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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Water: The Stuff of Life

Once I realized how much water the airconditioners draw out of the air every night in our room, I itched to collect it somehow. It is completely pure water you know. Pure distilled water. Distilled water from the stores cost a bundle and when you use the Karcher steamer as much as we do, then it is a very costly recurrent expense.

So, when we built the new house, I got The Panda to route the airconditioner water discharge to convenient places for easy water collection. The children's airconditioners route into the service toilet at the back of the house. The master bedroom airconditioner routes into the rooftop garden just outside the room. We collect enough water to feed the steamer and to mop the whole house everyday. Any leftovers go to the plants or into the washing machine.

You can see from the photos that the water is crystal clear. It isn't drinkable however because drinking pure distilled water leaches important minerals out of our bodies and make us ill after some time. Still, it is enough water to keep water bills down. There are so many airconditioners in Singapore. Much of the water condensed out of the air is discharged into sewage pipes. What a waste!! If you consider that in one night 3 aircons produce enough water to mop approx 4500sq ft of real estate, with left over to spare for steamer and plants, then think of all the clean water that is poured into the sewage pipes. Aircon discharge should mandatorily be put into the rainwater collection system don't you think? But well... since no one has thought of that, Petunia has decided not to let that water go to waste.

Waste not. Want not.

We've other methods of reusing water too. There is NO bathtub in the house. Everyone showers. We stand over a pail as we wash and let the bathwater collect. This is enough to flush the toilets. I also made sure that the toilet bowl was right next to the shower area.

Of course, when guests come, all these ugly pails are kept out of sight. Shhhhhhh!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reviewing the System of Assessing Schools

Not too long ago, I wrote a petition to the Education Minister. See here. Around that time, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of other parents also wrote in to give their views to the Education Minister. Some initiatives on Facebook even went viral. Then, nothing happened for a few months...

Till yesterday.

The MOE has unveiled plans to set up a Character & Citizenship Unit, an extra rudder to reposition the attention of educators on character building. Also, the MOE will review the manner in which schools are assessed. There were few details but I understood that the crux of this review would be to (1) reduce inter-school competition and, (2) free up Teachers' time from doing all the administrative work required to apply and qualify for MOE awards, just so that they could get more funding for school activities.

At present, teaching is inadequate in many schools. Little Boy's Chinese Language Teacher does not provide model compositions, nor any substantial materials on tackling Chinese Oral. I don't see any attempt to TEACH Chinese compo writing because I don't see any notes, glossary lists nor model compositions. Worse still, compo writing is a skill. It can only be learnt through skills practice, and it is not often that the Teacher requires Little Boy to do Chinese compos for practice. It seemed to me that the CL Teacher's role was to teach to the CL textbook (wherein the language used is way easier than what Little Boy has to write to even pass his compo writing tests)... mark and grade for gap diagnosis. It was then up to parents to analyze the gaps and then to - see my valiant efforts here (1) source for adequate learning materials (since the school textbooks are useless - see blogpost here), (2) source for external teaching professionals or (3) attend parent workshops to learn how to teach.

So, I was bitterly amused when I read in today's papers that parents nowadays have to resort to paying hundreds of dollars to learn how to teach their children. Of course, no one disputes that parents need to be partners in a child's education. But any partnership can turn exploitative if one is not careful. The way I see it, whilst schools were busy chasing MOE awards, deploying and promoting teaching talent adept at the tasks of refining school processes and writing award application reports... the schools forgot to teach, and they looked to their parent partners and gave over to the parent partners more and more of the teaching load. Desperate parents with full-time jobs turned to the tuition industry. Desperate parents without fulltime jobs went to class to learn how to teach.

Schools partner parents. Whilst schools used Teacher time to chase awards... parent partners are left to do the teaching? Hopefully, in reviewing the way schools are assessed, schools will begin to deploy teacher time to teaching, and no more award chasing.

