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.

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