Answered Question


I’ve been wanting to share this for two days but I still can’t get over watching and reading things about the hard-to-believe, it-could-only-happen-in-the-twilight-zone inauguration but the unthinkable happened and there is no turning back.

Anyway, some days ago, I posted a question online and got a substantial and very insightful answer from Dr. Randy Kulman, founder of LearningWorks for Kids. They have made it their mission to maximize the potential that video games and technology offer in improving children’s thinking skills.

Here’s my question followed by Dr. Kulman’s advice:

I’m homeschooling my two sons (ages 7 and 4) and started by using workbooks and abandoned it quickly because it was too frustrating for all of us.  We’ve been using online programs instead but it seems to be good only at the start and then it gets boring.  We started with Time4Learning and then quit after a few months.  We’re now using Splash Math and IXL which seem better.  Teach Your Monster to Read is great but is wearing out its novelty.  Getepic is so far the greatest online resource that is never tiring for us and is such a joy to use. However, I’m the one reading to them all the time.  I’d like to find a game that will challenge and motivate my kids to learn to read in a fun way — sort of like Teach Your Monster to Read but more creative and less redundant.  When it comes to reading sentences in that game, I have to come in and help my boys.   I would truly appreciate any advice.

Your question is compelling because you’re not only asking how to build your sons’ reading skills, you’re looking for a way to make the process enjoyable for them. Helping your children learn to read is one of the most important tasks you will undertake as their teacher. Helping them love to read is one of the greatest gifts you can give them as a parent. If your kids can learn to enjoy reading, they are far more likely to become critical thinkers and self-led learners.

We are in agreement that a program that is too advanced for them, which requires you to come and basically do their work, isn’t effective. However, as you already know, your involvement — moral support, guidance, leading reflections — is paramount to their success.

Out of the many tools we’ve reviewed at LW4K, my favorite are interactive electronic books. While some of these books may be a bit advanced for your four-year-old, your seven-year-old is likely to be able to enjoy them and learn from them as he practices his reading. The Crack the Books series, which includes the interactive Earth Science textbooks Seashores to Sea Floors and Pines to Vines, is a wonderful set of tools to engage a child in reading and get them interested in the world around them. Designed primarily for elementary school students, Crack the Books apps offer different levels of reading difficulty, allowing children in grades 1 through 8 to enjoy the texts without changing the nature of the core curriculum. There are many other publishers of interactive e-books that might also be helpful for you, such as Ocean House Media and Capstone Publishing.

Another great tool for kids who are learning to read on their own is’s Whispersync.  Whispersync is a service that allows a Kindle user to listen to an audio version of the book while reading along as the words are highlighted in the text. While I do not recommend Whispersync for beginning readers, it can be very helpful for children who already have basic reading skills. Not only can it help them gain reading fluency, it can build their vocabulary by introducing them to new words and helping them with pronunciation. By making reading a less frustrating experience, Whispersync can help kids learn to love books.

I have my parents to thank for instilling a love of reading and learning in me. I can think of very few pleasures greater than sitting down with a great book. I encourage you to continue to look for engaging tools and technologies that will help your kids love to read. Let us know what you find and what works.

I asked our editor, Leah Watkins, for her suggestions. Here’s what she said:

Of course you know that kids will focus and stick with reading if it’s fun. You might try LeapFrog’s LeapReader, which has stories starring characters from Disney, Pixar, and Nickelodeon. The Sprout, PBS Kids, and Scholastic websites are also excellent resources, offering games and listen-and-read activities that feature books and TV shows like The Magic School Bus, Arthur, Dot and Caillou.

But if you had success with Teach Your Monster to Read, I really think you should check out StoryBots, a multi-platform edutainment system with a focus on phonics and reading. Created for kids 3-8 years old, its apps, books, videos, and games have gotten so popular in recent months that it’s now a Netflix Original animated series.

Drunk with the Joy of Everything


“Shui, shui, shui, shui, shui, shui!” (sounds like ‘sway’ but with a ‘sh’shway)  The men shout six times and down their bai jiu (Chinese alcohol).

“Water, water, water, water, water, water!” what it sounds like to my limited Mandarin ears but in the Dai minority dialect, it means, “Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, drink!”

The revelers also greet each other, “Yang yang hao!”  To me it sounds like good goat or good itch but correctly deciphered it means, “Everything good!”

“You’re about to lose your job!”

“Everything good!”

“Your marriage is in shambles!”

“Everything good!”

“I don’t know what the heck I’m doing!”

“Everything good!”

“I don’t know what the future holds!”

“Everything good!”

It’s good to get drunk now and then and be swept away to another frame of mind by 50% homemade village alcohol tinted bamboo green.

