From hub-and-spoke to classroom libraries: lessons from Akshara

India and South Africa could learn a lot from each other, particularly when it comes to education.

Both have made great strides with primary school enrolment over the last few decades, but still struggle with the quality of learning outcomes – with a significant proportion of children in upper primary school who essentially cannot read. Both countries’ school leaving certificates – the SSLC in India, and the NSC in South Africa – have low value and do not signal competence or skills to employers. Both seek to balance the new opportunities technology affords with the reality that the poorest have limited access to smartphones, data and airtime.

This week, I’m in India to see for myself. I’ll be spending time in Bangalore, Mumbai, Aurangabad and New Delhi, meeting with organisations and visiting programmes that are pushing the boundaries in education. I plan to post throughout the week, and afterwards, about some of the things I’m learning.

On day one, I spent the afternoon with the team at the Akshara Foundation. Today I’ll outline the evolution of Akshara’s library programme, from a hub-and-spoke system to classroom libraries, and rave about their innovative way of tracking book checkouts.
Background of the library programme:
The Akshara Foundation was established in 2000, based on the belief that quality education is the undeniable right of every child. Over the last 15 years, its work has touched the lives of more than 1 million children in the state of Karnataka in South India. It focuses on preschool and primary school education.

While most government schools in Karnataka have libraries, these lack age-appropriate, attractive books and a working process. Teachers are not trained as librarians, and view extra work as a ‘burden’ they do not want to take on.

In 2007, Akshara launched a library programme using a hub-and-spoke model, where each “hub” – a physical library with a dedicated librarian – served a number of “spoke” schools, which were visited regularly by a mobile librarian. Books were colour-coded by difficulty, and librarians in hub schools ran additional activities to stimulate learning.

But after a few years, Akshara changed tack. It realised that there was no viable way to keep librarians in schools unless they remained on Akshara’s payroll – which was not a scalable or long-term solution. Usage met expectations: overall, 81% of children visited libraries at least once a month, and in most months, 60% borrowed at least one book. But what if kids could access the books whenever they wanted – not only when their class visited the library or the library came to them? And – while RCTs cannot provide the full picture of a social intervention’s effect – a 2012 randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the programme found no impact on student scores on a language skills test administered after 16 months.

In 2014, Akshara replaced its hub-and-spoke model with classroom libraries – which our South African partner Biblionef also increasingly advocates as the most effective model to get kids reading in schools. To date, they’ve placed libraries in 3 250 classrooms at 1 000 schools.
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The libraries themselves are cleverly designed: foldable book kits (which can be put away overnight) that hold about 100 books. Teachers receive a simple, half-day training in how to use the libraries and monitor usage.

A classroom library has a few benefits, compared to the hub-and-spoke model. First, it doesn’t require an extra person, though the burden on teachers remains low. Second, books are closer to kids, and more accessible on a daily basis.
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And third, progress is public, through an innovative and incredibly simple M&E system Akshara has developed. This got me most excited – as I’ve seen partners struggle to collect and manage data about library use at the school level.

Each library comes with a histogram, blocked out by month, which teachers hang on the wall (usually with a pencil hanging nearby). When a child checks out a book, the teacher – or sometimes the child herself! – marks it on the histogram, noting the month and the level of the book.

Once a month, teachers take and submit a photo of the histogram, which is then captured digitally to enable large-scale comparison and analysis. (What’s more, the data is all public on the Karnataka Learning Partnership – but that’s for another blog post!)

Ideally, as children use the library more often, and as their reading improves, the histogram will show both an increase in the number of books checked out per month, and in the difficulty of books children are reading.

Over the last year, this was indeed the case: the team told me that the average number of books checked out per learner per month rose from 2.5 at the start of the school year to 5.5 at the end of the year, and difficulty typically increased.

One shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t tell whether one child is a big reader and another isn’t reading at all. Still, this could be addressed in other simple ways, such as reading logs.

