Billy's Blog

Think twice before multitasking

December 14, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”
-Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

As I write the next sentence, I realize that I may need to do some explaining here.  Among the many places that I find valuable information at Keystone are the fliers posted on the restroom walls. Thanks to the excellent work of our Upper School Wellness Council, I often see tips for studying or for living a healthy and balanced life.  Whether the suggestions are designed to help adolescents sleep better, eat more healthily, or get some exercise, the postings provide good and helpful ideas.

The information offered last week for how to control one’s study habits were no exception to this rule.  Although there were tips for nutritious snacks, noise reduction, and decluttering one’s room, perhaps one of the most beneficial recommendations was to “Set your phone to silent,” or better yet, “hide it in a drawer.”  As the poster said, “just receiving a notification can impair attention, reports the Journal of Experimental Psychology.”   Thank you, thank you to the Wellness Council members for pointing out what we may all know but choose to ignore.  

For years as a society, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can multitask and be productive.  As noted writer Susan Cain says in her important book, “Quiet,”, multitasking actually reduces, rather than increases, our productivity.  We may not like this fact, but we ignore it at our own peril.

A recent article in the New York Times called “Hide Your Phone When You’re Trying To Work. Seriously” by Tim Herrera presents research on the deleterious impact of having a phone by one’s side when trying to do something else.  As Herrera points out, “A 2017 study in The Journal of the Association of Consumer Research found that the mere presence of your phone — even if it’s powered off, and even if you’re actively and successfully ignoring it — “reduces available cognitive capacity,” which the study’s authors call “brain drain.” That’s right, even if our phone is turned off, it still demands that we pay attention to it, and thus reduces our ability to perform whatever task we’re supposed to be doing.  

The article goes on to explain the myriad ways that a phone in close proximity forces us to work even harder to focus in order so we can resist the siren’s song of our devices.  Part of the problem is that we have come to rely on our phones in so many ways that it is hard to put them away. Speaking personally, my device holds my calendar, my books, my notes, my audiobooks, my podcasts, my music, my email, some of my news sources, my weather forecast, and many other apps; and oh yeah, it’s my phone.  So, putting it out of sight is really the only way I can put it out of mind.

So, why am I discussing this topic in this week’s blog?  Next week, Keystone middle and upper school students will sit for their end-of-semester exams, and we all want them to do well.  Perhaps one way to aid them in their desire to succeed is to encourage them to put their phones in another room when they study and leave them there when they go to bed.  They will have plenty of time to check their social media or respond to texts during break. If they can learn to place their devices somewhere out of reach, they will focus better during their study time, they will retain more information, and they will be more effective on their exams.  In addition, they will sleep more soundly. We can help them, and ourselves, by putting our own phones away. Having the discipline to forego a short term gain for a longer term goal is a great habit in any area, and the results will pay off many times over. Let’s all help them learn this important life skill.


Movie and essay inspire thoughts on parenting

December 07, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

Marion McPherson: I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.
Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson: What if this is the best version?

My wife and I love movies, and enjoy our weekend afternoons seeing the latest documentaries or dramas at the theater. One of our favorite movies from last year and the film that included the dialogue above was Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award nominated “Lady Bird.” Yes, we relished the story and the acting, but perhaps it was the dialogue between the parents and their twelfth-grade daughter Lady Bird that captivated us. The conversations between parents and teens felt authentic and while we cringed at times to think we may have said something similar to our children, we enjoyed the movie and found it compelling and moving.

As with “Lady Bird,” a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal called “The Right Way for Parents to Question Their Teenagers” by Jennifer Breheny Wallace reminded me of the impact our words have on our children, including the way in which we ask them questions or respond to their queries. Sometimes, even the most innocuous comments may take on a greater meaning than we ever intended; concomitantly, our silences can speak more volumes than we may realize. While it can be tempting at times to throw up one’s hands and say “forget it” during a conversation with adolescents, it is imperative that we remain in dialogue with our teens. As Wallace says, “Teens who disclose their daily activities and inner feelings to a parent tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

As you might expect, how teens share their feelings can vary with age. “Older adolescents, ages 17-18, were quicker to make emotional disclosures in conversations where mothers were highly validating.” In these cases it could be that older teens “just want to know that their parents care;” this in of itself may be enough to stimulate dialogue.

