#07_Empty Rooms or Uncharted Spaces

Ten years ago when I was in Secondary Two, studying Literature at Upper Secondary was one of the surest decisions I made. Heck,  it wasn’t even achoice because I knew for sure I wanted to study it for O Levels, and knew for sure that I could. But hearing from fellow teacher friends after their recent promotional meetings and seeing my Secondary Two students decide which subject combination to opt for during the streaming exercise sends a chilly excitement up my spine. The feelings of anxiety and uncertainty are just too familiar.

One promise we made before we were sent out to the various schools earlier this year was to keep the lit torch shining high and bright. Lit is dying – they told us – and urged us to keep the passion for lit alive. Some of us were sent, somewhat like the apostles in the early church, to schools that didn’t yet have the skeletal foundations in place to support the teaching and learning of Literature as an O/N Level subject. That is why you were sent there – our Literature prof said with such power that he nailed that very line to our hearts with steely conviction. Six months later I beg to paint a slightly grey and different picture than what I expected to see.

Upper Secondary Literature is teetering tottering on the edges of nonexistence. I heard that the students are struggling to cope with the demands of the subject – the intense readings, the rigour of writing and thought combined, the subtleties of the language – and the teacher is struggling to cope with the huge learning gap between student and exam requirement. There are several reasons to explain this huge disparity. The main reason is that students are automatically made to study Literature when they do not qualify to sit for other subjects in particular subject combinations. The same go for subjects like Art or D&T. (Out there, people think that as long as you have a paintbrush, paint and paper, you can be an artist. Smirk.) So students and teacher are suffering because of this incomprehensible pothole in the way the school’s streaming system works (or the options the school provides).

In any case, the school has decided to address this gap by not offering Literature at Upper Secondary level any more. Normal (Academic) students who have probably not written a full-length discussive essay in their entire lower secondary lives, will no longer be shell-shocked when they have to do so in their third year. Express students have also been made to think that Literature is a monster that will churn out X-es in your paper, because this troll will never find satisfaction in your language use.

What do I have to say about this?

Nothing. Not yet, at least. I understand the limitations of the school, the students and the system. I don’t think it is realistic to demand that we maintain Literature classes at Upper Secondary, because there is clearly a learning gap between Literature at Lower and Upper Secondary that needs desperately to be addressed and re-examined. Having taught the Secondary Twos this year, I know that not many of them have a flair for reading and/or writing, and it would be pushing it to open up an Upper Secondary Literature class next year. It is not practical, and it does not make sense.

However, because we lit fellow teachers have been so well-trained with the mantra that we must not give up holding the lit torch up high in difficult times when we face persecution (oh this religious analogy does grow in flavour), I know for sure that Lit is the way to go. Literature to my Secondary School was a compulsory subject, although everyone said it was the hardest to score being the most subjective of its Geog and History counterparts. Yet, that worked. Nobody had qualms doing Literature whether in its Pure or Elective form, because they knew from Day One that that was the catch you had to live with. And they worked at it. And I enjoyed my Secondary School days because of Literature.

Not (only) because I did well in it, but also because Literature opened my eyes to many more things. I enjoyed the Sciences and Mathematics because I had Literature to help me appreciate numbers through the rigour of appreciating words. I also believed that Literature was responsible for developing our school culture in a huge way. In making us sensitive, thinkers, writers, speakers, presenters. In developing our skill for language and oral communication and speeches. In adding value to the arts like Art and D&T and Home Economics. Literature was important – and in a big way – more than just books and technical elaborated linguistic jargon. Lit was about life, and it taught us to learn.

That is why I strongly believe that our school culture needs to be rooted in some kind of Lit thought. We are beyond discussing Literature as a subject combination here; I would like to suggest looking at Literature as an approach of thought and culture. We need to gun for aesthetic appreciation, performances, musicals, plays; a reflective culture, one that enjoys expressing their thoughts and feelings in words; a communicative body, one that enjoys sharing and airing personal views in public spaces; a compassionate entity, one that values the person’s morality and good character. We need to fire up a passion for reading, good vocabulary, for storytelling, for imagination. Not WOW or mindcraft imagination, but fireworks, beach parties, a whole new world kind of imagination. And I think if we keep shooting for these, the kind of students will change. They will become more appreciate of the arts, they will be more knowledgeable about performances, they will be better audiences and we can begin to groom creative thinkers and speakers and idealists from the lot that comes in with us.

