Billy's Blog

Archives - February 2019

Playing sports offers lessons, benefits that last a lifetime

February 25, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Sports build good habits, confidence, and discipline. They make players into community leaders and teach them how to strive for a goal, handle mistakes, and cherish growth opportunities.”
-- Julie Foudy

There are few things more enjoyable on a Friday night than watching a high school sporting event, which is not to say that other student activities are not also fun. When you pack a gym with raucous, albeit appropriate, student and adult fans, and the game comes down to the wire, the drama can feel incomparable.

Even though Keystone is celebrated for developing outstanding minds, we also help students hone their athletic skills, and they were in their best form a couple of weeks ago when the Keystone girls basketball team won in a state playoff game at our gym. It was wonderful to witness the exuberant student fans rushing the court as the final buzzer sounded. To our players, coaches, and fans, I say thank you. And to all of our student athletes, parents, and fans, thank you for providing us with so many thrilling moments and representing your school so well.

Among the many pleasures of working in schools is watching students compete in interscholastic athletics. Of course, one can find examples of poor behavior and appalling sportsmanship; and we’ve probably all seen the videos of parents attacking coaches or referees. In addition, we may have cringed at the adults who are yelling at children or screaming at officials. As a head of school for many years, I have had the unpleasant experience of being ordered by referees to escort parents out of the gym or tell a coach or player that they cannot compete in the upcoming contest because their outbursts embarrassed the school.

Nevertheless, there are countless anecdotes and many studies that support the benefits of playing sports in high school. (I would argue that many of these benefits also accrue to team managers, playing sports outside of school, or participating in musical or theater troupes.) According to the National Athletics Trainers Association, there are academic and lifetime advantages to participating in athletics. For example, students who play on a sports team typically earn higher grades and are more likely to attend college than those who don’t. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that they must use their time effectively; maybe it’s the same determination that allows a student to do well in academics can also be there in athletics. For whatever reason, students who play some kind of sport perform at a higher level across the board than those who abstain from participation.

The lifetime benefits of playing a sport are many. According to the trainers’ association website, scholar-athletes demonstrate more self-confidence, leadership, and self-respect, they set goals, they have a greater appreciation for diversity, and they embody a sense of morality. In addition, “Student athletes manifest stronger peer relationships, better attachment with adults, higher self-esteem, a closer sense of family, and participate more in volunteerism.” The self-esteem that comes from hard work and achieving results in partnership with others can manifest itself in students’ relationships with those not on the team.

It can also engender productive and long-lasting relationships with adult mentors. A Keystone parent recently told me that when her older child, who is a former Cobra, returns to school, the first place he goes is the gym so he can reconnect with his former coaches. While he had good relationships with his teachers, it’s the coaches he wishes to see right away since some of his foremost high school memories stemmed from competing for Keystone.

In addition, when students learn to play a sport, whether at school or someplace else, they come to understand that physical activity can reduce stress. This is one of the reasons that the ninth grade wellness curriculum at Keystone teaches a variety of physical activities like yoga, swing dancing, and ultimate frisbee. This understanding can serve them well the rest of their lives.

The self-discipline that playing a sport requires can transfer to other areas. In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s moving 2017 book “Coach Wooden and Me”, he describes the life lessons he learned from the longtime UCLA coach. Abdul-Jabbar said that part of the reason he ended up at UCLA was that when Coach Wooden met with his mother, he asked questions about his academic career and nothing about basketball. It meant a great deal to Abdul-Jabbar that Wooden wanted to know him as a young man and a student rather than merely as a ball player. Abdul-Jabbar also discussed how much time Wooden spent on teaching students the proper way to lace up their shoes: Wooden explained that from a pragmatic standpoint if a player didn’t tie his shoes correctly, his socks loosened, he developed blisters, and he couldn’t play. On a deeper level, Wooden wanted his student athletes to understand that excellence in anything begins by learning the basics, and without the fundamentals in basketball or math or a new language, a player or student cannot realize her potential.

Playing sports also provides paybacks, literally. Here again, according to the trainers’ association website, “People who played competitive sports in their youth tend to earn significantly higher incomes than those who did not. 82 PERCENT of female executives played organized sports after elementary school and 60 PERCENT of these women execs agreed with the statement that sports participation gave them “a competitive edge in the business world.” So, while the dollar value of playing sports may not be the primary rationale for doing so, it certainly helps to know that there are economic benefits.