My friend in the Philippines was telling me a story of a very rich man’s mansion that they visited which had it’s own man-made or man-added-sand beach, lighthouse and hectares and hectares of manicured grass. The house had more than twenty rooms but the guests weren’t offered much to eat.  I told my friend what a contrast to the simple mountain villages we visited where guests were treated with a feast.  Everything eaten in China is equivalent to a feast elsewhere but that is how Chinese people eat — with more dishes than usual for other nationalities.  It was no different in Xiao Lu’s village where we had a pre-Spring Festival celebration.  Each household killed a pig and prepared a variety of dishes with fresh pork and vegetables from their garden.

Tomorrow, we fly back to Manila.  I will surely miss Jinghong especially my favorite room, my favorite office, the one with the sweeping view of the mountains and enough space for my clutter.  Plus, in our xiao qu, it’s relatively easy for Jimmy to find a playmate in the sandpit.




Wonder Woe



Pat Farenga said that unschooling is an approach that allows “children as much freedom to learn in the world as their parents can comfortably bear.”  Parents have varying degrees of “letting go” and “holding on” to certain aspects of the wide education spectrum.  Couples themselves have different comfort levels, expectations and requirements that may be in conflict with one another so they have to work at untangling knots.

There are many things that frustrate me about our homeschooling and when I read books and articles, most of the stories are happy, over-the-hump type of experiences that are hard to relate to.  The kids have found what they’re interested naturally and their parents have hit their homeschooling stride.  I’m not there yet and far from feeling comfortable in this skin.  I scour online for a consultant and found Amy Milstein’s Unschooling NYC website.  We arrange a Skype meeting where Amy assures me that everyone goes through hoops and hurdles, doubts and frustrations but these things are not as talked about or highlighted as the uplifting anecdotes.

After going through a checklist of issues that hung around my neck like a millstone for weeks and months, I realized almost all except one were non-issues.  My load was lightened considerably but days after our conversation, the doubts slowly creep back in, so I’m summarizing them in a table as a reminder.


Nowadays, when I’m deeply dissatisfied with our homeschooling sessions or something displeases me, I threaten the kids hoping my husband would listen as I half-scream, “I’m putting you in school” or “That’s why I want you guys to go school.  We can’t go on this way!”

I’m also not comfortable homeschooling in a country where there are not too many homeschoolers.  If we were in the Philippines or America, for example, it would be easy to network, arrange playdates, even form a homeschooling co-op.  I would also gladly continue homeschooling if I could get some tutors, if there were other kids we can share study and play time with and if there were more resources all around.   However, there is this ideal situation in mind not reflected in reality and we have to work with what’s there.  How can limitations be transcended?I wish we lived in a country where there was a Sudbury School or a progressive school and we can send our kids there.  I wish my husband and I agreed more on what to do about their education but it seems we are not united.  He is adamant we continue homeschooling but I would rather they try out some formal schooling (China, Philippines or elsewhere) and then decide which method we all want as a family.  I’m not comfortable imposing our choice of homeschooling because our kids, except for kindergarten, have not tried school.

I wish Philippines was an option because schooling there is not as rigid as the Chinese system plus there are a lot of homeschoolers.  But there is too much baggage there for us that may be detrimental to our family in the long run.

The frustration is eating away at me from the inside.  I wish a viable third way presents itself.

Our friends from Chengdu happen to be visiting us now in Jinghong -– a couple with their 5 year old daughter.  They are contemplating moving to Xishuangbanna since the pollution has caught up with Chengdu.  They too love the outdoors and dream of immigrating to New Zealand someday.

This morning, their daughter, Xiaomi, joined Joshua and Jimmy during our regular English lessons and the boys stepped up their performance eager to show-off.  Since I started this homeschooling journey, I’ve been pleased with the tweaks I’ve made in our program.  I’ve cut away unsuccessful bits, replacing them with better portions but am generally unhappy because there are things I’d like to do but am unable because my husband disagrees.  On the other hand, my husband must be saying to himself, “Why can’t this woman ever stop worrying?”  And inside my head, I’d say, “Why can’t he just let me be in-charge of the education aspect?”  Our lack of communication is compensated by the arrival of our friends.

My friend, Jenny and I talked about a plan that’s like a homeschool co-op.  I can teach our combined kids on Mondays and Wednesdays while she can handle Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I’d be responsible for English and she would be for Chinese.  On Friday, we can get a tutor to get fresh and more professional input.   Ideally, we’d love to find other parents who want to homeschool their kids and then we could rotate and be in-charge of one day a week each.  But where do we find those families in Jinghong?   Most of the foreigners who are homeschooling already have their set routines and they do everything in English.  The Chinese kids’ level of English would be too low to join English homeschoolers so the ideal would be a co-op among Chinese families.  But, again, how do we find those families?  Perhaps, they are thinking of immigrating also.  Perhaps, I haven’t exhausted all means, have barely scratched the surface and then suddenly it’s time for us to fly back to Manila in two days.

