Monday, October 27, 2014

Meet-the-authors session at National Museum

This coming Sunday, Lesley-Anne and I will be at the National Museum of Singapore for the launch of Danger Dan Traces the Perilous Poison (book 4)! This is a Singapore Writers Festival event and three other children's books by Epigram Books will also be launched then.

If you don't have anything on, bring your kids down - we'd love to meet them! We're not sure if James Tan, our illustrator, will be able to make it but if he does, he usually draws something on the spot, which is uber fun! And of course, we'll sign all copies of Danger Dan, which will be sold at the event.

Meanwhile, Gathering Books, a blog and website dedicated to books has published an in-depth interview of us for their October theme which is science fiction and time travel. If you would like to know more about the thought process behind Danger Dan and how we gather ideas, check out the link!

Gathering Books is nothing if not thorough and they've also conducted a fabulous interview with James. Check out how the Danger Dan look evolved (we'd completely forgotten about this until we saw the sketches again). I think you would agree with us that the current Danny and Melody look much better now!

If you would like to meet us in person, do come down on Sunday. See you there!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tribute to an exceptional individual - Mrs Noella Dana

Last weekend, nine ex-students of my late piano teacher Mrs Dana got together and we had a wonderful catchup. This was a strange reunion of sorts because some of us didn't actually know each other. We were just bonded by the connection with one incredible human being who really demonstrated how much impact a teacher could have.

It's hard to explain how Mrs Dana's music studio worked because it was really one of a kind. When you went for a piano lesson, you didn't just sit with a teacher for an hour and then went on your way. A lesson at Mrs Dana's was like a visit to a music community. She had three pianos and usually at least two "helper" teachers. At any one time, a student could be going through their scales with one teacher while another was practising theory cards (which Mrs Dana made herself) and yet another would be in her studio being taught their exam pieces.

Even though we had a given lesson time, we often spent hours there. It was a laissez faire approach but there was a method in the madness. When we were not at the piano with Mrs Dana or another teacher, we hung out with the other kids or did our school homework. It was more like an after school care than a music studio, really. Mrs Dana ruled with a kind but firm hand and if you didn't know your work, she would insist you come back for an extra lesson. If you didn't practise, she would march down to your parents in the car or call them to let them know. She had more than her fair share of difficult kids, I suspect because some despairing parents hoped she would straighten them out! She had a knack with naughty kids and believed that music could solve most problems.

If Mrs Dana felt that you were musical, she would tirelessly hound you until you lived up to your talent. Her fees were below market rate and she used to grumble that some didn't pay their fees for months, yet she never turned anyone away. Many students expressed shock at how later on, when they took music lessons elsewhere, they realised that other teachers charged strictly by the hour, four lessons a month, didn't make up lessons you missed and didn't really care if you practised or learned anything. We were all spoilt by Mrs Dana. 

When we were older, many of us ex-students were invited to be the helper teachers at her studio. Teaching at Mrs Dana's was my first paid holiday job. Her home at La Salle Street was open to students from morning to evening and it was well known in the eastern part of Singapore. We heard anecdotes of how when given the address, taxi drivers would ask, "oh, the piano teacher's house?" Through these black gates, hundreds passed through to get their dose of music and more. The swing in the garden was a favourite. I managed to take photos of the exterior in 2010 before it was torn down and rebuilt by the new owners.

Mrs Dana's teaching methods were truly innovative. For example, she made up her own lyrics to exam pieces to help kids remember the melody. She held Sunday aural classes so we could listen to and learn from other students in the same grade. At our meetup, we all shared how she instilled the love of music in us. Some mentioned that till today, they remember their music intervals clearly thanks to her methods. A couple of them have chosen music as a career and still practise her methods today.