At the other end of the teen spectrum, thirteen and fourteen year-olds “report being less likely to disclose personal information to their parents if they seemed preoccupied, distrusting, dismissive or prone to emotional outbursts.” However, when parents were calm, offered helpful advice, or discussed their own situations, adolescents were more willing to talk. It may be that putting the phone down and paying full attention could provide the starting point for a conversation.

In addition, we need to forego wanting to know too much too quickly. Sometimes, in our perfectly reasonable desire to know more about the lives of our children, we may present what can feel to them like twenty questions. We might have to just wait it out and for the information to come to us in dribs and drabs. What our children ultimately wish is to know that we are supportive, that we also sometimes face difficult situations, and that we are there for them.

This doesn’t mean we should practice an “anything thing goes” school of parenting. Teens want to know that their parents are fully engaged when the topic involves their “safety, morality, and social rules.” It is very destabilizing to teens when there are no boundaries and high expectations are absent. As much as they push back, teens want structure and predictability in their lives.

So, what are the lessons here? Perhaps one is to try and be present in our children’s lives and be available when they need us to listen and give advice when the issues are around their safety, ethical behavior, and how to interact with others. However, the trick may also be to not jump in too quickly or ask too many questions right away. Like so much else in parenting, there will be some trial and error, we will make mistakes, and all we can do is give our very best. However, if we commit to being in communication with our teens and engaging in ongoing dialogue, we will be on the way to helping them become successful young adults.

Grandfriends Day inspires gratitude

November 28, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other.”
-Randy Pausch

I love Grandfriends Day. At every school where I have been an educator, I have watched with admiration and joy as grandparents, older relatives, senior friends of the family, and children spend time together visiting classes, learning about the children’s school, and just being in the company of one another. Grandfriends Day at Keystone two weeks ago was an absolutely pleasure to to behold, particularly since so many grandfriends came from near and far to be there. The online Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word kvell as “to be extraordinarily proud or rejoice,” and even uses the following example to explain this concept -”proud grandparents who kvell over everything their precious little darlings do.” There was plenty of kvelling on Grandfriends Day, and many people expressed how grateful they were to be a part of it.

So, how do we take this mindset of gratitude we observed that day and is so prominent at this time of year and make it something that is always present? In the craziness of our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of the things for which we have to be grateful, and as parents and educators, we can forget to include teaching children how to be appreciative. Like other things in life that we want to make sure young people learn, we need to make time for teaching gratitude, and we should impress upon them that this is not something that you grow out of, or is just for when you’re young. Intentionality is the key in our helping our children learn these lessons.

Fortunately, there are people out there who have thought about teaching gratitude, so we can borrow their ideas and translate them to our families. A posting by Alexandra Eidens from November 16, 2017 on the Big Life Journal gives useful hints for ways to do this. She describes both a 7 Day Gratitude Challenge and 20 Ideas to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude in Children. Both might be helpful.

For example, the 7 Day Challenge, which even contains a kit with activities, games, and topics for discussion, can help make children more aware of simple things that they may take for granted. They can practice writing a thank you letter (yes, even in today’s world there is still a place for these), create a gratitude jar, or just go around at the dinner or breakfast table and describe something for which they are grateful. As with other routines like doing chores or working out, expressing gratitude can become habitual if it’s repeated and reinforced.

Eidens also lists twenty what may seem mundane or banal ways to engender a sense of gratitude. Some may feel so obvious that they may be overlooked; however, in hectic times, it is often the little things that are dropped and slowly deteriorate the ways in which people interact with one another. For decades now there have been studies on the slow decline in social capital in the United States and the increasing coarseness in our public life; perhaps one way to halt this degeneration is for us to pay more attention to the simple ways that we can improve our interactions with other people. Beyond teaching our children to say “please” and “thank you,” we can encourage them to compliment others, to maintain a gratitude journal, and to refocus envy into appreciation.