As one might expect, there are physical health payoffs to playing sports. There is a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and possibly cancer. In conjunction with our programming from Freedom from Chemical Dependency last week, playing sports can reduce a teen’s drug use and cigarette smoking.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, as with any team activity, there is a collegiality and closeness among peers that results from playing sports. The sense of mutual dependence that comes from participating in a group activity binds students to one another and helps them learn that as John Dunne said, “no man is an island entire of itself.”

So, with all of the bad news that can sometimes taint our picture of sports, let’s remember all the life-long benefits and support our students in their extra-curricular activities, whether it’s on the court, the field, the theater, or the music pit. Go Cobras!

The benefits of boredom

February 21, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

Only the boring are bored.
If you’re bored, it must be because you’re boring.
Boredom is an insult to the gods.

Perhaps it’s not the best example of parenting, but when our children were younger we would cite one of the quotations above to the point that they would say “I know, I know” and repeat it back to us. My wife and I both believed that there is far too much to do in this world and way too many wonderful things to discover to be bored. So, our empathy toward their boredom was, to say it charitably, pretty minimal.

That’s why I was so excited to read New York Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul’s recent Op-Ed piece called “Let Children Get Bored Again.” I have listened to Paul’s podcast every weekend for years, and I have always appreciated her writing and speaking. So, when she had something to say on letting children experience boredom, I was eager to read her opinion.

As you might expect from the title, Paul explains that in today’s world we’re too ready to leap and rescue our children when they proclaim their ennui. We avoid inactivity and we worry that if youngsters are not busy, something bad could happen. Now, to be fair, we come to this concern with plenty of cultural baggage. Geoffrey Chaucer of “The Canterbury Tales” fame proclaimed in the 12th century that idle hands are the devil’s tools. A Scottish proverb says, “If the devil finds a man idle, he’ll put him to work.” A Turkish aphorism states, “The devil tempts all other men, but that idle men tempt the devil.” So, it’s somewhat natural to worry that children with nothing to do can be a recipe for disaster.

However, as Paul explains, it’s the time spent doing nothing that can catalyze creativity. Even if the tales are apocryphal, there’s a reason that stories of discovery magically coming to great thinkers while they’re inactive resonate with us. Consider Archimedes yelling “Eureka” as he conjures the concept of volume while lounging in the bathtub. Think about Sir Isaac Newton relaxing under a tree and formulating his ideas on gravity after a falling apple knocks him on the head. Simon and Garfunkel understood that for good ideas to arise, we need to “Slow down, you move too fast.You got to make the morning last”

Paul points out that, “Once you’ve truly settled into the anesthetizing effects of boredom, you find yourself en route to discovery. With monotony, small differences begin to emerge, between those trees, those sweaters. This is why so many useful ideas occur in the shower, when you’re held captive to a mundane activity. You let your mind wander and follow it where it goes.” A fair amount of brain research now supports this notion that leaving a problem in which we are absorbed allows us to view it from a different angle or perspective and in the process move forward and arrive at a solution.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Walter Isaacson’s brilliant biography of Albert Einstein describes him as a young clerk in the Basel patent office overlooking the railyard. As he watches the trains go back and forth and he looks at the clock, he considers the fluidity of time, In the process, he formulates his ideas on relativity, and the rest is history. Einstein needed to just sit, observe, and think before he could shatter our concepts of time and space.

These stories of serendipity support another of the concepts in Paul’s essay. “Of course, it’s not really the boredom itself that’s important; it’s what we do with it. When you reach your breaking point, boredom teaches you to respond constructively, to make something happen for yourself. But unless we are faced with a steady diet of stultifying boredom, we never learn how.” Tedium in of itself does not guarantee a positive result; how we deal with it determines whether it’s a constructive or a destructive activity. Consequently, as parents and as educators, we must teach our children that boredom can be a force for innovative thinking and beneficial reflection. Rather than preventing or abjuring boredom, we should treat it as something inevitable and productive.

So, the next time a child whines, “I’m bored,” we can enthusiastically respond, “That’s great! I can’t wait to see what you will do with this precious moment!”