Now, it is untrue to say that all schools don't teach adequately. I have seen Chongfu Primary's excellent resources (1cm thick just for CL Oral alone). I have seen another 1cm stack from Qihua Primary. I have seen model Chinese compositions from Nanyang Primary School - 54 different ones. I need to activate personal relationships or pay for these materials. And I have been told NOT to share them in order to respect the copyright of the schools. And I won't share them for fear that these very same people will refuse in future to further share their resources with me.

I have become a sort of educational material drug addict waiting for my next fix of needed educational materials, and afraid they won't come... even if I had the money to buy them. I'm not selfish, but I WILL NOT share the materials I have because I WON'T RISK offending my supplier.

This makes salient another disadvantage of the MOE awards and assessment system. Schools try to outcompete each other. School developed materials are sometimes marked Confidential (Not to Be Shared). This is terrible because when textbooks are useless, the children need something else to learn from. A bright and motivated child in a school that DOES NOT develop any educational aids cannot do well.

Little Boy has a mother who goes to great lengths to procure high quality materials. Else, Little Boy too would fail too, even though he has more than the average aptitude for scholastic achievement. How much talent are we wasting across the nation... children whose parents have not the resources (time and money) to procure such materials.

Clearly, the cut-throat competition for funding (tied to MOE awards) has resulted in what management speak terms "Sub-Unit Optimisation causing Whole Unit Sub-Optimisation". This is another way of saying that when your liver competes with and outperforms your stomach, your whole person experiences the discomfort of heartburn. When the different components of a whole organisation compete instead of collaborate, then the whole organisation can underperform. Can you imagine if every Police Division competed with each other to solve crime? If info were needed from another Police Division to solve crime in this one, and the other denied access to such info to win over the first... how effective would the whole Police Force be at solving crime?

The way I see it, it is absolutely WONDERFUL that someone in MOE put his/her finger on a high leverage point of change - review the way schools are assessed so as to (1) reduce inter-school competition and (2) free up Teachers' time. Press this one button, and MANY things will happen. No one but someone really smart, very insightful and very familiar with MOE would have been able to find this point of high leverage. The challenge now is to press this button right, so that the right behaviors are incentivised and at the right dosage too... 'cos it wouldn't do to NOT have any competition at all.

All in all, I feel listened to... and heard. My very first attempt at giving feedback coherently, cogently and passionately to the government has been a largely positive one. MOE got in touch with me, talked to me and still keeps in touch. And this only goes to show that our government is sincere about understanding the needs of the commonfolk.

However, I still worry. I am worried that Teachers have got a taste of how good it feels to divest their teaching responsibilities onto parent shoulders... and that this habit will be hard to break? What the MOE unveiled in this year's MOE Work Plan Seminar is a good plan. But the implementation is still what counts.

I do wonder too... if it would be a good idea to have an MOE online freeware resource. Teachers upload the materials they write. MOE pays them a little extra for each download. Those who write good and excellent materials will get more rewards because the market is discerning and word of mouth is powerful and quick to respond to changes. In this way, the useless textbooks can be altogether retired (because most of them look like chick lit magazines anyway - glossy pictures and little content) and the whole educational materials resources system is responsive to exam requirements. Also, Teachers don't need to resign to make more money as private assessment book writers... and private tutors. More importantly, bright students across the nation have EQUAL access to high quality educational resources. The problem of unequal access to high quality teaching and learning resources is important to fix. Else, there will be talent wastage. Bright and hardworking children like Little Boy (without parents or parents with resources) will fail like my son did before I intervened... and the nation will see more and more talent wastage.

Just an idea.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reaching the Tipping Point for Chinese: Part 4

Little Boy memorized his very first Chinese composition last year in Nov-Dec 2010. We are now September 2011. It has been 10 months. The start was most onerous indeed. To describe the first 25 compo memorizations as long and hard toil, is perhaps an understatement. He could not recognize more than half the words in each compo. The compos were taken from a compendium of 1000 Best Compositions from the equivalent of China's PSLE. They were at least 3 to 4 years above his reading level then. Grandma read them into a digital audio file and Little Boy plugged in the speakers and listened and followed and memorized and recited to me.

