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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rastoke's Water Mills

The Husband and I were so charmed by Rastoke that we resolved to return after we are retired and book a lodging in the village for a month in summer and just stay there.

The place has a series of small natural waterfalls ideal for watermills and trout farming. The place was picturesque beyond our expectations and even in the failing light of the dusk, it was stunning.

Water falls onto the spoon mill and turns machinery above, which can be used to grind flour etc...

Believe it or not, this is a washing machine. Water falls from above and crashes into the pail full of clothes. Water escapes through the holes. Leave your clothes in there for half a day and the throughput of pure mountain water will get the clothes all clean. Ingenious, huh?

Eating Peka at Konoba Roca, Stankovci

On the way from Mali Ston to Plitvice Lakes, we stopped by a well-known family owned farm restaurant known as Konoba Roca. The place is in the middle of nowhere, so the GPS had better be working. The place is known for miles around as the place to go for eating Peka. When we got there, the place was filled with Croatians. 

That says something.

Peka is a traditional Dalmatian meat and vegetable dish baked under a cast iron dome topped with hot coals. The tradition is very much alive because even in modern houses in the country side, there is an outdoor fireplace with a well-used peka dome stacked on it. The dish requires about 2 to 3 hours of preparation so one needs to order the dish at least 1 day in advance for ANY restaurant.

Cast iron dome and fresh coals.

Cast iron dome encases a peka within being cooked by the glowing coals.

Peka all ready to be eaten.

Served with fresh salad greens glistening with olive oil.

Served with a large tureen of soup.

Grilled vegetables (so yummy that we only remembered to take pictures near the end).

Crusty bread. If you give them a few days' notice, they can do gluten free bread.

Served in a large dining room with a roaring fire and large pieces of rustic furniture.

So hobbit like to have an old tree serve as a coat hanger within a huge underground cave that was the dining room.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Kids With Tuition Fare Worse

This post may seem like I am shooting myself in the foot because I do run an enrichment centre after all. Therefore, it is in my best interests to do all I can to challenge the notion that kids with tuition fare worse.

I am not going to do that. In all intellectual honesty, I confess that I truly believe that tuition destroys a child's ability to learn independently.

I do believe that kids with a lot of tuition fare worse. Long time readers of my blog will note that The Son and The Daughter had mostly no tuition. The Daughter had Economics tuition for 3 months before the A levels at the cost of $160/hour. The Son had group Chinese tuition for 2 months at the cost of $200/month. For us, tuition was a temporary solution to access learning materials and approaches that could be accessed nowhere else... and before we went into tuition, I would have exhausted all other avenues of learning - books, free online courses, youtube. To prepare for PSLE, my kids read books from NUS and NTU libraries.

Having taught other people's kids for 4 years, I also note that those kids who perform the best at PSLE, are those who do not have 4 subjects tuition. My 2 top scorers of 2016 came to me, never having had tuition before. One scored 270. The other scored 263. My English enrichment was their very first enrichment class, or the only one they stuck with.

On the other hand, I have highly intelligent kids who perform well below expectations  because they have so much work to do that everything is done mindlessly. Such children complete tons of worksheets with zombified brains. 

Overworked GEP Child
I have GEP child who had 4 subjects of tuition (from what I gathered, he was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day). and despite his high IQ and good grasp of the English language, he barely passed comprehension tests in school, and in my class (after 2 years with me).  Yet, he refuses to leave my classes because "Saturday afternoon is my only happy day in the week," says he. On the other hand, the high-po with no tuition until he started mine in mid-P5, improved easily from 15/20 to 20/20 within 6 months with me.

Overwork can make an intelligent child stupid. 

Ok... some people may say that maybe that GEP child was not truly a GEP. Perhaps, he was hothoused into the program. I can concede that there is some amount of error in IQ testing. However, the margin of error cannot be so great that a low IQ child be let into the GEP. Even if errors were made into the GEP selection, the errors would still be at least high-po. If we assume that my underperforming GEP child is a high-po, then we are comparing high-po with high-po. Error does not explain why my GEP (perhaps, hothoused high-po) scores 10.5/20 whilst the other high-po scores 20/20.

Overworked Child of 2 Scholar Parents
In a previous year, I taught a girl whose parents were both highly intelligent. One had a PhD. The other was a scholar with a Masters degree. When I asked the child's parents whether the child had playtime, the answer was, "She sleeps at 10pm every night." If you read between the lines, this  effectively means that the child works through to 10pm every night, and no playtime is scheduled.

