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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 7 November 2016


On Reading:

The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller
Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller

Book Love, by Penny Kittle

Proust and the Squid:  The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolfe (brilliant and beautiful, but more complex than the titles above; this is one of my all-time favorite books)

Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene (a little more scientific and technical, but a very interesting read.)

On Early Childhood (Great for parents as well)

Your Child’s Growing Mind, by Jane Healy

Einstein Never Used Flashcards, by Hirsch and Golinkoff

What Every Kindergarten Teacher Should Know, by M.B.Wilson

On Math:

What’s Math Got to Do With It? By Joanne Boaler (some interesting insights, even though I'm generally critical of Jo Boaler's approaches, which have fuelled so much of contemporary "reform" Math instruction in the US)

Number Sense, by Stanislas Dehaene (quite scientific, little more difficult but interesting)

On Teaching Character

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel

On Schools/Education/Learning more generally

The One World Schoolhouse, by Salman Khan (founder of the Khan academy)

Education Nation, by Milton Chen

Why Children Don’t Like School, by Daniel Willingham

Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting & Education for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan (Lots of great info on math, reading, memory and other hot-button education topics.)

On Assessment

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 teachers, by Dylan Williams

On Learning and the Brain/Neuroscience

How the Brain Works, by Donald Kotulak

The Jossey Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning, Edited by Kurt Fischer

The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains, by Nicolas Carr

Brain Rules, by John Medina

On the Importance of Nature for Children

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv

On Curriculum Design and Pedagogy

Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins
Understanding By Design, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

Making Thinking Visible (multiple authors)

Cultivating Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchard (I found this book really interesting, and it certainly had a big impact on my teaching.)

On East-West Differences in Education and Learning

The Cultural Foundations of Learning, by Jin Li (very academic, but very interesting)
Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan

On Multiple Intelligences

Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner

Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Other Important Books for Educators

Quiet, by Susan Cane (on introverted children)

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher (on focus and attention)

Flourish, by Martin Seligman (on Positive Psychology)

 What books would you add to this list? Please let me know!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

And the real culprit is...overstimulation

Bleary eyed. Heads down on their desks. Yawns.

Why are these kids always so tired?

Everyday, my students walk into class looking exhausted. When I ask them how they're doing, invariably the response I get is, "I'm so tired." And increasingly, kids tell me that they feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed.

Parents and teachers tend to assume that the culprit is too much schoolwork. If we assign less homework, the kids will be fine. If we have fewer assessments, the stress will dissipate.

But I don't think that schoolwork is the primary culprit.

The primary culprit for rising levels of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress is overstimulation, something I've written about here. Students today have too much going on in their lives -- and between the floods of emails, digital notifications, pings on their phones, visual images, tweets, back-to-back enrichment activities, social engagements, assignments, deadlines, commitments, sugar binges, sports tournaments, and snapchat -- they're just so overstimulated that their bodies and minds can't actually handle it. (The same is true for many working adults as well, I think. We're just way too overstimulated.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that speed is always a good thing. And I'm not sure that "efficiency" and "productivity" (all words that describe machines and the mechanization of society) are the goals that we should be working towards. The fact is, we're not machines, and our job is not to "process" vast quantities of information and "perform" one task after another. If you ask me, human=machine is a destructive metaphor.

We're people. We're human. We're reflective, contemplative, emotional, irrational, and complex. And that's what makes us so interesting and creative.

And the reality is that our bodies and minds haven't yet caught up with the frenzied pace of an overstimulated digital and global world. And while we may think that "working like a machine" is a good thing in this age of machine-like multitasking, efficiency, and speed, the fact of the matter is that we're destroying ourselves by trying to be more machine-like, more overstimulated, more busy than we can actually handle.