Vaping is a big concern, but the real issues are bigger

February 12, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Overall, rates of vaping are second only to alcohol among substances surveyed with 17.6 percent of 8th graders, 32.3 percent of 10th graders, and 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting past-year vaping.”
--National Institute on Drug Abuse

One of my favorite novelists, Kevin Baker, titled his book from 1993 “Sometimes You See It Coming.” This can be true in so many ways, both good and bad. Unfortunately in three decades of working in schools, I have seen the validity of this sentiment when it comes to teen substance abuse.

I recall when parents in New Mexico returned from family trips to Colorado after marijuana had been legalized and they described candies sold in stores that were laced with THC. Educators in states neighboring Colorado began to dread the aftermath of school vacations when students would come back with odorless, smokeless forms of marijuana for which we would have to be on the lookout. Regardless of how one felt about the legalization of pot, we did not want it in our schools; now, though, it was much more difficult now to detect.

Similarly, when the vaping craze began a few years ago and it was advertised as an alternative to smoking, parents and educators could sense that trouble was headed our way. As the quotation above points out, vaping is increasing at an alarming rate. In addition, as a New York Times article last year discussed, vaping can be extremely addictive, “E-cigarettes have been touted by their makers and some public health experts as devices to help adult smokers kick the habit. But school officials, struggling to control an explosion of vaping among high school and middle school students across the country, fear that the devices are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.”

Children today face a world of temptations, including illegal substances. Even when the news may be promising in some areas, the data in other ways can be eye-opening. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • By 12th grade, about two-thirds of students have tried alcohol.
  • About half of 9th through 12th grade students reported ever having used marijuana.
  • About 4 in 10 9th through 12th grade students reported having tried cigarettes.
  • Among 12th graders, close to 2 in 10 reported using prescription medicine without a prescription.

Although the numbers for Keystone students may be different, our children exist in a world where they have access to a variety of substances, and we only have so much control once they are out of our sight. Ultimately, we need to give them the tools to handle situations where they are exposed to alcohol and drugs. In the past, I have heard counselors refer to a spectrum on which children exist regarding substance use and abuse. At one end is exploration where a student is exposed to a substance, wishes to learn more about it, and will try it; in the middle is experimentation where students decide to use something, or some things, more than once and see how it makes them feel; at the other end of the spectrum is abuse where students take the drug or drugs on a regular basis to the point that they may not be able to control their habit.

At Keystone, we want our students to understand the issues they will face in their middle and high school years. To help them, we provide a wellness curriculum that teaches them about a variety of topics from sex education to cyber ethics to substance abuse, and other subjects. We want our students to have information so they can make healthy and well-considered decisions when they face circumstances that, sadly, may be all too typical in today’s world. During the week of February 18-22, our students will hear experts from the organization Freedom from Chemical Dependency discuss topics related to substance use. They will learn how to make responsible choices, to recognize the early warning signs of substance abuse, and come to understand that drug addiction, including alcoholism, is a progressive, chronic, and potentially fatal disease.

In addition, like our parent meeting this week on cyber-safety, we will hold a session on teen substance abuse for parents on Wednesday evening, February 20th from 5:30 - 7 p.m. in the theater.  We hope you can make it so you can learn what you need to know as a parent. If we gather together and educate ourselves and our children, we can better the odds that their years in middle and high school will be happy and healthy, and they will learn good habits for life.

Lessons in online safety from Frankenstein and Jurassic Park

February 08, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“The technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them. These young people are among the first to grow up with an expectation of continuous connection: always on, and always on them. And they are among the first to grow up not necessarily thinking of simulation as second best. All of this makes them fluent with technology but brings a set of new insecurities.”
― Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

For years, I have loved discussing Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with students. I enjoy the conversations around the story, how the actual tale may differ from the popular culture version they may know, and the relevance of the novel to today’s world. In particular, we talk about the tension between a society’s technical knowledge and its code of ethics. Sometimes they see a parallel between Dr. Frankenstein’s world and today’s moral quandaries, particularly in cyberspace. As with other tectonic shifts, our societal sense of right and wrong has lagged behind our technological advancements. In the first Jurassic Park movie, the scientist Dr. Malcolm states, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In many ways, this is the dilemma facing today’s youth as they learn how to navigate the internet in general and social media in particular. We have given them amazing tools to communicate, research, learn, and entertain themselves. They have the world at their fingertips, and there’s little they cannot do on a phone that is essentially a small computer.

In some ways, their cyber world is just an extension of their physical space. A review of writer and researcher danah boyd’s book “ It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” states, “ Teenagers’ current exploration of and struggles with identity, privacy, addiction, bullying, risk taking, literacy, inequalities, and being public (the chapters that make up the book) are similar to the processes that we witnessed before there was digital media.”

