Spreading the joy of reading among first-generation learners

In a world that is increasingly mourning the decline of the reading habit in children, a group of responsible, pragmatic, committed and visionary citizens is changing the way little minds are shaped in India’s government schools.

These are schools, mind you, that have none of the modern accessories and technological tools that private schools have; these are schools where the teachers aren’t in enough numbers, the paint on the walls is chipping away, and the toilets mostly are clogged and in many cases absent. And these are children who do not have the luxuries of an air-conditioned library stocked with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leave alone access to hi-tech learning aids like iPads and PCs.

BREAD Society, a voluntary organization that has been working for the cause of poor children’s education for 25 years, has now taken up the cause of funding children’s libraries in government schools across composite Andhra Pradesh. These are people who themselves studied in government schools, and over the past few decades, have done very impressive work in tapping the potential of poor students and rejuvenating education in public schools.

How it works
I had the opportunity to visit the Government High School in Hyderguda, Hyderabad, along with BREAD’s founder, Dr. N Bhaskara Rao and Mr. B Vidya Sagar, Treasurer of BREAD Society. I saw high school students sitting in a reading room, each with a book in his/her hand. I’m sure everyone here agrees with me that it’s a pretty unfamiliar sight, given that it was a government school, and more importantly, given that they were not cramming for some exam around the corner!

The children there were enthusiastic about reading, and proved to be quite smart when jovially quizzed about the books they had recently read. Quite a few of them said they took books home, where their family members had also caught the reading bug.

Indeed, when you change a child, you don’t just change the child – you start a whole chain reaction. And then the world changes.

So why libraries? Dr. N Bhaskara Rao, founder-chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), and also an expert on social research as well as in mass communication, is a strong proponent of encouraging kids to read. He believes that children who are exposed to libraries grow up to lead holistic and well-rounded lives and become more responsible citizens.

Libraries in government schools do have books, but these were found to be lying in locked cupboards. Library teachers are expected to account for these books at the time of their transfer or retirement, and since they must pay for missing books, they do not even risk lending books to students, in fear that they might lose them.

The BREAD Library
A BREAD Children’s library consists of 650 books and a lockable steel bookcase with 4 hanging glass doors. An Accession Register and 5 Issue Registers (one for each class) are also provided. Library books and the bookcase are transported to schools via the nearest road transport depot.

The book collection spans a range of over 20 genres and topics – including moral stories, mythology, philosophy, history, science, mathematics, puzzles, biographies, folk tales, social movements, conflicts and wars, general knowledge and technology. These are books that are not part of the school’s syllabus, but those that have been handpicked for kids aged 9 to 14 years by a sub-committee of BREAD Society.

With illustrations and attractive artwork on many of them, the books are intended to not only educate children about various topics, but also inculcate moral values and inspire them. In fact, some students can only identify Telugu alphabets, and learn ‘maathras’ through the interest that they develop when they read library books. Similarly, BREAD Society in its field studies, also discovered that these books are referred to by students in essay and elocution competitions.

When books make a difference
Mr. Bhaskara Rao had an interesting story to share with me about one of his visits to a school in the interiors of Andhra Pradesh. During the visit, he was speaking to a young tribal schoolgirl who told him how much she was enjoying the books from the BREAD library. The girl’s favourite author was apparently one of his close associates. Mr. Bhaskara Rao then pleasantly surprised her by immediately calling up the gentleman and getting him to speak to her. Dr. Bhaskara Rao recollects that not only was the child overjoyed – all her teachers and friends were also thrilled that she had gotten to speak to her favourite author.

It is this passion for the cause that drives the BREAD team to pursue this unusual task – a passion that you can clearly feel when you interact with this group of highly accomplished gentlemen.

Identifying beneficiary schools
How does BREAD identify its beneficiary schools? Almost all of them are government high schools, barring a few primary and upper primary schools that are selected based on donors’ choices. Government high schools securing 6 or more National Means Cum Merit Scholarships (NMMS) in a year are offered a BREAD Library. NMMS is a Central govt. sponsored scheme launched in May 2008, whose objective is to award scholarships to meritorious students of economically weaker sections of society. Donors can also recommend other government high schools if they want to donate BREAD libraries to them.

