Apr 12 2014

Searching For A Good Ballet School In Singapore: An Update

Published by under Learn (Kids)

Layla

When I was little, I wasn’t exactly a likeable kid. I didn’t smile much and I said even less. In fact in my first four years at primary school I said practically nothing, and when I was forced to talk, it was in a voice barely above a whisper. I was perfectly OK and loud at home, so I suppose if I’d been assessed back then they would’ve said I suffered from selective mutism. My point is, I can see how it would’ve been impossible for a teacher to feel affection for me, although I gave no trouble at all, aced my tests, and handed in all my work on time.

But I did once have a form teacher who was fond of me; I remember her patting me on the head and putting my picture in the school magazine. And when I was too afraid to read out loud on my own, she asked another classmate to read along with me. I never thanked her or gave any sign that I appreciated her in any way, and when it was the last day of the school term, I dashed out of the classroom to get to my bus because I hated school that much, without looking back or saying a proper goodbye to her. I’m not sure if we kids knew ahead of time that she had resigned, but anyway she never came back to school, and I’ve always felt bad about that last moment. I don’t even know her name anymore, but I remember her face and how she looked at me with kindness and love.

Decades later, I’m a totally different person. I talk a lot more, that’s for sure! And I’ve had maybe two other teachers treat me with that “special” attention. Not in an obvious way, but with good comments on my papers and patience for my questions. I worked really hard in their classes and scored well, and I was proud of that.

And that’s what I look for when it comes to Layla’s teachers: Their ability to build a relationship with her. Layla’s Chinese tutor is genuinely affectionate towards her; she pokes fun at her during lessons (and Layla sometimes gets mad), they play games, and the tutor tells her stories. The tutor and I will usually have a post-lesson chat, and she’s told me many times that she enjoys teaching Layla because she has a good work attitude. Not that you can tell it’s work. Once, Alf even asked me what goes on during their lessons because he heard Layla giggling so much. Layla’s Chinese grades have been good so far, and eventually I’ll get the tutor to teach Z too.

But yes, this post is about ballet, and I’m getting there. I wrote some time ago that I was wondering if our time at the Singapore Ballet Academy was well spent. I decided that Layla should take her Primary grade exam (which she did a few days ago) and take a break after. She said she wanted a break, and frankly I was tired of the rushing and commuting–two hours on a bus, twice a week, to get to a one-hour class. And Layla didn’t seem sufficiently motivated because she would moan and cry when I repeated the teacher’s instructions at home to practise her stretching. Two months ago I sent in a withdrawal letter and made my intention known to Layla’s current ballet teacher, who simply said, “Oh! Ok.” When I asked her how Layla was doing in class, I got one of those “Oh she’s fine” answers that didn’t really mean anything. So I felt that I’d made the right decision to stop these lessons–there was no relationship here.

I don’t mean to say that her current ballet teacher isn’t doing her job. She’s detailed and attentive, and prior to the exams, she handed out little notes to all the students with the areas that they needed to improve. For instance, Layla’s note said that she needed to stretch her legs fully when jumping and to remember to look up and keep her shoulders down at all times. But here’s the thing, when I brought Layla for her exam, we ran into her first ballet teacher, who’s been away for a while. Her face brightened when she saw Layla and she came up to hug her, telling her she still has the hand-drawn card Layla gave her two years ago. When she heard Layla was leaving the school, she squealed and exclaimed, “Why?!” Then she lamented that they would be losing a good student, and asked me to reconsider. We’ll still be taking that break, but I told this particular teacher to call me when she’s assigned to a class that Layla can join. For her, we will return to SBA.

A mom wrote to me some time back saying that she had just enrolled her daughter in the Little Dance Academy; her daughter had taken a trial there and she felt it was a good school, with great instruction and enthusiasm. Another mom recommended the Palais Dance Studio, which she said was a good school that didn’t require twice-a-week training sessions leading up to the ballet exams. I also received an informative mail from a ballet teacher who runs the Russian Ballet Academy Singapore, and I’m including our conversation here:

How is Russian ballet training different from what my daughter is doing now to prepare for the RAD exams?