This child was highly intelligent, with an iron will. In Sec 1, she joined her school's squash team a complete neophyte. To excel in sports, you need hard training but you need intelligence too. You need to analyse what you are doing and improve, improve, improve... Later in the Sec 1 year, this child won the national squash championships.

This child scored A* in only English at PSLE. Both her parents had Science and Math degrees. However, both her parents were intent to capture their money's worth of tuition services and despite my constant entreaties to them to skip selected HW, both continued to put their child through that punishing schedule. When I proposed that this child skip some of my HW, the child herself told me that her parents would scold her for wasting their money.

When will parents understand that more work does not mean more learning and what use is it to get your money's worth of marking from the teacher when the child's brain is churning out work mindlessly?

Abdication of Responsibility
When The Son failed Chinese in Year 2, I removed his unofficial Chinese tuition. His octogenarian Grandmother, in her quest for a purposeful life, would well-meaningly schedule Saturday morning to read the Chinese newspapers with him. His grandmother worked very hard to prepare for these sessions. The Son assumed that his grandmother's hard work would pay off in his exams. 

I decided to stop these weekly sessions so that it became emotionally and rationally clear to The Son that he was the only one able to work hard for his own results.

Zombified Brain
When new students join, one of the most shocking things they experience is when I throw badly done worksheets into my dustbin and refuse to even mark nor return the worksheet. I have found that when I mark such a worksheet (and comment that it is not well done), the child will proceed to do the next worksheet mindlessly. Until 2015, I saw kids do HW religiously every week, for a year, learning little/nothing. It really isn't how many worksheets are completed but whether the brain was switched on. Too much work switches the brain off and then no learning ensues. What does it matter if you have your money's worth of marking when your child is not learning anything from all the work done?

However, when I throw away the poorly done worksheet, parents start thinking about how much money they are wasting since I did not give them their money's worth of marking, and they then actively ensure that HW is done mindfully by...

- ensuring the child has enough rest.
- ensuring the child is not hurrying through the worksheet.
- throwing back and asking for a redo if there are careless mistakes, incompleted questions and overall sloppiness.

This is when learning happens.

Limitations of the Above Research Study
I note that the above-mentioned research study was done with 15 year olds. I am absolutely against tuition of any sort (unless only temporary) for secondary school. Kids of 15 and kids of 8 are very different. You can't allow an 8 year old to go traipsing to the library to do research without some parental escort. When The Son was in P4-P6 and I did not want him to get tuition, I had to open to him learning resources from the university libraries, Amazon and online subscriptions, to learn from. Relying on his primary school's materials was absolutely insufficient. Perhaps the primary schools have upped their game by now?

Even though The Son had had no tuition in primary school, it was because I helped him extensively at home. Once he reached secondary school, I did not help him at all. His school taught him everything he needed to know. Parents of primary school kids who cannot teach would have to make up the shortfall with tuition (and have been doing so). I really don't think that will change anytime soon.

I just wish that parents would be wiser about children's workload.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Truffles and Truffles and Truffles

Truffles are a sort of ectomycorrhizal fungus. This means that it is a sort of mushroom that grows on plant roots, absorbing nutrients such as glucose and sucrose, whilst helping the plant absorb minerals. There is black summer truffle (tuber aestivum), black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum) and white winter truffle (tuber magnatum). Of these 3, it is the winter white truffle that is the most pricey.

White winter truffle (tuber magnatum).

Black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum).

People have been eating truffles since the 20th century BCE. This is 2000 years before Christ. Ancient peoples believed truffles to be good for longevity and also an aphrodisiac. It is somewhat interesting that Croatia has both oysters (aphrodisiac) and truffles (aphrodisiac) but has only 4 million people on 56,594 sq km, whilst Singapore has only 720 sq km for 5.5 million people.

Truffles thrive on the roots of trees that grow in rocky soils. This winter of 2016, in Croatia's Motovun region, the weather has alternated between dry, sunny days and wet, foggy days. This is perfect weather for truffles to grow.

In less than an hour of truffle hunting, we found 2 truffles.

Truffle hound - this is a Lagotto Romagnolo dog breed. It is a very popular breed of dog for truffle hunting. This crazy looking one is called Aaron and he is the WORST truffle hound in a pack of 4. From what I observed, this one was just dashing about the forest for the sheer joy of running and when the other dogs found truffle, he would come and paw all over us to get the treat meant for the other dog.

