Friday, October 23, 2009


I have been extremely fortunate to cooperate with my wonderful colleagues at the University of Rhode Island to put together some excellent resources for teachers who wish to use CLIMBING THE STAIRS in the school classroom.
A handout I presented recently at the RI Educational Media Association is given below. More resources are present at my main website

Climbing the Stairs:

Teaching nonviolence through literature


Kathryn Lee Johnson, EdS
School of Education, University of Rhode Island

Diane Kern, PhD
School of Education, University of Rhode Island

Bethany Lisi, MEd
Reading & Writing Tutor, New York City

Padma Venkatraman, PhD

Climbing the Stairs (published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, Penguin) is the winner of the 2009 Julia Ward Howe Award and has received several other honors and awards, including ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist Editor's Choice Best Book of the Year, NYPL Book for the Teen Age, CCBC choice, Bank Street College of Education Best Book, NCSS/CBC Notable SS Trade Book, Capitol Choice, PA School Library Association Top 40, CLN Top 25 07-08, ALA/Amelia Bloomer Book, Starred Reviews in Booklist, PW and VOYA, Shortlisted for RARI, UT and ME state awards, Booksense Notable, Booklinks Best New Book, and PW Flying Start.

BACKGROUND OF THE NOVEL - A STATEMENT BY Dr. Padma Venkatraman: When I started writing Climbing the Stairs, I was head of a school in the United Kingdom. I saw students faced with different kinds of violence, overt and subtle – name calling, bullying, and caste-like cliques. At that time, I decided to become an American citizen and was thinking deeply of the issues facing our nation. We were at war with Iraq then, and we still are. As I grappled with the question of whether a person should ever act violently, and when and if and why a nation should engage in a war, my mind flew back to a different era, a different circumstance, a different culture, and a family – my own - that had debated the same two questions, many years ago in India, 1941. Climbing the Stairs is loosely based on my family's history and inspired by the timeless question of the role of nonviolence in our lives and its impact on today's society.

When I read from climbing the stairs, I often follow this presentation outline to help readers make a personal connection with the nonviolence-violence theme in my novel.

I begin by asking

1. Have you ever witnessed something you disagreed with?

2. When you witnessed this, what action did you take?


3. How did appa voice his disagreement in this chapter?


4. Did Kitta and Vidya’s disagree peacefully? Discuss levels of violence and subtle (verbal) vs. physical abuse.

5. Think back to the incident you remembered at the beginning. Did you disagree nonviolently? If yes, would you like to share that – with the rest of the class? If not, can you think of a nonviolent way to act in that situation?

6. Discuss hypothetical situations in which students might find themselves and nonviolent strategies they might use to diffuse tension in those situations.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS, suggested by the author
(focus on fundamental and universal themes in Climbing the Stairs)

1. NONVIOLENCE THEME: Have you ever stood up for something you believed in? What do you think of the way Appa stood up for his beliefs in the Protest March chapter? What is your understanding of “nonviolence?” Does peace impact your daily behavior? Do you think nonviolence can work against injustice today, and what are some situations after the Indian freedom struggle in which Gandhian nonviolence principles were successfully used as a means of political protest?

2. WORLD WAR II: Did you learn anything new about World War II through reading the novel? Do you agree with Vidya’s or with Kitta’s views on war in general? How does Vidya deal with Kitta’s choice? How do you react when you disagree with your friends or family? Do you think it is necessary for a person or a nation to sometimes act violently? If so, what, in your opinion justifies violence and what degree of violence do you feel is justifiable?

3. SPIRITUAL AWAKENING: What specific principles of Hinduism does Vidya learn from Amma, Appa, and the books she reads in Thatha’s library? Give examples of Vidya’s actions that reflect some of her stated Hindu beliefs reflected by Hindu scriptures quoted in the novel. How do the Indian traditions observed in Thatha’s house differ from the true ideals of Hindu philosophy cited in the text by Vidya? In what ways does the novel demonstrate the distance between the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of the Hindu religion and some of the banal customs followed by Indian society? Is there any distance between the philosophy of your religion and its observance?

