Monday, May 31, 2010

First semester report cards

This post is a summary of my kids' school results for the first half of 2010.

In Lesley-Anne's school, the SA1 takes into account daily work, pop quizzes and assignments on top of the written exam, so the kids had no "honeymoon" period, so to speak. Lesley-Anne's results are as follows:

English Language and Literature: A1 (double weightage)
Higher Chinese: B4
History and Geography: A1
Maths: A2
Science (Physics): A1

We're very pleased with the results as this was achieved during the period when she had to adjust to a new school, new subjects and a crazy CCA schedule (she comes home close to 7pm two to three times a week). Plus she had to prepare for both her piano and ballet exams in close succession.

Overall, she's juggling her schedule very well and enjoying her time in school. She seems to be handling maths much better than she did in primary school, missing A1 by only one mark. We knew Chinese would be more of a challenge for her since this is the first time she's taking HCL, so a B4 is a credible achievement. It's extremely comforting to see her making the transition to secondary school so smoothly.

Andre's results are a mixed bag. In the actual SA1 papers, his performance in English and Chinese were average, Science was surprisingly disastrous. It's not that he didn't know his work but the Singapore science test scripts tend to look for very specific answers with key words and from looking at the paper, it was quite obvious he hasn't quite grasped the technique. Only Maths saw a respectable performance.

Fortunately, the overall results took into account alternative modes of assessment done throughout the half year and these pulled Andre's grades up. Final grades: Band 1 for Maths, Band 2 for English, Chinese and Science.

It was like deja vu at the parent-teacher conference, the feedback was eerily similar to that of the past years'. He is capable of doing better if he pays attention in class. Socially, he has no problems. In fact, he may be TOO sociable. He kept talking in class despite the Chinese teacher changing his position several times, even next to girls. In the end, she had to make him sit alone. I think as long as there's a living thing next to Andre, he will chat it up.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I have to admit at being rather disheartened by Andre's results. It seems that each term, I do the pep talk, make him do all the necessary revisions, think he might be better prepared, but the results don't reflect the effort.

I've been through all the philosophical arguments. I call it the 3 'R's - rationalisation, resignation and resolution. Every kid has different abilities, boys mature later, he's just not exam-smart, etc etc. But when you run a race and keep tripping over stones despite your efforts, it gets harder and harder to convince yourself that the path will get smoother. Especially when you don't seem to be getting more adept at picking yourself up.

However, I have to believe that one of these days, it will happen. Admittedly, this faith is driven less by optimism and grit on my part than pure obstinacy. I've found that teachers are not always the most encouraging, neither are peers. If I, the parent, don't believe that Andre can, who will?

I don't know how many more times he will trip and fall, whether it will take another two laps or another 20 before he finds his footing. It sounds sappy, I know, but I will be there all the way, helping him up or cheering him on. He will make it eventually.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Psychology ala Calvin & Hobbes

I can't even begin to tell you how relieved I am that the school holidays are here. This semester has really taken a toll on me, seems like I've been more stressed out over school work, CCA, teachers etc than usual. Maybe it's just a snowball effect.

I don't know who's happier that school is out, me or Andre! If there was a cartoon to depict the event, it would be both of us making a beeline to the school doorway, squishing each other comically at the exit in an attempt to be the first one out.

So here's a light-hearted anecdote to usher in the much needed holidays.

Andre: Mummy, do you love me?

Me: Of course.

Andre (flashing a cheeky grin): If you love me, you wouldn't scold me.

Me: I scold you because I love you.

Andre (protesting): That's not true! I don't like the girl sitting next to me and I'm always scolding her.

Me: No, that means you secretly luuuuuuuurrrrrvve her.

Andre: AAARRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!


Lesson: Never try to out-guilt your mum.


Happy holidays!!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting into the heads of China kids

Almost every year when the PSLE results are released, you'll read in the papers about some kid from China who is among the top in the cohort. In fact, some of these kids came to Singapore with scant or no knowledge of English but within a few years, have managed to beat the crap out of local kids academically.

