My Gaiman Encounters

My little sister is actually the one who discovered Neil Gaiman’s works first, before I did, and sort of introduced them to me, indirectly. In the first years of my living in The Netherlands (early 2000), Lambiek comics shop in Amsterdam also took part in introducing me to more of his works. It didn’t take long until I became absorbed in them. The Internet era was young, then, when Multiply and Yahoo!Messenger were hip, and mailing-lists were insanely active, and, most importantly, when blogs flourished. And I was happy to find that Neil Gaiman keeps a blog, too, and used to be quite diligent in updating it. So, having been converted to a Gaimanite, I accessed his blog as a daily routine. Coming from a generation whose teenage years were filled with writing mails to their idols overseas (as in: with pen on papers, put them in envelopes, glued stamps on them and actually brought them to a post office), and having to wait for weeks until a response came (or none at all), I really feel the magic of the Internet and blogs. Surprises followed afterward…

It was April 2003; I was halfway pregnant with our second child when I read a pamphlet that announced a Gaiman event in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. In those years, I had to commute weekly, by train, from Amsterdam (home) to Delft (campus) for my doctoral research, and Rotterdam is along the way. I was right away determined to get my first star-struck. I told my sister, who lived in Jakarta, about this event, and she asked me to have a book signed for her. No problem. I planned to bring more stuff for him to sign, anyway: my drawing of Dream and Death.

He's browsing my sketchbook!

He’s browsing my sketchbook!

The only photo I have with both of us looking at the camera

Cheers!

Here’s a chronicle of that evening, that used to be up at my Multiply, and now (since Multiply is dead), at my Blogspot: The Day I Met Neil (the links to the photo pages no longer exist). That was my first encounter with Neil Gaiman. The impression stays for years.

Dream and Death in batik

Dream and Death in batik

D-Day 25 April 2003

D-Day 25 April 2003

(facepalm)

(facepalm)

The second encounter was almost invisible. Next to Neil Gaiman’s works, I’m also a fan of Eddie Campbell’s, and as soon as I got my hands on The Fate of The Artist, I like it so much that I had a feeling I should let him know that it is such an amazing work. But how? He hasn’t had any blog then, and there’s no way I could find his email address. So I dared myself to leave a message to him through Neil’s blog, posted a link to my review (at my blog) of The Fate, with the hope that he’d relay the message, considering that they know each other well.

The email that got me jumping out of my chair

The email that got me jumping out of my chair

And then I got my surprise: within a day after I posted that message at Neil’s blog, an email from Eddie Campbell came into my inbox! That was July 2006, he said Neil forwarded him the link to my blog, and signed his email “Richard Siegrist” above an attached photo. I was star-struck again and was too nervous to reply. But I did. I was such a brave girl. (And he’s super nice!) I even drew the moment I almost jumped out of my chair when his email came, and sent the scanned drawing to him.

When I received Eddie's email...

When I received Eddie’s email…

(still star-struck)

(still star-struck)

Couldn't get over it.

Couldn’t get over it.

What happened afterward constituted a series of more surprises: he was willing to endorse my first book (a graphic diary titled Curhat Tita) in 2008, and he and his family hosted me for a weekend at their house in Brisbane, Australia, in 2009. But that’s another story. Now let’s go back to my next encounter with Neil Gaiman…

January 2009. I was back to living in Bandung (West Java, Indonesia), already since the beginning of 2007. My absence from this city comes near to 10 years, so I gradually discovered new establishments, such as a second hand English bookshop that also serves food and drinks, called The Reading Lights. One day I ordered a house-mixed coffee named Neil Gaiman and wrote about it in my Multiply, titled Gaiman is less sensible, compared to Pamuk. I mentioned about it to Neil Gaiman (again, via a posted message in his blog) and thought nothing more of it. Much later, a comment at that article in my blog remarked that Neil mentioned me in his Twitter. What’s a Twitter?! I didn’t know, so I went and checked, and got hooked. [In this case, Neil Gaiman is the one who introduced me to Twitterverse!]

