A Good School

Few months ago, we were in the process of looking for a Secondary school for our elder boy. He has done considerably well for his PSLE. Though we can’t claim much credit for his results, we did put in effort in finding a good school for him.

Despite MOE’s goal to make every school in Singapore a good school, our own experience showed that the reality is not quite as such. Each year, the heightened anxiety during school registration might be a good indicator to support our sentiment.

We didn’t know any better 7 years ago and we just went for a school that is nearest to our home. It was quite a popular school in our neighbourhood probably due to the awards the school had clinched and the past years’ PSLE results of students. It was then that I realised that different parents may have very different judging criteria for a good school.

I was the parent who questioned when my boy brought home too much homework or when they were not allowed to run in the field during recess time or when they can’t buy a bottle of mineral water from the drink stall because the school doesn’t sell them. That was despite the school being in the Healthy Meals Program. Apparently, sweet drinks made it into the school’s list of healthy drinks but not mineral water.

Our experience with our boys’ school has given us a clearer idea what to look out for when choosing a school. But the truth is, to really know the inside working of the school, we have to go beyond reading the schools’ vibrant web pages and glossy pages of the schools’ journal.

While MOE’s website has given a good list on what makes a good school, the question lies with how well can schools achieve those goals.

We went through the grey handbook that was given to every Singaporean kids registering for Secondary 1. It gives the list of schools in every part of Singapore and all the CCAs and special programs offered by different schools. The book gives a good summary of what each school offers but little about what we really need to know about the schools.

We decided to visit some of the schools and eventually it was these visits that helped us decide on our 6 choices of schools to put in his posting form.

Here are the 4 things we look out for in a school that goes beyond A* and PSLE cutoff point.

Trust and Respect

During our visits, some schools welcomed us onto their premises when we told them we were considering putting our kids in the school and wanted to take a look around, others were suspicious and unwelcome. We understand the need for security in the school, but what threat can a mother with two young kids in tow pose to a school during the December holidays?

We believe that a school with a culture of trust and respect can be observed through the non teaching staff in the school, from administrative staff to security guards and general cleaners. When students grow and learn in an environment where every individual is trusted and respected, the same attitude will be cascaded down to the students. If the general belief is that students are pesky troublemakers, they WILL be pesky troublemakers.

A Caring School

Are school decisions made through careful consideration on what is the best for the students, guided by a consistent value system and principles? Or does the school implement (MOE) policies but fail to achieve the intent of the policy? Does the school hold itself to its own values? Does the school pay lip service to what it says it will do?

For example, I think it is futile to teach students the school’s values by doing worksheets. Can we teach leadership skills and values by having the students do more worksheets? Don’t be surprised that some schools actually do that. As parents, we teach good values by modeling them and setting good examples. We make tough decisions based on our values in our everyday lives and during our daily interactions with the children.

I believe that a school that cares enough will also put some thought into the kind of food they serve in the canteen. When students are expected to spend long hours in schools, I would think that schools have the responsibility to give students the option of buying healthy food during recess and lunch.

The selection of food in my kids’ Primary School is dismaying. Our request for a microwave to be placed in the canteen so that children can bring their own food to heat up during recess was turned down. Speaking to the school and Health Promotion Board people who came by to audit the school canteen proved to be futile in improving the quality of food sold in the canteen. I learned about the problems faced by the school and stall holders. I concluded that the school either lacks interest or believes in different things.

My advice is, check out the food in the canteen when visiting the schools. The rule of thumb, if you think you wouldn’t eat there, why should we expect the students to do so.

Empowerment

One of the things that we want is for schools to empower their students. Empowerment makes the students take charge and take ownership of the things that they do. However it can be risky because things can go awry and the school ultimately needs to take responsibility. It can also be scary for the student because it forces them to try something new, go outside their comfort zones, and they can fail. Failure, can be scary, but a necessary ingredient to success. After all, we only learn how to walk by falling countless times.

During one of the visits to my son’s current school, I was taken aback by a student’s speech. He had said something which I thought wasn’t really appropriate. The principal later clarified that he did not vet through his speech and had only given the student a few pointers on what to talk about.

The principal gained my admiration because of how he chose to give his students free rein to do his speech. I see a principal who values the learning experience of his students over the image of his school. How many principals will risk having his students give a lousy speech that will make his school look bad?

This is probably hard to tell from a walk-in-visit but a school that often let its students be in charge of school’s event such as open house and orientation might be a tell tale sign that the school is unafraid to let the students make mistake and learn from their mistakes. Both failure and success build learning confidence. When students feel confident about decision-making and feel recognized as capable by the school, they gain the confidence and skill to “take” control of their own learning.

Positive Experience

There are many insights that can be gleaned by simply talking to or observing the current students. Are the students generally negative or positive about their school? Are the students proud of their school and its values? Do they come forth to defend the image of the school? Do they behave themselves in public? Students who behave themselves even when their teachers are not around show a high level of maturity and self discipline. Sure, there will be outliers but the trend will always tend towards the mean.

And I think our intuition about my son’s Secondary school had been right. Just 3 months into his new school and my son has everything good to say about his school. It is a big contrast from his 6 years of experience in his Primary school. What his Primary school couldn’t achieved in 6 years was accomplished in 3 months in his new school.

His current school invested significant resources to organize orientation and school camp within the first month of school year. I think the investment had paid off. It fostered camaraderie amongst the students, created a common sense of identity and ownership. Though still new to the school, my son feels that he belongs to the school and is also responsible to uphold the school’s values. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your children is in good hands and that you have a found a partner to journey through this turbulent teenage years.