I’ve taught the RAD Pre-primary and Primary Grades before, prior to having my own school. The RAD is not to be used as a training method, as it is a syllabus- and exam-based system. In other words, the RAD does not teach new material outside of its syllabuses/exams. While the RAD system has much merit of its own, eventually, when the students are older and need to be learning more advanced material, this system may not be the most beneficial. For the primary level, many of its exercises are movement-based, and give the young students a sense of dance and movement, which is definitely useful.

In contrast, in the Russian system, classes for young students are centred around classical ballet technique, and exercises are set by each individual teacher according to the needs of her students. These exercises may include gymnastics or flexibility/strength training, and all of these help in building a strong classical foundation for the student. Classical ballet technique classes usually take in students from 7-9 years old, and there is a set curriculum for the 8 levels in the Vaganova method as well. Typically, the Russian method is used as a training tool to prepare its students for professional work in a ballet career, but even when done “recreationally,” where the student has no professional aspirations, the benefits they reap are the same as well.

Are there injuries or postural/foot problems that can result from ballet training?

Ballet injuries are rare among young students. When ballet technique is done correctly, using the right muscles, injuries should not happen. The teacher also has the responsibility to ensure that the pace is appropriate for each class and for the age group as well. Sometimes, other activities outside of ballet, such as high-impact sports, may be a contributing cause for injuries.

Is there a meaning behind the dance movements that the students learn? E.g. is there a plot/storyline to the dance, or are the movements related to the accompanying classical piece?

The Vaganova method actually does teach its students to know the purpose behind each step, and each student is expected to understand both mentally and physically how to work their bodies. Even though they are at a young age, exercises are set in such a way that they are simple enough to understand, and the tempo and the pace also allow students to be aware of what their bodies and muscles are doing as well. So at the end of the day, the students are not imitating the teacher, but doing the exercises with a clear understanding of how to work their muscles.

As for classical pieces or short pieces of variations/repertoire (ballet stories), they usually are not introduced until towards the end of a level/curriculum, when the students have a good grasp on their basics. Repertoire can include excerpts from a ballet classic (Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker etc), and it can also include a classical choreography from the teacher. In the Vaganova method, everything that we do in class eventually becomes something that we can perform onstage in classical ballet pieces, so both technique and artistry is given equal emphasis.

If a student shows little or no aptitude for ballet, would they receive an honest assessment and be advised to try something else?

I personally believe that all students can dance, and can have a good foundation in ballet, although not everyone can be a professional dancer. I do give honest assessments to students who wish to pursue ballet seriously, but as long as a student enjoys and loves ballet, I don’t turn them away. If they don’t have natural talent for a performing career, there are always other outlets such as teaching.

We keep a maximum of 10 students per class, and everyone is invited to perform at least once a year. It is good for all students to be able to perform, even though we may have varying talents within a class, because we do want all our students to have stage experience, which can boost their confidence, whether they take dance professionally or not.

The Russian Ballet Academy teacher had originally invited Layla to a ballet trial but that didn’t materialise, in any case this school isn’t in a more convenient location for us, compared to SBA. If you would like to contact the teacher directly, please leave a comment or e-mail me. To read my earlier ballet post, click here.

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Apr 08 2014

DIY Easter Bunny Banner

Published by under Make

DIY Easter Bunny Banner/Bunting Made From Post-Its

3M Scotch sent me some of their new decorative tape products to meddle around with and I decided to make a little banner for Easter. If you’d like to make one with your kids, here’s what you’ll need:

* A stack of Post-its
* A bunny-shaped cookie cutter or toy that’s smaller than a Post-it note
* Plain paper or index cards
* Decorative tape

First, set your bunny cookie cutter or toy on top of a plain sheet of paper or index card, and trace around it to get a bunny outline.

