Published: 11th August 2021
Love for libraries: How two schoolmates from Kota are getting thousands of underprivileged Indian kids to fall in love with reading again
What happens when two school friends from Kota decide to transform the way kids study simply with their love for reading? We find out in conversation with Share a Book India Association
Reading isn't something you scrunch your face up at. It's something you fall in love with. And it is this love affair that began for two school friends who met in the entrance exam-obsessed town in Kota has now transformed into the Share a Book India Association (SABIA) — which is aimed at getting kids in lower-income and rural schools to get into the library groove and fall in love with reading. Excerpts from a freewheeling chat:
How did the idea behind SABIA come about?
Srishti Parihar: We want every child to read, imagine and grow. We felt there is a need to provide reading resources to all children, and promote reading for marginalised communities. Expand their horizons through reading, so to speak. There are, of course, innumerable benefits to reading. We started off by donating books to school libraries, but then realised that we need to go to the schools and teach students how to read. The gap between privileged and urban poor/rural schools needs to be bridged.
SABIA ki Kahani Shaala is their YouTube channel for kids who don't have access to online classes. Volunteers have recorded stories and included activities to keep their minds engaged and imaginations running.
How did you get things off the ground?
Priti Birgi: We want to improve language and comprehension skills. We asked people for donations and the word spread. We also asked them to volunteer and have brought some incredible teachers on board since then. As of today, we have 8 core members and about 300 to 400 volunteers across the country. We get books from publishers, a network of community libraries and from donors.
Your Library Development Programme sounds quite detailed...
Priti: It is a 12-week programme where we visit the school every Saturday, and conduct reading sessions for the students. We set up a library, with books and registers and we teach the students how to issue books. We issue them out to the students for the duration of the programme.
Reading as a skill vs Reading as a hobby. What approach do you take with these students?
Sristi: We were lucky to go to good schools where reading came naturally and we were able to read without thinking of it as a skill. Gradually, we developed it as a hobby. The kids don't have access. They have to develop an interest first. When there is an interest, they get curious and want to read on their own. You must understand that kids are shy and scared of the language. If you go there and add the burden of this new skill, it is hard. We start off with picture books. They hold, touch and feel books. Eventually, they want to know what is in the book and they want to read it. It becomes part of their schedule.
Kids need conducive environments to read. How have you made that happen?
Priti: When we started out in Kota, we found that principals and teachers were not very supportive. The common statement was 'Why not finish the course first?'. What is the need for the library? That statement shocked us to the core. We got the chance to represent SABIA at a seminar for principals in Kota. They understood what we were trying to do then, and we got a chance to work with two or three schools. Teachers and schools are not equipped. Very often. the budget for books is not utilised and even if they have a librarian, they are clueless. At home, these kids’ parents work as daily wage labourers, or in other menial jobs and cannot be expected to help kids to read.
Do you need to keep going back to the schools to get them to keep reading? What is that follow-up process like?
Sristi: When we were conducting sessions offline, we had city heads who would visit after the LDP and the library was set up. The head would check on the registers and see if books are being issued. Online, we are conducting assessments and tests to see if the kids are in touch with new words and see if their vocabulary is increasing.
Priti: During online sessions, volunteers ask the kids to weave a story on their own, describe a different ending, or write a letter to their favourite character. This helps them stay in touch with the stories and with reading. We don't just leave the school after LDP. If we have children who need help and we continue going to those schools.
What are some first-time favourites among students?
Sristi: Kids love picture books. Any kind of picture book. We take in books with bright colours and different textures and we let them touch and feel the books. It is a whole new experience. There’re also puppet books where you put your finger in the finger puppet, and you can turn the page and the story goes on. There’s one called Here I Am where two hares play hide and seek — one keeps asking where you are and the finger puppet character says 'Here I Am'. It contains repetitive phrases which help children learn. We encourage them to use these phrases in their daily lives. They are shy sometimes, but you can develop habits through reading, and an interactive way of exposing them to the language helps make it easier. Older kids like to read books based on Indian characters such as Chaalbaaz Chidiya. It depicts the plight of a marginalised community of rag pickers. They relate to the hardships. Then they also love fairytales, horror stories and stories with magic and cars.
Reading out in class can be daunting for some kids, who probably do not have command over the language and/or have anxiety issues. Do you help with these?
Sristi: We never ever force them. If they don't want to participate, they can sit at the back and do what they want to as long as they don’t disturb the class. Anxiety increases if you force them. Let them see for themselves how exciting it can be. Children are inherently curious. They haven't been given the opportunity to come out of their shell. In my class, there is a kid called Mohini, who was very shy at the beginning. After many days, Mohini came up and asked to be issued a book. I didn't probe her. She started with Hindi books that she would take and return. I would know that she wasn't reading them. However, gradually, they started coming back bookmarked, scribbled and dog-eared. We can’t push for progress. Everyone has a different starting point
Priti: It takes a lot of time. I have sat after class to just read stories to two or three shy kids. Next time they would come themselves. Letting them work at their own pace is also helpful.
Do you strongly believe that good reading skills can make that transformation from rote learning to creative learning? And has the famed “rote learning” culture of Kota influenced you in any way?
Sristi: In Kota, kids only have to pass an exam based on a few chapters. They could put one word after another but couldn't explain it. That was very heartbreaking. Priti is a doctor and I am an engineer, we are proper products of Kota, if you look at it. We were also pushed into rote learning. No one gave options to learn and explore. We were interested, but because our teachers wanted these fields along with our parents, we ended up here. We want to move away from it and become productive individuals. Reading has always been our safe space. The school library was our favourite hangout spot
You have started growing like a movement. How is it going?
Priti: We work mostly with government schools and low-income private schools. We are working with the AP government’s residential schools for SC and ST communities. We also work with schools in Kerala, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. At the end of 2019, we did Mission 100 where we selected 100 rural schools in AP, Maharashtra, UP and Bihar, and conducted online sessions in community centres. We bring books alive to capture students, to the extent that we are performing a Live action Chota Bheem for them sometimes (chuckles).
How have you managed during the lockdown?
Priti: Schools had opened for a brief period. When we visited, one girl said she would only come one day a week because she has to support her family. Kids are displaced, they have lost interest in studies, and they are under pressure to work to support their families. Dropouts have increased. These kids do not have access to devices for online education. A family of six share one phone. They have no headphones, and limited data packages, which is causing increasing the gap between public and private school kids. Our teachers in some centres in UP and Bihar are letting kids gather at one place so they can attend our classes. Teachers have told us that this is the best one hour of their day, where they get to listen to stories and talk to didis and bhaiyyas.
They plan to convert stories into CDs and cassettes for the disabled community, so they can enjoy stories too