that this story takes, prime among them being the endless ‘and then this happened, and then this happened and then this happened’.
I know that everyone won’t agree with me here, but one thing that gets to me is the moral of the story, explicitly written out. Everything ends with a moral. Often, the moral is completely unrelated to the story.
Creative Writing Workshops
Through creative writing workshops and of course through my Writers’ Club, we work on these ideas. At the beginning of each year, I ask the children to answer three questions:
- Why do I write?
- What do I want the reader to feel when I write?
- What do I need to do to keep the interest of the reader?
This is a great starting point, I find. And from there, we come to other activities.
I’ve written earlier about Fortunately-Unfortunately – the game and the book. I came across the activity through a wonderful resource book, Creating Stories with Children.
I cannot recommend this book enough; it’s a treasure trove of activities.
After I started conducting this activity during workshops, I came across Michael Foreman’s brilliant picture book with the same name. It’s a delightful book, which works with children of all ages, depending on how you choose to read it out.
On Goodreads, I also came across another book called Fortunately by Remy Charlip. I haven’t read this one, but if all the reviews are anything to go by, it’s a promising book that would work just as well.
Writing a letter
Very often, I conduct workshops at libraries, where letter-writing in this way works beautifully. I begin with a story of my own, from The Story-Catcher. Here’s a reading-cum-telling of the story.
I then ask the children to write letters of their own, which they quietly put into their favourite book in the library. If the librarian is enthusiastic enough, I ask her/him to keep the letters going. Other readers respond; the act of writing goes wonderfully with the joy of discovery.
Here are a few links to how it has worked in the past:
- An activity conducted by a colleague based on “The Dictionary”
- The Story-Station
- The Writers’ Club at St. Mary’s
With older children, I like to open up the understanding of poetry with a video like this one.
Who doesn’t love freebies? To work with poetry, I absolutely love Shel Silverstein’s website. It’s full of printables that you can use with his poetry. Especially to tackle the problem of forced rhyme, I introduce children to different forms of poetry. Explore his website to find activities to print and use.
That’s just a handful of ideas; what would you add?
Many, many parents ask me what a reading workshop is. What happens during a reading workshop? Who should attend a reading workshop and why? What will the outcome of a reading workshop be? This post tries to explain all that.
What children read and why
Often, at reading workshops I conduct, we talk about books we love. I’m not very fond of the question ‘What is your favourite book?’ because I think it is impossible to have a favourite book. I do realise, however, that it’s a promising start to a conversation, plus a way for me to get an idea of the interest and reading level of the group I’m working with.
“What do you read?” I ask, attempting to be neutral in my question. I don’t ask them how many enjoy reading because that feels like a trick question. They are already conditioned enough to know they are “supposed” to like reading. The question has to feel less threatening; What do you read? usually works.
When I’m dealing with children whose linguistic level matches their emotional level, I learn about all kinds of books that children enjoy. It’s thanks to children that I discovered Geronimo Stilton, Tom Gates, Dork Diaries, and so many others.
With many other groups, though, listening and speaking happen in one language, while reading and writing happen in another. Often, children aged 12 and 13 study in an English-medium school but have no command over the language, as a result of which what they read is poles apart from what I would call enjoyable fiction.
“William Shakespeare is my favourite author,” twelve-year-olds tell me. “And Charles Dickens.”
I hear all these. Children apparently like Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy … Because that’s what they think I want to hear. I wrote about this in an earlier post when I spoke about adult expectation.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are wonderfully naive children, who are not inhibited by expectation. Aged 11 and 12, they comfortably and confidently tell me that the last book they read was Cinderella.
What does a reading workshop do?
A reading workshop tries to bring back the fun element of reading. Why do we read? Sure, Geronimo Stilton may be my favourite character ever, but when I’m struggling with hormones aged 15 or 16, do I want to continue reading about the adventures of mice? Is it not more likely that I will give up reading altogether?
Reading workshops seek to introduce children to books they will love, books they get completely immersed in. This is much more difficult than it sounds, the older children get. When reading is difficult and time-consuming, developing the habit is a huge investment of precious time, when children would rather dance, play football, watch television …
(And this is okay. It is something I’ll write about in another post. There are many adults who hardly read at all as children. Does that make them “less” in any way? I don’t think so!)
