Many of you who read the title of this article will probably wonder what the link is between these three phrases. “Write an essay / a paragraph on ‘how you spent your birthday’ / ‘your first train journey’ / how you spent your vacation’ are the three most common topics that we use in our English composition classes. The lower class children (I wrote my first two-paragraph essay on how I celebrated my birthday in class 4) are asked to write a paragraph or two on these topics; as the children grow, they are eventually asked to write slightly longer essays. As teachers, we probably think of these as accessible, common topics that any child can write an essay on; but that is not always the case.
I come from a family of educated parents with a mother who had taught in her early years, before marriage. Having grown up in a time when television had not come to Madras, I was an avid reader. As such, although I cannot recall accurately, I assume I must have drawn on what I had read about birthday parties in storybooks to write that birthday party essay. The way I celebrated it and the way I wrote about it were very different. For my birthday, my mother usually bought me new clothes, which I wore to school. I took a box of sweets to distribute to my classmates and then went in the evening to a nearby temple to pray for good health, good studies, etc. The first time I wrote about birthdays, I probably wrote a truthful description which did not get me good marks. I understand now that these ‘celebrations’ would never have given me enough content to write even two paragraphs on how I celebrate my birthday. During the later years in school, I probably drew on descriptions available in storybooks (we did not use guide books those days) and wrote a totally false description of a birthday party, return gifts, games, cake cutting, etc.
With this recollection and rumination, I went to a government school near my university a couple of years ago and tried asking the class eight students to write an essay on how they spent their birthdays. For the first few minutes after I wrote up that topic on the blackboard, there was absolute silence, with each student looking at the other. Nothing got written and nothing got said, either. With a little probing and questioning, (in Telugu, their mother tongue) I realized that more than half the class did not really know when they were born; a half of those who did know, did not celebrate their birthdays. With this scenario, what could they have written about how they celebrated their birthdays? Practically nothing!
I then valiantly tried the topic ‘’your first train journey”; this time, I thought I was being careful and instead of asking them to write, asked them to talk to me about it. This topic was much more disastrous for that class than even birthday parties. A train journey for these children meant travelling on a local train from point A to B, in this case, Sitafalmandi to Begumpet (localities in Hyderabad). In a non-metro city even such an experience may not exist. Bus journeys would probably be more common, but I began wondering what our village children, who have never seen a train, will make of a topic like this. To add insult to injury, even if they have gotten onto a train to go somewhere, it would have been on hot, dusty, dirty trains, full of passengers and noisy; these are not the journeys that any student can write an essay on. We need to be a Stephen Leacock, or at least an R K Narayan to write a humorous essay on train journeys. Our students, at best, will be able to state that they got on to the train at some place, ate, slept, played a game (if lucky), or looked at things that passed by and then got off the train. The ability to visualize and describe other passengers in detail, the ‘rolling landscape, the beautiful country side,’ is not part of all train journeys for our students. Definitely not for the group of students who travel unreserved, or by second class sleeper.
When I contemplate the essay topic ‘how I spent my vacation’, I shudder to think of how millions of children across the country, in various classes and different schools must be struggling to write about this in an interesting manner. Today, with the demands made on children, with the inevitable rat race, and elimination entrance examinations that loom ahead of them to enter tertiary level education, students spend their vacations going for tuitions and extra classes. Those who are lucky enough to not have to do this may go away for a few days to an aunt or uncle’s house, or to visit their grandparents. But beyond that, the notion of the whole family planning a vacation, of visiting new places, or of going to the beach during summer vacations (as is very common in Britain, where this topic originated) is alien to Indian culture. It is very common for parents to go on pilgrimages during the summer breaks, dragging recalcitrant children along; these are kids who usually do not enjoy themselves, are cranky and tired and utterly bored. To expect a child to write an essay on this type of vacation is problematic.
I am not stating that no child in India goes on vacation or does not celebrate birthday parties or travels by train. There are children who do all this and can also write about it with amazing ability. I am sure that there are also children who can, if needed, write an essay even about an imaginary train journey or vacation. But these are the children who belong to the top 5-10% of the population in our country who can probably afford to go abroad to some exotic place for a vacation and write about it in great detail. If not, they are the children who read, can think for themselves, and have the background knowledge and language ability to cook up descriptions.
With inclusive education and the Right to Education Act, we are going to have many more first generation learners in our schools and we do have to take their economic, educational and cultural background into consideration when we think of essay topics. We have to be realistic about our topics; if possible we can create short expeditions and get children to write about them, or look around and identify the things that our children experience and ask them to write about those.
A description of the local weekly market would be a much more accessible topic than a description of a train journey for some of our children. Depending on the nature of the school, the kind of learners and their backgrounds, we need to select essay topics for our students. One set of topics will not suit all our children, given the length and breadth of our country and the diversity in economic, educational and cultural backgrounds. If we fail to take this kind of care we will land up grading, marking or commenting on the writing capabilities of some guide book writer whose essays are being memorized and reproduced. Alternatively if that first generation learner does attempt truthful descriptions of the local train journey or the visit to an aunt’s house during vacation, we are likely to mark that writing sample down for paucity of content and then judge that child to be a non-writer because lack of content will also result in decreased use of language.
The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.