Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading 'Kali and the Rat Snake' with college students

Anne M. Dayanandan describes a session of reading 'Kali and the Rat Snake' with  a group of 35 college students from Vellore, Chennai, Erode and Maraimalai Nagar at a 3 day camp on ‘Knowing about our Rights’. They all are SC students, working on improving their English.

This activity aimed to:
- demonstrate how reading good picture books aloud improves English fluency and public speaking in an enjoyable context, in one’s own peer group.
- stimulate thinking about attitudes that support human rights; that human rights is not only a legal pursuit.
- stimulate thinking about tribal people and education.
- introduce the author and focus on how a book gets written; introduce the concept that we can discuss a book with the author

It was a warm Sunday morning with no electricity but no one seemed to mind. Everyone enjoyed listening to a ‘bedtime story’ read by their new friends. Kali and the Rat Snake enthralled the group, with everyone cheering when Kali became the hero!

Image: Sasikala and Deepa Rani read in English

We read in English first, smoothly moving back and forth between Sasikala and Deepa Rani who read with good, natural expression. The crowd was attentive—this was a new experience. Everyone clapped and appreciated their reading. Then Soniya and Rajathi took the lead and read the same story in Tamil. This time the laughing and gasping was louder, both due to catching more meaning the second time around as well as better comprehension in Tamil. The emotions expressed by Kali are familiar to the group, making him an appealing hero even for this age group. The portrayal of the teacher evoked good laughter from everyone. It was definitely beneficial to read in both English and Tamil, and seemed ok in that order.

Image: Soniya and Rajathi read in Tamil

Students were fascinated with the illustrations. They are easily visible due to the large size of the book. Several students came afterwards and read the book again on their own. One student asked where to buy the book. The response to the story was definitely very positive.

After the reading, we held the ‘interview’ with the author. I was the author and Ms. Sheela, English Instructor from CSI College, Erode, was the interviewer. We followed (basically) the text of the interview. Students were attentive and appreciative.

After the interview, we went straight into another session interpreting paintings, so observing the illustrations in Kali provided transition.

Image: Anne and Sheela do the interview

Organization and Observations

The experience was a good demonstration of how to organize a reading, engage the group, and use expression. We chose to read in pairs since the length of the text permits ‘team reading’ thereby giving opportunity for more students to participate. Also, it is easier to listen to more than one voice. We chose to read continuously, but another option is for one person to read Kali and the other voices, while the other person reads the narration parts. This option can be more confusing to follow and more work to prepare, but if done well, could be effective.

The participants who benefit the most are the readers, of course. All my 9 students trained and practiced, and finally 4 were chosen. At the last minute we had to change due to lack of power (no microphone) since a stronger voice was needed. One of the students afterwards told me that one of her best friends from school is an Irula girl, who is now studying computer science. She sees her whenever she goes home.
The students who read aloud are all 2nd year college students who studied in Tamil medium schools. Spoken English and reading English aloud is not at all easy for them. For the past 1 ½ years, they have had experience in reading picture books aloud to their peers and have gained confidence. They are still working on natural intonation and good public speaking expression. Their fluency, diction, expression, voice control have all improved vastly. They also enjoy reading the books to themselves and each other. They recognize the improvement in their language and this builds even more confidence and motivation. Everyone in their hostel (60 students) participates and enjoys the activity. Sometimes they read on a Friday night, sometimes for guests, or whenever they like. They are eager to read! Our collection includes most all the Tulika titles.

Specifically to prepare Kali and the Rat Snake, I demonstrated a reading in English twice. The 9 students listened to each other, using the method mentioned below. I also listened and gave my feedback in the group setting. We started to practice about a week before the camp. Together we chose the pairs and the languages. Many girls wanted to read in both English and Tamil! Then they practiced in pairs and listened to each other to give feedback. The most difficult skills seemed to be: ‘don’t chop wood’ and ‘become the character & the voice.’

For in-depth training, we use a method of small group peer review. About 4-5 girls read their books to each other, using a simple rubric to help critique each other. Once they get used to doing this, they willingly help each other and cheerfully accept suggestions. A sample of the rubric is given below. (We also use little picture icons for each skill to help remember) This method takes time, but it gives fast benefits since all are focused on observing, not just on what they will say. We practice in this manner during camps when we have at least a full day. The posters with these skills are posted in the hostel at times. They like to recite the list! Of course, applying the skills takes practice but reading picture books is much more fun than just giving speeches, so they eagerly choose this activity.

+  /  NI (needs improvement)
eye contact

move your lips

stretch your vowels

don’t chop wood

don't climb mountains

no distractions

feel what you speak

read the punctuation

speak in phrases, like a song


become the character
and the voice