The scale at which BREAD Society operates is impressive. At the time of writing this (July 2014), there are 551 BREAD libraries in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. 100 more libraries are expected to be established by the end of August 2014. 100 additional books will also be supplied to all existing library schools for the next two years, to sustain students’ interest in the reading habit.

Libraries are established mostly with contributions from individuals. A library can be inaugurated by the donor, a local VIP or the school headmaster. In each library, the books and the book-case bear the donor’s name and dedication, if any. Individual donors donate Rs. 25,000 to sponsor a library, and corporate donors donate Rs. 30,000.

The work begins only when the library is set up
It is only when the library is set up that BREAD Society’s actual work begins. The Society takes steps to ensure that the library is actually being utilized. The challenge here is to make sure that the children are reading, and BREAD Society has evolved systems and processes to this end.

For instance, every class must have one mandatory “library” period every week, set aside to let children borrow books or simply sit down and read. Further, BREAD Society goes the extra mile in making the reading habit a little more exciting – it asks students to write brief reviews on books read by them, in a notebook, and awards valuable prizes to the best write-ups.

These competitions are administered in a systematic manner. In each school, ten students (15 in each school until last year) are given prizes worth Rs. 1,000 every year, based on the headmaster’s recommendation, along with 5 specimen write-ups (one from each class). BREAD Society creates a corpus for the prizes while a library is set up.
A few selected write-ups are compiled and published in the form of a book to be distributed to all library schools, a soft copy of which is also available on the Society’s website. Prize-winners are not considered for prizes again, in order to motivate others to participate.

BREAD Society strongly believes that the write-ups develop skills in comprehension, writing and communication among children. Volunteers and coordinators actively follow up with their schools in order to ensure that the children are not only reading, but also writing reviews of the books.

In 2013-14, BREAD Society gave prizes to 1,400 students of 101 schools. It is hoped that about 200 schools will claim prizes this year.

Family bonding
The children are encouraged to take the books home and return them in the next library period. This way, parents, siblings and even grandparents get to read and enjoy the books that children get home. Moreover, it was also found that families tend to bond over the books read, for example, when they help the child write the review.

How a library is managed
To manage the library in a school, BREAD Society asks class teachers to select three responsible students, including two girls. Selected students are trained to issue books to their classmates using the Issue Registers. Student librarians are given certificates in appreciation of their services. BREAD believes that putting students in charge develops responsible behaviour, team spirit and managerial and leadership skills among them.

Why student librarians?
Teachers are generally resistant to the idea of students being entrusted with the “responsibility” (plus, the idea is usually met with skepticism even by a layman), but BREAD Society has reasons behind the proposal. A student-driven model is a more sustainable than a teacher-driven one, because there is always risk of the whole book-lending system coming to a standstill when a teacher retires or is transferred.

Besides, student librarians are duty-bound to issue books in every library period, as it is possible for other students to complain to their headmaster or teachers if the books are not being issued. It is hard to hold a teacher accountable if he or she does not choose to issue books. However, as many people are uncomfortable with change and wish to maintain status quo, and there being a possible sense of loss of authority, in some cases, teachers would like to do it themselves.

Going beyond BREAD libraries
BREAD Society does not confine itself to libraries, and tries to stimulate the education system in other ways too. In the past 3 years, the Society has honoured 1,000 headmasters and teachers who were responsible for their students’ NMMS awards, by way of felicitation functions held at district headquarters.

A purely voluntary effort
BREAD Society gets all its work done through volunteers. Not a rupee is spent on travel or wages by the Society – it is the volunteers who spend their own money. In 2013-14, BREAD Society spent Rs. 39 lakh in establishing 151 libraries, honouring over 700 headmasters and teachers at 13 centres and giving prizes and certificates to 1,400 students. The administrative expense was just 1% of the expenditure on programs.

Dr. Shanti Swaroup & Mrs. Anita provide the Society with rent-free office accommodation, M/s Mudrica Offset Printers undertakes all their printing work (including printing of thousands of certificates and the annual report) free of charges, and Dr. Raavi Sarada and Mr. Janakiram Prasad Chundru provide office space free of charge for the mammoth task of preparing sets of books for libraries. And these are just a few of the many persons who help the society in numerous ways and keep the well-oiled machine running in its service for the children and their education.

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