Thursday, September 18, 2014

Learning notes: Humility laughs

Things we did

At the end of last week and most of this week, we were sick, sick, and sick. Lesson for the week: how to keep our mouths from complaining and our hearts joyful. I struggled (and I am still struggling) to find a rhythm to our days. The storm of sicknesses wiped out any kind of routine I had tried to establish during the first week of school. Yet again, the educator was the one being educated.

School work was strangely a nice distraction when we were sick. The boys continued with their math and handwriting, albeit rather slowly. For our book of the week, we read Tacky the Penguin and other books in the series by Helen Lester. We learned about adjectives, penguins, and a little bit about Antarctica. I had a lot planned for science, experimenting with ice, making ice cream, and such. But alas, ice and other cold things will have to wait for healthier days.

Things we cherished

Hans is deep in the trenches of writing and editing right now. Once in a while, he would emerge from his study to cheer us on. Last week, Hans taught the boys for a few minutes while I got lunch started. Unlike me, Hans did not shy away from using big words and complicated concepts. The boys were lost somewhere between the phrases "the adjective modifies the noun" and "here are the differences between adjectives and adverbs." Never mind the boys, even I scratched my head a couple of times.

But, here is the thing Emeth and Yohanan loved it.

They basked in their father's attention. They were engaged and responsive. They answered Hans' questions and tried again when they got the wrong answers. They roared in laughter at his examples and had the time of their lives. If someone were to be watching them from a distance (which would be creepy), Hans would have looked like a comedian. No one would guess this was a dad teaching his first-grader and pre-schooler English grammar.

Things we pondered

Watching Hans, I learned that a healthy dose of confusion helps keep my young men humble. Being a little lost can be a good thing; they learned that sometimes things are more complicated than our minds can handle, and that's OK.

Watching the boys, I saw that humility is not self-deprecating or awful. Instead, true humility looked more like laughing faces, bright and eager to learn, so happy to please their father.

That same week, my good friend Wini, all the way in Kuala Lumpur, posted a picture on Facebook. Her husband Tim was teaching her son Matthew how to fix the computer. Matthew is 7.

Tim teaching Matt how to fix the computer. Photo credit: Winifred Heron, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I am so grateful for learning families around the world. And by this I do not mean homeschooling families. I grew up in various public school systems in Malaysia and the United States. But my parents were my primary educators and my three sisters were my closest classmates. I learned to see the world with them and through them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Learning notes: The appendix led us to beautiful places

My good friend Jenni once described parenting as a re-living of our childhood. Another chance to read our favorite picture books, another chance to order chocolate ice-cream (every single time), to play, to hide, to seek, to be found.

Being my children's educator gives me another go at first grade and pre-school. Everyday, the educator gets re-educated, even though I am supposedly on the other side of the desk.

Because this virtual space is an extension of our lives, and because I love reading and regularly benefit from the chronicles of other learning families, I am going to jot down (as often as I am able) a few things we did, a few things we cherished, and a few things we pondered (somewhat) regularly.

Things we did

This year, the bigger boys are able to work on math and handwriting with less supervision. We are using a combination of Handwriting Without Tears, Singapore Math, and Kumon workbooks.

For about an hour or two everyday, we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty (metaphorically and literally). I am currently trying out a concept I learned from Jenni. The basic idea is that we would read a book in the beginning of each week, and throughout the week, we would re-read it and explore different aspects of that book. This way, we learn to enjoy the book not only for its story, but also as a portal through which we explore different places and subjects.

For example, the first book we read  was Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. Throughout the week, we learned its geography (Paris, France), literary devices (rhymes), artwork (Eiffel Tower), biology (the digestive system), and so on.

Things we cherished

In the story, Madeline had to go to the hospital because of her appendix. So, I thought it would be a good way to have a look at where the appendix is located. I did not expect how much the boys would love it.

For days, I heard the boys saying random things like:

"But mommy! I don't need to go to the bathroom. My rectum is empty!"

As Hanan took bites of his lunch, he would say, "Now, the food is in my mouth. Now, the food is going down my esophagus. Now, the food is going into my small intestine.... (and he continues)"

Or, "Mommy, the bread is pushing my bladder!"

