Monday, September 24, 2012

Timeless - an evening of dance

During the June holidays, the dance studio where Lesley-Anne learns ballet put on a concert. This event is organised once every three years and is a great platform for the students to showcase their talents.

At the last concert in 2009, Lesley-Anne was only in Grade 4 so her dance was a lot simpler. (She looked so cutesy then! Sigh...) Now at Grade 6 going on Grade 7, the choreography for her class incorporates much more sophisticated dance moves.
Have you ever seen black ballet shoes? They're utterly cool.

She participated in two dances in the Timeless concert. The first was a combined jazz number with the Grade 7s and I loved it. Svelte black tights and top hats to Michael Buble's Fever.

Here's a video of that number.  Lesley-Anne is the second to enter from the left after the opening chair sequence.

Lesley-Anne's Grade 6 class also performed another dance, a Chinese one. I didn't like this one as much but I guess it was to showcase the diversity of dances.

There's just something so aesthetically melodious about dance, and letting Lesley-Anne learn ballet was one of the most satisfying decisions we've ever made.  Dance provides her with an outlet for her latent physical expression needs and is the perfect foil to her otherwise lun-zhun nature (unfortunate genetic inheritance from moi).

She loves ballet so much so she's going to continue till she finishes her Grade 8 exam. In fact, she's considering taking up dance as a CCA in JC. More opportunities for performance? That would be awesome.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Steering the education mothership

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat made a speech on the upcoming changes to the education system last week and there were many things in it that made me go "YES!" You can read the full speech here, it's much more comprehensive than in the media reports.

He touched on many points but here are a few that particularly resonated with me:

1) School banding will be abolished with immediate effect (paras 55-56) - YES

For those who don't know, secondary schools used to be banded from 1 to 9 based on their O level results and these figures are published. Although banding was purely by academic results, it gave the impression to parents that the higher the band, the better the school. Following that logic, band 9 schools then must be really terrible, which isn't a fair assessment. By scrapping school banding, MOE is signalling that schools should not be assessed narrowly by academic grades.

Some people people are saying that MOE should then scrap the Cut-Off Point (COP) for each secondary school as well, if we want to eliminate this academic ranking of schools. I don't see how this is possible. P6 students need to see what see what schools they are eligible for based on their PSLE results, so the indicative COP of each school still serves a purpose.

2) School Excellence Award and other similar awards will be scrapped (paras 57-64) - YES

I think the biggest damage to the school system was done when some HR or management idiots decided that it would be a good idea to turn schools into mini factories, by implementing all sorts of accreditation schemes and their accompanying KPIs. Whoever thought you could measure how good a school was with a checklist of ticks and a best practices award should be slapped silly and made to stand in the corner.

Say it with me: education is NOT a business. We saw the effects - teachers had their focus shifted from teaching to administration, principals from running the school to chasing awards. By all means, encourage best practices. But ditch those darn awards.

3) Schools and exams should not be run based on the assumption that students have external tuition (paras 119-123) - YES YES YES

I am so tired of my kids coming home with questions on their exam papers that they haven't been taught how to do. This just creates so much anxiety among parents and exacerbates the tuition culture. Incidentally, briefly running through a method once or twice does NOT constitute teaching. Teaching means going through something extensively enough until most of the students in the class can understand and apply it.

I was so excited to read this para that I had to highlight it:
"MOE can do our part not to contribute to the need for tuition. Our schools and our examinations must not be run on the basis that students will have tuition. Some parents complain that our teachers tell the students to seek answers from their tuition teachers. If this is true, we must put a stop to it."
Why was I so thrilled? Because this is the very first time I've heard MOE acknowledge that they have a part to play in curbing the tuition culture. May not seem like much to some but for me, it's a big step forward. As I've written previously, I've always felt that when the national body for education does not speak out against certain unhealthy practices occurring in the tuition industry, this indirectly encourages the practice to flourish. It's not about legislation or regulation. It's about influencing public mindset through endorsement or rejection.

For too long, MOE has remained silent on the issue of tuition, so going for indiscriminate tuition, whether there is an actual need or not, has become de rigueur, even a badge of honour (especially going to high end tuition centres). By publicly denouncing such practices, they are reducing the positive attachments, hopefully causing parents to give pause before embarking on such a practice. Tuition centres will also think twice before taking out full page advertisements trumpeting the names of their top students.

Of course there will always be kiasu parents who will not change their ways, come hell or high water. But we have to stop rewarding their behaviour and it's about time we held up the non-kiasu parents as the ones to emulate and support.

