Saturday, January 28, 2012

Walking The Line

I know I've been a laggard in blogging. Sorry lah, it's CNY and my entire system has been in lockdown mode.

This CNY has been such a whirlwind affair, we've hardly begun to celebrate before it's over. To add to the excitement, Lesley-Anne came down with an unfortunate bout of food poisoning on CNY eve (which led to a 2am visit to a 24-hour doc for an anti-vomiting jab). Her new clothes and shoes remained untouched while she spent the two days of CNY in bed, eating porridge and ham sandwiches.

Incidentally, Lesley-Anne's Chinese zodiac fortune for this year read "The Water Dragon will be unfriendly to you." You don't say.

Anyway, she's feeling much better now and she had a chance to catch up on the feasting when my sister treated us to lunch at Shangri-la's celebrated buffet, The Line.

We're not frequent patrons of buffets as we don't have insatiable appetites, but it was a real treat. The Line is known for its spectacular spread - there's a Chinese, Indian, Western, Italian and Japanese selection, on top of the cold appetisers and of course, the impressive array of desserts.

We didn't sample all the stations. We simply zoomed in on our favourites, like the cold seafood. Crab claws, succulent prawns, raw oysters, mussels.

And sashimi, of course! As much salmon belly as you can eat.

The food was very fresh. We had too many helpings to count but the crowning glory has to be the dessert. This is one seriously awesome spread - makes you wish you were a cow just so you can have four stomachs!

Andre tackling the chocolate fountain.

Before conquering the ice-cream station. He had mango sorbet and raspberry sorbet with chocolate sprinkles, rainbow sprinkles, chocolate chips and gummy worms. I call it the hyperactive drive concoction.

Topping it all up with a foamy cup of cappuccino.

Kopi tarik and teh tarik for husband and wife.

Eating at the Shang is really very pleasant. It's surrounded by green and as we discovered, even the squirrels have acquired a taste for fine dining. We actually saw a couple run up and down the tables outside, foraging for leftovers.

Just a by the way but there's a chocolate carving of two dragons in the Shang lobby which I thought was mighty impressive.

Me and my fabulous sister!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Festive feasting

We've been celebrating lots of 'firsts' in our new home and here's another - our first Chinese New Year.

It's always exciting to dress up a new home and this year, we've decided to go green. The red flowers are coxcombs, we bought them just because they looked so festive.

But more than just a new location, this CNY is different because my mother-in-law is living with us, meaning we get to see the CNY goodies being made (as opposed to previous years where we merely ate them, lol).

While we still buy most of the goodies, there are a few that my mil will faithfully make every year. Don't even think about asking her to buy them instead as none will be able to live up to her standards. Mind you, I'm not complaining!

Here she is, stirring the jelly. This jelly is a lot more work than the regular kind. Besides making the mixture, it needs to be sunned for several days to give it that crunchy texture.

Home-made pineapple tarts. If you've tried these, you'll never go back to the gummy, commercial ones.

Besides snacks, my mil also prepares specialty CNY foods, like these yam coins which will be pan fried with mushrooms during CNY.

But my favourite, hands down, is the carrot and pumpkin kueh. For the carrot kueh, radishes are grated...

... and then fried with meat and mushrooms.

These are then mixed with flour and put into large vats (these are the carrot kueh) and steamed.

Come CNY, the kueh will be sliced thinly and fried till crisp, then eaten with sweet sauce. This is our typical CNY breakfast and I love, love, love it, the pumpkin especially.

Andre's school badminton tournaments will take place just after CNY (who's crappy idea was that?) and the coach is already warning all the players to stay away from bak kua, soft drinks and prawn rolls.

I think she's fighting a losing battle. She needs to resign herself to the fact that she's gonna have a sluggish team on her hands. I've seen the kids - they love their food more than they love badminton.

Well, I reckon the little dragons are entitled to usher in their year with some festive feasting. Happy New Year, everyone and may the Dragon charge into your life bringing cheer and blessings!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lit my fire

Last year, when Lesley-Anne attended a school briefing on sec 3 subject combinations. the teacher made it quite clear that she expected the SBGE (school-based gifted education) kids to either go for the special programmes or the triple science option.

Defying the recommendation, Lesley-Anne chose the literature and double science combination. To the teacher, she's probably not living up to her potential. She also told me she has friends who prefer the humanities but are being forced by their parents to go into triple science because it's more prestigious.

Deja vu. I faced the same scenario when I opted out of triple science to go into the arts class at sec 3. It's astonishing how some attitudes haven't changed in 30 years.

What I'm going to say next may offend the math/science folks. If you're a math/science person, don't kill me. I know it's a generalisation and doesn't apply to everyone. But back in my undergraduate years at NUS, I found the arts folks to be more interesting people and have a broader mindset than those from science or engineering. Towards the end of last year, Lesley-Anne started complaining that some of her classmates (the majority of whom are math and science-oriented) are very dull and narrow-minded. In contrast, she finds her humanities class this year vibrant and outgoing.

