Monday, December 30, 2013

Yuletide blessings

For many folks, the end of year marks a season of parties and extreme feasting and we are no exception. Christmas tree, sparkling decor, loads of presents and our home was ready. We even had a special visitor this year - Danger Dan!

Then there's the food! Just in anticipation, we try to cut down the day before a party and do a little more exercise. But it's all in vain. No amount of jumping jacks done as an afterthought can withstand the massive onslaught of turkey, ham, etc etc etc. I'm quite certain just thinking about Christmas food makes me move up one waist size. Time to switch to elastic pants.

Plus cake. Always lots of cake. And almost always chocolate. I'm telling you, those feeble situps don't stand a chance. Your brain sends an image of the dessert to your abs which, seeing the futility, surrenders and sags instantaneously.  

But most of all, Christmas is really about the company we keep. Sharing meals with loved ones, especially those we don't get to meet as often as we like - that is what makes the occasion.

Food, family and friends - God has provided for us abundantly over the past year. Hope you had an equally fabulous Christmas season and here's wishing all of you showers of blessings for 2014!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Braces off!

Almost a year ago on 31 December 2012, Andre had braces fitted because his top front teeth jutted out at an angle that affected his jaw growth. This meant that he often went around with his mouth slightly open because the overbite was so severe. Here's a picture of him a year ago.

Due to certain circumstances, we ended up with a different orthodontist for Andre than Lesley-Anne. This orthodontist is pretty pricey and we wouldn't have gone to her if not for the fact that Kenneth knew her and she gave us a discount. Even so, the bills sometimes made us feel faint! I'm pretty sure we paid for the ornamental fish tank and other furniture in the clinic. :o

We expected the braces to be on for at least two years, since that was the case with Lesley-Anne. However, this orthodontist is some miracle worker because yesterday, Andre's braces were ready to come off! Just under a year! I thought this was pretty much unheard of. So maybe, you do get what you pay for afterall.

We're terribly pleased with the results. His teeth sit so nicely now and the gaps from the extractions have completely closed up. As for Andre, he's just glad that there will be no more tightening and no more bouts of porridge and fish soup!

A mega-watt smile for Christmas :)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Danger Dan hogs the limelight at Crystal Jade My Bread!

In September this year, I was invited to a media dinner to review Crystal Jade Steamboat Restaurant. I thought it would be a one-time thing but the lovely folks at Crystal Jade asked me back again! This time, it was for a media event to showcase Crystal Jade My Bread's Christmas offerings.

To make it even more interesting, I was invited not just as a blogger but as the author of the upcoming Danger Dan book series. That meant Lesley-Anne was also invited and of course, Danger Dan himself!

For the festive season, Crystal Jade My Bread offers a comprehensive takeaway menu which ranges from nibblets to complete party packages. Everything from turkey and ham to log cakes and cupcakes. Here are mini pizzas and mushroom vol-au-vents.

Mini egg and bacon bread rolls (background), fish and pork stick in Thai style (foreground).

Since both Lesley-Anne and I are camera shy, having Danger Dan as a guest is GREAT because he loves being the centre of attention (and trust me, he was! People were staring.)  We made him photobomb everything and it was super fun!

We also got to decorate our very own snowman cake!

And while other guests came up with pretty, jolly old Frosty...

Danger Dan had to put a creative spin on his! Zombie snowman, anyone? (And in case you couldn't tell from our abstract artistry, the mouth is actually an attempt at the Danger Dan logo). 

We had a terrific time and I can see that we're going to have a ball with Danger Dan around. By the way, all pictures were taken by Lesley-Anne. That made me Danger Dan's handler (as you can imagine, it's quite a task trying to keep him in check).

Oh yes, this post was supposed to be about the food, right? The Christmas menu is available online and at Crystal Jade My Bread outlets. Prices start at $8 for 8 mini pizzas. Pretty reasonable. You can place your orders three days in advance.

Crystal Jade hotline: 6512 0800 Mondays to Fridays, 9am - 6pm (excluding public holidays)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pop Club review

Review of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE in this month's issue of Pop Club magazine! You can get a copy from all Popular bookstores with your Popular card.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Here comes Danger Dan!

This has been an eventful year for me, to say the least. And even as 2013 draws to a close, instead of winding down, the excitement is heating up.

Here's a piece of news that I've been keeping under wraps for the past few months:

I'm writing a children's book series! With Lesley-Anne!

There! I've never been terribly good with secrets so it's very cathartic for me to finally be able to share this publicly. Earlier this year, Epigram Books (my publisher of The Good, the Bad and the PSLE) called for a pitch for writers to propose a series of children's books. The brief was simple - it had to involve time travel back to Singapore's past.

I thought this was an interesting project and something that Lesley-Anne could take on. However, Epigram Books was rightly concerned that it might be too much for her to handle alone since she has to juggle school, so we came up with the proposal to be co-authors. To cut a long story short, we prepared synopses for the series and wrote a sample first chapter. And Epigram Books loved it, so we got the contract :)

About the books

The protagonist is Danny aka Danger Dan - a hyperactive 11-year-old boy who loves comics and has superhero fantasies. However in real life, he's an unlikely hero as he's small and scrawny, with three older sisters who constantly bully him.

His shot at saving the world (well, Singapore at least) comes when he travels back in time and meets Melody, an enigmatic 14-year-old girl from the future. There, he learns that certain parts of Singapore's history have been changed due to a time warp, with horrendous results! Danger Dan and Melody rush to correct the mistakes. In the process, they run into some wacky situations!