I had a short chat with some EL teachers today, and we wandered into the risky desert space of talking about dreams and ideals. You can have ideals and dreams, he said, but you will find… Truth be told the rest of the sentence trailed off beneath or beyond my head into nothingness. I am not gunning for immediate change, I do not expect Literature classes to hatch in one or two years. I do not expect to see a change in our student’s language proficiency in the next one or two years.

But I do expect to keep holding up the Lit torch. Even if it just me doing so now, and even if I am not holding up a Literature class, but merely a shadow of the Literature classes that are to come. I think the school needs to move in a particular direction and we need to help students become more aware socially, emotionally, mentally and linguistically. And surely we cannot keep on doing the same thing and expect our students to grow in calibre and passion for Literature and the Arts? Hopefully this is where we can have a bigger part to play for school – be creators and thinkers rather than silent followers.

When Prof D told us that Lit is dying, he probably stated it as a generic claim. But perhaps in some schools, Lit is in its incubation period? Like eggs that need a period of time to incubate and warm themselves up, like chicks that need a period of time to flex their wings and learn to walk and subsequently fly, I think our school and our students need that time and space to become thinkers, learners and creators with a fairly good mastery of language. And because that the ability to use words to your advantage and knowing how to appreciate literature and the arts (and life) is so important, we will fight to give our students that.

Empty rooms or uncharted spaces?

I prefer to look at it as the latter.


#06_Top Three Peeves as a Passenger in a Travelling Vehicle

Courtesy is something I feel is strongly lacking among people in the younger generation today. While it is a big word to unpack in itself, and we all have different guidelines and principles as to what constitutes courteous and discourteous behavior and mannerisms, I believe there are some mannerisms which cannot be compromised. These should be highlighted. I would like to draw attention to the top three things you could do to peeve your driver before he sends you to your preferred destination. I am not referring to riding in taxis. On the contrary, I am reminded of people who treat their friends, friend’s friends, friend’s parents, teachers, etc. with disrespect when they ride in their cars as passengers.

A few months ago I offered to send two young ladies back to an MRT station near their home, after a formal dinner event at night. What could have been a pleasant getting-to-know-you session turned out to be my worst drive home. Let me share some reasons why, and perhaps you could echo similar or dissimilar experiences.

Peeve Number One: Sitting at the back of the vehicle when there is an empty passenger seat in front 

The two ladies were inseparable. More than that, they were probably too shy, or uncomfortable, or pure selfish, to choose to sit themselves in the back seat when the passenger seat next to me was empty. Immediately I was cast into the role of a chauffeur, sending two young ladies back to their destination. My mum taught me from young that the passenger seat in front should always be filled first if you were riding in a senior or a friend’s vehicle; only taxi drivers sat alone in front, like trishaw riders did while their passengers chatted happily away behind their toiling backs.

Perhaps these ladies had not been taught manners as proper as I was, so I let it slide, giving my passengers the benefit of doubt that they were shy. It would not have been such a nasty unpleasant trip, if the two ladies had stopped talking about their personal private affairs in the back seat, completely oblivious to my presence in front. It was so difficult getting them to engage in a conversation with you, although I did try my utmost. And failed utterly.

Peeve Number Two: Expressing unhappiness when the driver takes a wrong turn

Yes I did make a wrong turn and we ended up being stuck in a little jam that night. But the two ladies did not hesitate to express their unhappiness and dissatisfaction. “Aiyah, we should have taken the other way… Now we will be stuck in a jam.” Well it would have sounded better if they grumbled in words. Most of the time those two ladies just voiced their unhappiness by making groans, grunts and sighs in the back seat each time I had to step on the brakes because of the congestion.

