Working in rural India demands that one reflect carefully about what the goal is. When GLP personnel started evaluating requests for assistance, two big challenges stood out.
First, almost all the students and teachers we came into contact with in the rural schools we visited speak English as their second or even third language. Yet, when teachers speak of encouraging a culture of reading, they invariably mean the culture of reading in English. In other words, they want to encourage a culture of reading in a language that students use very rarely outside the classroom.
Second, the Indian system of education is dominated by exams which play a crucial role in deciding the students’ future. Results obtained on these exams determine whether or not the student can move on to the next grade, to high school, or to post-secondary education. If the results are not high enough, the student is almost always left without options.
The use of English is also complicated in the classroom. English is not the language you hear on the street in small towns and villages in rural India. It is rarely used by the students outside of class time. What this means in the classroom is that the mother tongue or Hindi are used quite often. Occasionally, even the teacher uses the mother tongue or Hindi to explain challenging concepts (personal observations). Also, when students converse with each other, both in class and outside instructional times, they very rarely use English. We have observed this phenomenon in every elementary and secondary school we visited.
English is therefore used very pragmatically to obtain an education and write exams. As a result, students do not use colloquial English, and it could even be argued that, in rural India, there are limited opportunities for them to do so.
What Kind of Situation Does That Leave us With?
Imagine trying to build a culture of reading in English in a classroom where the students see English only as a means to an end. It’s a language they do not use in their daily lives outside of school. In fact, students in rural communities do not have many opportunities to practice the language in interactive and meaningful social contexts. This lack of a supporting context certainly contributes to the students’ perception that English is a tool one must master only in order to study and pass exams. It is not personally meaningful at all. English is predominantly the language of academic contexts.
One could argue that reading in English could help the students increase their chances of performing well on their exams. Unfortunately, rote memorization is quite sufficient for most exams.
Can Anything Be Done?
While it is challenging to conceptualize about how to encourage students to use English outside of school where they seem perfectly happy communicating in their mother tongue or Hindi, it is imperative that the use of English in school change from purely formal and transactional to more expressive, interactive, and socially meaningful. One of the main barriers that has traditionally made this shift impossible is that teaching in India is very teacher-centered. In addition, instruction in an English classroom is often limited to tests, reading comprehension exercises, and short answer questions. Students are generally not given opportunities to express their opinions or engage in class discussions or debates. Chalk and talk dominates classroom interactions.
Magara (2005) describes a reading culture as one where reading is highly valued and appreciated in the society and where reading is regarded not simply as something developed for school purposes but something practiced in all aspects of our lives. What then can be done to nurture this “culture for reading” and what can we do to contribute to the development of positive reading habits?
Sanders-ten Holte (1998) and Cruz (2003) suggest that to create a culture for reading within a given society, it is necessary to improve the reading environment in the home, the school and the community at the same time, while improving the image of reading so it is more than simply school-focused.
Wrestling with the above ideas, the Global Literacy Project, Inc. came up with a unique solution. Our aim is unique in that we seek to create a self-sustaining culture of reading by creating High Literacy Clusters (HLCs) wherever we are working. Our numerous activities–from shipping books to the service learning opportunities we provide for individuals in the USA and abroad–are all part of our mission to establish HLCs, which can then serve as springboards to engagement with reading.
High Literacy Cluster Pilot Initiatives in India
1. Human Rights Education Movement of India (HREMI): Tamil Nadu
Among its many goals, the Human Rights Education Movement of India (HREMI) is a program that seeks:
To support the coordination and promotion of the education of [poor] village youth and women’s groups; To organize youth leadership camps; To facilitate the exchange of ideas, sharing of experiences and bringing people together from different political and religious groups for dialogue and discussion.
HREMI works to empower men and women, organizations and individuals working towards the realization of their human rights. Currently the organization concentrates on supporting educational initiatives for residents of seven (7) districts of Tamil Nadu covering a total of approximately of 209 villages, namely:
Thiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Madurai , Sivagangai, Chennai, Salem and Dharmapuri
The area has been divided into 7 clusters. Each cluster caters to 10 to 15 villages.
Global Literacy Project—HREMI (Delta Community College of Nursing Initiative)
Over the next decade GLP will be working with the Human Rights Education Movement of India (and its program at the Delta Community College of Nursing ) to facilitate the creation of a modern nursing library in support of their three-year certificate program and the one-year basic training program. We also hope to create a multimedia center for use by the students.
GLP also plans to develop small reference libraries in strategic elementary and high schools in the various clusters over the next decade to support the goals of the Human Rights Education Movement of India.
Finally, GLP anticipates having volunteers visit these sites over time to assist in a variety of ways via our “Global Learning Expeditions.”
2. Integrated Rural Development Centre (IRDC): Gandarvakottai, Pudukottai
Integrated Rural Development Centre (IRDC) is a secular non-profit organization (established in 1987 registered as a public trust) that focuses its activities on the rural areas of Gandarvakottai–a sub-district of some 37 village in the Pudukottai district (click HERE for map) of Tamil Nadu state in South India. As described in IRDC’s development literature, this sub-district receives little rain because the mountains create a rain shadow effect that blocks precipitation. There is little industry and 90% of the population depends on agriculture with some 60% of the population having no ownership in land at all, while 35% own a homestead only. Remnants of feudal system still exist in Gandarvakottai..
The vision of IRDC is an egalitarian society, free from oppression, violence, exploitation and injustice, irrespective of caste, creed and gender. IRDC believes the vision can be realized through integrated development approach that ensures peoples participation and eco-environmental balance. Currently IRDC works with some 4,500 households providing visits by health workers on regular basis and imparting basic education with a focus on child development, family planning, environmental awareness and personal hygiene.
IRDC supports children from three to five years old in early childhood learning centers. At any point there are more than 500 children in the early learning centres who are provided with meals and nutritional supplements. Children move from the early learning centers to local government run primary schools. However, supplementary education and coaching are provided to primary and high school children with the goal of preventing them from dropping out from school.
For the latest on GLP’s efforts to support IRDC’s work see the latest news about our Gandarvakottai HLC.
For more information on IRDC see http://irdc-india-uk.org/contact-irdc.htm.