Monday, June 25, 2012

Book recommendations for action and fantasy loving kids

Recently, Andre showed interest in a couple of books, so I thought it would be timely to share the finds. My two recommendations today are book sets in the fantasy genre with lots of action.

The first recommendation is not much of a surprise, it's Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. Interestingly enough, I bought the first book for myself on a friend's recommendation, before the movie was released and before I'd heard all the hype. The book got me so hooked I went out and bought the entire box set from Popular. This is an exceptional series. I say this because it is the first series of books where every member of my family actually read and enjoyed. That's right - Kenneth, Lesley-Anne, Andre and me! Talk about value for money.

I don't know how Collins did it but she writes in such a way that's simple enough for a child of 11 to understand yet sophisticated enough to engage adults. The themes are also pretty gender-neutral. Just a quick blurb, the Hunger Games is set in a hostile land where every year, 24 children have to fight to the death in a terrifying live event that's televised to the citizens. Only the winner survives. The protagonist is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the games.

We never caught the movie. In my experience, movie adaptations seldom live up to the magnificence of the book which can better capture every thought and nuance. The book is fast-paced and there's non-stop action which is great for Andre. He loved it even more than the Percy Jackson series. I'd never seen him so engrossed in a book that he chose to read it over computer time. If that's not incentive for all you parents with reading-averse kids, I don't know what is!

The second series, which Andre is currently reading, is Maximum Ride by James Patterson. It chronicles the lives of six fugitive children known as the Flock, who underwent scientific experiments that made them 98% human and 2% avian. The main character is 14-year-old Maximum "Max" Ride (another female protagonist!), leader of the Flock.

There are seven books altogether, divided into two sections: The Fugitives (books 1–3) and The Protectors (books 4–7). Andre started reading this series upon the recommendation of Lesley-Anne who enjoyed it tremendously at p6. The storyline is compelling enough to hook his interest. However, from book 4 onwards, I understand the writer started focusing on the love story between Max and Fang (another member of the Flock), which put Lesley-Anne off. If you're not keen on your pre-teen reading love stories, then stop at book 3.

I understand that Maximum Ride will also be adapted into a movie, to be released next year.

I would estimate the reading level of both these series as suitable for age 11 onwards, although the themes are probably targeted at teenagers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Of Kids and Education is on Facebook!

Ever so often, I would receive friend requests on Facebook by readers of this blog. However, since I prefer to keep my Facebook friends to people I actually know, I usually don't accept those requests.

Nevertheless, I do want to connect with my readers and fans and the blog platform is a little limited since they can only do so via the comments. Many readers, especially those too shy to comment, have thus remained faceless to me, which isn't ideal. I would love this to be a two-way street. So what I've done is to set up a community page for this blog on Facebook. It's something I guess I should have done a long time ago but just never got around to it.

The thought is that it will be a place where my readers can share their views on education and kids in general, and also interact with me and other like-minded parents, hence the name "Community". It's also there that I will post updates on this blog and any other random thoughts, Facebook-style.

I hope you will support me in this. Just click on the "Like" button on the top right hand corner of this page and visit the FB page to join in the community. See you there!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chope... akan datang

This is not a post. This is an advertisement of sorts to let you know not to expect another post here at least until the school holidays are over.


1) It's the school holidays. My engine automatically screeches to a halt (as all mums of school-going children know, our circadian rhythm coincides with that of our kids). Often, my body is up at 9am but the brain doesn't cotton on till noon.

2) I was supposed to be updating my Travel Blog on our family trip to Darwin. For some reason, it's taking me longer to write about this 5-day trip than our three-times-as-long New Zealand trip last year. Bear with me and keep checking back there, I promise it will get done eventually.

3) In my defence, I did write a pretty long post before this - a substantial one talking about the education system and everything. I figure that justifies me to a two-week or so reprieve.

So, enjoy the break and I'll be right back.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Education stress - whose fault?

In a recent media interview, Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat told parents that they had to accept new methods of teaching to prepare children for the future.

Rightly or wrongly, I was disappointed. Not because I don't agree with him but because it would appear that he missed the point. I don't think parents are anxious so much about the new methods as the fact that we seem to be constantly chasing an upwardly moving (and evolving) target. Stress over new methods is simply a symptom.

