What's it like studying in an SAP school?

Last week, there was a bit of a hoo-hah at St Hilda’s Primary. Because the school’s policy was to select the top 25% of the cohort from P1 to study Higher Chinese in P2, apparently, there were kids with overall scores of 97% who didn’t make it into Higher Chinese. Wow, my first thought was, just how easy were their papers for so many of them to score so well in Chinese? On another note, did you see that photo used in the article? I wonder if that was written by a P1 kid, because it’s so impressive and the handwriting so neat!

Pragmatically, taking Higher Chinese is useful only if you score so well for your PSLE that you can use the one to two additional points for entry into an SAP Secondary School. So for example, if you score 262 for your PSLE, and a Merit for your Higher Chinese, you’ll get 1 point added to your T-score (2 points if you score a Distinction) and that would give you a T-score of 263 which by the way is still not sufficient to enter NYGH (gasp!) this year unless you are from NYPS. By the way, the extra points are only useful for entrance into SAP schools, so you don’t get the extra 1 – 2 points if you apply to enter non SAP schools such as RGS, RI, MGS, SCGS etc.

What is the difference in content between Chinese and Higher Chinese in the classroom? If you compare the vocab list using the shou ce books, you’ll see about an 80% overlap in vocab words. That’s not much of a difference. How about format? The Higher Chinese test formats are definitely tougher—less multiple choices, more cheem questions for comprehension, some demanding rather elaborate answers, and tougher content/theme topics for composition.

In this blog entry, I’ll tell you more about how Chinese is taught in NYPS, an SAP primary school. But first, let me share with you some memories of NYPS and NYGH in the ‘80s when I studied there.

NYPS/NYGH in the ‘80s.

There is a story behind how my sister and I ended up in NYPS. We were brought up in an English and Japanese speaking background. Our dad was from RI and the irony is that although our paternal granny (who was from China) was a Chinese teacher, my dad’s Latin was much more fluent than his Chinese. My mom conversed with us in Japanese. Our parents enrolled us in NYPS because they figured that since we didn’t speak any Chinese at home we should immerse ourselves in an environment where we could learn as much Chinese as possible. Well, I can tell you that after 12 years of studying in schools with strong emphasis on Chinese studies, not much rubbed off on me, but my sister’s Chinese is quite powderful.

NYGH was very cheena back in the early ‘80s. Back in my sister’s time in the early ‘80s, many subjects apart from English were taught using Chinese as the medium of communication. So, Chinese History (as in history of China, not Singapore), Chinese Literature, and Home Economics was taught using Chinese! The school had just moved to using the English medium to teach Math and the Science subjects. My sister would relate how the teachers would be muttering in Chinese and struggling to translate their thoughts to English speech. You can imagine how tough it was for the Chinese educated teachers to teach Chemistry, Physics, Math using English as the medium of language. Fortunately, by the time I entered NYGH School, Home Economics was taught in English. The History curriculum had also been changed by then, and instead of studying Chinese history, I studied Singapore history using an English-written textook. Whew! Moral Education, and Religious Knowledge (Confucius studies) were still taught using Chinese. In Secondary Three, the more English educated students in my class petitioned for the school to open a class for Confucius studies to be taught in English. The first English Confucius class was started in my year.

The school held inter-class xiang-shen (Chinese humorous dialogue) competitions annually. Each year, while the entire cohort cracked up while watching pairs from each class banter with each other using puns, I would be staring into space, wondering what was so funny about the dialogues. I understood perhaps 5% of the speeches.

How about NYPS back then? Well, all subjects except Chinese were taught in English by English speaking teachers. Music classes did have a strong Chinese slant though. I still remember almost every Chinese song I learnt back then. Teachers were free to teach whatever songs they wished. So I learnt a repertoire of songs ranging from communistic marching tunes to folk songs. One teacher taught a song from the Chinese opera Hua Mu Lan. She would tell her classes every year if it were not for the fact that she had forgotten the lyrics of this song during an audition, she would have been a famous Chinese Opera singer, and not a Chinese teacher. All songs sung during major school events like Teachers’ Day and Founder’s Day were in Chinese and sung by us with great gusto, all in Chinese.

We all had to cut our hair really short. Long hair was strictly not allowed. If the length of our hair went anywhere below 3cm of our earlobes, we would be reprimanded harshly. We were never told why our hair had to be that short, we were just told that it had to be short because it looked neater that way. On hindsight, I realise that it had to do with our relationship with Sun Yat Sen and his ideals of empowering women (and probably the throwing off of connotations associated with pigtails?). I do not recall any communist propaganda talk by any teachers. However, I do recall a teacher being very fearful of Singapore becoming a communist country if Vietnam lost the civil war. During English classes, he would often make us chant “Vietnamese never say DIE!” loudly while shaking our fists in the air.

