Tuesday, September 30, 2008
“Andre did not bring his work a few times last week. He has been very distracted in class. I found him “daydreaming” on a few occasions and he was not able to follow instructions when doing work.”
Aiyoh, this with only 3 weeks to the final exams! This is not the first time I’ve had such feedback from his teacher and with less than two months before the school year ends, hopefully it will be the last. This teacher followed the class up from p1 to p2, so they’ve been stuck with each other for two years. I think she’ll be glad to shed him off next year.
I gave Andre a stern lecture and stressed the importance of focusing in class especially with the exams coming up. As always, when he gets a scolding from me, the corners of his mouth turn down in a very sorrowful manner and his big doe eyes fill with tears like he’s very remorseful, but in truth, I don’t know whether he retained anything that I said. Five minutes later, he’s cheerfully playing with his toys.
I know why he’s been especially distracted lately. It’s because of his birthday party tomorrow, something he has been looking forward to for the longest time. Yesterday, he told me in all seriousness, “We have to clean up the house tomorrow and put up the decorations.” (ie YOU clean up the house and YOU put up the decorations. He’s also implying that the house is a mess.)
We don’t organise birthday parties for our kids every year – it’s just too much of a hassle. But since we threw one for Lesley-Anne’s 8th birthday, it’s only fair that Andre gets one when he turns 8.
I’m just a teensy bit apprehensive about having 13 wired, hyperactive boys tearing about in our apartment. Kenneth has appointed Lesley-Anne as referee, authorising her to give the yellow card to any boy up to mischief like kicking the tv, throwing food or trying to kill the hamsters.
I have fond memories about the cosy parties I used to attend as a little girl, so I’m kind of biased against the flashy parties that kids have these days, with fancy balloon sculpting or loud magicians with their off-colour jokes. Or the ultimate cop-out – the McDonald’s party. I just feel that the genuine-ness of a wholesome home party is more meaningful than a generic, store-bought event. (This is just my personal preference!! If you’re one of those parents, I’m not judging you, honest!)
I’m just organising two games and because I’m too lazy to reinvent the wheel, they’re games that I’m recycling from Lesley-Anne’s 8th birthday party. One of them is the perennial party favourite, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I know some of you will say "BORING". Don't be like that lah, my donkey is quite special. I drew it from a Winnie-the-Pooh comic book.
I’ve kept the drawing from Lesley-Anne’s party three years ago (funny, I could already anticipate that I would be recycling games! It’s called thinking ahead, haha). I had to recreate the tail though, I had misplaced it (somewhere in the messy house).
I try to do something different for the party takeaway as well, as I feel that the usual party packs with stationery and sweets are done so often these days that they hold little value for the kids. Tomorrow, each child will get a sticker book (we bought Ben 10, Spiderman and Kung Fu Panda, but I have a funny feeling the Ben 10 ones will run out first. That seems to be every little boy’s craze these days, Andre insisted on printing his invite cards with a Ben 10 picture.)
This afternoon, I made two batches of meringue kisses. These are super easy to make, look cute and kids (and adults) love them.
I’m putting them in tubs with a ribbon on top and each guest will get one to bring home. As you can tell, I'm no pro and it's very simple, but I’m all about the personal touch.
So we’re just about ready for the party tomorrow (oh wait, we haven’t cleaned up the house and put up the decorations…) I promise I’ll write a post on the actual event - if I survive it, of course!
Monday, September 29, 2008
Let's just say that we're glad Morris Allen offers a one-month trial period because that's all Andre went for. I know one month seems like too short a time to determine the effectiveness of any tuition centre, but even after just four lessons, it felt like we were throwing money down the drain.
It all looked promising enough. Andre was given this folder, which had an introductory letter to parents on what the centre was trying to achieve, a detailed curriculum and how each item taught relates to the MOE syllabus. Each week, any written work he did would be put into the folder so we can view his progress. Among other things, here's what the letter contained:
"Please understand that we base our teaching on positive reinforcement. We commend the achievements and do not usually highlight every mistake."
"As a parent, please do not expect perfection from your child's first attempt. Writing is an ongoing process and can always be improved, expanded and developed."
"Please remember that a lot of oral and interactive group work goes on in each lesson, and the written items you are seeing only represent a small part of our communicative approach."
It all sounds very nice, doesn't it? I think this sort of motivational style is very much in line with the western educational system, something Morris Allen follows since it's run and taught exclusively by expats.
So we were quite hopeful - maybe this is the answer to Andre's English woes. He went for a 1½ hour lesson on Sundays, and after each lesson, he got to bring home 3 books from the class library. He's supposed to read them and choose one to tell the teacher about the following week.
This is the inside of the book:
I mean, really? This is for the p2 class? This is the type of book Andre was reading when he was in kindergarten! I thought maybe they had a range of books in case some kids were reading at slower paces. But even though Andre brought home some more difficult books, many of them were pegged at a very elementary level. Often, he would complete all three books within half an hour.
I thought ok, maybe that's just the reading portion. Maybe the teaching process is their selling point. In the folder, I found this piece of written work. It's a character web of the story of Prince Cinders:In a character web, the child is supposed to write a word that described a quality of the chosen character and what example in the story demonstrates that quality. It helps the child develop story lines and supporting sentences for composition.
I thought Andre's looked quite good and was quite pleased that he could come up with something so logical and coherent. Until he told me that the teacher wrote most of it on the board and all the kids just copied it down!! Each week, it was something like that. One week, probably out of some loyalty to his teacher, Andre said, "no lah, she doesn't always write down on the board. Sometimes she just tells us the answer."
You have so gotta be kidding me. If I thought Andre's English could improve with reading simple books and being given answers to exercises, I can do that myself. I don't need to pay someone $40 a session for that. (I can use the money to take Andre to a nice pasta place, and we can both sit down to a yummy dinner while he reads a book).
Morris Allen claims that all their students have 100% passes in PSLE English. Well, I'm sure that's true but I'm also positive that a pass is not the lofty target that parents set for their kids. While I agree that grades are not everything and learning to love the language is more important, I don't believe that should be the excuse for pitching the teaching at such a low level.