First book in the series is out January 2014. Reading age is 8-11 years old.


For me, partnering with Epigram Books has been absolutely fantastic, for many reasons. But one big plus is that they understand the importance of design, especially for children's books. The illustrator they selected really brought to life how we envisioned Danny and Melody. Apart from the illustrations, Epigram Books' inhouse designer also went the extra mile to add many visual points of interest. Don't you just love this teaser above? We do!

Thought process

When we heard that we had to write about time travel back to Singapore's past, our first thought was that we had to make the books FUNNY. In fact, we balked at using the word "history" altogether because we knew kids would immediately have the impression: "Yuck! Another social studies textbook disguised as a fun book!" And who can blame them? I feel that most attempts to jazz up social studies, either in book form or video form haven't been very successful so far.

So I want to say upfront that the books are not commissioned by any government agency. This gives us the creative freedom to think up storylines and pick the time travel periods according to what we feel would make engaging and compelling plots.

Danny and Melody navigate through various places and meet different historical figures back in time but these tend to be in the course of their adventure, not so much because we feel we have to feature them. This frees us from the burden of having to be politically correct. However, we always try to ensure our facts are accurate, of course. And it's actually quite fun when we stumble on fascinating little-known trivia of Singapore's past that we think might be interesting to include for readers.

Coming up

Exciting developments are underway - check out our Danger Dan Facebook page! Please like the page to be notified of updates. Besides notifications of book launches, Lesley-Anne and I will also regularly share titbits eg. what it's like to be co-authors (lots of angst but also lots of fun!)

Hope to have your support!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Curtains down - the secondary school journey

This evening, I will be attending Lesley-Anne's graduation ceremony for sec 4. This closes the secondary school chapter of her education journey and it's a milestone that I can scarcely believe we've reached. Four years sounds like a long time, yet they seem to have zoomed by.

As most of you would have guessed, Lesley-Anne is in an IP school, meaning that she wouldn't have to take 'O' levels (except for Higher Chinese next week). However, there seems to be some misconception among parents that because IP kids don't have to study for 'O' levels, they have an easier time. I once met a parent who told me he was worried about his daughter in an IP school because he heard that "IP kids spend all their time playing".

I've no idea how that urban legend came about but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would have welcomed more free time because looking at Lesley-Anne's experience over the past four years, being in IP school is EXHAUSTING.

Let's talk academics first: the school still has three exams a year and numerous class tests, pop quizzes and assignments, most of which are included in the exam scores. Every subject is counted towards your average (unlike for 'O' levels) which essentially means you're expected to be an all-rounder. Promotion to the next level and to the JC section is not automatic. You have to meet a minimum grade average and many students live in fear that they are unable to do so. This leads to mega swotting and mugging almost all year round and especially during the year-end exams. And is typical with all top schools, the standard of exam papers tend to be higher, to the point of ridiculous. Killer papers are not uncommon.

I don't agree with this - I've always thought that the whole point of IP is to remove the focus on exams so that the students can have time to explore other areas. Alas, this is not so. The culture of exams, it seems, is too ingrained in the Singapore psyche to be abolished overnight. Clearly I can't speak for all IP schools but I'm sure Lesley-Anne's is not an exception.

Apart from academics, you have your other activities like CCAs which can demand an equal level of commitment. As I described before, the crazy intensity of band practices (and obsession over SYF medals) actually turned the CCA from love to hate for Lesley-Anne. It's unnecessarily energy-sapping.

But enough of whining. In spite of all these kinks, I do believe that Lesley-Anne's secondary school had more pluses than minuses. I can see that Lesley-Anne has matured significantly in her ability to express her views critically and coherently, and I credit her English and Literature teachers. Independent learning is a huge part of her school's methodology (although at times, it appears to have happened by accident due to poor teaching, lol!) and the skills she has picked up are invaluable. They will serve her well in JC and in life. Taking HCL has also improved her Chinese tremendously, something nobody can deny is an asset.   

Being in the humanities class in sec 3 & 4 was also a real blessing for Lesley-Anne. These are kids who have their own minds and will speak it. They're also not narrow-mindedly competitive over grades and have a whole lot of fun together. In fact, it was this team spirit that got the class voted "Model Class" for 2013. A nice way to end the year.

Even though Lesley-Anne has always struggled with Chinese and Maths, she did very well in the finals in the end. Except for HCL and A Maths where she scored B's, she garnered A's in everything else. In a school where it's common to see a straight A report book, it may not be spectacular results but you know what? We don't care. We're unabashedly proud of this young lady who has such a fantastic work ethic, is incredibly grounded and knows what's important in life.

As a parent, there's nothing else I can ask for.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The blessing of the "right" school

This week, the curtains will officially come down on Andre's sec 1 year. I write this post primarily as one of thanksgiving.

Last year when we were looking for schools for Andre, we visited quite a few open houses. This is very important because from mingling with the students, teachers and parents, you can often get a sense of the ethos of the school. Eg. in one school, I had the sense that discipline was the focus. In another, IT and facilities. In yet another, building self-confidence and self-expression (which was quite typical as it was a mission school).

Then we visited Andre's school and it was here that I felt it had the most caring culture among all those we've seen. It has a high value add score (which to me is much more important than 'O' level results). Eg. We were told that the string ensemble had won gold in past Singapore Youth Festivals which in itself may not mean much, until we found out that many of the kids who joined the CCA at sec 1 had no musical training (unlike in most top schools). That impressed me as string instruments are not easy to learn within a short time. It showed that the teachers were willing to teach kids from scratch and bring them up to par. That's commendable.

