Tackling student sleep issues (Book recommendation!)

For a number of my students every year, one of the first things I have to do is to make sure they are sleeping properly. The signs are easy to recognise: when they are trying to solve a particular problem (let’s say, figuring out how to respond to a question), their eyes sometimes glaze over. Sometimes they blink and keep their eyes closed a beat too long. Sometimes their eyes are red the moment I see them.

Students with sleep issues can often be very high-performing students, but the fact is, they could perform much better if they were sleeping better.  Some poorly performing students can even make a jump in their academic performance just by being more mindful of their sleep. In fact, I am willing to bet that when they become more disciplined about their sleep, their lives get better in general.

I’ve written about sleep before, but this is such an important issue, that I feel the need to write about it again. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes suffer from insomnia — I’ve been calling myself a semi-regular insomniac for years. In the last month, I’ve actually had a number of weeks of bad sleep, to the point where I realised that I had to deal with it head-on. In the past, my go-to solution had been to go to my doctor for sleeping pills, but this time I wanted to get to the root of the issue. I wanted to really understand why I was feeling and sleeping so badly.

It was therefore with immense pleasure that I found The Sleep Solution by W. Chris Winter, a specialist sleep doctor. The science he presents in this book has been so helpful to me, I’ve been recommending it to my friends and family (particularly those who complain about not being able to sleep). It’s an added plus that Winter writes with a conversational tone that is often laugh-out-loud funny, even if some of his jokes can fall a little flat.

You can read a review of the book here, and you can check the availability of the book at the NLB (Singapore) here. People who have an NLB Overdrive account can get the book here (but most of you should go with the physical book since comprehension tends to be higher).

If you’re a parent or student dealing with sleep issues, go read the book. Well, if you’re human, just read it anyway. You’ll feel better. I’m not even finished with it, and I’m sleeping better already — I’ve even let go of my identity as a “semi-regular insomniac”. It’s that good.

(A response to..) Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!

This post is a response to the article in the link — Dont keep calm! And dont carry on! – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Mr Seah cares about students, and if you care about students, you have to care about politics as well, because what happens in the political realm impacts students too. If, for example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes into power, then it will probably enact policies that they have described here (which, in my opinion, would be good for students but bad for the tuition industry).

So, it was with great admiration that I read the article “Don’t keep calm! And don’t carry on!“. It is such a well-written article, and anyone who even dreams of doing well for their General Paper (GP) should be able to understand and critique this article. It contains a cogent analysis of the ideology embedded within the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and is a call to action — except that the author (Michael Marder) does not spell out for us what that action should be.

I agree with the bulk of the article, and it seems worth the effort to write about the implications of my agreement for my own actions — in terms of my teaching and existence — in the Singaporean context.

The premise of the article — that we exist with a “highly destructive status quo” — is one that I accept. As another author has observed:

“The condominium of state and private actors in the financial-monetary sector is a proper object of civic curiosity. The power to describe must also be disentangled from the formal powers of office and the prerogatives of wealth.”

The inequality that I observe in this world is simply unacceptable, in a moral sense. It is inexplicable that the world’s billionaires continue to hold on to their wealth so tightly when one in three people in the world live in poverty. Marder observes that “the danger is real that the public is about to lose its collective cool”, and it really is no surprise when we have statistics like that to look at.

As a GP tutor, I expect my students to have enough general knowledge to score well in their essays, and this makes up part of the general knowledge that they should have. Once a student is aware of such statistics, there is no way s/he will be able to ignore it without some effort. In the same way that a person will find it difficult to be happy in a room of sobbing people, most people will find it unacceptable to hoard wealth when the problem of poverty is so widespread.

This is not to say that I don’t encourage my students to be successful — I always point to the efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to show how a billionaire can make a massive difference in the world, more than what a humble tutor (me) can achieve. Success isn’t bad — it is unrestrained greed that destroys the world.

In addition to greed, there is also the problem of apathy, brought about by what Marder calls the “ideological constructions of normalcy”. A student of mine has pointed out that this includes the dystopic phenomenon of people being entertained to death with their smartphones, both of us having observed people on trains and buses nowadays being glued to their smartphones in what seems to be an orgy of mindless consumption.

As a teacher of young minds, I always try to encourage mindful consumption, rather than mindless consumption. This is incidentally good for a student’s grades as well — if a student spends hours reading thought-provoking material rather than spending hours playing games or watching inane videos, it will surely have a positive impact on his academic performance.

My teaching is my way of not keeping calm, of not carrying on as if the world was alright. I don’t claim to have a tremendous impact on the world, but I am doing what I can to try to change things. As I explain to my students, we can help by supporting tax reform (an idea that many political and business leaders support), and by volunteering to help whoever we can in our country.