Or, "Look! A human fountain! Water is shooting out of the esophagus!"

"Look! A human fountain!"

And then, there were many, many conversations about the liver, the kidney, and the bladder. "The liver is so kind to give the small intestine its juice!"

Hanan was especially intrigue by the bladder. "Why does the bladder look like a heart? Is the bladder dirty? Hollabout (how about) the kidney?"

We stepped into the rabbit hole via the appendix; it led us to many beautiful places.

Things we pondered  

This week, I thought a lot about my educational method. As it turns out, I teach the way I cook.

The golden rule applies in life as it does in the kitchen as it also does at school: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Cook for others the things you would want to eat. Teach others the way you would want to learn.

Also, I am coming to terms with how horrible I am at following curriculum, just as I am horrible at following recipes.

I would begin with the intention of following a recipe. I would be inspired; I would study the recipe and assemble the ingredients. But somehow, as I begin to throw things in the pot, so to speak, I would often end up improvising and going with my preferences and instincts.

This new concept that Jenni showed me gives me enough room to be spontaneous, but it requires me to think a few days and weeks ahead in order to make the necessary preparation. Thanks, friend.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

K is for Khesed

Laughing at ourselves is necessary for life.

We had so much fun reading through all the Old Emethese and Old Hananese the other day. I had forgotten most of them. And I am so grateful for these whiffs of their baby years, so grateful that these nonsensical sounds are recorded for years to come.

As Khesed is eager to join his band of brothers, I have this sudden urge to capture some of his baby-ness before it all fades away.

When he was 15-months old, he placed the letter C, U, and P on my lap along with a cup. Hans thinks it was purely coincidental, there was no way a 15-month old could spell.

He is now 19-months, and he is still obsessed with the alphabet. It's nice that my children each have their little obsessions. Emeth loves dinosaurs and all living creatures. Hanan loves numbers. Khesed loves letters. It makes for really fun library trips. We get a little of everything. During their best moments, Emeth and Hanan read alphabet books to Khesed, make up alphabet games for Khesed, sing alphabet songs for Khesed, write out the alphabet for him. And the sweetest thing of all they clean up after their little brother, who loves toys that come in 26 pieces, at least.

Khesed is a man of few words. He pronounces only a few words perfectly, and always as exclamations:

Eat! - what he says when he is hungry. He is always hungry
Me! - what he says when he wants a piece of what everyone else is eating. He is my adventurous eater.
Shoe! - when his shoe falls off. His shoe always falls off.
Ball! - when he wants his brothers to play with him, which, as you can guess, is often.
Ge! - his favorite people in the world ("big brother" in Chinese)
Hand! - when he want to hold my hand. Hearing this word will never get old.
Yum! - when he knows we can't resist it when he says this so we will continue to feed him.
Yuck! - dirty things, crumbs.

A few weeks ago, he kept getting "Yum" and "Yuck" mixed up. His brothers thought he was hilarious.

He talks in letters. He labels things by the first letter of their names, or their phonetic sounds. When he wants more fish crackers, or when he sees fish, or flowers, he would shout, "F! F! F!" When he sees his favorite stuff animals (all beginning with P), he would make the "P" sound, over and over again. He does not even say "mommy" or "daddy." But he would occasionally run to me shouting, "M! M! M!" He does call Hans "D-D-Dah!"

But he calls bananas "ger-la-la-la!"

Here is a glossary, in case you ever strike up a conversation with Khesed:

A! - Apple
B! - Ball, bicycle, book
C! - Cat, cup
D! - Daddy, dog
E! - Elephant
F! - Fish, flower
G! - Giraffe, gorilla, grass
H! - hippo, hat, head
I! - Ice cream, he pronounces I as "Ig"
J!- juh
K! - kuh
L! - Lion (a.k.a. Raaaawr!), leaf
M! - Mommy, money (?!) - I was surprised as well
N! - Nose, numbers
O! - Oranges, I love oranges
P! - Panda, peacock, penguin
Q! - keeeew
R! - ah-re
S! - ssss
T! - Tree, trains
U! - uh! uh!
V! - veeeee
W! - wuh
X! - Xylophone
Y! - yuh
Z!- Zipper, zebra

Oh, and he loves numbers (Na!) and dinosaurs (Rawr!).