Buying Fresh White Truffles
One truffle shop along the main street of Motovun quoted us SGD 3,020 per kg of fresh white winter truffle. Karlick Tartufi (we found on TripAdvisor) quoted us SGD 2,265 per kg. We were quite blessed because I managed to locate a part-time truffle hunter (full-time carpenter) who had just spent his morning truffle hunting. He sold us his stash for SGD 1,888 per kg. Karlick Tartufi buys from these individual truffle hunters anyway and then sells to tourists and restaurants with a mark up. 

We simply just went straight to the hunter. If you are interested, Igor and Vojka Kotiga can be reached via whatsapp at +385 9881 4560. They live at Motovun Gradiziol 5. Right opposite Igor's house is the well-known restaurant, Mondo, which was featured by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations - see HERE.

Update on 11 December 2016: Having bought fresh truffles, I advise that tourists refrain from buying fresh truffles. There is no way to preserve the extraordinary aroma of the truffle. With every minute that passes, the truffle aroma disappears into the air.

Igor's front door. Just ring the doorbell.

Igor will poke his head out of the top window to have a good look at you. Just tell him you want his fresh truffles. Make sure that the truffles are firm to the touch (not soft and spongy). Also, don't hesitate to smell the truffles. If there is no aroma, don't buy. We were blessed. The truffles we bought had been hunted that morning itself. The aroma hung thick in the air and formed a bubble of truffle gas around me as I walked around with it in my pocket.

Konoba Mondo

Preserving Fresh Truffles
There is no way to preserve fresh truffles. The fragrant oils are simply too volatile. After 3 days, the truffles are no good no matter how hard you try to keep them fresh. Think your button mushrooms. They go soft and black in the fridge after a week, no? Out of the fridge, they last barely a day or 2. The flesh of the truffle is bland and tasteless. The magic is in the smell.

I managed to figure out a way to transfer the essence of the truffle out of the truffle. I made truffle salt. The salt sucks all the aromas out of the truffle into itself. The next morning, the truffle will be soft, spongy and smells of nothing at all. The salt, however, lent magic to our scrambled eggs this morning.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffle in salt.

Scrambled eggs with truffle. Once you have sprinkled truffle salt on the eggs, the truffle slices are just for show. You can do without the truffle slices and still have magic happen in your mouth.

The truffle shops sell preserved sliced truffles in olive oil (has added artificial aroma), cheese and truffle pâté (cheese locks in the small, so yes... worth buying), truffle olive oil (has added artificial aromas, whole truffle preserved in brine (tasteless and smell-less). Don't bother with those. They taste of nothing unless artificial truffle aroma has been added. Buy your truffles FRESH and buy high quality Adriatic sea salt. Wash your truffles under a running tap to brush away the soil. Dry thoroughly and put them in a jam jar buried entirely in sea salt. Make sure you pour some salt at the bottom of the jar (before you put in your truffle) so that the salt also covers the bottom of the truffle.

Truffle salt can last months in the fridge and you can enjoy the truffle smell at home too. In a sense, it is like transferring the soul of the truffle from its original corporeal body into another.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffles are priced for size. Class 1 is biggest and Class 3 is smallest. However, the aroma is the same no matter the size. So, don't go for size. Make sure you sniff the mushroom and buy for the smell. At times, the big ones don't have as much smell as the small ones.

These are very expensive truffles. Each is bigger than my hand. The whole plate will be sold for about SGD 10,000.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Stone House Ana, Bartolici Village

Getting here was an adventure in itself. The problem with driving in winter is that roads can get fogged up and iced over. This makes driving dangerous for those who are not used to driving in winter conditions. It was bad enough that the roads were almost just dirt tracks wide enough for only one car, but these tracks twisted and turned up along the hillside. Then, for the first time, the GPS got us lost! We ended up in a different village, peering up at another stone house with its roof caved in and much vegetation in the living room.

For a moment, I thought that I had gotten schnooked by a dishonest proprietor of property.

Anyway, we managed to find the place eventually but after our initial ooohs and aaaahs, the evening lead into another adventure of a rather stressful kind.

Old houses are a nightmare to equip with modern amenities. Firstly, they are usually found in the middle of nowhere and so the houses generally have electrical systems that cannot take too much load. Secondly, the stone walls are about 1 ft and a half thick. Therefore, getting electricity and plumbing into the house is kinda difficult. So, we were warned that perhaps the fuse box might trip.

It did.

I was in bed with my Kindle. The Husband was in the shower. The Daughter grabbed my Kindle to light her way downstairs to search for the fusebox. The Husband hopped out of the bathroom in nothing but a tiny towel because you know... the man of the house needs to investigate such occurrences right? With the help of the iPhone torches (oh thank God for handphone torches!) they both found the fuse box. At that point, The Husband's towel dropped and the poor man was stark naked... which caused a bit of a hoo ha because he was trying to recover his dignity all whilst yelling at his daughter NOT to look.