I want to stress that Andre only went for 4 lessons in one class led by one particular teacher, so I wouldn't presume to write off Morris Allen based on our limited experience. For all I know, the centre has helped other kids improve their English standards. But I know for us, we won't be forking out more money to find out.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
But you know Murphy's Law, whatever can go wrong will go wrong. When I fetched him to his coaching session last Thursday, I received the bombshell from the coach that the school badminton team is likely to be scrapped next year due to budget constraints. The badminton CCA would still exist but there would be no coach, which to me was just plain silly. What, the kids would just meet up weekly and randomly whack at shuttlecocks?
Since there might be kids reading this, I'll resort to visual swearing - #$!%@!!%#^@!!! That's truly how I felt when I heard the news. It just throws a spanner in the works. You may wonder why since it's only a CCA, right? Well, since Andre is enjoying badminton so much and playing the game reasonably well, we had hoped the school might be able to train him up to a respectable level where he can play in competitions and eventually use it for DSA.
For those who don't know what DSA is, it's Direct School Admission - a scheme that some secondary schools offer to p6 students. That means the secondary school would conduct selection tests and offer direct admission to students before the PSLE results are out. The criteria can be academic or non-academic, depending on the individual school and its needs.
Of course ideally, we hope Andre will be able to get into a secondary school of his choice without relying on a CCA, but no harm preparing for Plan B, right? I admit it sounds a little kia-su since Andre is only in p2, but it's not like we had mapped a path for him right from the start. It was only since his interest in badminton emerged that we thought we might as well nurture it to serve a double purpose.
When I broke the news to Andre that there would be no school team next year, he was so disappointed. He looked like he was about to cry and shouted, "But I've been trying so hard!"
So now, we're at a crossroads. The coach, who is from one of the major badminton academies in Singapore, recommends that we continue coaching sessions at the academy from next year if Andre is serious about the game. Kenneth and I are two minds about it.
- At the academy, it's serious training. The coaches are past winners from professional tournaments like the Thomas Cup. No kidding. Andre's game will definitely improve exponentially.
- The academy holds their own competitions so he can still participate, experience playing in matches and hone his skills.
- For DSA sports, the secondary schools usually hold their own trials and look at individual records, so if Andre does well at the academy, it will carry weight.
- School budgets change every year, so for all we know, the school team might be reinstated the following year, giving Andre a second chance to be selected.
- Less tangible benefit but equally important - we feel that kids who are actively involved in a sport tend to befriend those with the same interest, and their activities and conversations are likely to centre around this common interest. Especially in the teenage years when kids are the most impressionable (especially boys, in my opinion), I think it helps to keep them on the straight and narrow path. This view was reinforced by the coach who has groomed cohorts of kids in the sport.
- The time commitment is tremendous. According to the coach, we're talking 2-3 two-hour sessions of training a week, in order for skills to reach a certain level of proficiency. Especially with Andre's school workload set to rise at the higher primary levels, we're not sure if he can cope with the extra demands without compromising his academic standards.
- Even if he can cope, there's no guarantee he will ever reach a level good enough for DSA, in which case, is it worth investing all the time and effort for something that will just be a hobby?
- Not just time commitment from Andre, it's time commitment from me too! Guess who'll be the one who has to shuttle him to and fro training sessions? It's sometimes already a massive juggling act trying to fit my meetings and work in between ferrying kids, especially during peak periods like annual report season.
Friday, September 26, 2008
These are the 4 titles I bought:
Numbers: The Key to the Universe
The Mean and Vulgar Bits
Vicious Circles and Other Savage Shapes
I presented the books to Lesley-Anne and here’s what happened: she devoured them in less than two days. I must explain that while Lesley-Anne likes reading, she’s not a bookworm. Unless something really captures her interest, she can go for days without touching a book.
So it came as an unexpected surprised when she could hardly put down the books over the weekend. She kept coming to me chuckling and reading out the funny bits. At one point, she looked up from her book and said, “Aiyah Mummy, you should have bought this for me earlier, I was having so much trouble with prime factorisation!”
Funnily enough, her favourite is also Numbers: The Key to the Universe, like Lilian’s son Brian. (I tried to read it, I could barely get past a quarter of the book before my head started to spin). She also likes The Mean and Vulgar Bits but she found the first book Murderous Maths too simple. I had actually bought that with Andre in mind, thinking a summary might be more easily digestible for him. He only took a fleeting glance at the cartoons. Not his cup of tea.
Since the four books met with such a positive response, I went back to Popular and bought two more: Do You Feel Lucky? and The Phantom X.
Same reception - Lesley-Anne loves Do You Feel Lucky? She even brought it to school so she could finish it during assembly. The Phantom X was a little tougher going because they haven’t learnt algebra in school. Do You Feel Lucky? is really a fun read. I went though it and it explains everything so well, I wish it was available when I was learning probability in school.
I wanted to get Desperate Measures but they didn't have it (I scoured three different branches and Borders at Parkway, no luck). Finally, I found it yesterday when they re-stocked the shelves. I bought these two titles: Desperate Measures and Awesome Arithmetricks. I'm happy I found them although it bugs me just a teensy bit that they are the new editions (that obsessive part of me likes books of the same series to have a uniform look).
My verdict is that the books are great for reviving interest and aiding understanding in maths, but I don’t think they are suitable for every child. Many of the mathematical concepts are pretty complicated, so even though they’re explained in a fun and simpler way, some kids will still struggle to understand them. If this is so, I recommend sticking to the titles that cover topics your kids are learning in school so at least the concepts are not totally alien.
I’ve compiled a summary of the complete list of Murderous Maths books by Kjartan Poskitt for your reference, so you can see which one(s) might be more suitable for your kids.
Murderous Maths (new edition is called Guaranteed to Bend Your Brain) – general summary of maths and the power of numbers in everyday life, including time, magic square and angles.
More Murderous Maths (new edition is called Guaranteed to Mash Your Mind) – continuation of the first book, with discussion on topics like measurements, palindromes, area and perimeter.
These first two in the series cover all the basic concepts in maths. You might just want to get these or if you want more detailed explanations of specific topics, I suggest you skip these and go for the topical ones below.
The Essential Arithmetricks (new edition is called Awesome Arithmetricks) – goes through the concepts behind addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Covers signs, codes and even short cuts to times tables.
