A Glimpse of India: Some Musings on Literacy from a Fulbrighter

The Author, Maureen Hall, and Dr. Bal Ram Singh at Kuruom Vidyalaya

The Author, Maureen Hall, and Dr. Bal Ram Singh at Kuruom Vidyalaya

Dr. Maureen P. Hall is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She received her Ph.D. in English Education from the University of Virginia. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth since 2003 and was awarded tenure in 2009. Before teaching at the higher education level, Dr. Hall taught for ten years at the secondary (grades 7-12) level in the public schools of New Hampshire. Dr. Hall also has a Masters in English and American Studies from the University of Virginia, a M.Ed. in English Education from Keene State College in New Hampshire, and a B.A. in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Since 2005, she has published nine peer-reviewed articles and has two forthcoming (2011) books: 1) Writing from the Inside, (Equinox Publishers, U.K) with co-author Olivia Archibald and 2) Transforming Literacy, (Emerald Insight Publishers, U.K) with co-author Robert P. Waxler. Her recent research focuses on cognitive-affective learning and the integration of contemplative practices for deepening learning. She has been awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar award for research in India in 2010-2011. 

As the recipient of a Fulbright in India, I have had many incredible learning opportunities over the past seven months, interacted with so many professors and students in India, and gained new perspectives on the power of education for transforming individuals and whole cultures. At the heart of my investigations was always literacy. I wanted to learn more about the educational system in India in terms of the similarities and differences to education in America. I wanted to find out how literacy learning was promoted and/or hindered in India.

One school where I was invited to give some lectures on my work was at the Jaipuria School in the city of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. Anjali Jaipuria was the head of this school. Anjali and I spent quite a bit of time together engaged in many conversations about the state of education in both India and America and also how to improve education globally. As a part of these dialogues, I told her that I was writing a piece on literacy in India for the CLTL blog. “Well,” she responded, “the person who asked you to write that probably assumes you will write about illiteracy in India.”

Anjali then told me, “Literacy would mean different things to different people, depending on what their perspective is. One looking at the grand scale of prevalent illiteracy in India would study literacy.” I explained to her that the person who started CLTL and the blog for CLTL was the most passionate about literacy of anyone I have ever known. That is Bob Waxler.

For my Fulbright work, I was involved with a rural school in Uttar Pradesh called Kuruom Vidyalaya School.  This is a village school that was started by Dr. Bal Ram Singh from UMass Dartmouth. This school, which can be found online at:  http://www.kuruomvidyalaya.com/ is located about twenty minutes from the small city of Sultanpur.  At this school, there are now grades 1-9 now with girls and boys, and there are a total of 12 teachers in the school.

My Fulbright research utilized Robert Frost’s poetry as the content through which I would bridge theory-to-practice from the Super Accelerated Learning Theory (SALT). This theory was developed by Professor Pandit Ramsamooj; he is affiliated with UMass Dartmouth and teaches for the Center for Indic Studies. Each new classroom practice I created grew from one of the five parts of the Super Accelerated Learning Theory.

SALT, this learning theory, is quite large and overall, it is a whole-brain learning theory. I distilled what I considered to be the most important five parts of the Super Accelerated Learning Theory. The five theoretical elements of SALT which I am continuing to develop, are as follows: 1)Visualization and mental practice are used in novel ways for retention of information and understanding.; 2)Multiple intelligences are privileged in the learning process.;3)Patterns and mnemonics are utilized for improved learning and retention of that learning.; 4)Learning through yoga and meditation. An “altered state of consciousness” is facilitated for teaching and learning concepts, in part through the simultaneous activation of the left and right brain. Student–teacher rapport is highlighted. (Yoga/Meditation, etc…).; and 5) Learning through story or narrative. Since SALT pedagogy is underpinned by the idea that information must be continuous, narrative forms are privileged to help students understand connections between concepts and to retain information and ideas. It is important to note that these are not the only parts of the theory.

My goal with the Kuruom Vidyalaya teachers was to model or teach the teachers each of the five theoretical parts and how those parts “translated” into classroom practices. The teachers would then be able to modify and use these practice with their students to improve student learning in their own classrooms.

