JL has a heart-to-heart conversation with our Head of the Foundation Level, Ms Lena Emmanuel – who has some golden advice for parents of our Foundation (Primary 1 and 2) children.

JL: Hi, I’m JL from Academia and today, we’re with Ms Lena Emmanuel.

LE: Hello everybody, I hope you have had a nice day.

JL: So Ms Emmanuel, we’re here today to talk about the Foundation students. Maybe first of all, can you tell us what’s your approach to engaging students?

LE: That’s a wonderful question. For very young children, it’s a totally different ballgame from adults and others as they are the little ones. For the very young children, you need to engage their mind through kinaesthetic learning, which is tactile learning. For example, if I were to tell them the word “stroll” –  instead of telling them “stroll” means a walk, I would actually do it with them. There’s an alleyway in the centre. I would hold one child in one hand [demonstrates the action] and go for a little walk along the alley. And this is what we mean by kinaesthetic, where you go through activities. This actually interests them. [gestures to herself] I’m also a speech and drama qualified teacher, so this is why I’m able to do that with Foundation children. Sometimes, we do a little role-play or a little drama in class, and they do enjoy it. I’ve seen quiet students, after half a year with us, raise up their hands [raises her own hand] and answer questions. They just enjoy and feel non-threatened.

JL: That’s so important.

LE: Yes, it’s very important for children to be studying in a non-threatening environment. And I always tell them: make mistakes. You’re here to learn. What’s important is that you go to school and can afford to make mistakes.

JL: That’s fantastic.

LE: You know what I mean? As long as they learn, we don’t punish them. We don’t scold them. We say, “Oh, well done! What do you think the possible answer is, if this one is wrong?” And sometimes, they may get it right and then we go through.

JL: Yes, exactly. [laughs delightedly]

LE: Yes, and sometimes a child gets it wrong also. Then I would actually give them some time.

JL: [appreciatively] You’re very supportive.

LE: Yes, we are very supportive. We have two teachers in class, which means even the brightest ones will be taken care of. If there’s a younger, quieter one and she’s not sure and she raises her hand, the teacher can work with her – or help her. One more thing is that for learning to be very fun, [pauses for emphasis] it must be natural as well. I always tell parents – one good advice for parents – if you go for a holiday, don’t just go for a holiday. Make your child – not too long though – maybe one paragraph, because they’re still in Foundation, Primary One, Primary Two. If they have to write a diary, it can be very intimidating. What they need to do is maybe write a paragraph or two: why you enjoyed that particular trip to the zoo or to the museum. This is a natural way of learning.

JL: Ah, I see. [nods in agreement]

LE: You know what I mean?

JL: Yes, exactly. It’s integrated into their daily lives.

LE: Teaching should also be done in daily life. For example, if they go out there in a car ride and they ask, [points animatedly] “Mummy, why is it like that?” Don’t say it’s irrelevant. Just answer the question, because they’re trying to make sense of their inner world. And I have this charge who’s in Primary Three, Primary Four. Her mum says she’s always asking irrelevant questions, but in class she asks the same thing. And I actually realised she’s trying to do this, she’s trying to make sense of the grammar rules.

JL: [lightbulb moment] Yes, trying to understand, right?

LE: Yes, and after some time, within three months, her Mum says she’s more self-motivated.

JL: That’s fantastic.

LE: You know one other thing is that I enjoy teaching. I have been teaching for thirty years and I enjoy it. I have taught adults as well as older kids, but the youngest ones are still my favourite. Because that’s when you can shape their learning attitude. You know, they are less inhibited if you give them a non-threatening environment, you give them a fun learning environment. You know when they get to Primary Six, or Secondary, or even JC, given our school system, they just sit down and listen to the teacher… [presses palms together sadly]

JL: Yes, of course, by that age… [laughs]

LE: Yes, but at Academia, we make them raise their hands and answer the questions. And at Primary One and Primary Two, we are still able to get their interest up. So that when they go to school, they’re in a class of thirty, which is what it’s like now. And if they do not understand, they can raise their hands. Because some of the quieter students are sometimes looked over. Because they don’t cause trouble and the teachers overlook them.

JL: Yes, that’s right.

LE: But now that they are more vocal, they are able to raise their hands, and teachers can take note of them – what they can’t and weren’t able to do.

JL: That’s really great, you know! [gesticulating animatedly] In fact, I have seen this in all your classes where… the kids are so excited to go to your classes. [laughs] So, do you have any advice for parents? Especially parents of Foundation kids, they are so anxious sometimes – because they want to do the best for their kids, so what would you tell them?

LE: [pensively] One thing is this: what they should do is – don’t be too academically driven. Yes, it’s important, but we should also aim for [dramatic pause] lifelong learning. A part of lifelong learning is to make them self-motivated. At Primary One, Primary Two, you still can do it. And how do you access that? Make it natural, fun and interesting. If you are fun –  if learning is fun, interesting and pitched at their level, then they’re self-motivated, then they can have a self-learning attitude, and this carries them a long, long way, right through to university. And even when they’re working, they’ll still be interested in upgrading their skills.