Incidentally, I thought it was funny that he used algebra vs the MOE method of maths models as an example of old (bad) vs new (good). I'm a big proponent of maths models myself but come on, it's essentially two different methods to solve the SAME problems. We're not actually teaching our kids how to solve new problems so I don't see how it better prepares them for the future. And by the way, someone should tell him that maths in secondary school reverts to algebra. Nobody touches maths models after p6. So much for continuity.

What I was disappointed with was that instead of addressing parents' anxiety, he seems to put the blame squarely on parents.

After I wrote my letter to him last year, I received some comments saying that parents are at fault too for being kiasu and myopic. I've never denied that. I've always maintained that our society does not exist in a vacuum and there are usually many contributing factors to any breakdown in a system. So I will now state categorically that I believe parents are at fault too.

In an interview for a Dan Rathers tv documentary, I was asked why Singapore parents are so involved in their kids' education, I told them it's a cultural legacy. If there's a common thread among Asian parents, it's our focus on education. Truth is, we all have some degree of the Tiger Mum syndrome. Some parents might protest, not true! I'm not one of those kiasu ones! I would like a less stressful system so my kids can enjoy their childhood and not mug all the time.

But from speaking to many parents, I know that most of us still want our kids to do well in school and by well, I mean just that little bit better than others. Most of the time, parents are stressed because they feel their kids are not keeping up with others. Ask yourself how often you've grilled your kid on how his other classmates did. I'll use my own example - when Andre gets 68 for a maths exam, if I find out that the class average was 50, I breathe easy. If the class average was 80, however, I go into panic mode.

It's no coincidence that the most academically competitive countries are Asian - China, India, Japan, South Korea and you can add Singapore. Asian countries also typically ace international maths and science tests, practically sweeping the top 5 in the TIMSS 2007 maths test and science test. The results don't even include China which didn't participate in the test.

Asian parents focus on academics no matter where they are. In Western countries, the Asian geek stereotype with parents who scorn any grade lower than an A didn't come about by accident. Asian parents just push academics harder. We can't help it, it's in our blood.

I know quite a few parents who are living overseas and tell me oh, it's so relaxed there and that's how education should be, about discovery. See, we're not kiasu. Here's what I think: sure, it's partly because the Singapore system drives kiasu behaviour, but maybe it's also because in the Western countries, it doesn't take that much effort for their kids to score well. It's certainly not because Western kids have lower IQs, it's just that they simply don't care as much about grades as we do so they don't put in as much effort.

Asian kids routinely top the honour rolls and sweep the academic medals overseas, sometimes without that much extra effort (I'm comparing to Singapore). It could be just a little parental coaching at home. If our kids can perform well, of course we can relax and not ply them with assessment books or tuition!

Whereas in Singapore, EVERYONE cares about grades. So it's a big fat competition and when our kids come home doing worse than others, we feel pressurised to do something about it. Hence, tuition. Assessment books. More tuition. Yes, even the parents who say they don't want to join in the ratrace. The very same "relaxed" parents overseas when they return, start piling their kids with assessment books and enrichment classes. So my suspicion is, when parents say they don't want a tuition society, what they mean is they don't want others to go for tuition so theirs can go for less tuition.

I personally know parents who publicly denounce the system, complain about the elitism of the system, and then quietly try to pull strings or beat the system to get their kids into branded schools (while sending their kids for tuition in all subjects).

Gasp. Am I actually agreeing with Heng Swee Keat that the brouhaha about the education system is indeed, all parents' fault?

Not exactly.

I find that our system, along with most Asian systems, is bad for kids because it exacerbates the competitiveness for reasons not related to education. Historically, our system has been a pragmatic one, stemming from our need for economic survival and it would seem that MOE is unable to relinquish this crutch.

My guess is, the Singapore education system is about identifying the top 1% for future leadership roles and training the remaining 99% to be hamsters to run the economic wheel. That's why the traditional focus on hard skills like maths, science, engineering and economics. Even when we claim to embrace sports and the arts, there is still a pragmatic angle to it - show us the medals.