So my goal for my own children is to lower the levels of stimulation that they encounter at home.
  • They don't need sugary snacks and lots of treats; they need vegetables.
  • They don't need social media; they need cuddles and real life, face-to-face conversations with their parents and grandparents.
  • They don't need a flood of bite-sized superficial bits of information, they need old-fashioned books, the longer the better.
  • They don't need back-to-back enrichment activities, they need time at home to read, daydream, play, and rest.
  • They don't need so much breadth -- so much exposure to so many, many different things all at once; they need depth in their lives. Let's do less, much less, but let's do it better.
  • They don't need to "work like machines" and "multi-task" and "be efficient." They need to work like humans -- slowly, reflectively, contemplatively, creatively. You know what? They need some time to daydream, imagine, and think. They need to slow down.

And here's the catch. If they have a little more time to get their homework done, slow and sustained academic work may actually help them feel more centred, more focused, and more calm. Like I said, I don't think that it's academic work that's the problem. It's all the other stuff .... the hyper-stimulated world that our kids live in.

What Does It Take To Be A Great Teacher?

So what really makes a great teacher? Last year, I asked my graduating class this question and their reply was interesting: great teachers are ones who care about students.

And this, to me, I think is the most important and rewarding part of teaching. Great teaching always happens in the context of a strong, supportive, and mutually respectful relationship. When a student knows that a teacher genuinely cares about his or her well-being and learning, then the student becomes deeply invested in the learning process. The more I think about it, the more I think that the teacher-student relationship is, in fact, the most essential pre-requisite for great teaching and deep learning.

I would add that the next essential element is a deep passion for one's subject matter and the teacher's own love of learning. If teachers are to inspire students, they need to be inspired themselves. They need to be scholars and model intellectual excitement for their students.

And finally, teachers need to work hard. Great teaching is very hard work. It's intellectually, emotionally, and even physically draining.

Increasingly, I find all the raging discussions about pedagogy somewhat irrelevant. Some great teachers are constructivist, others may use a more traditional approach. Some great teachers may run tightly ordered classrooms with lots of rules, others may run more relaxed classrooms. Some great teachers may engage their students in lots of activities, others may choose more traditional lectures and discussions. Pedagogy, I think, is important, but in the larger scheme of things, it's not what defines a great teacher. The reality is that kids can learn in a wide range of ways, and great teaching can happen in many different forms.

However, what great teachers have in common are the following:
- They care about their students. And their students know it.
- They care about their subjects, and they demonstrate a deep love of learning themselves.
- They work hard. Very, very hard.

Saturday, 20 August 2016


Here's a blog post that I recently wrote for Ed Week's Global Learning section. I hope you enjoy it!

And a taster extract:
Lesson #1: Lesson #1: Educators don't need to accommodate short attention spans; we need to train kids to extend their attention spans.
Many of the Singaporean educators I spoke with, particularly elementary school teachers, described the benefits of making young kids complete long and demanding academic tasks. Kids spend hours learning how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters. From grade two onward, they take exams that last for 90 minutes in each of their four major subjects. Yes, that's right: seven year oldscan sit down and concentrate on math for an hour and a half.
When I expressed surprise (or shock and horror, to be more precise) over this, parents and educators agreed that Singaporean kids experience significant educational stress because of the exam system, but none of them seemed to think that it was asking too much to make a young child sit down and focus on a single task for an hour and a half. "These tests and activities help train our children to shut out distractions, focus their minds, and concentrate," said one teacher. Said a parent, "It is important to teach our children to focus for extended periods of time. That's a very important skill."

Read the whole article here.

Friday, 5 August 2016

It's not just about IQ and EQ; 21st century kids need CQ

Although it's not cool to admit it, most parents care deeply about their kids' IQ or Intelligence Quotient. I've heard parents of toddlers boast about how "smart" their kids are. (For the record, I think that IQ is a very narrow concept, which doesn't adequately reflect the many different ways in which our children can be intelligent; it does not, for example, measure a child's musical ability or imagination.)

In the last decade, we've also started to care about EQ or Emotional Quotient. Of course, we all want emotionally stable and sensitive kids who get along with others. Without a doubt, our ability to foster and maintain good relationships is key to our happiness and success, personally and professionally.