DIY Easter Bunny Banner/Bunting Made From Post-Its

If you don’t have a suitable cookie cutter or toy, you can use the bunny template that I’ve created instead.

Next, turn your paper/card over and stick on your decorative tape. Play with white space and different colour combinations!

DIY Easter Bunny Banner/Bunting Made From Post-Its

Flip your paper over to the side with the outline, and cut out the bunny. Then stick the bunny onto a Post-it note.

DIY Easter Bunny Banner/Bunting Made From Post-Its

Start over and make more until you have enough Post-it notes for a banner. Have fun putting it up!

I received a package of complimentary decorative tapes from 3M Scotch, and I was not compensated for this post. I don’t have much of a tape collection and I’m using these for the first time. The plain Magic Tapes are pretty thin (see banner pic, first Post-it from right), so you’ll have to use a double layer of tape if you’re particular about not having the see-through effect. The decorative masking tape (see banner pic, third Post-it from right) is easy to cut and tear off, and it removes cleanly too. I hope they expand this range!

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Apr 05 2014

Primary 2: Progress Report

Published by under School

Layla

Layla’s school held its parent-teacher meetings a few weeks ago, but I forgot to sign up for slots in the morning and they were all booked up by the time I remembered. It didn’t matter, because I received this lovely note from her form teacher:

I thought I should drop you an email to reassure you that Layla is doing fine in school in terms of academics and behaviour.

Layla has been a wonderful girl in class this year. She is still the sweet-natured girl with a warm smile that I’ve known since last year. She displays confidence and a great interest in learning. She is one of the responsive ones in class and participates actively when questions are asked. She does not shy away when asked to present in front of her classmates. However, at times I would need to give her a little reminder to speak louder for us to hear her.

Perhaps an area which Layla could also take note of is her carelessness in her work. Like her other classmates, she tends to make careless mistakes in her worksheets or class work. However, this can be rectified with practice and reminders to be more careful in her spelling and math calculations.

I see a lot of potential in our dear Layla and I believe if she continues to persevere, she will definitely go far!

It’s such a far cry from the “quiet and pleasant girl” one-liner that I used to get in my report book, every single year without fail. We will miss Ms. E when Layla moves on to Primary 3 next year!

p.s. If you’re interested, my notes from my P1 and K2 meetings are here and here.

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Mar 31 2014

Review: EnchantINK by Monsters Under The Bed

Two weeks ago, Layla was invited by Monsters Under The Bed to attend EnchantINK, a three-day fairy tale writing camp.

Monsters Under The Bed review

A bit of background: I didn’t read fairy tales to Layla when she was little. When I was growing up, it seemed that all we had to choose from were Ladybird classics and from what I remember about them, the language was dry and the pictures dull. But when it came time to expose Layla to books, I was dazzled by the artistry and variety of books available. A parent makes a case for fairy tales in her post here, and valid though her points are, I feel our books have covered the same ground. For instance, I didn’t avoid fairy tales because they depicted poverty or human cruelty–our picture books have addressed these issues too.

However, I will concede that I favoured modern books with realistic settings and characters. I’m still not fond of talking animals and I’m standing by our Enid Blyton ban, but I’ll never forget my surprise at opening a Harry Potter book one night and discovering that I liked it enough to forgo sleeping till I’d reached the last page. It’s not a feeling I’d want to deprive my kids of, and if you look at Layla’s current reading list you’ll see that there are folktales and books with make believe worlds.

Well I guess there aren’t many parents like me. The kids attending EnchantINK had to be bused to the workshop site and one of the ice breaker activities was singing Disney showtunes–the rest of the kids seemed to know all the lyrics! Unless you count Pixar as Disney, Layla’s only seen Twisted and Frozen. So as you can imagine, there was quite a bit of new information for her to absorb at this camp.

