Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thunderstorms and ♥ ♥ ♥

Today, 30 September, is the day Kenneth and I mark our wedding anniversary. 15 years! If you're expecting a lovey dovey soliloquy on love, then you've stumbled on the wrong blog. Go visit some other blogger with a more Strawberry Shortcake-type disposition.

Here are my thoughts on the subject: If you can survive 15 years of marriage without killing each other, chances are you're in a good place. The familiarity that might have been boring in the earlier years has now become comforting, rather like an old blanket (it's a little worn but it's snuggly and comfortable and when it's not there, it doesn't feel right and you kinda miss it).

We celebrated the event last weekend and this year, our two wonderful kids even took the time to make us these gifts on the left. Lesley-Anne made the card and the furry blue heart.

Andre fashioned the heart-shaped bookmark where he wrote "M + D = ♥". Except his ♥ looked more like a black blob and I asked, "what's this? Mummy + Daddy = thunderstorm?" (psycho-analyse this however you like).

Incidentally, it's so much fun making the ♥ on the computer. ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ like this! ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ too much? ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ maybe just one more... ♥

This was what Lesley-Anne had written in the card:

I'm sure we don't deserve every single one of those 26 epithets (especially Zen) but when I think of how so many teenage kids feel their parents are a source of embarrassment to them, I'm so thankful to be appreciated.

I reckon that in the first 5 years of a marriage, people look for romance; the next 5 years, passion; the following 5 years, friendship; and beyond that, companionship. If you're lucky, you get all four. For me, I hit the jackpot cos I got two heaven-sent bonus gifts along with the full package.
"Keep the eyes wide open before marriage and half shut afterwards." - Benjamin Franklin

Monday, September 27, 2010

Doing the Rory thing

Since the early part of this year, Kenneth has taken to doing what he calls "the Rory thing". Rory, if you didn't know, is a character from the fabulous tv series Gilmore Girls. The show centres on the relationship between the hip, sassy mother Lorelei and Rory, her smart, sensible daughter. I'm sure many mums who have watched the show have dreamed of having such a close-knit relationship with their teenage daughters. Yours truly is one of them, not least cos Lorelei is so coooooool.

One of Rory's signature traits is that she brings a book with her wherever she goes. There's this scene where she'd just returned from a school dance with her boyfriend Dean:

Dean: "You brought a book to the dance?"
Rory: "Yeah."
Dean: "You thought there'd be a lot of downtime?"
"No. I just take a book with me everywhere. It's just habit."

Anyway, this is what Kenneth and I have been doing of late (bringing a book everywhere, not going to a school dance). It started out as a measure to fill in time gaps, eg. having something to read when he's waiting for Andre to finish his badminton training. As parents, we're always ferrying kids to all kinds of classes and an incredible amount of time is spent just waiting.

Quite subtly, the practice has altered our perspective on waiting. Since we now have a book with us at all times, waiting is no longer a waste of time (and cause for blood pressures to rise). Even if we have to stand in line for something or take a long ride on the MRT, we just use the time to catch up on our reading.

For Andre, this habit has its bonuses. It's hard to get him to sit down and read at home, especially when there are so many other exciting activities he would rather do. But when he's out and waiting, such as for Lesley-Anne to finish her ballet class, reading a book beats standing around aimlessly waiting for time to pass. Ok, ok, I admit the accompanying cheese fries have something to do with it but STILL...

No need to impose the practice on Lesley-Anne, she's already a bookworm by nature. Here she is, reading even on vacation.

Looks like I may have inadvertently raised a Rory. Now I just have to raise my cool quotient to that of Lorelei's.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Marshmallow Experiment

In the 1960s, the now classic "Marshmallow Experiment" was conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. Some four-year-olds were given one marshmallow and promised a second one if they waited twenty minutes before eating the first one. As expected, some children were able to wait and others could not.