4. SOCIAL JUSTICE-EQUALITY What role does Vidya’s meeting with the Gypsy woman play in the story? In what way is the house in Madras a prison and in what way is it a safe place? Is the society in which you live completely egalitarian? If not, what do you think is the underlying cause of inequality? What are some ways to overcome stereotypes and prejudices? Is there a caste- like system in your school, family or community? Do you and those around you always treat everyone the same way? Have you ever indulged in bullying, name-calling or joined an exclusive group?

5. DIFFERENTLY ABLED PERSONS Do you know anyone who is differently abled, and if so, how has knowing them changed your behavior? What purpose does Appa’s mental disability and his extended family’s treatment of him have in the story? How would the novel be different if he had died (given that Vidya’s family would have had to move to Thatha’s household and that Appa’s demise would not have changed the major incidents that fuel the plot after the beating)? Why do you think Periappa and Periamma treat Appa so badly? How does this practice conflict with their stated belief in non-violence? Have you observed people choosing to ignore traditions that do not further their agendas? How does one’s treatment of those who are less empowered reflect on one’s character?

6. LANGUAGE: List some of the themes in the novel. How does the title “Climbing the Stairs” work as a metaphor to fit these different themes? Pay particular attention to abstract meanings the title acquires that do not involve Vidya directly. In the first chapter, Vidya and Kitta discuss the swastika symbol – which has a very different significance in India (especially in 1941) as compared to the Western world today (in the post-World War II era). What role do symbols play in our everyday lives, if any? How are the symbols used in your culture and language different or similar to other world languages and cultures? What symbols and metaphors does the author use in this novel? How does the metaphorical image of climbing a staircase into the unknown work to fit the various themes (such as social justice, national independence, coming-of-age, nonviolence, spiritual awakening) in the novel?

7. RACISM: The British are an important presence in Vidya's world as both oppressors of the Indian people and as fighters against the Nazis. How are the British characterized at the beginning of the novel? How does this change by the end? How do Vidya’s various personal encounters with kind British officers contribute to this characterization? What books does Vidya read in the library that help her understand the similarities between Indian and Western cultures? How does the idea of universal experiences challenge the foundations of British racism and Colonial rule? What are some other ways in which the novel provides counter examples to a one-sided view of the British and White racism?
Where does World War II era Japan fit into this discussion of racism?

8. CHARACTERIZATION How does the author create dimensionality in the characters? For instance, how is Appa’s character deepened by his action of sending the family servants away when his brother visits (at the beginning of the novel), instead of showing upfront how he runs his household? What does Appa gain from hiding his beliefs and in what ways does this indirectly support maintaining the caste system? Have you ever suppressed your beliefs in the face of social or familial pressure?

9. Why do you think the author chose to leave the novel open-ended? If you had the chance to write a sequel to the story how would you have it continue? Would you try to answer the debate on violence versus nonviolence or would you leave this open-ended as the author did?

For more discussion questions, virtual lesson plans, and other resources, please visit the author’s website:
(schools/libraries; teachers/librarians tab)

High school student teacher responses and lessons are posted at Dr. Diane Kern’s Wiki site:

Six Principles of Nonviolence: The Kingian Philosophy

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.

Nonviolence is an active resistance against what is wrong. It requires the courage to stand up for what is right and just, sometimes in the face of strong social pressure to “just go along,” and the courage to resist impulsive “lashing out.”

2. The Beloved Community is the framework for the future.

The goal is not to humiliate others, but to win them over to a new, shared view. At the end, you want to be able to join forces. Pursuing justice and truth together brings the “beloved community” closer, where everyone lives together in peace.

3. Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil.

The goal is to solve problems, not to attack people. People who seem evil are also victims of the conditions that make up the problem. Attacking them personally can lead to more problems.

4. Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause.

Nonviolent people are willing to “put themselves on the line” in order to stop the cycle of violence and create better conditions. Remember that there is already a lot of suffering going on. Let suffering be for a worthwhile purpose, but never inflict it on others.

5. Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.

Physical violence starts with attitudes and feelings of anger, hatred, and resentment. The person who has those feelings is hurt first and most by them. Feelings are contagious, and also affect many people who are not the “target” of the moment.

6. The universe is on the side of justice.

Justice inspires people, and injustice does not. Dr. King said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The outcome of the struggle will be justice. It may not be today or tomorrow, but eventually faith and justice will prevail.

Example of Student Response
Climbing the Stairs Connection Guide Sheet
The purpose of this activity is to develop ideas about teaching nonviolence to teenagers by using young adult literature.

