Do not despise the day of small beginnings

Dear Singapore,

It is about a week before your birthday, and I am thinking about all the fanfare you are getting for your 50th birthday. It started last year – with all the planning, designing of logos, strategizing budgets and putting ideas into reality. For being 50 years old, you get an iconic logo splashed on every newspaper, shop window and cars even! I am sure that red circle will be fondly remembered again when you are 100.

I am somewhat half your age, and the world looks very different for me compared to when you were 26. The skyscrapers, efficiency, cleanliness and technology are things that you looked forward to, but were not yet a reality then. I risk forgetting how you started. I confess that I do complain about your transport system and about the stress and pressure here. I am part of a generation born into the romanticized ideal that ‘anything can happen’ and ‘all our dreams can come true’.

Remind me not to rest on your laurels, and live loftily. Not all that I plan happens, and not all my dreams come true. I think this truth hits harder in your fast-changing landscape. I’ve always wished my children will see you the way I do when I was little – A&W, KAP, National Stadium. But before I know it, another crane, another boulder and another building is in its place. It seems like nothing will remain as a physical artefact testifying to the work of my hands, then. So rather than build my fame, I choose to build our youth.

As you grow older, may our youth never forget the day of small starts – people who dreamed the future, dealt with the reality, persevered through the harshness, dared to believe and put their hands to the plough.

Singapore, you are a nation strong and free today, because of your people. It reminds me of how Jeremiah gathered the people of God to build his temple in Jerusalem and how Zerubbabel laid the first foundation of that temple. It was not just the people who built the temple, it was God who established the works of their hands.

Zechariah 4:6-10

This is what the Lord says to Zerubbabel: It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him! And when Zerubbabel sets the final stone of the Temple in place, the people will shout: ‘May God bless it! May God bless it!’”

Then another message came to me from the Lord: “Zerubbabel is the one who laid the foundation of this Temple, and he will complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has sent me. 10 Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.”

My dearest Singapore, may we always be humble in our successes, and know that it is not by chance that we are where we are. May we dream, but not just remain a dreamer. May we take action, but not just follow blindly. May we take a stand, but always for the better of the next generation. May we live well, but not just for ourselves.

I may not always seem like the most patriotic of your people, but in my heart I swell with pride to be a part of your story.

With love,

Just another 90s kid.

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The Search is on… for a Comprehension Passage

It is that time of the year again.

Nope, it’s not Christmas, but it sure is a mad rush, especially if you didn’t take the June Holidays to be on the hunt. It’s the time when we (teachers) start searching for passages, drafting comprehension questions, vetting exam papers, perfecting formats, editing passages and questions… and then wait to MARK THEM AT THE END OF THE YEAR.

So if anyone thinks that it is a pain to sit for exams, just think of the teacher. Seriously, exams are worse for the teacher. And even worse for the language teacher. And even worse for the new teacher.

It was really a challenge to set comprehension exam papers in my first year for a few reasons:

  • I lack resources.
  • I don’t know the demands of the paper intuitively.
  • I’m still trying to figure out the internal standards of the cohort and the school.
  • But most of all, I have no idea where to start.

I’ve since grown, and this year I found myself enjoying (a little) the process of searching for a passage and crafting questions for it. While I’m still in the process of refining my art, I thought to share some starting points and tips I’ve relied on.

1. It’s all in the mind: see this as a chance to influence. 

We all complain that kids don’t read enough these days. So what better opportunity, than during a comprehension exam, to make them read about something that will inspire them. On that note, before I hit Google or decide to give up and sleep instead, I’d do a brainstorm:

  • What inspires me?
  • What am I passionate about? (Some examples: Social justice? Astronomy? Food?)
  • What values does this generation need more of?
  • What do I want to impart to them?

They can’t run away from the exam. They can’t run away from you. So use the opportunity to inspire a vision, challenge the process or encourage the heart.

2. Be Relevant: Start with them and their generation. 

Usually in my brainstorm, I would also think about what they are familiar with, first. Things like technology and social media would usually top the list. If I were truly out of ideas, I would go with those. Otherwise, I would keep going – friendship, parents, books, education, popular culture, charity, travel…

After that, I try to pair an abstract concept with something more tangible:

  • death – social media
  • happiness – youth
  • charity – technology
  • education – prison

I guess it is pretty obvious what I enjoy reading about. In any case, this process ends with a google search.