As I shared last year, in the end, Andre's PSLE t-score wasn't good enough for this school but he managed to get in via appeals. As in always the case, God really knows best. Because the school turned out to be a huge blessing for Andre.

For the first time, the school decided to place all the sports DSA and appeal kids in one class. As expected, this class is not one of the strongest academically as many of them had t-scores below the cut off point. However, this suited Andre perfectly as he was with like-minded peers, both mentally and academically. Being in the sports class had other benefits. The kids worked incredibly well together. In fact, his class was so reputed for team work that MOE paid a visit to study it as a model class on how to get kids to work better together. There was none of the usual ugly competitive spirit that typifies more academically-inclined classes. One of Andre's primary school friends is in the top class in the school and for almost half a year, he would seek out Andre at recess and complain that he hated his class and his classmates. I felt sorry for the boy. What a miserable way to spend your school life!

At the badminton CCA, Andre thrived too. Thanks to the teacher in charge who is big on values and sportsmanship, the kids in the CCA enjoy the game for what it is, and not just for winning medals. They would often ask for training even on non-scheduled training days, that's how much they enjoy the CCA. Andre found himself part of a social group that he connected strongly with. He was even made captain of the sec 1 school team - a bonus.

When I look back at the whole process of finding a school for Andre, there were times when we wondered why certain doors were closed to him. We considered pros and cons of all the different paths. So many things to think about. How to decide? I suspect it was because we were so uncertain, that God eventually made the decision for us. And it couldn't have been a better fit for Andre. He's happy and has adjusted well. It's a great environment for him to grow into his teenage years.   

I share Andre's story because I know this is a time when parents of p6 kids are thinking of secondary schools and I want to stress this: the fit is VERY important. Too often, I find that parents just want their kids in the top brand name schools, with no consideration as to whether their kids will thrive there. The competitive school environment is not for everyone. Making it through the doors really is just the first step. There is no guarantee that everyone will survive there, let alone thrive. The media and schools always flash their success stories but unbeknownst to the public, there are MANY who struggle and fall out. I know this from the horror stories from Lesley-Anne's school and from other parents with kids in top schools. This ex Hwa Chong JC student's account is a timely reminder for some that gaining entry into a top school may not be a blessing for everyone.

I used to think some of our young national sportsmen and women were super all-rounders, able to handle the schoolwork in top schools and yet ace their sports. Then I started hearing anecdotal accounts of how many of these youths struggle to cope and the schools admit them only for the glory they bring. By the 'A' levels, some of these kids are quietly told to take their 'A' levels as a private candidate so as not to bring the school scores down, or to transfer elsewhere. If this is true, then it's a horrific reflection of how warped some schools' view of education has become. Do not let your children be pawns in this vicious pursuit of accolades above everything else.

I know not all my readers are Christians. I'm not suggesting that you can only find a good school for your child via divine intervention. What I'm saying is, look beyond the academics and brand name. Put aside the prestige and bragging rights. Visit the schools and find out more about them, whether the culture is something that would likely nurture your child, knowing his or her character and needs. The right school can be such a blessing and the wrong one, the total opposite. May you have the wisdom to discern which is which.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Andre's Sec 1 report card

2013 simply zoomed by. My book consumed much of my energy this year, which left me little time for anything else.

As far as Andre's studies is concerned, this was a year of trial and error. When Lesley-Anne hit secondary school, I was practically hands-off, leaving her to her own devices. So, silly me thought I could do the same for Andre. Why in the world I would have this assumption, I've no idea. After all these years of knowing that my two kids are as different as chalk and cheese, I still hold the illusion that one approach might work for the other.

Anyway, I left him pretty much alone for his revisions for his CA1 and the result was that he failed 3 out of his 8 subjects. Needless to say, I went a little berserk. I mean, I could understand why he failed Chinese (in fact, no surprises there), even History (since it's the first time he was taking the subject). But he even managed to fail Science! That baffled me.

So it was back to Mummy-guided revisions and he showed some improvements for the SA1. In fact, his History jumped from an F9 to an A2. I realised that it was mostly a case of him not quite answering the questions properly. What I find is that in secondary school, the questions are much more sensibly worded than in primary school. No twists and turns in trying to "trick" the child, especially for Maths. However, having a clear understanding of what the questions are asking for take some practice and getting used to.

I've also since learnt that taking Andre at his word for how the exams went is an ambiguous gauge at best as his interpretation of what's good is a far cry from Lesley-Anne's. Eg:

Lesley-Anne: "Good!" (A1)
Andre: "Good!" (B)

Lesley-Anne: "Ok" (B3)
Andre: "Ok" (Pass)

Lesley-Anne: "Bad" (Anything less than B3)
Andre: "Not so good" (Fail)

Me to Andre: "So what's an A?"
Andre: "A miracle."

As a friend said, the theory of relativity explained in one illustration! During the SA2 period, after Andre's Chinese exam, I asked him how it went. "Ok" was his reply. "What's 'ok'?" the wiser me decided to probe.

"Well, I have a 50% chance of failing." 

The reply nearly gave me heart failure but I'm pleased to say, the outcome was a positive one in the end. Andre passed all subjects (one out of the only 4 in his class who achieved this feat) and scored Bs in most of them. We're happy for small mercies, especially since we know he entered this school with a lower t-score than most of his counterparts, as an appeal case.

