Now What?

I started EducateDeviate three years ago because I was inspired by my recent Up with People trip and remembered that many of my friends and peers wanted to do the same but didn’t know how. It started with a musing about how the year will be – and has grown into a fledgling resource on self-education, youth programs, interesting people, gripes about education, all sorts of things.

In the three years I’ve moved to a different country, became a conference junkie, dived fully into volunteering, explored subcultures I’d barely heard of before. I received plenty of emails from other young people around the world who found a kindred voice in me, and I sought out other youths who served as my inspiration.

Education in Malaysia hasn’t necessarily changed much – the biggest change would be the Government’s plan to not announce the name of the top scorers and limit the number of SPM papers one can take, to halt the trend of “get as many As as possible”. Even with a drastically changed government, there doesn’t seem to be too many dramatic upheavals education-wise. The Malaysian public are becoming more autonomous, though, with new ventures and projects popping up by the minute.

In a couple of months I officially graduate, and I return to Malaysia possibly indefinitely. Since I’ve been in Brisbane I’ve been immersed in Australian culture and current events; to be frank, I probably know a lot more about Brisbane than I do about Johor Bahru. I’ve hardly been able to keep up with what’s going on in Malaysia, replying on the assistance of my friends. I got to hear different viewpoints about local education, see how young people have deep respect here – but at the same time I’m not totally sure I could contribute to their causes.

EducateDeviate has served its purpose quite well, though there is room for improvement. However, there’s only so much talking I can do. For EducateDeviate to stay relevant – and for me to be more useful – we need to move into action.

What should EducateDeviate do?

I’m at a crosswords. My interests are melding and changing. There’s a faint possibility of being less hands-on with EducateDeviate to pursue other goals. (I’m reluctant to do this, as the last time I let go of a project and handed it over to someone else ended in disaster and lost friendships.) We could transform EducateDeviate from being just a blog to being a working organisation for youth and social change in education. Or we could do something else.

What should we do?

Tell me: now what?

How Blogging Has Impacted My Life (contest entry)

The people at Brazen Careerist, a Gen Y-oriented career and jobs website, are giving away a free ticket (worth US$425) to SXSW Interactive, one of the world’s biggest digital media conferences. To get a shot at the ticket, they’re asking people to write a post on how blogging has impacted their life. I’m a conference geek, and I’ve heard a lot of great things about SXSW, so I thought I’d give it a shot – something different, for EducateDeviate.

I’ve been online ever since 1995, when it first came to Johor (Malaysia). I immediately latched on to it as an avenue for expressing myself and meeting people. There used to be a children’s website (possibly named KidSpot) that I was very active on – I’d write stories, find penpals, and even get books to review by post. I loved the Internet and hardly went offline (save for one year when my parents wanted me to study).

The Internet, and all the variations of blogging – starting from personal sites on Geocities to online diaries at Diaryland and Livejournal – have impacted my life in a lot of ways. I’ve gained and lost friendships (and sometimes my sanity went with them!), gained entry to events that I wouldn’t even had heard of otherwise, be able to counsel and support other people with similar or connected life stories, and help others help themselves.

Here is a story that illustrates how the Internet (and, in a bit, blogging) has made a major impact, one of those impacts being the formation of EducateDeviate:

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be an exchange student. My overprotective parents hardly let me out of their sight, and when the opportunity finally came up (at 16) by AFS Malaysia they only allowed me to apply to the Japan program because it was free. Of course, being free (it was sponsored by the Japanese Government), it was highly selective. I wasn’t too keen on Japan, but it was the closest I’ll ever be to being an exchange student, so I applied.

And was rejected.

To console myself, I decided to send a music request to By Demand, a then-new interactive music request show on Channel [V] International. The channel thought my request was pretty cool, so they had me as a caller on the show. I liked the experienced, and loved the show, so I made [my demand], a fansite for By Demand and their hosts, Adrian da Silva and Asha Gill.

This unexpectedly made me a celebrity amongst the [V] crew at the time. I was a regular caller/contributor and the crew, especially Asha, became very good friends. [V] moving and losing contact with Asha the next year became really tough personally (I was dealing with panic disorder and depression, and it was a major exam year) and I kept online journals documenting my thoughts and struggles.