What happened next was interesting. The researchers followed the progress of each child into adolescence and discovered that those who waited were assessed to be better adjusted and more dependable according to their parents and teachers. Even more revealing was the fact that these kids eventually scored significantly higher on the SATs years later.

It's no surprise to me that individuals who are willing to put in the effort before seeing rewards are more sensible and perform better in school. What surprised me was that this personality trait could be pre-determined as early as four years old.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to ask Andre what he would do in the marshmallow situation. I didn't bother to ask Lesley-Anne as I knew what the answer would be - she's the queen of delayed gratification. ć…ˆè‹ŠćŽç”œ is the adage she lives by.

Me: So would you eat the marshmallow or wait to have two?

Andre: But I don't like marshmallows.

Me: Ok, let's say it's something you like to eat.

Andre: I won't eat it, maybe it has poison.

Me: Gnnnnggghhhh, imagine it's not something to eat but something you really like! Say country erasers.

Andre (perking up): Is it Saudi Arabia?

Me: Whatever! So will you take it first?

Andre: I'll wait until the man gives up.

Me: You're not answering my question! Will you take it or wait for another one?

Andre: I'll snatch both and run away.

I think there needs to be another category for suspicious kids.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

English composition part 6

I know I haven't posted any of Lesley-Anne's compositions this year. It's not intentional, I haven't had much to work with. Since entering sec 1, Lesley-Anne has only written two compositions in school to date. I'm not sure if this is the case with all secondary schools or just hers but her English classes are more like Literature classes, ie they tend to focus on literary analysis and different genres of writing.

Anyway, she finally brought one home so I here it is. The title provided was Dreams and the students were given an hour to write the composition. They could interpret it however they want, as long as it's a narrative (meaning it can't be a philosophical or scientific account of dreams).


She sat at her desk, her left hand holding her pen loosely with her slender fingers, the other supporting her small, round head as she gazed into the distance thoughtfully.

The sound of her English teacher's rough, strong hands coming into contact with her desk at high speeds snapped her out of her dream-like trance.

"Dreaming again, aren't you? This is the third time I've warned you today! Stop it, focus on your writing assignment. You may be the best writer in class, but you have to stop daydreaming. The key to success, my little dreamer, isn't dreams. It's focus!"

She sighed and nodded. It was no use argueing against Mr. Wellington. He will not understand her and probably never will. You see, Mr Wellington and her had a lot in common. Both loved the english language and both were great writers. But the huge distinguishing feature she had that Mr Wellington didn't, was that she believed in dreaming. Not dreaming in the sense of what one's ambition is, or what one is to become. No. It is the raw stuff of dreams she believed in. The escape into the world that you want, the making of brilliant adventures and friends. Most importantly, the making of the most creative and out-of-this-world stories. The best ever. The main reason that she wrote so well. Not to say that she did not dream of what her ambition was. She did not neglect those sort of dreams entirely. She dreamed of becoming a famous childrens' writer. Children, because children dream so much more than adults.

She sighed deeply once more and started to write her essay.

Just before class ended, Mr Wellington announced that the finals of the ongoing World Young Writers' Competition was this Saturday. He also suprised the class by saying the he had submitted one of her A star compositions and that she was chosen as one of the finalists. Her head felt giddy and her heart felt as if it were trying to break out of her chest when she heard the news. Because of this golden opportunity to showcase her talent to the world, she was more than willing to stay in school for another two hours for a personal lesson with Mr Wellington.

However, nothing in life ever goes smoothly. Mr Wellington caught her dreaming five times, no less. He was so mad, he looked as if he were on the verge of spewing hot lava right onto her. However, he calmed down a little when she promised him that she would have an A star story on her desk in an hour if she could be left alone to write. Mr Wellington was doubtful of her, but she he was at a loss of what to say or do, he agreed. And she at the end of the lesson, she kept her promise.

That saturday, she won a gold medal no less. But, whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Because of her degrading school work as she daydreams in her other classes, except for English, she was thought that she was not coping in her school work and was pulled out of her specialised writing class.