All sorts of theories have surfaced. Some say that the China kids are smarter. Others think it's the age advantage. You can't deny the fact that these kids are usually one or two years older than local kids - a huge difference at the elementary level.

While I agree that these could be contributing factors, I believe the main reason is that these China kids simply work harder. (See my earlier post on Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule). Recently, I spoke with a badminton coach originally from China. She's the guardian of her nephew who's in p5 this year. Everyday after school, he finishes his lunch and does his homework before sitting down to complete six different worksheets or assessment papers set by his grandma. After which he memorises 20 English phrases, checking the dictionary for words he doesn't understand. At the end of the week, he hands his grandma the list of 20 x 7 phrases and she tests him. He has to recite all of them, indicating the meaning of each of the words she calls out. He gets no breaks except for meals - his life evolves around his studies.

If that's the extent to which China kids work, then it's little surprise that they tend to do better than local kids. Some people immediately jump to the conclusion, "oh, Singapore kids are lazy" or "they're not as motivated". To me, that's as pointless and condescending as the some gahmen folks lecturing the later generations on how we take life in Singapore for granted because we didn't suffer during the war times.

Simply put, the circumstances and environment are different. Singaporean kids don't put in the same Herculean effort at their studies, not because they're inherently lazier but because our value systems are different and there is less at stake. There is nothing wrong with this, it's just the way it is.

As the coach told me, her nephew was sent here by his family so he could improve his prospects and his future compared to staying in his little hometown in China. The child is told this in no uncertain terms and is given a choice - he stays in Singapore and focuses only on his studies or he gets sent back to China. He chose to be here.

I joked with her, "you can send your kids back to China, where can I send mine?"

I realise this case may be a little extreme and certainly doesn't apply to ALL kids from China. But it's no exaggeration to say that for many China kids, the objective of coming to Singapore is simply to do well in school so that they can have the credentials to move ahead in society. Often, that's the sole reason for the entire family relocating here from China.

In contrast, for many Singaporean parents like myself, we decide that we want our kids to have a balanced lifestyle, to enjoy sports, to enjoy music and dance, heck, even to enjoy learning (which means we don't kill the interest by focusing only on acing exams). For most of the China folks, there's no such angst. Enjoy learning? Bah. They're just here for the tangibles.

Unfortunately, the Singapore education system is exam-centric and assesses students primarily based on their performance in these exams. And so the China kids do what is necessary - to them, it's not about the process, it's about the results. If they have to memorise model compositions or model answers to score in exams, they will do it. If our education system one day imposes the testing of Swahili in PSLE, make no mistake about it, the China kids will learn it (and ace it). Whatever it takes.

But this is not the life we want for our kids because to us, it's no life. For example, if I want Andre to ace his PSLE, what I have to do now is make him drop badminton, piano and remove all his play time. He just has to adopt the coach's nephew's formula and focus on studying during every waking hour. Will I do this? Of course not.

If that's the case, then we cannot begrudge the China kids who score superlative grades because they have fixed this as their life's goal. But neither do we need to be apologetic about our approach. If I believe that life is more than acing exams and give my kids the type of childhood I endorse, then I also need to accept the fact that the China kids will likely out-perform mine academically.

To use an analogy, when we compete in a race, we first acknowledge the terms for winning. But if we decide that our first priority is not bringing home the challenge trophy, that there are other aspects of the race that we value like sportsmanship or the process of racing, then we don't have a right to complain about not winning or about fellow racers who zero in on the winning at the expense of all else. By the same token, we shouldn't let others dictate to us that winning is everything.

