Billy's Blog

Archives - December 2018

Sixth-grade advice offers lessons for us all

December 21, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're doing something.  
--Neil Gaiman

Winter Break has always felt a little strange to me.  Don’t get me wrong-I love the holidays as much as the next person, and a vacation is always a good thing.  Nevertheless, the notion that we leave during one calendar year and we return during another has seemed a little surreal.  It feels somewhat bizarre to say, “See you next year!’ in the middle of an academic year, but that’s the way it is, so let’s enjoy it.

As we know, one of the traditions at this time of year is to make our New Year’s resolution.  Like the author Neil Gaiman above, there are many, many people giving advice on what we should do, how we should live in the upcoming year, and what self-improvement plan we will embark upon in the next twelve months. In early January, the gym is more crowded, a little less sugar is consumed, and we stack those books on our nightstand that we meant to read in the past twelve months. We commence the year with the best of intentions, and sometimes, we change our habits for the better-at least for a while.

I thought about our desire to improve while reading the advice dispensed by Ms. Sarah Rardon’s 6th grade advisory.  Her students wrote guidelines for life in an ABC format, so every letter had an associated rule to live by. This kind of lesson fits in perfectly with Keystone’s commitment to teaching ethical growth as a core value, and students benefited by creating their own list and seeing what others developed. However, as you may imagine, there was also plenty of humor.  For example, some students stated for the letter “O” that “operas are loud and high pitched,” for V” that “vacation is always great,” and for “Y” one should “yawn, but don’t get in trouble.”

Beyond the humor, though, there was some excellent advice for us to consider in our preparing for the new year.  Here’s a list of some of their tips:

Become someone better

Do not get discouraged by little things

Every day is a new opportunity

Every day, wake up with a smile on your face

Fight for your rights

Find friends that make you feel confident

Forget the bad things other people say

Going to lunch study hall is always a good idea

Good times don’t last so cherish them

Goofy days can make you happy

Help people to fill their bucket

Help your mom

Hope is the best thing to have in times of stress

Joke around and have a good time

Just don’t quit

Keep your soul in balance

Knowledge is a powerful thing

Listen to your Mom and Dad

Laugh a lot, you will live longer

Mistakes help you learn

Money can’t buy happiness

Music gives life to your soul-never give it up

No one can tell you that you aren’t good enough

Optimism is good

Race or gender should not be joked about

Ranting is annoying

Reading is nice

Some people want to drag you down; don’t let them succeed

Very kind people should not be taken for granted

Youth must be cherished

Bear in mind that the advice above, which is good for a lifetime, came from 6th graders!  If there ever was a case of “out of the mouth of babes,” comes great wisdom, here it is. There are riches here for us adults to consider, and if we heed the advice of these young women and men, we will be well situated.  And what could be better for us parents to hear than one of our youth advising their peers to “Listen to your Mom and Dad” or “Help Your Mom!”

Lest you think that these wise young men and women were focused on lofty ideals only, please bear in mind that they also provided sage council on culinary matters.  While the veracity of some of their advice may be open to question, their joy in food is beyond a doubt. Here are some of their points to remember:

Beans are good for protein

Chocolate chip cookies are good for you

Eat cookies

Ice cream helps your life

Keep pizza rolls in your pocket

Never eat soggy waffles

Peanut butter is delicious

Pickles taste good

As we prepare to head out for the holidays and the winter break, I want to wish you time with friends and family, and holidays that are both joyful and meaningful.  Consider the tips from our students when making your resolutions for next year, and if you hesitate when taking another sweet morsel from the sweets table, just remember what our bright and motivated Cobras said, “chocolate chip cookies are good for you.”  Happy Holidays! I look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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.

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