It’s not the end

The earlier portions of Lewis’s A Grief Observed showed the rawness of his grief and his unreasoned questioning of God and His character. In confronting his grief, Lewis eventually makes some really profound comments on love:

‘It was too perfect to last,’ so I am tempted to say of our marriage. But it can be meant in two ways. It may be grimly pessimistic – as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He stopped it (‘None of it here!’). As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation. But it could also mean ‘This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. Therefore of course it would not be prolonged.’ As if God said, ‘Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.’ When you have learnt to do quadratics and enjoy doing them you will not be set on them much longer. The teacher moves you on. […]

… for both loves, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not its interruption of the dance, but the next figure. We are ‘taken out of ourselves’ by the loved one while she is here. Then comes the tragic figure of the dance in which we must learn to be still taken out of ourselves though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our love.

Beyond the observations made about love between a couple, what I’ve learnt from Lewis is that death is not the end, but a continuation of that relationship with that person who has been such a part of your life. The person you have become as a result of that relationship is now truly tested.

How easy it is to forget the emptiness when you’re so caught up in the things you do everyday.

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Yet seeing her picture again just brought back memories of the hope we had last year, the times spent interceding, praying, reading His word. As I saw her, I recalled the times I spent singing her favourite worship song to her, reading the Bible to her. I wish I could still do that. I wish I could still hold her hands.

A Grief Observed

We placed her ashes in the niche yesterday. A month it has been, and the grief still rankles deep in our hearts.

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I find it hard to express what’s in my heart, but C. S. Lewis’s reflections on his wife’s death comes the closest thus far:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We knew it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back…

And poor C. [Lewis’s friend] quotes me, ‘Do not mourn like those who have no hope.’ It astonishes me, the way we are invited to apply to ourselves words so obviously addressed to our betters. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves. If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever’.’ A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, to see her grandchild.

They tell me [my wife] is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this? I don’t mean that I fear the worst of all. Nearly her last words were, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She has not always been. And she never lied. And she wasn’t easily deceived, least of all, in her own favour. I don’t mean that. But why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world, and millions in the East, believe otherwise. How do they know she is ‘at rest’? […]

Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is inconsistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.”

I am aware the thoughts above are not theological, or anything in the Bible could refute them factually – but what do the truths of God mean experientially?

The passage below speaks to me the most.

What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers [my wife] and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-Ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.

 

Who are you, God? Do I really know who You are?

Rethinking the teaching of writing in schools

During tuition today, my student brought me a book of best essays from her school’s examinations from various levels. She is in SOTA and they do a subject titled ARC (Analysis, Research and Communication) which basically teaches them to produce the kind of essays I am trying to get my students to produce now.

Read the paragraph below and make a rough guess which level the writer is at – Year 1, 2 or 3 (equivalent to our Sec 1, 2 and 3):

In response to the question, “We are easily manipulated by the media.” To what extent is this true? This is the third body paragraph.

Besides that, the media is also used in the spread of political propaganda. For instance, North Korea, a communist nation, utilizes non-print media like posters and flyers to perpetuate its strong prejudice against the United States of America (USA) to its citizens. In one North Korean propaganda poster, a soldier is seen destroying the US Capitol. Several other posters also tend to feature a torn USA flag and North Korean soldiers attacking an American solider. What is more, phrases like “when provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the USA” will also appear on such posters. The citizens of North Korea are then placed in an environment where the abundant propaganda posters can influence them to think that the United States of America truly is their nation’s sworn enemy and their easily impressionable minds may be brainwashed to believe that they must strive towards annihilating them."

This is actually one of the weaker essays amongst the whole collection. I didn’t have time to scan the others, but I was extremely impressed by the depth of engagement with the example (though they might have done this in class, but none of the other model essays – and there were about 6 on the same question – used the same example). You can say that this is a rather example-driven paragraph and hence lacks that kind of strong argumentative edge to it. However, given that this was produced by a Year 2 student, a 14 year old – it is already extremely impressive.

I can honestly say that out of the 200 essays that I read last year, less than 5 had this kind of quality engagement with the question and examples given.

