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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

And they all lived happily ever after

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For The Hindu.

A storytelling programme from Assam that might travel to Glasgow as well

Who doesn’t love a good story? It can transport you to a different world in moments. Life’s lessons, communicated through a story, can stay with you for a long time. Storytelling can also help children learn a different language. A storytelling programme was launched in 2009 in 20 tea gardens of Assam by a local NGO, Heritage Assam, in association with UNICEF. It now has the backing of the Centre’s flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. It has helped more than 10,000 children in Assam enhance their reading skills and has been shown to reduce the number of dropouts. Lipika Murah, 18, lives with her parents in a tea garden in Jorhat district of Assam. When she was nine, her teacher conducted storytelling sessions after school hours. This helped her learn Assamese, the language of teaching used in classroom and in textbooks, but not in her home. Assamese — the State language — is not the medium of communication among tea garden workers. Constituting 17% of the State’s 31.21 million population, tea garden workers — mostly adivasis who migrated from States like Jharkhand, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh more than a century ago — have their own social mores and linguistic culture. So, their children face a communication barrier in government schools.

First learners

Lipika says, “School was a strange world. I did not understand my lessons and was nervous about interacting with others because I didn’t know Assamese well.” Her school, right inside a tea garden, had a lot of children from the tea workers’ community as well as from the nearby villages.

“Most children from the tea garden community are first-generation learners,” says Tushar Rane, the chief of UNICEF in Assam. When you add to this the problem of being unfamiliar with the language of instruction, it is no surprise children drop out at the elementary level itself. Following its success, the programme was extended to cover children of the Mising tribe in the Majuli island of Jorhat district in 2015. The programme is now being implemented in 80 schools in 12 districts of the State, including Goalpara, Sibsagar and Barpeta.

Stories have brought the fun back to learning. | Photo Credit: Unicef

During a visit to the Govindpur lower primary school, I found the head teacher and storyteller, Binita Rajput, in the middle of an animated session. The children sat cross-legged on the classroom floor, wide-eyed and attentive.

“The children understand Assamese quite well now. This was just an impromptu session, to break the monotony and bring back their attention to the lesson,” Binita said. Here was one passionate teacher who read the pulse of her students well. Binita is from the tea garden community. As such, she too has faced the problem of not knowing Assamese in the classroom.

Braving the challenge, Binita completed her graduation and was selected for the storytelling programme in 2009. During the three-day workshop, she, along with other teachers, was given a set of 30 stories to tell the children. They were trained in pronunciation and taught some tricks to make storytelling interesting — through voice modulation, poetry, song and dance — by a professional dramatist and recitation artiste.

With time, the long-term effects of the programme became evident. Lipika, for instance, scored the highest in Assamese in her Class X board examination and was awarded a scholarship for her overall performance by the State government.

Students like Lipika, who have benefited from the programme, now volunteer to tell stories to school children in the weekend sessions. “I especially love narrating the Boga Haati (White Elephant) story,” she smiles, and adds that she dreams of taking up acting as a profession.

Bridging the divide

The programme has generated interest even outside the country. P.C. Tamuly, who works for Heritage Assam, says that a group of researchers from University of Glasgow wanted to learn more about the programme from him. “The researchers said that in their country they face a similar problem: children of immigrants find it difficult to cope in school because of the language divide. The storytelling initiative gives them a chance to integrate such children with society,” he says.

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