Choose your bev.. er.. author

Choose your bev.. er.. author

My Gaiman peanut-butter coffee

My Gaiman peanut-butter coffee

I got star-struck again, moreover because Neil talked about that coffee in his blog http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/01/happy-and-wise-in-our-giant-hologram.html, then a related post followed in April http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/04/all-questions-all-time.html. It went viral since The Guardian picked it up and put a piece of article about it: Is Neil Gaiman your cup of novelty coffee? Then drinks with authors’ names went around the Internet for a while, before they died down a couple of weeks (months?) later.

Neil's blog post

Neil’s blog post

The article at The Guardian

The article at The Guardian

Alright, that’s about the end of my story right now. I’m just glad I had the chance to meet a person whose works have accompanied me through most of my commuting trips and journeys, and have succeeded in enticing my thoughts and fantasies. For this small piece of my life, I am eternally grateful.

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How to change education from the ground up

Here are some excerpts from a recent talk (published July 18, 2013) by Sir Ken Robinson. Wanting it or not, this speech made me think about our new, ridiculous national curriculum, composed by the government “up there”, untouched by the actors of education themselves: teachers and learners – and how we can actually change them from the ground level. Schools are not factories that print certificate to rank children’s “intelligence”; they should be a pleasant place where children maintain and discover their love for learning.

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The basics of education: science, technology and math, are necessary, but not sufficient.

The basics of public education, or why we invest in a system of mass public education, has the following purposes (not labeling, just as a reference, and not in particular order):

(1) Economic.

Education has powerful economic purposes. It does and it should. But the economic system of that day was industrialism, which is why the system looks the way it does. It is not that system anymore for us.

If we are to meet the “economic” requirement of education we need to have a system that promotes creativity and adaptability.

Adaptability: Organizations are not like machines, they are like organisms. They are living entities, made out of people, feelings, motivations, roles, aspirations, passions, and ambitions. And if the organism doesn’t respond to changes in its natural environment – just as in the natural world – it dies.

Creativity: We need companies that are consistently and systematically creative.

Students coming out of college find it difficult to come up with something new. That’s because they are educated on the standard routine of routine testing, multiple-choice tests.

(2) Cultural.

It’s a small enough planet as it is, but it has becoming more and more populated. But in any case, the ethical reasons as well as strategic ones, we formed education that enables people to understand how they came to think as they do, why their values are as they are, why their patterns of lives are as they are, and why other people are different. We need reformed education that helps people to understand their own cultural identity and what formed it and those of other people.

Now for that we need a broad education… the arts, the humanities, to social studies, not just to technical subjects.

(3) Social.

We need a form of education that engages this generation in the processes on which communities are organized and governed. And there are a lot of evidences on disengagements, that people are pulling away from those roles.

“Every generation has to discover its democracy” (on election)

It is very important that we take parts in these civil discourses. You don’t do that in education by giving people lessons on civics. You do it by having a culture which embodies these processes of participation, and great schools do that.

In the end, education is personal. It’s about people. It’s not about components or machines.

And if we know about people: they are different. They’re driven by different talents, different abilities, different passions, different interests and different motivations. One of the signature features of humanity is Diversity. Of course it contrasts sharply with one of the organizational principles of education, which is Conformity.

But if we don’t understand that education is about People and Individuals in all their diversity and multiplicity, then we keep making the mistakes that we make. If we’re treated as a machine… rather than a human process, then we’ll run ourselves into a cul-de-sac.

When we’re talking about changing education “from the ground up”, that’s the “ground” that I mean. Most political strategies start from the top-down: “if we can get people to conform, everything would improve”. And the evidence is quite the contrary: the more the government go in the “control” mode, the more they misunderstand the level of teaching and learning, the more they misunderstand the process of education.

So we have a situation here in the UK now, where most of the major teaching units have passed a vote of “no confidence” of the government’s education strategy. That shouldn’t promote a smug expression of satisfaction on the government. That should keep them awake all night, thinking, “How badly have we got this wrong?” You cannot improve education by alienating the profession that carries it out.