My evaluation of Andre's first year of secondary school is that it was generally a good one, not least because we think the school turned out to be a great fit for him (I might blog about this later on). In terms of academics, it was a bit of a see-saw because he had to get used to 8 subjects, some of which he'd never done before. Also, this school takes into account daily work and class tests, so he needed to keep up with the work consistently which kinda wasn't his style. 

However, on the whole, we still feel it's a lot less stressful than in primary school. Even though I helped him with his revisions closer to the exams, I was definitely less involved compared to previous years. Somehow, we don't get the impression that every test or exam is make-or-break and has serious consequences. The content is also more interesting because there is less drilling and repetition ad nauseum to gain perfection in exam techniques. Obviously, this might come back to haunt us in the 'O' level year but for now, I'm liking secondary school. 

In two weeks time, Andre would have completed his sec 1. He also just turned 13 so he's now officially a teenager. Unbelievable. I wonder if I can be hands off next year... one must always live in hope.     

Monday, October 7, 2013

My 50-book list

Recently, somebody sent me a list of 50 books to read before you die. The trouble with lists is that someone is bound to disagree with them and this one was no different. I thought the list was very predictable - it has your requisite old old classics (to impress) and a few popular newbies (to show that the compiler was no literary snob). Seriously, I don't think it's a tragedy if you don't read Harry Potter before you breathe your last breath.

So I decided to compile my own list of 50 must-read books. I will say upfront that this is MY list, ie books I've actually read and liked. I'm not claiming this to be THE ultimate list because I know it's slightly girl-biased, especially with regards to the classics. I am aware that books like Robinson Crusoe and The Three Musketeers, for example are considered classics but honestly, when I tried reading them, I was bored out of my skull.

Obviously, some writers have written more than one classic but I decided to list only one book per author to provide a better range (unless it's a series). Also, I found that humour books tend to be cast aside in favour of "serious" books, which I think is a travesty. It takes great skill, sometimes even more so, to be able to make people laugh. I don't feel that humour books are in any way inferior or less of a classic.

So here's my list, in alphabetical order. I've divided into two sections: classics and modern.  Each is further divided into adult and children fiction.

Classics (18):

Animal Farm by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Children (7):

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Modern (18):

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Adrian Mole diaries by Susan Townsend
All Creatures Great and Small series by James Herriot
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Roots by Alex Haley 
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Children (7):

The Adventures of the Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein
The Nicholas books by R. Goscinny and J. Sempe

21 Oct 2013: I've added Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to the list because I've just read it and it took my breath away. It's one of those books that after you've finished it, you go "wow". Powerful stuff, a must-read.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"What do you think I think?" The absurdity of exam questions

Andre's year-end examinations are coming up and I was looking at his work as he was revising for History. I saw one of the questions in a worksheet:

"The Gupta Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of India because of its scientific achievements. Do you agree? Explain your answer."

According to the model answer provided, he's supposed to write the statement "I agree..." or "I disagree..." and give supporting reasons. Which makes perfect sense. But then came the kicker: after giving all the supporting reasons, he's then supposed to write the opposite statement of what he gave earlier, eg if you previously said you agree, now you had to say "However, I don't agree..." And THEN give all the supporting reasons for this statement.

I was perplexed. I checked with Lesley-Anne and found out it's true for her school too. Basically for such questions in History, you're supposed to say you agree and then say you disagree. If you only say one part, you will fail because you'll get at most half the marks, according to the marking scheme. (I know! I'm only finding this out now!) Incidentally, I think this is the O level format for History and/or Social Studies.

Qualifier: I have no problem with exam questions that ask for both sides of an argument. I understand that they want to ensure the students have studied all aspects of an issue, which is all well and good. My quarrel is with the way the questions are phrased. They seem to ask for your opinion but actually, they couldn't care less what it is.

I find that in the past decade or so, we've seen a lot more "what do you think?" kind of questions in exams, right down to the primary school level. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I think it ties in with MOE's constant mantra that they want to groom "thinking" and "life-skills", not just book-smart muggers. So they decided to move from "what do you know?" to "what do you think?", to try and get students to give their views beyond what is provided in the textbooks or exam passages.

However, as is always the case, it boils down to execution. And in true Singapore style, everything has to be recorded regimentally into a marking template, down to the number of points for each key word, so that nothing will be left ambiguous. By which time, there is no room left for any opinion that doesn't fall within the "acceptable answers" pre-determined by the marker.

Eg. in primary school English comprehension questions, those "what do you think?" questions always make me snort. Maybe when the kid first starts school, he naively thinks, "oh! I can write what I think!" Then he quickly wises up when he finds that his "I think Aminah is dumb because she gave her money away." was marked wrong because what the teacher really wanted was "I think Aminah is kind because she gave her money to someone."  In other words, they don't give a flying bumblebee what you think. It's really "what do you think I think?"

Same with this History case. By all means, ask to see both sides of the story. But if that's what the marker wants to see, then just ask, "Explain why the statement is both true and untrue." Don't couch it in a "I wanna know your views!" kind of question and then fail the student if he gives his views, even with supporting arguments.

My point is that looking at the way the exam questions are designed, I suspect we're nowhere closer to grooming creativity and thinking than we are 10 or 20 years ago. The questions have changed but the mindset hasn't. As long as MOE feels that it needs to assess "thinking" or "creativity" via a structured template (don't we just love our KPIs and our numbers!), we're back to marking for content, which was the Singapore syllabus of old. Because honestly, if you truly value thought and opinion, you cannot start off by having a pre-conceived idea of what that opinion should be.

