Teacher goes all out to ingrain a love of literature

While the aptly named Jolly Roger rocked its way around Durban’s harbour on Wednesday, a group of 100 pupils studiously penned their thoughts on sheets of paper that flapped frantically in the strong winds.

veeena1veeena1 SEEKING INSPIRATION: Veena Gangaram and her Parkvale pupils on the boat

“Write about what you are feeling. What you are tasting and smelling. Write about everything you see,” teacher Veena Gangaram instructed her charges.

Nearly three decades ago, Gangaram became a mother. With motherhood came the knowledge that literature would have to have a significant impact on her sons’ minds.

“I wanted to surround my children with books. For them to travel the world for free by reading,” she said.

What began as a means to get her boys invested in reading morphed into a compulsion to get all children under her care to pick up a book.

Taking up a library course was the next logical step for the mathematics teacher, which led to her participation in reading promotion programmes for young school-goers.

It was through this that Gangaram was introduced to Dancing Pencils – a non-profit organisation that runs literacy classes across South Africa. The club is the brainchild of author Felicity Keats, who now serves as Gangaram’s benefactor.

Trips like the boat ride are part of the unusual methods mentors from Dancing Pencils use to boost activity in the right hemisphere of the children’s brains.

Gangaram and her pupils braved the cold weather for a lesson in an “open, mind-freeing environment”

The organisation encourages youngsters to write their own books. Those that meet the necessary criteria are selected for publication.

“When we start with lessons, we just ask the children to write. Because they are so young – mainly around eight – we don’t stress correct spelling and grammar. You just want them to write, to be free to express themselves and their imagination. As we go along we start concentrating on structuring their work,” Gangaram said.

Gangaram, a teacher for 35 years, began her literary adventure 12 years ago. Today, as a master mentor for the Dancing Pencils writing club, Gangaram coaches 100 pupils who form part of her school club and provides private tutorship with Keats during weekend classes.

She teaches at Newlands West’s Parkvale Primary and decided to become a part of the Dancing Pencils concept when she saw the benefits it could have for the pupils at her school.

Parkvale Primary caters largely to children from impoverished or disadvantaged homes.

“I listened to Felicity and I saw that she had so many interesting ideas to keep children engaged. Being a teacher, you can tell a child to read and he won’t. If you involve him in a way that interests him, he’ll begin to read on his own.”

Although he was only eight, his story was selected for publication, making him the first to emerge from the Umlazi district. Then came 

12-year-old twin sisters Sonal and Yuvadiya Ranjith, whose books were launched at the Cape Town International Book Fair in 2012.

“I have found that writing becomes therapeutic for many children. Those who can’t talk about the abuse they may be experiencing find that they can write about it. They seek solace in this way and are able to become unburdened.”

Gangaram highlighted the case of one of her Parkvale pupils who lost both her parents in two separate car accidents. “She wrote two books after each loss and at her book launches, there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. She is in high school now and doing so well and she has said that writing helped her cope.”

Despite achieving accolades from the education department (she was placed second provincially in the National Teachers Award and received the Golden Award from former KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize in 2012) Gangaram said it was the knowledge that she could possibly have changed a life that kept her in the game.


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