May 09 2016

Coding Workshops For Kids: Tink Tank

Published by under Reviews + Sponsored Posts

A science educator that I’ve been following said last year that all children should learn to code, because one day, it’ll be as important as English. (Update: She may have said “mother tongue” instead, but my friends don’t call me The Embellisher for nothing!) That got my attention, and I started to realise that yes, there was indeed a buzz around coding. But how relevant is it unless you’re planning for a career in computer science?

And then, quite coincidentally, a school called Tink Tank contacted me inviting Layla to attend an introductory coding workshop. It was a full-day session, very well planned (for our review purposes) as parents were allowed to sit in halfway to observe the class, and even participate in a board game that would ease us into understanding coding language. The trainers also gave a mini-presentation where they showed us the video above (a must-watch!), and talked about why they set up their school–to show kids that they’re not limited to consuming technology, but that they’re able to be technology creators themselves, inventing solutions for real-life problems.

During the workshop, Layla created games using Scratch, which you can read more about here. Scratch is a visually attractive and kid-friendly programming interface that allows kids to create stories, games, and animations–and learn about programming at the same time. I saw Layla working with it, and it’s like jigsaw parts, with embedded code, that you piece together for a final product.

In the first part of the workshop, which I didn’t get to observe, Layla worked with LightBot, which helps kids:

* understand step-by-step (i.e. logical thinking) processes
* learn the concept of “procedures” and pattern finding
* learn the concept of “debugging”

Next, she used Makey Makey to make a virtual piano with bananas. You can watch a short clip of her playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with her piano buddy here. Makey Makey is an invention kit that can turn everyday objects into touchpads–it works with programming tools like Scratch, and it’s a way for kids to experience how hardware and software interact to fulfil an intended purpose.

After a lunch break, they began on Scratch proper, where she created a ghoul game with Teacher Nekesh. I arrived midway through this segment, when she was already putting ghouls on the screen, making them move and bounce off the screen whenever they hit the edge. After that, she learned to make the ghouls disappear when “shot” (with a mouse click), and to create a scoring system for the game.

Her second and final Scratch project was to create a virtual candy store with a checkout system, and here’s a screen shot:

Scratch: Candy Shop

I was settled and ready to take notes at this point, so Teacher Himmy had my full attention. A few things that struck me about his teaching style, which showed he understood what kids need:

* He asked kids to partially close their laptops whenever he was explaining a new step, which I thought was a great strategy for minimising distractions.
* He broke up the task into little steps and asked many questions along the way, e.g. before the kids started making their store, they were asked to name the different elements of the sample store that they were viewing. There were only four students in the class that day, and I noted that all of them were called upon to volunteer answers.
* Sometimes, he would ask the kids to read out loud together, which I thought was another good strategy for getting everyone to focus.
* Kids could work at their own pace–those who finished a task early were given the go-ahead to move on.
* There was a bug in Teacher Himmy’s programme and he pointed it out to the kids, and explained what went wrong and how to fix it.

The set-up for our workshop was superb because each student had a teacher attached to them as well. For quiet students like Layla, this makes a huge difference because she’ll never raise her hand to ask a question, and it’s only when you’re dealing with her on a one-to-one basis that you’ll see what she’s having trouble grasping. However, this won’t be the case for Tink Tank’s regular classes, where there will be up to eight students in a class with 1-2 teachers; their guaranteed teacher-to-student ratio is 1:4, which is still cosy.

Before we called it a day, the teachers rounded us up for a quick game of Coding Farmers:

Tink Tank: Coding Farmers

It’s a board game where players race to a farmhouse using action cards, which are written in plain English, as well as Java code. Again, the trainers showed that they were in tune with the kids, because when the pace started to lag, they stepped in to introduce new challenges that made the game more exciting.

I would definitely recommend Tink Tank based on our experience. I’m also impressed that they’ve mapped out their courses as a journey towards becoming a “Change Maker,” or someone who can use her coding skills to solve real-life problems and create change. The first step in that direction would be their Scratch Coder 101 classes, which begin on June 18. These are 2-hour classes that will be held over 10 weeks, at Park Mall shopping centre (near Dhoby Ghaut MRT). You can read more about the classes here. They’re for 8-12 year olds, but I’m sure they’d be quite flexible about age, as long as there’s readiness and interest.