Even with libraries in classrooms, closer to kids, schools close at 3:30 pm, which limits access to books. As an experiment, Akshara also hung 50 libraries at village tea shops in rural areas – the social spaces where everyone congregates after school and work. They aren’t tracking this methodically, but they’ve heard very positive feedback: kids read, adults read, adults read with kids. I love this idea of sparking reading in community spaces, simply by bringing books to where people are – and I wonder what the equivalent of the village tea shop would be in rural South Africa.
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Thank you to Ashok, Asha and Vaijayanti at Akshara for so generously sharing your time!

via Head & Heart, by Katie Huston 

Emerging Readership

Anuradha Nagaraj writes about how rural libraries have been taking the extra effort to reach out to children who had no access to them.

Via Open
“It’s the best thing that could have happened to these children,” says HP Siddharaju, headmaster of a government higher primary school in nearby Arralikatai village. “Now in the evenings, instead of running wild and staying out till late at night, the village children, including those who don’t study in this school, come to the library. The access to good reading material gives them access to the world of reading and it has impacted their performance in school also.”
The Akshara Foundation first started its reading programme in 2006 in government schools in Bangalore urban district. It began by redefining what a library meant. “The library is not just about borrowing books; we wanted it to be a multi-functional space linked to classroom learning,” explains Ashok Kamath, chairman of the foundation.
Akshara started by creating simple laminated reading cards that a child could also take home. Like Hippocampus, it developed library-related activities, got storytellers to spin yarns for the children and at the end of five years achieved “significant results”.
“Between the first phase of the programme and a follow through the mop-up phase, nearly 86 per cent of the children were converted to ‘reader’ category, [having] acquired the ability to read unknown sentences or paragraphs,” says Kamath, adding that most of the libraries have now been handed back to the government to run.
Read the entire article here
Read more about Akshara’s library programme here

Take a sneak peek at Akshara’s Library Programme 

Campaign on Ice: A working trip to Ladakh

Recently Arvind Venkatadri, who heads our Library programme was in Leh to train around 100 Heads of Government Primary schools, where 17000 ft Foundation has set up school-based Libraries. Akshara is their knowledge partner in this initiative.
Read below Arvind’s travelogue to know more about this exciting trip and working in Leh in sub zero temperatures.

Welcome to Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, Leh. The temperature outside is -12 degrees Celsius”. I had arrived in Ladakh, but a Ladakhi welcome had already been bestowed on me the previous day at New Delhi airport, where I was met by a smiling Stanzin Norbu from the 17000ft Foundation. I was here at the invitation of Sujata and Sandeep Sahu, founders of 17K, to help them provide a training-orientation to Heads of some 100 Government Primary Schools, where they had set up their School Libraries as part of their programme with rural Ladakhi schools.
It seemed at first sight that there were just two things in Ladakh: ice, and space. From my bedroom window, on the ground floor, I could gaze upon the sunlit spires of mountains on the far shore of the Indus. I had been given a list of clothing material to buy and I got it all from Decathlon here in Bangalore, the most important part being a Goose-Down-Jacket-with-a-hood. I had thermals and skiing-gloves and fleece sweaters and fleece caps and a balaclava and skiing clothing ( form-fit trousers and shirt ) and a baggy waterproof pair of trousers. I had been asked to take Diamox tablets for altitude sickness and I felt no ill effects whatsoever.

I spent the first day getting used to all the clothing I was wearing and took a walk into Leh. All that rustling of clothing made me turn around more than once, but I was alone. Never have I seen snow-swept, sunlit streets so desolate: there was not a person in sight, it could have been a ghost town. I did trudge up into the market street to finally see some cars and people. Breathing was not easy that first day, and it was not just the cold. The words “thin air” took a new, precise meaning for me once again.

