Behind the smile on 15-year-old Dinisha Selvendran’s face was a tinge of apprehension as she looked at the paper in front of her. The paper was part of the workshop by volunteers of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and perhaps the reason Dinisha and her friends were a little jittery was because the paper was [...]

Sunday Times 2

Learning in the heart of Jaffna

Representing the value and enthusiasm towards education, Jaffna Public Library's new youth wing is the second project in collaboration with Singapore International Foundation

Behind the smile on 15-year-old Dinisha Selvendran’s face was a tinge of apprehension as she looked at the paper in front of her. The paper was part of the workshop by volunteers of the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and perhaps the reason Dinisha and her friends were a little jittery was because the paper was in English.

Ground work conducted before the launch of SIF’s project- Enhancing Competency in English Language Communication in Jaffna told them a few things the foundation took to heart. Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, speaking at the launch of a new youth wing in the Jaffna Public Library shared that when he was in the region in 2012 upon asking the people what they were in need of “they said they wanted better education facilities for their children, especially when it came to English.”

On April 4, Minister Shanmugam, Jaffna Governor G. A. Chandrasiri, Mayor of Jaffna Yogeswari Patkunarajah and many other distinguished guests walked through the arches of the Jaffna Public Library to declare open the SIF’s new venture- the library’s brand new youth wing. Fragrant incense sticks and traditional auspicious table arrangements of fruits gave the guests the feel of Jaffna.

Activities for teachers and students of the region were held to mark the ceremonial opening of the youth wing. Ina departure from the austere wooden furniture and tall bookcases in other sections this newly refurbished wing has bench- style seats and a lounge-like atmosphere. “It’s meant to be used as a resource centre- where they don’t need to be shy to speak and practise speaking in English,” explains a volunteer for SIF and a librarian at the Singapore National Library Dilip Kumar. Having worked with special needs kids in Singapore he conducted a few workshops for the kids in Jaffna and says that while writing and reading is not much of an issue, speaking is, which is why SIF embarked on Phase two of their project in collaboration with the Jaffna Library.

SIF’s first project with the library goes back to the launch of the Children’s section of the Jaffna Public Library in 2009. The colourful and compact children’s wing has become popular in terms of comfort and convenience so much that the library feels compelled to put up notices that said: “Do relax and enjoy but please sleep at home”. Since this was the second time the SIF is working in partnership with the Jaffna Public Library, SIF’s Executive Director Jean Tan admits that it was a little easier. Having gained the trust of the librarians and the public, she shares that whereas generally a project can take from six to nine months to plan this one “took just about three to four.”

Replacing the previous study room of the monumental Jaffna Library the new resource centre is a place that Chief Librarian at the Jaffna Library Mary Emelda Karunakaran describes as a good addition to the library. Knowing that the 50 students at any given time who used the space for self-study might feel disheartened she assures that “arrangements have been made for the study room to be shifted.” Chief Librarian since 2003 she feels grateful and proud that the library is still growing and offered services even during the war. The library represents the value and enthusiasm towards education in the region, she feels. “Even when it was burned down (in 1984), the service continued in another location,” she says.

The brand new youth wing funded by the Singapore Ceylon Tamils’ Association, Modern Montessori International, with the support of the Prima Group and Pacific International Lines is a boon for teachers of the region. Thadchayini Roshan who has been an English teacher for secondary school grades for six years shares that “students actually find it difficult” to wade through the state syllabus when it comes to English. Finding that a workshop by retired teachers from Singapore who now volunteer with SIF invaluable she said “some methods like motivational methods are new to us” and that she was keen to implement what she learned.

The multiplier effect is something SIF uses to its advantage. As Jean Tan says “trained people now go out, use our training and train others.” Following no particular syllabus because SIF “must figure out what works for Jaffna” Jean shares that goals are set only after scoping out the ability of the students in a region in terms of retention, understanding and even response to what they are taught. Observing that the general proficiency in English is comparatively high in Sri Lanka “more than anything the social impact of our work is what is most important” she smiles.

Students are equally happy about the library and say that they would frequent the resource centre whenever they get the chance. Given that the library is in the heart of Jaffna town and that students are scattered throughout the peninsula those like Dinisha who comes from Navakudi don’t have the privilege of popping in whenever they feel like it. This is where the “books on wheels” comes in. A 42-seater bus which now serves as a mobile library under the Jaffna Public Library will visit some 38 secondary schools in the region making reading and English material that much more accessible to students. Having used this approach before Jean says Books on Wheels has previously been launched in Vietnam and Indonesia but is a first for Sri Lanka.

“A large number of people from Sri Lanka come to Singapore for training,” Minister Shanmugam said, asserting that while people seeking training in various fields were mainly from Colombo, Singapore intended to expand the number of people who could benefit from the many programmes they have to offer. Adding that he is merely continuing his predecessor’s work he said that given the turbulent times Jaffna has gone through, closure and reconciliation must be “on acceptable terms to all communities” which is where SIF comes in, even if just to encourage English education among the youth.


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