I don't know about you but I was very heartened by this speech. Minister Heng seems to understand the depth of the challenges involved and addressed issues that would block the path on which he's trying to steer this mammoth education mothership. I like that he didn't just glibly promise changes to score brownie points with parents. In fact, he didn't mince words when asserting the rights of teachers over unreasonable parents. I'm so over politicians trying to be politically correct - let's just say it as it is.

Some issues are impossible to solve overnight and declaring instant measures would simply be irresponsible. For example, I know many people are calling for the PSLE to be abolished. I, for one, agree there's no need to subject 12-year-olds to this stressful and largely meaningless exam.

However, it's easier said than done. Suka suka abolish one meh? Off the top of my head, I can instantly think of several repercussions this might cause. What if you abolish PSLE and suddenly, 70% of the p6 kids decide they want to study at schools like RGS and RI (because they don't believe the MOE slogan "Every School a Good School")? So who gets in? Ballot ah? Unfair (not to mention chaotic). Proximity to school? Wah, watch property prices in Bukit Timah and Bishan skyrocket. What's likely to happen is popular schools will hold their own entrance exams. Tuition centres will offer prep courses. Enterprising individuals will hawk top school entrance exam papers. Cramming. Tuition. Sounds familiar? It's PSLE 2.0.

Some people say get rid of the PSLE and revert to a 10-year through train education from p1. In principle, I agree with this but this is feasible only if you're designing an education system from scratch. With current schools in place, how to execute? How do we decide which primary school should be linked to which secondary school? For example, if MOE decides that Tanjong Katong Primary School students will now move directly to Dunman High and there's a mad surge in admissions to the former, then how? The bottleneck will be shifted downwards from sec 1 to p1. As if there isn't already enough stress over p1 registration.

In short, there are no simple solutions and anyone who suggests otherwise is being naive. I'm glad MOE is taking it step by step rather than announcing big, grand schemes that have not been properly thought through. One of my biggest bugbears of gahmen policies is that they are sometimes implemented as if they exist in isolation. More often than not, one gahmen policy will impact on something else, sometimes an area not under the purview of the same Ministry *cough immigrationandhousing*.

My gut feel is that MOE is considering eliminating PSLE but they're looking at the issue from all angles to see if there is a painless way of killing this sacred cow (insert all the Mr Brown sacred cow jokes).

Disclaimer: I don't have connections with any MOE officials or hear anything from the grapevine, so don't bet on it! This is pure guesswork on my part.

At the end of the day, execution is key. What I found encouraging about the speech was the direction MOE seems to be taking, towards a more holistic, less competitive and academic-focused type of education. Some people remain critical but I don't see how constantly pouring cold water on efforts or declaring "you just watch, nothing will happen!" is helpful. Even if you're right, how is that constructive? There's a world of difference between being smart and being a smart-ass.

I know these are just baby steps but instead of saving my happiness for the improbable time when the glass is totally full, I prefer to be thankful for small victories.

We're not there yet, that much is for sure. But at least we're that bit closer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Run-up to PSLE

The one-week school holidays just ended but if you ask Andre about it, he's likely to answer, "what school holidays??"

Can't blame him, really. He's had to attend supplementary classes in school for three days in addition to finishing the homework teachers have dished out. It's the final stretch to the PSLE (slightly over two weeks to the first paper, 5 days to the listening comprehension exams) and the school has been going at it in full force.

At home, I had a sudden surge of panic when we realised how close the PSLE was. I know there are parents who plan for this momentous event months in advance... we're not those parents. We're the "oh we still have time let's get some ice cream and have a movie night OMG PSLE IS IN 30 DAYS!!" kind of parents. And we wonder where our kids got their habit of procrastination from.

It's not that Andre hasn't been doing any revision. But while he has been ploughing through his fair share of exam papers, it's definitely not at the intensity of some other kids. In fact, when I compare what he has been doing with Lesley-Anne during her PSLE preparations three years ago, his is undoubtedly more relaxed. Back then, Lesley-Anne was doing as many as four exam papers (one for each subject) every day, in the run-up to PSLE. Whereas for Andre, I only recently started making him do one paper, at most one-and-a-half, a day.

Why the double standard? Perhaps one reason is that I got lazy. And tired. Hey, setting papers means somebody has to mark them and go through the mistakes. Guess who that lucky somebody is.

However, I also like to think that I'm tailoring the pace to each child's capacity. Lesley-Anne's tolerance level for gruelling, repetitive seatwork is way higher than Andre's. It has less to do with ability than personality.

I think we need to realise that even for something like revision, it's different strokes for different folks. Sure, practice makes perfect but for an active child like Andre, if I were to coerce him into spending hours at his desk doing paper after paper, I suspect at some point, diminishing returns would take place, ie instead of performing better, he would actually be so mentally drained that he would make more mistakes. Worst case scenario? Burn out.