The very first week, he spent 7 hours a day reciting these compos. I sat near him. I worked near him. It was, for me, like nursing a querulous sick child back to health. You stay there by his side so that he has the strength to carry on, and to not give up on a task that looked impossible to him. There was nothing I could do for him because I am illiterate in Chinese. It was a bit like watching your child battle critical illness and not be able to do anything but hold his hand and stay nearby.

From reciting others' works, he moved on to writing his own. We were thrilled that he could score 34/40 for a piece of compo homework. But those 3 pages meant 6 hours of sustained effort. Under the timed conditions of 50 minutes in the exam, he failed his compo at the mid-year exams. However, he did very well for his Comprehension because all the reading and recitation had improved his word recognition immensely. Thanks to the recitation, he scored wonderfully for Oral reading because he was expressive and he could recognise all the words in the text. Overall, he managed to do well enough to avoid being asked to attend supplementary classes. Even though he had failed his compo, I convinced him that it was still a triumph to be celebrated.

"It isn't where you start. It's where you end up" I said. And if he continued to work at that pace, I swore by Mommy's Honour that he would end up somewhere nice in December of 2012, after the PSLE.

During the June hols 2011 of this year, he wrote one composition everyday for 3 weeks. At the same time, he read 2 model compositions each day. I had hired a tutor round about then who was a rich source of EXCELLENT model compositions written by students from a certain Top School. He learnt to highlight "yummy expressions" and use them. In the first 2 weeks, I allowed him to refer to any material he wanted. In the 3rd week, he did timed trials of 50 minutes. Again, it was a frustrating effort because it seemed that he could never complete within the time. Meanwhile, his poor tuition teacher marked his compos ad nauseum.

As CA2 (the tests in 3rd quarter of the year) neared, he got closer and closer to the 50 mins time target... until 1 week before the test, he barely managed to write 2 pages in 50 minutes, replete with "yummy expressions". He scored 28/40 in his Chinese compo test. One strategy we used was to choose chunks that could be generally used in almost any compo, and to memorize them for regurgitation. This saved time and helped him to make it to 2 pages in 50 mins.

He devoured his tutor's Chinese model compositions with an appetite so voracious that he quickly exhausted the stack of model compositions provided by his tuition teacher (because his school teacher provided none at all). There were 54 in all. By now, the file is all tatty and worn from having been well-thumbed through and referred to every time he wrote a compo. In general, he did 2 kinds of compo practices. In the first, he focused on learning and using new expressions. He did these compos in about 2 to 3 hours... checking and copying. In the second kind of compo practice, he focused on speed.

We gave up on reading for pleasure. It was too slow. Not intense enough, and couldn't give us the quick wins we were starving for. Strangely too, Little Boy was frustrated with reading for pleasure. Learning Chinese was such a painful process that I absolutely had to help him to mastery quickly so that he could at least feel a sense of achievement (and I suppose he was impatient for the same reason?). Hungry for more model compositions but pressed for time on all sides (because we still had to find time for Math, English and Science, which thankfully, Little Boy seems to grasp quickly and requires perhaps only 1 or 2 exam practices before exams).

Pressed for time, we turned to the less challenging compositions published in Singapore and sold at Popular bookstore. Grandma recorded 49 of these and Little Boy read them all, and knew them well enough to add these to his store of reference materials to use for compo practices.

That makes 25 + 54 + 49 model compositions that Little Boy had come to know like the back of his hand. He had to read, re-read, write and re-write again and again and again. That was the only way to commit the Chinese characters to long term memory. What's this about making learning Chinese fun? It ain't fun. It's plain hard work like practising scales on the piano.

We had again run out of model compos to read. I was searching about for compos and had settled for one printed in Singapore for secondary school students. Little Boy complained that it was boring. He went to dig out the Compendium of 1000 compos that we had worked on in Nov-Dec last year, and said "Mom, I like these. They're easier and more interesting to read."

It was only then that it dawned on me how much he had learnt.