At this, the girl was heartbroken. You see, reader. Dreams may be great things, but they cannot save you from reality. You can escape reality temporarily, but you cannot avoid it forever. This was the thing that she was too blind and naive to see. She continued to dream, but she could not escape the truth. Because she was so upset, she stopped writing and a brilliant writer she was no more. I hope, reader, that you realise now how fragile dreams are. Like glass, it looks strong, but can be shattered in a flash.

Now reader, to lighten things up so that is story ends happily I shall tell you the answer to the question that may be plaguing you. What is that girl's name? Well, it is a name she gave herself and one that she lives up to. You may want to flip back to the first page as her name was mentioned earlier on. Yes, reader. Her name is Dreamer. As to whether or not she ever started writing again or ever became a famous writer, well, its up to you now to dream that ending up.

Lesley-Anne scored 21/30 for this composition, Content - 6/10, Language - 15/20. Her teacher's comment was: "This is an interesting, clever idea, but the execution could be improved." It's an ok grade but not outstanding, and she was rather disappointed by the score for her content.

I can see that her grammar and spelling still give her trouble, especially in a time crunch, but I like the way she's able to give her stories an unusual spin (although there are a couple of holes in the plot). Incidentally, I think the secondary school topics for composition are so much more interesting than in primary school and open up lots of room for creativity. No more pictures and accidents at the mall, thank you!

On a brighter note, Lesley-Anne just received the results of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Competition in English that she sat for earlier this year. She scored a Distinction and was ranked among the top 2% of sec 1 participants in Singapore.

Just a point of interest, this competition is different from the UNSW Writing competition that she'd participated in from p4 to p6, where she had to write an essay of a specified genre. This English competition comprises a series of comprehension passages of increasing difficulty and all the answers are MCQ. According to Lesley-Anne, it's a tedious assessment, most of the kids would rather do the writing one.

We're obviously very pleased, it's nice to know that she can hold her own not only in writing but in English in general. The icing on the cake is that this score counts for 20% of her CA2 mark. Strange policy I know, but hey, we're not complaining :)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The value of a liberal arts education

Last week, it was announced that there probably would be a liberal arts college in Singapore by 2013, thanks to a Yale-NUS tieup.

Quick on the heels was an interview with Prof Koh Tai Ann, senior associate of NTU's Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences in the Straits Times on Thursday. I like the piece, you can read the full interview here. What she said about how the focus on hard sciences and professional degrees like engineering had contributed towards Singapore being a competitive society that looks down on non-achievers and softer disciplines like the arts particularly resonated with me.

I've experienced this my whole life, way back from when I was in secondary school. I may have mentioned previously that at sec 3, the girls at my school were segregated into the science and arts streams, not based on interest or ability in specific subjects but purely based on overall grades (as was the common practice in most schools then). The top 40 girls were streamed into the pure science class, the next 40 into sub-science, followed by the arts streams. I was placed in the "privileged" pure science class but since I had no desire to learn about the anatomy of a frog or the thermal properties of matter, I asked the principal for a transfer to the arts class. She granted my request but expressed surprise that anyone would choose to move "downwards".

In JC, unsure what I wanted to do with my life, I took up Accountancy and Econs upon the advice of my very pragmatic accountant father and entered the most dreary two years of my academic life. In NUS, I switched back to the arts faculty and went on to do my honours in Sociology. I remember I had a couple of friends who implied that I was wasting my time, that the only courses worth taking in the arts faculty were Econs and Statistics (not you, Lilian!)

There was a prevalent attitude that the arts and humanities were fluff, unworthy of serious attention. This mindset extended to all realms, even that of books. Fast forward to many years later when I went for a job interview with a polytechnic principal. He asked me what the most recent book I'd read was. Now, I've always wondered about this question because it's a very difficult one for an avid reader to answer. What if the last book I'd read happened to be Calvin and Hobbes? Would that somehow diminish my status even if I'd been reading Sun Tze's Art of War before that?

