Building Libraries

How children are learning to read books in a new way at a library just for them

Writing a book report is teaching 12-year-old Shivani to hear the voice in her head that helps her understand a story.

Chewing and swallowing without ever tasting, is that a good analogy for reading without opening oneself to meaning? Yes, the reader who reads listening to one voice – a voice sounding out syllables joined into words  strung into sentences bypassing punctuation (because punctuation is after all  where groups of words pause, allowing us to collect their meaning) is almost certainly reading in a monotone.

Or, if she is not reading in a monotone, it is because, like 12-year-old Shivani, she is reading in the sing-song tone in which she has been taught to read at her school. 

Shivani is reading from a sheet torn from her notebook; it is the text of her first ever book report. She has learned how to write a book report at The Reading Project , held twice a week at the Deepalaya Community Library in Sheikh Sarai, New Delhi.

The library is run by a group of two dozen volunteers from all walks of life. And they make the claim that the ten-by-fifteen space, formerly a classroom, from which they circulate their collection of three thousand books is the beginning of a movement. In a corner of the library room, three boxes of books are marked as the beginning of collections destined for other rooms in other neighbourhoods.

The leadership of Deepalaya is convinced: they are mobilising resources and identifying schools and communities which need community libraries, and they want to see this project spread beyond their NGO. Other volunteers will have to be found before those other libraries are up and running.

But the group at Sheikh Sarai is committed to the idea of getting books in the hands of children who are growing up without access to books. They are also convinced that it is their methods or pedagogy that will best serve these children. The library needs as many as volunteers as it does because a giant portion of volunteer energy is devoted not only to circulating books but also to reading aloud from them.

Shivani is nervous as she reads facing a camera, which is being used to record her so that other children can learn from her.

It is understandable that she has reverted to the familiar practice of sing-songing her way through reading. In fact, she knows the meaning of what she has written, and as she warms up her voice loses some of its sing-song and finds its way through many registers to express the dry and factual (My name is Shivani and I study at Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya) and the ardent, the longed for (I like to read books because they teach me about other places, countries and states, and peoples and how they live and the foods they eat). In between, she recounts the plot of the story she has read: the story of a battle between an old lady and a crow that tries to steal her roti.

Shivani’s ability to report on the book she has read is proof of her ability to hear the second voice in her head, the voice all readers access when reading for meaning. It is this second voice that interrogates the voice of the text, asking constantly of the text: but what does it mean? It is this voice that tells us not only the plot but also the purpose of the plot. At its most sophisticated, it will tell us if we will embrace or if we will loathe the argument made by the story.  It is this second voice, then, that tastes the story that was chewed and prepared to be swallowed by the first voice.

The story Shivani retells in her book report is clearly one she finds funny and entertaining.

It is not a story strung only from syllables , then words, then sentences. It is also a story filled with meaning, meaning that Shivani gathered to herself from the syllables and words by listening to the interrogative second voice in her head.

Michael Creighton is one of the volunteers who week after week reads stories out loud to Shivani and the hundred or so kids who attend the Reading Project. He describes Shivani as low hanging fruit. That is, she has already been taught how to read using the first voice. She knows how to string syllables together. He and his fellow volunteer are in the business of teaching her to access that second voice.

When Purnima Rao reads Kamla Bhasin’s Ulti Sulti Amma or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny, she demonstrates both voices to the twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds seated facing her in rows of hard classroom benches. She reads the text and interrogates the text. Her hands gesticulate, her arms sometimes flay about, her eyes warm or blaze or narrow in accompaniment with the meaning of the story.

She hits the rhymes hard in her reading, waking the room to their presence and thus to their pleasure.  Sometimes the meaning of what is read fetches laughter from the room. Heads shake in rebuttal when a reading provokes disagreement. Some readings provoke arguments: should Putul have saved the dolphins when they were needed as food in her family?

The books that Rao chooses to read aloud are always lavishly illustrated and she always holds them open to the room as she performs the rather acrobatic trick of reading text that is faced away from her. The fourteen-year olds know these books are meant for younger children, but without having to articulate it, there is an understanding in the room that the meaning within belongs to everyone.

As readers, the children learn from Rao and her colleagues to think as they read not only about what has just happened in the story, and not only about what might yet happen in the story, but also about what is happening in their lives. If the ulti sulti amma in the story they have read is likeable or unlikable for being exactly like or completely unlike their mother, what does that mean about who they are and what they desire from life?

No reading goes unpunctuated by the question: what do you think?

And no volunteer begins from any other premise than one which sees the children in the Reading Project as thinkers. It is just the case that very few of the children have ever been invited in their lives to bring their thinking selves to the act of reading.

Shivani’s book report has now reached the point where she tells the camera it is important to not steal. It is quite possible that if Shivani had never attended the Reading Project she would have come to the same conclusion at the end of reading this particular book. It is after all the canned conclusion – the paath or moral of the story - an unthinking reading of this book might have produced.

But in this instance, the still nervous Shivani is concluding only as she ever could. There are not too many children more earnest than Shivani in the Reading Project. It is this earnestness that has earned her a place on the Student Council, and this same earnestness brings her to the library on Saturdays where she offers, “Ma’am, Ma’am is there any work to do for the library?”

In the democratic spirit of equal thinkers, children and adults gather most Saturdays to clean and card and shelve donated books . On this Saturday Shivani finishes her book report and joins other children – Nunihar, Simpy, Sumit, Sahil, Amrita and Gungun.

They sort books, some for their library and some for those other libraries still waiting to be founded. On Monday, the library will open and volunteers and as many as a hundred children will stream in to read aloud, to listen to stories, to think about the ideas within them, to discover and taste the meaning of themselves.  And in a corner will sit three boxes of books, waiting the day they are carried elsewhere.

Mridula Koshy is a writer of fiction, and a librarian and community organiser with Deepalaya Community Library and Reading Project. You can volunteer at the Reading Project by contacting her.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.