But even more than her extraordinary love of teaching and gift of music, what made her a remarkable individual was her exceeding generosity, which she blessed families with. At the gathering, an ex-student shared how growing up as the daughter of a church's caretaker, her family sometimes found it difficult to make ends meet. She first met Mrs Dana who did the flower arrangements for the church. Mrs Dana took her under her wing and gave her piano lessons at no charge. Later, she offered her a job as a teacher at the studio and even gave her a piano. This ex-student is doing well today and she has kept the piano all these years, even though some of the keys are stuck and can't be played properly.

I really don't know how Mrs Dana found the time but between running a music studio and raising a family of her own (she was the sole breadwinner since her husband was ill), she also reached out to the community. She once mentioned to me that she was helping underprivileged kids from Geylang Methodist Primary School learn how to read. As an ex-kindergarten teacher and principal, she had a big heart for kids.

On a personal note, Mrs Dana was a very special friend to me. She was my mentor and confidante, always warm and caring. I remember her sense of humour and her bubbly laugh. She had a skin pigmentation disorder and used to joke, "I'm like Michael Jackson!" As an adolescent and later as an adult, I could confide in her the way I couldn't with my own mother. She was a second mother to me and was part of almost all my significant life events. When I did well in piano exams, she bought me music books. After learning at her studio for almost a decade, I taught there during my university school holidays. This is a rare photo I took with her and my sister at her studio.

She was the one who brought my sister and I to the church we currently attend. She took us to SSO concerts to expand our minds. She was very pleased when I later joined the SSO as its marketing manager. My box office staff knew her very well as she was a regular concert-goer and always booked the same seat in the stalls of the Victoria Concert Hall (I believe it was an aisle seat in row R). She also played the organ at my wedding.

When I had my kids, Mrs Dana embroidered flowers on baby shirts for them and bought them books and toys. I love this photo of Mrs Dana carrying Lesley-Anne. Lesley-Anne learned with her only about a year before Mrs Dana got ill but even then, she said some of Mrs Dana's methods really stuck with her.

Mrs Dana suddenly fell ill in 2005 and even then, refused to seek treatment as it was the period of piano exams. When she finally agreed to be hospitalised, a bunch of ex-teachers mobilised themselves to help out at the studio and they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. Even with a team, it was exhausting. Nobody knew how this feisty 76-year-old managed it.

Even in hospital, Mrs Dana's thoughts were with her students. "Tell so-and-so to practise! She doesn't practise enough," one teacher recalled her saying. When she passed on, her daughter found boxes and boxes of cards and gifts that her students had given her. Mrs Dana had kept everything.

It was by chance that a group of her ex-students met in church a few weeks ago and came up with the idea of having a gathering. Nine of us met up but through this, so many more have since been contacted - a network spanning a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Many of her ex-students are pillars of society today - doctors, lawyers, etc but they recall being that naughty kid being chased down by Mrs Dana to practise scales. I've also since learned that many of her ex-students are now musicians or music teachers. All remember fondly the time they spent at La Salle Street.

As we chatted over dinner and shared our stories of Mrs Dana, I was blown away by how this one woman could have touched hundreds of lives from three generations. It's been almost ten years since she passed away and yet our memories of her remain vivid - that's how deep an impression she made on us.

Many people speak of love but rare is the one who personifies it. How blessed we are to have known her.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rounding up school talks for 2014

This is a post to record the school talks and workshops we've conducted over the past few months. It has been challenging at times for Lesley-Anne - juggling lessons, homework and exams while making time to conduct these talks. Needless to say, I'm terribly proud of her for maintaining a cool head (for the most part) and not freaking out under the pressure!

Lesley-Anne was invited to speak to a group of p5 students from different schools at the MOE Creative Arts Programme. The audience consisted of about 50 kids, mostly from GEP, who were interested in writing. This session was great because the kids were very energetic and interactive. During the panel session, a bunch of boys were making quite a fair bit of noise and a girl piped up "I don't like irritating boys" to which a boy instantly retorted, "the action or the noun?" Heh. A little smart alecky but very fun bunch.