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Mar 25 2014

Organising Thoughts, Writing Descriptions

Published by under Learn (Kids)

Image via deathtothestockphoto.com

I picked up a book titled Building Thinking Skills at Bras Basah’s school holiday booksale, and when I first flipped through it, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right choice in buying it. The book is a collection of puzzles and worksheets covering reading, writing, math and science, and unlike the other homeschooling curriculum books I’ve encountered, there’s not a lot of explanatory text for the parent. But as I looked at the various exercises, I began to see the value of the book and how I could use it to support our efforts to ask better questions.

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Mar 14 2014

An Indie Mom’s Guide To The March Holidays

Published by under Play

Image courtesy Victor Erixon, Unsplash.com

To me, the March break is practically a non-break. Even if we didn’t have any plans, the seven days would just whiz by. But–as it turns out–our holiday calendar is almost full! We’ve got a school carnival to help out at, Layla’s been invited to a three-day writing workshop, and we’re tagging along with a friend to Universal Studios. That barely leaves us with any time to chill and catch up with friends, much less try something new. All the same, I went ahead and made a list of holiday activities that don’t involve marching straight into a marketing trap or fighting other parents and kids for breathing space. I think my husband would approve.

So, if you’re independent like we are and have some time to spare next week, here’s how you can have some creative and meaningful fun with the kids:

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Mar 02 2014

Tracking Household Expenses: An Update

Published by under Learn (Grown-Ups)

Image via deathtothestockphoto.com

I wrote about tracking our household expenses last year, and my talented photographer friend Steph took one look at my feeble attempt to use Excel (above) and offered to clue me in on a few basics. Not many people know this about Steph: She crunches numbers for breakfast and hasn’t yet been outed as a closet Excel geek. Sorry Steph!

Anyway, after our session I went home to create a brand new Excel file–one far more efficient than what I was working with previously.

BEFORE:
Tracking Household Expenses

AFTER:
Tracking Household Expenses

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see that each of my headers (Date, Month, etc) are now clickable with the up/down arrows, and this is thanks to the AutoFilter function. You apply the AutoFilter function by selecting your header/first row and clicking on Data > Filter > AutoFilter. You can read more about AutoFilter here. In my previous Excel expense tracker, my data was static–I couldn’t shift the information around or view my spending in a selected month or category. And I was manually adding up daily purchases so I could enter a final figure for each spending category, before using the Sum function to total up the spending for the week. I had to do this every day, and if I was backlogged, I stored receipts by sorting them out into the different days and stapling them together, by day. It was definitely an operation, and not one that I particularly enjoyed.

With this new system, I toss receipts into a ziploc bag and once every couple of weeks, I grab a fistful of receipts and sit at my laptop to update the file. I no longer have to enter information in chronological order, because at any point, I can click on the Date header, select “Sort Ascending,” and have everything arranged for me:

Tracking Household Expenses

The other thing AutoFilter allowed me to do was view my spending data by month AND category. That was very useful in helping us see exactly how much money we were spending on, say, drinks that we didn’t really need:

Tracking Household Expenses

That, by the way, is $124 spent on unhealthy drinks in a month. Save on that for six months and we could treat ourselves to a little holiday!

Steph showed me another function called Pivot Table to automatically extract and summarize data; I’m still confused by it and for now filtering my data by the Month and Expense categories and applying the Sum function is sufficient to give me what I need. My primary purpose for tracking expenses is to see how our spending habits can be improved.

Once I had some data in my file, I realised it wasn’t easy to read everything and shading alternate rows fixed that. You can find instructions on how to do that here.

I also added a Remarks column on the far right to enter details about each purchase. This was something I didn’t have previously, and if the spending in a category was particularly high, I couldn’t remember why until I went back to my receipts and checked them. At the time, I kept every single receipt, even after the data had been entered. With the Remarks column, I no longer need to store receipts for future reference–less clutter is always a good thing!

