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HUMANS OF BALI: KYLE KING

Posted by Achintya Nilsen on 4th June 2020
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I’ve always tried to show that learning doesn’t have to be so sterile, pointless, and meaningless without context. Working with kids, harnessing their energy and channelling it at something that was going to have an impact, for the environment, and a social impact. That’s what learning should be. That was the inspiration.

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Kyle King currently stands as the Head of High School at the Green School in Bali. Having spent the past seven years at the school (like anyone who’s been at the school long enough will know), there are many other roles he’s had to play, caps he’s had to put on. When I first came into high school, Kyle was my math teacher. From experience, I believe Kyle revolutionized the way math was taught at the school. And the way I viewed teachers in general. I dreaded math class, not because I found it difficult, but because I continuously felt that what was provided was not challenging enough for me. I was always one of those people who quite enjoyed mathematics, and thought that the school did not offer anything that was stimulating enough for me. But then others in my class would disagree. Some hated math, and I recall some of these students spending class times trying to revolt against having math at school. What I admired about Kyle during my time at the Green School, was how he was able to take these two extremes and create a learning environment that satisfied both groups. “I was able to write the scope and sequence for the math program and really come to, I think, shape the way that math takes place at green school,” Kyle said. “Before I had gotten there, there was a lot of trepidation and a lot of trauma around math, and I think we’ve done a good job to soften that experience.” But not ultimately sacrifice how math is learned and not disadvantage our students as well.”

We know that some people love numbers, and others would prefer to steer clear of them. And what Kyle brought to the table was a way of exploring math that caters to a student’s preference for how they learn—making it something that becomes less dreadful to all of us coming into it with our varied backgrounds. The ability to shift the way a subject is perceived and accepted by the students, especially one as formidable as mathematics, must bring with it a passionate and caring individual, driven to create positive changes. Which is why upon returning to the school for my younger sister’s graduation and finding out that Kyle had become the new Head of High School, I was not surprised they had trusted him with this role. His primary duty, as head of high school, encompasses all of the learning programs that goes on in their learning neighborhood (the green school high school). “The breadth and scope of that is quite massive because the teachers and students are given so much latitude in what they’re able to do. We believe in giving our community members, students, and teachers, in particular, a lot of creative license.” Kyle elaborated. “We encourage self-directed and driven endeavoring, so there’s a lot to kind of keep an eye on in this role, but it’s also very exciting because we are encouraging individuality and student voice, and activism and really want pursuits just to keep going off in all different directions that come out of self-interest and passion.”

This next year will be his third year in that role. In hearing this, it has only reinstated what I already know. Kyle, as I have witnessed in my four years of high school at Green School, has a passion for teaching. A selfless way of teaching that I believe should define every educator, raising a generation of youth-driven to make the positive change they want to see in the world. Kyle himself has had a history of teaching, experimenting, and learning new things before Green School. “I had spent about 15 years of so in education before I came to Bali,” He revealed.

He got his start in education as a naturalist, in a place called Ferry Beach Ecology school in the United States. “I was really grounded in nature and biology and living systems before I became a certified teacher. But that was my inroad,” Kyle mentioned. After that, he moved to Boston and became a teacher in the oldest public school in America, The English High School of Boston. “I was there simultaneously doing a master’s degree and teaching mathematics,” Kyle elaborated. He spent five years in Boston, before moving to Los Angeles and spending another five years teaching there. “I was working in the public schools in LA, and that’s where I started the family, and I think I came into my power as a teacher in California,” Kyle told. “However, after five years of working in public schools, it felt like such a machine.” “I felt like I was on a hamster wheel, kind of running an assembly line. Where I was just factory teaching and learning, I would see fifty kids at a time, five times a day, to teach math.” “I felt like I needed to break free from that and to have my creativity.” “And I knew that this style was not what I could continue with.” So, because of this, Kyle and his family made a move to Europe. Having moved to Portugal, both he and his wife ended up working at the Carlucci American International School of Lisbon. “I really went out on a limb and taught IB economics, and IB business and management. Two areas that I never studied up in,” Kyle voiced. “And I just took a risk, and that school also took a risk on me.”