3. Know the sites that you can trust for credible information. 

Bearing in mind that the kids would most probably trust what they read in an exam, make sure that the passages can be trusted. Most of the time, I tend not to take passages from blogs, or dubious-looking websites. And I never take passages from satirical or entertainment sites. Apart from questionable facts and details, these sites are usually written in a style that may not be suited to the demands of the paper. In the end, the heavy editing will cost you more time, than finding an article that is almost ready to go.

Here are some suggestions for sites that I usually go to. It’s an open secret, and in the spirit of sharing and caring, here it is:

  • Huffington Post
  • New York Times
  • National Geographic
  • Reader’s Digest
  • Psychology Today

Apart from decently written articles, one other reason for scouting these sites is that students barely read from them. In all fairness, we should try to avoid setting exams from passages that students are likely to read.

(Well, I guess any student who gets their hands on this would be happy….BUT THERE ARE TONS OF ARTICLES, so beware!)

4. Pitch it perfect

The tricky bit about finding a good comprehension passage, is to be simultaneously thinking about whether the language features, style of writing, and topic would be pitched at the right level. Lower Secondary students vs upper secondary students, boys vs girls, normal academic/technical streams vs express streams…

In addition, another tricky bit is to ensure that there is enough content to test for a variety of skill sets. Whether its answering inferential questions, language questions (my favorite question type), vocabulary questions, direct questions (free marks! Be kind!), the global question or summary question, a good passage would always give room for the required questions.

What is varies from level to level, could be the content that you choose to test their understanding of, the amount of inferential and language questions or the way the question is asked.

For instance:

  • Identify the word in paragraph 2 that suggests that the writer is cynical about the efforts to decrease global warming.
  • What is the writer’s tone when he uses the phrase ’empty promises’ to describe activists’ efforts to decrease global warming.

These questions test the same content, but the demands are quite different and may affect the pitch of the paper.

5. Steal and borrow

If a passage is not long enough, or lacks content, simply cut and paste from another article. Yes it would require you to scout the forest of the world wide web to hunt down another passage. But once you have a good idea of what your core topic is – to find another passage is not too difficult.

The downside of this is that if the passages are written in different styles, you would have to edit it to make it seem like one coherent passage. Well, boost your ego a little: ask a question about a word or phrase that you have added. They can’t run from the exam. They will have to answer it anyway.

Then feel your pride swell a little.

6. Copy and Paste

When I set questions for an exam, I usually have past year papers in front of me. Rather than crack my head over the phrasing of the question, I simply imitate they way questions were asked in previous years. After all, why re-invent the wheel?

And that’s about as much of a starting point that I can offer at this moment.

Of course this can be a most tedious and frustrating process. When I did my first exam paper, I nearly tore out my brain, looking for passages, thinking of questions and trying to ensure I met the standards of the school. However, as an experienced teacher once encouraged me, setting the comprehension paper is one of the best learning experiences – by the end of the process, you would definitely know the paper inside out, and be better equipped to teach it, especially since the comprehension paper is usually a student’s downfall in the English exams.

A huge part of a teacher’s job is to inspire meaning. And reading can be said to be a diminishing art that enables our students to search for it.

So take this one chance, when they can’t run, to share impart a little of yourself to them. After all, how often do we have a 100% captive audience, all prepared and motivated to read something?

At the Halfway Mark

As the cliche goes, ‘…and in a flash, it was over’.

In a flash, half of 2015 flew by. In a flash, we hit 3 years and counting. In a flash, he got down on one knee. In a flash, I found a ring on my finger (yes, sometimes I still wonder how it got there). In a flash, those days of dreaming up a wedding was over and I actually had to get down to some realities.

Things do move quite quickly. Time expands and contracts. Quarrels wax and wane. Passion ebbs and flows. And no matter how I look at it, there’s nothing like standing at the halfway mark, to marvel at how two very imperfect and different people, even decide to journey the rest of their lives together. Of course, it starts with a bended knee, and a unique bling.

In fact, with regard to the ring, I think I gave a pretty demanding but reasonable challenge (what you get when you want to marry a teacher):

  1. Don’t get me a normal/usual diamond.
  2. I don’t wear rings, so give me a good reason for wearing the one you get me.
  3. If it is ugly, I may say ‘Yes’, but I’ll put it in the box.

