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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Reading Magic: Why you MUST read to your kids!

There are few things I love as much as cuddling up with my kids and sharing a good book with them.

This week, since we're all on spring break, we've been reading Linda Sue Park's "A Single Shard" together. Initially, my kids were reluctant to read a book that is set in Korea in the 12th century. "It seems boring," my son said, as my daughter nodded vehemently. But they were hooked after the first chapter!

Park's characters are so real, so believable, and so likable, that no young reader can fail to empathize with them. And the story unfolds beautifully. I've been admiring the writing as we go along too -- the narrative is carefully crafted and layered, and Park's use of figurative language is pure pleasure to read!

In honor of my own love of shared reading with kids, I've put together this list of book recommendations for kids ages 7 to 12. These are some of my all-time favorites, and they make great read-alouds. (Note: Research clearly shows that even older kids benefit greatly from read-alouds and book discussions.)

So why do we need reading? And why is it SO important that we read to our kids and help them discover the magic of reading? Well here's what I say in Beyond the Tiger Mom:

Books, stories, and poetry are part of our shared humanity; they help us understand and make sense of the human experience. Across time and place, in a wide range of languages, humans have been telling stories, crafting poems, singing songs, and expressing their deepest feelings and fears through the spoken and written word. While our technologies and lifestyles may have changed unrecognizably over the last millennia, the words of Kabir and Kalidas, Li Bao and Cao Xueqin, Milton and Shakespeare still resonate today – a broken heart then is not unlike a broken heart now; the ache and longing of love one thousand years ago is much the same as the ache and longing of love today.

I have so many memories of intense and moving reading experiences as a child and a teenager. I remember clearly my induction into the world of readers. One hot summer in Chennai, when I was almost seven years old, the sun filtered through the leaves of the mango tree outside our house and glinted off the pages of my book. I sat with my back against the trunk of the tree, reading each page with studied concentration. I held my breath, my heart pounding in my chest, as I wondered whether or not Joe, Beth and Frannie would ever escape from the clutches of Dame Snap. The children had climbed up the ladder to one of the magical lands at the top of the Faraway tree, and they had, unfortunately, gotten trapped in a terrible land.  Would they find their way out? Every day that summer, I retreated to the shade of the mango tree and read. Every night, I fell asleep dreaming about magical lands and fantastical adventures. By the end of my summer vacation, I had finished reading The Folk of the Faraway Tree, my first chapter book, and I had become a reader.

Now, as a parent and teacher, I feel a sense of deja-vu as I watch my own children and students enter the world of books and stories. When my eight year old son laughs out loud as he reads about the terrible fate of Augustus Gloop, that “big fat nincompoop” in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I am reminded of the humor and laughter of childhood reading. When my five year old daughter begs me to read her one more chapter from Charlotte’s Web, I am reminded of the way books draw us into their worlds, allowing us to imagine all kinds of possibilities. And when one of my ninth graders clutches The Kite Runner tightly in his hands and tells me that he has never loved a book so much, I am reminded again of the power of books and words to move us, literally, to tears.

As a parent, there are plenty of reasons to surround your child with books and provide your child with the space and time to read, read, read. When you see your son or daughter curled up in bed with a book, don’t dismiss it as a waste of time. That time is precious. Your child is learning more than you know.

Books Every Kid MUST Read Before Turning 12

Monday, 28 March 2016

5 Top Tips: How to listen so your child will talk

Lately I’ve been worrying about one of my high school students. Chun (name changed) is academically successful and well liked by her peers. In school, she smiles and chats with friends and teachers, her face successfully concealing the storm that rages within her everyday.  

Chun and I have a good relationship, and she sometimes confides in me. In one particularly troubling conversation, she confessed her attempts to harm herself and disclosed her deep feelings of despair, anxiety, and futility. I asked her whether she had talked to her parents about her feelings – did they know the depth of her anxiety and depression?

My parents don’t listen to me, they never really have,” she said, her voice trailing off.

