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.

Changing Lives In Maximum Security Prison

News Release:

The child of an alcoholic and the product of a broken home, Mike Cooley was abused physically and verbally and bounced from school to school and city to city during his youth. He also went from a homeless and drug addicted teenager and completely lost young adult to CEO of a million dollar company. Now a Coventry, R.I., resident and author of Rock Bottom: From the Streets to Success, Mike will share his inspirational story with inmate students in Dr. Mari Dias’s Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) class on Thursday, April 14th, beginning about 9:30 a.m.

An Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Johnson & Wales University, Mari Dias has been the volunteer facilitator for CLTL at the RIDOC’s men’s Maximum Security Facility for the last six years. Dr. Dias weaves major tenants of both psychology and sociology into the classroom discussions. The twelve-week course utilizes the text Changing Lives Through Literature edited by Robert Waxler and Jean Trounstine, which includes a compilation of short stories that touch upon the themes of family, violence, and addiction.

Based on the idea that literature has the power to transform, CLTL allows students to make a connection with the characters or ideas in a text and to rethink their own behavior. According to Dr. Dias, “This program can be a conduit to self-directed change.”

Michael Cooley will be at Main Street Coffee in East Greenwich, RI on Saturday, April 30th from 1pm to 3pm signing copies of his book.

Professor Sees Link in Psychology, Literature

The following article was posted in The Brown & White, a Lehigh University student-run publication.

“The collaboration between literary theory and psychology will prosper,” said Suzanne Keen, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, at the Psychology Colloquium last Wednesday.

This renewed interest in collaboration between literature and psychology, which Keen calls “the return of affect,” has several serious implications, among the most important being a marked connection between literature and social justice.

Keen speaks of Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative to incarceration in which instructors guide discussions with criminal offenders about insightful literature. Among the program’s axioms is, “The written word affects us far beyond the moment of reading.” The percentage of repeat offenders in the CLTL program is 20 percent, while those not involved in the program have repeat offenses about 45 percent of the time after their initial incarceration.

Which novels, then, yield the greatest social benefits? Some believe that literature that maintains emotional engagement in processes of empathy has the power to mold citizens who make good decisions on behalf of others.

Keen, however, is more skeptical. She asserts that narrative empathy is not necessarily causal of real-world empathy.

“Literature might change the world, if we decide it ought to,” she said.

Many attendees were intrigued by Keen’s citation of the CLTL program. How can a book be the cause of reform for criminal offenders? What does a criminal rehabilitation program resembling a book club mean for those with sociopathic tendencies?

Keen said she believes it is not the books that cause a change in attitude among the criminal offenders, but rather the discussion led by the instructor that follows the reading.

“Inside every book is a person,” Keen said, and books that criminal offenders may identify with are often chosen.

Offenders are asked to relate to the characters and their situations.

For example, Keen said she had an affinity for the “dream” scenario: An instructor may begin a discussion by citing a character’s dream and then asks the inmates what their dreams are like. The books have characters that turn away from a life of crime or show extreme repentance for any crimes committed.

Keen said Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” has been chosen in the past as a preferred reading for discussion.

Read the remainder of this article here.

Unfortunate News for WIPN: “Barbarians At The Gates”

The following is a release entitled “Barbarians at the Gates” from Writers In Prison Network (WIPN), the program we focused our attention on in our last post here at CLCM. In addition to this piece, WIPN has sent the following message:

We’ll have something up on our website at the beginning of the next week.  Meanwhile here are a couple of e-mail addresses you might find useful:

Arts Council’s Chair, Dame Liz Forgan, <chiefexecutive@artscouncil.org.uk>
Ros Robins, Regional Director West Midlands ACE <ros.robins@artscouncil.org.uk>
“Ceri Gorton” our ACE lead officer <Ceri.Gorton@artscouncil.org.uk>
Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey <vaizeye@parliament.uk>

Barbarians at the Gates

For those who don’t know ACE cut all our funding from 2012.  We have sufficient funding confirmed to survive until September 2012.  For those who already know here’s where we can go from here (new ideas welcome).  All of you join the fight.  We can win.

What we do is brilliant.  What you do is brilliant.  WIPN, WIRs and our co-workers are the jewels in our crown.  We know that what we do is beyond compare.  Clearly the Arts Council, for all their kind (and sincere) words of praise does not share our view to the point of continuing our funding in the National Portfolio.   (But kind words don’t pay wages.) This does not represent the ‘balance’ ACE claim to have sought; our absence from the Criminal Justice System leaves a serious, irretrievable hole.  No one is doing what we do.  In the future no one will be doing it at all.  A yawning gap has opened up in the national arts strategy.  One of the most excluded sectors of our society has been further marginalised, excluded.  It is not enough to argue that Geese, TiPP Clean Break fill the gap.  Fine companies, doing brilliant work but focused exclusively on theatre.  What of creative writing, oral storytelling, video, audio/radio, journalism, publishing?  Who will be delivering that?  Answer: no one.  No one.

What are we to now that the sky has fallen in?  Give in?  No chance.  We are tough, resilient, resourceful, creative.  ACE has offered some marginal (and welcome) help and we welcome it.  But there are other more powerful and effective things we can do for ourselves.

ACE has torpedoed our ship and now offers a lifeboat.  What we need is another ship and, with your help, we will find one (see the attachment).  Protest, by all means.  Raise WIPN’s profile, certainly.  Find alternative funding, absolutely.

So, in passing, who is to blame for this criminal decision?  Hopefully not WIPN, we put in our best possible, application, rated Strong/Good by ACE at Stage 1, discarded at Stage 2 as not fulfilling the grand 10 year vision of the Arts as much as other companies.  When was the last time someone from the Arts Council actually came into your prison to see firsthand what fantastic work you’re doing?

Where do the cuts come from?  We all know we face a serious problem with the national finances, from which ACE’s bounties flow.  Name your culprit – the last Labour government, the world economic downturn, the bankers (must spell-check that one), the idiot Osborne – tick one or more.  Yet the savings from the Arts are mere chickenfeed and WIPN’s portion only breadcrumbs from the table.

But, no, WHO is applying these cuts, fast, furious, and sometimes lethal?  It’s the Coalition Government, the LibDems (pause, while I spit feathers).

Don’t shoot the messenger.  The Minister for the Arts, ACE could certainly have stood up more strongly and defended our small corner but they didn’t.  ACE are only delivering what the Government demand in their barbaric, heavy-handed manner.  Frontline public services, libraries, the arts, women and children, disadvantaged groups, young people in education, prisons, they’re all soft targets.  How much does each Cruise missile cost, Trident, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya?  Where are the government’s priorities?

The Cleggeron is a mighty weapon with a fatal flaw.  When set in motion it swerves wildly to the right and makes cuts in every direction, blind and unfeeling.

Our aim must be to deny the Barbarians at the gate.  We are one of the last civilising influences in the Criminal Justice System, we must not disappear like a ripple on a pond.  We are the stone, not the ripple.

So begins the great campaign to raise us from the dead.  We have 18 months to breathe life into our kicking and protesting corpse.  ACE can still help but they are not the answer.  We, you are the answer and we will survive.