What had seemed to him impossibly difficult last year, to read and understand, had now become interesting and easy. Wow! He had actually gotten good enough to have fun with the language. I sat back... pensive and wistful and quietly jubilant. And then Little Boy decided that he didn't need a tutor anymore either. He said that he could pass stuff to Grandma to mark, and the rest would be his own hard work.

And then my heart swelled with pride. My boy seemed like a man already.

According to Amy Chua, the Tiger Mother, you only begin to enjoy something when you get good at it. To get good at something, you need to put in the grunt work. I dunno if that is true of everything, 'cos Petunia enjoys many things that she's no good at, but it is certainly true of learning the Chinese language. I wonder if it is a uniquely Chinese philosophy towards learning in general... and that this philosophy is so fully integrated in the codification of the Chinese language that you just gotta grunt through the pain before you get to the joy. But you know, the joy is sweet... oh-so-sweet because Little Boy feels so much more at ease in the language now. Little Boy does not dislike Chinese anymore because he has actually become rather good at it. He enjoys creative writing in Chinese, though not as much as English.

So what's this about learning Chinese the fun way? There isn't one. It's plain hard work. You memorize. You recite. You regurgitate. You do that again and again until you get good enough to do your own thing. That was the way Grandma was taught (says she) and I will tell ya... she's really good at Chinese.

This process is not for the faint-hearted. You need the heart of a lion cub and the love of a lioness. It is really not easy to stay focused on memorizing essays for 7 hours at a stretch. The child cannot do it alone. More often than not, I had to stay near just to provide the moral support that kept him from teetering over the precipice of Giving Up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Mad Dash

When we first moved in, Milo was wary of the main gate. It's this lumbering thing that rolls itself aside when the car needs to go out... and Milo stayed far away from our cars too. But familiarity breeds contempt. It wasn't long before Milo lost all fear of both metallic beasts, and dashed out for a frolic in the copse of trees nearby.

There is a biggish patch of grass and jungle just 200m from our house, and Milo being the smart fellow he is, knows that it is Dog Heaven. Some of our neighbours grow fruit trees and vegetables there because it seems that the earth around our place is quite fertile. We have papaya trees and all sorts of gourd plants and lady's fingers, which I don't dare to pluck because a short squat neighbour planted himself in front of me whilst I was admiring the plants, and announced that they belonged to him.

He smiled. But I could still feel the bristle. So I retreated back up to my 2nd storey roof garden to admire my own lady finger and brinjal plants in pots. Now back to Milo.

Sometime last week, Milo waited till the big gate had almost closed before he dashed outside and made a beeline for the copse of trees and patch of grass. He had a good time yelling at a stray dog who retreated and came back with 3 other dogs. Fear gripped my heart. I mentally saw our Milo lying there with his throat ripped out whilst the gang of 4 bloodied dogs slipped away into the darkness of the jungle patch.

I tried my best to explain to Milo, my big wimpy dog, who eats pistachios and carrots, that those are Mafia Dogs who will kill him, eat him and then gnaw at his bones. But he just hung his tongue out and me and panted, thrilled that he had gotten his way and had had a forbidden frolic.

On Monday this week, he dashed out even before The Husband's car had stretched itself for its morning run. The Husband, The Daughter and Little Boy managed to get him back before the Gang of 4 saw him. Later that morning, as I reached for my bag, Milo dashed out front and skipped about me. You know how little children skip as they alternate between one foot and the other. Milo was doing that but he looked really silly because he has four feet. I took one look at his happy face and knew exactly what he was planning to do. So I tied him up.

We decided to tie him up every morning. The first day we did that, he was most indignant. The idiot COULD NOT BELIEVE we were doing that to him. He launched into a symphony of howls and plaintive squeals. "Mooooooooom! You caaaaan't be doing this to meeeeeeee! Pleeeeeeeez! Moooooooom! Trust me! I will be safe!Pleeeeeez Mom, let me gooooooooooo!"

Milo is 2+ years. That is about 15 or 16 in human years. He is a teenager alright, and we are like the typical mom, putting constraints on him so that he would stay safe... and he doesn't like that.