The Mean and Vulgar Bits – covers fractions, percentages, decimals, averages, means, modes and medians. Also has a bit on how to do mental calculations.
Desperate Measures – covers all types of measurements, including length, area, volume, weight, time, density and speed.
Do You Feel Lucky? – covers the concepts behind probability, including permutations and computations, factorials and Pascal’s Triangle.
Vicious Circles and Other Savage Shapes – basically about geometry. Covers different shapes and their properties, like circles, triangles, polygons, solids, cubes and ellipses.
Numbers: The Key to the Universe – delves into the history and logic of numbers, and the part they play in everyday life. Covers concepts like Fibonacci numbers, squares and cubes, binary numbers, prime numbers, pi and infinity (note: the topics in this book are comprehensively covered in GEP maths).
The Phantom X – essentially about algebra. Covers unknowns, factorisation, simplification, graphs, linear, quadratic, simultaneous equations and zero proof.
The Fiendish Angletron – about trigonometry and geometry. Teaches you how to calculate angles and covers topics like sine, cosine, tangents, triangulation and ratio.
The Perfect Sausage – covers all types of mathematical formulas for things such as area, speed, volume, acceleration, money, and permutations and computations.
Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them – unveils the workings behind number codes, including algorithms, substitution codes, scrambling codes, binary codes, morse codes, grid codes and even the credit card code.
There are 3 more books in the series but these are puzzle books, they don’t teach concepts. Would be great for kids who love maths and numbers games.
Professor Fiendish’s Book of Diabolical Brain-Benders
Thursday, September 25, 2008
This is one area where I defer to Kenneth completely. My close friends will know that I am no athlete. I have no ball sense, I have no stamina and I can’t run to save my life. Throw me into the sea and I'll drown. In school, I was probably the only person in class (maybe in the whole school) who preferred a maths lesson (in fact, any lesson) over PE. Oh, I know all the health benefits, so spare me the lecture. That’s the reason why I try to make it to my step aerobics and kick boxing classes twice a week. But even after four years, IT DOESN’T GET EASIER. Sure, I can now complete a session without feeling like I'm going to pass out, but it's still a struggle to motivate myself to go. I’d much rather curl up on the sofa and do my logic puzzles or play Prolific on Facebook.
But it doesn’t have to be like mother, like child, right? For health reasons and to build character, Kenneth and I had agreed early on that we should encourage our kids to participate in some sort of sporting activity or other. Swimming was the obvious choice at first. Afterall, the biggest plus about staying in a condominium is having a pool within the estate. The swimming teacher gave lessons at the condo pool so that was ultra convenient.
Most kids take up group swimming lessons – we put ours on individual lessons. We’re not elitist or anti-social, it’s actually for pragmatic reasons. You might think you get a better deal with group lessons, since individual lessons cost about three times as much. But here’s the tip: They also learn three times as quickly. I know kids who have been learning how to swim for years and still haven’t passed the survival test. Both our kids earned their Bronze survival badges within about a year of lessons. If you do your sums, you’ll find that you actually pay about the same amount of fees and save a whole lot of time.
Aside: does anyone else think it's strange that the survival test is done in pyjamas? I mean, what are the chances that when your cruise ship sinks, you're actually wearing your jammies? In fact, how many people actually own a pair of pyjamas like that?
Ok, musing over. When Lesley-Anne passed her Bronze survival test at p2, she decided she didn’t want to continue with the Silver and Gold. We went with her decision because the objective was to learn how to swim, not to collect medals. The question was what sport should she take up next?
Again, convenience ruled. Every Wednesday evening, an outsourced instructor gives tae-kwon-do lessons at our condo estate and we thought learning a martial art might be good for self-defence. Lesley-Anne didn’t object, so tae-kwon-do it was. However, I have since realised that due to their size and lack of power, kids are unlikely to be able to fend off adult opponents even if they are adept at tae-kwon-do. So I’ve told Lesley-Anne, “If ever you meet an assailant, forget about your tae-kwon-do training. Just knee him in the groin and RUN.”
Andre followed in the same route and today, both of them are still taking weekly tae-kwon-do lessons. Lesley-Anne is currently at the brown-black belt level (last one before junior black belt) and Andre at the blue belt level. This picture was taken much earlier on when they were green and white belts respectively.
Andre takes to sport like a fish to water. To date, there’s no sport he has tried that he hasn’t enjoyed. His passion right now is badminton, which he’s undergoing coaching for at school. But over the years, he has tried countless other types of sports, from table tennis to bowling. Here he is at a soccer clinic organised by our church.
Here he is (he was only 5 then) at the golf driving range.
Even the F1!! (Can you believe they had this cool simulator tryout for free at Popular bookshop?)
Andre’s no future Olympian but I’m glad he enjoys sports. At least I’m comforted to know he hasn’t inherited my sports dunce genes.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
First, let us all agree that we want our kids to be happy and well-adjusted. No quarrels there, all parents want that for their kids. What gets Lilian’s goat (and mine) is the common assumption that just because a child is gifted, he must be anti-social, eccentric and miserable (often accompanied by a domineering mother figure). It irks me to hear kneejerk responses like "It's better to have friends than be gifted" or "I'd rather my child be socially intelligent than gifted", as though those traits are mutually exclusive. Giftedness doesn't cause social ineptness, nor does it cause you not to have friends. It’s just like people who say, “I’d rather be happy than rich.” Yes, that’s true, but does giving up one guarantee the other? And who’s to say you can’t be both? The grapes smell suspiciously sour, no?
It is true that there are gifted children without friends or with low EQ, but in the same way that there are “regular” kids without friends or low EQ. Being an arrogant jerk is not limited to the bright. Lesley-Anne came back upset one day because someone on her school bus told her to her face, “All GEP kids are geeks and nerds who wear spectacles and braces.” (So much for EQ, huh?)