We're all trying to raise kids who enjoy learning, study hard, relate well to others, and manage their emotions effectively. We know that IQ and EQ matter for professional success, and perhaps (particularly with EQ) for long-term happiness.

Well, guess what? In a global age, we've got a new quotient that is equally important. We've got CQ or Cultural Quotient, a measure of someone's cross-cultural competence, or in other words, their sensitivity to different cultural viewpoints and their ability to work effectively in different cultural contexts.

Consider how global the workplace is these days -- companies are global and workforces are diverse. And opportunities are global too. An Indian graphics designer based in Chennai might do freelance work for a client in France, for example. Our kids need to be equipped to cross cultural borders and navigate a global, intercultural world.

And in addition to the practical implications, CQ can help us create a less prejudiced, kinder and more humane world. And that's very important.

As a global educator who has taught in the US, Singapore, and India, I think that parents can and should consider ways to help a child develop their CQ.
We can help our kids empathize with others from different contexts.
We can help our kids view an issue or story through different cultural lenses and from different perspectives.
We can help our kids understand beliefs, values, norms and conventions of different cultures.
And we can help our kids judge others less and empathize with them more. Ultimately, we want to foster open-mindedness and empathy.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Read multicultural books to your kids when they are young. Here are some options to start with.

2. Buy multicultural books for your kids to read independently as they grow older. Here's a great list to start with.

3. Encourage kids to learn more about other cultures through food -- take them to different kinds of restaurants or try cooking different cuisines at home.

4. Encourage kids to learn about the stories and beliefs behind different religions; these foundational stories will help your kids understand other people's world views, and it will help your child develop a respect for other people's beliefs. Here is a post on the impact of foundational stories from around the world.

5. Teach your child a foreign language.

6. Travel -- if you can afford to take your children on trips to different places, this is a great way to help them develop their CQ. If you can't travel to another city or country, then find opportunities within your own city -- perhaps there's a Chinese New Year celebration in your city's Chinatown neighborhood, or perhaps there's a Korean play that your kids can watch in a neighborhood theatre. Seek out these opportunities.

7. Remember that it's important to cross borders and shed prejudices within your own city or country -- for example, Hindu kids in India could learn more about Islam and get to know their Muslim neighbors better. CQ is about crossing borders -- of race, religion, language, culture, and socio-economic status. It's about relating to someone whose context and life is a little different from your own. You don't have to fly across the world to develop CQ -- sometimes, the most difficult borders to cross are the ones right around us.

So parents, don't just focus on IQ and EQ; consider ways to help your child develop his/her CQ as well.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into “adulthood” and the “real world.” And we teachers believe, perhaps naively, that we’ve prepared you for the real world. We’ve given you formulas and algorithms, we’ve introduced you to Orwell and Bronte, we’ve taught you about wars and revolutions, we’ve taught you to read, write, speak, and sing…. We’ve prepared you for that dive.

But in reality, there isn’t a dive that sends you into the pool of adulthood. Growing up isn’t as sudden or as simple as that. It’s a life-long journey, and for the most part, you swim along just as you did in high school. But -- perhaps not unlike the way your heart sank when you bombed a test, or the way you cried when your friend betrayed you, or the way you tossed in bed wondering if your crush would ever be reciprocated -- you might sometimes feel as though you can’t swim fast enough, or the pool seems too long and too deep to navigate, or you lose your way and hit your head on the pool walls, and ouch, it hurts.

As you navigate the complex world of independence and adulthood, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I learned along the way. These lessons may or may not resonate with you – but I offer them to you anyways, with all my best wishes and best intentions.

I have learned to empathize more and judge less. Everyone has challenges of some kind – sometimes heartbreaking challenges – so judge people less, empathize with them more, and be kind, be kind, be kind.

I have learned that forgiveness is always better than anger. Forgiveness is liberating, but anger is imprisoning.