Anyway, I had just finished reading Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, the recent Pulitzer Prize winning book at that time, and said so. He hadn't heard of it so I said I read a lot of John Steinbeck which was true as I think The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most memorable classics of all time. However, if I'm being honest, part of me said that only to appear knowledgeable because it's easy to take seriously someone who reads Steinbeck.

I got the job but later, I found out that he considered fiction to be a waste of time. He is a very well read man himself but his reading consisted mostly of management, IT, business and other "serious" non-fiction publications. (Which made me wonder how I got the job!) No surprises, he's an engineer by training.

Just a couple of days ago, Lilian and I were discussing Literature (and how much of it is bedek, lol). She feels that sometimes, in analysing texts, we read underlying meanings in sentences that weren't actually intended by the author. The skeptic in me is inclined to agree, I suspect Lit students and teachers sometimes get carried away by the literary exercise of analysis and they project their own beliefs onto the author's work.

But you see, that's the beauty of fiction - it really doesn't matter. Good fiction provokes thought and I've found that from decades of reading fiction, it has broadened my worldview and deepened my thought in a way that couldn't be gleaned from just experience alone. Fiction opens up worlds and in doing so, opens up minds, gives wings to creative thought. To put it rather simplistically, non-fiction tells you what to think, fiction teaches you how to think.

Ironically, I never studied Literature beyond O levels because being a Singapore product at heart, I still believe that what we learn has to be useful in some way, ie thought for thought's sake is too idealistic. That's why I never became an academic. My Sociology education taught me how to look at issues critically, to never accept anything without question, to consider people and actions from different perspectives, all of which were invaluable traits when I entered the workforce. Much more than my two years studying Accountancy and Econs ever did for me. (Ok, I did learn to balance my accounts for my business but that's something I could have easily picked up later.)

The move into liberal arts is a signal that Singaporeans are starting to realise the value of an education that not only teaches you how to do, but how to think. It's not all hoopla and airy fairy stuff. Yes, we still need people who can build bridges and calculate rates of returns but in a new millennium where knowledge changes by the day, what we truly lack in our society are dreamers, analysts and thinkers who can see issues and take on challenges across disciplines. And really, that's what a liberal arts education education is all about.
"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before." - Clifton Fadiman

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cinnamon-chocolate chip sour cream muffins

I'm always on the lookout for new cake recipes as one of my favourite comfort food combis is coffee and cake. Because I work from home, my coffee break is something I look forward to, just to get away from the computer for a while, chill and read a few more pages of whatever book I'm on. Cake seems like the perfect finishing touch, don't you think?

I found this recipe on a baking website and the part that attracted me was the sprinkling of cinnamon sugar over the top. Sounds yummy plus it negates the need for frosting which is such a hassle to make.

I first made this in a cake tin as called for in the original recipe and it turned out to be a disaster. The middle of the cake was grossly underbaked while the edges were hard and dry. I tend to have this problem, I'm not sure if this is the case with all ovens or only because I'm using a microwave convection oven.

So I went back to my trusty muffin pan once again. It's a little more work due to the layering but it's totally worth it.


160g unsalted butter
2 cups plain flour
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
300ml sour cream
1 tsp baking soda
2/3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
200g mini chocolate chips (or butterscotch chips)

Cinnamon sugar

Mix 1 tsp cinnamon and 100g sugar together in a small dish


1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius.
2. Sift flour, mix together with baking soda and baking powder in a bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
4. Mix in egg yolks and vanilla.
5. Alternatively add sour cream and flour mixture, beat until smooth.
6. Beat egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, then fold into batter.
7. Stir in chocolate chips.
8. Pour a thin layer of batter into muffin tray.
9. Sprinkle a layer of cinnamon sugar.
10. Top up with batter until 3/4 full.
11. Generously sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top.
12. Bake for about 30 mins or until skewer comes out clean.