As we move into the holiday season, we can maximize this time of year to develop habits of gratitude that can then carry us through the rest of the year. Like other routines that become established after thirty days, we can practice a new daily gratitude habit into January 2019 that will then become a natural part of our daily lives. Eidens explains at the end of her piece, that gratefulness is a skill; it’s like reading, riding a bike, or playing a musical instrument. As the old joke goes, when a man was asked by a stranger in New York City how to get to Carnegie Hall, the correct answer is “practice, practice, practice.”

How do we inspire our children to participate in the political process?

November 14, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”
--Benjamin Franklin

Another round of midterm elections has come and gone, and regardless of how people feel about the results, one response may be a sense of relief that it’s over. Like other electoral contests this one contained mudslinging, negative campaigning, and vituperative language. Although this year’s elections may go down as the most expensive ever, there are other elements that might make it stand out historically. Sadly, when we look back at the 2018 midterms, we may remember the violence, whether it was by word or by deed, including pipe bombs, the shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the murder of two African-American men outside Louisville, KY.

So, in this age of uncivil debate and actual fear, how do we inspire our children to participate in the political process? I’ve been thinking, speaking, and writing about this topic for years, and just last week, I served on a panel at the ISAS Heads Conference in Dallas discussing how we make our schools into places of engaged and productive dialogue. Perhaps one place for us to start in teaching our children is to consider how we describe politics to them. Webster’s Online Dictionary defines politics as “the art and science of government.” In a democracy, we should encourage our children to get involved and participate in politics as both a duty and as an opportunity. We want our children to understand that service is a laudable calling, and rather than looking at it as something that is sullying, we should view it as ennobling.

The historian in me habitually looks to the past for guidance, and for a while, I have wondered if the 1850’s can serve as a historical analogue for our present. If so, there’s good news and bad news to consider, and there are interesting parallels. For example, are the sanctuary cities across the US today the modern day equivalent of the states in the Antebellum period that refused to enforce the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act? Is the growing political and geographical polarization now similar to the steadily increasing fracturing of the United States around the issue of slavery from 1820-61?

Historian and former Newsweek Magazine editor Jon Meacham reminds us in his newest book The Soul of America: The Battle For Our Better Natures, that we’ve been in a similar place before and we survived. Similarly, in her most recent book, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War, Yale History Professor and co-host of the Backstory podcast Joanne Freeman describes the manner in which Congress in the nineteenth century was an extremely violent institution, both verbally and physically. If history is any guide for us to go by, the good news is that we have weathered turbulent and tumultuous times before: the bad news is that it took a Civil War to reunite us. (I’m not saying that we’re headed toward a civil war, but it may behoove us to look at the nineteenth century as a cautionary tale.)

As parents and as educators, how do we help our children make sense of today’s political scene? We explain that people of good will can disagree without being disagreeable, and we should focus on the issues rather than the individuals. We help them see that we are facing many complex issues that defy easy answers, but part of living in a democracy is grappling with these topics. We teach them that it’s a right and a responsibility to be involved. We tell them that bigoted language is wrong. It’s wrong in our daily lives and it’s wrong in our politics. We help them understand that words have consequences, and that vitriolic and threatening language can in fact lead to violent and destructive behavior. We encourage them to be agents of change, but to realize that change is a long and slow process. As the nineteenth century abolitionist Theodore Parker said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We want them to be in it for the long game, and to realize that there will be fits and starts along the way.

As Benjamin Franklin exited Constitution Hall in 1787, he was purportedly asked by a group of Philadelphians whether the Constitutional Convention that just concluded had produced a republic or a monarchy. Franklin is said to have responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” We are privileged and obligated to teach our children that a democracy is like glass-it can be both fragile and resilient. If we want them to keep this republic, we need to help them learn how to do it and not take it for granted. Frederick Douglass once pledged to use “my pen, my voice, my vote” to fight for emancipation. If we can help our children learn how to use their pens to express their opinions, their voices to speak out on what is right, and their vote to make a difference, then we can rest assured that our democracy will be around for a long time.

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