Sunday, 13 December 2015

Are we doing enough to promote the habit of reading in students of senior grades in schools?

When a librarian shared statistical data  with about the number of books issued grade wise, I was understandably dismayed by what I saw! The greatest number of books were issued by students belonging to the grades One to fourth, and the least number of books were issued by students of grades eleventh and twelfth over a period of time! What I could see was a distinct trend with a graph steadily declining as it reached grade eleven and twelve, although there was a distinct spike upwards in grade ten!
A few questions that came to mind regarding this trend included:
1.Does this trend of a decrease in the number of books issued by grade eleven and twelve students indicate a decreased interest in reading?
2.Is the trend of borrowing a large number of books at the primary level the result of teacher intervention? Is it artificially induced or are the students already into books?
3. Can anything be done to maintain the trend throughout the grades till grade twelve?
I could also see that throughout a range of upcoming schools that senior grade students were never given or allotted a Library Period, unlike students studying in lower grades. It is clearly visible that not allotting a library period for students of grades eleven and twelve within their weekly schedule of studies is a major drawback in the promotion of reading as a healthy habit throughout grade levels.
A plea to educationists and policy makers in the country is to consciously promote the active reading of books and journals throughout grade levels even till the final grades in school. One argument in favour of promoting the habit of reading because reading helps expand the students’ perspectives, enrich their minds with ideas, and help increase their vocabulary. One of disturbing trends I have observed in students of grades eleventh and twelfth in all the streams, Humanities, Commerce, and Science was how poorly they performed in Comprehension tasks. Their inability to  perform well in Comprehension tasks was because they did not know how to tackle the task. They generally read the questions first and then try to lift the answers from the passage as the answer. This is a strategy that works well with questions that are factual but not well with questions that are based on reasoning, analysis and even interpolation! If students don’t know how to read at the senior grade levels, then is it not high time we taught them to read effectively? But then how do you teach student different reading skills unless you actually expose them to a wide range of books of different genres? True, students can access a large number of free e-text on the internet, but then you would need to carry your own device to access the internet, and BYOD is yet to be introduced in schools.  Another issue with reading on the internet is that it promotes majorly the limited reading skills, perhaps skimming, or scanning but certainly not in depth reading, or reading for the big idea. Also there are limited possibilities for doing annotations, or taking down detailed notes from an e-text.
But then, before I stray further, I would like to turn back to the first question mentioned initially. I don’t believe that the decrease in the number of books issued by students of grade eleven and twelve indicates a decreased interest in reading in students of senior grades. It is difficult to imagine that the students who had a voracious habit for reading would suddenly shun them in the senior grades because they had suddenly started hating the habit of reading. As far as the second question is concerned, I very strongly believe that the habit of reading books and the interest in books is strongly driven by the teachers in lower grades. What needs to be researched further is whether there might not be a correlation between the reduction in the number of books borrowed at the senior grade levels with lack of teacher interest in reading. Here I would like to affirm that I have seen  teachers of lower grade levels accompanying students to the the library, helping them in choosing the books they should read, and even organising active reading sessions. Turning to the third question, I strongly believe that a lot can be done to maintain the reading habit in senior grades. First and foremost, a library period should be set aside for all students. Secondly students should be encouraged to do active research on different topics in different topics not only from the internet, but also from actual books found in the book. They can practice active note making in the library by consulting Reference Books which are not issued. Promoting the habit of reading for information should be encouraged not just by the language teachers, but also teachers of other subjects! But then the first step would be to add at least one library period in the timetable of students of senior grades. While teachers might accompany the students initially, this can be stopped gradually as students learn to navigate through the shelves. Reading session based on themes could however be conducted by the language teachers. 
Popular English newspapers in India very often carry articles that suggest that traditional books are still popular in spite of the entry of the Electronic version. These newspapers also suggest that the reading habit still exists! According to one blurb appearing in the Brunch Supplement “Indulge” of the Hindustan times today, the 13th December, 2015, “The ebook may be here to stay; but the physical book is alive, and well, and doing better than ever,”  the writer goes on to the writer, “According to a recent article in The New York times, ebook sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of 2015 in America. And a Nielson survey showed that the portion of people who read primarily on an e-reader fell to 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 from a high of 50 per cent in 2012.”- Goswami Seema, The Writing Is On The Wall, Indulge; Hindustan Times Brunch-December 13, 2015. If reading “physical” books is still in trend then is it not high time we thought about reviving our now defunct libraries for senior grades? Agreed that reading ebooks is a new trend, but then how do you doodle, and make annotations on an ebook with an ink pen?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to conduct our reading and writing workshops in libraries instead of class rooms. Active reading and active writing go hand in hand so why not teach the 6+1 traits of writing by taking students to the library and showing them exemplary works by authors who exemplify the use of the 6+1 traits of writing? I know this would mean additional work for the teacher to go to the library and pick out works that he thinks exemplify the 6+1 traits of writing. In a world where we are moving towards experiential learning and expeditionary learning isn’t it ironical that we tolerate the ersatz rather than the real stuff? Perhaps by taking students of grades eleventh and twelfth, might we not be able to not only read better, but also write better?