“I got a real good look at what it means to be an IB student and teacher and the amount of rigor and the pressure and the crushing loads of homework associated with that program. Not that the program was all in all terrible,” Kyle uttered. “But there’s an extreme level of anxiety that I think a lot of people experience around the IB.” “But I liked the teaching, and I liked the challenge. I’ve always been somebody that was up for a challenge. I think that’s one thing that comes to define me.”

Perhaps that is why, upon hearing their friends’ experiences with the Green School and then having an opportunity open up for them, the family decided to move to Bali. “We were quite enamored with the allure of a school that was so driven by sustainability, had such a strong mission and it was so ambitious with something that, like so many other people we were inspired by and decided to make the leap and go for it,” And what started as an opportunity they couldn’t pass up, has now turned into a seven-year adventure.

In 2015, during Kyle’s second year at the Green School, the Bio Bus emerged. It emerged with the graduating class of 2015, as their senior legacy project. “They, along with myself, just went for it,” Kyle revealed. “We had an idea, and we decided we were going to take it as far as we could and everything just seemed to work out very nicely for us,” “It was fostered well in the community, the timing was right, and there was enough place in Bali to support an amazing success with Bio Diesel in buses.” Bringing all those things together, along with a few core students, founded the Bio Bus Social Enterprise. This project developed throughout several years, and with this, they were able to involve other students (myself included), to bring into this experience. “We structured it in a way that it was a business,” Kyle explained. “And the students had roles, we had departments, and there were expectations, and they had deliverables, and they all were contributors in making the enterprise work.”

Something that was initially a project he did parallel to his teaching math became a big part of his role and life and the school. “What was especially beautiful about it was that it became such a learning opportunity too. And I was able to write curriculum related to renewable energy and biodiesel in our buses.” “For example, we would do carpool audits, and we would take all of the information that we gathered there, and we would extrapolate how far Green School would collectively drive in a day. And we found Green School would travel from the east coast of the US to the west coast, in one day. That’s over 4000km that our community was driving.” “And we would rife with all sorts of numbers to make this an experience that could credit our students in math and other disciplines.” With the Bio Bus, we were able to find so many other learning opportunities. We had to learn about making different kinds of fuel, making fuel from food waste, how we could take the byproduct of the fuel creation, and turn it into soaps and candles. This ended up being very chemistry-based, as well. “It was such a gift to teach project-based learning,” Kyle remarked.

So what exactly is the Bio Bus? “It’s student learning. That’s what it is. It’s learning in a very real. Practical way. And it’s something that I always aspire towards as an educator,” For Kyle, this whole thing was like a dream come true. “It’s something that I always wanted to do that in education, and I wanted to feel like I was, not only making a difference in lives but also making a difference in the environment.” “It sounds like my role was grand and big. But it was just me, kind of gathering up, everything that was there. These great ingredients, which were students that wanted to do something.” The students had a problem presented to them, which was transportation. “It was a black mark on Green School, with the way that was being done. And we knew we could do it better,” Kyle mentioned. Now they had an initiative, a plan, and a goal. “And so, bringing those things together was kind of rather easy to do. What is Bio Bus? I mean, it’s kids solving problems,” Kyle answered.

The Bio Bus takes used cooking oil off the streets, restaurants, warungs and the black market (where it becomes harmful due to the amount of times it gets reused), and uses it to make fuel. This fuel is used for the buses to take the kids to and from school as well as the primary form of transportation for the school when taking trips outside. “We did roadshows in Java; we do school service trips, we went to help rebuild after the earthquakes in Lombok,” Kyle listed. “And it’s just been absolutely amazing how we’ve been able to use these buses and renewable energy to broaden, to expand, add layers, add depth to the learning experience. For our kids,” And of course, the community itself has also been involved in lots of ways, “because it’s not only transportation but a culture. And our Bio Bus team is a family. And everybody wants to support it because, I mean, it’s special. Nobody’s doing this in Indonesia. We’re leading the way. We’re the biggest outfit.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean it didn’t come with its own set of challenges. It took a while to figure out where to collect cooking oil, to get people on board with donating their cooking oil to a good cause instead of selling it to the black market, and the soap making came with its own failed first attempts before we finally perfected the recipe. Knowing these difficulties were more or less smoothed out as I left the school, I asked if the Bio Bus continues to face any challenges today? “We just want to make sure that the Bio Bus is sustainable,” Kyle responded. “I think that’s always the biggest challenge as green school is just, making sure that ideas and programs live on beyond the creators,” As with any project, the difficulty remains in its continuation beyond just the founders. As the class of 2015 left, they passed on the torch. And Kyle uttered that, “Year after year we’ve always been looking for leadership in that area,” Someone to take on the mantle and keep the program moving. “We look for leadership with students, but having teachers be involved and lead is also very important.” “I guess the biggest challenge is just making sure that’s got staying power. And that learning continues to take place,”