I’m not saying this to get sympathy, kids will always find new ways to make fun of each other. My point is that the stereotypes of gifted kids (and parents of gifted kids) start very early and these are often perpetuated by adults. As a parent of a gifted child, I sometimes find myself caught in this form of reverse discrimination. I usually don’t volunteer the fact that my daughter is in the GEP because I’m afraid of coming across as “hau lian”. But when the subject inadvertently comes up, I say it as matter-of-factly as I can and I stick to the factual aspects of the programme. Sometimes, I even find myself subconsciously downplaying Lesley-Anne’s abilities, just to make her sound more like a “regular” kid, which is totally not being fair to her. When I met up with her teacher this year, he said, "Don't take the giftedness away from her", which I thought was profound on so many levels.
I think the notion that “all kids are gifted” is just a load of BS concocted by the western world that is obsessed with political correctness (at the expense of common sense). I love the line in the cartoon “The Incredibles” – “When everyone is special, no one will be.” I much prefer the Asian belief that not everyone has the same talents but with hard work and tenacity, we can all make something of ourselves.
What is more important is what we do with this God-given gift. Boasting about your gift is wrong, but so is denying it. When Lesley-Anne was in p1, her teacher asked her to help another classmate who was having difficulty in English. I took the opportunity to tell her about the Parable of the Talents, ie to whom more is given, more is expected (Matthew 25:14-30). To my horror, the next day she came home from school and described to me how she had told her classmate, “God gave me 10 talents and gave you 5 talents, so I should help you.” She wasn’t boasting, she thought she was just sharing a fact. I had to explain to her that her classmate might not be too thrilled to hear that she had only 5 talents! Faux pas aside, Lesley-Anne really does believe that she should use her abilities to help others, which I'm pleased about.
In a way, I’m thankful that not both my kids are gifted because it gives me a more objective perspective, seeing it from both sides of the equation. It also gives me more clarity on how to bring up kids with different abilities. As Lilian said, it all boils down to accepting our kids for who they are, embracing both their weaknesses AND their strengths.
I'm tired of feeling apologetic for my child's giftedness. I still can't bring myself to say "my daughter is gifted" but I do want to be able to openly say I’m proud of her, just like any other mother would.
Today, Andre received his results for his Grade 1 practical piano exam and he scored a Distinction!! We are so very proud of him. Although we've always underscored the point that it's the enjoyment of the music that counts, I think it's a great boost to his morale.
While Andre is generally a happy-go-lucky child, he occasionally gets flashes of insight that he's not as bright or accomplished as his go-getter sister. Sometimes, he can't even get simple instructions right.
A case in point, last Thursday, he came home from school and told me he needed to cut out pictures from magazines and newspapers. "Pictures of what?" I asked. "Anything," he replied. I knew that made absolutely no sense - why on earth would his teacher ask him to cut out pictures of anything? But he insisted it was correct. So we helped him cut out some pictures. The next day after school, he told me sheepishly, "I did it wrong. I need pictures of things with flat surfaces." Don't ask me how "pictures of things with flat surfaces" became "pictures of anything", but that's Andre for you. Just the other day, Kenneth asked him if he needed spectacles for his ears.
So a distinction for his piano exam will definitely help to heighten his self-esteem. Part of the credit has to go to his piano teacher, Uncle Peter, who makes lessons and music fun for him, as I mentioned in an earlier post. According to Uncle Peter, Andre asked for a lollipop as a reward. He even specified the size. My son has simple pleasures!
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
In August every year, the cohort of P3 students is invited to sit for a GEP screening test. The test is not compulsory but all children are encouraged to go for it. The test comprises an English and a Maths paper, about 1½ hours each.
Out of the cohort of approximately 50,000 kids, some 3,000 pupils (about 6%) are shortlisted for the GEP selection test.
The selection test takes place over two days in October, the first comprises an English paper and a General Ability paper, about 2½ hours in total. The second consists of a Maths paper and another General Ability paper, also about 2½ hours altogether.
From the selection test, about 500 kids (about 1% of cohort) are invited to join the P4 GEP classes. The results are released in early November.
The English and Maths papers are based on the MOE syllabus for P1-3, while the General Ability papers test logical thinking and general reasoning ability. The testing adheres closely to research done on gifted children (you may read my previous post on this), mainly that giftedness is largely manifested by the time the child is aged 9, and about 1% of any cohort is considered intellectually gifted.
Controversy arises because in recent times, some parents have begun to send their kids to special tuition classes which claim to help them clear the GEP tests. This is despite the considerate pointers in the GEP notification letter for the screening test:
"The Screening Test questions are usually more difficult than those in school examination papers. Your child should not be unduly worried if he/she cannot answer all the questions."
"We strongly urge you not to place undue pressure on your child to study for the test."
If I were the MOE, I would put these two lines in bold and font size 28 at the top of the letter, with blinking neon lights if possible. And I would add "Any parent caught putting their child through coaching for GEP tests will be fined $10,000,000,000."
But I'm not the MOE and frankly, I don't think it would make any difference (apart from the MOE becoming extremely rich). Because at the end of the day, there will still be parents who think the GEP is the gateway to guaranteed success in Singapore and their kids must get in by hook or by crook. Even worse, there are parents who want this not so much for their kids but so they have bragging rights, like having a gifted child reflects on them as brilliant parents.
I've mentioned this before, the GEP is designed for intellectually gifted kids. If your child is not gifted, he will struggle in the programme and it will not edify his education at all. At the end of the day, they still all sit for the PSLE exams and in the GEP, less time is dedicated to PSLE topics, so ironically, your kid may actually score lower marks than if he was in the mainstream.
Also, if your child is truly gifted, chances are he will clear the GEP tests without any sort of coaching. Most of the GEP kids I know never went for any special classes for the tests. It would also be a more accurate reflection of his ability.
On the other side of the fence, I think it is absolutely unethical of tuition centres and teachers to offer such classes. Some of them claim they are just giving the kids practice in tackling reasoning tests, while others claim they can "train" the kids to answer GEP type questions as they have previously been a GEP teacher. Whatever the excuse, it's cashing in on the insecurities and kiasu-ness of Singapore parents. The results have not been proven. Maybe to some degree for the screening test since it's based on English and Maths, but not the selection tests. And even if they do succeed in squeaking a few kids by into the programme, it's at what cost? Think about it, the tuition centre is motivated by the few thousand bucks it can extract from you, it certainly doesn't have the long-term interest of your child at heart.