Teachers never really have all the answers, but they do have a lot of challenges to keep a worthy audience engaged…So I’d like to think.

In any case, his biggest surprise was the significance of the ring, more than the ring itself. I love the way J sees symbolism in the little things, and can bring value to something that is pretty much ‘just a diamond’ (like I said, I’m not big on jewellery). And I’ll never forget (or at least try never to forget), that beside the still waters of where we first held hands three years ago, he anchored the next part of our journey with Psalm 84:11 “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.” And with a beautiful canary diamond (that looked like both the sun and a shield), he met all the demands of a pretty reasonable person.

So I said, ‘Yes’ (how could I not?).

Intense and orange - rare gem ok!

Truth be told, I’d never thought we’d reach here.

There were tearful nights that we spent doubting ourselves and our relationship. There were times when it seemed like our differences would explode us apart. And there were moments when our pride made us feel like walking away from one another.

But there is beauty in the perfect love of God – that humbles us before one another, softens our hearts toward one another, and draws us back to the wonder of when it first began.

Because quite frankly, no one ever thought that we would make that deep a mark in one another’s lives when we first met.

On being blessed this Christmas

Christmas for me has always marked the end of another year. All the excitement leading up to the yuletide season just dissipates in a day. This year it seems particularly senseless – watching the world news display terrorist attacks in Iran and Sydney, wondering what the future would hold next year, and still feeling the anxiety and disappointment that marked 2014. It is in this most challenging Christmas, that God reminded me of the Beatitudes. I’ve read it a number of times. Most times it is merely a poetic piece by Jesus. And no, it is not the most apt for Christmas. After all, it starts with ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’ (Matthew 5:3). Come on, who is in poor spirits during Christmas? What with the abundance of beer and wine… On the note of feasting, I thought about how being blessed is the state of being that everyone desires. It is why people love to receive gifts and cards, flaunt a little and throw parties. It is definitely a blessing to be a part of all these festivities, but when the year has been harsh, these blessings seem to vanish into thin air, especially after the party is over and the dishes are piled in the sink. Or when we face a challenge that seems to trap us. Or when we face death. Or when we are looking into the barrel of a gun…. So when Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:30, he was pointing the way to a state of being that everyone wants, by first realizing that we are in the state of spiritual lack. What a beautiful paradox! Sometimes what sense of certainty and sureness that we lack in spirit, we try to make up by attending parties and feasting luxuriously to assure ourselves of the tangibility of the things we have. Yet, I realize the lack in spirit can only be satisfied in Christ, and I am blessed. This Christmas, as I think about the changes that are to mark 2015, I want to remember that the feasting and kissing under the mistletoe happens only once a year, but God’s faithfulness is eternal, if only we are willing to realize our spiritual need, give in to his love in exchange for being blessed with the kingdom of heaven.

The Tale of Three Trees

It’s Christmas, again. And every year we have to reinvent the same nativity story to the Sunday School kids. Don’t get me wrong, Christmas is my favorite time of the year (especially as I blog in the snuggle of a cosy home, while it pours outside. Plus, carols playing in the background). But I find it challenging to hit refresh on the Christmas story.

So when I was tasked to tell the Christmas story for Sunday School, I asked myself – what makes Christmas special?

(So when any Sunday school teacher asks a question, just say ‘Jesus’ and you’ll most probably get it right.)

Well, while Christmas is the story of Jesus’ birth, it was his life and purpose that counted. To push it further, the reason for his coming, has something to do with the world and our human condition. So… I decided to tell the story of ‘The Tale of Three Trees’, and thought to share it with you too:


Once upon a mountain top, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: “I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I’ll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!” The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on its way to the ocean. “I want to be traveling mighty waters and carrying powerful kings. I’ll be the strongest ship in the world!” The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and women worked in a busy town. “I don’t want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me, they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world.”

Years passed and the little trees grew tall. One day three woodcutters climbed the mountain. The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining ax, the first tree fell. “Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest, I shall hold wonderful treasure!” the first tree said. The second woodcutter looked at the second tree and said, “This tree is strong. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining ax, the second tree fell. “Now I shall sail mighty waters!” thought the second tree. “I shall be a strong ship for mighty kings!” The third tree felt her heart sink when the last woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the woodcutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me.” He muttered. With a swoop of his shining ax the third tree fell.

