A few weeks ago, I offered to volunteer through Karmayog. On the form, I had mentioned that I live in a distant suburb, and that I could not commit to anything long-term or working on a daily basis. But I said I would still like to offer whatever skills I have to help children, preferably teenagers, or young adults. One of the few organisations that got back in touch was LEAD, a small group working with children from underprivileged backgrounds in Airoli. They told me that they worked under several limitations, and I told them of my own constraints of time, distance and reluctance to commit to a schedule. But I offered to do a workshop for the kids at the LEAD center, and they agreed to let me.
When I made the offer, I had no clear agenda in mind. All I had promised was that it would be interactive and creative. But I was not making a sort of 'lesson plan' or workshop outline, and I had good reason for not doing so. One, I have some experience of working with kids and I know that it is almost impossible to follow a teaching 'plan' unless you are familiar with the kids and their understanding of the subjects/topics you bring up. In fact, it becomes difficult to stick to a pre-decided format even when you are dealing with college students or professionals, if you want to make the meeting an interactive one.
The second reason is that, while I am not a professional conductor of workshops, I do have a fair understanding of communication and what short-term workshops can achieve. A workshop like the one I was planning - for kids from different age groups, who may or may not know the alphabet, may or may not have ever attended school - could not be successful if it assumed anything at all about its participants.
I had been warned that there would be several kids, ranging from four to fourteen. As it turned out, the range was even wider. There were at least two babies in attendance, on the hips of older siblings, and some other kids who were barely more than toddlers. Some seemed hungry, some irritable. Some physical powpowing was in progress. So I decided to do something that may not result in any immediate benefit, not on the face of it, but would give them enough to think about, or lead them to newer discoveries, fresh ways of looking at their world.
Besides, I wanted the freedom to switch between communication tracks at the last minute, depending on what the overall workshop mood looked like.
Getting to Airoli was a bit of a task. It involved three trains, an auto and a bike ride. The LEAD center was a single room with durries on the floor, a blackboard, a lot of posters and colourful pin-ups of the kind that belong to the average classroom. I had thought to start with a sort of game or exercise: getting the children to introduce themselves and also say a little more than just their names, something about themselves. I suggested that they say something new, which was not common knowledge in this room. The exercise did not go down too well.
Many of the kids were too shy to even tell me their names. Hardly any of them could say anything about him/herself, although there was a one little gentleman who announced that he was a boy, and also insisted that this fact was not common knowledge. When I arrived, I had wanted to sit and talk with the kids about their lives and their creative ambitions. Maybe get them to write some poetry, or even a play. But it was immediately apparent that I would not be able to do this without getting to know them a little better. There were too many of them. The room was too small and too warm. There were several adult volunteers around who were helping to keep order, but the noise levels were very high and most of the children were too young to be able to come up with poetry, off hand. I'm not sure they were old enough to understand what a poem was. They certainly weren't exposed to enough drama or other related arts for them to be able to jump headlong into a creative enterprise of their own. So I decided to save that for another day and try something else.
I have to confess that it was very hard. When I was younger I had sworn off teaching as a profession because I had seen, first-hand, what chaos little kids create, and how easy it is to turn into an ogre with a foul temper and an itchy palm, if you cannot get them to be quiet and attentive. So yes, it was hard to catch, and keep, the children's attention. The problem was compounded by the fact that I do not speak Marathi or Gujarati. The gaps between the kids' ages and educational backgrounds wasn't helping either. All the children were distracted. Even introductions were hard because some kids sat there in corners, looking like they'd been whacked just because I asked them their names, while other bubbly, super-enthu kids wanted to introduce themselves three or four times.
Some of them wanted to recite the alphabet, as soon as they saw my face. Some wanted to sing. Some wanted to take notes for whatever I said. Anyway, I spent a bit of time just getting each child to stand up and introduce him/herself. Then I introduced myself and asked them who they thought I was, what I did. I asked them what their fathers and mothers did, where they worked. Once they had finished telling me, I told them I was a writer. And then, I explained to them the concept of a writer - somebody who writes books and poems and articles for newspapers.