1. In small groups, select a scene from Climbing the Stairs that connects to the one nonviolence principles you have been assigned.
2. Think about the book and what it might mean in connection to the theme of nonviolence and how you might teach it to children.
3. Complete the Book Connection Guide Sheet using the following specific guidelines.


Principle of Nonviolence:


Summary of scene:

How does this scene connect to the Principle of Nonviolence?

What nonviolent character traits does the character from the above question exhibit?

Other activities or guided questions you might use with your students:

1. Discuss an alternative that readers might have been hoping for, such as: “Appa pulled the officer down off his horse, thrown him to the ground, and kicked him to save the woman and himself.” Why did he not do this? What message does Appa’s sacrifice send to Vidya, and the reader? In what ways does this scene show Appa’s strength? What impact do his actions have on others at the march? When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs of a society? What are the most effective ways to take a stand against an injustice?

2. Together with students, find six different scenes in CLIMBING THE STAIRS to demonstrate each of the six principles of nonviolence. Direct students to write in their reader response journals about an everyday situation (either one they have faced or a hypothetical situation in which they might find themselves) in which they could use one of the nonviolence principles.

3. Choose one Principle of Nonviolence and write an essay defend how the principle is displayed through the actions of one character in CLIMBING THE STAIRS, citing three pieces of evidence from the text.

4. Create a poster centered around the quote “Appa could have pulled the officer down off his horse, thrown him on the ground, and kicked him. But he did not.” (Place the quote at the center and paste student responses to this quote around it to create a large poster that could be hung on the classroom wall). AND/OR use this quote to spark a Socratic seminar.

5. Set the theme for a discussion on nonviolence by downloading and playing the YouTube Video of rapper Common singing “A Dream”. Teaching nonviolence is important in the high school setting and vital to the global environment. Help your students identify how different artists (Common, rapper, YouTube, music vs. Venkatraman, author, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, novel) interpret Mahatma Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s dreams of nonviolence.

6. Vocabulary activity. Brainstorm words that describe nonviolent or violent actions taken by characters in CLIMBING THE STAIRS and words that describe their character traits. Help students explore connections between these behaviors and subtle forms of violence they may indulge in such as name-calling or bullying, to heighten their awareness of violence and make text-to-self connections.

Character Traits Associated with Nonviolence:

Attentive, Aware, Bighearted, Brave, Calm, Caring, Cheerful, Clever, Concerned
Conscientious, Controlled, Cooperative, Courageous, Committed, Compassionate, Considerate, Curious, Daring, Dedicated, Determined, Devoted, Eager, Empathetic, Encouraging, Endurance, Exuberant, Fair, Faithful, Forgiving, Friendly, Generous, Gentle, Giving, Grateful, Helpful, Honest, Hopeful, Hospitable, Humane, Humble,
Humorous, Imaginative, Independent, Industrious, Integrity, Interest, Intelligent, Kind, Logical, Loving, Loyal, Optimistic, Patient, Peaceful, Pensive, Persevering
Persistent, Pleasant, Polite, Positive, Rational, Reliable, Respectful, Responsible,
Responsive, Reverent, Risk-taker, Self-confident, Scrupulous, Selfless, Sensitive,
Sincere, Skillful, Smart, Sociable, Strong, Sympathetic, Supportive, Talented, Tenacious, Thankful, Thoughtful, Tolerant, Trusting, Trustworthy, Understanding, Useful, Valiant, Versatile, Vigilant, Warm hearted, Wise

Cross-curricular connections:
Theater arts: CLIMBING THE STAIRS readers theater play (Weekly Reader, January 2010 issue; or contact Padma Venkatraman and visit for tableau and other acting suggestions)
History: CLIMBING THE STAIRS lends itself to connections with the American Civil Rights movement (explore the MLK Jr. Mahatma Gandhi connection)
The novel also provides a unique (non-European) perspective on World War II by discussing the contributions of the British colonies including the world’s largest all-volunteer WWII force
Music: invite Padma Venkatraman to sing “We Shall Overcome” in Hindi with your students, Common rapper “A Dream” music video Indian classical music
Fine Art: Draw Kolams and Krishna footsteps on the classroom floor
Mathematics: Invite Padma Venkatraman to speak about ancient Indian mathematics.