In my first gap year in 2003, I used the Internet to search for opportunities and build an interesting life for myself. Asha and I got back in touch, and she got me to set up her official website. I also joined The Star-BRATS, and travelled to the US mainly for an American Idol concert (I was a major fan of Clay Aiken at the time) and received some notoreity amongst the Clay Aiken fandom – including a stint on national news! – for having travelled so far.

I entered my first university in 2004 and used the Internet to keep up with what was going on in KL, thereby starting my work in activism. My desire to be an exchange student still lingered, and I spent about a year looking up options. It was a comment on a post in Livejournal that led me to Up with People, and eventually the best experience of my life.

My Up with People trip showed me the power and joy of experiential learning, and – having talked to some of my school juniors about their experiences – knew that there was a demand for information but not enough resources. While in Dhaka (for my cousin’s wedding) I decided to start off the New Year with my thoughts on education and the year ahead. And so EducateDeviate was born.

Through EducateDeviate I’ve documented social trends in education, explained alternative education (and some of its forms), showcased opportunities unheard of by Malaysians or founded by Malaysians, and featured inspiring young people. A letter that turned into an article (and a blog post) became one of the most popular posts here. I’ve helped people close to despair and supported other young people helping their peers. There were attempts at a blog carnival and at an e-book, and a decent go at a blogathon fundraiser. There is also the push for more young people speaking at conferences – the list is still one of EducateDeviate’s most popular posts and will soon be a project with the International Young Professionals Association. And ther were always plenty of resources – what I wish I had some years ago. Because of all the young people that come together to support this site, EducateDeviate managed to gain an award – thank you everyone, it’s an awesome honour and it helps spread the word further.

I managed to get a little bit of notoriety during the UN Youth Assembly last year for my liveblogs, and spun that into some media experience with the GK3 Young Social Entrepreneurs Forum, which has led me to a whole bunch of interesting people and projects – as well as the utterly fantastic BrainStore company, which even gave me a paying research gig! There’s been other things like those too – mainly by building off one opportunity and seeing where that takes me. I’ve learnt a lot from some very inspiring bloggers, and was heartened to see that someday I could make my mark on local government with a blog as my starting point.

Sometimes I wish I was more like Gala Darling or the people at NOTCOT – the sheer popularity and influence of my blog leading to fantastic opportunities everywhere, all expenses paid! I did just get recently asked to speak at an AIESEC Malaysia conference (I can’t make it because I’m still here in Brisbane but good luck guys!) and I did get a free DVD to review, so I’m probably coming close. (All-expenses-paid trips to something like SXSW are still desired though, hint hint!) It takes luck, work, and keeping your eyes alert.

I’m already over a thousand words with this article, yet I could go on and on about how my blogging and involvement in social media (not just with EducateDeviate, but for other things) have let to an interesting and fascinating network, lots of experiences I wouldn’t have even imagined otherwise, and the propensity to give things a go even if it doesn’t look all that possible – you never know where it will take you!

I may slow down with EducateDeviate someday, or refocus – I would love to bring its work offline and do more real-world projects. However, blogging and the Internet will still be a core component of what I do and who I am.

I’ll end this with a cute little anecdote: blogging got me love. There’s a foreign exchange community on Livejournal and one of the posters used to create a comic strip about her experiences. We got to talking and she told me about International House, a university college in Brisbane. She convinced me to come stay there while I’m in Brisbane, and that was where I met my boyfriend. Two and a half years on, we’ve had our dramas and comedy, but we’re still going great. Who knows where this may lead!

EducateDeviate on the Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition

Check out EducateDeviate on Staples

Check out EducateDeviate on Staples

The Staples Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition, hosted by Ashoka and Youth Venture, provides young people and youth organisations the chance to showcase their project online around the world. Projects will be evaluated and voted on, and the best projects go on to win a variety of prizes.

EducateDeviate is one of the projects listed for this competition – check out our application page and leave us some comments! You can see all the other projects (from 46 countries) here.

If you have a project and want to give this a shot, you have until October 15, 2008 6:00 pm EST (21:00 GMT) – which isn’t long!

Brightest Young Minds – Malaysia?

I just came back from 5 days of the Brightest Young Minds summit in Sydney. The general idea of the summit is to get motivated and passionate young people together to learn about creating initiatives, while also developing actual workable projects to be pitched to potential sponsors.