This cake is best served warm, especially if you're going to store it in the fridge. It's dense and moist, with a slightly gooey, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth sensation and a crisp crunch of sugar on top. A little piece of confectionery heaven!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Noah's ark - 2,000 pieces of it

Since we had quite a bit of fun putting together a jigsaw puzzle over the National Day weekend, I thought it would be nice to do another during the September holidays.

I've always been partial to the Heye cartoon jigsaw puzzles, they're so comical and quirky. I searched online and this one caught my eye - a 2,000-piece Noah's Ark. After some price comparisons, I found an affordably priced one on Amazon (the challenge is always finding reasonable shipping rates!) and ordered it.

It arrived just a few days before the start of the holidays. When I first opened it and tipped all the pieces onto the dining table, I thought out loud, "this won't take us a week." Andre took one look at the daunting pile before him and added, "yah, it will take longer."

O, ye of little faith! Admittedly it was tough going at first but we were game for the challenge (except Kenneth who refused to participate in what he thought was a crazy endeavour). Bit by bit, over the next few days, we made progress.

Andre's enthusiasm quickly waned so it was mostly mother and daughter, piecing it together doggedly.

The end in sight!

Finally, the finished product. It took us under five days and it wasn't too painful. Maybe someday (an unspecified time in the future), we might even attempt it again.

This photo on the right is specially for Lilian (I forgot to take it before we dismantled the jigsaw, so this is a pic of the box) - Pink Panther hiding among the leopards! How wild is that??

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An act of affirmation

I'm writing this post on Andre's CA2 results as a record of God's blessings.

I've written many times about Andre's seemingly never-ending academic woes. After the last mid-year exams, I was lamenting over how his results don't seem to reflect his effort.

Well, for this CA2, Andre worked harder than he's ever done. I know it was tough on him, being more of an outdoor-sy child. Towards the last few days of exams, I could see that the thought of having to do yet another test paper almost brought him to the brink of tears.

He worked so hard that I actually felt apprehensive. Even though I was mustering up all my persuasive powers to encourage him to continue, I knew that if he didn't see the desired results yet again, it would be terribly demoralising for him. In fact, I tried to pre-empt this by explaining to him that in life, sometimes our efforts don't yield results but it doesn't mean that we stop trying.

During that period, every night during prayers with Andre, I asked God to reward his hard work and show him what he was capable of achieving.

Even before the results were released, we gave Andre a gift - his very own SIM card and Lesley-Anne's hand-me-down handphone, his very first mobile. We wanted to show him that we acknowledged his effort and were rewarding him for it, regardless of the results.

It turned out that I worried needlessly. To my immense relief, he did better than I expected:

English - 75.5/100
Chinese - 56.5/70
Maths - 88/100
Science - 84/100

It may not seem like much to some parents but it's a solid result for Andre. He improved on every subject from his SA1, the largest jump being Science (68 for SA1). He was one of the higher scorers in his class for maths and the biggest surprise - English section A. He actually managed 15/15 for the vocab section which blew me away as this is the boy who a week before the exams, wrote in a test paper MCQ section: "The lion slaughtered its prey." As I read his exam paper, I noticed there were some difficult definitions that I was surprised he knew.

"Did you learn these words from your reading?" I asked in wonder, thinking my efforts at getting him to read more were finally paying off.

"No, I heard them on tv." Pause. "I think you should let me watch more tv."

I'm very grateful God was so gracious to Andre. I know it doesn't mean that he will always taste success from now on but at this crucial point when it seemed like he'd hit an impasse, God sent him a clear affirmation of his abilities. The results have shown Andre that his efforts can reap rewards, and more importantly, they have given him a renewed belief in himself which is such a crucial component of life. It couldn't have been more timely.
"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." - Philippians 4:13

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More educational pathways with expanded IP

Last week, MOE announced the expansion of the Integrated Programme (IP) to 7 more secondary schools. For those who are unaware, the IP is a 6-year through train programme that by-passes the O levels (for more details on IP, you can go to my previous post here). The new schools offering the IP are as follows:
  • Victoria School + Cedar Girls' Secondary School + Victoria Junior College
  • Methodist Girls' School + Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (ACSI)
  • St. Joseph's Institution (SJI)
  • Catholic High School + CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls' School + Singapore Chinese Girls' School + new junior college to be formed
In addition, Temasek Junior College will extend its current IP to begin from sec1 instead of sec3.