When we go back to Xishuangbanna after our big American road trip, perhaps a more palatable option will emerge.




Riverside Favorite


In Jinghong, there is a part of the Mekong River that we always love to go to but that’s being renovated now.  There’s a convenient swimming pool and water park that’s now demolished so it’s good that we went there as much as we could before the wrecking ball came.  There’s a part where people flew remote-controlled airplanes that’s now boarded up.  So we ventured into another part of the river and were pleasantly surprised that it’s even more idyllic than our former favorite.  Big stones to sit on and ponder, grass to lie on and slumber and the perfect bike path that becomes a boardwalk on another side where bikes are not allowed but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying a perfect afternoon.



Which Pitch Do You Like Better?


Dear family and friends, I’m embarking on a crowdfunding campaign to support the seminar-workshop on self-directed education we are holding on July 29, 2017 with Yaacov Hecht and Simon Robinson.  I wrote two versions of the pitch — one that gives a brief backstory and another that goes straight to the point.  Which one do you think is better?

One friend prefers the first one because it could build connection between the readers and writer while the second one’s no-frills, direct pitch might be good for a cover page.

Here is the long version:

The Future of Self-Directed Education in the Philippines

Having lived in China for more than eight years, I saw the problems of the educational system from horror stories told by my university students.  After seeing the worrying effects on students’ lives and attitudes, I feared the prospect of my own children languishing in the system.  I was determined not to let the fire in my children’s eyes go out.  However, it’s not only the Chinese system where this lamentable phenomenon is happening.  In many countries, the stifling effects of schooling are felt, some recognized but not arrested fast enough to save minds from the cookie-cutter, factory assembly lines of irrelevant curriculum.

My anxiety about traditional education transformed into an eager curiosity to investigate alternative forms of education such as Waldorf, democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling and Finland’s much-hailed system.  In July 2016, I attended the Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) where I met Yaacov Hecht who sparked a crazy dream in me and my Chinese friends that China and the Philippines would someday host the APDEC and have their own democratic school.

As the first step of many, we have invited Yaacov Hecht from Israel and Simon Robinson from the U.K. to talk about self-directed and democratic education in Manila on July 29, 2017.  Yaacov will be a speaker at the APDEC in August in Tokyo while Simon teaches at the Okinawa Sudbury School, thus Manila is conveniently nearby.

Yaacov founded the first democratic school in Israel and helped establish a network of democratic schools at a national and international level.  Simon is interested in developing a school culture that celebrates free play and creativity, which are some of the highest expressions of the human spirit.  In their seminar-workshop in Manila, they will share their experiences as well as explore the possibilities of self-directed learning and democratic education in the Philippines.  Through this, we hope to find other champions and supporters and build momentum for this movement in the country.

Here is the short version:

The Future of Self-Directed Education in the Philippines

We’d like to hold a talk about self-directed and democratic education in Manila on July 29, 2017 with Yaacov Hecht and Simon Robinson as speakers.  Yaacov founded the first democratic school in Israel and helped establish a network of democratic schools at a national and international level.  A teacher at the Okinawa Sudbury School in Japan, Simon is interested in developing a school culture that celebrates free play and creativity, which are some of the highest expressions of the human spirit.  In their seminar-workshop in Manila, they will share their experiences as well as explore the possibilities of self-directed learning and democratic education in the Philippines.  Through this, we hope to find other champions and supporters and build momentum for this movement in the country.

After researching and considering various platforms like Indiegogo (can’t use if you’re not from the US and certain countries), Go Get Funding, Cause, Go Fund Me and Razoo, I’m leaning towards Causevox.   Exciting times!




Hidden Mickeys at 1:38



How many millions of blogs are there in the world?  Are the bloggers all seeking a sizable audience or is it enough that whatever is inside their mind gets posted?  I always think of an audience of one – one person reading every word that spills out of the keyboard attached to my fingertips attached to my arms attached to my body attached to my soul.  This finding expression, this compulsion, this habit that rules the being – what is this digging for but to know ourselves in ways that put us in touch with our personal, multiple truths?

I wrote the first one and a half lines of the verses below at 1:38 am and continued the next day sitting on a hammock-chair hanging from wooden posts on an unoccupied corner store in the middle of an area not yet besieged by tourists because it was morning in a place too manufactured for comfort.  But hey, it’s people’s source of living around here so even if I cringe at the fakeness of the environment, it is still woven into the local community.

