Friday, August 26, 2016

The mask that students wear

The biggest stress factor in being a student is being a student. The "student" is a mask that kids wear to play a game involving arbitrary and often unnecessarily petty rules of conduct and impossibly difficult tasks that have little to no bearing on who they really are under their masks. The students we meet in class are pale shells of who they really are. It is when they are not in school that's where we find their true selves.

Keeping the two identities apart for a sustained period every school day makes school the torture that it is for most kids. The ones who suffer the most are the ones who have the clearest sense of self identity -- the musicians, the dancers, the athletes, the computer whizzes and the entrepreneurs -- who have to keep their real selves hidden while they pretend to be sheep when in school.

The identity of the "student" is formless and shapeless. Always incomplete, and hence always having to defer to the wisdom and authority of the "teacher". Students have nothing to say because they don't know enough. They are lumps of clay or rock which submit to the hands of the teacher who sculpts and molds them to whatever shape the school needs them to be -- usually a cube or a brick that easily fits in with everybody else who has been successfully 'bricked' after doing their required schooling time in their turn.

Schools and parents emphasize that exams are their kids' top priority. Everything else can wait until all the prerequisite 'A's have been garnered and paraded among family members and the education community. All the more so among the tuition agencies for whom exam results are their raison d'etre thus making the "student" identity perfectly solid. In the meantime, the identities which have been kept hidden often get forgotten or shelved in the process of brick-making.

Kids hate school because schools subvert individual identity, and level every student towards the lowest common denominator. The tasks they are assigned, the subjects they grapple with, the pressure they get to do their best apply to their student selves, but are completely irrelevant to their real selves. On our part, as teachers, we are stymied as to how to motivate our kids to work harder and do better; and for other kids who have no identity beyond the mask they wear, how to manage their stress before they go bonkers.

What if kids and schools agreed to dispense with the "student" mask and allow their true selves to flourish instead? We take the emphasis away from common exams in favour of allowing the kids to develop themselves as musicians, dancers, and whatever else they see themselves as first. Rather than have them suppress their talents and put them aside to study for exams, we show them how being smart in their academics supports their personal development and helps them become better at what they are or want to be good at. While they develop their physicality and skills, we train them in becoming better thinkers, analysts, strategists, and storytellers. That way, the exams make sense as they become part and parcel of their overall development rather than as a separate and unrelated obstacle they have to overcome before they are allowed to chase their dreams.

I'm not asking for much to change other than mindset. I want us teachers to recognise that we are supporting the cognitive development of individual people offering a wide variety of talents and abilities, rather than training a common mass of drooling zombies to jump through exam hoops. I want kids to bring their true selves to school and to class -- the ones who know who they are and who they want to be successful as, and not the "student" who only does things because they are told to do things.

A good school isn't the one that goes all-out to deliver the best exam results. It's the one which develops its kids to be whatever they want to be first, then good exam results follow as an after-effect.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Essay as a verb

It's always interesting to look at kids' faces the moment they flip over the essay test, scan through the question list and realize that they don't know the answer to any of the questions. There is shock, confusion and, more often than not, a look of having been betrayed.

It's true. The questions are seldom like what we had discussed in tutorials before, and deliberately so. No one is supposed to know the answer to an essay question beforehand. If anyone does, they probably cheated. Or worse, they think they know but they are operating on flawed assumptions at the very least.

The essay is the result of an activity -- in this case, the activity of essaying. Yes, 'essay' is a verb meaning 'to try', 'to put to the test' and 'to make trial of'. Look it up. Knowing the answer beforehand, therefore is prejudicing the outcome of a test or a trial.

The essay proceeds as a trial. There is the accused who is accused of a crime. The essayist has the prerogative to present the case as either prosecution or defence. Based on whatever due diligence they had done prior to the trial -- through research, study, tutorial activity, and topical readings for example -- the essayist has to improvise putting together the case and then present it formally as the essay submission for grading by the marker who plays the role of the judge.

Spending tutorial time preparing kids in advance with pre-digested answers does them a disservice, and is a waste of time. While we can and do help the kids with content material which is key to their case preparation, they need far more practice in courtroom procedure. As lawyers, their job is to develop their arguments through asking the right people the right questions in order to arrive at the conclusion that is most favourable to whichever side of the case they stand on.

The hard part of teaching kids to ask questions is in figuring out how to get them to switch off the parts of the brain that makes them think like parrots, and how to activate the other parts of the brain that make them think like people.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

National Day 2016

National Day 2016 begins with an early morning walk along the Marina Bay area with dogs in tow. Also a good opportunity to GO, if you know what I mean. Heh.

Good food goes with good company. Not finding the cafe we intended to park ourselves and dogs, we blundered into Bread Street, which gladly accepted our canine companions at the al fresco tables. When we were being seated, it dawned on us that this was the Bread Street by Gordon Ramsey.

To our relief, the price of breakfast was very reasonable. That is to say, not different from anywhere else that serves a similar menu. My Eggs Benedict was delightful. Eggs poached without being too runny on top of a generous helping of smoked salmon on top of a crispy, fluffy inside English muffin. The whole thing held together by a lovely Hollandaise sauce, creamy and smooth. Staff were attentive and friendly, offering our dogs iced water with lots of ice.