Do I resent these China kids? Not at all. I admire their tenacity, their single-mindedness and dogged perseverance. But I also feel a little sorry for them (of course this is from my developed world, middle-class mindset) and I do not want my kids to live that life. That is my conscious decision and I will have to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Philly no bake cheesecake

My kids are crazy about cheesecake and years ago, I found this recipe online for a no bake cheesecake. What I love about it is that it's easy, no need for an oven - just assemble, freeze and tah-dah! Quite idiot-proof. Taste-wise, this is no slacker. It's 100 times better than the frozen Sara Lee versions you find in the supermarket. I've served it at parties and it's a real hit with both adults and kids.

The reason I haven't made this in a while is because it's a highly fattening dessert and a couple of my family members (ahem!) seriously don't need any top-ups in the sugar department. However, Andre has been bugging me to make this and since the exams are over, I thought it was time for a treat.

I sometimes alternate between a digestive base and an Oreo base. My kids prefer the Oreo base, the Oreo fans that they are, but Kenneth and I find that it overpowers the taste of the cheesecake. We prefer the original digestive base. Anyway, I'm listing the recipe for both versions - in case I wasn't clear enough, you're supposed to pick one, not do both!

Ingredients

Filling:

500g Philadephia cream cheese
100g sugar
125ml whipping cream
½ tsp vanilla essence

Digestive base:

200g digestive biscuits, crushed
80g butter, softened
2 tsp sugar

Oreo base:

200g Oreo cookies, crushed
40g butter, softened

Recipe

1. In a bowl, use fingers to mix together all ingredients for chosen base until finely crumbed.

2. Press down onto a 20cm pie pan to form a base. Place in refrigerator.

3. Beat cream cheese with sugar and vanilla essence.

4. Whip cream in another bowl, fold into cream cheese mixture.

5. Remove pan from refrigerator, spread mixture on top of base.

6. Cover with cling wrap, freeze for 3 hours.

7. Place in refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.


Tips:
  • Philadephia cream cheese comes in two versions - tub and block. I've used both, there's no difference in taste. I usually use Philadephia Light as it's less fattening but you can use the regular option if you prefer

  • I use a disposable aluminum tray instead of a pie pan, it works perfectly and is especially handy for parties.

  • If you like a little tang in your cheesecake, add a tsp of lemon juice to the cream cheese mixture.

  • You can also add strawberries or blueberries on top of your cheesecake to dress it up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Badminton competition update

Over the weekend, Andre participated in a badminton competition for under-12 boys organised by a neighbourhood community centre. We expected it to be a small-scale affair - only a CC right? Boy, were we wrong! It attracted some 60 participants, many of whom were familiar faces from the inter-school tournaments.

Each match consisted of only one game of 21 points, no best of three. I suppose it was in the interest of time due to the larger than expected number of participants.

Round 1 was quite straightforward. Andre was matched against an inexperienced player and won the match easily, 21-4.

In Round 2, Andre met someone from his training academy. What are the odds! Here's a clip of the match, Andre is at the far end. He took the match, 21-11.

video

In Round 3, the two boys were quite evenly matched up but unfortunately, Andre got too kancheong and he gave away too many points by serving badly. Within this two-minute video clip, he served out three times. It cost him the match - 17-21. He was terribly disappointed, I suspect because he knew he could have won it. Winning this match would have moved him into the quarter-finals.

video

However, as we told Andre, it's all part and parcel of chalking up competition experience. This is the furthest he has ever gone in an individual competition and considering he has been playing competitively for less than six months, we thought getting to the third round was quite a credible achievement. It's a long journey yet and he's definitely going to face many more defeats, but hopefully also more triumphs.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The tale of the agricultural village

Once upon a time, there was an agricultural village in a rich and fertile valley. To ensure the health of its children, the village elders mandated a daily diet of one portion each of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit for dinner everyday.

As the years went by, some parents found it more and more difficult to get their children to finish their portion of vegetables. The elders tried to make the vegetables more interesting. Instead of just spinach everyday, they introduced carrots and green beans. However, the problem continued. In some households, dinner time took twice as long because the children struggled to finish their portion of vegetables. There were fights and tears. Many children grew to hate the smell of vegetables.

