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Creating Rooms to Read

Children in several Indian states are discovering new books, improving their reading skills, and girls are finishing school, with American support.


Hema Bisht, who lives in a village near Nainital in Uttarakhand, had to give up school after finishing the 10th grade. Her family could not afford the fees, and with five children to feed Bisht’s father did not feel further education for his daughter was a priority. Bisht’s situation is not unique. Millions of girls across India cannot complete their education because of factors ranging from lack of female teachers to violence from male teachers and classmates. They may also be forced by their families to drop out of school to marry early, care for younger siblings or contribute to the family income.

But Bisht’s story took a different turn because of Room to Read, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California. In 2005, the year Bisht completed 10th grade, Room to Read started its Girls’ Education program in Uttarakhand. The program helped Bisht complete her schooling through the 12th grade. She is now studying for her graduation and also working as a teacher at a local school.

Room to Read focuses on literacy and gender equality in education and works in nine Asian and African countries. Since it started in 2000, Room to Read has built schools and established bilingual libraries. It has also published original, local language children’s books and supported students through the Girls’ Education program. In 2010, Room to Read is celebrating the year of tens: 10 years, 1,000 schools opened, 10,000 girls on long-term scholarships and 10,000 libraries set up (http://www.roomtoread.org/yearoftens/index.html).

Room to Read India started in 2003 and as of last year had supported 2,081 Girls’ Education participants, set up 3,295 libraries and published 74 books for children. It works in Andhra Pradesh, New Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. India hosts 50 percent of the group’s two key programs—Reading Rooms and Girls’ Education—for the Asia region, says Sunisha Ahuja, Room to Read’s India country director.

The origin of Room to Read lies in a trek in Nepal by a burned-out Microsoft executive, John Wood, in 1998. On his longest holiday in many years, Wood was taken by a Nepali acquaintance to visit a school in a remote area. They were shown around and then taken to the school library. The room, however, was empty. When Wood asked where the books were, the headmaster explained they were kept locked up as they were considered precious and they did not want to risk the children damaging them. A teacher then came and unlocked the book cupboard.

“My heart sank as the school’s treasure trove was revealed. A Danielle Steel romance with a couple locked in passionate and semiclothed embrace on the front cover. A thick Umberto Eco novel, written in Italian. The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia. And what children’s library would be complete without ‘Finnegans Wake’? The books appeared to be backpacker castoffs that would be inaccessible (both physically and intellectually) to the young students,” Wood writes in his book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.”

“I asked about the school’s enrollment and learned there were 450 students. Four hundred and fifty kids without books. How could this be happening in a world with such an abundance of material goods?”

Wood wanted to help, but wasn’t sure whether it would be considered condescending if he offered anything. But “the headmaster saved me the trouble of thinking this through,” he writes. “His next sentence would forever change the course of my life: ‘Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books.’ ”

Wood did just that. From Kathmandu, he e-mailed everyone in his address book, asking them to send new and used children’s books to his parents’ house in the United States. A year later, Wood returned to Nepal with this father and over 3,000 books. They helped establish libraries in 10 schools. As Room to Read started taking up more of his time, Wood quit his position as Microsoft’s director of business development for the greater China region.

Since its inception, Room to Read has drawn a diverse range of funders, including individuals, foundations and corporations. Some of the significant support comes from The Hewlett Foundation, Microsoft, Scholastic Inc., Oprah’s Angel Network, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Credit Suisse, besides others.In India, the nonprofit has come up with many innovations which have been adopted globally. An example is the three-year support to schools where Reading Rooms are set up. The organization’s flagship program, Reading Room, seeks to help children develop a lifelong habit of reading. Reading Rooms are libraries with books in English as well as local languages, magazines, posters and educational games. “In India, we don’t construct Reading Rooms. The reading rooms are set up in available space in schools…,” Ahuja says in an interview with SPAN.

"Our purpose is that children have access to books and are able to use them appropriately for reading and enjoy reading. The Reading Room is set up in a classroom or in a separate room. Books can be stored in the space available in the school and each classroom has a display of books. Each grade has a library period when children can access the books and teachers can also conduct structured activities to develop a reading habit among children,” she says. Room to Read aims to add 850 more such libraries in India this year.