It was clear that Lesley-Anne connected very well with this group because after the talk, many of the kids came up to chat with Lesley-Anne and get her autograph. Some even showed her their stories and poems, and we were wowed by the level of creativity. One boy had written a series of alternative fairy tales in rhyme while another had penned reams and reams of stories. It's wonderful to meet kids who love writing so much. A special shout-out to Natalie, who told me she and her mum read my blog and showed me a lovely story she wrote about Erik the Hedgehog.

We also spoke at SJI International, our very first international school visit! We find international school kids bright-eyed and eager but at the same time, they're very well-mannered. They listen attentively and ask questions only at the end. A girl told us at the end of the session, "You know we're discussing superheroes, right? Well, you're our hero." Wah! *melts*

And finally, Lesley-Anne was invited to be an exhibitor and guest speaker at the Nanyang Girls' Expo in August. Here she is with Denise, our book agent.

Lesley-Anne was one of the invited speakers of the day. Quite an honour to be listed among such illustrious folks!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Let's talk gender stereotypes

So by now, most of you would have read about the saga where 17-year-old student Agatha Tan's open letter to her Principal which lambasted Focus on the Family (FotF) for their relationship programme. To me, this is an open-and-shut case and MOE has rightly shut down the programme.

In a truly strange coincidence, Lesley-Anne attended the very same session as Agatha. (I know, right? What are the odds??) So I thought for those who might be curious as to whether there was more behind the scenes from someone who was actually there, I'd blog about it.

Lesley-Anne missed the first half of the session because she was out conducting a Danger Dan school talk at that time and joined in only in the second half. By then, she said the lecture theatre was already all abuzz and her friends told her there had been a heated debate. It sounded like the facilitators were unused to being challenged because Lesley-Anne said they were defensive and tried to deny responsibility of the materials. For example, when the facilitator presented a rather controversial analogy, he threw his hands in the air and qualified himself by saying, "This is not my research. If you want to complain, complain to the author!" Okaaaaay. 

When Lesley-Anne came home that day, even before the saga of Agatha's letter, she told me that the session was a waste of time. Possibly, the programme was intended to be light-hearted but the way it was delivered, issues were inappropriately trivialised. She felt that as an educational session, it should have been more substantial. Instead, the materials were shallow and similar to jokes and satirical pieces easily found on the Internet.

For instance, the facilitator asked a boy something along the lines of: "Would you rather: a) Be unloved and alone or b) Disrespected." The boy answered a) and clarified that he took "unloved" to mean only romantically. But the facilitator immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was evidence of guys' immense need for respect and hence, in a relationship, girls have to give guys respect. Wow, sweeping conjectures much? Incidentally, Lesley-Anne said she would have made the same choice. Does that make her a guy?

Guys were also portrayed as deprived, sex-driven creatures. For example, the students were shown a picture of a guy's compartmentalised brain where SEX was predominant. This idea that guys cared only about sex was repeatedly highlighted. (The male facilitator even waved his arms in the air and declared, "If you give us sex, we're very happy!") Not sure what his point was. Girls have to offer sex to make a relationship work?

Furthermore, most of the research and statistics used to substantiate the material were from the US. Lesley-Anne felt that the facilitators failed to contextualise the info and show how they were relevant to Singapore. For example, they stated that in the US, couples who cohabitate before marriage are 50% more likely to get a divorce and leapt to the conclusion: If you want your marriage to work, don't cohabitate! Even if you discount the flawed logic, please lah. In Singapore, how many dating couples live together? Housing is expensive here!

FotF has claimed this is not a sex education course but a relationship workshop. This is factually correct because what many people don't realise is that FotF is appointed by MSF, not MOE (even though I understand that it's an MOE-approved course. Not sure how that works). But I don't understand how the fact that it's a relationship workshop, not a sex education course, makes the content any less objectionable.