And here’s a message from the Tink Tank team:

To give kids a flavour of what we offer before deciding if they’d like to join our regular class, Tink Tank will be giving your readers a special promotion to our First Line of Code workshop on May 29 2016. There are two slots available, 8.30am-12.30pm OR 1.30pm-5.30pm. Parents will be invited to sit in from 12pm or 5pm respectively for the kids’ presentation. Simply enter the promo code “EVELYNDISCOUNT” when they purchase the ticket here, and they will only need to pay $25 (U.P. $150)!

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Apr 26 2016

Work

Published by under This Week

Work

First, read this quote.

The year didn’t start out that well for me, in terms of work. The lull was too long (maybe three weeks, plus the break I took in December to bond with family), and as much as I relished my 80s movie binge, there were only so many times I could watch The Terminator and Aliens. I also felt guilty for not being more productive, considering our expenses are higher this year—Layla’s gym fees have risen, and we’ve started Z on one-on-one Chinese lessons and a weekly science workshop. When work did start, there were one or two instances where I felt unappreciated. I probably shouldn’t have; I’m lucky to have friends trying to look out for me in some way, either by passing me work/contacts or encouraging me, or both. (I love my friends, I really do.) But it was what it was.

I had several meetings for potential retainer projects; for a freelancer, a retainer project is like putting a ring on it, where someone likes your work enough to commit to you. How it works for writers on retainers is that we would deliver a set number of articles—or some form of writing—each month, indefinitely, and get paid a fixed monthly salary. I’ve had two small retainer deals for some time, and several enquiries for larger-scale retainers, which I didn’t hear back about. For last year at least, I was too busy to follow up on retainer leads. I did hit my earnings target last year, but thinking about finances on a month-to-month basis is draining.

And my work routine. I’ve given up on working early in the morning. I tried but I was too dazed to write anything that made sense, and I decided that those two hours before Z gets up are better spent on sleep. So it’s back to working nights. My official hours are 10PM-2AM but I’ve definitely stretched it. Sometimes Z thinks he can keep grown-up hours, which pushes work to 11PM or later. Other times, I’m so… bored from playing mom and keeping house all day that I want a break to inject some levity into my life. So I spend time listening to songs where people cuss and talk dirty, finding out what’s really happening with my friends, and crushing on TV/movie heroes, and that eats into work time—but I swear I haven’t clicked on a TV series or movie in the last two months, no time! And then I’m up at 5.30AM to braid Layla’s hair, fetch her socks, and fill her water bottle, and again at 7-ish or 8 for Z’s breakfast. No afternoon naps, although I do have a lie-in if I’m flat-out exhausted.

But I’m in a good place currently. The last two months have been filled with new projects—everyone needs change and I do too, perhaps more than most. Also I firmed up a new retainer deal. It’s with an educational site that seems out of character for me as I’m known for being a chill parent (and I am, generally), but I do read it, and I have a fair number of hits coming in from their forum as well. I’ve just started with them and I’ve been given freedom in the planning and writing process. I’ve already learned a few things that are useful for me, as a parent, and they’ve been happy with my submissions so far. The articles I’ve written aren’t too different from the learning tips I might’ve posted on this blog; if you’d like to read them, leave me a comment and I’ll mail you the links.

I’m not sure how long this will go on. Like any partnership there will be ups and downs, and I’ve freelanced long enough (10 years) to not expect anything to last forever. I don’t expect anything in life to last forever! But I have a healthy work attitude—I always try to find something to enjoy about work, I’ve never missed a deadline, I’m open to feedback, willing to make changes, and I know when to exercise restraint or let go and not push a point, for my own sanity and to preserve relationships. Ok I procrastinate and I’m easily distracted. But the client doesn’t get to see that!

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Apr 21 2016

Review: The Everybody Feels… Series (Scholastic)

Published by under Read

The Everybody Feels series, Scholastic

A very nice lady named Cindy from Scholastic Asia got in touch with me earlier in the year about doing a series of book reviews for Scholastic, and I was so impressed with her as she took the trouble to find out what Layla and Z are reading now, and to make a list of recommendations that fitted our needs, as well as my preferences! Our books arrived about a month ago and I’ll be sharing our thoughts on these books here as well as on Instagram.

We’ve been reading the Everybody Feels… series. Dealing with feelings isn’t something I’m great at—writing provides some release, but I think I’ve always believed that certain feelings are best kept under wraps, until they get so big that you can’t contain them anymore, which most times spells trouble. I’m glad both my kids are a lot more open about their emotions; they may not know how to process their feelings, but they are willing to reveal how they feel. Still, Layla’s on the brink of teenhood and Z’s not over the tantrum phase yet, which means we have our fair share of explosive episodes at home—there are healthier ways of dealing with feelings, and that’s why books that can teach these strategies are valuable, at any stage of life.