In addition to this, Kyle wanted to make sure that as a Bio Bus team, “we continue to innovate. And that it doesn’t just stagnate.” Renewable energy, like most things, is something that is evolving. “It’s biodiesel now, but why can’t the Bio Bus be electric in the future?” He commented. “I think we need to continue to think that way. Experiment and trial. The future of renewable energy. And I think it’s imperative that education is coupled alongside that,”

The whole thing, Kyle elaborated, has been a great learning experience. “I’ve been an educator for a long time; I’ve done it for 20 years. And for me to get involved with enterprise was fantastic learning,” He noted. “I’ve done it in the classroom, I’ve taught it, but it’s the application of all that I’ve been doing, Math, Business, Economics, and all of that. The application of it in the real world, that’s what’s been a great experience for me,” In addition to that, the time he has spent as one of the driving forces of the Bio Bus, has also been a lesson in leadership. “For me, and for so many others, it’s paved the way for us to realize this and lead the way in, at Green School, in Indonesian and the world.” “We get invited to summits and conferences all over the place, and so we are leading the way.” It has been a great opportunity for everyone who has been involved. “But most important of all,” Kyle voiced, “has just been the connection with the community.” “connect and build a team. And connect with Indonesian people.”

“My hopes for the bio bus program and Green School as we move forward is to stay scrappy. Stay committed to activism. And don’t rest on the laurels of success and accomplishment that we’ve had so far. We need to maintain an energy and a fighter attitude, to make change. And improve the condition of the world. And the environment. And for society.” Kyle vocalized. “I’ve always thought of green school as being an underdog. And I like us being underdogs. And I think Gen Z is a cohort. It’s a generation of underdogs, and there’s a special spirit. And I think we want to capture that and feed that and fan that flame. And the underdog attitude. I mean, climate change is a huge thing. It’s colossal. And I think that with the right attitude and with the right mentality we’re going to win. And I think that spirit is something that we want everyone to rise up and have,” At Green School, and of course beyond as well.

With all this information, I asked Kyle if there was anything he wished he had known before he came to Bali. “There’s a whole lot I wish I’d known before I came here. Because I knew nothing. But I’ve learned a lot. And I’ve learned a lot about development. This island is small, and unfortunately, there’s so much development that’s been going on. And so I’ve learned a lot about sustainability and development. And I think coming to Indonesia, it would’ve behooved me to know a little bit more about that. I’ve come to have a pretty good understanding at this point. But it’s something that I think everybody really needs to study up and understand. Because it’s really a one-trick pony, and it’s a very risky move. For this island, to be so dependent on tourism. And for it to be so economically dependent that way. And not only that but for the cultural implications too.”

But with this information, is there anything he would’ve changed? Kyle said no, there was nothing he would change. “I sort of live my life on this mechanism, where I project myself into the future, and I imagine myself 80. And I kind of meta-cognitively want to be there and reflect on the earlier 80 years of my life. When I’m 80, I’m going to feel pretty good about what I’m doing. And there aren’t regrets about what I’ve done with bio bus and what I’ve done with green school. So nothing. Wouldn’t do anything differently there.”

Which is a very wise way to reflect on your life. As if you were coming from the future, having already lived it. As a final ponder, I asked if there were any specific words of wisdom he lived by. Interestingly, Kyle did not respond with any particular quote, but instead told me, “read the book, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.” “It’s all about going back into nature. Being in touch with nature. Being inspired by nature.” “And I think it’s now more important than ever to connect that way.” “There’s all sorts of wisdom in the book. And one piece that stands out, in particular, is a passage where he is talking about the older generation just making so many mistakes. And how that is something that shouldn’t be repeated. And I think that this is a cycle that we’re in and every next generation believes that they can do it better. And they should, but we inevitably have not been able to break this cycle. And our world continues to move in an unsustainable direction, and we need to be more regenerative and better. To one another, and as mankind.”

 

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