As you can tell, this topic really riles me up, maybe because it bothers me to see some of the kids internalise so much of their parents' expectations. When Lesley-Anne was in P3, her class being the top class at her school, was the hotbed of GEP hopeful kids. In fact, all except one in her class passed the screening test (the teacher tactfully gave out the slips discretely so that child wouldn't feel so badly about himself).
When the results of the selection test came back, Lesley-Anne described the situation as one of tense anticipation. Imagine the teacher carrying a pile of acceptance booklets (17 out of 40 in the class made it to GEP) and as she gave them out, the remaining students whose names were not called watched anxiously as the stack of booklets quickly diminished.
Lesley-Anne didn't expect to get called, since she was nowhere near the top performers in that class, so she was pleasantly surprised when she was selected. But other kids, especially those who have regularly topped the class, were more concerned. When all the booklets were eventually given out, some kids who didn't get selected actually cried. Especially one boy, as I found out later, whose mother was already checking out the different GEP schools (even before the results were out).
Which brings me to the point, why this obsession with being gifted? What's wrong with being "regular"? Being gifted is a blessing, like a musical or artistic talent, but it certainly doesn't guarantee success in life. In Singapore, I suspect if you're looking for a job, most companies won't care if you were in the GEP, unless it's the civil service. And I have never heard any kid say, "My dream is to be in the civil service!" I would like to believe that all the age-old attributes of integrity, diligence and reliability are what matter most, at the end of the day.
Earlier this year, Andre asked me, out of the blue, "Will I go to GEP like che-che?" I was stumped for a moment. I didn't want to demoralise him, but neither did I want to give him false hope. In the end, I replied, "Well, you go for the test. If you make it, you make it. If you don't, you don't. But GEP or not, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that you study hard and try your best." He seemed content with the answer, and I meant every word - I wouldn't exchange my happy, vivacious boy for all the smarts in the world.
Monday, September 22, 2008
Kenneth and I had decided early on that we would always welcome our kids' friends into our homes, but that was the sum total of our involvement. Brian was one of Lesley-Anne's friends who used to come over to play, but that was because Lilian and I are friends and we stayed at the same condominium estate, and our two kids were in the same school, same level and took the same school bus.
It also helped that Brian and Lesley-Anne are very alike in nature. Both are shy, sweet kids with relatively intellectual interests. Here they are playing Reversi, this was back in 2004 when they were in P1. Lilian, I finally got the photos of them together!
The only other friend of Lesley-Anne's that regularly came over to play during the holidays was a classmate of hers, Ryan. I have a soft spot for Ryan because he's the only child whom Lesley-Anne has been in the same class with since P1, so I've seen them grow up together. In P3, they were both streamed into the same class, and in P4, both of them went to the same GEP class. Like Brian, Ryan is a quiet, well-mannered and very cerebral kid. They would mostly play board games although he once told his mum, "Lesley is the only girl I know who doesn't mind playing with soldiers." True praise indeed!
For Lesley-Anne, it's the social aspect that matters, she doesn't really care what she's playing with her friends as long as they're having fun together (although she draws the line at Barbie dolls). And in my opinion, that's one of the differences between boys and girls. Girls, being more social creatures, care more about the relationship while boys care more about the activity. Maybe that's why it didn't really bother Brian that he didn't have a lot of friends in the beginning, he was perfectly happy going off on his own to do his own thing. When Lesley-Anne was in P1, she would often come home looking upset and when probed, she would say, "no one wanted to go to recess with me" or sometimes, "two friends wanted to go to recess with me and I didn't know who to go with". (Not popular got problem, too popular also got problem. Aiyoh...)
Whereas with Andre, it's all about the activity. As long as he gets to play catching or soccer during recess, he doesn't really care who he's playing with. Even in pre-school, the girls were more sociable. He would come home and complain to me, "the girls keep talking, the boys cannot sleep!" Here he is with a group of his male kindy classmates at the year-end concert. Aren't they sweet?
There was this girl in his kindy class who I think had a thing for him. She's the sweetest little chatterbox ever (here she is with the pink hairband) and whenever I went to pick him up, she would regale me with all of Andre's doings that day. The funny thing was when we occasionally ran into her and her family at the supermarket, she would chirp, "Hello Andre!" but instead of responding, Andre would hang his head and pretend not to see her (he had not quite embraced his Mr Personality role yet).
But while I find the girls have no issue mixing with the boys in the earlier years (P1-3), the boys quickly make that gender separation. Even at P1, many of boys don't want to be seen hanging around the girls. If they do, they are teased. I'm organising a birthday party for Andre next week and he only invited all the boys in his class and one girl, whom he said is not really a girl "because she plays soccer". (I'm a feminist! I didn't teach him that!)
When Lesley-Anne had her 8th birthday party, she invited a few boys and those boys kept asking if there would be any other boys attending. It seems they weren't too keen about being surrounded by girls.
By P4, this gender segregation becomes full-blown. Lesley-Anne says she doesn't mind talking to or sitting next to a boy, but she doesn't because she knows she will get teased mercilessly, mostly by the boys. In her GEP class, since there are only 9 girls, all of them go for recess together - they "chope" one whole table and sit together. While I'm glad they share this cameraderie, I'm also a little sad because this artificial gender divide means they could be missing out on some terrific friendships.
Ryan and Lesley-Anne hardly play at each other's homes anymore. Of course, this could also be due to evolving interests and personalities. And I'm sure once Lesley-Anne and Andre hit secondary school, I would be more than glad if they took a little less interest in the opposite sex! But for now, I'm just watching at the sidelines and trusting that it will all fall into place in time.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
In our games, we don’t count the points, so that the focus would be on forming words, not on winning. (In a family where everyone hates to lose, this would be the surest way of killing the game!) The objective in our game is to finish all our letters, the only penalty being that the person who’s unable or last to finish his or her letters has to keep the game set.
When we first started the game, Andre just couldn’t catch on to the notion of forming words using his letters. He would say something like, “I want to put ‘GOAT’ but I don’t have the ‘G’ and the ‘T’.” After a while, slight progress – he just had to figure out how to form words using letters already on the board. He would say, “I can put ‘MAN’ but I don’t know where to put it.”