Who should/could attend a reading workshop?
A workshop addresses all kinds of children: those who don’t know what to read, and those who love reading.
Those who have never read for pleasure, and those who read only for pleasure.
Those who are surrounded by readers in daily life, and those who have no one to talk to about the last book they loved.
Longer reading workshops give children the space to read and do activities together. They help children share ideas of reading and often, children often take the next step themselves–they create books and charts of their own.
A workshop is a tiny step, though, if we want reluctant readers to read for pleasure. To fall in love, we need a long-term relationship first, and that’s why workshops with parents and teachers are crucial too. They are the ones who can build those relationships and ensure that children have the time to read.
When is the next workshop?
Do you still have questions? Write to me, or leave a comment here!
The Writers’ Club at St. Mary’s School meets only twice a week, so World Read Aloud Day sometimes becomes Writers’ Club Read Aloud Day, but so what? I celebrated it for the first time last year and it was so much fun that I did it again this year.
This time, children came forward and read work of their own, which was heart-warming. Others read out poetry, including a hilarious poem by Ruskin Bond. Still others read scenes that moved them – excerpts from Train to Pakistan, from Good Wives, and from Wonder.
Yet, as the girls came forward to read, I realised that many had no idea what to pick. One child in class IV chose an excerpt from an abridged version of King Lear. She struggled with Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and Albany. Aged nine, who wouldn’t?
Another child chose to read a section from an encyclopedia. She read fact after fact, stumbling over all the figures and words.
Why does this happen? Why do children choose to read something they find difficult?
For one, in the case of many children, one of the effects of colonisation and the value of English is that their linguistic level does not match their emotional level. This means that aged ten and eleven, they read Noddy, which they do not enjoy, but struggle to read texts that their peers are reading. Many feel that it is better to be seen struggling to read a difficult text – say King Lear – than an easy one.
Secondly, the idea of expectation. What do the adults in their lives expect them to read? Something erudite, surely. Something educational and useful, not Wimpy Kid or ‘something with too many pictures’. (I do hear adults saying that, by the way.) If that is the case, then the best choice would be to read an encyclopedia on World Read Aloud Day!
Thirdly, when children hardly read for pleasure, they honestly do not know what they can read. They look around, pick up books that they think would not be too shameful, and they read.
And that’s what leads me to the saddest thing of all – the number of children who associate reading with shame. Shame is learned behaviour, which brings me to how we pick books so that reading stays associated with pleasure rather than shame.
How do you choose a book for a child?
My first answer would be ‘Don’t’. Let the child choose. If you face a situation where a child is shamed into choosing appropriate books, here are two broad guidelines that help.
One: I PICK
P – Purpose (Why are you reading this book? To impress the teacher?)
I – Interest (Do I really like fantasy? Or do I feel I ‘ought’ to read fantasy?)
C – Comprehend (Do I understand the subject? Have I picked up a book on quantum physics because I think my teacher/parent will be wowed?)
K – Know (Do I know most of the words?)
Two: The Five-Finger Rule
When a child chooses a book, s/he could open it at random and begin to read. As s/he reads, s/he should hold up one finger for each word s/he does not know.
If there’s just one word s/he doesn’t know, the book is probably too simple.*
If there are two words s/he does not know, the book is probably still too simple.
Three words? A perfect read.
Four words on a single page that s/he does not know? Perhaps too difficult, but for a child who likes a challenge, it could work.
Five or more words? It is very likely that the child will not finish reading the book, and this is more than a little demotivating.
*This does not mean the child should not read it! I am an adult who reads picture books and chapter books where I know every word. Children, however, are often quick to judge something as kiddish, which is why a simple book may not work. If they pick the book themselves, let’s not be judgmental.
Though I remember having read these ideas before, a refresher came from the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2017, at a session on reading conducted by Elaine Fong.
Those are just two ways that I talk about at workshops I conduct. If you have more, please do feel free to share them, or links to them, here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to compile resources that we can all use.
Finally, here’s what I did for World Read Aloud Day!
