Youth can do so many great things. I want people to keep an open-mind about what we can accomplish if given the opportunity.
Author and Young Learner
Megan Chen, a sophomore from Delaware, recently authored and co-illustrated a new children’s book, Finding Tiger, with her best friend Amberly Tran. We had the pleasure of meeting Megan at Education Reimagined’s 2019 Symposium and knew we had to learn more about her story.
Q: After attending the Education Reimagined Symposium in January, what did you learn about learner-centered education?
A: The schools I have attended are conventional and have many differences compared to learner-centered education. They don’t have many learner-centered qualities to them. However, I have experienced a learner-centered program through Dual School’s 10-week afterschool opportunity. It really encompasses what learner-centered education is.
At the beginning of the program, I had to select a topic I was really passionate about and pursue a project with the support of mentors. This was the beginning of the journey that led to publishing my book, Finding Tiger.
Dual School was my first experience with learner-centered education. Through it, I was introduced to another organization called GripTape—an organization that “gives youth decision-making control over what and how they learn, small grants to pursue a topic they’re passionate about, and a Champion to encourage them along the way.”
Through these experiences, I’ve come to realize there’s a really big disparity between normal, public high school and programs like Dual School and GripTape. I want to work toward having a balance of these experiences in my own education.
Q: How did you learn about Dual School?
A: A few of my peers at my high school participated in Dual School’s very first cohort. After their experience, they came back to school and talked about how cool the program was.
I reflected on how I’ve always had particular passions I wanted to explore, but doing that on my own was a really daunting task, so I never started. My peers told me how I could pursue those passions through Dual School’s program, and I jumped at the chance to join their second cohort.
Q: What kind of passions did you want to pursue?
A: I always wanted to create a project that helped my community. Since I was little, I’ve always had an interest in creating and inventing. It was never something I took seriously because I didn’t feel like I had the time, energy, or resources to make it happen. I thought it was something I would have to wait to do until I was older. When I heard about Dual School, I could tell it was giving youth the opportunities to do the things many people think you can’t do until you’re older.
Q: When you began the Dual School program, when did you realize you wanted to write a book?
A: I had a problem I wanted to tackle. Growing up as an Asian American, I’ve struggled with cultural identity and not feeling like I fit in anywhere. I had conversations with others who had similar experiences, and I knew it was an issue that impacted a lot of people. So, I wanted to solve it.
My initial idea was to start a program in schools—one that would focus on teaching about different cultures. As I began thinking about the logistics, I had questions pop up like, “Would this program actually reinforce stereotypes?” I went all around my community to speak with different teachers and asked them in what ways they would teach about this passion of mine.
They talked about how much young kids enjoyed children’s books. I had an interest in writing and art, and I’ve always had this dream to write a book. After these conversations, I knew this was the time to do it.
Through the Dual School program, being able to reach out to a bunch of people in my community, and given the fact I lived nearby a big university, I reached out to a professor who is a children’s author himself. I learned a lot about the book writing and publishing process from him. Once the 10-week program was up, I continued with the project until I published my book a year-and-a-half later.
Q: You have a co-illustrator. How did you enroll her into doing this book with you?
A: My co-illustrator is one of my best friends. Illustrating a children’s book is a really daunting task. I knew she was really into art, so I reached out to her explaining the book project and she was more than happy to help out.
Q: Was there ever a point in time where you felt the book wasn’t going to be completed?
A: Yes. There were several occasions throughout the writing process where I wanted to give up. One of them was after I finished writing the first draft of the manuscript for my book. I really wanted to go through a traditional publisher, and as I went through that process, I learned publishers are looking for very specific genres depending on what’s selling.
I reached out to 30-40 literary agents trying to garner interest in my book. It wasn’t happening, and I started getting really discouraged. I began wondering if my manuscript wasn’t good enough or if my illustrations weren’t good enough.
I went ahead and talked with Zack Jones—Dual School’s Director—and other friends of mine who are all self-published authors. They all expressed how much easier it was to go that direction. Ultimately, for me, the message of my book was more important than how it was published, so I decided to go the self-publishing route.
But, it was still a daunting task. Publishing it on my own meant taking on the role of the entire team of people I would have had under a traditional publisher. I had to learn a lot of new skills, like graphic design and how to format a printable book.
Once I was more than halfway through the project, I knew it was going to happen. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to give up once I’ve put myself into something, so I wanted to finish it. Again, I was also motivated by the possibility of bringing this book to schools and teaching kids these lessons. I wasn’t going to give up on that dream.
Q: Not only did you power through, but your co-illustrator stuck it out as well. Did you feel that partnership helped keep you moving forward?
A: Absolutely. Without her, I don’t know how I would have been able to do all of the illustrations. Having that support makes the project about you and that other person, rather than just you alone. It made me more motivated to continue with it.
Q: What have you been exploring since publishing Finding Tiger?
A: Pretty soon after publishing my book, I started going to schools and facilitating workshops on the ideas presented in my book. I created a curriculum based on the book’s themes that brings the book to the next level of teaching bias and other things.
Beyond the book and workshops, I want to continue pursuing things I’m passionate about and problems I want to solve. This year, I’m hoping to start my own non-profit—one that focuses on mental health and body confidence.
I’m the type of person who has big ideas, and even if they don’t end up working out, I learn a lot through these experiences. Even though I’ve always been a big dreamer, publishing my book has given me the confidence to know I can take on big things and complete them. I now know there will be problems I encounter along the way and that I have the problem-solving skills to move past them.
Q: If you are about to graduate high school and you have a successful non-profit or there are new opportunities that come up related to your book, will you forgo college to pursue those opportunities?
A: As of right now, I definitely want to go to college. No matter what I want to do, I think there is so much I can learn in college. If the projects I’m working on right now become bigger, I want to find that balance of attending college and managing those projects at the same time. I would want to see where it goes.
Q: Did any of this work get counted toward the credits you needed to graduate high school?
A: I never actually considered that. That’s a really interesting idea. This book has always been a secondary thing that existed outside of school. Now that you ask, there are definitely skills I’ve obtained that would apply to classes I’ve taken.
Q: If there was one thing that could be different in your current school, what would you like to see?
A: It would be better if they gave kids more opportunities to do project-based learning because when most kids finish high school and go onto college, they don’t know what they want to do. In school, there are certain subjects everyone has to take, and even if you’re not interested in them, you have to do it. If we started incorporating project-based learning, we would develop more life skills and discover things we’re interested in and passionate about.
Youth can do so many great things. I want people to keep an open mind about what we can accomplish if given the opportunity. When I first started my book, there were people who didn’t believe in me and thought I was never going to finish it. As learner-centered education begins to grow, and youth are given more freedom to do projects like these, people will provide more support and belief about whatever it is kids want to pursue.