Now, at least he has grasped the fundamentals of the game, but our sessions are still often ala a Comedy of Errors. Our game last night was, as usual, off the wall, to say the least. I’m giving snippets of what happened and I swear I am not making any of it up. The picture of the final board is at the bottom as proof.
Sometime in the game:
Lesley-Anne puts ’GENE’.
Andre does silly Arabian Nights dance.
Lesley-Anne (exasperated): “It’s GENE, not GENIE lah, silly!”
Later on in the game:
Andre: “Is ‘DALT’ a word?”
Me: “No. Put what you know.”
Andre: “How about ‘YALT?’”
Kenneth and Me: “PUT WHAT YOU KNOW!”
Andre: “Ok, then ‘AT’.”
Me: “Aiyah, longer word can or not??”
Andre (whining): “I want to put ‘PRAY’ but the ‘A’ is there, then the word at the bottom will be ‘IYHEROIN’.”
Me: “For heaven’s sake!!”
Even further on in the game:
Lesley-Anne puts ‘KIN’.
Lesley-Anne (to Andre): “Do you know what’s KIN?”
Andre: “I know, like in KING KONG!”
Me (slaps forehead): !!!!!!!!!!!
Finally nearing the end:
Me (to Andre, trying to help speed up the game): “Let me give you a hint. You have a ‘U’ and ‘A’. You can use the ‘Q’ here to put ‘QUA_’?” (I peeked and saw that he had a ‘D’ and a ‘Y’).
Andre: “Mmm... 'QUAT'? Wait, I don’t have a ‘T’.”
Me: “No such word! What else?”
Me (glaring at Kenneth who has begun to laugh helplessly): “Using what you have!!”
Andre: “I don’t know! 'QUAY'? (pronounces ‘kueh’)”
Lesley-Anne (losing patience): “QUAY lah! Like “Collyer Quay” in the National Day song we sing!”
Me: “JUST PUT IT DOWN.”
After an eternity, game ends.
Andre: “ALAMAK! How come I’m last again? Not fair.”
Saturday, September 20, 2008
By music here, I’m referring to western classical music. If you want a definitive reason why your kids should listen to classical music, you probably would be disappointed to know that most of the much-hyped studies about the Mozart Effect, ie listening to Mozart can make your kids smarter, are still inconclusive. But what I can say with more certainty is that like learning an instrument, listening to classical music is good for kids because the intricacy of its form, harmonies and instrumentation stimulates the brain.
I’ve loved classical music since I was a teenager but to admit it is akin to waving your hands wildly in the air and shouting “Look at me, I’m uncool!” There seems to be this persistent stereotype of classical music lovers as nerdy geeks wearing glasses who spend their time at home playing the piano while their peers are outside having fun (oh wait, I think I just described myself as a kid). A fellow music lover who grew up playing the violin pointed out to me that we were playing Scrabble on Facebook while our hip-per peers were probably out mountain-biking or doing other macho activities like trekking up Mt Fuji.
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, classical music doesn’t have the greatest rep. There appears to be some vague belief that it’s good for you somehow, but that it’s also an “atas” practice by snobs and nerds. There’s also a strange misconception that if you like classical music, it's to the exclusion of all other types of music. ALL NOT TRUE!
I want to state categorically that my Sheryl Crow and Coldplay albums actually get more playtime than my Dvorak or Tchaikovsky CDs. But I don’t think any child (or adult for that matter) needs to “learn” how to appreciate Avril Lavigne as compared to say, Bach.
The complexities of classical music mean that it is not as instantly palatable as pop music. When I was working as the marketing manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), I liked to use the analogy of wine and cola, ie classical music is wine and pop music is cola. You probably won’t like the taste of wine the very first time you try it. But after a while, its sophistication grows on you. There’s nothing not to like about cola – it’s sweet, fizzy, instantly appealing. But you are entitled to like both drinks, depending on the occasion or what you feel like at that moment. You can’t just chug wine down, it needs to be savoured. But there are just some times when you want more than just a quick saccharine fix.
If you’re new to classical music, there are some tried and tested pieces that are great for introducing to your kids. I have three all-time favourites. The first is Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev. The story is about Peter, a young boy who defies his grandfather and goes out to capture a wolf. Each of the characters is represented by an instrument, ie Peter (violin), bird (flute), duck (oboe), cat (clarinet), wolf (French horn), grandfather (bassoon), hunters (timpani). This means that when you hear the clarinet, you know the story is talking about the cat. You can get many of the music albums, but for young kids, I recommend the DVD Elmo’s Musical Adventure – Peter and the Wolf. With musicians from the Boston Pops Orchestra, this film really brings the music to life and your kids will get a kick out of watching Elmo and their other favourite Sesame Street characters. Both my kids love this DVD.
The second piece of music is Saint Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. This is a series of short pieces composed to describe different animals - kids would love trying to identify some of them. My favourites are the Lion, the Elephant and the Aquarium. Many of you would also recognise the Swan, which is a very famous piece featuring the beautiful cello. Here’s a video clip of the masterful Yo-Yo Ma playing the piece.
My third recommendation is Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This is great for any kid wanting to know more about the different instruments and sections that make up an orchestra.
Apart from listening to albums, it’s also great exposure to bring your kids to concerts. The SSO offers regular concerts for kids (although I personally feel they’re more suitable for kids below aged 10 and the tickets are rather pricey). If your kids listen to enough classical music to be able to sit through a regular concert, I prefer those. I’ve brought Lesley-Anne to see some of the great soloists like Hilary Hahn and it’s a terrific experience for her to see a good live performance. Even Andre has been to a regular concert and he managed to sit through it. (He was only about 5 then and an expat lady sitting next to him took him on her knee halfway through the concert and told him he was adorable). Don’t worry if your child starts to fidget half-way, you can always leave and come back next time. The whole point is exposure and your child’s response may just surprise you.
Mindset is everything. If you think or tell your child it's going to be boring, of course it will be! Give it a chance and give it time. Remember, it’s wine.
Friday, September 19, 2008
This is a pic of when we brought Andre home for the first time (sorry for all the bad pics! Unlike my friend Lilian, I'm no lensman. All of the early pics are photos of photos).
