Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Great Devoid

Came across a link to a very poignant piece at the Belmont Club today. In so many, many ways, I now know why my students are the way they are: devoid of passion, of fight, of the will to speak for themselves in front of their peers. Enthusiasm is derided as silly, while the epitome of success is cool.

The essay may have referred to Americans, but make no mistake, it applies equally accurately to Singaporeans.
More and more, we Americans like to watch (and not to do). In fact watching is our ultimate addiction. My students were the progeny of two hundred available cable channels and omnipresent Blockbuster outlets. They grew up with their noses pressed against the window of that second spectral world that spins parallel to our own, the World Wide Web. There they met life at second or third hand, peering eagerly, taking in the passing show, but staying remote, apparently untouched by it. So conditioned, they found it almost natural to come at the rest of life with a sense of aristocratic expectation: “What have you to show me that I haven’t yet seen?”….
The bo-chup attitude so prevalent in secondary schools and JC is a direct result of this. I can't really say experience, even vicarious ones, are bad, but one must know when to abandon second hand experiences when prudent. No wonder students often act like they know it all, then mess up because the details were never shown to them, and they refused to listen.
The classroom atmosphere they most treasured was relaxed, laid-back, cool. The teacher should never get exercised about anything, on pain of being written off as a buffoon. Nor should she create an atmosphere of vital contention, where students lost their composure, spoke out, became passionate, expressed their deeper thoughts and fears, or did anything that might cause embarrassment. Embarrassment was the worst thing that could befall one; it must be avoided at whatever cost.
It's hard to get passionate about chemistry, I would willingly admit. But what about civics, or moral education? Where is the atmosphere of conflict where students put their beliefs and their logic to the test? There is often a hidden subtext to our civics lessons: don't rock the boat. Students bitch and complain about Singapore and life here. Fine, that's okay, I do that too, but when I query them (politely even!) on what they would suggest, they clam up. They refuse to examine the situation, refuse to think, refuse to say anything which could expose them to the very sort of embarrassment cited in the article.
To the young, I thought, immersion in consumer culture, immersion in cool, is simply felt as natural. They have never known a world other than the one that accosts them from every side with images of mass-marketed perfection. Ads are everywhere: on TV, on the Internet, on billboards, in magazines, sometimes plastered on the side of the school bus. The forces that could challenge the consumer style are banished to the peripheries of culture. Rare is the student who arrives at college knowing something about the legacy of Marx or Marcuse, Gandhi or Thoreau. And by the time she does encounter them, they’re presented as diverting, interesting, entertaining—or perhaps as object for rigorously dismissive analysis—surely not as goads to another kind of life.
How much do our students know of their intellectual heritage, beyond what they were supposed to study for GP and PW? One of the themes for this year's PW, pioneers(or something like it), is an excellent one, I felt. It behooved the students to read and find out about the titans who have shaped our world and made it what it is today. Far too many young people pass by life ignorant, or worse yet, unwilling to learn. And even if they do learn, what of it? Do they think about how relevant their newly gained knowledge was to them? How was it important? How should that knowledge be used?
Immersed in preprofessionalism, swimming in entertainment, my students have been sealed off from the chance to call everything they’ve valued into question, to look at new forms of life, and to risk everything. For them, education is knowing and lordly spectatorship, never the Socratic dialogue about how one ought to live one’s life.
We've focused so much on the As and Bs that we've forgotten that just as important, perhaps more, was that education was less about knowledge but more about getting the correct values in life. We use disciplinary measures to try to instill such values in students, but I've yet to see a serious lesson plan to discuss values. The few moral education lessons I've seen are often prescriptive, telling them what to do, and less on the whys, which I think is always more important(and interesting).
As I read those evaluation forms and thought them over, I recalled a story. In Vienna, there was once a superb teacher of music, very old. He accepted a few students. There came to him once a young violinist whom all of Berlin was celebrating. Only fourteen, yet he played exquisitely. The young man arrived in Austria hoping to study with the master. At the audition, he played to perfection; everyone surrounding the old teacher attested to the fact. When it came time to make his decision. The old man didn’t hesitate. “I don’t want him,” he said. “But, master, why not?” asked a protégé. “He’s the most gifted young violinist we’ve ever heard.” “Maybe,” said the old man. “But he lacks something, and without this thing real development is not possible. What that young man lacks is inexperience.” It’s a precious possession, inexperience; my students have had it stolen from them.
I look at my niece, a precocious child, and more aware of the world than my generation when we were at her age. She is already exposed to so much more than we were. Will inexperience be taken away from her before she is ready to deal with its loss?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I got beaten up by girls

Heh, the title really did happen, kinda, but it was more to attract attention.

Anyway, the past few weeks have been hectic beyond belief. It was as bad as I feared, but at least I managed to fight my way through it.

Choir concert, SYF, my class CIP, committee and H3 chemistry commitments. Luckily, I managed to deflect the role of assistant house manager to Xiang Hao, or it would have been worse. I promised him I would back him up, so I took part in the telematch when he asked for teachers to join in and nobody else wanted to, for Sports' Day. My class also took part, winning the B finals for the 10 x 200 relay. Not bad at all.

Then, the choir concert. I was a bit surprised when some of the J1s asked what the concert title, Viva Vox, meant. One of those things we should have told them as part of their induction, I guess.

I can also probably feel proud about the fact that I was the one who came up with the name last year. Viva Vox - living voice. It refers to the fact that the music the choir makes is through the voice, but also obliquely links it to the choir as part of a christian college, even if it is not a christian choir, hence the 'living' part to denote eternal life through the grace of Christ. Note: I have the knowledge, doesn't mean I believe it.