I don't think it's a coincidence. Kids who tend to think in black-and-white will veer towards the sciences because they prefer to learn things that are more tangible. They are uncomfortable with the humanities because they find security only in subjects that they can mug for or have fixed solutions.

The humanities, literature especially, are much more open to interpretation. If you're unable to form your own opinion or are used to having someone tell you what is the right or wrong answer, I can see why this will be difficult. Unfortunately, it is these kids who shun the humanities that will most benefit from it.

Of course lit is not perfect. The thing about lit is that it's so open-ended that sometimes, I think we take too many liberties with it. Students and teachers tend to get a little carried away, reading too much into texts. Afterall, who's to say they're wrong? And you're graded based on how much you say.

Lesley-Anne and I often joke about this. Eg:

Passage: "The curtains were blue."
Student's interpretation: "The author was melancholic."
Teacher's interpretation: "The author was reminded of the sea, where he used to live, and he was melancholic."
Author's intended meaning: "The curtains were blue."

Nevertheless, it's heaps of fun and I honestly believe that the humanities groom individuals who are more creative and more able to think for themselves. Lesley-Anne has had a great start to the year and is enjoying herself tremendously. She came home one day and said, "I have back-to-back periods of language arts and lit. Heaven!" I can imagine it's probably some kids' idea of hell.

True learning is not just about amassing facts or applying data. Math and science have their place, but so do the humanities, and the latter is definitely not the "inferior" option. Hopefully it won't take another 30 years for Singaporeans to understand this.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Teaching that inspires

Before the school holidays ended, we made time for a family movie night. The chosen flick was Mr Holland's Opus. Set from 1965-1995, it's about Glenn Holland, a professional musician who starts teaching music at a local high school thinking it would give him time to compose his own music.

Initially, he is unable to make any inroads in teaching but over time, grows to become an adept teacher. The story also outlines his struggles coming to terms with having a deaf son. After 30 years of teaching, the music programme at the school is cancelled, putting Mr Holland out of a job and leaving him wondering if he had wasted his life.

There are several reasons why I love this movie. One, Mr Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is portrayed as not your typical, idealistic individual but a very real, down to earth teacher with human failings that anyone can identify with.

Second, I like that Mr Holland is a music teacher. Just like in Singapore, music and other "soft" subjects are considered non essential in the US and this comes through in the movie. I love this quote towards the end of the movie, when the Vice-Principal broke the news to Mr Holland that the music programme was being canned:
VP: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I'm forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.

Mr Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren't going to have anything to read or write about.
It's inspiring without being saccharine and overly dramatic, like many American attempt-to-feel-good movies.

Maybe I love it so much because it has so many parallels in real life. When Mr Holland started out as a teacher, it was simply out of necessity and he left the kids cold. It was only when he grew to love teaching and his students that he touched so many of them.

I've discovered that the best teachers are often not the ones who know the best methods. Andre has had teachers who no doubt, know how to teach. But some of them have completely turned him off lessons because they teach with the impersonal indifference of someone merely executing a task.

Kids are very perceptive. They know who are the teachers who care and who are the ones who don't give a damn. (Andre's friend had a math teacher who openly declared to the class after a frustrating session, "I don't care if you understand this, I still get paid.")

That's why I'm totally against those who go into teaching purely to chase a career path. Teaching is a calling, much like nursing. If you're annoyed by kids, you'll quickly find them a burden in your life and these kids will be left uninspired and unimpressed.

Schools may be surprised to know this but it's also not about how strict the teachers are. I've consistently found that the best-loved teachers, some of whom are the fiercest human beings around, are the ones who have a heart for the kids and truly want the kids to do well. The ones who love the kids they teach will find ways to motivate them to do better. The ones who don't, well, even with the best techniques, will leave the children disinterested. It's time we realise that learning is less about methods and more about attitudes.

This year, both Lesley-Anne and Andre have been assigned excellent teachers, for which I'm deeply thankful. In fact, when Lesley-Anne heard the names of Andre's teachers, she went, "wah, strike lottery!"

Indeed, getting good teachers is like striking lottery, since every school, no matter how good, will have its fair share of good and not-so-good teachers. I can think of few things in our children's school life as important as the quality of teachers. It is infinitely more important than the brand of the school or the range of its facilities.

So, back to Mr Holland's Opus. Do watch it, if you haven't already, for a dose of heart-warming inspiration. If I were the NIE, I would make all teachers-to-be watch this movie. In the end, it's not the grand gestures of teachers, just everyday little ones, that make a lasting impression.
"What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches." ~Karl Menninger
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