I knew the ways and means to get through human adolescence with little stress. But dog adolescence is beyond my ken. Milo gets on my nerves.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Home Made Crêpes

We love crêpes. Our favourite crêperie was Marché at Somerset. The banana and mascarpone crêpe kept me awake at nights. There is also a crêperie at the Raffles City Mall that does a tiramisu crêpe to die for. But these crêppy things are rather expensive. So, when I saw a crêpe pan on sale at Isetan last year, I jumped at it.

12 months on, I am using the crêpe pan for the first time and it works like a charm. Perfectly non stick... perfectly induction cooker friendly ... and it turns out perfect crêpes. It even comes with a wooden thing to spread the batter around the pan so I feel very much like a professional crêpe cook like those I watch with fascination in Marché.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The GRC System Hurts the PAP's Future the Most

I've been mulling over the hue and cry over the GRC electoral system since Singapore's latest General Elections a while back. Previously, I cared not a whit about GRC or no GRC. The PAP was in power and that seemed quite alright to me. One never really thought about the possibility that the PAP would NOT return to power. It seemed like something of an undesirable impossibility.

Of course, there was much anti-PAP invective on the internet. Outrageous rumours and unbelievable accusations, and much of the time, one treats it as just so much noise. But the 2011 General Election made me sit up and realise one thing. If the PAP does not do away with the GRC system, popular support for the PAP will slowly erode. For whatever reason the GRC was put in, its long term effects are most harmful to the PAP.

With the GRC system, new MPs are screened by party elders and parachuted into GRCs anchored by seasoned party elders. To get voted in, there is no need for these new MPs to build relationships with the people they will be serving. Apart from the Minister standing in my ward, I knew none of the other MPs. I wouldn't recognise many of my MPs if I passed them in a restaurant because I don't know what they look like.

This said, in this day and age of social media, not knowing what they look like is less important than not knowing how they think, what they value and what they stand for. After all, the blogger Petunialee tries her best to keep her image off the internet but many blog readers know what she likes (Milo), values (frugal living) and believes in (God). At least, to some extent, they do. Petunialee has no face recognition value but at least some people have resonated enough with her thoughts and values to become fast friends with her only because of her blog.

I don't need to know what my MP looks like but I do need to know what kind of person he/she is... and what his/her values are... and what his/her motivations are... and how much courage he/she has... Gee... I know Gerald Giam better than I know 95% of the PAP MPs. Gerald wrote a book. I know how he thinks and what his motivations are. If he had stood in my ward, I would have given him my vote simply because I know him better than my PAP MPs.

What kind of people ARE my PAP MPs? Gosh, save for one Minister... I don't know. Only the PAP party elders know. The PAP party elders are themselves convinced of the moral calibre and rock solid values of their newbies because they did all the interviewing. The PAP interviewer has built a relationship with his/her candidate, not me. To me, my PAP MPs are strangers.

I voted strangers into my ward, and then when they make a boo-boo, I am wont to judge them harshly. They have had no emotional bank account with me to draw upon. Imagine if EVERY single PAP MP had face recognition, thought familiarity and values resonance with the people? This forms a considerable mass of social capital that would buffer the PAP against criticism. If we didn't know who our MPs were before we voted them, it is far easier to judge them harshly for phone texting during the national anthem, or for insulting the vast majority of the population by intimating that we "do not have dignity" because we don't earn as much as a some other people.

We did not really choose these strange PAP MPs for who they are. We picked them because they came with the PAP set lunch. Hence, we have no qualms in shooting them down. Conversely if we had known them (face recognition, thought familiarity and values resonance) and we had really chosen them for themselves, then we would be more willing to make excuses for them, if only because the human psyche hates to admit that it had made a wrong choice.

There will be detractors, but there would also be more supporters to speak up against the detractors IF we had known our MPs better before we voted them in.

Right now, only the bigwig MP in my ward has face recognition, thought familiarity and values resonance with me. If all the other 5 people on the same poster had the same face recognition, thought familiarity and values resonance as Mr BigWig PAP MP, then the PAP's collective social capital in my ward would be multiplied by 6 in my ward alone. If every PAP unknown in every ward were forced to earn face recognition, thought familiarity and values resonance with the people, PAP's collective social capital would be multiplied by as many PAP MPs as there are now unknowns. Right now, the electorate has tenuous ties to the PAP via one or two bigwig PAP MPs in each ward only. This is pauper's social capital.

