Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ken's School Sessions: Part 1

On his trip to India, author Ken Spillman visited different schools in Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata. He shares insights from some school sessions. 

An aspect of India that strikes many visitors is the chasm that separates the haves and the have-nots. On my own visits, I’ve been impressed and inspired by the work of many individuals, foundations and NGOs who work to improve the lot of the latter.

In a professional capacity my interactions with Indian schoolkids began in 2008, but as a writer of books in English my contact with economically disadvantaged children was, until quite recently, negligible. In July 2011, through Akshara Foundation, I was able to run sessions with children at community libraries in the poorer neighbourhoods of Bangalore, and I was thrilled to return to one of these in November. In the same month, I connected with Seagull Foundation in Kolkata and had some lovely experiences with kids in the PeaceWorks programme. Between Bangalore and Kolkata, thanks to the initiative of Tulika Books, I was also able to interact with some of Chennai’s disadvantaged kids.

First stop was Olcott School where, I was told, the students are predominantly the children of Chennai’s fisher folk. Immediately apparent was the peace and tranquillity of the school – it’s a large, well-treed place that shuts out much of the city noise, and its bungalow-style buildings are far from institutional. Tulika’s Chrishelle David and I were welcomed very warmly by the principal (and founder), and then escorted to an open-walled shelter where the kids were waiting. They were seated on the floor in straight rows, and I sensed the anticipation that comes hand in hand with rare occurrences. Heads turned and eyes were wide as they scrutinised me, so I began by breaking down the formality of the occasion. It wasn’t hard – kids everywhere want to relax and have fun! Their command of English was less than commanding,with most hesitant to ask questions in English in front of their peers. Nevertheless, by session’s end we were great friends. I was surrounded by kids wanting to tell or ask me something, communicating quite adequately in English, and it was clear that they didn’t want me to leave. I’m sure they understood the messages I take everywhere, that imagination is precious and that books can feed it like little else.

My second experience with disadvantaged children in Chennai was at the Nari Kuravar School for orphans, run by NGO Bhumi. Perhaps the biggest challenge about this school was finding it – and I hate to think how long the kids were waiting for us, upward of a hundred of them seated cheek-by-jowl in a single classroom. We were greeted by Bhumi volunteers, and a cheer went up as we were ushered inside. With age variation, a language barrier and overcrowding, I knew immediately that making our session worthwhile would be challenging. To the best of my ability, I communicated simply, with actions, and with volunteers acting as interpreters when necessary. My focus was not on books – it was on story. Having long been interested in the area of story therapy, it occurred to me that these were kids who should be given voice, kids who would benefit if encouraged to tell their own stories. To assist those children who responded to my invitation to tell a story, I asked them to tell it to a volunteer, who would briefly translate it for me before broadcasting it to the group. This process took time, but it paid dividends because the stories were highly entertaining. It demonstrated to the kids that they too were imaginative storytellers and that they could receive the affirmation – and have fun – through stories. Later I spoke to volunteers about this, encouraging them to work with smaller groups of kids, utilising story to build confidence and as a means of articulating and sublimate anxieties.

I’m grateful to Tulika Books for facilitating these visits. Its publication of great books in Indian languages gives Tulika wide reach, and its commitment to children of all backgrounds is expressed often and in many ways. Taking me to schools where sales of my book Advaita the Writer (published only in English) could not be expected to ensue underlines that commitment. For me, it’s always a privilege to meet kids. What they bring to this world is what I most like to talk about – imagination. There is capacity in each and every child. All I try to do is stretch it.

 Visit to know more about Ken and his work.


  1. Must commend Tulika for the good work. Way to go Ken for going out and reaching the children. I believe such visits can inspire and motivate the kids to come up with great things and achievements in the future. Keep it up Tulika :) Nice initiative

  2. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    Independent House in Chennai


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