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Archives - November 2018

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.

Alumna's remembrances remind us what makes Keystone special

November 07, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."
--Lou Gehrig


This is how I felt as I listened to Keystone alumna Nia Clements, Class of 2018, speak at our Admissions Open House a little more than week ago. After more than two decades of following student speakers, I insisted out of self-preservation that I precede Nia, and I was glad I did. My remarks paled next to hers, and like everyone else in attendance, I considered myself fortunate to just sit and listen to Nia’s reflections on her time at Keystone. Beyond the confident and self-assured manner in which she spoke were the inspiring thoughts she shared.

Introducing Nia was humbling enough as I recounted her impressive career. She has been researching cancer since she was in elementary school, she was a finalist in the Intel International Science Fair, she shared her research with Vice President Joe Biden and Bill Nye the Science Guy, she plays the violin, and she’s involved in two startup companies. Did I mention she’s a college freshman? Nia has packed more into fewer than twenty years than most people experience in a lifetime; however, one notices neither arrogance nor pretension when speaking with her.

Nia’s Open House remarks focused on the difference Keystone made in her life and seemed to fit into three themes:  

She explained that the academic preparation she received at 119 East Craig made her more than ready than to take on the rigors of college. Nia explained that the curriculum at Keystone is challenging, but over time she learned how to do high level labs, write excellent essays, solve complicated math problems, and perhaps most importantly for a first year college student, manage her time. While many college freshman may panic over the difference in workload from high school or the increase in demands, Nia said she felt more than ready.  

Perhaps, as Nia explained, her hitting the ground running was due in part to the relationships she had with teachers in lower, middle, and high school. Nia described the way she could go to the adults in her life for anything from extra help in a class to personal advice. She said that some teachers invited students to their house for dinner, and the relationship teachers had with students formed the perfect combination of support and challenge. Much more than merely classroom instructors, Nia’s teachers were mentors, guides, and coaches. As a result, Nia was able to pursue her passions in a variety of fields.

In addition to an excellent academic education and caring and devoted teachers, Nia cited the role of the community in her personal development.  A self-described “non-athlete,” Nia attributed her playing three sports to the encouraging Keystone community. Nia also described the way that she and her schoolmates were there for one another throughout high school and beyond. As a matter of fact, she explained, one of her classmates just that weekend was auditioning for a play on Broadway; Nia and all of her friends were on a group text sending their friend words of courage and uplift. Even though they were a thousand miles apart, the friends were there for one another and took pride in each other’s success.  

As an educator for almost thirty years, I listened to Nia with pride and I nodded my head in agreement. For as long as one can remember, educational leaders have attempted to figure how to make school work for children. We’ve tried new pedagogical approaches, we’ve created, and recreated, curricula, we’ve built large shopping mall style high schools and then broken them down into smaller entities. Perhaps in all of our looking for the magic elixir, we’ve missed the most common-sense answer to what helps students succeed: challenging and supporting them academically; surrounding them with adults who will inspire their minds and nurture their souls; and creating communities of compassion, love, and respect. This is what enables many students, including wonderful young adults like Nia, to be prepared for college and beyond, discover and pursue their passions, and connect with adults and peers in a way that takes them to an entirely new level. Those of of us fortunate enough to work in schools like Keystone see this on a regular basis, and we should never lose sight of how fortunate we are.


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