HCI has said that parents could have opted their children out of the programme if they wanted to. Come on! You know these consent forms - "there will be a session, blah blah, sign if you consent to let your child attend it". At most, they give the name of the organiser and a short paragraph of the objective of the programme (which probably said it was to help students de-mystify relationships).

The thing is, I don't know for sure because I don't remember the form at all! Not to shirk my responsibility as a parent but are we saying that any activity or excursion my child goes to, I have to scrutinise the organiser, look up the background, and try to guess whether they have values that go against mine or will present any objectionable material? This was supposed to be a simple post-exam activity in school for JC students and I didn't give it a second thought. I think it's reasonable to expect that any activity endorsed by the school will not promote information that is harmful or false.
Some people are angry that a Christian-based group was allowed to administer this programme. I'm less bothered by this because from what Lesley-Anne tells me, religion was never mentioned. I feel that all those who are opposing or supporting Agatha's view based on this are missing the point. It's not about religion and so-called "conservative" views are not limited to any religious group.

To me, why the programme is harmful is because it promotes gender stereotyping which conveniently pigeon-holes people into neat compartments. To those who say things like "but it's true most women are fickle!" "Or are ditzy!" etc etc, I say, that's precisely how stereotyping works - take anecdotes or instances where things happen a certain way and generalise it across large groups of people indiscriminately.

Stereotyping is harmful because it makes judgement on people based on their gender, race, age etc even before one knows them. It also puts pressure on conformity and anyone who doesn't fall within those neat boxes can feel like an outcast. By the way, I can take a joke as well as the next person. The point is this was an official programme, not a woman's magazine or frivolous website.

Stereotyping is a lazy way of seeing the world because it's simple. In other words, it's UNcomplicated. Unfortunately, people as a whole are complicated because we're so diverse. Relationships are complicated. And attempting to tell JC students it's not so by dumbing down materials and reducing people to caricatures is downright insulting and indefensible. I understand that the facilitators repeatedly said these were "generalisations". Incidentally, claiming that stereotypes are mere generalisations can be even more damaging because when someone doesn't fall neatly within a category, you can simply dismiss him or her as an "exception", thus justifying your beliefs.

There are already far too many confused teenagers out there. The last thing we need is for an official programme to perpetuate gender stereotypes and confuse them further.

I've since heard accounts of people attending FotF sessions in different JCs way back from 2007 both as students and teachers, and most agree that it was bad. It's appalling that this has been going on for years and NOBODY spoke up all this time. It made me even more proud of Agatha.

To all those who would diss her letter because they disagreed with something she said or because of her youth, I would like to remind them that here is a 17-year-old who is not just intelligent and clear-minded but who has the conviction and courage to speak up for what she believes in, in a more articulate manner than many twice her age.  Good on her.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Happy birthday, Andre!

We celebrated Andre's birthday last week. Since his birthday falls right smack in the middle of his exams (which is always a bummer!), we kept it simple. The weekend before, we went for dinner at Muddy Murphy's because we know how much Andre enjoys pub food.

This was our first time there and it was really a pleasant surprise. The food is truly excellent and extremely reasonably priced. GST is included in the price and no service charge! Very rare for an establishment in the heart of town. The interior looks a little run down but for the food, we can overlook that.

Andre had the pork knuckle:

I had the tenderloin steak:

Kenneth and Lesley-Anne had the quintessential pub special - Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and mash. Both agreed that it was better than the one we had at a London pub!

For dessert, warm chocolate pudding with ice cream. Also very good.

On his actual birthday itself, we bought him a birthday cake from Chocolate Origins. If you ever crave a chocolate cake that tastes like you're eating pure chocolate, this is it!

I just had to mention that Lesley-Anne's gift to Andre was a simple care pack with all his favourite goodies. But trust her to put a creative spin on something straightforward. A rainbow care pack!

And with that, my (not-so-little) boy is now 14. Time flies!

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