Concert was... okay, I admit I've heard better from JC level choirs. First half, especially the opening song, was so shaky I almost thought the floor would give way below my feet. They steadied themselves from the 3rd song onwards after the J1s and J2s combined again, and the second half was fine, though not the best that they could do. Given the circumstances though, it really was their best effort.

Having the concert before SYF was the correct choice. The students were second-guessing our decision for a while, but after SYF they realised it was indeed the best plan. We don't have the luxury of having experienced veteran choristers(well, not that many of them), so they desperately needed the stage experience so they wouldn't freeze up at SYF. Point of note: of the guys we have, tenors and basses, about half have no choral background.

SYF was fun, and even the results were... interesting. Silver was pretty decent, given the sheer increase in standards. Of course, I extrapolated this from the standard of the 2005/2006 batch, which was awful. Not really their fault, they just didn't have the proper training. Even some gold choirs backslid to silver this year, notably RJC. Hmmm... to be a fly on the wall when the RJC principal asks his choir teacher and Mr Toh Ban Sheng to explain the results.

It's not fair, in many ways. Every participant in the SYF, chorister and conductor, put in their utmost effort. And now because of the results people are going to typecast them as wah, you're gold with hons choir, silver choirs suck, blah blah blah. We(Singaporeans) get so caught up in the results that we've forgotten about the process of making music. There are people around who refuse to join their JC choirs(not just in SAJC) because their JC choir is only a bronze or silver choir. Here's a quote online that made my blood boil:
sajc choir sucks so i didnt join hammer.gif
hoping to continue in university or sth!
Well, given your attitude I doubt we want you anyway. And if I knew who you were I would write a letter to my NUS juniors or to Big Nelson advising them not to take you in. Do you join choirs to make music and improve yourself or do you join just for the glory? Albert thought I was one of those glory-hunters(sorry ManU fans!), but I never sought the glory even if my past choirs(excluding Catholic High, my time) always did well for competitions. Nice to win, but really, isn't making good music ample satisfaction for any chorister?

It was fun to meet Small Nelson (Chua) during SYF. Apparently, he took an entire day's leave from his law firm to attend the JC level SYF. When I asked him about it, he replied that it was a rare opportunity: free concert every two years! Very solid bass, only non-Victorian to get into Victoria Chorale(IIRC).

So silver for SAJC. Comments came in yesterday. Didn't tell us much beyond what we already knew: technique lacking, dynamics still need work(numbers would have helped here), sops can be stronger. On the plus side, the choir was making music. Their enjoyment of the pieces and the message, the music, they were conveying to the audience shone past any technical faults they had. Kudos to the judges for recognizing that.

The next few days after SYF were a blur. Helped out for the Chinese Orchestra's SYF, though I'm still confused over how that happened. And choir members accused me of being a traitor!!! Ouch. Us performing arts people have to stick together mah! The CO folks were very hung up over the silver they got, and I had to keep reminding them that as long as they had put in their best effort, it didn't matter. Their conductor Mr Low got a silver for the first time, and the members were upset that they've broken his 'perfect' record and diminished their chances of retaining his services for the future. I have no idea what he thinks, but I hope he's the understanding type who just wishes to make good music and instill the love of chinese orchestral music in people.

The next week would have been work, work, work, except I came down with an extreme case of conjunctivitis, sore eyes. Only my right eye got hit, amazingly enough. It got so bad I had to go to the National Eye Center for treatment. And poof! One week's worth of lessons, gone. Luckily enough, my lectures were not affected. I had MC till the next Tuesday, but I went to work anyway on Monday. Needless to say, the students were disappointed.

Another reason for going back earlier was to ride herd on my class CIP. Most of the class turned up in shifts to help out, though I had to do a lot of the work myself. Wonder if I could apply for CIP hours.. :P

Halfway through the 1st day, the teachers' team was suddenly missing a player because Randy's knees were shot. So I was drafted in. Did okay, won the 1st game, then played the girls. That's when the title came in. Those girls(plus the GP tutor Tabitha; they somehow coerced her to play) were good. I mean, not good in the technical sense, but good that they came willing to play ball and make life miserable for their opponents. I can't remember much, but I distinctly remember crashing to the ground several times as a result of their tackles. It was a fun game. If only Jerry had not missed so many sitters I set up for him...

According to the CIP comm, it was the 1st time anybody had organized such a competition in school, so much of the credit has to go to the class planning comm, namely Weiqi, for pushing it through. The next time this sort of thing comes up though, I'll suggest 3v3 street ball on the school bb courts instead of street soccer on the Potong Pasir court. Frankly speaking, the Potong Pasir court is in bad shape, and the lights are barely functional.

And the holidays have finally arrived. Not much of one for me, with the Finland trip for the choir and the Cambodia Staff OCIP immediately after that. From the icy winterlands of Scandinavian Europe to the steaming jungles of French Indochina within 24 hrs. Plus a day of shooting 0.22 rounds with Xiang Hao and Nah using bolt-action rifles on Friday. And I have exactly 4 days to train for my IPPT on Saturday at Maju Camp...

For the BTech players, Martial Olympiad 2007 is getting near. Please be patient as I get the details. Don't worry, my schedule for Term 3 is a lot better. As for the takeover of Btech and Shadowrun by InMediaRes, I can't really comment on it, since I was a bit out of the loop, but the Commandos have been reassured that events planned for this year will still go forward, and that the Commando organization will be transferred to IMR, if the deal goes through. I'm not worried at all.