The Everybody Feels… books are suitable for kids aged 4 and up. They’re pitched at Z’s level of understanding, but I see sections that might come in handy for Layla too. The first book Z and I read was Everybody Feels… Anger. It’s the most relevant title for us because I have a short fuse and my son takes after me. Like the other books in the series, it does some important things: First, it gives kids the vocabulary they need to describe their feelings, and the reasons behind those emotions: “something you own got messed up,” “I felt like a balloon about to burst”… Second, by showing two examples of a little girl and boy blowing up, kids realise they’re not alone and that their feelings and reactions are normal. Finally, the book discusses resolution, where the other parties apologise and reconciliation takes place in time for a happy ending. Of course real life is never as straightforward and kids eventually have to learn that peace is best sought internally, instead of depending on someone else’s actions to feel better. But that’s a tough one, even when we’re all grown up, so I think the lessons in this book are a great start.

What I loved about all the books in the series was that they provided examples of little girls and little boys going through similar emotions. Girls do get angry, and boys do get scared, and sometimes we’ve been so conditioned by stereotypes that we forget people are entitled to their feelings, regardless of gender. I liked that they provided a model for dealing with feelings that is relevant even for adulthood, for instance, talking to a friend to feel less scared or angry, or trying to recall happy moments when one is sad. There’s also a glossary to explain words like “wobbly,” which is helpful for Z, who probably doesn’t know as many words as some of his peers. And there is a section for the grown-ups, explaining what next steps they can take, be it discussions, role playing, or using storytelling and art to reinforce the themes and messages of each book. Essentially, all bases covered.

If you’d like to find out more about the books, you can download samples from Scholastic Asia’s website. There are activity sheets that you can use too!

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Mar 24 2016

Throwback

Published by under This Week

From Amy

People who know me assume that I throw everything away, especially since I’m in my minimalist phase, but I have my sentimental side. For one, I kept this note from a girl who loved me a long time ago. Y’know it’s a wonderful thing to be the object of a girl’s affections? She gave me rides whenever she could, and there would always be a Coke Lite (the only fizzy drink my sensitive tummy can tolerate) and some snack or other to tide me over night classes, and if she spotted me listening to something at Tower Records, she’d buy the CD and loan it to me—permanently. I also remember that she always smelled of fresh mint and we both used deodorant from the men’s section, I think we fancied ourselves as being more tough than sweet.

Although we were friends and not dating, I have to say that the guys in my life have never been as solicitous. There’s a lot they could’ve learned from her!

How did I know she was attracted to me? My instincts are off in many areas, but I haven’t been wrong about attraction yet. And I did ask her, since I spoke my mind back in my 20s.

Did I reciprocate? Well I was flattered, mildly curious, and not seeing anyone at the time, but I liked boys too much to switch sides. Also she was so petite and pretty and if I were ever attracted to a woman, it would be to one who actually looked like a boy. :) I had friendship to offer, but I cringe when I think about our relationship because I was a terrible friend. I don’t think I expressed gratitude often, I was petulant at times, and ultimately, non-committal. Right before I met Alf, I wanted to overhaul my life, friends included, and I quietly exited many of my social circles. I guess she was collateral damage.

Anyway, that note: She was apologising for showing up at my home late one night, unexpectedly, to collect a school paper from me so she could help me submit it the next day! I never understood the need for that apology, and it makes me sad to think about how much doing something for me meant to her. We probably met up at least once after, and that was it. I’ve tried looking for her on Facebook and googling her, but if I can’t find her, I doubt anyone can. My googling skills aren’t half bad, after all. I don’t feel the need to make amends to a lot of people, but it’d be nice if I could get a second shot at this friendship.

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Mar 15 2016

Adventures In Spotify

Published by under This Week

Spotify

A couple of years ago, Alf and I were having dinner with a friend, when a stranger sat down at a neighbouring table and started talking to us. Nothing heavy, we talked about music, he recommended us a few bands to listen to, and he encouraged me to visit New York, which I still haven’t done. But Alf said later that when he went over to the counter to pay the bill, he half expected to return to find me and the stranger making out. It wasn’t like that at all!