Lesley-Anne recounted how her Integrated Humanities class (which is something like a social studies cum history subject) was in an uproar because of one exam question:

"The government has to play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China. Do you agree?"

Like in Andre's case, the students knew they had to give both sides of the story, ie say you agree and then say you disagree. So for the "I disagree" portion, many of the students wrote a statement along the lines of "I disagree because people play the main role in the alleviation of poverty in China." The students who did thus, even with all the supporting arguments, failed or barely passed the paper. Apparently, this statement is considered WRONG. You had to say "I disagree because the government doesn't play the main role but the supporting role to the people in the alleviation of poverty."

Note that the supporting arguments given could be exactly the same in two papers, except that the statement is different. But one was deemed to be a fail grade, the other an A grade. The teacher's rationalisation was that the main point is the government so it had to be mentioned in the statement.

The commotion came about because the students in Lesley-Anne's school rightly saw how illogical the marking scheme was. Nowhere in the phrasing of the question was it clear that the government was the main point (I too, thought the alleviation of poverty was the main point). Again, the only explanation I can come up with is our system's relentless obsession with the need to differentiate the kids. It reminded me of that recent primary school science question a mother posted on Facebook. The teacher in that case, defended the question by saying it "differentiated the A students from the A* students".

I'm absolutely positive that it doesn't. In both cases. To the teachers: what you've succeeded in doing is create a wider range of marks, if that's what you deem "differentiating". But don't kid yourself into thinking it actually picks out the brighter students. Unless you define "bright" as someone who possesses magical mind-reading abilities.

Neither of the examples I've cited does anything towards creating more thinking individuals. Quite the opposite. They probably create more confused individuals who are constantly being told that the way they think is wrong. The skill that is assessed and reinforced here is not thinking or creativity, it's the ability to guess and tell someone else what they want to hear. What do you think I think.

I wonder if some academicians have been in education for so long that they have lost the plot. I keep hearing how our education system has to evolve to be relevant to life but from these two examples, I really doubt the markers have any clue what skills are important in real life.

In real life, your opinion matters. In fact, if you were to state "I agree" with something and then follow that up with "I disagree", you'll be told, make up your damn mind already. In real life, it's important to know how to make intelligent arguments and back up your views. Not mind-reading. Not second-guessing. Not meaningless hair-splitting of semantics.

Make education more relevant to life? Yes. But first, understand what's really relevant in life.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Media dinner at Crystal Jade Steamboat

During the September school holidays, I was invited to attend a media dinner to review the newly opened Crystal Jade Steamboat Restaurant. My first response was, "Huh? But I'm not a food blogger!"

So as it turns out, I'm a "lifestyle blogger". Wah, I didn't know blogging about education comes with such perks! "But what if I don't like the food?" Apparently, that's ok too. No compulsion to say only good things. Honesty is best. Well then, who am I to turn down such an opportunity?

So Kenneth and I gamely turned up at Crystal Jade Steamboat Restaurant at Zhong Shan Mall (at Ah Hood Road). There were two media tables set out. We were on the table with the Young Parents deputy editor while the other table was for the food bloggers. Here's the difference between food bloggers and non-food bloggers: When the food was placed on the photo-taking table, the food bloggers whipped out their fancy SLRs and hybrids.

We shyly took out our three-year-old Canon S90 compact. The food bloggers fiddled with their big lenses. We fiddled with... the macro button. In our defence, the Young Parents deputy editor at our table didn't even bring a camera.

No need lah, the organiser provided food shots like these:

Why bother with getting the perfect shot? We're here to eat! So on with the food then...

Our tasting came in two parts. The first part was the steamboat (duh). You can order two different types of broth - we were given the pork bone soup (which is the most popular) and the tom yam soup. All the soup bases are simmered for more than 12 hours with fresh ingredients.

I'm not into spicy food so I can't tell you how I liked the tom yam soup base but the pork bone soup was extremely tasty.

We were served a variety of steamboat ingredients one of them, the assorted meat steamboat set ($32.80), with beef, lamb, kurobuta pork, chicken, bean curd, golden mushrooms, vermicelli and various types of cabbages.

I loved the pork and the beef especially - super tender and juicy. Oh before I forget, you go to the centre of the restaurant where there is a dizzying array of sauces and you pick your favourite (or mix and match). The one I liked best was the sweet and sour chilli mix.

We also tried other steamboat ingredients like the prawn balls, meat balls, fish balls and squid balls ($6.90 per serving). All are handmade and have a complex flavour that you don't get with the typical factory made ones.

Eg. I loved the prawn balls. You can actually taste the bits of prawn and they were deliciously juicy. The meat ball was also pretty good, considering I don't usually like meatballs. I think it's the water chestnut bits that give it a delightful crunch. Of the four, the one I liked least was the fish ball - I thought it was too mushy and didn't have enough bite.

Then came our second part of the dinner. Apart from steamboat, the restaurant also serves ala carte Cantonese and Teochew fare, great for the supper crowd (the restaurant opens till 2am daily). We had the salted pork bone & dried vegetable porridge ($9.80/small serving),

the grilled tilapia with preserved vegetables ($32.80),

and the  sauteed chicken with dried chilli & onion ($18.80/half chicken, $32.80/whole chicken). This comes in three levels of spiciness and as mentioned, since I'm not much good with spicy, we went with level 1.

Of the three, I enjoyed the chicken best, much to my surprise. It's very tasty, like a cross between mala and kung pao chicken. I imagine it would be a great comfort food in the wee hours of the morning, with steamed rice or porridge. 