Oh dear... and then they found that the fuse box was perfectly fine. Nothing had tripped BUT there was still no electricity. Thank goodness there is such a thing as a dataplan and handphone reception. They were able to get the landlord on whatsapp. Eventually, they located the master fuse box and turned the electricity back on.

Now, we have to be very careful because when the stove is on, the heaters must be off... when the hairdryer is on, everything else has to be off. Then I realised that there is a reason why local people live in new houses... and only tourists (who are history buffs) book these centuries old lodgings in the middle of nowhere. Old houses are not very comfortable.

Old style Croatian fireplace. Very charming, but not very efficient at heating the house. Most of the heat escapes up the chimney and one has to keep feeding the fire. This means that wood needs chopping and one has to stand near the fire to get warm. Worse still, we are out of matchsticks. 

Very charming living room. Fortunately, this room has a modern airconditioner.

Staircase to a huge bedroom, which has NO heater. We had to bring up the portable heater from the toilet.

Humongous bedroom with all the old world charm but very cold, if not for the portable heater.

No regrets lah... with the portable heater, we passed a comfortable night.

Ever so pretty!

Staying in this house is an experience in itself. I could sit here all day and imagine that I have travelled back in time.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

More Results 2016

I am proud of this one. When he came, he was so badly behaved that he made his Mother cry.

This one has always been a joy to teach. He grasps quickly and never makes the same mistake twice.

This child learnt enough and left me before PSLE.

This boy did not do well. He only achieved a B in English. In fact, he got a B for every subject at PSLE. However, I still want to celebrate him. In the last 6 months, his attitude improved tremendously and this is the attitude he will carry with him to secondary school. Unfortunately, the PSLE cannot be aced with only 6 months of hard work. I am still EXTRAORDINARILY proud of this boy who has definite cognitive weaknesses when it comes to language acquisition, that really needed time and therapy to fix. He was a good boy but we did not have time.

We have mixed ability classes. Necessarily, we will have a range of results depending on (1) the IQ of the child, (2) the degree of parental emotional and scaffolding support and (3) the strength of partnership with Dr. Pet.

We set high goals for the children and are demanding when it comes to quality of homework. We reward work ethic (not results) with specially sourced gifts from all over the world - see HERE. Children with poor work ethic or are deaf to feedback for improvement are firmly dealt with, and sometimes, asked to leave the centre. However, when the children have worked hard and put in their best, and still bring back results that are not ideal... it is time to hug the child and be proud of him. 

We do not expel children for poor results. We do not punish children for poor results. 

Now that PSLE is over, the children cannot do anything about their results anymore. Punishing them achieves nothing. It is time to focus on the features of the child that are not summarised in the PSLE t-score. This boy loves to cook. He won a cooking competition by making chicken cordon bleu...

... emmmm... even I have not tried making chicken cordon bleu...

Little M brought home to me a B in English and I am proud of him. I am proud to say that I taught him and he got a B for me. I am not ashamed of my Little M.

On the day we went to get The Son's PSLE results, friends texted me to ask for The Son's t-score. Indeed, people I hardly knew wanted to know his t-score. I guess, being a blogger gives complete strangers the license to pry into my son's privacy. I told close friends his t-score. Those who were not so close, I rebelliously said, "I think I will put him in Yishun North Secondary School because it is a good school and has Shooting as a CCA. If you love me as your friend, do not judge my son and me based on our PSLE t-score."

This allowed me to differentiate true friends from mere kaypohs. Those kaypohs who cared for us after hearing Yishun North Secondary, became friends and today, they are fully aware of exactly how well The Son is doing. 2 major organisations negotiated with each other so that both could have him as a 16 year old intern in Nov-Dec 2016. Each organisation agreed to forego one week of The Son's time so that both could have him.

He may not have scored in the top PSLE score in the nation but The Son comes in a total package that is desirable to potential employers.

20 years from now, Little M will be a Michelin starred chef and I will get to eat for free at any of his restaurants. I have a good eye for talent. It was my honour to have taught him.

A child is worth more than his grades.

See more results HERE.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Diocletian's Palace

The Diocletian Palace in Split has the distinction of being the only Roman Palace still inhabited by people. The locals say that it is an ancient space with modern uses. Till recently, people who lived inside the palace were those with little means to buy newer and bigger lodgings. Nowadays, wealthier landlords have taken over the lodgings and converted them into AirBnB apartments for let. If you are a self-driving tourist, it is best to stay outside the Diocletian Palace even though the allure of actually living within a real Roman palace is undeniable.