So what I've been doing instead is making him do revision in short bursts of time, usually an hour at a go. In between these revision periods, he goes outside to get his daily dose of exercise - anything from badminton and basketball to swimming and table tennis, even mini ping pong!

Exercise clears his mind, helps him release his pent-up energy and gets him refreshed for more studying. And yes, he still watches tv daily although he has voluntarily given up computer games till after the exams.

I don't know if this is the best way of handling PSLE preparations, I just go on my gut feel. But for this past month (after the aforementioned panic attack), I've sort of adopted a que sera sera attitude and I thought I would write this note of encouragement to my friends and readers with PSLE kids this year.

You see, I figure that since I've been praying for a miraculous surge of scholarly brilliance in Andre for the past few years and it has yet to happen, it's unlikely to occur within the next three weeks.

Too often, we give ourselves ulcers over things that we can do absolutely nothing about (I'm extremely guilty of this). We can only do what we think is right and trust that God knows best. He really does. For now, we can barely look past the dreaded exams whereas God has already planned our children's entire education journey, their career path, every step to their last days on earth. Funny how relinquishing control to God is often the hardest thing to do, yet it is also the easiest.

I'm just thankful that Andre has shown a remarkably good attitude towards his revisions, and that he still eats well and sleeps well. Beyond that, we're leaving the rest to God.

"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" - Jeremiah 29:11

Monday, September 3, 2012

Brothers and sisters

During the week of the PSLE oral exams, Lesley-Anne had an event that kept her late in school everyday. By the time she reached home, it would be way past Andre's bedtime, so the two of them hardly saw each other.

The night before Andre's oral exam, Lesley-Anne called home from school at 8.45pm and asked to speak to him. She gave him some tips, assured him that he would be fine and said that she was praying for him. After the call, I could tell that Andre was very comforted and much more at ease.

I thought it was a lovely gesture. Lesley-Anne is definitely a better big sister than I ever was and it reflected the close relationship between the siblings. When Lesley-Anne went on a one-week OBS trip earlier this year, Andre moped around like a lost puppy and was terribly upset if he missed her call at night.

There's just something very special about sibling relationships. There are few people you will count on more or share the most private secrets with than a close sibling. With my kids, I made a conscious decision very early on that I would try and help them achieve this bond. It doesn't come naturally (in fact, sibling rivalry is probably more intuitive), it's a deliberate effort. I won't pretend to be an expert but common sense tells me that there are a few things you can do, like treat all your kids fairly, praise them for efforts to help each other and never pit one against another.

One of the statements I made a point of never telling Lesley-Anne is, "Give in to him, he's younger." I used to resent that as a child, I had to give in to my younger sister simply based on something as random as birth order and it created a lot of disharmony (happily, my sister and I are great friends now). Likewise, don't tell your younger child something like, "Korkor gets to choose first because he's older." Where's the logic in that? Much better to say, "This time he gets to choose first, next time is your turn." For most kids, fairness is very important.

Don't be misled into thinking that my kids never fight. Of course they do, I've not met any siblings who don't. Some of their arguments get so heated that they degenerate into physical brawls. I have learned to tune out the "Mummy, she hit me!" "No, he hit me first!" allegations. My philosophy is, if you start the fight, you end it. Don't involve me. If you do, there's a likelihood that everybody will get punished for disrupting my computer time.

Fights between the two of them are inevitable, considering they're so different in almost every way possible. However, I have come to realise that their differences are a blessing in disguise as they actually reduce sibling rivalry. If you notice, sibling rivalry tends to be strongest among same-sex children close in age with similar preferences or abilities. It's natural cos it's you tend to compare kids who are similar. And as parenting book author Elizabeth Fishel said, "Comparison is a death knell to sibling harmony."

Basically, we need to show our kids that we love each of them equally for who they are and accept that every child has his or her own talents. Correct mistakes without making them feel like they don't match up to a sibling. When kids feel secure and unthreatened by others, they will naturally be more open to sharing their space and more willing to celebrate their siblings' successes.

We tell our kids to support each other in their endeavours and we follow this up by bringing Andre to Lesley-Anne's concerts, and Lesley-Anne to Andre's badminton matches. They cheer each other on and are genuinely happy for the other person's achievements.

If you want more tips on how to promote sibling affection, there are many online articles available. Here's one (the first article in the link) which I quite like - it's succinct and practical.

"There is a little boy inside the man who is my brother... Oh, how I hated that little boy. And how I love him too." - Anna Quindlan

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