Chakmak - Sparking an Interest in Reading and Learning

Vinatha Viswanthan

The idea of a science magazine for children was not a novel one for those involved in the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme (HSTP), a path-breaking initiative that began in the ‘70s. Bal Vaigyanik, the science workbooks for middle school children, were written in Hindi. Also, a pedagogy that was unique and way ahead of its times was introduced in the schools that were a part of HSTP. The curriculum did not dish out information, but made the same topics covered in mainstream textbooks, enjoyable. The content was in the form of activities and questions, encouraging experimentation, data collection, comparison, scientific thinking, and it helped children understand diverse concepts by making sciencelearning relevant and fun. Bal Vaigyanik helped children (and teachers) think, want to know more, discover the magic of exploratory  learning.

 
This curiosity, an eagerness to know more about science had little recourse at that time. It was unlikely that a child in rural Madhya Pradesh had access to a reference library with books he could understand.
 
Thus was born Chakmak. Created for the bal vaigyaniks, 11-14 year olds were the target readers. It was meant as supplementary reading, specifically science reading for them. At that time, a Hindi science magazine for middle school children was an empty niche. Even now, there are few magazines with such a focus.
 
Look at the early Chakmaks and you can see that although science was a focus of the magazine, there were also articles on topics other than scientific ones such as current issues, social causes, articles on personalities, stories and poems. There were also several regular features or columns in the magazine. From the beginning, the magazine had Mathapacchi, where children were given puzzles to solve – both word and pictorial. The idea was to nurture a problem-solving attitude in readers. Then there was Sawaliram, a fictional character of whom a child could ask any question and be assured of an answer. Sawaliram was known at all the schools in which HSTP was being implemented. Dozens of postcards and letters would arrive for him every week, and in answering those, the Eklavya and Chakmak teams would often rely on the expertise of the finest minds in science in the country. For some of the questions were extremely challenging even if deceptively simple.
 
And then there was Apni Prayogshala, where by following some relatively simple instructions and using material almost any child would find around her, she would be able to put together something interesting, observe a phenomenon that she could wonder about in her leisure. Finally, there was Mera Panna – pages where children’s poems, stories and illustrations would find place. Children’s work always was prioritised, often on the cover, sometimes illustrating an article or story. In addition, there were crosswords, picture stories, Khel Khel Mein, jokes – several things that keep children hooked and happy. Chakmak was a pitara, a treasure trove for children.
 
As for the style and presentation of the content, there was a concerted effort not to be condescending to children. The style of writing was one where children were not talked down to. The illustrations and design of pages, from the beginning, were in diverse styles which included ‘tribal’ styles such as that of Jangadh Singh Shyam. Moving away from childish cartoons, good art for children was favoured. In general, whether it was with regard to the text or the illustrations and design, children were treated as equals to others.
 
At that time, with HSTP in full swing, with constant and continuous contact with children, the editorial team of Chakmak had a finger on the pulse of what children wanted to read in a science magazine. Eklavya people going to schools for HSTP followups, for monthly meetings all carried bundles of Chakmak to be sold to children at subsidised rates of Re. 1 or Rs. 2 per copy. Often teachers at these meetings volunteered to reach the magazines to the students of their schools. Children also wrote to Chakmak quite frequently. Questions for Sawaliram, contributions for Mera Panna helped the makers of Chakmak know how children received it. At that time, teachers used Chakmaks in the classroom to discuss diverse topics, to do some of the activities in the magazine. So, Chakmak got constant feedback from the teachers as well and was being the supplementary reading-learning material it was intended to be.
 
A few years later came the Chakmak Clubs. Chakmak Clubs were children’s clubs that were meant to be meeting points for children. While they took their name from the magazine and the magazine was read and discussed there, the magazine did not conduct these clubs. The clubs were over a hundred in number and were run by the children and youth at a location. Readings, narrations, discussions, music and fun were a part of these clubs. Here again, Chakmak was used so children would read widely. In the process, they would learn something from the magazine, and more importantly, from each other. Chakmak was the spark for many a heated discussion.
 
A look at the first decade or so of Chakmak issues and you will find it to be mainly a ‘how and why’ magazine. This was an important style of presentation as it reflected the approach of Eklavya to education to be explanatory, in a fun and authentic manner. At this time, the issues and topics covered in Chakmak were those of both the urban and the semi-rural middle class. The readers however, were mostly children in the semi-rural Hindi belt.
 
In the late ‘90s, when the primary education programmes in schools began receiving more attention, Chakmak reflected this change in focus by including material for early readers such as short prose and poetry. All through these first ten to fifteen years, Chakmak’s focus remained on science and its reach mostly included children in government schools and in non-urban areas.
 
This changed after about two decades or so. Chakmak began carrying a little less science. The change was for several reasons. One was that HSTP came to an end around this time. Another was a change in the editorial team. A new team with different expertise meant a different kind of Chakmak. Another reason was the realisation that, while as an organisation Eklavya had contributed to some extent to making science (and other subjects) more accessible to children, had developed a lot of material (including that in its magazines) in popularising these subjects, there was a great paucity in material in Hindi in children’s literature. In fact, there was and still is, very little that constitutes the field of children’s literature in Hindi. To some extent, we think of children’s literature as that which is written for children. With this in mind, Chakmak began working with well-known (and not so well-known) authors to develop literature, including stories and poems for children. Chakmak became a platform for all those who had an interest in writing for children. At this time it also shifted from black and white to complete four-colour printing and being professionally designed.
From the late-2000 onwards, Chakmak was published in this new avatar. More of fiction, more Mera Panna and a little less of maths and science. By this time there was another change – this was in Chakmak’s reach. It shifted out of government schools and rural semi and non-urban areas to private schools and urban areas. The target age group also shifted gradually upwards during this phase – and now Chakmak catered more to high school children in addition to those in the middle school age group. To a large extent, Chakmak’s content was being developed with these children in mind – their literacy levels, topics and issues relevant to them and their pockets as well. The schools in which Chakmak was used in the classroom were private schools. Children were being engaged in several ways, through activity columns, the column Boli Rangoli, where the poet Gulzar would give a couplet in one issue and children would send in their illustrations of it for the next. In another column Agar-Magar, they would ask Gulzar questions and he would answer them often in rhyme, frequently in a whimsical fashion. Young adults were being encouraged to write, a body of literature for this age group began to be developed via the column Chashma Naya Hai in collaboration with Ankur, an organisation in New Delhi. In collaboration with an organisation involved in conservation, Nature Conservation Foundation, a series of articles and activities on nature were translated and published. There were experiments with format – a serial picture story Biksu, novels presented as a series, characters that made their appearance in several issues like Ramsahay and so on.
 
All through, Chakmak continued to be fun and supplementary reading material for school children with a potential to be used in the classroom.
 
So, over the years, there have been three groups of people who have used Chakmak. The first is the children for whom we make Chakmak. They have fun reading and learning from it. Historically, two other groups also have benefitted from Chakmak, though we have not made the magazine with them in mind. One is that of resource persons in diverse organisations working with children who have used the magazine’s material to engage children in various ways. The other is teachers who have used Chakmak in classrooms to read from, and to also discuss and answer questions asked in the magazine. In this way, Chakmak always has been and continues to be a fun magazine for children and a resource for children, teachers and others in the field of literature and education.
 
 
 

Vinatha is the Editor, Chakmak. She is trained as an ecologist, and has worked as a researcher, teacher and a science writer. She may be contacted at vvinatha@gmail.com

 

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