I have quite a collection of his pictures with his favorite things.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Behind the closet doors of my soul

After serving on the music teams of youth groups and churches for more than a decade, I still struggle with pride, and I still struggle with the desire for people to think well of me.

When I was leading as a teen, I used to watch my friends' facial expressions to see how well I was doing. Were they singing? Or were they distracted? When I married Hans, I would watch my husband's facial expressions. What was he thinking about? Did he not agree with the theology of this song? Should I have chosen a different song?


Our pastor preached a sermon on 1 Peter 4:10 a few Sundays ago: "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace." Pastor Josh exhorted the congregation to serve the Lord and serve one another—excellently. Self-centered excellence, in the words of our pastor, is the American dream. Family-centered excellence is the Asian dream. As I was listening to his evaluation, I realized that I was both self-centered and family-centered.


The Church, according to Pastor Josh, is to strive towards Godly excellence, selfless excellence. 

We strive for excellence because we worship the one who is Most Excellent. Our talents and abilities, no matter how awesome, are nothing compared to the worthiness and splendor of our Lord. We are worshiping the King of kings and Lord of lords. The mindfulness and the hours we pour into the details of Sunday worship are all part of the gift we bring before him. Therefore, we delight in practicing, preparing, and praying to God for help, that we would know him and make him known.

Godly excellence, according to Pastor Josh, is done in God's way and for his name sake. While worldly success is measured by the number of thumbs-up, followers, and viral links, godly excellence cannot be measured — at least not by human means. The Lord is looking at our hearts. Are we faithful even in the little things? Do we serve because of love? Do we delight in fearing the Lord? 

We must pursue excellence not only when and where people can see us. Godly excellence, in fact, shines the brightest off the stage, from moment to moment, behind the closet doors of our souls, where the only person who sees us, sees everything about us.

Godly excellence is selfless. Selfless excellence points to Christ. To know Christ and make him known is the goal of an excellent worship team. We strive for excellence for this purpose: that the congregation would together delight in and meditate on the Word of God.

Mistakes can be distracting; sloppiness attract attention to ourselves. Therefore, during our worship services, we strive to minimize distractions. We get every Powerpoint slide to come up when it is supposed to. When reading Scripture, we practice saying the names in our passages; we make the passage a part of ourselves by reading it over and over and over again during the week. We think about our attire and choose outfits that would communicate reverence for the Lord. We pick truthful songs suitable for congregational singing, and sing them in keys that do not make us squeak. We balance the volumes on the sound system, and we make sure all the microphones are working and the stands are at their right heights.

We carry out the little things faithfully, and with love.

On this side of eternity, I will continue to struggle against pride, and against the desire for others to think well of me. I will struggle to serve selflessly and excellently. I will struggle to serve in faithfulness and love. The songs that I sing and sentences that I string will be flawed.


I will find comfort in the words of John Owen: killing sin is the work of the living. The very act of struggling is a sign that I am alive. I am alive in Christ. Apart from him, I would be dead. And dead people do not struggle.

Therefore, I will fight against my inclinations to pride, laziness, and disobedience. I will fight against my unloving, self-seeking, people-fearing tendencies. I will struggle against distracting thoughts on Sunday mornings, but mostly, I must struggle kneeling before the One who sees me, behind the closet doors of my soul.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Repenting of my repentance

I am a mom of three boys. I know this to be true: Clothes get dirty. We are hopelessly attracted to dirt and puddles, chocolate and jam. We spill milk; we get bloody noses. From morning to night, I take off, I wash, I put on. Repeat. The laundry basket is never empty.

The fullness of the laundry basket reminds me of the fullness of grace (and how I should not procrastinate). The mundane task of changing and washing points me to the ceaseless and necessary work of repentance.

Christ will one day clothe his Bride with fine linen, bright and pure (Revelation 19:8). On this side of eternity, however, my linen is never white. Even my tiniest sacrifices, moments of selflessness, are drenched with selfish and prideful thoughts. In the words of the Puritans, “my best prayers are stained with sin; my penitential tears are so much impurity… I need to repent of my repentance; I need my tears to be washed” (The Valley of Vision, 136-137).