Brightest Young Minds

It started in South Africa and it’s now that country’s most prestigious and well-known youth-based development initiative. It recently arrived in Australia and within the two years has created a lot of good.

I love the idea and I think it should be more widely available. I was wondering if people were interested in doing a BYM in Malaysia.

While there are people trying to encourage young people to form initiatives, such as BarCamp and Young Entrepreneur summits, there isn’t really any clear support and education system that’s comprehensive. Also, information on actually STARTING and getting legal/financial support for your project is pretty low. There are plenty of youngsters with ideas…just no idea how to get them off the ground.

Having 100 other energetic young people, plus the support and knowledge of people in their field (we had Hugh Evans, who is pretty much THE MAN when it comes to youth development in Australia) would go very far in getting these ideas into reality. There would also be actual opportunities for delegates to create and develop those ideas before they leave – thereby avoiding the common youth conference problem where people are so motivated to crate change during the conference, but afterwards their energy drops and nothing gets done.

To get BYM in Malaysia we need to know the following:

  • Legal aspects of using the BYM name and concept – is there some sort of “franchise kit”?
  • Finding and recruiting young people to be part of BYM(M) 1
  • Partnerships and sponsorships with companies and organizations
  • Convincing people that BYM as a structure can work in Malaysia
  • Getting BYM(M) off the ground and sustainable
  • Creating a team of people interested in getting involved with BYM(M) behind the scenes
  • Connecting BYM(M) to BYMs in SA and Australia
  • Timelines – when do we start work, and when do we have our first BYM(M)?

If you’re interested, or know other people who are, leave me a comment or message.

An open letter to my ex-primary school

I wrote a longer, more detailed version of this letter on my personal journal mainly as a form of catharsis – letting go of my anger and sorrow. Many of my friends were personally touched by the letter and asked me to publish it publicly to make Malaysians aware of the very real effects of racism and bullying in schools, especially from teachers.

The following is an edited version of the original letter. I’ve removed names and some other details. It’s currently under moderation at The Star’s Citizen Blog, and I’m considering posting it to MalaysiaKini and The Sun. I wanted to post it on The Star’s R.AGE Blog but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to post there.

Recently I read the case of Alex Barton, a 5-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who was voted out by his classmates when urged on by their teacher. This case shocked me, not only because it happened at all, but because he is not the only one to have suffered such injustice and humiliation from people in authority – people who should have protected him, who should have known better.

When I was in your school, from December 1991 till late in 1997, I could have been that boy.

My first three years there were all right. My mother used to tell me stories of how I bawled when she tried to take me out to lunch on my first day of school because I thought I was never going to return. I made friends with people of all sorts of names, backgrounds, interests. I did quite well at school, enjoyed learning, and bonded with my English teachers. For those first three years, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my constant answer was “Teacher”.

In Std 4, we were all shifted to the morning session, and placed in classes according to our academic ability. I was placed in the “best class”. While the first year was challenging, with a whole new set of classmates, I managed fine. The next year, however, was trouble.

In 1995, the year I was in Std 5 and turned 11, there were quite a number of Bangladeshi migrants coming to Malaysia to work. It was mainly factory and construction work – hard labour that no one else wanted to do. Around this time, all the major papers would have front page stories of Bangladeshis stealing, raping, kidnapping.

It didn’t matter if they were true; it didn’t matter if they were from another race (because only Bangladeshi and Indonesian criminals would have their races mentioned in the press), it didn’t matter that the criminals were an extremely small percentage of the general Bangladeshi population in Malaysia. Because according to you, teachers of the school, all Bangladeshis were the same – including me.

Every other day, one of you teachers would come up to me and quiz me on some new front page article.

“Hey Tiara, I heard a Bangla robbed a bank this morning. What do you think about that?”
“Hey Tiara, all these Banglas are stealing our women.”
“Hey Tiara, why are you Banglas so disgusting and dirty? Get out of here!”

The students, all 12 or under, never learnt that this was wrong; they saw you do it, so they did it too. If I protested, you would tell me to “get a thicker skin” because you were “only talking”. You even bragged to my elder sister, an alumnus of your school, about what a great joke it was telling me to “go back to your country” (despite me being born & raised in Johor).

There were lots more: the bullies that physically attacked me (in a girls’ school!), the harsh comments on my art skills, the jokes about my character.