The PAP deserves better.

Of course, the electorate may well think and decide that the fellow who thinks poor people lack dignity, should not be voted in because he lacks "values resonance" with the populace. But is that wrong? The way I see it, the GRC system functions like overprotective parenting. We're so afraid to let our kids/MPs take the hard knocks that we shield them so much that they never learn (political) wisdom.

If PAP MPs have the calibre, they will learn through their baptism of fire. If they perish in the fire then we know that weak links have been removed from the country's leadership. And since our country is of primary importance, removing the weak links may seem cruel but is necessary. But if politically shielded and politically sheltered and politically pampered, even the PAP MPs with the best calibre will be denied the opportunity to learn and grow strong. I love my children and because I love them, I allow them to face the music and grow through life's lessons. If the PAP really cares for its MPs' calibre then it should allow its MPs the chance to face the music and grow through political lessons.

PAP MPs deserve better.

Umpteen years ago, when TV was the all new media, Richard Nixon debated with John F. Kennedy on TV. Nixon did not master the media. On TV, he appeared belligerent and thuggish. So Kennedy carried the day. Since then, it has become accepted that politicians must know how to speak well. Speak well = politician's core competency, because speaking well = communicating well.

The social media is all about writing however. I love Khaw Boon Wan. I read his writings. I respect him enough to mentally cheer him for once saying "Hey! I am trying my best here to calm the housing market. The media should get its facts right." In my heart, I said "Yeah!! You silly newspaper! If you can't help that poor man lead, at least don't make it difficult for him!!" I read him so I felt for him.

Khaw Boon Wan is not frivolous and he writes to influence. Leaders like Lee Kuan Yew spoke to influence. Leaders of today, like Khaw Boon Wan, need to know how to WRITE I do believe that PAP MPs can do more if they mastered the skills of influencing through writing personally, personably, seriously and sincerely (and sometimes, humorously).

In effect, with the advent of the social media, a deaf-mute with ideas and his/her heart in the right place would gain a following.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sleeping Dog

I can't help but feel that there is something wrong when an entire family is so besotted with how Milo sleeps at night. The Daughter was dismayed at the size of the mosquitoes and she fretted over the number of mosquito bumps on Milo's pelt. I had lit mosquito coils at the patio and the back kitchen but The Daughter still grabbed Milo and sprayed citronella all over him. I don't think Milo appreciated how he changed from pungent and macho boy dog odour to herbal fragrance. Then I noticed how Milo had the good sense to park himself next to the mosquito coils, resulting in almost no mosquito bumps the next morning. My observations stopped there.

See... the dog can look after himself just fine.

2 weeks ago, The Husband and The Daughter sneaked out onto the 2nd storey roof garden, which has a glass skylight on its floor, that looks down upon the patio. They wanted to see whether Milo could hear small noises in the night. They tapped gently on the glass and were extraordinarily happy to note that Milo's ears perked up and he lifted his head to scan his domain.

Last week however, The Husband made comment at breakfast that when Milo is in deep sleep, he is quite oblivious to his surroundings. I asked him how he knew and he confessed that he had woken up in the middle of the night to do a bit of Milo watching from behind the big glass panes of our main door. Earlier this week, I was treated to a blow by blow account (also at breakfast) of Milo's nightmare the night before. Then yesterday, the whole family tiptoed quietly from skylight to main door and back again giggling and nudging each other, marvelling at how Milo had placed a proprietary paw around Paddington Bear (Milo's teddy bear) and leaned his head against the said bear's tummy.

We spend entirely too much time watching one mongrel dog sleep.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Apple Tart

I tried out a new apple tart recipe. It's lighter than the earlier version of Petunia's Apple Pie. I stopped making the earlier version because the kids fell sick everytime they indulged. This one is healthier because it has less sugar and less butter.