Our experience with our son’s new secondary school has given us hope that making every school a good school is achievable. However it is only possible under a capable principal and a team of dedicated teachers. Like any organisation, it takes good leadership with effective execution skills and sound strategy to bring vision to fruition.

 
 

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I Think I Can Paint

I have been a little bit caught up with my new pastime lately and it was my elder boy who reminded me to write something on this space! Yes, he’s my biggest fan, more so than his Dad.

After reviewing the Hello Spring Kit in my last post, I went on to play with the remaining paint that came with the kit and discovered that I could actually paint!

I’ve always been fascinated by people who could sketch, paint or draw through visualizing and imagination. It is amazing how they can store every single details of any object of interest into memory, recreate reality or create something that they have never seen before and put it on paper or a blank canvas.

I have met a couple of these people and it was simply mind blowing seeing them work. When you ask them how they did it, they usually can’t provide a very concrete answer and would probably throw you a perplexed look and answer something to the effect of ‘It’s simple, you mean you can’t?!’. These people have an innate skill, they are talented. I am lucky to have met these people but it has also discouraged me from trying because I knew I don’t have that kind of skill or talent.

So what I did the last couple of weeks was really not something I would usually do, to try something that I am totally not cut out for. It has been fun so far and I have been spending many quiet mornings mixing paint trying to get the perfect blend and attempting different kinds of pictures.

This was painted from a photo I took over the weekend. My younger boy playing with his cousin.

We were at one of those shophouses with an old back alley and these 2 boys spent a long time playing there. There were some rocks and a big bag of sand left over from some renovation work.

They set up a battlefield with little rocks as troops and played for hours. When I showed him this picture and asked him how they played their game, this was his explanation.

‘The rocks are the troops, defenders, king and queen. We are the canon. We fire striker rocks to attack the other person’s base.

To play this game, you must build a mountain with flat and smooth edges on the side. You use the rocks as troops and you stuff them into the sand to stabilize them. After you have built your army you can start the game.

Whoever’s older will strike first. You can use your troops to defend your defenders (which are big and fat rocks) who will defend your king and queen. Once the person has no more troops, defenders and king and queen, he loses’

Watching the boys play reminds me of painting. They might have played there for hours but they barely noticed how long they were there because they were having so much fun. Time flies when you are having fun.

So it doesn’t really matter even if I am not cut out to be an artist or a painter because time seems to zip by the few mornings when I sit down to paint. I guess I must be having fun and that is reason good enough to continue painting! Besides, who knows, I might be able to teach my boys a lesson or two. That even though we are short of talent, our abilities can improve if we put in enough effort.

 

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Growing The Roots Of Tradition And Custom

It’s the 7th day of Chinese New Year (CNY). The Chinese called it Renri and it is said to be everyone’s birthday. It is the day for Yusheng (Prosperity Toss) and Tang Yuan (Dumplings).

I used to chide at my mom for kicking up a big fuss over Chinese New Year, only to find myself just as anal as her when it comes to preparing for this occasion. Why? So that it feels like Chinese New Year.

There probably isn’t any logical or scientific explanation for the many things we do during CNY such as the incessant cleaning and obsession of having new things. New clothes, new shoes, new bedsheets etc.

Reading through my old CNY posts reminded me that I struggled with some sort of identity crisis every year during this time. Yes, I believe that a troubled and confused mind is the reason behind these posts, much like troubled times create poets.

By now, I should have written everything I wanted to say about Chinese New Year.

Or maybe not.

This year, I relearned some of these old lessons, which reminded me that I should just make it a point to read through some of these posts every year!

It struck me again that there isn’t such thing as advance spring cleaning. An earlier start just leads to a longer torment. Things start to get dusty again after 1 week. There is always more things to clean! The grout in your kitchen tiles and the metal parts around the house that were screaming out for Brasso!

Each year, apart from all the incessant cleaning, I couldn’t resist making something.

It wasn’t due to a lack of choice when it comes to pineapple tarts or Kueh Lapis, unlike when we were living overseas. I learned that rational and logical thinking can’t win the deep roots of customs and traditions our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers growed.

I am lucky to have 2 great chefs in my life, my mother and my mother-in-law. Both of them have very different styles of cooking. I shall call them the Agaration Chef and the Precision Chef.

The Agaration Chef will steam her yam cake every year but can’t tell you exactly how much of each ingredient she used. The Precision Chef knows the exact amount, right down to how many grams of Bee Hoon she needs to feed each person. She keeps an old industrial size weighing machine in her kitchen and she weighs everything.

After many years of nagging, the Agaration Chef finally sees the light, that precise measurement has its place when it comes to cooking certain food. And through the years, the Precision Chef has lost some of her ability to remember precise measurement due to an aging brain.

This year, I made something that were Chinese New Year Signature food from each chef. They were signature because these are the food that make us think of them.

I made Agaration Chef’s Yam Cake and Precision Chef’s Ah Zhar through a mix of agaration, precise measurement and some trial and errors. My boys thought they were the best yam cake and Ah Zhar.

The fact is, every household will probably have their best yam cake, Ah Zhar, pineapple tarts or Kueh Lapis. It is like my boys may think that I am the BEST cook but my nephews may cringe at the food I cooked.

The truth is, I am far from being the best. My boys are biased. They grew up eating what I cooked and have grown accustomed to my cooking. Any other ways of preparing the same food can only come second best.

So even if I can’t make the best Kueh Lapis, it’s ok. My boys will probably grow up thinking that Kueh Lapis should taste a little charred and a little chewy just like Mom’s. That is to them, the Best Kueh Lapis, the kind that they will miss because in the midst of feeding them these food, I have grown the roots, of tradition and custom, things that they will remember and hopefully carry on even long after I am gone.

 
 

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