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Saturday 24 November 2018

From Darkness To Dawn: Adventures in PSLE Math

Tuition With Al, Ak, Az, Ha and Is
Tuition With Do, Hu and Ir
Exactly 12 months ago, five Primary 5 students who had failed at Mathematics at their SA2 examinations enrolled for the P5 Math ReLearn programme taught by me. Their names were Az, Ak, Ha, Al and Do – 2 boys and 3 girls. And so I taught them the content concepts and skills  their school Math teachers had taught them before.

From the very first lesson, I told them that if they believed in themselves and practised Math, they would pass PSLE Math; in fact, they could even get an A if they worked hard. I saw that familiar look on their faces – polite faces that didn’t really believe what I had said. Well, this is only natural especially for those who had started failing Math from Primary 5 or earlier. Math had become tough and confusing for them.

These 5 students enrolled in my P6 Math classes and stayed with me for 9 months until this year’s PSLE. Az, Ak, Ha and Al were in the same class and Do was in another class. As the months passed, Az, Az, Ha and Al felt so comfortable and happy in my lessons that they were sometimes so noisy. Very loud laughter was often heard by those outside. Sometimes I wondered what the parents (parents of other kids) who were seated outside thought of us and me as a tutor, especially when it seemed to the outside world that we laughed and talked more than we studied.

This class which was held on Friday was noisy while the one on Saturday was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Why were the classes different? Well, Friday’s class was mostly composed of students who hated Math at the beginning of the year while Saturday’s class was mostly composed of students who were eager to study Math. (I did not categorise them this way – it just happened. But Az is a factor in this equation. If you are reading this Az, yes, you lightened up the class a lot and took us off course often! Haha! But I appreciate your enthusiasm and uniqueness.) Of course, I could cover twice as much on Saturday than I could on Friday, but, but, but – but before you conclude that Saturday is “better”, you must realise that Friday’s class had a very intelligent student who had attended both classes and although he had a confirmed place at NUS High and  scored an A-star for this PSLE – he insisted on attending Friday’s class rather than Saturday’s class.

“Why?” I asked. “Boring. This class is so much fun,” Is answered. “But you can learn so much more on Saturday.” “I prefer this class.” In that conversation was a key that many adults overlooked. Motivation. There was so much positive energy in Friday’s class and we all (students-to-students and students-to-tutor) connected so well that sometimes conversations begin and just find it difficult to stop (but they do, of course). The students could ask me anything they wanted and I would answer, and they did. Sometimes they got carried away and  only once did I raise my voice in class to manage things. Even then, one of the girls requested that I did not get angry. I understood. Anger could make that unique happy feeling in class disappear. And so, I continued to be very patient and accommodating. I knew an important and positive transformation was taking place, lesson by lesson, week by week.

By June 2018, a parent contacted me stating her worry that her daughter was still failing. I reassured her that things would be different within 2 months. In fact, out of the 5 students, only Az passed his SA1. I guess the other 4 students were asking when they would breakthrough. I explained to them that they had play catch up with the current and previous syllabi for the last 6 months and it’s OK that they were still failing. OK to fail? Yes, it’s OK to fail. Why? I could see their improvements. They were really learning. They had started liking Math and they could solve many problem sums that they could not before. Their scores were getting better. It was a matter of time. I assured the students that the improvement in scores would be drastic, coming in the last month or two. 

I am glad that the parents of these 5 kids did not pull out their children from the tuition classes. It would have been an incomplete journey. Usually drastic improvement in scores would take place in the last months for those who have failed Math. We will go into why another time.

By the Prelims, all 5 students passed their Math exams except for one, Ak. His mother met me a week before the PSLE, worried. I told her that there was still time and Ak could still pass his Math. Although I knew Ak would improve and breakthrough with time, I was not sure whether there was enough time, given the nearness of the PSLE. 

Well, time passed. One by one, I received their PSLE Math results. Az got a C (and Az, I am disappointed because I expect at least a B from you!). Ha and Al got Cs. Do got an A, as I had told her so (when she was still failing in the months before June) and Math was her best subject (she got Bs for the other 3 subjects). What about Ak? He got a C!

I am so pleased with the results of these 5 kids whom I taught Math*. They were failing Math at Primary 5 and some from earlier years. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to handhold them through a period of academic darkness and lead them out to brightness. I only wish my community (the Malay/Muslim community) only realises that there is a clear approach to help failing Math students to excel in Math even if they are stuck in a negative cycle of failure. It is possible to break the negative cycle and turn them round in a short span of time. But you have to teach different and I call this approach of teaching Math “Breakthrough Math”. It has its unique features and at the end of the programme (or usually in the middle of the programme), the kids would stop hating Math. 

Such an approach exists and we can use it to break the PSLE Math ceiling. I sincerely believe that if the Malay/Muslim community breaks the PSLE Math ceiling, something positive would greet our community psychologically. A positiveness will hit us so hard (God-willing) that we would believe in our capacity and capability so much that the statistics would confirm this on the socio-economic gauge.