My conversation with Chun reminded me of the pressing need to create strong relationships with our kids when they are young and receptive. If we build and strengthen close relationships with our kids when they are young, then perhaps they will trust us and talk to us when they are older

5 Top Tips : How To Listen To Your Child:

    Here’s a great rule for life: Judge Less, Empathize More.

As parents, we tend to judge and evaluate everything our kids say because we want to help them do better. But in our desire to help, reform, advise, teach and instruct, we often forget to really hear what our kids are saying and what they are feeling.

So next time your child tells you anything, don’t pass judgment. Instead, just listen carefully and try to understand how your child feels.

Prioritize your relationship with your child and think long term.

In today’s world, we parents are often so anxious about short term goals, that we forget what really matters in the long run.

At the end of the day, our children’s happiness matters more than their achievements, and our relationship with them matters more than their marks and scores.  When they are teens and adults, we want them to enjoy being with us, and we want them to willingly share their lives with us.

So next time you’re anxious, think long term. Don’t nag and instruct, but instead sit down and listen. Listening is the foundation for a strong and close relationship.

Create Rituals in your day, where you have time to chat with your kids:

  • Bedtime -- when you can cuddle up with your little one and listen to her talk
  • Tea-time -- when I was working part-time and had the luxury of doing this, I used to love sitting at the dining table with my kids when they got home from school and chatting with them about their day. I'd play soft music, they'd eat their snack, and I would have a cup of tea. And we'd enjoy each other's company. And most importantly, I'd listen!
  • Car-time -- If you drive your kids to school in the morning, that can be a great time to ask a question and listen to your child talk. 
Note: I would advise putting away all phones and laptops during these ritualized talking/bonding times.

Ask Kids Questions, and master the art of the follow-up question

 If you get into the habit of asking kids questions, they will get into the habit of telling you more about themselves. Ask them open-ended questions and let them talk.  Show them that you’re interested in their lives.

Ask them how their day went, how they’re feeling, and what they think…and then (and here’s the hard part!) keep your mouth closed and listen to their responses. Try to really hear what they are saying and feeling.

When your child tells you about something that happened in school, don’t immediately offer advice. Instead, ask follow-up questions: Why did you do that? Do you think you did the right thing? How did that make you feel? What did the other kids do? What did she say next? What were you thinking at the time?

Put away your digital devices, look at your kids, and give them your full attention.

A few days ago, my seven-year old daughter gave me the best piece of advice I’ve gotten in a long time. I was on my laptop looking at my twitter feed. She wanted to chat, but I told her to wait a minute while I read an article.

She shook her head at me and said, “Mama, I’m far more important to you than all the people you are following on Twitter, so please shut down your laptop and listen to me instead of them.”

 I’m proud to say I did – I held her tightly on my lap and I listened carefully as she told me all about her day at school.

And here's an article in SmartParents.SG that I contributed to ... also on listening to your kids.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Key to Academic Success...

Every year, I encounter a few students who have particularly impressive minds, and I find myself watching these kids with wonder and admiration. While they have a lot to learn - they are, after all, still young - it is easy to recognize and admire their intellectual firepower. I often wonder what it is that creates a brilliant mind. Is it all in the genes? Is it a delicate intertwining of nature and nurture? How much does environment affect intellectual development?

While it is very hard to separate the effects of nature (genes) and nurture (environment and effort), a wide range of studies show that over half of the variance in personality traits and mental abilities can be explained by genetic factors and attributed to heredity. While I have no doubt that genes influence our abilities, I have also read a wide range of books and studies on neuroplasticity, or the way our brains are shaped by our experiences and environment, leading me to believe that excellence in any field (academic or non-academic) tends to be a result not just of genes but of sustained effort over time.

So there you have it: what's the key to academic success (or any kind of success for that matter)? It's sustained effort in a particular field or area over time.

In other words, a student who has been immersed in a language-rich environment since birth and has read extensively all through her elementary years will be far more likely to excel in English in high school than a student who didn't read much in the early years.