All in all, I think the food here is pretty credible and a nice change from the usual offerings at other restaurants. Honestly, I thought the prices were a little high but you really do get quality ingredients. When I first tasted the steamboat soup, I thought, "uh oh, very salty. I'm going to be thirsty all night tonight." But as it turned out, I was not. Which tells me that the flavour came from all the ingredients, not salt or MSG. Wholesome food, great for families.

When we were there, the restaurant was packed. For a new restaurant in a less commonly known area, that's amazing. I guess Singaporeans know a good food place when they see one.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pre-orders for my book!

Here it is: pre-orders for my book, The Good, the Bad and the PSLE! I'm offering this as a service to my readers because some of you have indicated to me that you would like my autograph. I really appreciate the support very, very much.

The pre-orders start now up to Thur, 19 September only. Sorry if this sounds restrictive but I need to consolidate the numbers so that my publisher knows how many to cater for.

The deadline applies to payment as well. Only payment received by 19 Sep will be treated as confirmed orders and payment is via POSB transfer, no exceptions. I know this is starting to sound pretty regimental - I apologise for that but I really (x 1,000) dislike dealing with administrative matters and if I don't make things very clear, I'm almost certain I will muck all the orders up!

So here's how it works:

1) if you're keen on pre-ordering the book, send me a private message on the Of Kids and Education Facebook page (again, no exceptions, sorry! Hard for me to track if you start emailing me at different addresses. Please don't email me at my personal address or send your particulars over at this blog's comments page).

2) I will let you know what account to transfer the money to. Each book is $18. This includes registered mail.  If you would like to buy more than one (sent to the same local address), deduct $2.50 from each subsequent book. Eg. if you're buying 2 books, that's $18 + $15.50 = $33.50.

3) Once you have transferred the money, email me again with the following info:
  • Name under which you transferred the money (it's an optional fill-in box for online transfers) or the transaction reference no. (for ATM transfers). I can't stress the importance of this enough. Without this, I'll have no idea who sent me the money!
  • Your mailing address
  • Whether you would like me to sign your copy of the book and if so, who I should make it out to.
4) I will confirm receipt and send out the books as soon as I receive them, which will likely be in early/mid-October. I will update this post again when I've sent out the books.

Just as a reference, the book will be sold at bookstores from mid-October at $19.15 (incl. GST) each. In other words, you're not getting a significant discount buying from me due to registered mail (and probably not significantly earlier either). If you don't want my autograph and are not in a hurry, you can probably get it cheaper from the bookstores during the end of the year when some of them *ahempopular* tend to have 20% storewide discounts. Just sayin' :)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cover update on The Good, the Bad and the PSLE!

A couple of weekends ago, I was invited to the Epigram Books Pop Up Store sale as one of their would-be authors. The picture on the left shows their range of one of my favourite notebooks ever, the Notbooks.

It was also pretty exciting for me because my book cover was on the wall of Epigram Books' soon-to-be-released titles.

And yes, I'm sharing with you, dear readers, the confirmed cover of my book "The Good, the Bad and the PSLE"!  Can you spot it on the wall?

Here's a closeup:

Isn't it hair-raising? I absolutely love it! I know some people may think it's too off-the-wall but I think Epigram Books did a fantastic job of conveying what the book will be about. It's funny and eye-catching but yet charming in its own way.

Signing the poster:

And here I am with Ruth, the Managing Editor of Epigram Books who's also the editor of my book.

I can't wait till the book is launched! The planned launch date is mid-October. I'll be opening up for pre-orders sometime next week.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

New proposed banding for PSLE

The current buzz among parents is of course, the recent National Day Rally announcements to upcoming changes to the school system, not least of all, the PSLE. I was asked to be interviewed for the Channel 5 programme Voices Today on this topic. At first I declined (it's on live tv! What could be more terrifying!) but then Mediacorp kindly said I could do the interview via phone, so I did.

Since I was going to do the interview, I had to organise my thoughts on the matter, so I thought I might as well share them here as well.

Why is the proposed banding system for PSLE good?

Currently, the way PSLE t-score is computed and released to the students is very unhealthy because it ranks each student in a linear form from first to last. If some children get the same t-score, the t-score then can move down to several decimal places to decide who gets placed before another.This sends the message that a child who gets say, 241 is somehow better than the one who got 240. Even worse, the one scoring 260.25 is better than another one who got 260.21.

As the PM said, this sort of fine stratification is meaningless. Because of the way secondary school admissions is done based on this t-score ranking, the competition is stifling. You try to outdo as many in your cohort as possible. You have students and parents clamouring for every last point, because losing out one spot in the ranking can mean not getting into your school of choice. It’s not about doing well, it’s about doing better than others.

I wouldn’t say this is the only reason for the tuition culture but it certainly exacerbates it. You know how we sometimes find it baffling that very bright students go for tuition in all subjects. But if you are aiming for the top school, eg RI/RGS/HCI/NYGS, you basically need to score 260 and above to be assured of a place (or maybe even more than that). Now, nobody, no matter how well they've been doing, would be cocky enough to think that they can guarantee that score. You're talking about the top 5% of cohort or so. So even if you’ve been scoring 95, you still go for tuition to try and chase that 100. Every bit matters. Whereas now, if scoring above 245 will mean you have a shot at the top schools, then there is less pressure. An A* is an A*.

On MOE’s part, the current system means that they have to keep accelerating the standard of the papers every year, or at least come up with novel questions that only the super bright will be able to work out because there is a need to differentiate the kids. This is another meaningless exercise because the purpose of the PSLE is to test what the kids have learnt, not test what they don’t know.