My husband was very good-natured about it though, which shows how much space he gives me, and today, I’ve somewhat mastered the art of giving him plenty of room to breathe as well.

Anyway, of the bands the stranger recommended to us, we checked out one. And of that, there was only one song that I really liked, so much so that it’s one of my favourite tracks to listen to today. So I think the moral of this story is that you should share your music freely with others–they might find something that speaks to them, and it is a wonderful feeling to fall in love with a song. You never know when you might need it.

I forgot how I found Spotify and started using it. If you don’t know know what it is, click here.

I’m actually a late Spotify user; when I first got on it, that was probably about two years ago and I had no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t even aware of how many songs were on it, so I only used it to alternate between two artistes–The National and Ed Sheeran–while I was working, and whenever we had company. This went on for months, and Alf said he started to hate The National after that!

Eventually I figured out that just about every song I had ever heard in my entire life was on Spotify. (Except anything by Taylor Swift, who’s removed herself from the network.) I started making playlists, and then realised there are very few songs that I like enough to listen to repeatedly. So my lists were paltry 10-song collections–I’m trying to add to them, but slowly. And I had these rules like, oh, this list has to only have songs in minor keys. Or the mood/tempo has to be similar. Then I would have a list of songs that sounded like rip-offs of one another, which wasn’t ideal either. And because I don’t listen to lyrics much, I might have a happy playlist with a sad song that made the cut because of its upbeat melody.

But I like fussing over my lists; it’s a healthy obsession.

Lately, I’ve been using songs to connect with friends. I’ve been sharing what I’m listening to on Facebook, and one of my friends from back in school switched from Apple Music to Spotify, and she even sent me a song via Spotify mail, which I thought was so cool–I haven’t received a song from anyone in years! I’ve also gone digging into my friends’ public playlists, which is fun. It’s interesting to see what people are listening to, and what they put in their lists, and how they name their lists and organise them, or not. I went through a girlfriend’s lists today and as I heard all these songs that I remembered from a different phase of my life, I wanted to hug her and cry, especially as I was listening to this.

Well, that’s me and what I’ve been up to, apart from work, life, the kids, and the usual. What have you been doing?

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Mar 12 2016

For Cindy

Published by under Read

Cindy

In 2012, I joined a mom bloggers’ group for the first time, and with these online interactions it’s like dating, in that sometimes there’s chemistry, and sometimes not. A mother named Cindy started reading my blog during that time, and I think she’s the only person, aside from a handful of friends and curious family members, that has cared to read almost everything I’ve written since. Continue Reading »

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Feb 17 2016

What Do Primary 4 Kids/10 Year Olds Read?

Published by under Read

Farrer Park: Rhyming Verses From A Singapore Childhood

I remember reading books with grown-up themes by about 9. Part of it was accidental–my mom brought home some bargain-bin Mills and Boon romances that landed in my hands instead. (If I remember correctly, she handed them to me!) I also found a YA stash in my class’s library corner, which covered dating, rape, and teen pregnancy. I suspect I was the only kid in the class who brought those books home.

Unfortunately, that early awareness didn’t mean I was ready or eager for proper literature, and I only stopped reading trash in my 20s.

Compared to me, Layla’s a much more balanced individual–she likes a little of everything, and even though she’s super athletic, she also enjoys lounging around with a book. It’s the same for her reading diet; she’s easygoing so she’s happy to let me pick out her books, and open to trying new titles.

Before I list her reads for 2016, here’s a recap of what she read over the November-December holiday:

* The Mysterious Benedict Society (she started with one book early last year, and I got her the rest of the series just before her final exams–they were her stress busters!)
* How To Train Your Dragon (we got her three books for Christmas; she finished them within days and is happily re-reading them)
* Harriet The Spy (I picked this up at the library because it seemed like something she might like, and she did.)
* The Hobbit (We have the illustrated edition, a beautiful gift from a friend! Layla said this was “too long,” so I gather she’s not ready for it although she finished it.)
* When You Reach Me, Liar And Spy (I haven’t read Liar And Spy, but I’ve read When You Reach Me and felt there were certain things Layla wouldn’t understand at this point, such as divorce and race/class issues. But she can revisit these books when she’s more mature.)
* A Wrinkle In Time (I bought this because it was the inspiration for When You Reach Me. Layla said this was just “OK,” am glad I didn’t get her the trilogy.)
* The Phantom Tollbooth (a friend recommended this, I liked it although I haven’t finished it yet! I bought the hardcover annotated version for myself.)