Similarly, a student who has spent time on math every day since she was four will be far better equipped to do high school math as a teenager. When I asked my Korean student Ha Young whether she thought she was "naturally talented" at math, she replied, "Well, I've just done so much math that all that practice has made me good at it. I think it's hard to know whether I have any natural talent. All I do know is that math is very easy for me because I spent so much time as a young child practicing, and I have always spent time on math."

Just as excelling in a field may be partially due to genes and partially due to sustained effort and exposure in that area over time, struggling in a field may also be due to a combination of genes and a lack of sustained effort and exposure in that area over time.

(Extracted from #Beyond The Tiger Mom, p. 156, 157; footnotes/studies included in the book.)

So what can parents do?

The implications are easy. Help kids cultivate strong basic skills in reading, writing, and math right from the get-go.

While I'm not advocating being a full-on tiger mom by any means, I do think that a little bit of supplementing or afterschooling on a fairly regular basis when kids are young (preschool to grade 5) can really help kids develop the academic skills and foundations that they need to excel in high school and beyond.

There are limitations to what can happen in a large classroom setting, so parents who spend one-on-one time with their kids and make sure that their kids are reading high quality children's literature and mastering foundational math concepts, among other things, will give their kids the base they need to do well in high school. 

And interestingly, there's a lot of research that shows a strong correlation between skill levels in grade 3 and academic outcomes at the end of high schoolThe research supports the fact that early skills matter and effort over time matters. Doing well in high school is the result of years of hard work and effort, not of a few nights of cramming. See this interesting article and this one for more discussion of the research on the importance of third grade.

So here's the take away: take the time to help kids build strong academic foundations in the first ten years (K - 5), and they will find academic work much easier in middle and high school.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Do you #afterschool? No more swiss cheese foundations.

There's an American name for what so many parents here in Singapore do: afterschooling.

Here in Singapore, parents refer to it as "sitting with your child," "tuitions," "enrichment," and "supplementing." But in the US, many mothers refer to all of the above as various forms of "afterschooling."

Most Singaporean parents do a significant amount of "afterschooling," particularly when their kids are young -- ages 4 to 10.  In an ideal world, parents help their kids build strong academic foundations in the early years, and then kids can work independently as they grow older.

In my book, Beyond the Tiger Mom, I offer parents suggestions on how to "afterschool" their kids, particularly in the first ten years.

Here are some reasons to afterschool:

1. The First Ten Years Really Matter:
Research consistently shows that skill levels in grade 3 correlate highly with academic outcomes in high school. If kids don't master crucial skills in elementary school, then middle school and high school will be really hard. Here are some articles on the importance of foundations: Early Warning Confirmed, What's So Important About Third Grade, and Why Third Grade is so Important: The Mathew Effect.

Lost time in the early years is very difficult to remediate down the road, so make sure that kids master basic reading, writing, and math skills in elementary school to prime them for an easy ride in middle and high school.

2. Fill in the Gaps: Where is your child's school not delivering?
If you want to make sure that your child has strong academic foundations and a broad holistic education, figure out the deficits in your child's school and then fill in the gaps.

So if your child's school uses, for example, a weak math curriculum that lacks rigor and challenge, you might want to afterschool math using Singapore math (or outsource it to a tutor, if you choose the Singapore way.)

Or, if your school doesn't give your child enough time to engage with the arts, then you might want to buy art supplies and offer your child the space and time to paint, draw, and create.

3. Provide more practice and address areas of weakness:
If your child is struggling with a particular area at school and needs more practice, this might be where you focus your time when you supplement your child's education. Maybe she needs help with reading or writing. Or with math. Or with fine motor skills. Whatever the area may be, help your child by giving him/her some additional practice exercises at home.

4. Build on strengths and nurture passions:
If your child has a clear passion or interest, you might want to build this up and fuel it further. For example, if your child loves animals, you might want to buy lots of books about animals, get your child to volunteer at an animal shelter, and help your child further this passion. Or if your child loves legos and math, then encourage robotics, scratch, math olympiad and other math/STEM pursuits.