How should the banding be done?

I’m not sure how MOE will do the banding. One way is to just allocate points to the grades like O levels eg. A* = 1 pt, A = 2 pts, B = 3 pts, etc. However, since there are only four subjects, you probably would end up with too broad categories, ie too many kids falling within the same category of points.

To me, a fairer way is to keep the t-score formulation but release them in bands instead of absolute numbers. Eg. 245 and above (which I estimate to be about the top 15% of cohort) can be in one band. This way, the student or the secondary school will not know whether the student scored 245 or 260. The message we’re sending is that all these students are capable academically, there is no need for a finer distinction at age 12.

I’ve always felt that it’s easy for the top secondary schools to talk about their straight A graduates when they take in the top 5% of students to begin with. Most of these students will do well even if they were placed in a non-branded neighbourhood school. The more important question is, how much value did that top school give to the student? This new banding will be a truer test. If these top schools can take in a more diverse range of students and still produce the same number of straight A graduates, then it’s proof that the school helped to achieve the result.

Will this really lessen the pressure and competition?

It won’t eliminate competition totally because PSLE is still considered a high-stakes exam and students will still try to get into higher bands. However, it will definitely lessen the stress somewhat. For the very bright students who are already doing very well, there will now not be a need to chase the last point. That time can now be spent on more meaningful activities, like sports, arts, CCA, community service, etc.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that competition in these other areas will now increase because for the top schools, there will probably be more applicants within the band than spaces, in which case I'm not sure what will be the next step. Look at CCAs and other criteria? Do a separate GAT test? So you'll find that instead of going for tuition, to ensure a space, parents will send their children for extra sports/music lessons etc. And you'll end up chasing something else, like kids trained to be national swimmers from kindergarten. But if I were to look for the silver lining, at least it's less narrowly focused on academics.

At the end of the day, the system can only do so much. There will always be kiasu parents.

Why don't we just get rid of banding altogether and have pass/fail like in the past?

I think we need to acknowledge that some kids are just more able academically than others. We can't dispute that a 260 scorer is better at studies than a 200 scorer. Putting them together in the same class will not be an efficient model because they learn differently. But what banding signals is that there is no need to differentiate between a 245 scorer and a 260 scorer. They probably can learn equally well together. It's about creating the most optimal setting for learning. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The blogger reflects

I started this blog in August 2008. That makes it exactly 5 years to date. During that time, I wrote about my kids growing up, education policies, my thoughts on learning and other miscellaneous stuff. I started out blogging everyday and then slowed down gradually, to once a week (every Monday) for the past 2 years or so. I've always said that I will continue blogging for as long as possible and I think I've finally reached the point where I can no longer do it on a regular basis.

In the blogging hemisphere, 5 years is a pretty long time. Many blogs die a natural death when the blogger runs out of things to say or simply runs out of steam. I've pushed on because I always had rather opinionated thoughts on something to do with education or the other. I was also determined to record all the fun stuff my kids did and said while they were growing up as sort of a memory bank.

It has been great but lately, I've realised that the inevitable has happened. I started struggling to find things to write about and time to write them. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) Both my kids are now in secondary school. Somehow, parents are most stressed out about education in Singapore at the primary and pre-primary school years. Issues tend to crop up then, less so in the later school years. Kids are also less cute (actions that might be adorable at age 9 become awfully annoying at age 12), hence, there are fewer interesting incidents to record.

2) I just got busier. My corporate writing business is growing. After 10 years, I now have four other writers on my team. Managing the projects and business aspects is in itself a full-time job, not to mention the actual writing that I do. As you also know, I recently tried my hand at book writing (out in October this year) and discovered that I really enjoy it. As a result, I'm going to pursue book writing more extensively which will take up even more time.

So I've come to the conclusion that something has to give and that something is blogging. To my fans, I want to assure you that I'm not shutting down this blog. It's not goodbye (which sounds so final).  It's just that I won't be blogging on such a regular basis. I've always believed that writing for its own sake is simply self-indulgent, so I'll only be posting when I have something to share, eg. updates on my upcoming books and views on education when they do come up.

At this juncture, I want to say that blogging has been a fantastic journey. Quite amazingly to me, this blog took on a life of its own. On several occasions, I was even recognised in public which is quite a foreign concept to me since I'm an introvert and generally shy away from the limelight.

The most recent encounter was a funny story. We were at the Marina Bay Sands Toast Box outlet having tea before going to watch Phantom of the Opera. This very nice lady came up to us and told me that she enjoys reading my blog. What she didn't know was that just before that, we had spotted Mr Brown aka Lee Kin Mun, also at Toast Box, and we were sneaking peaks at him. So when she approached us, we were a little taken aback. It's kinda like a voyeur suddenly realising he was being watched.

Anyway, I'm always happy when readers approach me (to the lady who came up to us, if you're reading this, thanks for making yourself known!) It's lovely to meet my readers in person. It's certainly much better than being silently observed, which is kinda stalker-ish and creeps me out a little.  So if you spot me, please do say hi! (unless you hate my writing, in which case, maybe no need lah, haha).    

A little marketing spiel: If you have enjoyed my writing, I hope you will continue to support me in my upcoming book (and maybe books). It's a new phase of my writing career/passion and I'm trying to see if I can make it work. Perhaps it's career suicide as there's definitely more money in corporate writing than book writing, but hey, I'm an optimist!

