Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Preparing for p5

One of the things I discovered when Andre hit p5 this year was that the academic leap from p4 to p5 is like an Olympic high jump event. This is also true for the transition from p2 to p3 but I felt it more keenly this time.

I think part of the reason for this is the change in format. In English, for example, the paper is now divided into two sections, with Paper 1 being the MCQ portion and Paper 2 the open-ended section. Paper 2 is where the kids tend to have more problems. Accounting for 65 marks out of a total of 95, it comprises a few challenging parts, including the open-ended cloze and the comprehension passage which now contains 10 instead of 5 questions.

For maths too, there are now two papers - Paper 1 and Paper 2, with calculators allowed for Paper 2. The issue becomes a question of speed. For Paper 1, the kids need to complete 15 MCQ and 15 short questions in 50 minutes. This translates into 3 questions for every 5 minutes. Not a lot of time, considering this doesn't even leave any time for checking.

For Chinese, I think there's only a slight difference, with two comprehension passages instead of one. Science is the only subject where the format remains the same, since the curriculum is now taught based on topics from p3-p6.

Apart from format, the difficulty level across all subject too, increases significantly. At Andre's school (and I suspect this is true for many primary schools), they start setting papers at the p6 standard for p5. This is presumably an attempt to prepare the kids early for the PSLE but for the parents and students, it's extremely stressful.

Andre just had his CA1 before the one-week holidays and it was a mini culture shock for us. The bar was raised two steps, causing many kids to stumble. I heard through the grapevine that in some classes, more than half the kids flunked the maths paper. Similarly for English. Perhaps the school wants the exam to be a wake-up call for the kids but I've always been ambivalent about this issue. Will it spur the kids to work harder or simply demoralise them? My friend, Lilian thinks the Singapore school system makes students feel stupid and parents feel inadequate.

We'll keep chugging along of course, nothing else we can do about it. But the PSLE feels like a chain around my neck - I can't wait till it's over.

Friday, March 25, 2011


One morning, as I was at my pc, I heard a melodic chirp coming from Lesley-Anne's bedroom. As it grew more persistent, I went to check it out and saw this:

A tiny little yellow bird perched at her window! Aww... I don't call myself a true nature lover cos I don't like anything that slithers, crawls or looks remotely disgusting. But birds I love. Growing up, my mother had pet mynas who were so tame they wouldn't fly away even when let out of the cage.

So it was so uplifting to see this fluffy ball of sunshine, singing away without a care in the world. I'm not sure what type of bird it is, perhaps an oriole?

I inched closer to get a better look and it didn't seem afraid at all, even when I carefully pointed my camera at it. I managed to sit on Lesley-Anne's bed which was right next to the window, which explains how I got such close-up shots.

I sat there listening to it sing for quite a while, before I took a short video clip of it. Sure sounds like it's calling out to its friends. Living in a high rise, we don't get to interact with nature much so this was a sweet interlude.

"A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song." - Chinese proverb

Monday, March 21, 2011

Living childhood lessons

Recently, I met up with a friend who teaches both primary and secondary school kids. We were chatting about schools and kids in general, then he said some that I thought was particularly poignant: "Kids don't have time to be kids these days. I see so few of them with joy."

This statement struck me because just a couple of days before, I read an article in The Atlantic Magazine by Christina Schwarz on how many kids have been stripped of the important phase called childhood because they spend these years preparing for adulthood.

I encourage you to read the full article - it's thoughtfully written. I especially like the sub-header: Childhood is more than merely a springboard to adulthood. In essence, the article states in our rush to cram our children's time with "valuable" skills so that they can go to a good college/get a good job/get a headstart in life, we may actually be depriving them of some of the basic skills of thinking and problem-solving that kids develop through play or just by being kids.

Schwarz claims that "We seem to have returned to the 18th-century notion that play for its own sake is a waste of time, that children can be allowed to pursue their natural inclinations only if those can be channeled into activities that will prepare them to be orderly and productive (and now, God help us, “creative”) adults — even today’s play movement stresses the uplifting “educational value” of play."

In fact, she adds that "today, apparently, kids have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how... toys now come fully loaded with elaborate personalities and histories created for them by their grown-up purveyors. Playtime has been replaced by lessons with professionals."

If you think about it, what she says is true. In the past, toddlers simply went to the playground. Now parents sign them up for a "gym". Instead of being allowed to observe the physical world around them, kids now go to science camps. If a child likes to doodle, the parents will consider sending him for art classes. It's as if something is only of value if it's arranged in a structured or organised environment, preferably by professionals.