5. Keep gifted kids challenged:
If your child is breezing through school without ever experiencing what academic struggle and challenge feel like, you should consider afterschooling. There's a definite danger in feeling as though you can do well without much work -- bright, gifted kids NEED to experience significant challenge and understand the struggle and satisfaction of wrestling with difficult academic work. They need to know what it feels like to work hard, and moreover, the extra challenge will be a wonderful antidote to boredom.

And finally, whatever your reasons for afterschooling, remind your child that learning happens all the time and that there are few pursuits more pleasurable than learning. Like a bird in flight or a mountain climber scaling heights, the life of the mind is thrilling. Get your kids excited about learning through the home environment you create for them.

From The Siliconeer: Why I wrote 'Beyond The Tiger Mom'

Here's an article that I wrote for The Siliconeer, an Indian-American publication, about my motivation for writing "Beyond the Tiger Mom."

And here are some bits from it...

Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book you want to read, and no one has written it, then you must write it.” Since I really wanted to read a book that reflects the real life dilemmas and decisions of parents like myself – parents who have been exposed to East and West, parents who draw on multiple cultures when making decisions for their children – I began the long project of writing Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age.
To start with, let me tell you a little bit about my story.  In early 2010, my husband, children and I packed up all our stuff, waved goodbye to our cramped apartment in Manhattan, and flew across the world to Singapore.
This wasn’t my first cross-continental move: I was born and raised in India, but as a teenager, I moved to the U.S. for college, and then stayed on there for graduate school and work. I taught in private and public American schools for a decade, and I gave birth to both my children in the U.S. But after fifteen years in the U.S., I found myself hungering for “home.” I was yearning for tropical sun and heat, for the sounds of Tamil and Hindi, for idli-dosa breakfasts, and for the color and chaos of India. Since home – India – wasn’t really an option for my husband in terms of his career, we settled on Singapore, and so began the next phase in our global journey.
I began teaching at an international school in Singapore where most of my students were either South or East Asian. And over my time in Singapore, I became well acquainted with many local Singaporeans with children in the local school system. Needless to say, parents in Singapore differed greatly from the parents I had worked with in the U.S. The differences were dramatic: parents here had totally different ideas about discipline, math education, the role of memory, the goals of education, the role of competition… and the list goes on. And you know what?  A lot of the things that these parents were doing were working really well.
So, to cut a long story short, I began writing Beyond the Tiger Mom to give Asian parents a voice and to offer all global parents suggestions on how to combine the best of Eastern and Western approaches to parenting and education.
Each chapter in the book revolves around a question that I found myself asking as I tried to understand Singaporean/Asian approaches to parenting and to discover the best way to blend Eastern and Western parenting and educational approaches.
For instance, one of the first things I noticed when I arrived on this island was the absolute obsession that mothers seemed to have with math education. “What do you do for math?” was a question that mothers on the island loved to discuss in great detail. In the U.S., I had found that early childhood education revolved largely around language (reading/speaking) and social skills; however, here in Singapore, mothers seemed determined to create a “math-rich home” for their young children and give their kids the best mathematical head start they possibly could. And all the data suggest that these approaches work really well. When it comes to math education, the world has a lot to learn from Asian moms!
Cover of “Beyond the Tiger Mom.”
Cover of “Beyond the Tiger Mom.”

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Is it possible to raise creative kids in Singapore?

I recently gave a talk about my book to a largely Singaporean audience at the Raffles Town Club. I was speaking to members of DUAL -- the Distinguished University Alumni League, here in Singapore.

The conversation was interesting, but there seemed to be one over-riding concern that parents had: how could they raise creative kids in a system that seemed designed to squash and kill creativity?

My advice -- which I write about in Beyond The Tiger Mom -- is to counterbalance school at home as much as possible.

How can parents do that? Here are three suggestions:

Get kids outside and then give them time to do what they want. Let nature and childhood work their magic. Let kids play!
Given that 90% of Singaporean teens are myopic and that stress levels, particularly during exam time, run dangerously high, we need to let kids recover and rejuvenate by giving them free time out in nature. It will help their eyes (myopia is linked to too little time outdoors), their physical health, their mental health, and it will free them up to be more creative.
Check out chapter 4 in Beyond the Tiger Mom, and Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods" for more info.