If you look at the screen caps of my current file, you’ll see that I have separate Date and Month columns. The Date column is really just a way for me to sort the data in chronological order, and to view purchases on a particular day if I needed to. But usually I view my data by month, and I enter the month in the YYMM format so that I can potentially use this file over several years.

Why create your own expense tracker file instead of downloading one of the many free templates out there? Well we all spend money in different ways, and we want to track different expenses too. I downloaded a few templates and found that they didn’t apply to my life, while creating my own file told me a story about my variable expenses that I previously didn’t have access to. If you’re trying to spend less or stick to a budget, this is something that’s worth doing.

Top image courtesy deathtothestockphoto.com.

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Feb 11 2014

Teaching Kids To Ask Questions: Ideas & Links

Published by under Learn (Kids)

Layla, examining the prettiest shadows we've ever seen

Last year, Layla’s class had a chance to meet with a scientist to find out about her work with corals. I didn’t ask her about the experience; it is one of my motherhood failings but I haven’t had many in-depth conversations with my firstborn since Kid #2 came along. But Layla did share something with me, that prior to the visit, she and her classmates had been asked to think of questions for the scientist, with one condition: No silly questions allowed.

I didn’t think this was the best approach, of course. My daughter takes rules very seriously, and as it is, she’s afraid enough of being less than perfect. Unfortunately we don’t have a culture of questioning everything we read or hear at home as well and I didn’t have any alternatives to suggest, except to ask if the teacher had defined “silly questions” for them. She had, and if I remember correctly, she was referring to questions that you should already know the answers to, like “What is a fish?”

Recently my friend wrote a post giving an example of a conversation she might have with her child and the questions he might ask, and how she would try her best to answer him even though he was fairly young. It reminded me of a set of posts that I’d mentally noted (here, here, and here) on curiosity and questioning, meaning to do something similar with Layla one day.

How important is the ability to question? Possibly the most important skill for the jobs of the future, according to this article:

“First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions,” Parker responded. “Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions–how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.”

“What other skills are you looking for?” I asked, expecting that he’d jump quickly to content expertise.

“I want people who can engage in good discussion–who can look me in the eye and have a give and take.”

I’ve never really been the questioning sort of person, and I think Alf is the same. Sometimes we read forum letters the same way I used to watch tennis matches, sitting back and marvelling at the back-and-forth responses as clever writers find loopholes and discrepancies in one another’s arguments. I think I’m lacking in this area because I take a while to process information–I read just to read and the questions (if any) often arise much later and for practical reasons, say when I’m trying to write a report and things don’t add up. Another reason is that I’m probably most curious when it comes to human dramas–the gossip hound in me has already read the 33-page judge’s report on the Woody Allen abuse case and I do have more than a few questions–and much less so about how the world works. Although with Google around I do feel like a kid again and I ply the search engine with questions every day that I should’ve been asking three decades ago, like whether earth’s gravity can change and how it’s measured on the moon. Unfortunately I do this for myself and I seldom pass on information to Layla.

After reading my friend’s post, I decided to be more attentive to the things Layla might be curious about. One day, I saw her looking at two workers inspecting a manhole and told her to go ahead and peek in as well. Then I asked her if she had ever wondered what was underground and how far it went, and she seemed interested enough so we designated an exercise book as her Question Book and she scribbled a few questions in it, homework style: 1. What is underground? 2. Do plants grow underground? 3. Why do insects live underground? 4. How deep does it go? 5. Are there people living underground?

I wasn’t sure how to go about answering her questions so I decided to tackle the most obvious ones first, and found her a Bill Nye video on the earth’s layers to watch. I found it entertaining but I think there was a lot of new information, so Layla had her question book in front of her again, but she was mostly jotting down the terms that she didn’t understand.

I’m not sharing this as a glowing example of how to encourage your child to be more curious, but rather, to confess that I was mostly at a loss as to how to proceed, and worse, I did on a few occasions try to shape Layla’s line of questioning.