The system used to work one, two generations ago when getting a steady job was the key consideration of many Singaporeans but today, nobody wants to be a hamster. We all want our kids to be the top 1%, hence the cramming and the scrambling. The few brave souls who initially refuse to be caught up in the hamster race find themselves at the bottom of the ladder and quickly realise that it's not such a fun position to be in. Inadvertently, they succumb to pressure and join in the race.

If our educational goals are really to identify talent and train individuals for industry, while raising standards so we can sell the system to our foreign counterparts, then no wonder our education system is the way it is. The excessive emphasis on exams, the long school hours to perfect exam skills, the setting of ridiculously complex questions and the constant haranguing of kids for not keeping up. I've always felt that my kids go to school not to learn but to perform. I've mentioned this before - education in Singapore is treated like a business entity.

Some schools still reveal class and level positions, causing those at the bottom to go into a frenzy to claw their way up. Many schools stream the kids every year from p3 into classes according to how well they performed the year before. The PSLE is scored based on your comparative position - it's not about how well you do but how well you do in relation to others. Our system encourages competition, not collaboration.

And why not? If the objective is to identify talents and boost standards, then it's in MOE's interest to ensure that parents continue to shoulder the responsibility of raising their kids' capabilities via tuition, assessment books, etc. It passes on part of the burden of education from the state to parents.

I've often spoken about Lesley-Anne's difficulty with maths. She's in sec 3 now and her maths teacher starts a new topic every couple of weeks. He goes so quickly that she can't keep up and she can't understand his method of teaching. When the class doesn't perform to his standards for the exam, he scolds them for not revising. Mind you, this is an SGBE class of extremely dedicated students who live to do well in school.

For the SA1, Lesley-Anne had spent almost as much time studying for this one subject of maths as her other subjects put together. Yet, she flunked her A maths exam miserably. On her paper, her teacher wrote, "REVISE YOUR WORK!" Bo pian, I got her a tutor. After looking at what she was learning, the tutor said she was learning stuff that's taught in A level maths. Lesley-Anne asked, "what on earth do they teach at A levels?" He replied, "oh they include some Further Maths."

Crazy, I tell you, crazy. She's forced to take up an advanced subject that she clearly has neither interest nor aptitude in (A maths is compulsory in her school), and to add to that, it's accelerated. What is the point of this? Why are we obsessed with knowing MORE of everything NOW? I'll tell you why. It's so that at A levels, the kids would have learned more than they need to know to ace the exams and the JC can claim their 80% distinctions. It's also why the school encourages all the kids to take Maths at A levels. They're openly told: "You should take it, it's easy to score."

When we went for the Parent-Teacher Conference, Lesley-Anne's form teacher looked at her report book - Distinctions for English, Literature and Integrated Humanities - and said, it's very clear where her strengths lie. Then she showed us the failing mark for A maths with concern. We shrugged and said "It's ok. We knew she was never going to be a mathemetician."

At some point, we need to stand our ground and realise that we are the ones who have our kids' best interest at heart, not the system. As Ken Robinson said years ago in his epic Ted talk and in this interview with Guardian, schools kill creativity because they're primarily there to meet the needs of industrialisation, not, surprise surprise, the needs of your child.

Our system evaluates each child according to a set of narrow academic scores and if we do not prevent our kids from internalising this flawed assessment of themselves, we run the danger of grooming individuals with either a misplaced superiority complex or deep-seated insecurities.

I usually like to remain hopeful but in Singapore's case, I get the impression that MOE thinks the system is generally working fine. And let's face it, if they think it ain't broke, they ain't gonna fix it.

So in the end, it's still up to us parents to make the difference. Accept the inevitable that while your kids are in the system, they will have to roll with the punches. Just be there to create as much balance as possible and know that you can have a more profound influence on your child than any school or system.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Down under for a little R&R

We've just returned from a short holiday in Darwin, Australia, so will be posting our pictures and adventures on my travel blog for a while.

Lesley-Anne has been showing an interest in photography recently so for this trip, she brought along my sister's old hybrid camera to experiment, after poring over the Internet on apertures and shutter speeds. These are some of the pictures she took and while she still has a long way to go, I do think they show potential.

We might just invest in a newer hybrid or a DSLR for her. Photography is such a lovely hobby.

Meanwhile, you're invited to share in our trip. I'll be posting over the next few days so keep checking my travel blog!
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