When you are a nervous wreck hard-pressed for time, don’t forget that chances are, your driver is also stressed. While you sit comfortably in the moving vehicle with music and the air-conditioner and company, the driver has to pay full attention to drive through that congestion. If you sit comfortably for ten additional minutes, your driver drives with full alertness for ten more minutes too. The last thing we need is our passenger (“friend”) to complain in front of our faces.

Peeve Number Three: Bargaining for your own convenience after being an awful passenger

I know it was late, but the last possible thing you could do as a passenger to irk your driver friend at this moment, would be to try negotiating an additional journey. “Err… How far are you going? Can you send us to XYZ instead? Will it too far?” Worse: “Anyway driving is very fast. You can just drive down and make a quick U-turn.” I would usually love to give my passengers a lift to somewhere convenient for them, but most passengers are kind enough not to push their limits and test the boundaries to their rights.

If those ladies had been kinder, more courteous passengers, I might even have offered them a ride to the destination they had hoped for, even at the expense of my inconvenience and time (and petrol!). But when you have been an unlawful passenger, please do not try to bargain with your driver for your own benefit. It only shows how ignorant and selfish you can be.

Yes I am griping, but I don’t think these gripes are without basis. Such behavior are becoming increasingly common, so much that we should now take a look at ourselves and think if we have forfeited our goodness and courtesy for things like selfishness and ingratitude.


#05_A Gem Lesson on Addictions

One of the stories the kids had to study was Catherine Lim’s “Lottery”. Ah Boh, the main protagonist in the short story, is heavily addicted to gambling in all forms. The story ends on a dark twisted note when her elderly mother gets run over in a tragic road accident and Ah Boh is still oblivious to the severity of the situation, claiming that she would spend the lottery winnings on the most expensive coffin, as if it mattered. We know there is no more time to make amends for Ah Boh, but she still continues to live in her fantasy.

Since Literature is not simply about reading stories, but understanding the human condition and life lessons through the stories we read about, I had the kids write reflections as a round-up to the lesson. The result was much more optimistic than I expected, so I wanted to preserve it in words as an encouragement of sorts.

We brainstormed the different kinds of addictions on the white board, and then I had the kids write reflections in response to these questions: What are you addicted to? (Or for those kids who think they had none, I asked them What is the one thing you struggle most with and want to overcome?), How are you addicted to it?, and What can you do about this addiction? After that, I broke the class into groups of four to five students, according to their temperament, their degree of familiarity and their attitude towards work.

I told the kids to take turns and share what they had written on the paper. Because the students were relatively comfortable with each other, they had a comfortable and pretty easy time telling each other what their greatest struggles were, and how they intended to overcome or manage it, especially with the examinations round the corner. I had hoped it would encourage them to hear their classmates resolve to overcome their “addictions”.

Although they did need some kind of probing as I walked around, the kids were very honest with their sharing. I then went around assigning – completely at random – slips of paper with a classmate’s name on it. This was the classmate they had to write an encouraging memo to at the end of the activity.

I then went on to write all thirty-seven of their names on the white board. This caught their attention. Then we went around the class to share what their addiction was. “Computer games”, “PSP”, “PS2”, “Sleeping”, “Video games”, “Facebook”, “Twitter”… there were plenty of repeated and interesting responses.  Initially, writing their names and addictions on the board was purely out of practical reasons. I wanted them to address the addiction/problem in their encouragement memos, and the board is the biggest plane which could house all that information. Later on, I thought writing their names and addictions on the whiteboard achieved a very comforting effect. The students realized that they were not trying to deal with their “addiction” alone, and everyone else had some kind of habit they wanted to manage. There was a sense of comfort and consolation in that. Even the quieter students managed to share their struggles, because everyone else did. More importantly, no one was in a position to judge, because we all had our struggles to deal with. That visual, was simply powerful.

With some pretty floral cards I distributed, the kids wrote short encouragement memos to their peers. I wanted to assign names at random because I wanted the class to practice writing positive messages to each other, and wanted them to be honest with one another. I hope they appreciated the lesson and learned something more than the text from the lesson.