When I lack the words to pray, I lean heavily on the words of men and women who walked before me. I return to this prayer again and again. Written during a screen-less time, the prayers of the Puritans are steeped in word pictures. This one is soaked in the imagery of rags and robes, reminding me that Christ is my best robe, my perfect covering.

O God of Grace,
You have imputed my sin to my substitute,
and have imputed his righteousness to my soul,
clothing me with a bridegroom's robe,
decking me with jewels of holiness.

But in my Christian walk I am still in rags;
my best prayers are stained with sin;
my penitential tears are so much impurity;
my confessions of wrong are so many aggravations of sin;
my receiving the Spirit is tinctured with selfishness.

I need to repent of my repentance;
I need my tears to be washed;
I have no robe to bring to cover my sins,
no loom to weave my own righteousness;
I am always standing clothed in filthy garments,
and by grace am always receiving change of raiment,
for you always justify the ungodly;
I am always going into the far country,
and always returning home as a prodigal,
always saying, "Father, forgive me,"
and you are always bringing forth the best robe.

Every morning let me wear it,
every evening return in it,
go out to the day's work in it,
be married in it,
be wound in death in it,
stand before the great white throne in it,
enter heaven in it shining as the sun.
Grant me never to lose sight of the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace.

The Valley of Vision, 136-137.

Friday, June 13, 2014

He came for me

I sing the praises of my father's love for our mother loud and often. But today, on the week of his birthday and Father's Day, my memory brings me back to the car he drove when we were growing up. A beloved and unassuming car that perfectly crammed four laughing teenage girls in the backseat.

Photo credit: Catherine Yong

When we were little, my father made a commitment to be our family's driver. I say that he made a commitment because it required of him a great sacrifice. He chose to drive all four of his daughters, with different schedules, to different schools — while working a full-time job. He drove us to every piano lesson, every sport event, our friends' houses, choir practices, the list went on and on. Wherever I went, whatever I was doing, I could count on my father's car to appear on the horizon, coming for me.

Every morning, before he started the engine, he would pray for each of us. With our hearts heavy with exams, bullies, and the fear that we are not beautiful enough, we started the day by praying. When we arrived at school, we would exchange "I love yous" and then he would say good bye. His was the last face I saw before I stepped out into the wild, wild world. His was the first face that welcomed me as I stepped back into the familiar.

Even now, I remember the relief that would wash over me as I climbed in. The car was my resting place. So glad to be out of the scorching heat. So happy to see my father at last. So happy that the wait was over. Some days, he would even bring me lunch boxes filled with my favorite things, with chili sauce on the side.

I was not always grateful. Sometimes, I stepped into the car with my mouth spewing ugly words of complaints. Like everything else in my childhood, I often took my father for granted. Even then, my father responded with kindness and patience. Sometimes, he would even apologize for the delay. The man had a job! I had no idea how much he sacrificed for me. He never gave up. Even when each of us took on new activities, he continued to serve us in this way, year after year.

When I was sixteen or seventeen, I told him that I was old enough to take the bus. My friends did it. I assured him that this would help ease his load. He halfheartedly agreed, but when it came time for me to take the bus, he would always insist that he wanted to drive me instead.

I think he had bus-phobia. And I think it was because of me.

I was left behind by the school bus driver when I was in first grade. At the time, we were living in a remote village where my father was a pastor. My school was in the city, about 30 miles away. A local bus driver offered my parents her service (school buses were private businesses in Malaysia). Every morning, she picked me up before 6 a.m. and brought me home after 12 p.m.

One afternoon, I waited for hours. I was with my classmate from the same village. Both of us were left behind. I remember the silence of school yard. There was no one else in sight. Being impatient, I convinced my friend that we should surprise our parents by walking home.

She hesitated (for good reasons), but she finally came with me as she did not want to be left alone. We stopped at every bus stop. When we finished our last drop of water, I thought of selling my hair clip (it was very shiny) and use the money to buy some water. She cried and cried despite my attempts to cheer her up. I, on the other hand, thought this was all very exciting and could not wait to surprise my parents (not sure what this says about me).

Meanwhile, our parents were on panic mode (now that I have children of my own, I can only imagine their state). They called the bus lady only to be informed that she did not see us, so she left. Our parents searched for hours. First the school, and then up and down the route between home and school. Hours later, the two fathers continued their search, while the mothers waited at the house of a family friend.