As the poet Jallaludin Rumi reminds us,
Anger may taste sweet, but it kills.
Don’t become its victim.
You need humility to climb to freedom.”

I have learned that when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life*, we bleed, whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White, Indian or Chinese. I hope that as you venture into a world where people define themselves by how they are different from others, often with violence and hatred, you will remember our common humanity.

I have learned that there is value in sticking things out: sticking out relationships, jobs, places, and projects. In a world with so much mobility and so many choices, this can be harder than it seems. Continuity and commitment, endurance and perseverance, or “grit”  -- to use the word of the day -- all matter. We need our roots as much as we need our wings.

I have learned that you’re never quite prepared for those moments when adversity hits – when the pool feels too deep and the currents too strong, when you feel as though you may drown, or worse, you yearn to drown, when you are hit with loss or betrayal or failure or terrifying fear. But, prepared or not, you have to keep swimming and stay strong. Don’t fall apart when life gets tough; be resilient and brave.

I have learned that it is important to nurture relationships – to make an effort with people you care about and people you work with. Stay close to your families, nurture your friendships, and cultivate your professional networks. Give gifts, attend your friends’ weddings (even if they’re far away and it’s inconvenient), go to their baby showers, be there for them when things go wrong, reach out often and stay in touch. In a globalized world where people are scattered everywhere, like raindrops, relationships may start to feel ephemeral and transient. Make the effort; you will be grateful for all those relationships – familial, personal, and professional -- down the road.

I have learned that it is important to cultivate your own intellectual life. Your mind is rich and wonderful – nourish it and care for it. Knowledge and imagination, books and ideas, can enrich and sustain you. Like fire and energy, like a bird in flight and a mountain climber scaling heights, the life of the mind is thrilling. Read widely, read deeply, and read often.

Take care of yourselves always.


* "when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life, we bleed" - Taken from Billy Collins' wonderful poem "On Turning Ten."

Monday, 1 August 2016

5 Back To School Resolutions

Most people make their new year's resolutions on January 1st. But not me. My year begins in August, with the start of a new school year.

I've got a bunch of resolutions, both as a teacher and as a parent. But let's start with the parenting resolutions first:

#1: Establish good homework routines for my kids (and remember that my little one is only 8!)
Why is it so hard to give a second child the same attention that we give our first? When my son was 8, I spent lots of time helping him manage his time and organize all his materials. I checked his homework and made him redo drafts of sloppy work. I want to make sure that I do the same thing for my daughter, despite the fact that I'm feeling a little burnt out and exhausted. She still needs lots of help with organization and skills, and I need to make time for her.
Fortunately, my son, who is now starting grade 6, has developed good homework habits, so I think I will encourage him to work more independently while I focus my attention on helping my daughter.

#2: Remember how important nature and free-play are, even for older kids.
As my kids grow older, I find that the pressures around them seem to grow too. There's more homework, there are so many options for scheduled activities at school, and time seems to be so limited. However, I want to make sure that I still leave lots of time for my kids to play outside with their friends and to read for pleasure. I think that "a green-hour" (ie time in nature) is SO important for kids. So, as my kids choose their activities and plan their weeks, I'm going to encourage them to sign up for fewer activities and preserve some time to play freely outdoors and to read for pleasure.

#3: Put away my laptop and phone, and engage more directly with my kids.
Lately I've been finding myself becoming increasingly addicted to my devices. And that scares me. Last week I snapped at my daughter because she wanted to read with me, but I was too busy checking my facebook account. Now, you tell me what's more important?
So my resolution this year is to create "No Tech Zones" for myself. When I come home from work, I will have a no-tech hour, where I can engage with my children with no distractions. And similarly, from dinner till bedtime will be a "no-tech zone." We'll all focus on real human engagement -- something that's becoming increasingly endangered not just in schools but in homes.