The training began the next day and I spent two days lecturing in Hindi to the Heads from Govt Schools there; some of these schools are located at 15,000 feet ! Training began at 11.20 AM (after the first period; it is after all a college for Teachers) and ended at 4 pm on both days. Most of these HMs are were very young, the average age must have been 25-30 not more. Schools in Ladakh are shut from December to February; that is when the Teachers complete most of their training for the new academic session. The training was held at the DIET (District Institute of Education Training). The training rooms had hot stoves called Bukhari-s, three of them, with chimneys leading through the roof. All the Staff members sat in groups around the bukhari-s and every hour or so, a woman would come in and add firewood to the stoves. Lunch was a strange tea-and-bun affair of 20 mins; on both days we hit the town restaurant for lunch at 4.30 PM. I had some interesting food, the best being a thukpa, a spaghetti laden soup with veggies; very satisfying “winter” food.

The training was on Libraries: how to set them up, how to grade books, match these to children and their reading abilities, and how to measure that the Libraries have impact. We also talked of the various creative activities that we could conduct in Libraries. At the end of the two days, the Principal of the Institute Angmo Phuksong gave me something I was not prepared for: she honoured me with a long silk scarf, called a Khatok, which she formally hung around my neck. It is a very Ladakhi way and also a very big deal, I was told.
 I was reading Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, an apt book for this place. The travels and thoughts of the author mingled with my impressions, as I saw Abbaley and Ammaley, our hosts, sit in the sunshine working the beads and reciting the Name four lakh times. There were shrines with large red and yellow prayer wheels at street corners; a steep hill in upper Leh seemed to have a monastery on top, but it seemed beyond me to attempt to get there. I contented myself with listening and humming Manasa Yetulortune in that lazy morning sunshine and talking to the two house cats in Tamil, who insisted that I part with some of my puri-s.

It snowed on two days, both times in the morning and continuing through most of the day. It was not snowing at 6 AM when I awoke, and the garden was bare; by 6.30 AM, there was a carpet of white that grew 2 inches as I watched. Across the Indus, the mountains turned completely white that morning. On both days, when the sun went down, it very rapidly grew really cold. Folks, the geese know what they have on. The goose-down jacket kept me completely comfortable, as did the thermal leg-wear. My shoes however, did not prevent my toes from freezing, despite the double layer of woollen socks that I was wearing ! Blankets in the room were two very heavy razai-s; plus a sweater, a head cap and the room heater was on. After a while, I either lost my head completely or I got “used to” the cold perhaps or the thukpa was working, for I was walking around barefoot in the room and to the tiled loo and even washing my feet each time with cold water. Water was delivered to the room; two buckets of ice-cold water and a half-bucket of hot. Brushing, shaving and laving myself with the cold water was, well, fun. On the last day, the bucket had pieces of ice floating in it too!

The day before I left, we were free, so we drove 30 kms to Nimmu, west along the Leh-Kargil highway. Stupendous scenery with vast open fields and slopes and towering red-brown mountains covered generously with snow. Nimmu has a Bihari-run shop that sells deadly samosas but sadly, the joint was closed that day. While we waited for our friend Dawa to catch up with his friends here, we wandered across the street, the highway that leads to Kargil in the west. An Army truck with snow chains over its wheels was parked there, the driver looking like a Telugu man for all I could tell. Across the street, a tiny and brilliantly coloured J & K Transport bus was parked and ready to go, the driver insistently honking to coax the reluctant passengers out of the tea-shop. Must have been just the thin air, but I thought I saw Mithun Chakraborty drape a blanket over Anita Raj’s shoulders as they both climbed up and sat on the freezing roof-top. Koi shaque? The bus disappeared in a flurry of snow and I hummed Zeehaale Muskin mukon baranjhish, but my voice would just not come out in the cold. My nose was also hurting with an insistent bleeding, a common affliction for me when I visit cold places.

