Billy's Blog

Make time to read - or hear - a good book

April 18, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”

With this sentence, I began to read aloud Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” to the 9th graders last week. I explained to them that my first exposure to this frightening tale came when I was an eight- or nine-year-old at summer camp and a  counselor read it to us before we crawled into our bunks to go to sleep. Perhaps the counselor thought we would be more inclined toward literature if he read a classic horror tale instead of telling us a common ghost story. Whatever the reason, I didn’t sleep well for the rest of that camp session, and this tale has held a special place in my heart ever since.

The freshmen in Ms. Bray’s English class may have thought that they were beyond being read to. However, as the increase in audio book sales demonstrate, people are just as hungry today to listen to books as they are to read them. While the physical and e-book markets have remained flat, or even decreased according to some counts, the audiobook sector increased by 32 percent in 2018. One study showed that seventy-three percent of audiobook listeners heard the book on their phone.  Whether people are listening to audiobooks while shopping, working out, walking,or doing chores, sales are up, and more people are listening to more books than ever before.

Over the span of history people were listening to stories long before they were reading them. In this day and age, though, we have lost the aural nature of stories, and audiobooks are one way to restore the art of oral storytelling.  As a voracious reader for almost all of my life, I consider myself fortunate to have rediscovered audio books in the past decade. For example, I cannot imagine how reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential”, Brené’ Brown’s “Dare To Lead,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” could be as powerful as listening to the authors reading them.  These audiobooks made me think, laugh, cringe, and yes at times, they brought me to tears.

As with just about any topic these days, there’s quite a debate on the merits of listening to books versus reading them.  Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last year called “Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?” According to Willingham,  “research shows that adults get nearly identical scores on a reading test if they listen to the passages instead of reading them.” Nevertheless, as he also explains, there are differences in some cases between reading and listening: for example, we can sometimes interpret a text more effectively when we hear it versus reading it, particularly if it contains nuance or ambiguity. On the other hand, reading a piece of science prose or technical language may be more comprehensible than listening to it, particular as one re-reads to ensure understanding. Perhaps, reading and listening to different types of texts may be the most effective rule of thumb.

However, there is no argument that reading aloud to children, particularly at a young age, can be foundational. We have known for years that reading to children helps with language acquisition and bonding between the child and the reader. Reading aloud also guides children toward understanding patterns of language and increases vocabulary. According to “Why Reading Aloud to Kids Helps Them Thrive” from the PBS Blog, “brain scans show that hearing stories strengthens the part of the brain associated with visual imagery, story comprehension, and word meaning. One study found that kindergarten children who were read to at least three times a week had a ‘significantly greater phonemic awareness than did children who were read to less often.’”

In addition, reading has been shown to benefit children in the affective arenas. Children who are read to are more prone toward empathy, more patient, and more able to delay gratification.  The “Why Reading Aloud...” blog offers helpful suggestions on how to read to children effectively with tips like starting early, reading often, and stopping periodically to check for understanding and discussing what was read.  

So, where does this leave us? To give our children the greatest chance for success, we should begin reading to them as soon as possible, and we should make it a daily habit. There are few other things we can do for our children that will have the same impact. In addition, we need not stop reading to them once they can do it for themselves. Reading to our children at any age offers parents and children an opportunity to share a story, and it teaches them that words are meant to be heard as well as seen.  

Please allow me to close with a quotation from writer Neil Gaiman:

“We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.”


Arts are fundamental to a strong education

April 11, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

...Technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.
--Steve Jobs

As the twenty-one Keystone students boarded the bus for the drive to Austin, I felt both envy and excitement for them. For the first time in school history, we were sending students out of town to the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS) Arts Festival where they would immerse themselves in three days of performances, workshops, gallery walks, and spontaneous outbursts of creativity. Having attended previous arts festivals in Austin and Dallas, I knew what they were in for; in the next seventy two hours, they would gather with approximately five thousand of their peers from across the Southwest to learn from one another and appreciate each other’s work. The ISAS Arts Festival feels like a cross between the movie and television show “Fame” and summer camp, and our Cobras were going to experience this creative energy for themselves.

All too often in the past, educators and schools have approached the arts as if they exist at the opposite end of a spectrum from the sciences with one pole representing linear and regimented thought and the other pole standing for fluid and divergent thinking. However, at least since the Renaissance, we have known that this dichotomy is false. We need only study the works of Leonardo Da Vinci to see that the arts and the sciences are in fact inextricably linked. Producing art requires constant experimentation and creating science demands the continuous breaking of previous barriers and defying preconceptions. Naming the newest building on Keystone’s campus the Shadfan Science and Creativity Center represents an acknowledgement of the ties between scientific and innovative thinking.