#4: Focus on Wellness.
By the end of the last school year, I was an exhausted mess. My back constantly hurt, I was taking way too many advils for headaches, and I found myself feeling increasingly cranky. Let's face it: teaching is one of the most demanding and exhausting professions in the world. And adding parenting and book promotion to the mix, makes my life even more exhausting.
So this year, I'm going to schedule in the following:
- a morning yoga/stretching/mindfulness routine (I think I might add some brief 5 minute stretch and mindfulness breaks into my classroom routines as well.)
- Long walks or runs in the evening, when my kids are playing outside. I need a green hour just as much as they do.
- And more time for my own independent reading at nights and on weekends. Nothing relaxes and revives me like a good book!

#5: Enjoy the year!
Often, I think that I am so lucky. I love my job; I teach fantastic kids. I love being a mom and watching my own kids grow. And I enjoy all the writing and reading I do. I want to remind myself to slow down a bit and enjoy all the kids whom I work with and all the wonderful bits and pieces of my life.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Summer Freedom!

Today is the last day of this academic year. As the summer stretches out ahead of me, I feel tremendous excitement and relief.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my job, and I’m a big proponent of hard work, schoolwork, homework, and all kinds of work. But by the end of the academic year, I’m totally and completely worn out. Schools are possibly the most structured and disciplined places on our planet. During the school year, faculty and students alike are governed by schedules, timetables, and syllabi. We think in terms of hour-long blocks that end with a loud bell. Our thoughts are always, necessarily, fragmented. Just as we’re working through a particularly difficult piece of poetry, the bell rings. All of a sudden, students have to march to a Chemistry class and wrestle with the periodic table, while I have to run to another class and teach a totally different text. And then, all year long, students and faculty alike march from one set of assignments to another, from one set of assessments to another, from one reporting period to another. Much as I love school, I do find the degree of structure overwhelming.

So, summer is a welcome break. As I contemplate two months of freedom, I realize how important unstructured time is for all of us: faculty and students alike. While structured learning is very important, a whole different kind of learning takes place in the summer. We can spend a morning immersed in a book, with no bell to interrupt the experience. We can immerse ourselves in a particular project or learning experience without the constraints and demands of school.  We can play! Play with ideas, play with words, play in the sand and play at the beach. We can engage in an activity for the pure pleasure of it, without worrying about external assessments and judgments. We can do what we love, what we want, instead of being forced to do what everyone else (administrators, exam boards, parents, teachers) tell us to do. Oh, the joy of summer!

Unstructured time is, I think, critical for deep thinking and creativity. All people, teachers and students alike, need long stretches of unstructured time to imagine, dream, and think. It is this mental space and time that allows us to be reflective and creative. Additionally, we all need downtime to recharge our batteries. And, very importantly, we all need time outdoors, time to connect with nature and our physical environment. The beauty of the academic year is that we have this time built into every year. Every academic year begins anew in August, with renewed vigor and intensity. And then every academic year winds down in June, giving way to the luxury and freedom of summer.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Can schools vaccinate against hatred and extremist ideologies?

I recently received an email from my former professor at Harvard, Fernando Reimers, where he wrote about his feelings regarding the Orlando shootings. He said:

"I don't know about the background of the perpetrator or whether education could have vaccinated him against the sick ideas that led him on his path of hatred. I do think schools everywhere could do much more to prepare children and youth to embrace the beauty that lies in human difference, and to prepare them to challenge extremist ideologies. 
The goal to educate all was first articulated by Comenius as a way to overcome the intolerance and discrimination he had experienced. Much has been achieved in including all children in school inspired by that goal. We have work to do to ensure that teachers and schools indeed advance peace and understanding."

I couldn't agree more. As educators and as parents, we have the power to help our children understand that they must stand for peace and understanding. We can help our children to judge others less and empathize with them more, and we can help them to stand up for peace, tolerance, and diversity.

