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“We come from different backgrounds, but music unites us as one.”

2017 Fellow, Koay Yi Zhuang grew up with the opportunity to explore her passion for the arts, especially the harmonica. Seeing her students who share the same passion she had but have no platform to explore it, she vowed to bring the joy of music to them!

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Performing arts played a crucial part in moulding Cikgu Koay to be the person she is today.

As a student, I was lucky to study in a secondary school that had a performing arts programme. I played the harmonica for seven years and had the opportunity to join international competitions in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, meeting professional harmonica players from all over the world!

As a Teach For Malaysia Fellow, I’ve met many students who are passionate about  singing, dancing, and acting but noticed that there weren’t many opportunities for them to further explore their interest.

I asked myself: “Why can’t they perform on stage? Why can’t they get the chance to showcase their talents?”

That’s when I decided to get my students to join ARTspire, a program that aims to empower students to express themselves creatively and confidently through performing arts.

First steps and its challenges

With 14 students, I was excited to finally kickstart ARTspire in my school! But to my dismay, I noticed there was a distinct separation between the kids during our meetings. They all sat in groups of the same ethnicity and refused to mix or converse with others who did not share the same mother tongue.

“We may have been a group, but our hearts were far away from each other.”

As a teacher, I knew I needed to do something.

To create a positive teamwork environment, I made them speak only in Malay and English during all of our activities.

Initially, it was a struggle. Some of the students either couldn’t converse well or were too shy to talk at all. Many struggled with their pronunciation. But with all things, learning is a process.

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Slowly but surely, friendships bloomed.

After countless workshops and trainings, they learned to work better as a team. They would even sit in a circle and sing together as well as coach one another in between practise sessions.

I was especially proud of them when they were able to speak English throughout our practise sessions and started conversing in English whenever they met other students in ARTspire workshops.

Together, their friendships matured and with it, themselves.

With time, Cikgu Koay finally saw the fruits of her students’ labour.

After practising everyday for a month, my ARTspire students performed for the first time in school, in conjunction with independence day. It was challenging to perform in front of an audience of 1,600 people. The performance was good but it wasn’t perfect and they cried because they knew they could do better.

I was worried that they may lose interest in music until a student came to me and said:

“Teacher, let’s practise for the next performance!”

In the face of failure, they showed maturity and the desire to correct their mistakes – as a teacher I couldn’t ask for more than that.

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When asked if she had something to say to the rest of Malaysia, this is what she had to say:

“To everyone in Malaysia,

I have seen my students grow as individuals and as a team. From a group of strangers that wouldn’t even speak to each other, they became a family of performers that pushed each other to be better everyday.

To me they are living proof that unity in Malaysia is possible and it’s crucial that we start  cultivating it from within the classroom.

Just like us, through passion and hard work, our hearts can be one.”

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ARTspire is an initiative, led by 2016 and 2017 Teach For Malaysia Fellows in Johor. It aims to empower students to express themselves creatively and confidently through performing arts. Through various workshops, students hone their skills in event management, singing, dancing, and drama. This prepares them to organise a performing arts festival that features pop-up performances in public areas and culminates in a final production.


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