The Learning Curve

Interaction. I worked to model interactive learning for the teachers, as I believe that learning through the self is the only real way that people learn. I now have an enlarged understanding of the Gurukula system in India, as it privileges learning though self and the importance of the student-teacher connection. The Gurukula system is where the guru or teacher would live and work with students, and the student-to-teacher ratio was very small. One of my revelations in India was that learning only happens through the self.  It seems to be a very simple idea, but I believe it has great importance in literacy learning and in all learning. When one increases self-knowledge, one becomes more open to the ideas and strengths of others in the world. I agree with the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo’s idea that “nothing can be taught.” Having aligned myself with some of Sri Aurobindo’s notions about education, I also have to say that I also believe so many things can be learned. All teachers anywhere in the world can do is to provide effective learning opportunities for students. The learning happens in each student–as each student makes meaning of new knowledge in light of prior experiences.

Getting the teachers to learn through interaction involved the navigation of one of the steepest learning curves Kuruom Vidyalaya. I came to understand through my observations at other universities and schools in modern-day India that the standard teaching and learning mode is singular: the teacher talks and the student memorizes. I was attempting to change this paradigm with these teachers.

At this rural village school, they teach three languages–Hindi, Sanskrit, and English.  Although the teachers’ English skills were fairly well-developed, it was still hard for them to understand my accent. I focused on speaking as slowly and clearly as I could and stopped regularly to check for understanding.   I knew it was important to first work on building community with them, instilling in them that it was safe to share ideas within our classroom space. The creation of community is very important for literacy learning. After the initial steep learning curve, the teachers began to enjoy the interaction and started to brainstorm ways to integrate more student-centered and interactive learning in their own classroom spaces for teaching and learning.

As I continued to work with the teachers at Kuruom Vidyalaya, I found new ways to  develop or translate each of these five parts of the SALT theory into classroom practices. In my teacher training modules, I taught the teachers how to “enter” some Robert Frost poems and make both literal and figurative sense of the poems. This “making sense” of the poems had to do with encouraging the teachers to “map” the stories of their own lives onto the symbolic meaning of the poems.  It privileged the fifth component of the SALT theory, which is about learning though narrative or story.

In my work with Bob Waxler, and in our new book Transforming Literacy (forthcoming, May 2011, Emerald Insight Publishers) we develop the idea of “Deep Reading” and its implications for the classroom. There is an older blog posting I wrote on this site from a while ago which develops this idea of deep reading. Deep reading involves sharp focus and reflection. Deep reading is in jeopardy in our modern world because the reflective component is becoming lost or atrophied. For example, the antithesis to deep reading involves the kind of energy and practices a person engages in for posting on Facebook. Deep reflection is nowhere to be found.

Going back to my discussions with Anjali Jaipuria, we talked about the importance of many forms of literature—especially poetry and narrative—as well as music for developing and expanding students’ literacy. When people read, they automatically “map” their own life stories onto what they read. This has been now confirmed in new work being conducted in neuroscience which involves “mirror neurons” in the brain. (See, among others, the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.) Anjali talked about how there are so many versions of literacy in India.  One version privileges only the getting of high marks. That is not the most important kind of literacy.  We agreed that the kind of literacy that is the “deepest” is a transformative kind.  A student reads a piece, and, as the student reads, he or she is shaped by the piece and also shapes the piece.  The best kind of literacy is one that deepens one’s self-knowledge.  It broadens one’s perspective and opens up new fields in which to wander, new territories to navigate.

My work with these teachers and in development of the Super Accelerated Learning Theory continues. Developing classroom practices from all parts of the SALT theory would take more than one lifetime. I will continue to learn more about how literacy learning can be promoted in teaching and learning spaces in both America and India.  I know I will definitely go back to Kuruom Vidyalaya and India many times. There is much work to be done.

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4 Comments on “A Glimpse of India: Some Musings on Literacy from a Fulbrighter”

  1. Bob says:

    Great work, Maureen! Keep the vision worldwide!

  2. Sarah Lopes says:

    What an experience, Dr. Hall. Continue to do great things!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Dr. Hall, It’s nice to see some of what we studied in your class being practiced globally without “boundaries”. I can really connect to this way of pedagogy because it has an “ebb and flow”, and “yin and yang” approach so that the students (teachers) who are learning can make meaning and understanding. I think you are on to something!

  4. Andrea Ross says:

    Professor Hall,
    I am refreshed to see an educator venturing beyond what is safe and familiar to share the gift of literacy.


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