Here's an extract from a letter  I wrote to my graduating students:

"I have learned that when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life*, we bleed, whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White, Indian or Chinese. I hope that as you venture into a world where people define themselves by how they are different from others, often with violence and hatred, you will remember our common humanity." 
*Skin our knees on the sidewalks of life is a line from Billy Collins' poem "On Turning Ten" 

Monday, 13 June 2016

3 Things I've Learned in Singapore

Here's an extract from an interview with Multicultural Kids. To read the entire interview, click here
How has researching and writing 'Beyond The Tiger Mom' influenced your own parenting/teaching style?
One interesting thing that all the Chinese moms I interviewed stressed was the importance of greetings; Chinese kids are expected to stop whatever they are doing at home to greet elders (parents, grandparents, visitors). The moms believe very strongly that these greetings teach kids to value and respect their elders, and that these greetings are very important for family unity and harmony. I think living in Singapore and interviewing parents here has made me think much more deeply about ways to create family unity and harmony.
Academically too, I think I’ve been very influenced by Singaporean culture. As I say in the first chapter of my book, the parents I interviewed influenced how I think about math education and the importance of early math skills.
Additionally, as a parent and an educator, I also think a lot more about how to extend my kids’ (and students’) attention spans. In the US, teachers are routinely taught to accommodate short attention spans by entertaining kids, making everything “fun,” and moving quickly from one task to the next. Here in Singapore, educators and parents don’t accommodate short attention spans; instead they deliberately train kids to extend their attention spans and concentrate more fully on a complex task for a sustained period of time.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Home Learning Cultures: What, how, and why?

Have you ever wondered about the culture you create in your home? I'm not talking about culture in terms of race, ethnicity, heritage or religion. And, I'm not talking about how loving or dysfunctional the family is (although this is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect of any family).

I'm talking about the kind of values and interests a home embodies. What does your home say about who you are and what you value? What kinds of objects are on display in your house? What do you have up on your walls? What kind of activities does your family do for fun? What do people talk about at the dinner table? What messages do the physical, verbal, and behavioral culture of your home give your child?
As Peter Drucker, the business guru says, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," and I think that's true. The culture of the home shapes kids far more than any specific strategy, class, or task that we impose upon them.
One of my closest childhood friends lived in a home permeated by technology. His dad ran a software company, and his mom was also extremely computer savvy. They always had the latest technology and the best computers, and as a family, they preferred movies to books. My friend himself was always playing around on his computer -- not on mindless games, but on really sophisticated stuff. He started programming really young, and unsurprisingly, he went on to become a very successful software engineer. In his home, dinner table discussions would often revolve around computers, new technologies, and cars.

My own childhood home was full of literature, poetry, and art. Big, dusty bookcases crowded with books about art and architecture, museums and travel. Other bookcases overflowed with works of fiction -- great literature from India and the West. We were a reading family, and we were an artsy family.  Neither of my parents cared much about technology. They just weren't into machines. We had a small TV that was never switched on. Our house was also a quiet house. I don't remember much music or noise. Everyone in the family seemed to enjoy silence and solitude.

I often consider the kind of home that I'm creating for my children. What kind of culture are they living and breathing everyday. How can I make sure that the culture of my home reflects my love of learning, reading, and ideas?

When I talk to parents about learning, I often discuss what " a learning culture" looks and feels like at home. 
Parents can create a math culture -- with legos, tangrams, math conversations, math games, and math exercises. 
And they can create a reading culture -- with bookshelves everywhere, conversations about books, and lots of time for reading. 
And importantly, parents can ensure that everything about their homes signals to kids that learning is beautiful, enjoyable, and important.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Whose Stories Matter?

A few months after I started teaching at an international school in Singapore, I sat down at my desk with a cup of hot coffee and a pile of short stories that my ninth graders had written.

The first story was about a New Yorker named Joe who is caught in the middle of a gory murder mystery. At one point in the story, Joe runs his hands through his light brown hair in an exasperated gesture, as his blue-gray eyes twinkle. Joe is clearly White.

The second story was a tragic narrative about a young teenage girl named Sienna who is grieving over the loss of her mother. Over the course of the story, Sienna meets a young man named Steve, who offers her comfort. Early in the story, Sienna’s blonde hair flies in the wind, and later, she glances at Steve, and her soft hazel eyes meet his piercing blue ones. Clearly, Sienna and Steve are both White too.