*To my other students, I do enjoy teaching you too. 
**To those interested in my Math tuition programme, please visit this link: Tuition.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Autism In The Tuition Centre

M is unhappy that his tuition class is coming to an end this weekend. Sad, he wishes that I could continue teaching him. Different from his peers, M has asked me a few times, “Teacher, why do my friends call me ‘dumb’?” 

Although his mother may be unaware about his condition, his characteristics remind me of 2 other students. Sharing many common traits, these 3 Chinese boys have etched a space for themselves in my long term memory and my heart because of their uniqueness. Mild autism.

Some 20 years ago, K’s parents made an appointment to meet me at my tuition centre in Ang Mo Kio. Although K had been diagnosed with autism, they were careful not to mention it to me. Instead they highlighted his slowness and inability to solve complex Math sums. Gradually, I realised that they did this because they found it difficult to find a teacher who believed it was possible for autistic students to understand and excel beyond the boundary of solving linear problem sums. Well, the parents did not have to worry about me because the thought of autism or the idea that it was impossible did not enter my mind until a few weeks afterwards when I repeatedly discovered that an invisible barrier stood between K and non-linear concepts.

K was with me for a full tuition year (10 months) and M, whom I am currently teaching, has been with me for perhaps 8 months or so. Venturing into their hearts and minds, I empathized with them, imagining how it feels to be different in a crowd of conventional students. Well, I feel sad for them.  Why? Things have not changed much for them. They are teased and bullied in school. I believe many of them suffer from this although I have heard of the reverse too!

M feels sad because no one understands him except me perhaps. This partly explains why the tuition classes are important to him. Sometimes he would bombard me with so many questions that concern him as a beginning teenager. But I run a tuition programme, and I would remind him that these questions are outside of areas of paid discussion. However, I think I have answered most of his questions.

To those who think that such discussions are a waste of time, you must think again. When you enter the world of a person and touch his heart, something special takes place and often that person would be motivated to excel. In this case, from failing Math, M is now the 2nd top scorer in his Primary 5 Foundation Math class. He has become so motivated that he completes dozens of pages of Math practice sums on his own. This is an achievement. How many kids do this on their own?

As parents, teachers and tutors, we must enter our children’s worlds and experience a little of how they live life without judgement. Yes, even if it means taking 2 minutes to listen sincerely to a Korean song or patiently watch a Youtube video that tickles them (and maybe not you). Why? We can help them navigate better. Many of our young ones are lost and they need guidance. You can help guide them better if you are a part of their world. This is also true of our young ones who are a little different. Perhaps they need more of this from us – parents, teachers and yes, tutors too.

This weekend is the closing of a chapter in my annual book. It is the last class of my regular 2018 tuition classes. There are so many different things I have learned and experienced. Teaching M is certainly one of them.

(Note: K and M are not the initials of my students.)

Monday 10 September 2018

Mathematics At Pizza Hut: A Reflection Of Our Community’s Shortcomings

I returned from KL not long ago, and we stopped for 20 minutes or so at a rest area in Pagoh. Knowing a pizza bargain awaited me there, I made my order and returned 10 minutes later.  Although I had paid the cashier, the cook had made my order to a much larger size. Not wanting to wait longer, I told the cashier that I would take it. Armed with a calculator and aided by a colleague, the buttons of the calculator were punched with confusion. All was needed was to subtract the higher price by the lower price. I smiled. I have seen this many times since my childhood.

Finally, the cashier mentioned an amount which I knew was wrong. “That’s too low,” I said. I calculated mentally and then paid the exact amount, which was a couple of ringgit higher. Even as a child, I would do the same with an abang selling karipap (currypuff). In the end, these confused ones would smile in embarrassment or disbelief but relieved they did not lose some money. Although armed with a calculator, they were unsure of what the simple mathematical equations were. 

Not long after, I received the above message from a weak student I was teaching. I smiled again. This time it was one of genuine joy. You see – one of the joys of teaching occurs when a habitual failure breaks the enslaving chains of failure. I have 5 kids in this Math tuition class. This girl is the third of the 4 failing kids who has broken her fail-at-Math cycle in less than a year. She had been adamant that she would never pass Math just a few weeks earlier. Though I believe she is not yet out of the woods, I loved hearing her claim that she had broken through. This, to me, is crucial for it represents a child breaking a negative self-belief down. [Although the one student who did not have a problem with Math told me a few days later that he had broken through (ie. he scored an A-star finally), the joy in me is far greater when a failure sheds his negative self and embraces his new self of “I-can-do-it!”] 

I have been told by well-meaning friends not to be critical of our Malay-Muslim self-help groups. Well, Surah Asr of the Qur’an teaches me otherwise. 4 key characteristics are prerequisites for success here and in the hereafter. They are belief, doing good, speaking truth (ie. being critical) and being patient. This Mathematics glass ceiling over the Malay-Muslim community has been there for too long. It is time to break it for good. It is by no accident that a significant number of habitual Math failures under me can pass Math well within a 1 to 2 year period. There exists a clear approach of empowering weak learners to succeed in Math. It is either our self-help groups know about this or they don't. From the stagnant rates of improvement at Math, it indicates that our self-help groups do not know.