I am in a small village in north Bihar. The sky is overcast, dark clouds hang overhead. Soon it begins to rain. Children are running to school holding their bag and books over their heads. This is a government primary school. The building is small – only two rooms and a verandah. A new classroom is being built but it is not yet complete. Children of Standard 1 and 2 sit in the verandah, crowded together. The older children sit inside in the rooms.
I begin to chat with the children in the verandah. The discussion is about cats. Everyone has a lot to say about cats. There are a lot of cats in the village. Almost every child has a cat at home or knows of cats in the neighbourhood.
I suggest that we draw cats. The children are reluctant: “It is very difficult.” (Bahut mushkil hai) So, then what shall we draw…….? We all think and think. “What about a “chuha” (mouse)?” “Yes!” says one little girl. “There are lots in my house”. Everyone agrees. There are many cats in the village but there are many, many more mice. There is consensus. Mice can be drawn. Heads bend down and everyone is hard at work. Soon mice appear on paper, on slates, in notebooks, some children even draw with chalk on the floor. All kinds of mice, all shapes; each distinctive. Some children write the word next to the picture. Others write their name. They are all talking to each other, drawing and writing, reading and looking at each others’ work. And then they jump up to show what they have made. It is easy and it is fun.
What shall we talk about next? What shall we draw next? How about the sun? Oh yes!!! The kids shout out loud. Very quickly they get to work. It is drizzling outside today but in our class many, many suns begin to shine. Now drawing has become exciting. We move rapidly from one thing to the next. Children draw themselves, their friends, their family, their school and whatever else they can think of. Next to the drawings, words are written down. Some are actual words and some look like words but are actually scribbles. But each is an independent creation done with thought and care.
One girl brings out a story book from the cupboard inside. It is a book about a boy called Maloo and his black dog who is named Kaloo.* The story is about their adventures in finding aloos (potatoes). The book is a bit dirty; the corners of the pages are curling upwards. It is clear that it has been well used. Some children can read the story and others can read the words. I read it out loudly. The words are fun to say out aloud … the pictures are clear and vivid.
Most of the children in Standard 1 and 2 cannot actually read. It seems to me that some cannot even decipher letters. Yet, once we read the story out aloud several times, there is a lot of discussion. Our drawing activities have made it very natural to start putting things down on paper. Talking, looking at pictures, giving opinions, drawing, scribbling – all seem to happen naturally in the class. The book comes alive through the talk, the arguments, the discussions and debates. Talk has to happen with others. There can be agreement and disagreement, give and take. But on paper, each is on his or her own. Individual thinking, individual expression. Sometimes the drawing is clear and sometimes the scribbles are actually words. If I ask a child what they have made – they can always tell me what it is.
The rain has stopped. The school compound is full of water. The children’s slates are full too. There is Maloo in every drawing – a boy who often bears some resemblance to the artist. And there is Kaloo too. It is not hard to make a little black dog with a pointy tail. And of course there are aloos and potatoes everywhere. Now the children are looking for more books to read, more books to talk about and more books to have fun with.
The author is Director, Pratham. She can be reached at [email protected]
*Aloo, Maloo, Kaloo is written by Vinita Krishna and published by Pratham Books (www.prathambooks.org)