As Isabelle was gingerly putting the baby down in the crib, trying not to wake him, I said: "Put him on his side" and as he started to stir, I said, "Pat him quick! Pat him!" True enough, he settled to sleep. The funny thing is, I had completely forgotten about all this, until I saw the baby. Then instantly I remembered desperately trying to get my own babies to stay asleep in the cot as my arms were breaking from prolonged carrying. I also remembered the incessant crying, the sore nipples from breastfeeding, the milk rash, the sleepless nights, the mountain of diapers. But also the indescribable love of having this teeny little human being that you created, warm and snuggly in your arms.
I don't know about other mums, but for me, the first 6 months are the hardest (ok, my kids haven't hit the teenage years yet so I may retract this statement in the future!) During this time, you and the baby haven't quite learnt each other's rhythm, and all he does is eat, sleep, poop and cry (in no particular order). The worst thing is the baby can't tell you want he wants or needs, so it's often a guessing game. I know they say after a while, you can distinguish between a cry for milk or a cry "because I'm wet" but maybe I was extremely dense cos I never figured it out. Isabelle and Joon were recounting how the night before, their son had a violent case of the hiccups and they frantically tried everything to stop it, until at wits' end, they asked the nurse what to do. She looked at them calmly and said, "Leave him alone." Ah... *lightbulb*
With Andre, the first 6 months were a blur. I distinctly remember one day looking at him on the sofa and realising with a start that he was 6 months old. It was like a dream, I couldn't have told you what happened in that half a year. As a new parent, you tend to want to do everything right, in fact you want to do everything, full stop. Then you soon run out of steam, especially when the infant's demands never stop. Isabelle and Joon are already learning this. On the first night, they rashly declared that they would have the baby in their suite at Gleneagles. It lasted all of 2½ hours. At 11.45pm, they waved the white flag. The exhausted father wheeled the baby in his crib all the way back to the nursery and told the nurse, "Here, take him." I know I'm being mean, but I couldn't stop laughing at that story.
But it does get better, infinitely better. When your baby starts to smile at you, laughs when he sees you, toddles towards you, holds your hand, calls you for the first time... all milestones that only a parent can appreciate. It takes all your willpower not to bore everyone, even people on the street, with a blow-by-blow account of how your child took his first step.
Here's Lesley-Anne at about aged 1½. In fact, I put off having a second child for a while because I was having so much fun with Lesley-Anne.
But of course you know eventually we did have no.2 and Andre turned out to be a completely different but equally adorable bundle of joy. While Lesley-Anne was contemplatively content, Andre was just a bubbly, happy child. Here he is on the right, he's about 2 years old here.
I wish we had blogs then (and that I had time to write one) because I'm sure there were many fun moments that I don't remember now. But I also am mindful that we should treasure every stage of their lives because it's always different and always exciting. Once when I was at a hawker centre, standing in line with Andre at a fishball noodle stall, the auntie in front of me turned back to smile at Andre and told me, "This is the best time. You may not think it now but when they're all grown up, you'll realise it." By golly, I think she's right. Lessons at the hawker centre, who would've thought.
One of my friends, Paul, is a brilliant artist and web designer. He is also my business partner-of-sorts and was the one who designed my Hedgehog Communications website. At one point, he was a full-time artist and he has his own brand of cartoon-type art. I commissioned him to do an oil painting of my kids:
It hangs on my living room wall, next to another painting he did for me, of a hedgehog. I think it really captures the essence and personalities of my kids. While we can't make time stand still, the painting will always be a reminder of who they were at this point in their lives.
Isabelle and Joon, if you're reading this, parenthood is the adventure of your life! I hope you will enjoy every minute of it.
Thursday, September 18, 2008
The problem back then (and maybe even now) was that the focus was mostly on exams. Learning the piano was yet another thing on a kid's achievement score-card, so parents could boast to their friends, "My son passed his Grade 8 at age 12!" or some ridiculous notion like that. The music itself often took a backseat. I know my own father said, "After you finish your Grade 8, you won't need the piano anymore, we can sell it." I was dumbfounded. It's like saying after you pass your driving test, you don't need a car anymore.
Anyway, I went on to do my diploma with Trinity College and after marriage, splurged on a S$7,000 made-in-Germany Dresden (S$7,000 back then was a lot of dough, for someone who only earned S$2,000 a month). It was my pride and joy, and the most expensive item in our little two-bedroom apartment.
Today, the Dresden still stands tall in my study-cum-library-cum-office. It was therefore natural that Lesley-Anne went for piano lessons. I had started teaching her informally when she was about 3, just to gauge if she enjoyed playing the piano. She learnt pretty fast and seemed to like it so we sent her for formal lessons when she was 5.
Lesley-Anne is musical, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, her inhibitive nature prevents the talent from fully manifesting itself. A common comment from her teacher is: "She is so afraid of playing the wrong note, the music can't come out!" Lesley-Anne has just passed her Grade 5 practical exam this year and the descriptors written by the examiner throughout the exam sheet were: "musical", "understanding of style", "shapely phrasing" but also peppered with "cautious" and "hesitations". In fact, she's so self-conscious that she will stop playing the piano the minute I enter the room, prompting her teacher to say, "What, you perform only for yourself?"
In the picture above, she's playing for guests at our Christmas party - we started this tradition so all the invited kids who can play also have the opportunity to perform for others.
This is Andre as a toddler at the piano (sorry for bad pic, it's a photo of a photo - no digicam then). Andre surprised me. I had assumed that with his short attention span, he wouldn't be interested in learning the piano, but when he was 5 and seeing his sister play, he started asking me for lessons. I thought it might just be another fleeting interest so I tried to dissuade him with all kinds of threats: "Are you sure? You have to spend a lot of time practising." "Less time for tv." "Once you start, I won't allow you to quit." I thought he would change his mind, but he persisted. So last year, I found him a teacher, whom he calls Uncle Peter. (We wanted to send him to Lesley-Anne's teacher but ferrying him to lessons posed a problem, so we had to look for one that would come to our place).
After both their practical exams this year, I'm putting a temporary hold on piano exams and just letting them focus on playing for enjoyment.