Yes, I want my students to be successful and to do well. But I also want them to remember that keeping calm and carrying on isn’t the best thing to do all the time.

Essay writing tip: question everything

I first heard this tip from my GP teacher, way back in 2000 when phones could only make calls and send messages (no internet on phones!), and when one of the five co-founders of Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg) was only 17 years old. At the time, I didn’t know that this quote was attributed to Einstein (The Albert!), but that’s how far this quote has travelled to get to you. Depending on who you ask, the idea may even have originated in the discourses of the ancient philosophers (wow). WOW!

Here it is, the idea that has survived longer than any of us has been alive: question everything.

Question everything.

A fellow blogger puts it in naked terms:
…let me tell all my fellow citizens that deception comes from everywhere. Your parents probably have lied to you before. Your teachers have not told you everything. Newspapers conduct misleading, shabby polls and print biased news. Life isn’t like they show on TV. Magazines publish more articles about brands that pay more ad dollars. And yes, governments – they withhold information too, manipulate statistics, spin the news, censor, mislead, distract, fight dirty, dirty wars online.” (Read Daniel’s original blogpost here — DRUMS and Dumb Singaporeans)

When you are writing an essay, check your arguments. Question your arguments, try to find flaws in them, and plug the holes. When you first begin to do this, it may feel slightly strange, and you may even end up writing essays that start with a particular stand but end with the opposite viewpoint (please don’t do that!). This is where essay planning comes in — you question your arguments at the planning stage, not the writing stage.

Even when you graduate from school, the habit of questioning everything is going to be helpful. The blogpost I linked to above shows how useful the habit can be when we deal with the media and the discourse of politicians. I’ll say that it’s even useful for querying the very meaning of life. (WAH).

How to do it? Well, most people question life and ask what it has to offer them. So, I questioned my question. Instead of asking what life had to offer me, I asked: what do I have to offer life? Hmm.

Essay scoring tip: deliver ‘truth’

People who grade essays are human beings, and human beings will always have their own biases. Here’s something that works (I know because I tested it out in JC, and I topped my school in GP!) that is almost never taught — if your essay delivers some kind of earth-shattering ‘truth’, the marker feels the urge to ignore your weaker points and just give you a higher grade.

Let us look at the SAT essay marking criteria, for example. (Yes, the SATs may be an American thing, but trust me, the essay marking schemes for the O- and A-levels are quite similar. These essay tests assess very similar abilities. A good writer is going to score well on any English essay test.) In the marking criteria, it states that for an essay to be given a 6 (the highest score), it “Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position” (emphasis mine). Now, how many times have you heard your English teacher talk about the need for an essay to be insightful? (I hope the answer is “many!”)

I like the way dictionary.com defines insightpenetrating mental vision or discernment; faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth. When you gain an insight into something important, you get a feeling of WOW or as some might put it, ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ (sry). That should be the feeling your essay gives your marker. The word that occurs most frequently in my head when I think about insight is the word “truth” (more often than not my brain goes TRUTH in big bright letters). When I read an insightful piece of writing, I feel like I know more about the truth of the world. For example, reading about the neuroscience of meditation and the various sociological ways of seeing the world simply blew my mind (ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ).

How do you include genuine truths or insights in your essays? You have to have experienced that ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ feeling, that feeling or wonder that comes with learning something genuinely insightful about the world. Optimally, by the time you sit for your examinations, you would have experienced ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ numerous times. This will allow you to respond to many essay questions with something genuinely worth writing about. You should have the feeling of “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written” when you step out of the examination hall. You get this feeling either by parroting/modifying a truth you have read about, or by spontaneously coming up with a truth of your own.

(Side note: the English language should have a word for “wow, that was a brilliant essay with a brilliant message, I need to blog about it when I get home so that more people will know about what I’ve written”. I propose ZOMGWTFLOLBBQ. Probably won’t catch on, though..)

Where do we find readily available truths and insights? A really popular place to start is the lovely TED website. In fact, you will often find speakers “demonstrat[ing] outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support [their] position[s]” (that’s SAT marking criteria again). Another thing you could do is to look for non-fiction books about a subject you are interested in. I personally enjoy books about psychology or sociology, like this.

As a thoroughly rewarding and useful side effect, you get to learn more about the world while you prepare for your big essay examinations. So go get a dose of truth or insight. Good luck!


Are you looking for an English tutor? For one-on-one lessons or group lessons, please send an email to kevinseahsg@gmail.com, or call/SMS/whatsapp 97700557 (Singapore only). I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me an SMS to let me know you’re looking for a tutor.

For editing and proofreading services, email kevinseahsg@gmail.com or call/SMS/whatsapp +65 97700557 for an obligation-free quotation. I’m not always at my phone, so if I don’t pick up, please leave me a message to let me know your requirements.