After that episode, I had a question of my own: Was there a process I could follow for helping my kids develop an enquiring mind? I needed guidance, and so I stopped researching answers and instead, started reading up more about questions and how to encourage them. This is what I’ve learned and am trying to put into practice. I hope it’ll be of some use to you if you’re stuck in the same situation:

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13 responses so far

Feb 01 2014

Wormhole

Published by under Play

As we were heading home from Fort Canning Park this morning–with about 60 more saga seeds in our stash–we spotted the bamboo tents outside the National Museum that we’ve been eying for months. We had 15 minutes to spare before our bus arrived, so I herded the kids over for a quick peek.

Strangely, I lost track of time after we entered, but we could’ve remained in there for close to an hour.

What was in the tents? Nothing but shadows and light, and a clear view of the skies.

Wormhole, Singapore Biennale 2013

Wormhole, Singapore Biennale 2013

Wormhole, Singapore Biennale 2013

Wormhole, Singapore Biennale 2013

I’m guessing that we experienced this art piece* exactly as the artist intended.

* Wormhole is an exhibit from the Singapore Biennale 2013, which ends its run on February 16.

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Jan 31 2014

Collections

Published by under Play

Nature collections, Singapore

I didn’t realise until two days ago that we had enough cones to fill several glass bowls and containers. My habit of bagging up stuff on our walks has really paid off! Our pine cones are from slash pine trees, and we have three kinds of casuarina cones–the small, common ones, and the larger ones pictured here and here.

I used to have an impressive saga seed collection as well, until I started letting the kids play with the seeds and vacuuming them up after. I figured saga seeds are so common in Singapore, we could always pick them up anytime we wanted. It didn’t occur to me that a. I hadn’t seen a saga tree in some time, and b. the last time I picked saga seeds was years ago when my gran’s helper Sri found a treasure spot near the CDC, which is near Novena MRT. All it took was one trip and we had two plastic bags filled with the seeds.

I related that story to a friend, and recently she called me to check the exact location of the saga trees. I wasn’t of much help, and I forgot to ask her if she had any luck finding the trees. There’s been so much construction going on in the area in the last couple of years and I doubt many trees were spared.

Anyway, thinking about saga seeds made me miss my collection and I wanted to build it up again. To my delight, I found a local saga tree resource on Google Maps, and we picked three locations to hit up today to find seeds. The first was St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which looks like a good place to go seed picking with kids because we were seeing red all over the field, but unfortunately it was closed for the holidays. The second was MacRitchie Reservoir; the map said that seeds could be found near the zigzag bridge but that’s a large area to cover and we must’ve been looking in the wrong places. In the evening, Layla and I headed to Ang Mo Kio Town Garden West, where trees were said to be at the slope opposite Blk 126 (AMK Street 12). We hit the jackpot there and collected about 100+ seeds from two of the more easily accessible trees, but it’s still paltry compared to my CDC haul. It was a good thing I didn’t bring Z, because the trees are all up on a slope and it would’ve been a nightmare trying to get him involved.

While I was searching for saga tree location tips, I stumbled into an artist’s journal: She’d collected over 8,000 seeds on 23 separate days, with some help from strangers who were well acquainted with these trees. I enjoyed reading about her project but wished she’d been more specific about where she got her seeds from. From the details she provided, it seems like St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Fort Canning Park are the most promising collection sites–she picked up over 800 seeds at each of these places!

After today’s collection efforts, I have enough saga seeds to fill a baby food jar but I wouldn’t mind a few more. So I’m definitely targeting St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Fort Canning (saga trees are said to be near the Gothic Gates and the Spice Garden). I’m also keen on this walking trail that will take you to 25 supposedly distinctive trees in Fort Canning Park. To be honest, most trees look the same to me unless they’re of the pine or palm variety, and without the seed pods I’d find it almost impossible to identify the saga tree. I’ve bookmarked this guide to “10 trees that we should know,” let’s hope it helps.

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