During the first two weeks of the year, I made lists of books I loved, and more than once, I found myself writing about how reading levels differ so much that it is difficult to associate a level with an age. Thinking about all of this, I decided write about a reading programme I’ve been working with for a couple of years now.
Two years ago, I was approached by Experiential Learning Solutions and asked whether I would design a reading programme that can be administered effectively by a group of librarians in municipal schools. As a CSR initiative, D-Mart had invested in eleven libraries for schools and eleven librarians, but they wanted to go beyond that. They wanted to ensure the success of their library programme in the form of children taking a step towards reading.
What could we do to get children to read? How could we surmount huge obstacles, including the indifference of teachers and irregularity of students?
I put together a structure and we began work. That’s when I came across obstacles that I knew existed, but had never really encountered myself because we do all live in our little bubbles.
A few of the problems we addressed …
One, children come from multiple backgrounds. For instance, in a predominantly Hindi-speaking area, children attend a school where the medium of instruction is Marathi. “In my class of forty, in a Marathi medium school, only five children speak Marathi,” one librarian said to me.
Two, every class has widely different reading levels. “The children who have been with us for some time are okay, on the whole, but new children come in all the time. And if a child is ten years old, he is put into class five, even if he has not even learnt the alphabet yet!”
Three, some schools have different languages of instructions running at the same time. “My first period is with Hindi-medium children, then semi-English, then Marathi, then Hindi again. Each week, I have Urdu-medium, English-medium, Hindi-medium and Marathi-medium children coming to the library!”
One by one, we’ve attempted to work with these issues. In the very last session I conducted, we did lots of fun things and my moment of joy was when one of the librarians told me, “We can conduct every single activity we did today! For the first time, I feel confident that there will be 100% response!”
That’s what got me thinking about sharing resources. There are so many people working towards the same things that resources are abundant, but scattered. As I write, I’ll add links to other activities here.
Making the alphabet fun
The wonky alphabet
At the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in 2016, I attended a session conducted by the wonderful Craig Smith on using music in learning. It made such a powerful impression on me that I’ve been working with music in English language teaching ever since. Music is fun, catchy and easy to learn, so why don’t we use it more?
I love Wonky Donkey, and when Craig Smith took it further, he made the wonky alphabet because the wonky donkey would, of course, sing everything a little wonky. I came across this video and used it in the workshop.
Using this to teach reading
Why is the alphabet difficult? The biggest problem with letter recognition among older children is that they are too embarrassed to admit they cannot read. In a class where some children can read stories by themselves, how can I say that I cannot even recognise letters?
The zigzag alphabet allows for wonderful inclusive learning that helps with letter recognition. Write the zigzag alphabet on the board, and get children to sing along. Instead of learning by heart, they’re pushed to read for themselves.
Letter by letter
This is an activity that I adapted from Henk van Oort’s Challenging Children, an absolutely wonderful book that is full of activities for every level of reader.
From the first step of letter recognition, we need to move to words and spelling. What is the traditional method? Make children write the word ten times. The rationale here is to get children to practise, plus to get children to spend time on the word and learn it well.
During the workshop, we worked with words in Hindi and Marathi, but let’s look at an example in English here.
I call two children forward. Child A gives Child B a five-letter word. Now, Child B has to act the word out letter by letter and as the class guesses, we put the word on the board.
For example, Child B gets the word ‘table’.
She acts out:
T – tea (miming the drinking of tea)
A – apple (plucking and eating an apple)
B – ball (bouncing and catching)
L – leg (pointing it out)
E – elephant (miming the trunk and ears)
In this way, the process of spelling a word slows down, plus children work with six words and not just one.
These are just two of the activities I conducted. As and when I have the time, I will keep adding resources to this list. If you have others, please comment with links, ideas and more resources!
Aren’t lit fests delightful? Last week, I was invited to St. Mary’s School’s first lit fest, and it was lovely. We walked into books like this one …
And we had a panel discussion where we spoke about stories, poems, writing, dancing and music. We then visited classrooms and saw the work the children had put together through the course of the year – book reviews, poetry, charts, models …
And we saw eight big books that the tenth standard girls had made for the prep school children. I saw those books and knew I had to share them with my Writers’ Club, so I invited Remanika and Riya to talk to the girls and share their books with us.