Here’s the interesting part: both these stories were written by Asian students who had spent their entire lives in Asia. As I worked my way through the pile, I realized that all my students – my Chinese students, Korean students, Indian students, and Japanese students -- had crafted Caucasian characters in Western settings. This particular class was about 70% Asian, and many of my students had previously attended local Chinese and Indian schools. Yet every single story had a White protagonist.

I was surprised. In a decade of teaching White students in the US, I never had a single White student write a story about a non-White protagonist. In contrast, year after year in Singapore, all my Asian students write stories about White characters in Western settings. The default character, at least as teenagers see it, is a White one. And the default setting seems to be a place in America or Europe.

I joked about this with my students when I returned their stories: Who’s going to tell me a story set in Singapore with a protagonist named Mustafa or Mei-Jia? Don’t Asians fall in love, solve mysteries, and deal with conflicts? Don’t Asians have stories to tell too? Some of my students laughed; others shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Had they, through a steady consumption of Western children’s books and Western media, internalized the belief that stories about Whites are better stories? Visit any toyshop or bookshop in India or Singapore, and you will encounter blonde haired dolls, Ladybird readers with Peter and Jane, and posters of smiling White children playing and reading.

Or, was their choice of Western characters and settings actually a function of the language that they were writing in? Would an Indian child writing in Hindi craft a story about a Caucasian named Joe who lives in New York City? If my Korean student were writing in Korean instead of English, would she have been more likely to set her story in Seoul and narrate a romance between Ji Hoon and Min Seo? Would Singaporean children writing stories in their mother tongue – Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil – create White characters in Western settings? Perhaps the issue was that the history and culture associated with the English language somehow demanded the protagonists be Western.

I am not sure whether my students’ inability to imagine Asian characters in Asian settings is a function of the language in which they are writing or of their social conditioning. Perhaps it is a blend of both. What I do know, however, is that my Asian students respond very well to books by Asian authors set in Asian contexts. And I also know, as an English teacher who scours libraries and online book shops for titles, that there are too few Asian books for children. When my students read stories by Amy Tan, they nod and laugh, as they recognize the foods, smells, tastes, and sounds that Tan describes. When they discuss the mother-daughter relationships in her books, they often say things like, “that sounds so familiar.”

I see this recognition in my own children’s reading experiences as well. When I buy picture books with Indian protagonists and Indian settings for my daughter, she scrutinizes the pictures carefully. She loves the pictures of mischievous Neil Hariharan in Anushka Sankar’s humorous book “Excuses, Excuses.” And when she first encountered Pooja Makhijani’s book, “My Mother’s Saris,” she turned to me and said, “the girl looks like me.”

Moving to Singapore jolted me into recalibrating my own storytelling. Of all the recent stories I’ve concocted for my daughter, her favorite is about a beautiful fairy named Sarita who has chocolate brown skin and long black hair that shimmers like black silk. Sarita is queen of the fairies in Fairyland, and she, together with her band of fairy friends, manages to defeat evil witches, tame terrible monsters, and save Fairyland from all sorts of awful fates. Often my daughter becomes a character in the story as she too somehow ends up in Fairyland to help Sarita in her magical quests.

Given that many Asian students, particularly in Singapore and India, live and study in English speaking contexts, maybe it’s time we provide them with English stories that are set in Asia so that they begin to see English as a global language that they can claim as their own, a global language that can tell their stories as well as it tells the stories of Joe, Sienna, and Steve.

Our children deserve a wide range of children’s literature about Asian characters in Asian countries. We need to write and publish these stories for them, both in English and in Asian languages.

My hope is that down the road when I grade my students’ stories, I will be able to read about Li Jing’s search for love as her black hair flies in the wind and Hassan’s brilliance at solving mysteries as he navigates the back lanes of Kampong Glam in Singapore.