The elders studied the problem and found that there were a growing number of such children. In fact, 1 in 10 children had a severe food intolerance to carrots. Some families had moved away to other villages because they couldn't keep up with the vegetable policy. The elders suggested, "maybe if we reduced the portion of vegetables slightly, that might help."

This caused a big furore in the village.

"You're threatening our livelihood! This is a conspiracy by the rich and privileged fishmongers!" roared the vegetable sellers.

"Vegetables are in our roots, this is how our village was founded! Villagers who don't eat vegetables should be ashamed of themselves."

"One portion each is fair! I hate fish, why should you only reduce the portion of vegetables?"

"The children are just spoilt, they should try harder!"

"They should have a better attitude towards vegetables!"

"It's the parents' fault, they should have force fed their children vegetables when they were babies."

"I had to grow up eating a portion of vegetables everyday! If I could do it, so can you."

The parents protested, "We're not saying vegetables are not important! But we want our children to love eating them. Forcing the children to eat one portion everyday is making them hate vegetables for life."

One parent chirped, "We moved here from another village! We don't have vegetable growers in our roots!"

Another added, "We moved here from a cattle ranch! We didn't even have vegetables available. It's a foreign food to my children."

Yet another said, "Why should you dictate how much and what we eat? It's a personal choice."

Others insisted, "My children have really tried their best but they just can't finish it. I even tried hiring a professional cook to make the vegetables more palatable. It didn't help much." (In fact, professional vegetable cooks were greatly in demand and a highly paid trade).

The uproar intensified. Both sides were shouting to be heard and it threatened to break the harmony of the otherwise apathetic village.

The elders retreated so quickly they left skid marks. "Calm down, everything remains the way it always was. Maybe within the next 5 - 15 years, we'll look at adding bok choy to the vegetable mix."

And thus, another generation of vegetable-hating villagers was created.

THE END

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Girls are out-performing boys in school

A friend recently sent me this New York Times article which confirmed what I've suspected for a while now - in many developed countries, girls are performing better in school than boys.

I won't reproduce the whole article here but here are some of the statistics quoted (this is in the US):
  • The average high school grade point average is 3.09 for girls and 2.86 for boys. Boys are almost twice as likely as girls to repeat a grade.
  • In elementary schools, about 79% of girls could read at a level deemed “proficient,” compared with 72% of boys.

  • In federal writing tests, 32% of girls are considered “proficient” or better. For boys, the figure is 16%.
The only exception to this trend is that boys still beat out girls at the very top of the curve, especially in math.

The finding seems to be paralleled in Singapore. If you look at the cut-off points for secondary schools, the girls' schools have been edging out the boys' schools. At the O levels, again the girls' schools have been churning out better results. I don't have any official numbers but anecdotally, I've found that the girls seem to be thrive in our primary school system much better than the boys.

So what's the reason for this? Just last month, I wrote a post about how the Singapore school system seems to be designed for girls but since this problem is not limited to Singapore, that can't be the only reason. I often hear parents say that boys mature later. I guess if you take "mature" to mean being able to sit still and focus for longer periods, that would be one possible explanation.

The NY Times article quoted Richard Whitmire, author of the book "Why Boys Fail" as saying that schools have increasingly emphasised verbal skills which do not play to the strengths of boys. “The world has gotten more verbal,” he writes. “Boys haven’t.” This is in line with findings on how boys' brains process language differently (and less efficiently) than girls.

The article didn't give any definite answers but one thing seems clear - poor reading habits exacerbates the problem. "Poor reading skills snowball through the grades,” writes Whitmire. “By fifth grade, a child at the bottom of the class reads only about 60,000 words a year in and out of school, compared to a child in the middle of the class who reads about 800,000 words a year.”