Something is teaching me to listen because too often, I have ignored it.  It’s acknowledging a voice that wants to speak for no particular reason but to be heard by no one in particular but itself plus that audience of one.  It wants to create a quiet, safe place where it can burrow and never leave my side.

But what about the incessant noise the sum of all bloggers including this one creates?   The online hum of navel gazing, blah blah-ing reaching the pinnacle equivalence of a fart.



Coy Mistress

Oh the lies you tell to get things done
Oh the lies you tell yourself to make things acceptable
Oh the lies you fabricate until they become the truth
Oh the truth you want to hide from with piled up lies
Oh the truth, the truth, what is it but lies that have become something else but themselves
Oh the truth is a coy mistress that wants to be sought for who she is, not what she represents
Truth is a cradle that lulls you to sleep
Lies are there to wake you up
Truth makes you proud
Lies keep you humble
Or is it the other way around
Around and around two sides of one coin
Keeping us up at night
Keeping us on our toes
Whirling dervishes where the roulette wheel
Stops, that’s where you hop off
Wait for the next ride but failing that
Make a raft out to sea
Row into a dock that serves your purpose
With more truth than you can ever imagine you can swallow.


Handholding Across the World


Most women merely want to vent and have a sounding board for their rants and issues.  Victoria wrote about her doubts and challenges about homeschooling, posted them on the Worldschoolers Facebook page and got a number of encouraging advice.  Her story resonated with many others who were either going through or went through the similar situation of not knowing whether what you’re doing is right or best for your children.  Mothers wrack their brains, sometimes unnecessarily so, needing to chill out more like the dads who seem too together, too relaxed, too not overwrought.  No pressure because one half of the partnership in stress is already one too many.  Of course, that may be an oversimplification or an unfair generalization but you know what I mean.

I’ve been feeling so many doubts myself about this whole homeschooling/ unschooling/ worldschooling thing that I appreciate truly the kind, listening ear.  I set up a Skype date with our teacher-advisor at the Global Homeschool, our provider in the Philippines and poured out the worries bugging my brain and in the end, it was a relief to be talked out of panic mode, to remember to laugh and enjoy, to let go of what doesn’t work in favor of something lighter.

Today I took Joshua and Jimmy to the big indoor playground in the supermarket.  I’d like to imagine it’s my weird version of the Sudbury School here in China.  The kids are free to run around and choose what they want to do amidst an age-varied group.   It’s frustrating doing all this research work on alternative education and I don’t have access to any — except what we can create on our own.  If we lived in the United States, imagine the wealth of choices!  Sigh.  Wishful thinking.  Envy.

Sudbury school is a type of school, usually for the K-12 age range, where students have complete responsibility for their own education, and the school is run by direct democracy in which students and staff are equals.[1] Students individually decide what to do with their time, and tend to learn as a by-product of ordinary experience rather than through coursework. There is no predetermined educational syllabus, prescriptive curriculum or standardized instruction. This is a form of democratic educationDaniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the original Sudbury Model school, writes that the two things that distinguish a Sudbury Model school are that everyone – adults and children – are treated equally and that there is no authority other than that granted by the consent of the governed.[2]

While each Sudbury Model school operates independently and determines their own policies and procedures, they share a common culture.[3] The intended culture within a Sudbury school has been described with such words as freedom, trust, respect, responsibility and democracy.

— from Wikipedia

Tonight, Joshua spilled out a revelation quite surprising to me that it’s not his dream to travel around the world.  My husband went inside the room and said it was Daddy and Mommy’s dream.  I told him, maybe after our trip to America he’ll think differently.  And even if he felt the same, that I’d still be here to listen to his dreams and we’ll work out a way and support each other through those dreams as a family even if others in the family had different dreams.  I, too am rethinking this dream drive around the world.  Like my son, Joshua, I also want to be more settled in one place, but I also want to travel.  Perhaps this American road trip will be the longest stretch (four months) we will do and then after that we’ll settle in one place and travel only for a month or so max at a time.  So it’s still going around the world but in segments.  There’s also way of worldschooling that can be done locally by doing mini discovery trips, welcoming travelers, opening eyes to culture and pushing the creativity envelope.

There was a worldschooling Mom who railed about her child who just wanted to play on the computer the whole day and wasn’t interested in traveling and there she was planning trips left and right with aplomb.  The advice she got from others gently reassured her to get on the road with her child and gradually, there would be changes.

Dreams are tricky when you’re in a family and they don’t match up or they are in conflict.  But there’s also a way of threshing out differences so conflicts turn into something that complement each other.  How?  Sheer perseverance and by being sensitive to all members of the family – the parents and the children, the adult and the young, according equal respect to each and every one.