Meanwhile, I want to say, very sincerely, thanks for reading all my thoughts, opinions and ramblings all these years. At the risk of sounding totally cliche, the encouragement from my readers is truly what has kept this blog going for so long.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Gen Y black sheep

Of late, there has been a proliferation of "how-to" articles in online media, on issues ranging from parenting to work. There's nothing wrong with that, except I've noticed, some of the writers are awfully young, not even 30 years old. Yet the articles read with an authoritative swagger, full of confidence.

That annoys me somewhat. I don't get how someone who has barely tasted life can presume to tell others how to live theirs. Worse still, I've noticed that some of them who are giving parenting advice aren't even parents! It's like someone who has never cooked, writing a recipe book and justifying his expertise as "having eaten at lots of restaurants and spoken to many chefs".

I'm amazed at such unbridled arrogance. Where is the humility?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not ageist. I've met impressive young people with more wisdom than some elderly folks. It's not about "putting young people in their place". However, if you're young and you want to try and tell others what to do, you better be damn saat. Make sure you have the goods to back it up. But more often than not, I've found the online articles to be chockful of cliches and sweeping statements. They read like a hodgepodge of truisms complied from the internet and self-help books, without depth, originality or any real thought.

The narcissistic and entitlement mentality of the Gen Y and Millennials is not a new issue, long debated by the media.  The Daily Mail published a piece on how the Gen Y is not interested in hard work. Time Magazine wrote an article calling the Millenials the "Me Me Me Generation". Even I wrote a post sometime back about how the ego of the Gen Y is not backed by substance. Sometimes, I feel a little sorry for the Millennials - as a group, they have a reputation for being whiny brats and I know that's a stereotype.  However, when are are so many black sheep, it's easy to make generalisations of the group as a whole. generation complains about the one before. Maybe it's all our fault. We are the ones who keep telling the Gen Y how brilliant they are, how they're our future. In Singapore, we tell the kids who do well in school that they're our brightest and our best. We continue telling them this right up to university. Is it any surprise therefore they emerge with such a mindset that they are the saviours of society?

In my previous workplace, my boss tried to point out to her newly hired fresh-from-school executive that the tone in her email was too curt and unsuitable. To which the executive defiantly replied, "But I have a Masters in English." 

They just don't get it.

It depresses me that we are churning out the so-called future brains who think they have all the answers and who are so incredibly unopen to the idea that they might have something to learn. To them I say, life is a continuous process of discovery and through this, we learn not just about others but about ourselves.  Go out and do the leg work. Earn your stripes, take a few knocks, eat some humble pie, then consider whether you really have what it takes. In other words, learn more about life first before you presume to tell others how to live.

I quote my friend, Gerard, who wrote this to universities:  
"Yes, your under-graduates are smart kids. They probably know a lot about something or other. But please do not lead them on to think without reservation that the world is their oyster. Expect them to taste some cockles first."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reading in pairs

In case the title of this post gives you the wrong idea, this post is not about reading as a couple. It's about books are interesting when read one after another.

The idea of reading books in pairs came to me when Lesley-Anne was reading a few classics as part of her literature class. It occurred to me that many of these classics either had a modern equivalent or a modern book that made reference to the classic.  I recommended some of them to her and she was pretty fascinated by the parallels or references. In some cases, it made the classic even more meaningful. At the very least, it invoked thought.

Here are some of the pairs:

In sec 3, Dostoevsky's epic Crime and Punishment was on Lesley-Anne's literature choice of reading. Hardly anyone chose to read this book, mainly because it's a gazillion pages long. Lesley-Anne chose to read this partly because she's always up for a challenge but partly also because I had a brand new copy sitting on my shelf. In other words, it was convenient.

Crime and Punishment is essentially about this guy Raskolnikov who kills somebody and then philosophises about the murder throughout the entire book. It's tough going for various reasons: 1) there are so many long names that sound alike and begin with 'R' that it's easy to lose track of who the author is referring to. Sometimes the author refers to the same guys using their second names instead (just for a lark). After a while, we dubbed the protagonist Ratsky just so we'd know who we were discussing. 2) This Ratsky guy can really go on and on. On the same issues, back and forth. It's both fascinating and frustrating.

In the end, Lesley-Anne did well for her assignment, I think because the teacher was so impressed that someone actually bothered to plow through the entire book.

The book I recommended to her after that was Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game. It really is a modern parallel of Crime and Punishment. Like Ratsky, Ripley is involved in a murder and tries to justify his actions using psychological and philosophical reasoning. But written in a more fast-paced and readable manner. 

The next pair is Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter.  The latter is not really a parallel of The Crucible but it was written to take place during the same period and there are references to some of the characters in The Crucible. It's important to note that many of the characters in both these books were real people in history, during the 17th century at the time of the infamous Salem witch trials.

The third pair is a no-brainer - J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky's recent hit, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Both are coming-of-age stories and have protagonists who struggle to make sense of life in general during the tumultuous teenage years. Lesley-Anne hasn't read the latter yet but I'm sure she'll get around to it eventually.

The fourth pair is Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth and Anchee Min's Pearl of China. The Good Earth is a classic because it gave people a glimpse of what real China was like at the turn of the 19th century. Even more interesting is that it was written by a foreigner. So how did an ang moh woman manage to capture rural China life so realistically? The answers are in Anchee Min's novel, which tells the story of Pearl's life as a little girl, growing up among the Chinese in a little Chinese town with her missionary parents. In fact, Pearl considered herself Chinese, not American. Compelling read.

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