NYPS today

Fast forward 30 over years to NYPS today. The Chinese culture is still very strong:

The principals posted to this school are very bilingual. Very. They can interchange and speak either language fluently.

The school alternates between a Chinese week and an English week. During Chinese week, all school announcements are made in Chinese, kids have to bring Chinese story books to read before morning assembly commences. During recess, they screen Chinese cartoons in the library. The pledge is recited in Chinese. During English week, everything is reversed.

There is a strong emphasis on Chinese cultural events. Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival are grand events. Kids go to the hall to sample from thousands of CNY goodies donated by parents during CNY festivities. During Mid-Autumn Festival, kids get to watch moon-cake making demonstrations. During the mid-autumn festival, there is a two-hour long festival held after school hours where parents and alumni turn up in the evenings for reunions. During school events like Children’s Day, Teachers’ Day, Founder’s Day, there will always be some element of Chinese culture in the concert performances, for example, the Chinese Orchestra, or Wu Shu troupe, or teachers performing a Xiang Shen dialogue.

Chinese classes across the academic year is peppered with loads of interesting experience of Chinese culture. Chinese calligraphy is taught during art class. For a set duration each year, Chinese textbooks are set aside during Chinese classes, and hours dedicated to explaining and exposing the kids to Chinese history and culture. Vendors are hired to conduct and teach Chinese tea appreciation. Teachers spend time telling them about Chinese history, or letting students watch excerpts from Journey to the West, or Romance of Three Kingdoms. Every week, the kids learn a couplet from Di Zhi Gui. By the end of their first term in P1, most of them can recite most of Di Zi Gui, although I doubt they actually know what they are reciting. Part of school excursion activities include dragon boating. Once, in P2, after exams, Big D came home humming to the tune of a xin yao song. So nostalgic! He could even explain the lyrics of the song to me. His form teacher had taken the time to teach them the song after year end exams.

The Chinese teachers are very dedicated in teaching Chinese. Let me tell you how motivating they can be. Big D’s worst subject in primary school was Chinese. (And it’s the same with most kids I tell you). Yet, he says that Chinese classes were often interesting and fun. The Chinese teachers were engaging and they put in effort to keep the students attentive in class.

In light of all this programmes for all students throughout the school, would you agree with me that, at least in this school, it really doesn’t make sense anymore to differentiate between “higher” Chinese and “normal” Chinese in this school? It is a wider identity of a Chinese culture that the school has intentionally built and maintained over the generations.

Well, you still want to know what the criteria or cut off score is for a kid to be allowed to study Higher Chinese in NYPS right? Well, the system in this school is as follows: every kid in P1 – P4 studies Higher Chinese. At the end of P4, some kids will be asked to move to a “normal” Chinese class in P5. The cut off point is 50%. This means that if you fail Chinese in P5, the teachers will have a discussion with the parents to discuss whether to drop Higher Chinese. Even in this scenario, the school does not make it mandatory to drop Higher Chinese, there are kids who fail Chinese in P4 and still continue with Higher Chinese in P5. In the same way, there are kids who also decide to drop out of Higher Chinese as well after a term or two in a P5 Higher Chinese class. If so, the student won’t be automatically reallocated to a “normal” Chinese class. The school explains that changing classes is disruptive and they try to minimise that. So the kid attends Chinese classes as per normal, he just doesn’t take the Higher Chinese paper during exams. Hence, that is why I say, at least in this school, that there isn’t too much of a difference in the curriculum between the two types of Chinese. Of course there will be times during class when the teacher would specifically highlight the types of questions that would appear in a Higher Chinese paper and spend some time going through them.

Quite lenient hor? And I think this makes pretty good sense. I like this approach by this school. I think it’s quite inclusive. You would think that the school would discourage the weaker students from taking Higher Chinese because then the PSLE grades for Higher Chinese won’t look “nice”. Well, nope, there’s no window dressing going on here. In fact, I was informed that if you look at data comparing our school’s Higher Chinese PSLE scores with other schools, you’ll find that our school’s statistics in this area tends to be weak. It is because where only the best of the best in other schools get to take the Higher Chinese paper, most kids from NYPS are allowed to “just try it out” if they can.

One or two Chinese classes per day per se is unlikely to make a child a Chinese aficionado. It could spark some interest, but I doubt it will any more than a “normal” Chinese class in the classroom would. Not getting into a HCL school curriculum won’t cut off access to the Chinese culture. If your kid is keen to understand more about Chinese culture, bring them to watch Chinese plays, Chinese movies, watch Chinese TV programmes, read Chinese story books to them…and see how much they will resist you. Heh. I take off my hat to Big D and Little D’s Chinese teachers and tutors for the great work they do which I can’t.