You did nothing to make things better. Instead, you encouraged the trouble. You showed the students that it was OK to make fun of someone who was different – especially someone who was different but was doing better than you. Whenever I won a school competition or scored well in exams, instead of being proud, you would ask the others “how can an outsider do better than you?”.

All the hassle and trouble affected my ability to concentrate in school. I couldn’t find the motivation to do schoolwork, and always came home angry. You demoted me two classes down – a class whose head teacher was the biggest racist of the school. I did not know how to treat my new classmates, whom I wasn’t sure I could trust, and ended up being quite messed-up and strange.

At one point I tried to kill myself in the prayer room with a blunt scissor blade on my throat. No one tried to help; all that was said was “you’d go to Hell”. I’m only alive because I chickened out.

Suicide should never be an option for a child!

I couldn’t tell anyone, not my parents, not my foreign-based sister, not my (now) nonexistent friends – who would listen? It would only make things worse.

The last straw was in my final year, when you decided to hold an award for Best English Skills. Everyone in the school knew that I was the best in English hands down. I aced every exam, every spelling test, every English competition. But I didn’t even make the Top 10 of your list, because I was not in the right class – or was that because I was not of the right race?

I am still working past the issues I faced in your hell. I am still dealing with my dysfunctional attitudes towards trust, relationships, friendships. It was not until very recently that I began to accept the idea of having friends, and now I have at least three that I would call my best friends. I am still accepting my artistic interests, trying not to be like the demonic critic you were when you coldly told me (more than once) that my art was worthless. I am trying to reconcile my childhood dreams of educating with the harsh realities, concentrating on supporting student welfare.

But I am healing. And I refuse to let a terrible situation stop me from growing.

Because I was mocked, disrespected, and harassed for my race, I now make it a point to be accepting of people from all backgrounds – standing up against racism and discrimination, advocating for diversity and multiculturalism, bringing people together.

Because I saw first-hand how student welfare went out of the window in your school in your quest to remain the “premier” primary school in the state, I work endlessly to ensure that students are respected and cared for in schools nowadays, and give them support when no one else will.

Because I saw how terrible educators can be, I am working on being a better educator, even if not directly as a teacher.

I only wish that I had learnt all of those positive things directly from your actions, instead of in spite of them.

I have long forgiven my friends, and myself, for the mistakes we made in the past. They did not have many positive role models and did not know better. For you though? I’m not sure I can ever forgive you.

I shudder to think of how your current students must be faring. My supportive teachers are no longer in your faculty list, and neither is my biggest tormentor. But many other teachers that allowed this to happen, joined in the prejudice, joined in the neglect, are still there – including the headmistress.

Have you learnt anything at all from this debacle? Do you care about your students at all? Are you more tolerant?

Have things changed? Or have they just stayed the same?

Sincerely,
Tiara Shafiq
1991/1992-1997

Once Upon A School: Get Inspired

As part of his TED Prize (the award given by major ideas conference TED to 3 prominent people to have one wish come true), author Dave Eggers talks about his project 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center for young people staffed by professional writers and educators, housed behind shops of very unusual nature – the one at Valencia was a “pirate’s goods” store. Originally the storefront was a way to circumvent zoning laws, but it became a good draw (and made money for the center), and soon the project spread to various other tutoring centres+shops across the US and the world.

(click the picture below to see his video on TED)

Dave Eggers talking at TED

Eggers’s wish is for more people to get involved with their local schools and engage their students into learning. To achieve this, he and the people at TED have started Once Upon A School, a website where people can pledge ideas for school engagement and read stories of those that have done so.

Once Upon A School

Some of the ideas include hands-on tutoring for maths and science and companies partnering with classes to provide real-world experiences (much like the KaosPilots), while a couple of projects already running include M.U.S.I.C., which brings pop music into the classroom, and ACE, or Awareness for Communities about Energy, which trains schoolkids and community members about energy-efficient living.

My story about doing a Life after School talk at my old secondary school also made it onto the website. Read my story and share your ideas.

What other ideas do you have for getting involved with your schools? How can communities and schools engage each other?