Recognizing that education can be encouraged from the top down is one thing. But it can really be improved from the ground up by the people who do the work. Because in the end it’s not ministers or states who’re teaching all of our children.

“The Empty Space” by Peter Brook: if you’re really concerned to make theater the most powerful experience that can be, we have to decide what we mean when we say “theater”. We have to get back to basics and focus on what is fundamental. And he answers that question in a brief passage in the book by performing a thought experiment. Essentially he says, “If you take a theater performance, what can you take away and still have it? What’s the core? What’s the irreducible minimum?”

You could take away the curtains, you could take away the script, the stage crew and the lighting, you can get rid of the director, definitely, you can get rid of the building. You don’t need any of that. The only thing you can’t get rid of, and still had “theater”, is an actor, in a space, and somebody watching.

Theater describes the relationship between the audience and a performance. That’s the relationship that we mean. So if we want to make theater the most powerful experience that can be, we have to focus on that relationship between the performer and the audience. And, he said, we should add nothing to it, unless it helps. And of course a lot of what we add to theater distracts the relationship and substitutes for it.

It is an exact analogy with education: the heart of education is a teacher and a learner. And we have, overtime, obfuscated that relationship with every type of distraction. We have testing regimes, testing companies, political ideologies, political purposes, subject loyalties, building codes, all of these timetables and schedules.

That’s why we can spend all day long discussing education and never mention teaching or learning. But if there’s no teaching or learning happening, there is no education going. So if we’re going to improve education, we have to improve that a bit. And everything else has to not getting in the way of it.

So the focus on teaching and learning to me is vital.

Now what we know about learners, about children, is that children are learning organisms. Children don’t need to be helped to learn, for the most part. They’re all born with a vast variation of appetite for learning.

You don’t teach your child to speak. Most kids get to learn to speak in the first year and a half or so in their life, but you don’t teach them. They just pick it up. You nudge them, you encourage them, but you don’t teach them to speak. We do teach them to write. That’s a different thing. Writing appeared much later in human evolution than speech.

But my point is: children have a vast appetite for learning. And it only starts to dissipate when we educate them. That’s to say, when we put them in buildings, designed for the purpose. And put them in charade ranks and start to force-feed them information in which they may or may not have interest.

But learning happens anyway, and with the new technology it’s happening more and more. If we really want education to be more effective, we have to focus on the process of teaching and learning. And teaching has become reduced, in the political discourse, to a kind of delivery system (“your job is to deliver the national curriculum”). Teaching has become a kind of delivery system and teachers have become a kind of functionaries in the administration of cash.

Actually, teaching is an art form. It’s not enough to be a good teacher to know your stuff, though you need to know it. But more than that, you need to excite people about the material. You need to engage them. You need to pick their imagination, to feel their creativity. You need to drive their passion for it. You need to get them to want to learn this. You need to find a point of entry. That’s the gift of a great teacher.

One of the ways that we improve education is by recognizing it happens at the point of where teachers and learners meet. If it doesn’t happen there, it doesn’t happen at all, in formal, organized education systems.

So you can’t improve education by ignoring that relationship, or demeaning it. But it also means, if you are in that relationship, you hold the tools of powers right in your hands. You can change the system yourself. You don’t need to wait for anybody to do it.

A school, just like a child, or a teacher, is not a component. They are living organisms. Living, breathing entities. A school is a community or reciprocating individuals who develop their own culture, their own way of seeing things, their own habits and rituals, and so on.

There isn’t a single point of influence. The teachers in the system, the head teachers, are just as influential in their own world as the policy makers. If you are a teacher, if you are a school principle, if you’re a superintendent, if you run a school district, so far as the kids are concerned who go to your school, you are the education system.

If you began to change your practice, if you began to change the environment of the school, if you – in other words – concentrate on your   in the school as a part of the larger climate, eventually you start to affect the whole. That’s how our social movements happen.