At the end of the 6 years, students will sit for the GCE 'A' levels except for ACSI and SJI which offer the International Baccalaureat (IB). Victoria School and Cedar Girls will take in their first batch of IP students in 2012, the other schools in 2013.

To me, this move is certainly one in the right direction - almost enough to restore my faith in MOE. You see, I've been feeling that more and more, the PSLE has come to be a make-or-break exam and the introduction of the first batch of IP schools has aggravated the situation. Since students now can determine their education pathway up to 18 from the PSLE, it has added to the belief that we need to "secure" our children's futures at the tender age of 12, when many kids have yet to mature.

After having experienced the PSLE process with Lesley-Anne, I've seen the heights of kiasu-ism - tuition in every subject and revisions from day to night are but some of the milder manifestations. It's unhealthy to say the least and I'm not sure how much learning actually happens.

The extension of the IP not only tackles this issue at the most basic level, which is increasing supply to meet demand. This second phase of IP schools also comes with a critical difference and that is, they offer BOTH the O level track as well as the IP track. In other words, kids who may not have done so well at PSLE and enter the O level track have the opportunity to switch to the IP track if they do well in secondary school.

Conversely, kids who enter the IP track but later find it tough to cope at the secondary school level may also do the switch from IP to O levels. This may not be as popular but we need to bear in mind that the IP is meant for those clearly university-bound. If the child finds it tough academically going at secondary school, it would be disastrous to force the situation and face inadequate A level results. This way, he/she can still have the option of sitting for the O levels and then moving on to a polytechnic or an alternative route.

What is not so clear is how the school selection will work - whether you indicate your choice of IP or O level track for that specific school or whether you simply choose the school and those with higher T-scores will automatically get streamed into the IP track.

MOE has said that these schools will continue to reserve places for students from other schools who wish to enter their IP at sec3. Likewise, the IP junior colleges will keep 20% of places for non-IP students.

What all this translates into is a very flexible system that caters to a more diverse group of students, including late bloomers and kids who may find their interests or abilities evolving over time. To me, the message is clear. If you don't do so well at the PSLE, there will be other opportunities along the way to seek the type of education and school you want.

Just for that, I would say that this is one of the best moves MOE has made for education in a long time.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Happy Teachers' Day!

Yesterday was Teacher's Day and just a note of interest, this is the last year Teacher's Day and Children's Day in Singapore will be celebrated on 1 September and 1 October respectively. From 2011, the two occasions will fall on the first Fridays of September and October, so that teachers and kids can enjoy long weekends.

I'm just wondering though, what would happen if the first Friday of September coincides with the one-week school holidays (which is a likely scenario)? Would there be a makeup the following Monday? I'm sure the teachers wouldn't welcome being cheated of an extra day of rest!

This year, to mark the occasion, Lesley-Anne and her best friend decided to bake muffins for their teachers. Not their secondary school teachers, mind you, their primary school GEP teachers. Incidentally, when her friend's mum heard about their plans, she commented, "your teachers are very brave."

Heh. The girls wisely decided not to make anything fancy - just muffins made from Betty Crocker's yellow cake mix and lots of chocolate chips added.

While waiting for the muffins to bake, the girls created personalised cards for each of the teachers.

The muffins were then wrapped in pretty paper and delivered personally to the recipients when the girls returned to their alma mater on Tuesday.

I thought it was a sweet gesture - it showed the impact their teachers had made on them over the past three years. We always remember all the good teachers we've had... as well as the bad. I'm glad that for Lesley-Anne, it's clearly been more of the former.
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