A short drive and here we were at Sangam: the Indus, flowing from the South-East, meeting the Zanskar, coming in from South-West. The already broad Indus was almost completely frozen over but for two 20-feet wide streams separated by icy islands; the Zanskar was laden with pieces of ice, and even the water had a different colour! Paani da, rang vekh ke, Akhiyan jo hanjhu rul de….certainly the sparkling sunlight, the champagne air, the untouched snow and the immense peaks around me had my eyes streaming. I walked as far out on the ice as I could; I swept away the inches of snow to see the frozen ice-glass water of the Indus. And took a GPS reading that put me dead in the middle of the Indus (34.165305N, 77.332089E ). Lovely!

Ladakhi girls are good-looking. Period. And the children are adorable! As I departed, my host’s little grand-daughter culled some “apples” from her rosy Kashmiri cheeks and offered them to me as a parting gift. Abbaley gave me a hug and Ammaley, a handshake.

I know that I will go back there again, to be once again part of the Campaign on Ice.”

Volunteering at the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, Hoskote


The Spirit of Volunteering

For people who volunteer for a cause it is the ultimate sublimation. Volunteering is activity on a higher plane, an attempt at an idealized world – the involuntary instinct for the level playing field, breaking down barriers of inequity and deprivation, giving everybody a fair chance, the belief in bringing about systemic change in a system that under-performs, simply drags its feet or outright fails. It is an act of betterment and uplift. Those who have giving to those who do not.
  • Akshara regularly facilitates volunteering in education in Bangalore – at government schools, anganwadis and community libraries, or prepares the ground for homework support classes, English teaching sessions, a sports event. Akshara galvanizes the corporate sector, parents, the student community and citizens and is looking to expand the volunteering base exponentially.
The Larger Question

But looking at the broader scene in the city, is volunteering a case of isolated largesse? Will it remain the occasional wholeheartedness, the odd abundance, not a continuous stream of the spirit?
  • Says Ashok Kamath, Chairman, Akshara Foundation, “For many years Akshara talked about doing learning programmes for children, about building a relationship with government schools. That alone is not enough. If we can get people who have had the privilege of education – teachers, parents, citizens – aligned to a common goal of equitable access to quality education, we can make an impact.
  • The problem is we always think of our glass as half-empty. Can we look at our Indian situation positively? Can we do something? There are 95 lakh people in Bangalore. If 40,000 people could go into a thousand government schools on a regular basis can you imagine the difference it will make? The larger question is: How can we together make the world a better place for government school children?”
What can be done to enlarge the volume of contribution and make volunteering a self-sustaining movement of substantive results? This is what two of the Target India employees who volunteered recently at the Government Kannada Higher Primary School (GKHPS) in Doddaholluru, Hoskote Block, giving freely of their time, energy and resources, had to say.
  • Ann: “Not many people like us know that such opportunities exist, that government schools need such diverse inputs. Everybody wants to help, but we do not know what we can do or which platform to go through. If there is a volunteers’ group that can propose volunteering projects to companies and facilitate the process, or encourage employees to participate in large numbers, that would be great. The message should reach people, and 99% of us – you can even say 100% of us – would come forward to help and support.”
  • Keshav: “We do something like this once in a while and sometimes forget about it. A more consistent approach is called for. A more dedicated approach – the same pool of volunteers in the same school repeatedly so that children and volunteers can come together. So that children can look on us as somebody they can count on. We’re setting all this up in this school – a library, a science room. But we don’t know how these resources will be used by the school and its students. We must come back. We want to come back.
If urban children come here and see for themselves the deprivation they will value everything they have much more. I think students in the city must volunteer. A lot of parents would want their children exposed to the other side of the world, the larger fact.”
  • Asha Sharath who handles donor relations and volunteering activities at Akshara says, “Every small step a volunteer takes is a great stride. A day makes a difference. For long-lasting impact, volunteering has to be on a regular basis.”
  • The crux, however, she says, is to connect citizens to schools. Akshara is positioning itself to do that through the Karnataka Learning Partnership (KLP) framework. What Akshara has learnt from experience is that schools are wary of arbitrary goodwill. They have specific deficits they would like enriched – a drop in Mathematics, language failure, or, as in the GKHPS, Doddaholluru, a library in decline or a thriving science laboratory with no place to call its own.  
  • Says Asha, “KLP intends to bridge this gap in communication with a platform where schools can upload their requirements and interested volunteers can pick up from there and give them what they need. KLP is thinking of coming out with a prototype soon.”