I borrowed a text-book from one child and opened it to the first lesson - which prompted some of the kids to immediately bring out their books, turn to the same page and start reading out (that should tell us something about the way our schools function). I pointed out that the simplest rhymes, essays, texts have to be created by somebody. Somebody who does this for a living. Then I moved on to newspapers.
I asked them to name newspapers they were familiar with, and their purpose. Some children came up with the right answers (the answers I wanted to hear, anyway) with relative ease. In fact, it was amazing to see them make that leap - from not knowing the connection between the act of writing and the morning newspaper, to a seemingly natural understanding of the function of media and processes surrounding news. I talked them through the whole process of writing for newspapers.
I started backwards - got them to tell me what they thought might be an interesting item of news from the papers. Someone mentioned a train accident. So we worked our way back to the source of this information. And then we moved forward again: from rumour to confirmation from official sources to eye-witness testimony, to the logical and immediate locations one must visit after a violent incident.
I was very pleased to see that I did not have to prompt them much. The kids knew, somehow, what to do. They said they would call up the police and the railways to get confirmation. They said they would go to the site themselves. They said they would next visit hospitals.
It was very interesting to see how early an understanding and instinct for media develops: how kids know about events and collect information, and what they expect from the administration and government. From there, I went on to the editing business. Told them what to do with a given piece of news, if they wanted to put it in a newspaper. Told them about editors, addresses, and how to approach someone with a story.
After that, I had them split into three smaller groups and told each group to come up with a story, the sort that could go into a local newspaper. The really little ones did not participate, of course. But with some encouragement from their regular teachers, many kids came up with stories. Several of these were about instances of theft in their own neighbourhood. One little girl kept insisting that her bindi was stolen off the mirror in her home. A little boy dismssed her report as lies, which led to her bursting into tears. One boy came up with a celebrity story (about Shah Rukh Khan being injured a few years ago). Others came up with tales of people being possessed by spirits/ghosts, and a widow going on a protest fast.
I was taking down all their stories on a blackboard, and they were all very excited, and were already fighting for 'print-space'! They all demanded that their stories be included and some were rather disappointed that their stories had to be wiped off, to make way for the next group. It was their first lesson in the ephemeral nature of success in the media, and the romance of the byline!
(It was amusing, actually, to see how little we change. Adult journalists can be equally petulant when it comes to having their stories on the front page, and they are just as sulky when their stories are dropped in favour of something bigger, or sent into the inner pages).
We also talked a little about front pages, newsiness, what peice of news deserves to be given the most visibility. Except for one little boy who insisted that Shah Rukh Khan deserved to be on the front page, even if the news was eight years old, most of the participating kids felt that 'theft' was the most important item.
It was a very basic lesson in media. I don't know where it will lead, but I am hoping that at the very least, the kids will start looking at news with a better sense of what is going on. I hope that in the future, it will help the kids think about mass communication and what it stands for. They might perhaps take a greater interest in newspapers, or consider the possibility of developing their skills in media.
I ended the workshop by asking their teachers, other volunteers, to see that the kids' engagement with media continues with some way. They could have the kids bring in news, take turns to read it out, or even do weekly exercises of the sort we'd jsut done. It would help the children to think about and discuss the world around them. And it would also help to get each child to speak up more often.
What I liked most about the whole evening was that the girls were more active participants than the boys. They were shy and giggly to begin with. But within a couple of hours, they had begun to speak with confidence and seemed to be really interested in listening. This matters to me because whenever I meet girls from underprivileged backgrounds who are thinking of careers, they seem to have two ideas stuck in their heads - tailoring, and beauty parlours. Neither of these professions brings in that much money, but they know that it is a step up from domestic chores; at least, it involves some sort of training and skill. Ask these girls what they want to be when they grow up, and the really little ones might say 'doctor' or 'teacher' or even 'film star'. But the adolescent girls, those who have had a chance to take a good, hard look at their lives and prospects, will often say they want to work in a beauty parlour. I wanted them to look at their options once again.
I wanted both the boys and the girls to know that it takes so little to be a journalist. Becoming a good writer might be a separate issue, but media work is essentially easy work and getting media training is not that much harder than learning tailoring or car mechanic work (sometimes, I wonder if the latter would not have given me a more stable career :)
[This is a modified, more personal account of the evening. I did another version as a report for the group after the workshop.]