In addition, more and more research supports the crucial role of the arts in children’s intellectual development. According to a 2011 Report by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) called Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools,

“The opportunity to learn about the arts and to perform as artists is an essential part of a well-rounded curriculum and complete education. The study of drama, dance, music, and the visual arts helps students explore realities, relationships, and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers. The ability to perform and create in the fine arts engenders innovative problem-solving skills that students can apply to other academic disciplines and provides experiences working as a team. Equally important, arts instruction supports success in other subjects. Visual arts instruction improves reading readiness, and learning to play a musical instrument or to master musical notation helps students to succeed in math. Reading, math, and writing require students to understand and use symbols –– and so does assembling shapes and colors in a portrait or using musical notes to learn fractions. Experiences in the arts are valuable on their own, but they also enliven learning of other subjects, making them indispensable for a complete education in the 21st Century. “

Many years ago, a colleague explained that the arts provide children, and adults for that matter, with multiple ways to both see and explain the world to themselves and others. Her argument was that art was like another language that shaped our view of the world and the way we explained it to others. Again and again, Keystone students from three-year-old preschoolers to seniors in high school demonstrate this understanding intuitively. They draw and paint images that redefine the world in front of us; they sing and play instruments that touch our hearts and heads. On the stage, our Cobras make us laugh one moment and hold our breaths in another. They create all of this art while excelling in science fair, math competitions, and writing competitions. They interpret data in scientific experiments and they reinterpret the world in their artwork. In both cases, they impress us and they inspire us to question and re-imagine our worlds.

Although the poet William Congreve opined in 1697 that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” we know that it can also do great good for younger students’ cognitive growth. Here again, according to the PCAH study, “Through the leadership of the Dana Foundation, which supports brain research, cognitive neuroscientists in seven universities have undertaken formal studies of the connections between arts training and academic performance using advanced techniques including brain imaging (Asbury & Rich, 2008). Increasingly, researchers are finding evidence that early arts education is a building block of developing brain function. Examples of findings, some of which corroborate earlier findings, include:

  • Music training is closely correlated with development of phonological awareness –– one of the most important predictors of early reading skills.
  • Children who were motivated to practice a specific art form developed improved attention and also improved general intelligence. Training of attention and focus leads to improvement in other cognitive domains.
  • Links have been found between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working memory and long-term memory."

Although one could argue that the inherent value of the arts requires no further justification, it does not hurt to know that they also strengthen students in a variety of other areas. Consequently, teaching students the arts is more than a “nice thing to do;” it’s integral to their developing cognitive abilities that benefit them holistically.

So, as we enter into a spring filled with concerts, displays, and performances, we can wish our students well (or encourage them to “break a leg”), we can support their artistic visions, and we can thank them for inspiring us. Their creative energies are helping us to see our world anew, and for that, we can all be appreciative.

Remember, the book is usually better than the movie

April 05, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  
--One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

“If you had a ranch, what would you name it?” my wife asked me as we roamed the Hill Country in search of Texas wildflowers. I thought for a moment and answered, “Macondo,” the name of the mythical country in Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I started the book late one Friday afternoon, read through the night instead of sleeping, and finished it the next morning. When my now wife and I began dating a couple of years later, I recommended “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and it quickly became one of our literary favorites.  

As you may have heard, there’s a storm brewing over Netflix’s plan to adapt this book into a series. There are some people who feel that bringing this beloved novel to the screen is long overdue: others believe that the structure of the book and the vividness of the imagery prevent any adaptation from being successful. There have been a number of articles in the press, including a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called “‘One Hundred Years of Solitude in the Time of Netflix.”  

While some of the issues for this novel may be exceptional due to its magical realist style of storytelling, the argument over whether or how to adapt a work of literature to the screen is nothing new. Think about how often people say, “well, the book was so much better!’  Whether it’s a childhood favorite like “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” or a popular romantic comedy like “Crazy Rich Asians,” people who have read the book hold their breath and hope that their favorite piece of literature won’t be ruined. They expect a movie to adhere slavishly to the book, and filmmakers beware the wrath of an irate reader who feels betrayed. I recall speaking with a seventh grader earlier this year when a book she loved, “The Hate You Give,” was being made into a movie. Fortunately, from her perspective, the movie did not deviate too far from the book; if it had, she would have been very disappointed.   

It can seem impossible to turn a novel with a great deal of interior dialogue into a movie that requires interpersonal conversation. The details available in a book might require the movie to go far beyond what audiences can endure. Breaking a one book thriller into a series of movies can deflate the propulsive momentum of the plot. Many years ago when he was little, our older son was so angry with one of the Harry Potter movies that he stood up during the closing credits, turned around to face the audience, and pleaded with everyone to please read the book so they could get the full story.  