The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought her to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a feed box for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, nor with treasure. She was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals. The second tree smiled when the woodcutter took her to a shipyard, but no mighty ship was made that day. Instead, the once strong tree was hammered and sawed into a simple fishing boat. She was too small and too weak to sail to an ocean, or even a river. Instead she was taken to a little lake. The third tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. “What happened?” The once tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God…”

Many, many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feed box. “I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and the sturdy wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said. And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.

One evening a tired traveler and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveler fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon a thundering and thrashing storm arose. The little tree shuddered. She knew she did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through the wind and the rain. The tired man awakened. He stood up, stretched out his hand and said, “Peace.” The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. And suddenly the second tree knew he was carrying the King of heaven and earth.

One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the third tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God.

That was better than being the tallest tree in the world.


It’s a story that starts with three fleshly desires: wealth, power, and position. But as the story unfolds, it places riches, power and position in light of humility, grace and salvation.

To tell the story, I made four scenery posters and cut-outs of all the other key characters in the story. The children are supposed to sort out the cut-outs into the right scenery as I tell the story.

I hope it goes well this Sunday. 😛 In any case, if you would like a copy of all the PDFs I made, feel free to comment and request for it. I had a really hard time looking for teaching resources to tell this story, so I am glad to just share what I made.

Materials that I have created

Materials that I have created

I think it is a timeless children story and one that every adult needs to know.

The Joys of Marking

‘Relieved’ is the word after marking nearly 300 English compositions and comprehension papers. Given the fact (yes, indisputable truth) that English is one of the toughest subjects to grade, I’m so glad elatedly jumping for joy, that all that is behind me now. Well, that is, till the next marking season comes around again.

In the meantime, for all the teachers poring through illegible handwriting, un-understandable grammar, illogical logic and incomplete essays that leave you hanging, hang in there and focus on the things that make you smile instead. If you just can’t seem to turn up the sides of your mouth, here are some little reminders of what might:

1. Marking can be gratifying, especially when students show signs that they have been learning in class. Focus on the little improvements, and know that you have made a difference in the classroom. At the start, I wondered how much my lessons mean to my students. But when I see them try to piece the ideas and knowledge that I have shared in class, I realize my lessons are taken seriously. Phew!

2. Feel a renewed sense of hope for humanity, when you read the thoughts that run through you students’ minds. Sometimes, the content is really moving and insightful. I really enjoyed reading about teachers, parents and friends who motivated my students to become better people, their thoughts on educational institutions, and why they believe that standing up for what is right is important. It’s a time to remember that education is more than prepositions, tenses and sentence structures.

3. It hones your sense of humor. If you are able to see the humor in a misspelt word, inappropriate choice of word, ridiculous expression or flawed logic, you are most likely someone fun to hang out with. Marking season is a harvest of jokes and it could make you really popular at gatherings and meet-ups.

4. Mistakes are more important that right answers. Sometimes mistakes give us more insight into our pedagogies, than do right answers. It keeps us growing as a teacher. Mistakes give students a reason to keep learning, and assures us that we are very much still needed in our job.

5. Distributing grades can be either a satisfying or harrowing experience for both teachers and students. But it can also be an opportunity to encourage and coach your students to rise up and become the person they never thought they could be. Perspective: grades are important, but they don’t define who we are. And if you are at the bottom, the only way is up.

Marking season shows us where we are bearing fruit in our teaching. It never feels like it has ended until you officially give them their results slips (which might be about 3-4 weeks later). But with some beer and perspective, we will tide through cheerfully.

One dish a day: Tea Egg

Ok, so I know I haven’t exactly made one dish a day. But when I can I do try. I’ve been wanting to try to make tea eggs, because they are my favorite kind of eggs and they make an easy snack for work breaks.

So anyway, this is my aunt’s recipe for 茶叶蛋.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 star anise
  • handful of cloves
  • 2 teaspoon of sugar
  • handful of peppercorns
  • handful of pu er tea
  • 3 tablesppons of black sauce
  • 3 cups of water
  • 6 eggs

Method:

1. Boil the eggs till they are hard.

2. Boil all the other ingredients (except the eggs) for about 15 min.

3. Crack the egg shell without letting the shell drop off.

4. Simmer the eggs and ingredients for minimally an hour.

No photos, because they were all eaten before I could take any. 🙂