Human culture is essentially unpredictable. But it accumulates over the creative activities of individuals feeding off each other. That’s how organic growth happens.

When I said that revolution is needed, and it should start from the ground up, it’s already happening. The system is already adapting. The part of the system that is not adapting is the high level of government policy.

The real role of leaders, when it comes to education: whether you are a teacher, or head teacher, or head of a district – your proper role, if you have a loving relationship with education – is not to try to command and control it, but to recognize your place in climate control. And if you can help to change the climate of expectation in education, if you can change what’s happening at the ground, then you’ve changed the world.

 

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Related posts in this blog:

Passion, Creativity, Element, Energy

Imagination, Creativity, Innovation

Handmade Urbanism

In the first week of June, 2013, BCCF was invited to participate in an exhibition and symposium with the theme Smart Cities: The Next Generation at Aedes Network Campus Berlin, Germany. We were asked three questions that determine the “smart” aspects of our city for the exhibition materials:

  1. How does your project “smarten up” your city?
  2. Why does your city need your project and what challenges are country­‐specific to your urban context?
  3. What are the new behaviors your building/planning/initiative encourages?

While working on the answers, we became more convinced that the strength of Bandung is in its proactive citizens who have been interfering with their own habitat, to make it more livable. Our presentation in Berlin included a series of Kampung Kreatif (Creative Kampong/Neighborhood) program and Helarfest 2012, which brought up issues concerning four elements of the city: river, forest, kampong and park. Next to Bandung, there are also other Indonesian cities such as Jakarta and Medan participating in the event. During the event, it was evident that most growing, dense cities in developing countries are facing similar problems due to overpopulation and underdeveloped infrastructures and facilities, of which solutions mostly depend on the survival ability of the inhabitants.

Handmade Urbanism

Handmade Urbanism book and Urban Future CD

On our last day in Berlin, we found a book whose contents resonate what has been done in the local neighborhoods of Bandung. This book, titled Handmade Urbanism, describes the journeys of five world cities that have brought them to receive the Deutsche Bank Award for their civic initiatives: Mumbai, Sâo Paulo, Mexico City, Istanbul, and Cape Town. The book also comes with a CD, titled Urban Future, containing documentary videos of these cities. Each city has its own issues, which received different treatments as well, and they are not always expensive, nor requiring a substantial amount of budgeting and infrastructures. From the stories, we could learn that all things started small – but they got started anyway – whether from a group of people or an individual, from common villagers or planners/architects to public figures, with different backgrounds.

The examples in Handmade Urbanism show results after about 10 years of the interventions, when citizens could already enjoy the results, where social changes are evident and physical improvements are obvious. Kampung Kreatif program in Bandung started in 2012, now not even 1 year old, and – as experienced in all fields – getting started and maintaining the energy and spirit are the most challenging phase. There is still a long way to go, but we are convinced that we can also keep the program going and reach up to such benefits!

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“All over the world, water takes a significant part of a city” – Mumbai

“The problem (of a city) will never be solved if we keep trying to demolish the slum” – Mumbai

“Community-based programs take place and succeed where administration fails” – Mumbai

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“City growth as desired by politicians creates greater tensions among its citizens” – Sâo Paulo

“Small gestures (planting, library, mural, etc.) can help create space and connectedness” – Sâo Paulo

More positive activities > more life security > less crime > less reason to demolish the “slum” – Sâo Paulo

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“Small scale activities and movements can create great changes in a community” – Mexico City

Next to soccer games, gangs also organize graffiti classes, which have lowered the criminal rates – Mexico City

“A change of an urban space can change the attitudes and activities of the local people” – Mexico City

“Improving accessibility for all (citizens) means improving the quality of life” – Mexico City

“A city is more than a place to make money, people need more than roofs above their heads” – Mexico City

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“Teach children to tend a garden, they’ll go home and teach their parents” – Cape Town

“Municipality needs to recognize what has been done at the grass root level, the activism and pro-activeness” – Cape Town