My friend didn't read the article but he uncannily echoed Schwarz's views when he told me that these days, kids' lives consist of a series of instructions by adults. They're told what to do, how to do it, when to do it (and in Singapore, it's almost always academic). They've never had to look after a younger sibling, find their own way home or solve any of life's little problems. If you're thinking, so what? then get this: according to him, these are also the kids who have the biggest problems academically in his school and tuition classes. He can usually tell who are the ones who've always had things handed to them on a silver platter because they've never learned how to think independently or laterally to solve a problem. Ironically, this ineptitude translates to their school work.

Schwarz quotes Robert Paul Smith, author of Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. - "A kid needs time to lie on his back, opportunity “to find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing” and to wonder who she’d be if her parents hadn’t gotten together. A kid needs enough downtime to be bored, yes — bored enough to stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball."

If I were to convert this into pragmatic suggestions, it means letting kids have some unstructured play time (computer games don't count). In addition, a little responsibility doesn't hurt. My friend is an advocate of letting kids handle some chores, even if it's as simple as getting their own lunch. Through responsibility, kids learn to solve life's daily problems.

Critics may say Schwarz's view is a tad idealistic, afterall, times have changed drastically. The world we live in today is vastly different from the slow pace of life back in the 1950s quoted in the article. But if we realise that childhood has intrinsic learning value in itself, then by removing this phase of the equation and treating children as miniature adults, we're actually doing them a disservice because we're handicapping them in fundamental skills.

As Schwarz says, "childhood is not just preparation for “real life,” it’s a good portion of life itself." We all want our kids to do well in life. Perhaps then we shouldn't deprive them of such an important chunk of it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Lion King in the Lion City

On Sunday, it was a family evening out to catch the new musical in town, the Lion King. Since it was also our first time at Marina Bay Sands, we decided to catch dinner there before the show and check out the place a little.

First impressions for dinner - this is a posh, upmarket place. Unless you want to go to the food court or you have cash to burn at the celebrity restaurants, there really is a dearth of choices for food. After surfing the internet, we made reservations at South Coast, an Aussie restaurant at the waterfront. What we didn't realise was that it had no air-conditioning. Not good if you're all dressed up for the theatre.

We sat at a large counter and ordered a couple of wagyu burgers, a pizza and Lesley-Anne had the macaroni and cheese. Halfway through Lesley-Anne's meal, she discovered a bug crawling in her mac and cheese. Ewww. I don't think it was originally there though, I suspect it dropped in midway. Another disadvantage of the open air concept. The waiter swiftly remade another portion for her.

Truthfully, the food was underwhelming and overpriced. The wagyu burger was nothing to shout about, neither was the pizza. The place was mostly patronised by ang mohs who notoriously love the al fresco idea even in crazily hot and humid Singapore. Somehow, I don't see this place being a hit with the locals. The Aussies are great in many ways but there's a reason they're not known in the culinary world.

After dinner, we explored Marina Bay Sands which I must admit, is pretty impressive. The skyline is picturesque, especially as the sun is setting.

A swirling water feature.

Inside the complex.

And then it was time for the show! The sets and costumes are excellent, the music will probably be familiar to most. I think I would have been more wowed if not for the fact that we were sitting up in the Himalayas, so even the majestic lion looked rather puny.

Nevertheless, my kids really enjoyed it and I think this show is an easy crowd-pleaser. Worth bringing your kids if they like the Disney cartoon version. Afterall, the show is only here for a limited time.

Friday, March 11, 2011

American Idol-ism

In case you're wondering if the title of this post is a metaphor for something, sorry, it's not. This post has nothing to do with kids or education. It really has to do with American Idol.

Two reasons: 1) I have nothing to say about on kids or education this week 2) I'm a big fan of American Idol. Linked to reason no.2 is that I have a lot of opinions about this season (every season actually) and if you know me by now, you will know I cannot keep these opinions to myself.

I don't have a clear favourite yet - I think this is one of those seasons where my preference will change as it progresses. Part of the reason for this is that there are so many great singers this season. I believe this is the best lineup they've had for a long time and I credit the new judges for this (although they've been way too nice and unconstructive since the contestants hit the big stage). In the past, I've felt that Simon strong armed his way to get certain contestants who he feel are "marketable" and that often means young and blonde, voice was secondary (*ahem Kellie Pickler*). With JLo and Steve Tyler, it's quite clear they picked based on vocal ability so kudos to them.

