Contextualizing textbooks: Glimpses from Sikkim

Nisha Rajkumar Butoliya

In 2017, the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT), Gangtok decided to revise the textbooks of English, maths and environmental studies for classes I to V. SCERT collaborated with the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, Delhi (MGIEP) and Azim Premji University, Bengaluru (APU). Teachers of primary, secondary and higher secondary level along with the entire SCERT faculty and the faculty from the District Institute of Education and Training, Gangtok (DIET, Gangtok) were part of this team effort. In the first phase, textbooks for classes I, II and III were developed, and these are being piloted in selected schools; textbooks for classes IV and V are currently being developed.

In this article I present some glimpses of how contextualization of English textbooks for grades I to III was done in Sikkim.

Why contextualization of Sikkim textbooks?
The mutual inter-relationship between learners’ contexts and school learning remains largely unexplored for multiple reasons, ranging from pressure of syllabus completion to a lack of real appreciation of children’s context as a valuable resource. As a result, the whole repository of children’s experiences and knowledge gets isolated from the world of school, leading to disinterest, meaningless learning and even drop-outs.

Textbooks hold a pivotal position in classroom teaching and learning. There is a higher possibility of inclusion of a child’s world in our classrooms if textbooks are enriched with the context of children, especially for a culturally vibrant state like Sikkim, full of natural diversity.

From context to text

Drawing out common themes from children and the local community
Most of the authors hailed from Gangtok (the state capital) and its environs but were not unfamiliar with rural settings. Yet, they now felt the need to visit small pockets of rural Sikkim in groups and talk to children and local community members. This yielded new insights on the conceptualization of textbooks. A large set of themes was extracted from the aspirations, questions, comments, interests and imagination of children, who talked about becoming taxi drivers, doctors, truck drivers, engineers, having children, etc; fascinated by nature (rivers and mountains) as well as fantasy (Superman and fairies), they showed care and a sense of belongingness to pets and plants around; even as they planned their future (going out to study, etc.), they were very particular about their current friends and games that they played. Gathering together on a holiday or celebrating a dear friend’s birthday demanded meticulous planning from them, despite their busy schedules – right from coming to school, accompanying the family to the market and playing with friends. Quite naturally, therefore, among the themes that emerged were the following –
• my mother
• my granny
• friends
• rain
• rivers
• jungles and mountains
• picnic
• trees
• toys
• spider man / superman
• local market
• local farms
• food
• play
• feelings
• gadgets
• science and experiments
• magic and wonder

Thus, each English textbook from class I to V has 5 to 6 of these themes.

Using children’s mode of engagement with the environment
Children engage with the environment through play, talk, self and guided exploration, questioning, listening to stories, experimenting with their own little things, playing with words, eating, creating, imagining, forming their own naïve theories and enjoying.

Accordingly, in each theme we decided to have sections where children can do all this –

  • Let’s talk: is a common task in every theme, where children talk after seeing pictures, reading stories, describing experiences relevant to the topic, after a nature walk or after they create something interesting.
  • Think, guess and share: has ample questions across themes that make children think, ask the teacher questions, guess, present in class and listen to peers.
  • Imagine and draw, write if you can: has tasks that require children to imagine and draw; thereafter, describe and write a few words or sentences. Scope for imagining and extrapolating are thus built into the text.
  • Let’s explore: is the section in each theme where children do actual (social) work – planting a sapling and taking care of it/talking to people to find out how they feel/what they think; making posters for building awareness, etc. This section taps the children’s ever-present energy by harnessing their desire to do something meaningful.

Integrating culture
Every culture has specific reasons (and unique ceremonies) to name a new-born child. Whether it is to protect a child from bad spirits, bless the child with godly qualities or to emphasize the traits that a child should have, each name has a significance. In our textbook writing, care was taken to include names of children from Sikkim, by consciously ensuring that names of boys, girls, rural, urban, Bhutia, Lepcha, Nepali children are fairly represented. In the English textbooks, several local names and titles, like, boju (grandmother), bajay (grandfather), aiela (sister) etc., were used.

Similarly, there are common elements but also differences in the ways of celebrating festivals or birthdays. While talking to children, we found that most children do not get cakes on birthdays, only a packet of toffees that parents can afford and that, too, because other children distribute these on their birthdays. We decided to not generalize; instead make space for multiple narratives. One way we tried to do this was to give open-ended tasks in which children were asked to write their own experiences of celebrations and listen to their classmates’ experiences.

Who is doing what?
Ensuring that names of most people are there is just the first step; it is vital to also check what kinds of activities/roles are assigned to each name, in our textbooks. For example, Tashi (a common name in Sikkim) could not always be shown as a rich/cruel/poor person across themes in the textbooks. Similarly, Nimkit or Maya could not always be poor girls. Among the delicate questions that we had to handle were: across subjects and grades, what kinds of roles are assigned to men and women? What is the distribution of roles across communities? Who is depicted as the decision-maker? Thinking through these questions was crucial to make the text grounded in the multiple social reality of children. Not every child has the same sort of exposure. Harvesting is not always done by men and sowing of the field is not always done by women. For those who see their mothers contributing to all sorts of work, it is a pleasure to see that world reflected in the textbooks. For those who lack that kind of exposure, the text presents a different lens to view life and work.

Reinforcing content in the textbook
Arranging content of the textbook spirally promotes reinforcement of vocabulary and language usage. A few examples are cited here:

  • The alphabet in class I appears in each theme; the words per letter are taken from the theme. In the theme Water, ‘w’ is for water and in the theme ‘Wonder and Magic’, ‘w’ is for wand. Thus, not only the sound of ‘w’ but also the vocabulary used in the story is reinforced in the alphabet.
  • Similarly picture reading is a common element in each theme and each time, there are similar questions which require description, prediction, sharing with friends and listening to them. Here the opportunities to develop abilities in multiple contexts are built in.

Imaginative world of the child
Animals talking, fairies dancing, the moon and the sun fighting with each other, superman solving people’s problems and so on feed the child’s imaginative instincts. Building textbook content on these contexts serves as an easy entry into the child’s world. Hence the stories of animals, songs of the moon and the sun, local songs of rain and mountains, local mysteries are included in the textbooks.

Way forward
A child’s world is fascinating; one needs to be both logical and creative to engage with the children. And this is easier said than done! This is what we have learnt during the textbook writing. Many a time we are at crossroads when it came to decision-making on stories/poems/tasks/questions. The yardstick we use to make the decision is ‘Does this interest children?’, ‘Will they find this challenging enough?’ ‘Are we sure that it would cater to their needs?’

The author is visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Her interest areas include curricular material development and teacher education. She can be reached at [email protected].

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