A Quiet Sense of Purpose

It is the 17thof September. A remarkable instance of volunteering is taking place at the GKHPS in Doddaholluru. The thirty five Target India employees who are volunteering here are enablers, providers of opportunity that day, as they go about restoring to pristine condition an old, disused library in the school and a room for science.

The school wears a discreetly festive air. There is a quiet hum of activity and purpose. Visitors are streaming in and Harshita and Manjula, Std. VII students, welcome them with a single red rose and a shy smile and fade tactfully away. Today it is the volunteers who are unwittingly centre stage as, with a hushed sense of mission, they take to completion their self-appointed task.

A Targeted Intervention

The Science lab before the make-over
  • The library used to be a picture of rundown depletion, sadly, for a school with no obvious infrastructure deficits. The volunteers are painting it and stocking it with books. The science room, once painted and invigorated, will accommodate the many projects the children undertake under the guidance of their tireless science teacher, Basavaraj, a live wire of a person. It will be a place for experimentation and discovery, for unravelling science, a subject that is one of the school’s singular strengths.
  • This is example-setting volunteering. Guru, the Target volunteer in charge of reconnaissance, made three fact-finding trips to identify and assess the school’s requirements. The day’s endeavour is a targeted intervention to provide something the school needs and will, hopefully, make use of. Not random goodwill.
An Image Make Over

  • An image make over is in progress in the large, light-permeated library. A preliminary coat of thinner has been applied, but the soiled walls show through the thin translucence, scooped out or peeling in places, which the volunteers have scraped and filled in even-handedly. A painterly landscape dominates, with brushes and big hammers, screw drivers and rollers, and large cans of thinner and synthetic enamel. Mugs half-filled with cloudy blue paint for the room’s many metal windows jostle in the assortment.
  • All bought through volunteers’ contributions, including the elegant, red metal racks and the 2012 books that will go on them. The number 2012 is significant. It signals the year of the library’s resuscitation.
I too Have a Part to Play in their Growth”

  • It is a thoroughly professional approach, not least the painting, though most of the volunteers are first-time painters. Like Stephen, with a protective bandana round his head, about to go up a step ladder to paint the upper reaches with an intuitive sense of the work at hand.
  • A seasoned volunteer, Stephen says, “Volunteering is all about enhancing the next generation, making space for children to learn, providing opportunities for them. I too have a part to play in their growth.”
  • Mormita, part of the painting crew, says, “I feel strongly that what we’re getting we should give back. Everybody should, in whatever way, big or small. I feel satisfied and happy seeing the smiles on children’s faces.”
It’s a Pleasure Doing This”

Outside the library a section of the verandah has been unofficially cordoned off. There, on sprawling mats are the 2012 books meant for children up to Std. VII. They are in Kannada and English primarily, and some in Hindi, straddling fourteen classifications – stories, comics, General Knowledge, science, computers….There are books that build skill-sets too, in grammar and essay writing, for instance. 

 
Every book is being labelled with a unique code that will ensure that they do not all end up in a disorderly mélange where nothing can be found. Thick, plastic-coated brown paper is being fitted on the racks and the books will be arranged on them.
  • It’s a pleasure doing this,” says Samyukta who is leading this group. “Children come up and say they didn’t have access to such books before. I believe that knowledge shared is knowledge gained. Even we are getting to learn a lot.”
  • Shivaprasad who is sorting and labelling the books echoes much the same sentiment. “I have a passion for volunteering. There is self-satisfaction and fulfillment. I enjoy giving back to society. When we were young we got so much.”
The library was a crumbling institution in school. When this ensemble comes together – the fresh newness of paint, the scenery charts, hand-painted inspirational quotes on education, the gleaming books on smart racks – it will symbolize renewal and create a space for children to read, learn and grow.