If that's the case, then cultivating good reading habits is even more critical than ever. If you have boys like Andre, where reading is not an activity they gravitate towards naturally, then finding books that interest them needs to take priority. As the article suggests, if it takes books with gross bits, wild adventures and explosions to get the boys to read, then so be it. As long as it gets the job done, why not?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Gestures of love on Mother's Day

I think it's a cruel joke that Mother's Day falls right smack in the middle of mid-year exams. How to celebrate and relax when you're stressed out over revision and knee deep in assessment papers?

Kenneth reminded me that Mother's Day originated from the US and offered to take over revisions with Andre for the day. Now, THAT'S a super Mother's Day gift!

But as always, my kids came through for me. Lesley-Anne presented me with this absolutely adorable blue hedgehog which she crafted herself, using a ping pong ball and scraps from an old towel. What can I say? Her creativity and thoughtfulness are straight from the heart. I'm so blessed.

Andre gave me his usual card made from construction paper, done the night before (he'd only found out about Mother's Day a few days ago). Clipped at the back of the card, I found this:










Four whole dollars! Well, if you calculate its value from a nine-year-old's perspective, this is probably closer to $400. Quite a fortune, really. I'm considering framing it up.

Some time back while I was sitting in Andre's room watching him play, he suddenly turned to me, gave me a bear hug and said, "You're the best mummy in the world." When Lesley-Anne was 10, she had to write and present an essay in class on the person she admires most. The honour went to me.

Mother's Day is grand and I appreciate the wonderful gestures of love. But you know what's even better? Displays of affection in an otherwise ordinary moment, without the motivation of a dedicated "day" or event. These are the little sparks that remind us mums, especially during times of self-doubt or reproach, we must have at least done something right.

A very happy Mother's Day to all you special mums out there, and may your journey of motherhood be a richly fulfilling one!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Books for animal lovers part 2

I'd previously mentioned that Lesley-Anne loves animals and given my recommendations for books for animal lovers. Since then, she has discovered more terrific animal-themed books which I thought I'd share.

First, a couple of classics:

1. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

This Pulitzer Prize book is the quintessential American novel. A young boy Jody living in the Florida scrublands adopts an orphaned fawn whom he calls Flag and loves dearly. Through his relationship with his pet, Jody learns some of life's hardest lessons, even harsher than the outback environment he lives in.

If you're not fond of sad stories, then be warned, this book will make you cry.

2. Bambi by Felix Salten

It bugged me to no end that when I went to bookshops asking for Bambi, I received mostly blank looks from the salespersons. One asked, "Isn't it a cartoon?" Yes. And Michelangelo is a masked turtle.

A 1926 classic, Bambi grows up in a forest glade surrounded by animal friends and his loving mother. The woodland creatures' fear of man arouses conflicting feelings in Bambi when his friend Gobo, who had spent a winter living with humans, showed no such wariness.

This book holds many similarities to The Yearling. Another heart-breaker, Bambi was one of the few animal books I loved growing up. I found it in the library and borrowed it many times after.

Moving on to more contemporary titles:

3. Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver













This is a popular series consisting of Wolf Brother, Spirit Walker, Soul Eater, The Outcast, Oath Breaker and Ghost Hunter, in that order.

Torak, a 12-year-old boy, sees his father killed by a demon-possessed bear and sets out unwillingly to find the Mountain of the World Spirit in order to defeat the bear. His only companion in this dangerous quest is a young wolf cub. Thus begins the first installment of an imaginative and thrilling fantasy series that has captured the hearts of many teenagers.

4. African wildlife series by Lauren St John

I left Lesley-Anne's favourite series to last. It would be hard to find a richer backdrop for animal stories than South Africa. Lauren St John paints a lush picture of mystique, culture and suspense, peppered with African folklore. The protagonist is 11-year-old Martine, who finds out that she has "the gift". The first book, The White Giraffe, tells of how she sets out to thwart poachers intent on capturing the legendary white giraffe. The books follow a conservation theme without being moralistic or preachy, which adds to the appeal for animal lovers.