At the moment, my bugbear is how everyone seems to be fawning over Pia. I disliked this girl the moment she massacred "I'll Stand By You" last week. The song is a tender message from one to another, declaring she'll stand by her friend/loved one. The way Pia screeched it, the friend would have completely drowned in Pia's pool of self-absorption. Apart from the original singer Chrissie Hyndes, Carrie Underwood nailed it as an example of how the song should be sung.

And then this week, Pia did it again. Wrung all the emotion out of that Celine Dion song by shrieking it to high heaven. Man, she's annoying. Almost as annoying as Lauren calling Ryan Seacrest "Peaches". In one of the earlier seasons, Latoya London sang the heck out of "All By Myself". Also a diva with a big voice but with all the emotion.

For now, I like Casey, Paul (not so much this week) and James. What they have in common is they all have big personalities and they seem very comfortable in their own skins. We'll see what happens along the way.

And just for fun, Lilian and I had such a laugh matching the contestants, some of whom didn't make the top 13, to their look-a-likes. Ashthon = Beyonce, Casey = Will Ferrell, Jacob = Bubba (from Forrest Gump), Scotty = Alfred E. Neuman (from Mad Magazine), Stefano = Joey Tribiani (from Friends), Brett = Simply Red guy, Robbie = Adrien Brody, Jaycee = Fat Bieber. Who knew there were so many lost relations!

Who out there watches the show too? Share your favourites and dislikes with me!

Monday, March 7, 2011

3 memorable meals

Get ready for some gastronomic eye candy! Over the past few months, we've had some great dining experiences so I thought I'd summarise them all in one food post.

Memorable Meal #1:

It was Christmas time, and my sister and brother-in-law, being the wonderful people they are, treated us to lunch at Paulaner Brauhaus.

The highlight was the pork knuckle that Andre ordered. It's memorable partly because it's HUGE - just look at it! That must have been some pig. I had a tasting portion and I must say, it's possible the best pork knuckle I've eaten. Amazingly tender on the inside and crispy crackling on the outside.

Before you hyperventilate at the thought of this diminutive boy putting away such a gargantuan hunk of meat, let me assure you that he didn't finish it in that one sitting. He happily tar powed what was left and polished it off the next day.

Memorable Meal #2:

To celebrate my birthday, Kenneth brought me to the brand new Level 33 at the Marina Bay Sands Financial Centre. You might have guessed from the very unoriginal name that it's on the 33rd floor, with a panoramic view of entire city and Marina Bay area.

Currently, they're offering an executive set lunch at the very reasonable price of $33 (duh) which includes a mini appetiser and dessert buffet, with a main course. It's a terrific deal. The buffet portion doesn't have a wide selection but taste-wise, it was very satisfactory.

For the entree, Kenneth had the beer-battered fish and chips with mashed peas which is one of their best sellers.

Personally, I preferred my wagyu beef burger. Very tender and juicy, and I don't usually like thick chunks of meat. The accompanying truffle mayo was addictively tasty. If I could, I would bottle it and bring it home!

Level 33 also has its own micro brewery and Kenneth ordered a blond lager to go with his meal. According to the description, it has 4.5% alcohol, is smooth, full-bodied and slightly fruity. All of which means nothing to me since I don't drink but Kenneth says it's pretty good.

I would definitely love to go back except the parking sucks. The parking at the Financial Centre is almost always full so we had to park at the shopping side and walk over. And it's pricey too - 80cts per 10 minutes or something like that. It's probably easier to just take a train there.

Memorable Meal #3:

Finally, we had dinner with our good friends Isabelle and Joon a few weeks ago. It was a full fledged French dinner with foie gras, pan-fried escargot and confit de canard (duck).

It was a high caloric affair but oh, so worth it. Part of the attraction of visiting Isabelle and Joon is also their two gorgeous kids. Here's Andre playing Big Brother.

And that's really the best part of good food - being able to share it with warm and generous family and friends.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Badminton gold

It was a happy, happy Sunday for Andre when he finally won his first medal for badminton.

Admittedly, it was only a small scale competition organised by a community centre and the competition was not as stiff as say, the inter-school tournaments. But still, a medal is a medal and it was the gold medal to boot.

As you can tell from the picture, Andre is beyond ecstatic over the win. This definitely provided a booster shot to his confidence, hopefully it will spur him to train even harder.

Here's a snippet from his final match (can you see his magic red shoes?)

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