Schools across rural India are harnessing the power of visual story-telling to teach mainstream subjects and spread social awareness. Comics are being used as a learning tool to broaden the horizons and unleash the creativity of teachers and students.

In a rural government school in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh, 47 students in Class VIII were struggling to understand a complicated chapter of Hindi literature. Their teacher, at her wit’s end on how to simplify the vocabulary, decided to tell the story via comic strips, translated into the local language. When students saw the characters brought to life in visually appealing illustrations with speech bubbles, they were excited and curious, which made it easier for them to grasp the chapter.

“The fruits of my labor have been rather sweet. The children not only understood the chapter, they also enjoyed it,” said their teacher, Sonia Chauhan. She is now converting chapters of history, geography, English, and even maths into comics.

While fancy schools in urban India look to technology and e-learning to transform education, rural schools are also getting innovative. Lack of resources compels teachers to adopt new ways of simplifying complex topics. Students feel empowered as they get the chance to co-create the knowledge imparted in books, and some find the medium entertaining.

In the early 1990s, a movement called Grassroots Comics was started by political cartoonist Sharad Sharma to democratize education and create social change. “Comics empower everyone, whether a teacher or a student, to create knowledge rather than have it handed down to them. The tool is participatory and encourages everyone to share their perspectives and ideas without having to worry about them being construed as wrong or right. The methodology is also cost-effective,” Sharma said. Hundreds of teachers have been trained to use comics effectively to boosts classroom teaching.

Grassroots educational revolution

The Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2017 paints a dismal picture of adolescent education in rural India. It says that every fourth rural Indian between the age of 14-18 is unable to read a text from standards I and II in their native language. One in five adolescents has not finished even eight years of schooling. Gender disparities only make matters worse and the enrolment gap between boys and girls widens with age. By the time they turn 18, as many as 32% girls and 28% of boys are not enrolled in school.

Grassroots Comics is helping to overcome these challenges by making learning easier and more fun, and by trying to change mindsets that lead to gender disparities in education. Recently, the group held a series of workshops across the country with the support of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, which prescribes the books used by the Central Board of Secondary Education from classes I to XII, to facilitate the creation of comic-based content for schools. Outcomes from the workshops were included in a framework for a new curriculum packed with illustrations.

“It is an interactive, activity-oriented curriculum that we have developed to throw light and stir discussions on adolescents’ issues such as AIDS, violence, gender disparity, health and nutrition, and relationships,” Sharma says. “It will also give a voice to multifarious regional voices from the country who aspire to smash regional stereotypes.” Interestingly, the concluding dialogue in many comics is left open – to stoke the imagination of pupils and get them to be more interactive. The comic-based curriculum will emerge later this year at a national level, as well as in Navodaya (alternative) schools.

Bringing children back to school

A huge number of Indian children don’t go to school. A 2016 report by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics and Global Education Monitoring said 47 million youths in drop out of secondary school by Class X. Uttar Pradesh (UP) leads the ranking with 1.6 million out-of-school children, followed by Bihar and Rajasthan. So, it was hardly surprising that those states have low literacy rates. According to the 2011 census, Bihar had the lowest level – at 64%, compared to the national average of 74%. And according to a 2015 report, almost a quarter of kids in the 6-14 age bracket drop out of school in Bihar.

Teachers associated with Grassroots Comics are keen to get children, especially girls, back to school. In UP’s remote Gonda district, Vinita Kushwaha, who teaches classes VI-VIII, uses comics to break gender stereotypes. “Here, young girls are told they belong in the kitchen, asked to look after their siblings, or sent to work for money, often compelling them to quit school. Many are married off very young. I used comics in the classroom to teach these girls that education is their right,” Kushwaha said. She has organized exhibitions in two districts with the help of NGOs to drive home the point that child labor and child marriage are social evils. These initiatives have resulted in a rise in the number of girls in the classroom.

“In 2014, in a class of 14 students in Gonda, only five were girls, and they rarely came to school. By January 2018, after comics were introduced as a medium of teaching, my classroom boasted 35 students, 28 of the girls. Attendance has also risen remarkably,” she says.

In 2008, a campaign was launched in Bihar to highlight the problem of corporal punishment and explain the laws associated with it. More than 1,000 children drew their hearts out to show how corporal punishment made them feel. The campaign was so successful it sparked a similar movement in Nepal.

Since its inception, Grassroots Comics has inspired education reforms in hundreds of schools in villages across India, touching the lives of thousands of students. The methodology has spread to Nepal, Pakistan and Brazil — by activists, cartoonists, artists, journalists, students and others who believe in “comics as a communication tool”.