The Global Search for Education: Youth are Talking – Is the World Listening?
This season on the Planet Classroom Network audiences will be able to see some outstanding examples of Xtalks work with youth around the world. Notable mentions are 3 video presentations from youth in Malawi. Nearly Half My Country is Younger than Me features 15 year old Maynard, Civic Education is the Solution features Vitumbiko, and Take a Stand for Animals features Mphukira.
XtalksWORLDlistens was born at Mzuzu International Academy in Northern Malawi in 2017. Alex Bell, a Founder of Xtalks and Portland Education, was commissioned by Anna Msowoya-Keys, founder of the academy’s parent NGO, Maloto.org, to introduce a program to develop youth voice at the school. Bell, who believes youth need a platform to share their perspectives on a changing world, was ready to create a coaching program for young people with poor online connectivity but unique experiences the rest of the world could learn from. He was particularly intrigued by sharing the wisdom of young people in overlooked parts of the world.
The Global Search for Education is pleased to welcome Alex Bell, Founder of XtalksWorldListens and Portland Education.
Alex, how does your program work and what have been your most surprising lessons to date?
The Xtalks program we developed is a simple coaching sequence that takes teens who have never spoken publicly before, and in about six hours over several days, enables them to give a confident, authentic and passionate talk from first-hand knowledge and experience.
After our first year of the program, then called MZUZUtalksWORLDlistens, we filmed on hand-held cameras and makeshift tripods and sent the talks to friends and contacts in 21 countries. The response to the talks was phenomenal and was truly life-changing for our speakers. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine their voices would have a global reach, and their words would put their part of the world on the map. From then on, we decided to launch even more widely as Xtalks.org.
What was the program named after?
The program is named after the X on a map that shows where the hidden treasure lies. Xtalks exists to help young people raise awareness about themselves and their ideas, and place them firmly on the world stage.
We have learned a lot along the way. From the very outset, we were clear that whatever our young people spoke about had to be from their own life experiences. We know that an authentic voice is what our audience enjoys and wants to hear. It is still a huge surprise and delight when we get lovely, encouraging comments to the videos on our website from all over the world.
What do youth want to talk about? How do you select those personal topics and themes they are most interested in?
Our young people often do not know what to speak about, at first. The program teaches them to start with the things they care about most and what they want the world to do about it. Each talk ends with some form of a call to action for the audience around the world. Our speakers have spoken about child marriage, deforestation and government corruption, all from their point of view and their own experience. We recently partnered with a youth group of children of sex workers in Kampala, Uganda. We know they will have some pretty unique insights on life from which the rest of the world can learn. Whatever our young people speak about, we know the most compelling stories are the ones seldom heard before.
So we assume you are on a mission to find the next Greta and Malala?
We aim to find the next Greta, the next Malala and the next Parkland kids. Once we started to listen to what our young people had to say, it was the small details that touched us and our audience the most.
Can you speak a little about the digital divide and the challenges of connectivity?
The digital divide is real. A few months ago, Anna and I received an invitation to work with some teen students for Helsinki’s very impressive Education Week. When we decided that we were going to run two hours of the program there, we knew we wanted our pioneer speakers in Mzuzu, Malawi to be there with us too. The logistics for those two hours took us months and involved us having a generator on standby to ensure no power cuts or internet failure. Our faith paid off, and we had our first faultless internet connection in the three years we have worked together.
The students loved working together, have spoken since, and now have a very different understanding of each other’s lives. What better way to learn about life in Malawi or Finland than to hear from young people themselves?
As well as looking to schools and youth groups for speakers in the more remote parts of the world, we are keen for Xtalks videos to become a teaching resource in classrooms and whole school meetings in other parts of the globe. We are working with several curriculum development NGOs to create specific resources to do this over the next few months.
Due to recent interest from many parts of the world, we are now developing partnerships in India, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Barbados, Fiji and even in one of the most remote schools in the Himalayas. We will not stop until we have reached the farthest flung teen voices and put them on our Xtalks platform for the world to hear. We know every young person deserves a seat at the table, no matter where they live.
How do you implement your curriculum?
Our program is user-friendly for anyone working with young people to quickly implement in around six hours. They sign up for the free-to-download playbook. It can be used by non-teachers, so youth workers or even older teens can run it, and teachers will find it very easy to follow. The program runs with two groups, one who develop as speakers planning and giving their talks, and the others who work on filming and uploading the talks on our website.
What do you think makes XTalks unique to other programs like it?
We think what makes Xtalks unique is that we start from the small details of the lives of our teen speakers. They do not have to have done anything more extraordinary than to have lived their lives, to have something the world will want to listen to and will learn as a result. There is enormous wisdom in speaking about life about which others have little knowledge. They also need no presence on social media or even regular internet access to have their voices heard. As long as they can find a copy of the program and can film their talk on a phone, we will make sure the world hears their voice and responds.
How would you describe Xtalks greatest achievements to date?
Probably our proudest moment was having one of our first teen speakers, Tryness from Mzuzu, narrate the Xtalks introduction video on our website. Tryness was a street child picked up, fed and given a scholarship to MIA by Anna. She was the shyest and perhaps the most reticent of our speakers. It took massive courage for her to give her initial talk on film, but her confidence soared with the reaction to it, and this comes across so powerfully when she talks about her Xtalks experience on film.
What’s next? What are the future plans for Xtalks?
We have bigger plans for Xtalks over the next year and aim to have speakers from 20 countries in the next 12 months. We are actively seeking funding to move some central parts of Xtalks to Mzuzu where it all started, so that our pioneer speakers can guide and support others globally.
We will not stop until every child, in every corner of the world, has the chance to be heard.
Alex Thank you!