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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 ...

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.