Take Back Your Education

I just finished reading The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins, where she chronicles the life of a few high school juniors and seniors in a top high school in the US (her former school) as they pile themselves up with activities and other things to keep themselves qualified for college. Like in Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School, these students are going through extraordinary stress and pressure to keep up with the rest. In both books, most of the students would rather concentrate on things they want to do, but they are constantly pressured (whether by parents, students, counselors, or themselves) to perform more than is necessary – or sane.

One of the students in The Overachievers is Frank (or AP Frank in the beginning), a half-Asian young man who is pressured by his Korean mother to go to Harvard to study medicine or law. He and his brother Richard are not allowed to have a social or otherwise non-academic life; instead, they have to study under their mother’s watchful eye, with only half an hour in between allowed for a quick dinner (something reheated) and television news (they are not allowed to watch anything else). His mother actually forced Frank to take all the AP subjects the school offered, and called up the school to ask why they didn’t have an AP for Physical Education. She pushed Frank into Harvard (even when he’d rather be elsewhere) and went through all the documentation, choosing his classes and dormitory for him. When Frank tries to stand up for himself, he is physically assaulted by his mother. This leads to a series of incidents where the social services are called in, his brother Richard is taken into foster care (and lives in what he describes as a “mansion” – the home of a schoolmate – which allows him greater freedom), and their parents are divorced (with Frank’s mother frantically calling Frank telling him to deny the abuse). Eventually Frank regains his strength and confidence, finds love, sheds the “AP” title, and goes into environmental science and public policy – something he’s more interested in than medicine. (Reading the updates, it seems that the relationship between him and his mum has improved, and the mother has relaxed considerably. yay!)

While Frank’s story is a bit extreme, it isn’t that unusual. Throughout Frank’s story, Robbins talks about the pressure Asian students face in school. Korean three-year-olds have to prove their proficiency in a musical instrument before being allowed into kindergarden. Your life and social status in Japan, even when you’re middle aged, is largely determined by how you scored in your exams when you were 15. There’s a whole breed of mothers – kyioku mama – who sit in their children’s classes and take notes for them when their kids are ill. Suicide rates amongst schoolkids are alarmingly high. And this is the system President Reagan wanted the US to emulate in the 1980s? No wonder American students are driving themselves insane!

And before you say “oh that’s a different country”…it happens in Malaysia too. We all know it. If you don’t take Science for your SPM, you’re stupid or wasting your intelligence. You have to get straight As at every level to get into a good institution. Medicine is the only university subject that matters. Even if you’re bright and knowledgeable, you have to take tuition classes to keep up. All the talks hosted by schools are “How To Answer XYZ Paper”. Let’s not even touch on this weird hysteria people have for overseas “top schools” – Harvard/Oxford/Cambridge, or nothing. (By the way, the whole ranking system? Complete bullocks. Many US colleges are opting out of it because they find it unfair and unrepresentative. Some of the “top” schools fudge their numbers to get high rankings. It’s a game.) No one ever cares about the suicides – they just take up a small column in Page 2 of the papers.

Why are we going through so much insanity? Apparently it’s because we have to “live up” to something – school standards, counselor standards, society standards. We allow ourselves/our children to be bullied, stressed, abused by the system, just so we could get in to something supposedly prestigious. Instead of schools and universities acknowledging students’ various talents and capabilities, they force the students to be someone they’re not, just to keep up an image.

Let’s stop this madness.

You’re the one that’s going to school. It’s your money that’s being spent. It’s your time that’s being used. You’re the one that has to go through all this trouble. Stand up for yourselves.

Don’t buy into the trap of going to a “good school” or nothing. Choose the school you like based on your own factors. Do you prefer big schools or small schools? Local, regional, international? Academic, practical, both? Casual, business-like, formal?

Choose your own subjects. What to experiment with science, or create art? Curious about international economics, or want to debate literature and philosophy? My boyfriend’s brother is a sports buff, and had he been in a Malaysian school, he would be considered a “meathead”, someone not smart enough, just because he wasn’t very academic. Now he’s doing Sports Science in university, which includes Chemistry and Biology – subjects that wouldn’t be open to him if he was in Malaysia. He’s doing OK, because it’s what he’s interested in and he’s putting his energy into it. Why don’t we let other Malaysians have this chance? Why bind them to school grades, and assume that all straight A people are scientists and all straight Fs are artisans?

Don’t let grades tell you what to do. Don’t let anyone else make your decisions for you. Do what you want to do. Make your own choices.

Take back your education.