As I've written about in previous posts, exams are all about getting the right answer. But to be more creative, our kids don't need to check a box and give an examiner the right answer, they need to come up with good questions. In an exam-oriented educational system, kids become well-trained to anticipate what an examiner is looking for and then give the right answer. But we need to counterbalance that by encouraging our kids to ask the right questions.
Ask your kids, "What questions do you have about ________?"
Model questions yourself: "I often wonder why __________?"
Talk to your kids about the importance of asking questions.
When kids ask questions, engage them in a discussion. Don't shut them down, but instead, focus on getting them to speak up more and ask more questions. Encourage questioning in every way you can.
For young kids, create a wonder wall in your kids bedroom, and have them post questions and "wonderings" that they come up with.

The Singapore Local System has four main tested subjects in elementary/junior school: Math, Science, Mother Tongue, and English Language.
What's missing? The Humanities, Literature and the Arts.
While schools may offer these subjects as fringe subjects in the curriculum, parents and educators routinely tell me that "what gets tested gets taught," so most time and energy at school is diverted towards tested (PSLE) subjects.
And when we don't encourage our kids to immerse themselves in literature, the humanities and the arts, we risk creating a very one-dimensional population. We need to give our kids exposure to history, literature, and art so that they can begin to develop empathy, perspective, and creativity. Through these subjects -- particularly the arts -- we offer our kids the ability to imagine and create, to think in different ways.
As parents, we can supplement a local education by offering kids time and space to read, paint, sing, act, and daydream. Encourage the arts. As this wonderful article illustrates, they may not help with exam scores in the short run, but they will pay off in the long run!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Does it matter if kids can't identify a verb?

So here's an interesting article from Ed Week about grammar making a (sort-of) comeback in American classrooms because of the increased complexity of Common Core texts.

I've thought about grammar instruction a lot for a number of reasons:

1. I'm a full-fledged grammar geek.  I love thinking about language at the level of the sentence.
Additionally, my own knowledge of grammar has helped me write, edit, and teach better. Therefore, it's important to me that my own kids and my students have a solid understanding of basic grammar and punctuation rules/concepts.

but more importantly,

2. These days, my high school students often arrive in grade 9 not knowing ANYTHING about grammar and punctuation.
(And these kids come in not just from the school where I teach but from schools around the world, mostly American/International schools. They are privileged kids who've attended good schools.)

Many kids have no idea what a verb is. 

One bright and earnest student asked me, "Ms.T, what's that 'sky comma' that people often use at the end of a word before an s?" 
She was talking about an apostrophe -- she had never been taught how to use an apostrophe. And this kid had attended very elite, expensive American schools before arriving in my classroom.

So what's going on? Does basic grammar and punctuation just not matter anymore? Should it be taught? And if so, how and when?

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

1. Explicit grammar instruction has value only IF it is taught systematically with the goal of mastery.

If kids just get a bit of grammar instruction here and there with the goal of mere exposure to concepts, then it's a total waste of time. It won't stick, and it won't have any value at all. Grammar, in this case, is a bit like math. If you're going to teach it, the goal has to be mastery.

2. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn't automatically mean that kids will use these grammar rules in their writing, so teachers have to carefully think about how to encourage that transfer of skills.

Even if a school has a strong, explicit, systematic grammar curriculum, as a few fantastic prep schools do (like The Winsor School in Boston, where I taught for three years early in my career), teachers still have to strategically help kids see the connections between grammar lessons and actual authentic writing.

3. If you're a parent and you care about grammar instruction, your best bet is to teach it yourself because most schools either don't teach grammar at all, or they teach it in such a haphazard way that it's a waste of time.

(Full disclosure: I teach my own kids grammar - we do half an hour lessons every weekend. I'm hoping they learn to love the mechanics of language the way I do.)

