By Zubeida Mustafa
RECENTLY I decided to have some fun with books and children. Isn’t that a paradox? We are perpetually told that our children do not read books. So how could I even think of combining the two and call it fun? But believe me, it was fun. I decided right away against any boring imposition on the children. No speeches on how wonderful books are. Let them discover this for themselves.
My friend Farida Akbar, a trainer of Montessori teachers, and I held a session during the summer programme of a school for underprivileged children where I teach English to Grade 9 students on a voluntary basis.
The medium of instruction for the children who attended this particular session was Urdu. So I opted for Urdu to conduct the ‘books are fun’ session. How can anyone enjoy an activity in a language that one does not understand? Or worse, a language that one cannot express oneself in?
How can we enjoy an activity in a language that we do not understand?
There were nine girls (the average age was 15 years). After introductions, each child spoke about their own relationship with books — not always positive. Since I had set the rules at the start — speak what you like but within the bounds of etiquette — the children were relaxed. They were vocal and welcomed this newfound freedom. Moreover, they were not burdened by language as all of them were fluent in Urdu.
Since the session was on books it had to include some reading. For this, we had selected a long passage on Abdus Sattar Edhi from Tau Mera Dil Bana Diya by Dr Shershah Syed who is as compassionate a writer as he is a doctor. The passage was not a sermon on how many ambulances the good Edhi had introduced or his humanitarian work. It was an account of Edhi as a man. Each participant was provided a copy of the passage and as we sat in a circle one student read a page and then the next one took over. The children enjoyed this reading experience thoroughly as the content — though for adult readers — was comprehensible and readable for teenagers. It tickled their minds to learn that the old man had a temper but always smiled when he met his workers.
By then, half the session was over and there was more fun to come. Reading and writing should go together. Hence as planned, participants were provided with a pen and a sheet of paper. They were asked to write whatever thoughts came to their mind about Edhi. What I received was a treasure. Three noted that Edhi was simply dressed and had only two pairs of clothes. Two others wrote about his kindly smile.
The last item on the agenda was elocution which produced witty speeches on books — “if I were made a teacher for a day I would declare it a holiday and go home myself!” “I was living in a city made of books. When I looked in the mirror I found I had become a book myself!” “Were I made the education minister I would ban all dull books from school.”
To wind up, there was a surprise for the participants. They received a book each that gave them a sense of ownership. Ibne Insha, Raza Ali Abidi, Patras and Shafiqur Rahman made their day. Many of them had finished their book in a week and were clamouring for another session.
The story doesn’t end there. Two days later, we had a similar session with the morning shift children of the same school. They are said to be the ‘smart’ ones — English is their medium of instruction. The children were slightly younger — from Grades 7 and 8. I had selected some appropriately simple passages from English storybooks from OUP for their reading exercise. The session was a severe letdown. The children were inarticulate and tongue-tied when it came to communicating in English. I switched to Urdu, for my idea was not to torture them. But it didn’t help because to my horror I discovered that in their pathetic struggle to climb the English ladder, the children had lost touch with their Urdu skills. They couldn’t write in Urdu either — they were accustomed to memorising written passages. Critical thinking was beyond them. I just dropped the elocution part as it wasn’t working. I wouldn’t blame the teachers. They appeared to be hardworking. If anything, I hold the system responsible.
Since this exercise, I have been haunted by the thought of the injustice that is visited on our children in the name of education. My critics will object that the Urdu-session children are weak in English and will never progress in our globalised world. I concede that those children’s English needed improvement. But my contention is that had English been taught to them as a second language by a good English-language teacher their proficiency in that language would have been satisfactory. They would also have retained their fluency in Urdu without losing their thinking competency. Education would have been fun for them.