While much of what is done in a teen’s online life, though, may resemble that of an earlier generation, the difference in potential impact raises enough red flags to be considered an entirely new and different experience. For example, the breadth and depth of a posting means that the consequences are much broader and longer-lasting than something we may have told our friends when we were younger. The repercussions of an online comment can follow someone forever, and unfortunately for today’s digital natives, the margin for error is much narrower than when we were young. As a result, they lack the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.

So how can we as parents and educators help our children learn how to live online in this brave, new world? At Keystone, we tell students repeatedly to think before they post. We have assemblies about it, we discuss it in advisory, and posted around school is a sign that asks them to consider whether something they plan to post is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind-the acronym is THINK.

Perhaps we also need to teach children one of my favorite lessons from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had a practice of writing a “hot letter,” that he would then put to the side. Later, when he had calmed down, he would write on the letter, “never signed, never sent.” For example, after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln wrote the victorious General George Meade an angry missive castigating him for not pursuing General Robert E. Lee more forcefully. He did not send it, and while Lincoln was frustrated with the Union army’s inaction in the aftermath of the battle, he preserved his relationship with General Meade. Our children need to practice putting something in draft, not sending it, and revisiting it later. Most likely, they will not regret the chance to revisit what they wrote in the light of a new day.

As parents, we need to educate ourselves as much as is possible so we can guide our children. To that end, on Wednesday evening, February 13th, from 6-7:30 p.m., Donna McElroy, a highly regarded San Antonio attorney, will speak in the Keystone Theater on cyber safety and creating one’s digital footprint. This presentation will be for adults. Ms. McElroy spoke to students in grades 6-12 on February 6th during the school day. Ms. McElroy has spoken to Keystone parents and students in the past, and people have found her remarks helpful.

I hope to see you on Wednesday. Regardless of how we feel about social media, it will be a component of our children’s world, and if we want them to be successful and happy, we need to teach them how to use it according to Keystone’s core values of ethical growth and responsible leadership.

Make the most of these moments - every one of them

February 01, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment
-”Oprah Winfrey

What a moment! At the postseason basketball tournament, our sixth-grade girls were down much of the game but went ahead with less than two minutes on a shot that hit nothing but net. My generation would call it a Kodak moment. Our girls went on to win the game and move on to the next round in the postseason tournament. The players, the coaches, and the fans all erupted, and I felt lucky to witness the sheer joy on everyone’s faces.

Such is the resonance of special moments in our lives say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of “The Power of Moments.” In their best-selling book, the Heath brothers explain how certain events can alter the course of our existence. We know this intuitively as we celebrate the birth of a child, the first day of school, graduation, weddings, and other happy life-cycle events. Sadly, we also realize that the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the termination of employment can signal the close of one period and the need to rebuild in preparation for what may come next.

In their book, the Heath brothers explain how we can be intentional in creating moments in our personal and professional worlds. As we do this, we transport our lives to a more meaningful plane than they were before. For moments to be truly extraordinary, they must have elements of elevation, insight, pride, and connection. They should also contain a surprise rather than merely repeating the basics, even if what we’re doing brings positive results.

For a long time now, I have thought that this is how true learning occurs. Students exist at a certain level for a while; typically, they are doing well and they are comfortable. Suddenly, and for lack of a better way to describe it, they have an epiphany where they see the world in a whole new way. It’s as if they now see their lives in color rather than black and white, and as the post World War I song went, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

It’s the permanent impact of special moments that make them better gifts than things. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research called “Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Social Relationships Than Material Gifts” attests to this fact. This makes sense intuitively. When families and friends get together, they usually reminisce over shared experiences, they relive trips, or they recount humorous happenings. Repeatedly, I have heard from parents that they have decided to give their children experiences rather than objects; they explain that their children appreciate those much longer than the latest “must have” toy that after a few hours, days, or weeks ends up in the corner of the closet or is lost forever under the bed.

So, as parents and as educators, what does all this mean for us? Obviously, much of our lives happen in the daily and the ordinary. However, if we can be purposeful and create moments that take our children and students to a new place, either literally or figuratively, and allow them to see their world anew, then we will have done a great and life-changing service. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “We have more possibilities in each moment than we realize.”

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