I will Improve my Knowledge”
  • Kantalakshmi of Std. VII is excited about the new ordainment. “I am happy. I am looking forward to reading in the library. I will get to understand from library books what my teacher tells me in class. I will go there and find out. I will improve my knowledge. What I don’t know I will get from there.”
  • Harshita has to be goaded into thinking about the benefits of a library by her teachers. She begins hesitatingly and is nudged along. “Library books will be useful for reference, as guides to class lessons. I like reading jokes and short stories very much.”
  • Jayalakshmi who teaches all subjects, including Kannada and English, in Std. IV, V, VI and VII says, “It is good to have a library. Every class, I-VII, has a library period once a week. Library books are important for children to learn language, improve reading skills, for understanding and communication. The English books in the library will be particularly useful. Children will learn different kinds of words, difficult words. English is their second language. They have an English period every day.”
Different Hues
  • In volunteering there is also the not-so-exalted department of the mundane – the logistics, the hot food, the cold drinks…… All the eminently forgettable nitty-gritty at times like this. Anantha volunteered magnanimously to organize and provide and clear up. “Too many challenges in that,” he says affably. “What to source, what to provide, at what time. I got beverages, but how would I keep them cold when the school has no refrigerator and there has been no power the whole day?” He worked his way ingeniously around that constraint.
Anantha overlooked nothing – not the drinking water or water cups, the plastic spoons, paper plates or napkins, not the first aid kit. Then there is the humdrum everydayness of garbage, which needed some astute planning. Anantha will take ten bin bags with all the day’s debris back to Bangalore for disposal.

A Science Room – “It will Instil Scientific Discipline”

  • At the far end of the rambling school building is the Science Block, announced in thick, black, declaratory lettering. It underlines the scientific temper of the school, personified by the motivated Basavaraj who leads his students in curiosity-driven exploration. He teaches in Std. V, VI and VII.
  • Propelled by Basavaraj, his students have creatively designed a water recycling plant, a mobile phone tower, a hydel power generating dam with smaller check dams along a river stream to harness water to the fullest. And many more items, besides.
  • Children crowd around their projects eager to explain the scientific principles of each. Now there is a room Target volunteers are recasting and assigning to science. Says Basavaraj, “We did not have a place for all these projects. Earlier I would take the material to the classroom to educate the students. Now there will be a room in honour of science where students can gather and learn. A specially designated space will help children; it will instil scientific discipline.”
I Like Science”
  • I like science, “says Kantalakshmi, showing off the periscope she and her classmates have made. “It is used underwater during war. I learnt how the heart functions also.” Basavaraj was instrumental in spurring the children to make a simple instrument out of a plastic bottle, straws and a piece of fabric. “All low-cost material,” affirms Basavaraj. Kantalakshmi blows through the straws, then takes an inward breath and the pleated folds of the fabric in the bottle expand and contract, simulating the operations of the heart.
  • Harshita too confirms that she likes science, her earlier reticence melting in a flood of words. “I like learning about the heart, about health and nutrition. We carried out an experiment in class that demonstrates the force of air and water. I observe things through the microscope,” she says in wonderment.
I Enjoy the Act of Giving Very Much”

The Target team is in an act of consecration in the science room, dressing it up, painting it. Samir, Anu and Noor also team up to embellish with their art the two pillars that jut out, hand-painting the universe, the earth, a space ship, a rocket taking off.
  • Samir is in Development at Target. He has a speech and hearing impairment. This is his first experience of volunteering. “I am an artist,” he says, hands flying in communication. “I want to do art with children in schools.” A paint-flecked khaki smock over a long-sleeved, dull red shirt bespeaks a heightened awareness of colour. Samir is painting a half-sun on the edge of a pillar in the science room, a yellow semi-circle with dancing orange flames – half the world in light.
  • I like it very much,” he says. “I enjoy the act of giving very much. I am extremely happy doing it.”