4. And of course, grammar instruction ONLY works alongside a reading-rich curriculum/environment, where kids are seeing grammar at work in context.

When kids read a book, they can see what writers are doing with language, and they are exposed to a wide range of different sentence structures and grammatical patterns. Wide and repeated exposure will hone their intuition for language, and they'll absorb an intuitive understanding of grammar and punctuation, even if they can't accurately identify parts of speech or diagram a sentence.
So if you don't feel comfortable teaching your kids grammar, don't worry -- just get them to read extensively, and they'll probably pick up many grammatical concepts just through reading.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

5 reasons why too much school is a bad thing...

Often I hang out with friends who bemoan the number of vacation days that their kids have.

"These schools are hardly ever in session! Holidays again!" they complain.

Schools around the world tend to have anywhere from 170 to 200 working days. American schools are required to have 180 working days for students/teachers, and Singapore schools have around 200 days.

And lots of people, like Sal Khan of Khan Academy fame, argue that long summer vacations are a relic of an agrarian economy that no longer exists, so why can't we have year-round school?

Here's my response:

School is very important. But too much school is a bad thing for the following reasons:

1. School is structured. 

I love the structure and routine of school days. It's comforting and effective, and it works.

BUT I wouldn't be able to cope with this sort of structure for more than 180 days, and I don't think it's healthy for kids to have to deal with such tight structure all year round. We all need time to dream, to rest, to play, to pursue our own passions at our pace. And parents can encourage all kinds of alternative forms of learning at home. We all need to balance structured time (weekdays/term-time) with unstructured time (weekends and vacations).

2. School requires conformity.

 Kids need to conform to teacher expectations and peer expectations at school. This is a good thing because it gives kids a taste of the real world and socializes them in positive ways.

BUT conforming all year long is not healthy. Kids need large chunks of time to be themselves and be free of all the pressures to conform socially/behaviorally/culturally etc. Kids can be themselves at home where there's no pressure to speak with a particular accent, wear particular clothes, or raise your hand before speaking. There's no peer pressure at home. If they're in school for half the year (180 days) and out of school for half the year, then they learn how to be socialized AND they learn how to be themselves.

3. Schools take kids away from family and home culture.

Schools are worlds unto themselves with their own cultures, their own values, their own ways of speaking/thinking/behaving. This is great for kids because it exposes kids to the world outside their home.

BUT schools should not replace home, and teachers should not replace parents, and the culture and language of the school should not replace the culture and language of the home. Kids should have both: school for half the year, and home for half the year.

4. Schools can't customize learning to a child's background and needs.

Kids learn a lot at school, and most schools do a good job of giving kids a host of different learning experiences. And today, with all the technology we have, schools are trying hard to individualize instruction as much as possible. So school is obviously good for learning!

BUT parents (and extended family/community) can also be wonderful teachers. When kids are at home, parents have the opportunity to customize learning for kids based on the child's background and learning needs.

For example, it's important to me that my kids know about the history and culture of India, since that's a big part of their heritage. Therefore, I often use vacations to teach my kids about India (and of course, we visit India as well). Additionally, if I know that one of my kids is struggling with a particular topic in school (say decimals), vacations give me the time as a parent to remediate and teach this stuff, and to make sure that my kids have the academic foundations they need. An education in a classroom setting can't be customized to the child's needs and background in the same way.

And of course, there's a tremendous amount of learning that happens when parents and grandparents talk to kids, take them places, travel with them etc.

5. Schools should NOT adapt to a modern work-all-year-round schedule because the modern world isn't actually aligned with our biological rhythms.

Our agrarian ancestors had the right idea when they aligned their schedules with the seasons and the harvests. They knew that our bodies need time out from school; they knew that we need long stretches of time in nature. Frankly, they had the right idea. If we keep kids in highly structured, conformist, routines all year long, we'll destroy them (not to mention the teachers).

Now don't get me wrong. I love school.

 I've spent my whole life in schools -- as a student and as a teacher -- and I think that kids benefit greatly from school.

BUT I think that  180 days of school is plenty.