Here’s one of our favourites – Mr Banana Climbs a Tree.
Mr Banana wants to meet a lady bird, who lives on top of a tree. He begins to climb, but there are all kinds of obstacles – bats, a noisy crow and monkeys.
The monkeys are the worst of all! Up and up and up Mr Banana climbs, surmounting obstacle after obstacle. But when a branch breaks, he decides to meet his friend another day.
Written (mostly) in verse, I loved the repetition and rhyme in the book. At the end, I asked the girls who felt this was the best book of all, “Do you think the ending is happy?”
“Erm … It’s funny,” replied Aditi.
“But not happy?”
Well, I thought it was happy – Mr Banana didn’t get eaten by the monkeys. That’s happy enough, isn’t it?
We spoke about how wonderful it is that we can be made to empathise with the simplest of characters – like Mr Banana.
The next book had two short stories, featuring the school’s dogs, Coffee and Coco. Notice the detail – a paw-print on each page!
Thea Saviour Princess was another sweet story. I loved it because the princess saves herself and her kingdom in this one! And there are no princes involved at all.
There was one on space, one on incredible India, and one about Nicki and Nikhil, which was a sensitive story about a child who feels neglected when his baby sister is born.
But everyone’s favourite story was one about pizza!
Oliver and Olivia go to Papa Tony’s and learn how to make a pizza. What’s the best part? The toppings, of course! Look at the huge pizza that stands up. There are bits of velcro on it for you to paste your toppings. Isn’t that just delightful?
Each of the books is handmade, full of colour, texture, pop-ups … I’m much, much older than the target audience of those books, but who cares? I loved them!
I just skimmed through yet another article about how, growing up, we associated ‘white people doing white things’ with ‘people doing people things‘. This is an idea that I have to confront all the time, for racism is everywhere.
It has forms that we unwillingly perpetuate too. For instance, I have an Indian friend who is studying in the US, and she is not working on South Asian writers. This is something she repeatedly has to defend.
“Why don’t you work on your own culture?” everyone asks.
In the beginning, this is a seemingly harmless question. In fact, it is a relevant question, even an important one, when we look at representation and diversity. Yet, very soon, this begins, insidiously, to translate into the idea that brown people must write about brown people.
Must I write about my own culture? How is this a duty that I must fulfil while western writers may write fantasy where the prime purpose is the story itself and not representation?
Yes, I know I am not saying anything new here. Yet, this is something that I constantly battle with, especially when I’m working with children.
At my Writers’ Club, I often tread the fine line between encouraging children to set their stories in India and forcing them to set their stories in India. Here’s the kind of story I usually get right through the year.
For a recent writing assignment, I asked them to set their stories anywhere in their school. That yielded interesting results.
More often than not, I still had Laura, Grace and Jess attending school, discovering a portal and going to a different world. Else, there were blue-eyed girls and red-haired ones, who became enemies.
The problem, of course, is that we can always justify our ideas. For instance, who says Laura, Grace and Jess aren’t Indian? Also, why can’t we have foreigners in our school? And how am I to argue with a story where Roxanne with peach skin and rose-red lips has to fight disgusting Dharmsur?
I've written more than my fair share of western stories too. I wrote about Amelia Jane and 'dames' when I was eight years old. As I grew older, I had stories where the forest had a maple tree and an oak tree. These later became a banana tree and a cashew tree, but when I made the change, I felt that the new trees were somehow less exciting.
The other thing I do is to invite children to read Indian fiction. That is one of the ways forward, isn’t it? However, anyone who has tried to get children to read something they don’t want to read knows what this involves. They virtuously read Sudha Murthy and Ruskin Bond — because what else exists, right?
It’s an uphill task, but I love how it makes me question myself, my agendas and my writing. Also, I just received a story I’m waiting to read. It’s called ‘Chaos at the Charminar’. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? I also read a lovely play set in a fictional Indian museum, where, for once, a Harappan artefact was stolen, instead of an Egyptian one.
My next step at the Writers’ Club? To investigate why all their monsters are black and all their fairies are blond.