There are currently four books to the series: The White Giraffe, Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard and The Elephant's Tale.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Labelling for good, not bad

If you're like me and scores of other Singaporean parents, we're always at our kids' throats when they do something wrong. "Why so many careless mistakes?" "How come so untidy?" "Why didn't you complete your homework?"

I don't know about you but even though I've probably read a thousand times that positive strokes work better than negative ones, barking comes instinctive to me. I suspect it's in my DNA.

It's easier to be encouraging to kids who are generally good, those who always do their work well and never give any trouble. In our household, this would be Lesley-Anne. She does well in school and even though there are subjects she struggles with, she works diligently at them. It's hard to get mad at a child with a dedicated work ethic.

Andre is different. His school work see-saws depending on whether he was particularly inspired at the time he was doing it. It sometimes takes several repetitions before can grasp a concept and he often forgets what he has learnt. When the going get tough, he loses interest, makes excuses or cries. It's much harder to maintain a positive attitude towards those kids who constantly don't conform, so it's no surprise that he tends to get the brunt of scoldings. Kenneth is even more impatient than I am, especially when he attempts to teach Andre and I often have to remind him that Andre not understanding his work is not a deliberate ploy to spite him.

There were periods last year when Andre seemed forlorn and subdued, almost lost. It felt like he was going through the daily motions aimlessly, getting into trouble or throwing tantrums without being able to explain why. It got to a point where I felt sorry for him - he was like a little lost sheep. I started making a conscious effort to praise him more, even for little things, and not be so quick to jump on his mistakes. I don't remember when it began but when I put him to bed at night, in addition to the usual hugs and kisses, I told him, "You're a good boy." It wasn't a conscious action on my part until a few weeks later, I suddenly noticed that it had become a ritual and I was telling him this every night. "You're a good boy."

Maybe subconsciously, I realised that Andre needed affirmation of his self-worth. You know, children who get into trouble a lot often think that they're bad children. When they are constantly admonished for their misdeeds, it's hard for them to distinguish between the act and the person. Many of them actually believe that they are not good and ironically, start acting out according to this perception of them.

This is the classic labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy effect where we act the way we are treated. If we are treated as if we are bad, stupid or whatever, we will act, and even become, this way. In a 1969 ground-breaking study by Rosenthal and Jacobson, all the children in an elementary class were given a test and the teachers were told that some of children were unusually clever (though they were actually average). At the end of the school year, the same class was tested and the children were who identified had improved their scores far more than other children. How did this happen? The teachers believed these kids were smarter and treated them as such. When treated as such, the kids started thinking they were smarter and actually BECAME smarter. Mind-boggling stuff.

A kid who's constantly told he's naughty continues to act out because he believes he has no choice, that's who he is. This also potentially leads to poorer self-image and an inner belief that he's less deserving of love or acceptance from his parents, society or God because he's inherently bad.

We need to be aware and change this. Never, never, never call your children "naughty", "bad", "petty", "lazy", etc. Correct the mistake but don't label the person. By doing so, we're actually sabotaging ourselves and reinforcing the behaviour.

This year, I find that Andre has become more sensible. He fusses less about doing his homework, he seems to have settled in better in school. Now when he gets a sub-par mark for spelling or ting xie, there's no need to scold him because he's visibly dissatisfied with his own result. Last week, he had so much homework that it overran into his play time but he told me he's not complaining because he knows the exams are coming. (Of course he had to advertise it to me lah, a sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless someone knows about it).

Maybe he's just maturing naturally but what's clear to me is that the positive strokes have motivated him significantly better than the scoldings. Maybe hearing that he's a good boy every night has in some small part, helped him realise that his scrapes and misdemeanors don't define who he is.

I've known all along that Andre's a good boy at heart. He just needed to believe it too.
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