The Great Books Project

diyaasa
6 min readNov 11, 2019

So there’s this saying. No matter how complex a topic is, if you can’t teach it to a six year old, you don’t know it well enough. Einstein said this, and I’m paraphrasing right now, but that was the basic idea behind that quote. I’ve recently become acutely aware of the reality behind this statement.

I actually think about this a lot. For the past two years, I’ve been working on a social project called the Great Books Project, and through it, I’ve been spending a lot of time in classrooms teaching less-privileged students my own age. There is one core group of kids I’ve been teaching at Samarpan School for about half a year now? And the amount of improvement they have shown is amaaazing. I’ve always loved teaching, and I’ve been helping my little sister with her homework since forever, but this year especially, through my Presidentship of the Writers’ Guild in my school, as well as through my teaching in the Great Books Project, I’ve become acutely aware of the impact my teaching has on the people around me. Especially since I’m teaching them about English Literature – that’s the one subject nobody can ever get me to shut up about. So teaching it is the greatest blessing in the world. My gosh, I am being so over-dramatic. Pardon me, it’s only because I just had my first mentorship session –

I got inspired to start it after hearing about the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. I heard about it too late, and had only two days for the application, and ended up getting rejected. (Still not over that.) But even if I didn’t get to attend the program, it struck my mind, I could still start the exact same thing on my own! So yes, my whole Mentorship Program is just bizarre wish-fulfilment on my part, oops.

The whole program just sort of evolved all on its own. When it first started, in its wee foetus stages, I was teaching plain grammar at Samarpan School. While it may sound simple, it really wasn’t – when I first started teaching them, I realised there’s this whole chunk of knowledge that I just know because I read a lot, but nobody’s ever explained it to me before. I had no idea how to explain to them, for example, conversions of active to passive voice. That’s where the Einstein quote I have introduced at the beginning really started to hit me. If I’m so good at English that I read the likes of Nabokov and Simone de Beauvoir, why can’t I explain simple grammar? During that time, websites explaining ESL – English as a second language – became my new best friends.

After a while, I noticed at Samarpan that these kids have no way to even get books to read. I kept telling them to read, but I couldn’t blame them when they had absolutely no way to acquire any literature. Indian families in general largely find literature to be a waste of their children’s time, but these families especially did not even have the kind of money to buy any books. So the Great Book came about.

I compiled a book containing chapters from my favourite novels so that the children could get a broad understanding of literature. I had sessions wherein they read out the chapters, and I explained the plot line-by-line by providing Hindi translations of the written words. We started with Robinson Crusoe, and it was really very difficult for them to understand it, and I ended up making them write down over fifty new word-meanings in their copies in the first chapter alone. But they loved it. It was very hard work for all of us, but they loved it, and I felt so proud.

We carried on with a couple of other books, too, and there were some they liked and some they absolutely hated. They really really hated Pride and Prejudice, for example. They just did. The first chapter of that book was actually pretty boring compared to the rest of the things we read. And their response actually permeated into my brain, too, because i used to always think of Pride and Prejudice as one of my favourite books, but now I just don’t see in it what I used to anymore.

I also went to a bunch of places – like Goonj, which is another NGO – and I got them actual full-length books to read. One of the little girls got a copy of Twilight, and she hasn’t read it yet, but my god is she in for a ride when she finally does.

In July, I went to the Netherlands for a competition. I was telling my African friends who were also a part of this competition about the Great Books Project, and one of them told me about her uncle who would probably love to have copies of the Great Book. So I contacted him, and also one of my father’s patients who was a social worker in Africa, and the Great Book effectively expanded to Africa as well. I have never met the kids myself, but they sent me many amazing videos, reading the book aloud, saying thank you, smiling. The day I got the first videos, I was really happy. It was early morning and I was getting onto my school bus when I saw the notifications on my phone. I sat next to Shivang that day, and I remember I just couldn’t stop smiling and being happy. I remember hoping he didn’t think I was too weird for getting so emotional about a bunch of kids who I’d never even met.

The idea of a Mentorship Program came about when I was in conversation with the students at Samarpan School themselves. It was after a brutal day of grammar exercises and tests, and we were collaborating on writing a story to clear our heads and relax for a bit. I realised how much fun they were having, and they expressed interest in wanting to do more writing. I said I’d think about ways of fulfilling their wish, and I went back to them next week with the idea of a Mentorship Program.

I asked some of the kids at school I knew from the Writers’ Guild, Editorial Board, and otherwise, who I knew were good writers, and finally settled on six mentors for the students. Today was our first session, and it was amazing. We were just there in a room, each mentor being paired with two or three mentees, and we sat in our Mentorship groups just talking energetically about how to handle our prompts – I made a list of 14 prompts and every student got a unique story prompt – and there were just all these creative juices flying across the room like rockets, and it felt so, so great to be there. It reminded me, in many ways, of my first day as President of the Writers’ Guild. I remember feeling really grateful to get to be a part of something like that. I felt grateful in that same way again today.

As for the future of the Great Books Project? There is so much that I want to do with it, and I long for more time. I want to expand the project even more, take on more mentors and mentees, more schools, cities. I’ve been thinking of contacting the Delhi government schools and seeing whether I can do free after-school activities. I’m really excited for what the future holds.

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