Scored tix to National Day Parade 2016. It was the debut of the new National Stadium as an NDP venue. A big flash and light show, the presentation was spectacular, but relied so much on special effects that much of the human element got lost during the mobile display segments. Dance movements were barely visible, overwhelmed by the massive sets and the barrage of ever-changing colours in a constant swirl. Individual performers were barely recognizable in the mass, lost in the alternations of bright and dark spaces in the performing area.

 Acted on some good advice and left the stadium just at the start of the finale to go outside and get a good view of the fireworks.

We picked out a great spot with fireworks almost literally exploding above our heads. Never been so close before. A superb closure to a fulfilling public holiday!

Saturday, July 30, 2016


With all this angst and rage over university orientation programmes leading to a full-on ban on orientation this year, I recall my own experience as a frosh during orientation week.

Every activity was voluntary. The ones I remember were a lunchtime concert by a homegrown band called 'Nacho Cheese' which never made it to big time; an evening double-bill movie screening of A Clockwork Orange and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (an experience of which I have never seen the like, and have not yet found found possible to duplicate); and a serious talk about responsible drinking on campus. There was a social tea event for scholarship students to meet each other and key faculty members as well.

I think it was Prof G who observed that orientation at York was much tamer more mature than most of the other Us in the province -- mainly due to our student population's average age being 25, including a large proportion of grad students. Sure, mature and dignified. That's us.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The baseball-equity cartoon

No, no, no. The above cartoon attempts to explain how equality does not necessarily mean fairness. Actually, what our three friends are demonstrating is criminal activity -- watching a game without paying for a ticket. How are these three moochers being fair to those people in the stands who paid for entry?

In the right panel, all barriers to accessing the game have collapsed. And because nobody needs to buy a ticket, the sport has no more money to maintain a nice, fancy stadium any longer; all the pros have lost their jobs. Goodness knows what our three friends are still watching. Happy now?

Unless... the transparent fence represents a TV screen? It doesn't cost as much to watch a televised game, and every viewer has clear line-of-sight to the action, regardless of how vertically-challenged they may be. The stadium still functions and the professional players are still employed.

All the tweaks we might make meddling with human political systems for the sake of 'fairness' will always leave some party or another dissatisfied. It is perhaps technology that is the greatest leveler in the end.

Footnote: Located the original artist of the graphic. Craig Froehle is now tracking in fascinating detail the meme he created. Click here for an interesting read into how it has spread in its many permutations since its conception in 2012.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The gentle art of fencing

Teaching kids to argue is like issuing each of them a personal sword and teaching them to fence. At first, they are all excited with the weapon in their hand. They wave it around, wildly slicing the air and make sound effects as they play with their new toy [it's NOT a toy].

When the excitement has died down and they are calmer, maybe they will start paying attention to the rules of the sport. The most important rule: stop looking at your opponent's sword. As fun as it may be, the score is not counted by the number of times you hear the sound of metal hitting metal.

In this game, you keep your eyes on the target. You win by stabbing your opponent through the heart.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Last show of the season

[NYeDC in rehearsal at The Arts House]

Just when we thought we were done for the 2016 season, Sirius engineered an invite for NYeDC to perform at Celebrate Drama! 2016. The theme was "Celebrating Diversity", and it so happened that one of the items at Drama Night suited the bill. Not sure how the item entitled, "The Outsiders", fit the definition of "celebrate" but it was about the exclusion of foreign workers from the society they work in and for.

Our biggest problem was that in its original form, the script was very harsh in tone. While we tried to play it for laughs, our in-house audience saw little humour in it as the behaviour depicted was critical and accusatory of our local population. In rebooting the script, we initially struggled with feelings of being censored by our audience feedback. It was hurtful that this item, featuring one of our stronger scripts, was not as well-received as we hoped, and that to be allowed to perform it in public, we had to "balance" the treatment ad make it less insulting to to the people we meant to insult -- or at least to make them reflect on their treatment of foreign workers.

So, how to make the narrative more audience-friendly without watering down our authorial intent? First, we took out all specific location references and kept them to "foreign" and "local", suggesting the same situations could occur anywhere in the world. Then we gave the characters some psychological and emotional depth so that they no longer were playing out stereotypical scenarios to amuse one another (as in the original script), but rather to depict personal experiences and explore how the discriminated feel about being discriminated against. We kept the Singlish delivery because it sounded more real to the narrative.

Having taken audience feedback and reworking the parts that didn't work, we eventually devised a much stronger script than before. The item carried more weight and more authenticity. The situations were still absurd, but the intentions and emotional linkages were much clearer for both the performers and the audience.

And at the end, the one performing the closing monologue delivered with real emotion: the tears; the cracking voice; the breath pattern; the pauses; all real and nothing like we had ever seen her rehearse before. We couldn't have asked for a more powerful closure. Later, we asked her if the script really meant that much to her. And she said she was really feeling the weight of this performance... being the last one of the season! #oscarmoment

Anyway, such an exciting run for the 2015-6 batch of NYeDC members. The 2016-7 lot have big boots to fill.