I still remember the first sight of my father's car appearing on the horizon, coming for me. I remember the relief that washed over me to see his face. So glad to be out of the scorching sun. So happy to be found (though slightly disappointed that I didn't get to surprise them at home). He brought us to our weeping mothers, who eagerly fed us, as we had nothing to eat since the morning.

Perhaps this was the start of my father's bus-phobia? Or, perhaps he just loved us a lot, and driving was his way of spending time with us.

I know now, it wasn't the air conditioner, or the food, or the cushions. The car was not my resting place, my father was. My father who came for me, who still comes for me.

My father was my safe place. My mother was my safe place. My sisters were my safe place. With them, I could laugh. In that car, perfectly crammed, and together, we sang the praises of our Father's love for us.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Where messes and memories abound

We celebrated the last day of school under the sea, at the aquarium.

Emeth completed Kindergarten. Yohanan completed Pre-K3, a.k.a. a certificate in Following His Big Brother Around. And I completed my first year as a Kindergarten and Pre-school teacher, a career I never imagined for myself.

I am tucking away a few thoughts on homeschooling for years to come, years when they will all be taller than me, years when cereal will actually stay in their bowls.

1. Homeschooling was much like hosting a year-long dinner party — for people who needed a lot of help getting food into their mouths (literally and figuratively). Like all great dinner parties, messes and memories abound. My children were my guests, and a whole new world was on our menu. Homeschooling, however, was no magic carpet ride. It was my job to tell them "No" and where to go.

2. We learned a rhythm that worked for us (i.e. that kept me somewhat sane). School is simplified into two routines. I called them high tide and low tide. During high tide hours, we sat at the table and practiced math, spelling, painting, and penmanship. Basically, things that required maximum supervision. During low tide hours, the boys found their own comfortable corners; they read, drew, or worked on their various projects — things that required minimal help from me. A normal day would have some combination of the two routines. As a friend wisely concluded, it can't be high tide all the time or we would all drown. True words.

3. I had a lot to learn from parents who went before me — mommy polar bears, mommy belugas, mommy elephants, human parents, too. Keep the children close. Remember they learn best by imitating. Resist the urge to help too much. Sometimes, I walked a step or two in front of them. Sometimes, I stood behind them. Other times, I pushed — hard.

4. I learned to aim for the heart. Sure, I cheer like a crazy woman when their arrive at certain milestones, but reading and writing and counting are not our ultimate goals. They are means and methods to get to their hearts. I want my children to love people, to love serving others, to be curious, to work hard and work cheerfully, to overcome their fears, to know they are not perfect, to fail graciously, to be brave and try again.

5. I learned to study my children, how they played, how they learned. When choosing curricula, toys, books, or any other tool, I evaluated the product's potential by thinking of my child's skills, interests, and habits. Instead of thinking about what the tool can do, I learned to think about what my child can do with the tool. Reviews and good quality products certainly helped, but every child played and learned so differently. So, they benefited from the tools differently (or not at all).

6. I learned to be ruthless when it came to chopping off unfruitful activities and things. We made space and time for only things we loved. Having a small home forced us to donate books and toys regularly. Every month, the boys chose a few books and toys to give away. If a book was not cultivating good vocabulary, if a story was ugly or untruthful, we talked about it and moved onto other books. If the curriculum was too advanced, we put it aside.

 7. It has been a year of learning and accepting our limitations, while loving our freedom. We are homeschooling in a two-bedroom apartment. Because we do school and eat meals at the same table, you can imagine the boys' artwork, markers, crayons, pencils, spoons, bowls, all mingling in the most unattractive ways on my dining table. And then, there are other limitations, such as my patience, and my ability to fold the laundry.

On the other hand, we loved our freedom. The brothers were free to spend all of their waking hours together. We were free to spend our mornings at libraries, parks, friends' homes, and grocery stores. We were free to drop unsuitable curricula and pick up new ones. We were free to explore whatever that fascinated us.

It has been a good year-long dinner party. Summer, we welcome you with open arms. Hakuna matata, right? Wait, what?! I still have to do laundry in the summer?