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Young students can be great organisers of debate competitions!

The Heritage School Debsoc Debate
It was almost without  much thought that I agreed to two rather enthusiastic boys from the tenth grade request to  be their teacher advisor for the debating society. After that it was about accommodating the students and society members into the existing stay back.  All this while the two boys kept working hard, and yes I gave them lee way since they were doing good work. At first it was all about getting the club members together after school, then it was about setting down ground rules, having impromptu debates and so on. Ten came the invitation at the Vasant Valley school, and of course I had to accompany the selected team members to the school on the second day. At Vasant Valley we had managed to reach the prelims and there we were facing some of the most formidable teams from all across the country. We managed to get on to the next level and then that’s it - we couldn’t get past a team that was representing a well known school from Dehradun. We returned disappointed to school and then the two stalwarts came up with the idea of appointing office bearers and then they came up with a plan for promoting formal debating as a culture and to take the debating society to the next level – perhaps to the extent of hosting  other schools. But before we could do so, we would have to expose our own students to the parliamentary style of debating.
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The two boys came up with one proposal after another, which our program leader scrutinised with a magnifying glass, suggesting improvements that were incorporated by the two boys. All this time I was involved with completing the syllabus for my grade twelve students, and taking on the workload of a teacher who had left all of a sudden in the middle of the session, besides those of putting up the agenda, supervising and setting schedules that are part of my duties as a coordinator. I just did not have enough spare time for the debating society, and yet these boys from grade ten, and now with some support from the office bearers drew up the plans for an intra-school debate competition  slated for the fifth of December. Time flew and it was on the third or fourth of December that I finally drew a checklist for the penultimate day. The program leader was wholly with us and when we were able to get only two judges out of the four we needed, he stepped in and got us two more. The Program Leader was a constant support for the society, he stood firmly behind us, and yes, the logistics in charge ensured that everything got done, whether it was the food, the booking of the venue, and a sundry other things.

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On the fifth of December, the members of the organising committee reached school on a non-working Saturday at a quarter to seven on a cold morning. Immediately they set to work registering students for the event, then we proceeded to the venue for  instructions regarding venues and teams. Somehow everyone had reached well in time, and so we were before time. Rules and regulations were given to the students, and then there was a slight apprehension as we waited for the other two judges to arrive. And then they did, to our relief, and then the Program Leader addressed the gathering and then it was time for an Exhibition Debate. The team wanted the Exhibition Debate to be “perfect” and they surely tried to do their best, although their voices cracked under strain – they did a fair enough job.

We had fourteen teams out of 53 students. The ideal number of students in each team was to have been 4, but then a few did not turn up so a few teams had only three members, but then we did not disqualify them and allowed them to continue although one of them would have to speak twice. The first few rounds  brought out a lot of weaknesses, which the judges and the moderators addressed through feedback and suggestions. When we got back after lunch, we could see that the teams that had survived had become more polished, and they had got their points together. Finally it seemed they had learned their lessons, that debating is not just about having a good command over vocabulary, but it is also about being rational, logical, and having all the points in hand. One thing became clear to me, and that was that my apprehensions about the impact of the MUN Culture of debating were true, and those who had done very well in MUN Debates were left high and dry in the Parliamentary style of debating.
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It was disappointing to see how many of the students could speak for only fifty seconds out of the two minutes allotted to them. A few were able to speak for the whole two minutes, but were afraid of finishing their time limit, so they did not support their arguments with sufficient proof, fact and figures although they had known them very well. What was surprising and pleasing was to see that a large number of participants were from grade 8! A large number of these grade 8 students spoke very well too. I guess one of the important lessons  for building a debating culture in school is to catch potential debaters early in life, grade 8, or even 7 if possible.
By the end of the day we had some of the best teams show an amazing improvement in their performance. They had learned their lessons and worked on the feedback given to them. It was amazing to see how the mumbles, and stammers of the initial moments had changed into confident voices with the required voice modulation and intonation. The replies were more logical, the arguments more to the point, and participants stuck to time lines better than earlier.
Debating should be promoted as a culture in all schools because it promotes logical thinking. It also builds up a character of tolerance and patience besides making students good listeners too! Debating can build a vibrant culture of inclusion and respect in the community. It can also teach students to be able to break into concepts, principles and ideas into components that can be easily assimilated.
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Yes, you might be wondering about the two boys? Yes they are Sidhant Singh and Dhruv Krihnaswami. The event became a possibility because of the important role played by our Senior Program Leader Vishnu Kartik Sir, who incidentally was the inspiration and a great motivator. The judges for the were Manish, Sarika, Niyati and Akanksha, all teachers who gave their valuable time although it was a non-working Saturday!I am also thankful to Renjitha Ma'am who gave us all the support in terms of logistics, and valuable advice.
The finals of the debate competition will take place later in the month of January, and we hope to have a fiery high energy performance from the teams that have reached the final round!