So, 2016. These are some titles that I hope to pick up for Layla. It’s a short list because there’s not a lot of free time during the school term:
* Wonder
* El Deafo
* Inside Out And Back Again
* Where The Mountain Meets The Moon
* Anne Frank: The Diary Of A Young Girl
* I Am Malala

I’ll continue to look out for Newbery winners–the few she’s tried have worked out. Apart from the Newbery list, Brainpickings has been a treasure trove for book recommendations.

I should mention that I’m still buying picture books for Layla because I think they do a wonderful job of making topics accessible and interesting for any age group. These are some picture books from our collection that she hasn’t read yet:

* Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space
* Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings
* My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, And Giant Bugs (Hoping she can read The Metamorphosis soon!)
* Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff In Simple Words (another lovely gift from a friend!)

We’ve also received some books from local publisher Epigram to review, and pictured above is a poem from “Farrer Park: Rhyming Verses From A Singapore Childhood” by Ann Peters.

I’m a poetry-lite person (i.e. I love Lang Leav, while Paradise Lost is best remembered as a grad school nightmare), so I liked this as soon as I opened it. The illustrations are tasteful, the colours pleasing, and the stories sweet and funny, like this one about Dollah’s father who worked as a cleaner:

His wife, the women all would say
Was so much luckier than they
Getting husbands like this to sweep
Would be enough to make them weep!

But they didn’t know what she knew
And she wasn’t about to drop a clue
She hated all his cleaning sprees
In fact, she’d thought he’d gone loopy!

She wished that he just wouldn’t clean
Where her cloth had already been
And if he really wanted to help
Why hadn’t he fixed that kitchen shelf?

Ann Peters uses words that I haven’t heard in years–“washerwoman,” for one–and she recreates sights that we don’t see anymore, like 7 or 8 people piled into a tiny car. Those were the days where no one cared about seatbelts! She’s probably about my mother’s age because some of her memories are from before I was born, back in the day of “tick tock” noodle sellers and ice balls. But others, I can relate to–we have a few Uncle Govans (see pictured poem) in the family!

I talked about “strewing” on my Instagram account, where I occasionally post book photos and book-related thoughts. “Strewing” is about leaving invitations for discovery around the home, and my version of that is to leave random picture books on the dinner table for Layla to enjoy with her lunch. “Farrer Park” is perfect for that purpose, and it’ll be appearing on our dinner table soon.

Click here to view Layla’s reading lists from previous years.

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Feb 15 2016

Science Enrichment Workshop For P1 Kids: thinkBIG

Published by under Reviews + Sponsored Posts

Z

It was such a big day for Z today, because he attended his first drop-off class!

He’s 4 going on 5 and he doesn’t go to school; I’d written earlier that a “dream preschool” was moving into our neighbourhood but I’d called them and found out they didn’t accept kids beyond a certain age, which was disappointing considering it was a Montessori outfit. But well, it would’ve cost us a fair bit, and on looking around at the other schools in our vicinity, I realised we’d have to pay at least 4x of what we’d paid for Layla to get the class size she’d enjoyed–10 kids. Continue Reading »

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Feb 13 2016

On Couplehood

Published by under This Week

All You Need Is Love, photo courtesy Davide Ragusa, unsplash.com

My husband gave me an unexpected V-Day present yesterday, as we were trying to keep warm under a tiny blanket and doing what we rarely do these days–have a conversation late into the night.

I can’t remember if I asked whether he thought we’d married too soon, or if he was happy to be married to me, but this is what he said:

It wasn’t like how it was with the kids, where I was horrified at the news but eventually saw how beautiful it could be once they arrived. I always wanted to marry you. I’m still glad I did.

That, and he’s making rice pudding tomorrow. Life is good.

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Feb 08 2016

On Traditions, And Love

Published by under This Week

Happy New Year!

We have Chinese New Year traditions but they’re a little strange: I get very generous red packets, my happily single brother refuses to accept money, and we usually have a reunion lunch way ahead of time.

So yesterday was supposed to be a regular day, but my dad emerged from his room bearing red packets again.

Dad, you gave us ang paos three weeks ago!

Uh… that was for Christmas, I didn’t get you anything for Christmas.

(He did, we all got presents.)

I guess in some ways, we are a regular Chinese family after all. Few hugs, no kisses, no I love yous or I’m proud of you, but my folks are still trying to take care of me in the best way they know how.

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