It also trains librarians, and Ahuja says the focus is on ensuring that children can take books home. “This is one of the areas we monitor to measure the success of our libraries,” she says. “Given that we would like children to become independent readers, we would in the future like to measure the number of books a child could be reading in a year.”

“A significant proportion of children in India do not learn to read well. This reading failure is totally avoidable. What is needed is effective classroom practices for teaching [and] learning of reading and availability of good, developmentally appropriate books for young children,” Dhir Jhingran, Room to Read’s chief program officer, tells SPAN. Jhingran, who has worked for 18 years in the field of elementary education, is an Indian Administrative Service officer on a five-year deputation to Room to Read.

To improve first- and second-grade students’ reading abilities, Room to Read is implementing a two-year, pilot Primary Enhancement Reading Program in 150 schools with Reading Rooms in New Delhi, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

“I feel really energized when I see how small interventions can help children learn to read quickly and enjoy reading. There is immense joy in seeing children engrossed in interesting learning activities, rather than being passive or inactive in the classrooms,” says Jhingran, who heads a global team that is responsible for guiding Room to Read’s literacy program in Asia and Africa. Ahuja too feels Room to Read has been able to make an impact. “We have been able to create awareness about the importance of libraries,” she says.

Resources for the organization’s libraries are donated by foreign and local publishers, some are purchased locally and some are published by Room to Read through its Local Language Publishing program. This program was born out of a specific need. “There are several children’s books publishers in India but very few of these publishers publish new stories. Also, many a time the stories have an urban context. Sometimes there can be good books which are not published frequently,” says Ahuja.

Room to Read India works with local writers and illustrators to develop children’s books in English and in local languages. Topics include gender equality, the environment, health, art, basic vocabulary and family life. Some stories are adapted from folktales and some come out of writing competitions and writers’ workshops sponsored and facilitated by Room to Read. Winners are trained to write or illustrate for kids of different age groups.

As of 2009, Room to Read India had published 74 children’s titles in English, Hindi, Garhwali, Rajasthani and Telugu. “Prakash,” written and illustrated by Biman Basu in Hindi and English, explains the concept of light as a form of energy. Written for 3- to 10-year-olds, it talks about the various uses of light in our lives. Another favorite is “Macho Machli” in Hindi, which was selected by the National Book Trust to represent children’s literature from India at the International Book Fair in Bolivia this year.

Literacy is one of the primary concerns of Room to Read, especially in India, which has the highest number of illiterate people in the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund. “Young girls face some of the highest barriers. Not only are they less likely than boys to be in school, but those who are out of school are far more likely than boys never to enter,” according to UNESCO’s Education For All—Global Monitoring Report 2010.

Even though it is widely acknowledged that educating girls is an effective way to benefit their families and communities, economics and gender discrimination often keep girls out of school.

Room to Read India started its Girls’ Education program in 2004 and aims to add 700 more students this year. It covers the costs of school fees, textbooks and uniforms.

Ahuja explains that earlier girls were selected with participation from local community members and schools. They picked students from economically disadvantaged families and single parent families, when they were moving from Grade 5 to 6. But “we will now be focusing on all girls in a class and our focus will be Grades 6 to 8,” says Ahuja. “We are now also…moving toward selecting schools and communities where there is gender disparity.

“In India, while there are several initiatives that the government has started to ensure girls come to school, there is still much to be done to keep girls at school, support them through their schooling and help them develop capacities such that they can make key life decisions,” says Ahuja. “Room to Read is focusing on ensuring that we will have gender equality in education.”

The country team selects the villages and communities with which the organization works. “Room to Read India partners with the Department of Education in each state where we implement our programs,” says Ahuja. “We have had successful partnerships where either the government has been a co-investor in our projects or the government has come  in and matched the number of schools in which Room to Read has set up Reading Rooms,” she says. 

In half the states where Room to Read works, it works in partnership with local NGOs. “Because of their strong relationships at the community level we have been able to implement our programs with a fair amount of success and the schools continue to get support even after Room to Read’s direct investment in the school is over,” says Ahuja.

“There are few organizations that have looked at reading as a comprehensive agenda encompassing development of reading [and] literacy skills as also the joy and habit of reading,” says Jhingran. “With this clear focus, Room to Read is poised to develop and implement…quality programs for enhancing reading among primary schoolchildren.”