JL: Yes. [with an air of finality] So important. 

LE: Masters, PhDs, so on and so forth. And ultimately, they’ll be successful. That’s what parents want most for their children – successful people, not just academically inclined.

JL: Yes, absolutely. Finally, perhaps I should ask you: what is it that motivates you to keep teaching, especially at this stage of your career?

LE: I have been in this line for thirty years. I have taught adults, older pupils, as well as foreign students. At all stages, there are different challenges. But I think for the youngest ones, it’s still… [pauses dramatically] redemptive. 

JL: Ah! [reflectively] Redemptive.

LE: Whatever mistakes they’ve made at this level, we can do something about it. We can make new learning attitudes. With a new learning attitude, everything goes smoothly. I get the greatest satisfaction when I see a young child coming up and telling me, “Ms Emmanuel, I’ve learnt.” 

JL: [impressed] Wow. 

LE: Sometimes they cannot voice it out, because they are very young, but from their attitude we can tell. I have a child, a difficult child. I’ve seen her from another centre but of course she comes here now and she’s seen great improvement. I think her parents have been very strict with her and she doesn’t find learning very interesting. When she comes in sometimes, and we try to teach her things, [sighs] she doesn’t take very well to it. Now, I think in the last three sessions, she’s able to voice out her concerns. Only yesterday, she said, “I’m tired, I’m tired”. And I asked, “Do you need help?” She said, “No, I want to try it by myself.” I left her for fifteen minutes; she couldn’t do it. I still waited. I did not push myself into her vicinity, into her area. 

JL: [acknowledging] Ok.

LE: I let her be and finally she said, “Ms Emmanuel, I need help.” She’s only in Primary Two. Finally, I went to her and we went through. And because she has difficulty in learning, I couldn’t push her too much, so I helped her along. If sometimes there are answers and she doesn’t get it, I help her along and I actually praise her, giving her the credit of getting the answer right. 

JL: [with understanding] Positive reinforcement.

LE: And after that, one important thing, she said, “Ms Emmanuel, I need personal space… I need space.” I was teaching close to her and she said, “I need space.” [emphatically] That is a known non-academic need. 

JL: Oh really? Wow.

LE: Because her parents are very strict with her. So I said, “Yes, I’ll give you the space.” I moved out of her vicinity, and she wrote the answers all correctly.

JL: [amazed] I see.

LE: Even though I thought she didn’t get all of it, but she did. Sometimes, it’s not just academic needs, sometimes there are other needs. I’m very pleased this child has improved a lot, even to the point of voicing non-academic needs.

JL: That’s fantastic. [shaking head] In fact, that shows how much thought goes into…

LE: [finishing sentence] …studying and teaching!

JL: Yes, exactly, right?

LE: And it’s not just academic. You’ve got to be very observant. You’ve really got to be very observant.

JL: [deep in thought] Exactly.

LE: For Academia’s Foundation classes, we have two weeks where we work on the same theme. This is very good – do you know why? Because there is reinforcement. For the first week, we cover a lot of grammar, vocab, or tenses. All centres do test this, but what is special is that we have two weeks, and there is reinforcement of the vocabulary bank, of the theme. In the first week we do comprehension, where the kid understands what the vocabulary, the tenses and synonyms are, and in the second week, we reinforce it in composition.

JL: Yes, that’s right.

LE: And all the vocabulary will be included. There are also phrases which are explained. And because they’re in Foundation, we also have students who are very weak. We also have K2 students.

JL: Yes, we do, [laughs] and in fact you’re coming up with a Pre-Primary programme, right?

LE: [agreeing] Yes, we are. We do actually modify our curriculum for the weaker students. Now, what I do is this. I actually write out part of the phrases and leave out some blanks, and they fill in the blanks. After that, the important part is to do the Draft Two corrections for these kids first. Even though they have not done a whole composition by themselves, when they actually do the Draft Two, they absorb the structure. When kids hear these speakers, when they speak, children absorb the structure; when they read, they absorb the structure, and they would learn some, if not all of the vocabulary.

JL: I see, I see. [pleased] You know, when I talk to you, I know so much thought and preparation has gone into designing the curriculum, and thinking about how to manage the class. Any final things you want to say about Foundation students?

LE: I’ve taught the Level Ones as well. I think they are also quite good. But for the Foundation students, you need to be very, very observant, because they’re very young. And it’s not just academic needs, but really any other needs they have. At a very young age, children are not able to voice out. And so, as parents, you also have one-to-one interactions. You’re in a better situation to actually observe your child, what they need. It’s not just academic; all their needs and studies, as well as growth.

JL: You know, it’s not easy to be a parent but luckily, they have you! [laughs]

LE: [laughs along] I’m glad, I’m really glad to help them out.

JL: And we’re really glad that you’re here at Academia.

LE: I’m glad to be here.

JL: Thanks so much, Emmanuel. 

LE: Thank you, Johann.