Tag Archives: Singapore

Westport: Low Fences, Communal Spirit, Personal Pizzas

On Thursday night 9 teenagers left Westport, for a plane back to Singapore. They were different people than when they’d arrived, just 2 weeks earlier.

The group — part of the 2nd annual group to visit from the elite Hwa Chong Institute — lived with Staples students, attended classes, and visited New York City and Yale.

But — as is so often the case with programs like this — the little things meant the most.

The guests shared their impressions on a Facebook page called “Staples High Immersion 2014.” Among their observations:

In Singapore, students are “generally meek in front of their teachers.” Here, school relationships are very relaxed.  As a result, discussions are lively, resulting in “effective learning.” And without uniforms, Westport students “are free to express their personal identity.”

Staples’ electives were eye-opening. Radio, television, film-making, music, pottery, digital darkroom, drawing, painting, sculpturing, jewelry making, woodworking — plus the opportunity to choose another language, like French, Spanish or Mandarin — was intriguing.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

Two Hwa Chong students enjoy Culinary class.

But that was nothing compared to extracurricular activities. The Singapore teenagers were impressed that Inklings, the school newspaper, gives students the opportunity to write on topics that interest them, from fashion to anti-Semitism.

The visitors were wowed by Staples Players’ “Hello, Dolly!” — let’s hope they don’t think that every high school puts on shows like that — and were amazed too at the importance that Wrecker sports hold for many students.

“Such is a mark of an obviously holistic education,” one youngster wrote. “Academics, while important, do not rob students of their time to engage in something they want to do and develop.

“Crudely speaking,” he added, “Staples makes Singaporean schools look like factories.”

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

Staples High School principal John Dodig and world language department chair Maria Zachery welcome the Singapore students to Westport.

The strong, close bonds of families in Westport neighborhoods impressed the Singapore teens. One said that “communal spirit” was lacking in his country.

And, he added, Westport homes do not have “high fences or walls to form a barricade around their properties,” as he was used to. (Another was surprised that Americans don’t mind living near cemeteries. That would never happen back home.)

Life here, one boy said, is less hectic than in Singapore. His father works overseas; his mother gets home from work after he is asleep, and he has not had a home-cooked meal since he was 11. Both host parents here cook.

He called it “heartwarming” to see that Westport families spend “sufficient time to interact and understand each and every family member.” Singapore youngsters “crave” that, he said.

One of his classmates remarked on the ease with which “numerous visitors” dropped in at his host family’s house.

It doesn't get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

It doesn’t get more Westport than a trip to Five Guys.

A host family took their guest to a local restaurant. A pizza that would be a meal for 2 or 3 people back home was his alone. At a supermarket, the only Coke he could find was 4.5 liters. On field trips, he and his classmates could not finish all the food they were served.

One Facebook post called Westport “stunning.” The “serene and quiet” autumn setting was a sharp contrast to “noisy and high energy” Singapore.

New York, meanwhile, seemed “straight out of a movie.” It had a “slight fairy-tale feel to it” — despite the “innumerable homeless people.”

“I am indeed glad I was honoured with the opportunity to come here,” a student wrote. “I feel accomplished and less ignorant” for having experienced Western culture.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family's house.

One of the Singapore guests loved this serene scene near his host family’s house.

And, of course, nearly everyone asked the Singaporeans — “frantically,” one said — if they are allowed to chew gum.

“That is one thing we don’t really regard as something big, but apparently in other countries it appears really strange,” he noted.

Which is why all of us should travel. And when we do, we should wander out of our comfort zones. There are many lessons to be learned. As our Singapore guests have shown us, not all take place in school.

Westport, Singapore Teachers Learn From Each Other

It’s become a familiar headline: In survey after survey of student achievement, Singapore ranks at or near the top. The US is far down the list, nestled between an emerging nation no one’s ever heard of, and a land filled with nomadic herders.

Of course, Westport is not an average American school district. Now a special partnership is helping our educators learn from Singapore’s best — and vice versa.

A $100,000 Singapore National Institute of Education grant is funding a comparative study of how 2 top-performing school districts — Westport and Hwa Chong — help students prepare for 21st-century life.

Last week, the Westport 2025 Task Force — 40 teachers and administrators working with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College to sharpen students’ critical thinking skills, and solve real-world problems — hosted 5 educators from Hwa Chong. It’s an elite institution: a hybrid public/charter school, combining high school and a junior college, for the top 3% of Singapore’s students.

Next fall, researchers from Singapore and Teachers College will observe math, science, English and social studies teachers at Staples and Hwa Chong. Last week’s visit to Westport laid the groundwork for that partnership.

The 2 days showed there’s common ground between school systems that seem on the surface to be worlds apart — and not just geographically.

“I think we have very similar values,” says Lis Comm, Westport director of secondary education, research and professional development.

“We both talk about 21st-century skills and capacities in terms of communication, creativity and critical thinking. They talk about ‘5 minds’: disciplined, ethical, creating, respectful and synthesizing. That’s exactly what we talk about too.”

Staples High School

Staples High School

Comm said the Singapore educators shared ideas like sabbatical research projects, in which teachers and students design week-long mid-year courses for other students around their passions.

Hwa Chong also hosts a yearly convocation of Nobel Prize winners. That might be more difficult for Westport to pull off.

The Singaporeans, meanwhile, were impressed with the way Staples students work collaboratively to solve real-world problems.

“They saw teachers asking thought-provoking questions, and kids responding with multiple interpretations,” Comm says. “The Singapore educators said their teachers could learn about how our students don’t just consume knowledge, but apply it.”

The guests from overseas were treated to a lunch made by Staples culinary students — a course not offered at Hwa Chong. The educators were awed too by the child study, graphic arts, theater, library and radio and TV production facilities and classes, and the prevalence of digital media throughout the school. Each visitor was given a DVD of Staples Players’ recent production of “A Chorus Line.”

“Collaboration is always good, and when you extend it to a top-notch school in another country, that’s amazing,” says Staples English instructor and 2025 task force member Julia McNamee.

“There were so many initiatives at their school that were intriguing. We will get ideas from them, as well as the energy that comes from working with really different ideas.”

McNamee notes that Westport’s “more eclectic mix, from our student population to the US’s broad commitment to human rights and equality of opportunity,” would be part of our contribution to the partnership.

James D’Amico, Westport  social studies department head for grades 6-12, adds, “I think we will get some impressive benchmarks to use in our reflections of our educational programs, and lots of ideas about how a school and programs can be structured differently.”

The Staples courtyard, during a "Pops Music" concert.

The Staples courtyard, during a “Pops Music” concert.

“I think Westport can contribute expertise in how we shape education for individual students, and how students’ ability have choice in their educational experience can energize them to perform in the classroom and in co-curricular activities,” D’Amico adds.

“Both sides feel very happy about this partnership,” Comm says. “There’s a warmth and common understanding on both sides. We feel very comfortable with each other.”