This was the first time I have ‘taught’ creative writing. I read voraciously and am at a loss if I don’t have a book on standby to read after my current one. Books open up worlds that I may never inhabit, with perspectives very different from my own. Words are used with such skill that I am under the spell of the author. How do I open up these worlds to young children so that they are never alone when there are books in this world? How do I nurture children’s curiosity and the urge to express themselves without fear and with joy?
These were my thoughts when I agreed to ‘teach’ creative writing to six mixed-age classrooms with second, third, and fourth standard children. I had noticed that these children were extremely articulate while speaking but were strangely reticent when they had to write. So I decided my goal, if you will, in this first year was to create spaces in the classroom where children were free to express themselves without the shadow of criticism, evaluation, or that looming demon – spelling mistakes.
I realized that one needs access to good quality writing in order to learn to recognize it and acquire the skills to write well. Of course, there is no dearth of good children’s literature. But I wanted the children to realize that well written books that are interesting to read, with thought provoking illustrations need not be from the West but published in India; that characters need not have exotic, English names to be interesting.
We read, It’s Only a Story by Cathy Spagnoli when we discussed where authors get their ideas from. Children loved the circular nature of the story and enjoyed predicting what was going to happen next. A couple of children even commented how it reminded them of Hen Sparrow Turns Purple. I used Snoring Shanmugam and Colour-Colour Kamini to illustrate how one uses characters and setting to tell stories. They welcomed the characters back in Colour-Colour Kamini as if they were reunited with old friends they thought they would never meet again.
My biggest surprise was with Mukand and Riaz by Nina Sabnani. It so happened that I read the story to some of the classes soon after the Bombay blasts. Class teachers were disturbed to hear some of the children talk and comment disparagingly about Muslims, especially as there were Muslim students in the classes. Mukand and Riaz made the whole situation real to the children, provided a historical context, and the children could identify with the characters. “Muslims” became real people, real children, just like them and not some demonised abstraction. They loved the surprise they got when they realized that Mukand was the author’s father and the ‘story’ really happened. The illustrations in all the books I used extended the children’s imagination and they remarked how they help in hooking their interest in making them want to read further.
Using Indian literature that the children could relate to made story writing accessible and possible in children’s minds, opening them up to the notion that they could write interesting, enjoyable stories set in familiar contexts, that they need not be exotic and ‘foreign’, that they too could write stories that others would want to read.
- Bharati Srinivasan, Special Educator and Creative Writing Facilitator