This not to say that all translations are inadequate. While some may disagree, I would argue that “The Godfather” movie is every bit as good as the book; my eyes teared up just as much at the ending of the film “A River Runs Through It” as they did when I finished the book.  Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic “Henry V” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in a gang-infested post-modern city that feels like a cross between 1980s Miami and Los Angeles brought Shakespeare to new and younger audiences, and for that, we should be thankful.

My wife and I recently attended a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Trinity University. In the question and answer session, she described her joy in working with Daniel Day Lewis as he prepared for his Academy Award performance as Abraham Lincoln in the movie “Lincoln,’ part of which was based on Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” As much as we can hope that everyone would read this amazing book, we can take solace that Steven Spielberg’s movie introduced millions of people to a more accurate rendering of the sixteenth President than they had before. Similarly, not everyone will pick up Ron Chernow’s outstanding biography of Alexander Hamilton, but they will spend an evening watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony winning play.  

So, what do we tell our children when they hear that one of their most cherished stories will be coming to television or the silver screen and they have trepidation?  We explain that books and movies are in fact different media, their portrayal of a story or a character will differ, and that’s all right. We can appreciate each rendition of the tale on its own merits, and recognize that in every case, the medium will shape the message. Books and movies don’t have to be the same, and in reality, they should not attempt to be. We can also encourage our children to experience the story in the way it was first developed. If it was a book originally, they should read it first. If it’s a movie or series then turned into a book, they should watch it initially. Then they can look at someone else’s interpretation and judge the merits of the translation for themselves. If they approach stories in this way, they can enjoy the same tale many times over.


At Keystone, diversity is a source of strength

March 29, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

Could it really be that we were attending another interfaith vigil after yet another shooting in a house of worship? Three times in the past twelve months an armed gunman has violated a sanctuary, and ordinary individuals who were doing nothing more than reciting prayers were gunned down in acts of senseless violence. Last Saturday night, San Antonians of different religions joined together to console and support the city’s Muslim community in their time of fear and grief after the recent mass shooting in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand  While it was greatly reaffirming to witness this coming together, the reason for our gathering was still heartbreaking.

Despondency and pessimism would be understandable emotions in this case.  So, where do we go for hope and how do we help our children avoid an easy and comprehensible cynicism?  Fortunately, we have an example in front of of us every day at Keystone. As one of the most diverse independent schools in the state of Texas, Keystone represents the amazing things that can occur when people of different belief systems come together in a common endeavor - to challenge and support boys and girls as they grow cognitively and affectively. I am continually impressed by the way students at Keystone from a variety of backgrounds cross lines of ethnicity, class, and religion to learn from each other, to revel in each other’s accomplishments, to support one another in difficult times, and to laugh with one another. It’s not that they don’t see differences; they celebrate their individuality while affirming the commonalities that bind them together.

All too often, we observe institutions that are either diverse or inclusive, but not both. My wife, children, and I spent many a sweltering afternoon at our local public swimming pool in St. Louis. Demographically, it was approximately 50 percent white and 50 percent African-American; however, there may as well been an iron curtain down the middle of the pool since each side was one hundred percent one race or the other. Concomitantly, it’s simple for places to be harmonious when they’re homogeneous. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “it’s appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”  

The trick and the beauty of schools like Keystone, and they’re not many, is the way it’s both diverse and inclusive. Just spend a few minutes in a classroom, on the playground, or in the lunchroom and witness the beautiful and heart-warming variety. Thanks to the vision of the Keystone Board of Trustees, the decision to offer financial assistance to qualified and deserving youngsters in the Lower School will make our community even more socio-economically diverse. As more and more schools across the United States return to levels of segregation not seen since 1954’s landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, we can take heart that Keystone is making an effort to have an increasing level of heterogeneity.  

However, unlike that pool in St. Louis, we need to maintain the beautiful inclusivity that characterizes Keystone today. In the classroom, our Cobras can learn with each other and from one another, and they can figure out how to disagree in a civil and respectful manner. They can elevate each other rather than bring one another down. In their academic work, they can see that a rising tide does in fact float all boats, and they are stronger individually when they strengthen each other collectively. Whether it’s in the theater, on the fields of play, or other extracurricular activities, students have an opportunity to move beyond their apparent differences and truly get to know one another for the wonderful human beings they are.  

So, as we move forward in these turbulent and periodically violent times, we need to remind ourselves that there are examples like the children at Keystone who can provide us with hope and solace. As the adults in their lives, we can watch and teach them with a sense of gratitude and pride.

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