I always end up thinking of Frank Smith

A friend asked me last week whether I would still read if my work didn’t ask that of me. I told her I would. That sounds like a pretty straightforward relationship with books, it sounds like I like to read and that I do it often. But that equation has never been that simple. I’ve always read in phases. I have short phases of reading, and long phases of not being able to move past the first page of a book. And these phases have nothing to do with the books themselves or the amount of free time I have, they have almost everything to do with my emotional health at the time. I’m surprised and envious to hear that reading helps people switch off. For some reason, I cannot read when I’m sad, and I guess I’m sad a lot. I want to read constantly, but I can’t, and I’m beginning to accept that that’s okay. Sometimes I have to force myself to read during a no-reading phase, and it hurts my head, but I tell myself there is nothing to lose from reading something even if it hurts. My relationship with reading mirrors the ebbs and flows in my emotions.

But even during no-reading phases, I continue to buy books here and there. I think my attraction to books whether I read them instantly or not is some part of my mind telling me that my sadness will pass soon enough, and I’ll get to a better phase where reading will be easier. I suppose buying myself books is a powerful act of self-compassion and hope. Buying books play a part in me living from one phase to the next.

I’ve been in an active reading phase for about a year and that makes me really happy. I read and discuss at least one book every week. Being a student of research and writing in the past six months has made that easy for me. A lot of what I read is curated by my teachers, so a lot of the times I don’t have to worry about what to read. There is a lot of value in visiting a book shop or browsing online databases to seek out books, but there is no less beauty in being nudged to read this or that, or being steered in a direction you may not have considered yourself.

We started a book club for middle and high school children at Karkhana when social distancing began, and so my colleagues and I started curating reading lists for children. We’ve been able to get through one short book per week. The club and the research and writing course I am in have some similarities. Both involve convening around a piece of text that all of us have read over a week’s time and both are online. In the beginning, we modeled the club after the structure of my course, but the asynchronous online interactions (commenting, reflecting, raising issues by writing on an online forum) did not work that well with the club members. I was a bit frustrated, mostly at myself and the process, for doing something wrong. I thought, ‘There must be something I’m missing here’, the irony being that I had watched my teacher have similar difficulties getting the online course going for us too. I think an important difference between my teacher and me is that I rarely teach or even facilitate, so to me these problems of adjustment quickly tend to feel like I am losing control or I am failing.

Then I remembered something I’d read about the nature of clubs, which are different from courses or lessons.  In a 1988 book called ‘Joining the Literacy Club’ psycholinguist *Frank Smith likens the way humans learn spoken language to a ‘literacy club’. A literacy club, he says, does not obligate a learner to perform through grades and tests. Children learn spoken languages from being around those who speak those languages fluently, and they learn words or phrases that appear meaningful and useful. Learning your first language also feels effortless in many ways. For Smith, as there is a club for learning spoken language, so should there be clubs for learning to read and write. Unlike in a classroom with formal instruction, where the teacher uses corrective methods on learners, in Smith’s view, in a club, the teacher or facilitator does not have to impose a plan or program on learners. Smith identifies seven elements that characterize literacy clubs, which he thinks is possible for other kinds of clubs too. Club-based learning should be i) meaningful ii) useful iii)continual and effortless iv)incidental, v)collaborative vi) vicarious and vii) have no risk. Smith intended his ideas for school children, but they could be just as effective for grownups learning a new skill in groups.

Frank Smith’s book is a very simple and short read. We recommend it to people who worry about how to structure non-formal learning.  But every time I take on anything that resembles a teaching role at Karkhana, I get worked up when it doesn’t go a certain way, and I forget what I learned about learning from this book.  And when I have allowed my stress to peak, I wish I was kidding but two words pop into my head, ‘no risk’. It’s sort of like an alarm that reminds me to try and keep the learning space open, risk-free and inclusive.

The book club is making progress with every week that passes. This doesn’t surprise me all that much because they are a group of intelligent readers. But the thing is, if I hadn’t experienced this shift in expectations about the club, I would have failed to see the incremental and substantial progress they are making–tackling intense topics, researching, and excitedly contributing to the book discussion. Sometimes, it seems that we have to ease off for learners to ease into learning.

* Smith, F. (1988). Joining the literacy club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Author: Sabhyata Timsina, Karkhana

Feature Image Credit: The Jakata Post