Two weeks ago, I asked the children at my Writers’ Club whether they would like to make readers laugh or cry. Three girls said they wanted to make readers laugh. 12 said they wanted to make readers cry. When a few said they would like to do both, those who had already raised their hands dithered.
Finally, though, most agreed that making readers cry was more important. This was both surprising and not.
Funny books that sparkle with humour are wonderful. Yet, I do know that the books that stay with me are books that make me cry. The best ones do both. I then asked the children what makes them cry in books.
These were difficult conversations, by the way, and I was warmed by how much the girls opened up. A 12-year-old is not always comfortable talking about crying in front of a 9-year-old. The fact that they did – and passionately – was lovely.
They spoke of happy moments making them cry and tragic moments too. And then, we started naming books about war, love and all the contradictions involved in being human.
“I don’t want to read only superb books that make me cry,” one girl confessed. This was one of the best parts of the conversation, for me. “Sometimes, I want to read other stuff, too. Those are good stories, but they’re stories that I forget about soon because they are too … light!”
That got me thinking about all the books I’ve been reading (and the books I’ve written, of course, but I’m not going there).
Not long ago, I read The Tigers of Taboo Valley. It was a fun book that kept surprising me with its irreverent humour. Lighthearted, crazy and surprising, I was struck by how oral storytelling tropes can be brought into such a different kind of story. I enjoyed it – and though it didn’t make me cry, ideas in the book did touch me.
Too light? Not light enough? Human beings are so unpredictable!
Then, I read The House with Chicken Legs. I was a bit wary of it because in the first few pages, it seemed as if it would have an element of horror, and I’m too much of a scaredy-cat to enjoy horror. But it didn’t. It was a warm, powerful story about a search for identity. It also addresses the most unusual friendship I’ve ever read about – the friendship between a girl and her house. I loved it!
But was that because in more than one place it brought me close to tears?
There were other books – many picture books on Storyweaver. I loved Ammachi’s Amazing Machines, I Am Not Afraid, The Elephant Bird … And every day, I read more. And I love that so often, I cannot understand that thing called ‘taste’. What kind of book do I like? I don’t know! That’s what makes art wonderful!
And art, of course, leads me to dance. We performed on Monday, and as usual, it was a performance that I know could have been better. Why I dance is so different from why I write. I rarely dance alone. The joy of dance, for me, is in the emotions that fill us up as a troupe. I love dancing with people, who become closer to me each time we perform together.
And dance is also about the range of emotions we experience as dancers. The negative elements include mockery, arrogance, greed and lust. I feel those when I play Dusshasan and Mahishasur.
And then we feel all those wonderful emotions of awe, wonder, love and peace.
At the end, there’s joy. Another performance successfully completed. All those things we could have done better, but didn’t. That leads to longing for our next performance. Together.
About three years ago, I began working on an exciting project with the National Rail Museum in New Delhi. The idea was to create stories set in and around trains in India.
It was challenging but fun. I dived into details of engines and their working in a way that I had never done before. Among other things, I needed to ensure that the story led naturally to the technical pages, while also being independent of them. In other words, a reader who was completely uninterested in technical details could still enjoy the story and cheerfully skip the technical pages.
So, I launched into intensive research. What trains could I write about? What would my characters do? How would they go on an adventure while also discovering how an electric locomotive works?
I set the first of the stories on the Duronto, a train with which I am very familiar. Among other things this is what I kept in my records – a list of technical halts.
Ultimately, my characters didn’t take this train for reasons of the plot and narrative. They took train number 12261 instead. Even so, the only thing I knew about Bhusawal (sometimes Bhusaval) was this – Chitra and Priya peered at the train time-table to see where the technical halts were and where a potential thief was likely to escape. No spoilers here, but yes, Bhusawal was a place where things could happen.
And so, when I went to Bhusawal two days ago for a workshop, I was unreasonably excited. How could I not be? It is a place that featured in my first published middle-grade story, a place that was part of the setting for an adventure of my own making … Who wouldn’t be thrilled?
It helped that the workshop was fun too, full of laughter and enthusiasm. The teachers took part in every activity right through the four hours I spent with them. Speaking, reading, writing, word puzzles … When teachers are interactive, workshops are fun!