Reading the other ‘best essays’, I saw essays – written by 14 year old students – which competently handled counter-arguments and rebuttals with much depth that revealed critical thinking that I am now trying to inculcate in my 18 year old students.

My intention here is not to put my students down or to extol the virtues of students going thru the IB.

I strongly feel that we need to rethink the way we teach writing to our students in the Secondary Schools.

If the aim of educating our Express Stream students is ultimately for them to do well enough to get a University degree, then skills of argumentation, reasoning, critical analysis and academic writing should be taught as early as in Secondary Schools.

Many of the students who come to me in Junior College have no idea how to write an academic essay at all, and because of that, the well-intentioned scheme of teaching them that thru Project Work becomes a very teacher-directed, tedious process. We try to cram the skills of data analysis, academic writing, critical thinking into a project that has to be submitted in a short span of 9 months.

Students undergoing the IB have been exposed to these skills gradually from the age of 13 onwards and I believe that at age 16, their research writing skills will surpass many of those who score A1s for English in our O’ Level system. For those who are keen on finding out more about how academic/ reseach writing is thought in the IB, you can check it out here. 

Am I suggesting that English Language be reduced simply to the teaching of expository/argumentative writing? No.

What I want to suggest is that the teaching of narrative writing be transferred from EL to the Literature subject.

Many of us grouse that the Lit syllabus/examination in Singapore is hardly one that encourages creativity. Creativity is limited to ‘fun’ activities in the classroom. If narratives can be marked summatively in O’ Level English examinations, I don’t see why we can’t include a component in our literature examinations which allows students to write creatively.

Our English Language syllabus can then focus on other registers of EL teaching and even incorporate elements of ‘General Paper’ assessment which are commonly neglected in most secondary schools now. The ARC model is something I’m seriously considering right now, because I think that students should be encouraged to think about General Paper issues as early as age 15. Many students are capable of doing so, but our O’ Level examination simply limits that because it only has one or two expository/argumentative questions which are often rather limited in scope.

Many IP schools are already doing it, but I don’t see why it should be limited only to these students. Every student in Singapore should be engaged in thinking critically about the world around them and learning how to express it. This can’t be exclusive only to the top 10% who enter JCs.

I truly believe some of the changes mentioned above would ultimately lead to a significant increase in the quality of our students’ academic writing in the years to come. And of course – make the life of General Paper teachers much easier! Heh. 🙂

Lessons from Day 1

I entered my first class today with a mix of excitement and trepidation, not knowing what to expect. And indeed, it didn’t turn out as expected. Yet in the midst of it, these are the lessons I’ve learnt:

  • Methods don’t work because of the inherent strength of the methods. Methods work because they match a specific class profile.
  • A teacher must learn to be comfortable with silences in the classroom. My HOD once told me there’s a ‘productive, thinking silence’, and there’s a ‘stoning, wait for others to reply’. I encountered the second more today.
  • A teacher must hold back in order to give his students the room to grow. I resisted calling on someone familiar to be my GP rep and waited, and waited until people volunteered. Of course, I could have settled it in a jiffy just by appointing a student I already knew, but the point of getting them to volunteer and take initiative would have been lost.

In better news, I just found out that my tuition student, who scored a D7 for his prelims actually managed to get a B3 for his O’ Levels. He buzzed me on MSN to thank me, for teaching him situational writing. That’s one of the greatest joys a teacher can have.

Addendum:

Just as I posted this entry, I received a call from one of my fellow camp mates whom I brought to City Harvest Education Centre (CHEC) and helped fulfill his desire to redo his O’ Levels. He did very well too and is now going on to ACCA. I’m so proud of him.

A new year ahead

The school year finally kicked off last week with two days worth of staff meetings, where we had a reality check, reflected on the new MOE vision, listened to colleague’s share about their best practices. Of course, what most of us were keen on knowing was our deployment in the year ahead.

My cell leader once mentioned that the great thing about education is that there is never a dull moment and you continually get thrown surprises. Indeed, even when everything seems have to be discussed and settled, a change can come on the day just before your deployment is known.