I'm for kids learning music because I think music is such an integral part of being human. It doesn't have to be the piano, it could be the violin, flute, voice or even the drums (if you can tahan the noise). But if you ever need a compelling reason for letting your kids learn an instrument, here it is: music helps with maths. Qualifier: doesn't mean you start your kid on music lessons and he or she immediately gets A for maths. But it has been repeatedly found in studies that music does trigger spatial-temporal reasoning abilities in the brain, which is considered crucial in maths.
So if your kids are not yet learning music, I hope you will consider it for its inherent benefits. If not, then at least for the hope that it will help them with maths!
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I’m generally a practical person but in certain areas, I cling on to nostalgia like a comforting old blanket. I’m referring to old movies and tv programmes. When it comes to tv, my kids have an extraordinary attention span (unfortunately this doesn’t extend to homework). Even at a very young age, they could sit through full-length feature cartoons, so I introduced them to a diet of old Disney cartoons (via VCD, then later DVD), even the lesser known ones like Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood.
While other kids were battling it out with the Power Rangers, mine were joining forces with John, Paul, George and Ringo to tackle the Blue Meanies in the Yellow Submarine. (I suspect my kids might be the only ones in Singapore able to sing along to “Hey Bulldog”). The Yellow Submarine is nonsensical, psychedelic and pure fun to watch. I’m a huge Fab Four fan – the bus-stop ad poster of John Lennon’s Imagine in my living room testifies to that.
I derive some twisted satisfaction from knowing that sometimes my kids would choose to watch re-runs of old Scooby Doo or Tom and Jerry cartoons over the more current fare like Teen Titans or Kim Possible.
It’s not just cartoons that my kids watch. I think the phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” really applies to the genre of musicals. Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – these are some of the classics my kids have grown up with. Some have made more of an impression than others. For instance, we quickly discovered that Andre was drawn to music and drama when he became hooked on Singin’ in the Rain. He couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, but he could mimic all of Gene Kelly’s dance moves, down to the shoulder shakes and tap sequences. I used to just watch fascinated as he twirled around with an imaginary Cyd Charisse, and brandished a ruler as an umbrella for the signature scene.
When the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came to town last year, we were lucky enough to win two tickets to the show. Since we couldn't get additional tickets, we let both the kids go together. Even though Andre was only 7, he sat through the entire 2½ show with his sister and they both enjoyed it tremendously, since they know the storyline and songs inside out.
One of my most loved tv programmes growing up was The Muppet Show. Remember them? Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Bunsen and Beaker, Pigs in Space… don’t those names bring back memories? The series has been released on dvd and I bought a whole bunch of them. The jokes are corny, the characters kitschy, and my kids LOVE them. What's there not to love? Elton John in his zany glasses being eaten by a crocodile after he sings "Crocodile Rock"? Hilarious! Lesley-Anne would spout the one-liners to me, like:
Kermit: “The invisible cheeseburger has lost its voice! There’s nothing left of it but the smell of onions.” (followed by a fit of giggles from Lesley-Anne)
Writing about The Muppet Show has gotten me all sentimental, so I'm going to share the love (thanks to YouTube!) Here's a clip of one of my kids' favourite scenes of the Swedish Chef.
Truly an oldie but goodie!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Here is a studio shot we took of them back in 2006.
In character, Lesley-Anne and Andre are polar opposites. After I attended the parenting workshop using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (you can read my previous post here), I tried to do the test for both my kids. It would be noble of me to say I wanted to check their personality types so that I can tweak my style to bring out the best in them, but in truth, I was just being kaypoh lah.
Lesley-Anne is an INFP (confirmed by her assessment of learning styles done in school). That means she is:
Idealistic, loyal to her values and to people who are important to her. Cares about learning, ideas, language and independent ideas of her own. Tends to undertake too much then somehow gets it done. Friendly, but often too absorbed in what she is doing to be sociable. Seeks to understand people and to help them fulfill their potential.
One liner: Still waters run deep
Surprisingly enough, when I did the assessment for Andre, I found that he is an ENFP, which means he only differs from Lesley-Anne on the Extraversion-Introversion scale. As an ENFP, he is:
Warmly enthusiastic, high-spirited and imaginative. Sees life as full of possibilities. Able to do almost anything that interests him. Wants a lot of affirmation from others, and readily gives appreciation and support. Spontaneous and flexible, often relies on his ability to improvise instead of preparing in advance. Can usually find compelling reasons for whatever he wants.
One liner: Anything's possible
Apparently, both care a lot about what other people think but they try to get affirmation in different ways. Lesley-Anne through achievement and Andre through affection. Lesley-Anne doesn't only have the goods academically, she is motivated and has excelled in most of the activities she's taken on - ballet, piano, taekwondo and swimming. Yet despite all her achievements, she's still sometimes insecure, always looking for approval and very sensitive to criticism. Always very proper and poised, and with high EQ (but also a ferocious temper, which her brother doesn't appreciate!)
Andre, on the other hand, is Mr Personality, spontaneity incarnate. He showers his family with hugs and kisses, and his priority in school is making friends. He has been punished so many times for talking in class that I've lost count (eventually, his teacher made him sit by himself). He'll use his own money to buy food for others, he lends books to his friends that he himself has not yet read. He loves being in the centre of attention and will happily ham it up for the camera.
As a classic example of how different the two kids are: when we bring them out for fish and chips, Lesley-Anne the planner and thinker will eat all her salad first, then leave the best parts (fish and chips) for last. Andre the instant gratifier will gobble up the fish and especially the chips, then dwaddle over the salad and try to convince us he's too full to eat it.
The different personalities of course mean that fights around the house are commonplace. The two just cannot get along (what to do when one is aged 11 going on 25 and the other is 7 going on 6??) They would fight over anything, really anything. When they were younger, it was over things like who got to press the lift button, who got to use the bathroom first, who got to hold my right hand (I know! I have 2 hands, right??)
I recall after another meaningless round of bickering, I said in exasperation: "You two are like a cat and a dog!"
Andre: "Who's the dog?"
Lesley-Anne: "I want to be the dog."
Andre: "HAHHH, no fair! I want to be the doooooog!!!"
Lesley-Anne: "Ok, then I'm the cat and I will SCRATCH you!!"
I think all parents know bringing up kids with different personalities is a real challenge, but it's also an adventure. I hope you're enjoying yours!