You see, the parking here is horrendous.

The Roman Emperor Diocletian was proclaimed Emperor in AD 284. He built this palace as his retirement home. Eventually, he died and was buried in the mausoleum in the middle of the Diocletian Palace. A few hundred years later, in the 7th century, nearby residents fled into the palace to escape from invaders. Since then, the palace has continually been occupied. This probably explains why much of the palace is still standing. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage monument.

When the palace was built, it had the perfect and elegant proportions of a royal dwelling. However, when people moved in, they began building their own stone houses hither and thither. The extensive gardens disappeared only to be replaced by a veritable warren of buildings with narrow streets. The grand vistas and walkways also disappeared. Large windows were bricked up. When one marble pillar collapsed, people dragged another marble pillar (of different colour and design) from nearby ruins in Salona and popped it in there to support the roof. It really is a very amusing construction.

See the row of pillars on the right? Originally, one could walk through into a wide space there.

In later years, after the Romans had abandoned the site, someone built a building right there behind the pillars. I am of 2 minds about this. It seems such a travesty to destroy the initial aspect of the dwelling but then again, these newer building additions are also the sole reason why those pillars still stand and are well-preserved today.

The Dalmatian Platters and Boards

Dalmatia is one of the 4 historical regions in Croatia. Today, Dalmatia is not a properly recognised region in Croatia, but its vague boundaries are marked down in the collective memory of the people who live along the Croatian coastline. It has its customs and food specialties. The grilled seafood platter needs patience. You can order it anywhere but it needs 30 minutes to prepare. It is well worth the wait, though. 3 people can eat off a single platter and feel full. Laden with shellfish of all sorts, lobster, shrimps and whole grilled fish, this platter is a firm family favourite at SGD$30 per person. The platter comes with vegetables and fries too so there is no need to order anything else.

Dalmatian eating habits are quite convivial. Platters and boards are for sharing, which suits the Singaporean just fine. What is good is also the squid ink risotto. 

Seafood platter in Ston.

Seafood platter in Mali Ston.

Seafood platter in Split.

Ham and cheese board in Split.

Filigree Jewelry

Butterfly in filigree silver.

Every year, I give away prizes to children who have accumulated the MOST SkipHWCoupons in 10 months. SkipHWCoupons are given to children who give me perfect work to mark every week. For every perfect worksheet, I give one coupon. 

The children are allowed to hand up these SkipHWCoupons in lieu of HW, or they can choose to accumulate their coupons for the grand prize at the end of the year. 

I will confiscate and destroy 2 coupons for every piece of sloppy HW done too. Sloppy HW is detrimental to learning. Do enough sloppy and mindless work and your brain learns exactly that. Then, when you go into the exam, your sloppy habits come through in carelessness. For this reason, I prefer that children skip homework if they are tired, ill or do not feel like doing work.

Children who accumulate enough SkipHWCoupons throughout 10 months, to get the grand prize, really deserve a good reward for having focused PROPERLY on each piece of work done for me over a period of weeks and months. For this reason, I put a lot of effort into shopping for these gifts. This year, I sourced them via friends travelling in Denmark and Japan. Finally, I found the gifts in a shop situated opposite the mausoleum (a HUGE tomb) of the Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus. I found butterflies in filigree silver.

If you stand at the door of the shop and look out, you see the view below...

Behind the pillars and the tower, there is an angular building, which was the Emperor Diocletian's mausoleum. This courtyard is the Peristyle. It was where the Emperor came to wave to the public. The Diocletian Palace is a very distinctive Roman ruin in that after the Emperor died, people came into his home and built their own smaller homes within the compound. Till today, there is a warren of streets, small apartments and large palatial houses, dating from the Middle Ages (16th and 17th century) where people actually STILL live.

In Roman times, the peristyle looked like this. The shop is in that small little arch in the middle right corner.

Filigree work originated in Egyptian times and the techniques were perfected by the Etruscans and the Greeks. Master filigree jeweler Viktor Civljak owns the shop. He came to Split in 1967, from Kosovo. Filigree techniques arrived in Kosovo in the 15th century. The region had historically come under the Byzantine empire. To this day, some of the designs in Viktor Civljak's shop are reminiscent of Byzantine Orthodox Christian art.

To see how Viktor Civljak makes his jewelry, click HERE.