I was offered a timetable combination which requires me to straddle effectively across ‘three’ subjects – two levels of GP, and Project Work. When it was offered to me, I didn’t think too much about it because I was keen on working with the year 2 team because I felt it would help enhance my year 1 teaching and I very much wanted to go thru a full Project Work cycle to understand the kind of skills and planning needs required for PW. I know this combination of teaching subjects is rather crazy, but I am excited, because I know I will be stretched and challenged in 2010.

I’ve also been reading Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools. The tagline on the cover really caught my attention – “Promoting peace with Books, not bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

It has been a really engaging read thus far as Mortenson talks about his adventures in setting up schools in the most remote regions of Pakistan and the quirky characters he meets. It has been a most thought-provoking read as I see how desperately the people there hunger and yearn for education.

Abdul Rashid Khan, one of the village leaders, tells Greg:

All I really want for my people is a school so that we can provide education for our children… To achieve that, I am willing to give up all of my wealth – all of my sheep, all of my camels, all of my yaks – everything I have, if only Allah will grant this one request.

This kind of desperation, going all out and giving all up for the sake of educating the younger generation, really touched my heart.

In the midst of war-torn Kabul, Mortenson describes a make-shift school which has been ‘set-up’ in what used to be a public toilet:

When we got back to the hut, I got out, walked over to the open door, and peered in. Sure enough, it was a toilet – or at least it had been at one time. The roof was now gone and twenty-five children between four and five years old, plus one teacher, and a slate board leaning against the wall

The teacher brings Mortenson on a tour of the rest of the school, which consists of classes set up in refugee tents, and an old toolshed, which was very dark, and “quite noisy because nearly one hundred students were packed in like sardines. These were the fourth, fifth and sixth graders, and according to the two women who were teaching, they were doing extremely well…”.

And this was the ‘education system’ which served the region of Simdara. Teachers persisting in their passion to impart and teach, in spite of the lack of salaries and less than ideal teaching conditions – students enthusiastic about their learning, in spite of the lack of sufficient books, pens and paper.

While that educational infrastructure is well in place in Singapore, that kind of desperation, hunger and excitement at going to school is somewhat lacking, or missing. Part of it is because for these people, they know that the education they receive is actively making a difference in their lives. They know that receiving an education empowers them and liberates them.

Excitement in the classroom and a hunger to learn therefore stems from an understanding of the value of what you learn and seeing it as intimately connected to your future. And this is what I hope to do in my classroom this year. I hope that my students will see the value of what they learn and therefore be committed to working hard and be excited about learning. This is idealistic, I know, but one must have ideals to sustain himself in education and I shall use this hope to sustain me in the midst of the work that is coming in 2010!

A tribute to my dear

After a month of waiting, it’s finally arrived!

My first Christmas present from my Dearie:

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I was rather fascinated by these lego sets after Jasmine mentioned it during a date, which we blogged about and casually ‘hinted’ to her that I might like it – not knowing the price, of course – and she immediately went online to purchase it! My first lego set in more than 16 years! I wonder when it was that I stopped purchasing lego sets, but it must have been around Primary 5. This should keep me occupied for quite sometime.

Thanks Dearie! It’s the best Christmas gift ever 🙂

It’s ok to not be okay

After a week of silence with God – mainly silence from me, I resolved to spend some time with God again this morning.

I didn’t feel a strong presence of the Lord upon me, neither did I feel hope or faith renewing in my heart.

During service yesterday, Pastor Tan shared about how when we are down, the first thing that happens is that we don’t want to go to church – but that’s precisely the thing we should keep doing. Dearie also shared with me about how her pastor mentioned that people who take a break from church or from praying, almost never come back.

The sermon did speak to me, but there wasn’t that WOW that I used to feel, that surging of faith in my heart that I always had when I heard God’s word being preached. I know that I’m allowing my circumstances to pull down my faith, but it’s still difficult.

I will press on. I still want to believe that 2010 will be my greatest year yet and that I will continue to grow in faith, hope and love.

This devotional really spoke to me today.