Billy's Blog

One of the main ingredients in Keystone's secret sauce: student/teacher bonding

May 17, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”
--John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Describing the speech as moving would be an understatement. Two Friday nights ago, eighth and twelfth grade students, teachers, and the juniors who were helping serve dinner gathered in the theater to hear senior Jacob reflect on his time at Keystone and offer advice to the incoming high school students. Jacob, who was chosen by his classmates to give the address, reflected on how squirrely he was as a middle school student, but how he grew up during high school. Although parts of his talk were humorous, the overall message stressed the importance of friendships that the younger students would develop during their time in high school. He urged the middle school students to study, but to also find time to hang out with friends, to support one another, to be there for each other; and to revel in their shared experiences, whether they were laughing or crying together. When he finished, everyone rose to their feet for a well-deserved standing ovation.

Next came a touching video created by senior Carlo filled with pictures of the twelfth graders over their time at Keystone; then we all headed to the gym for amazing Indian food and collegial conversation. Following our meal, math teacher Sean Lindsay, who was chosen by the students to speak, provided remarks that were funny and powerful. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when Mr. Lindsay’s voice faltered while describing the students growing up; at that moment, many in the room were also close to tears, and you could not help but be moved. The closeness of the people in the room felt palpable, and it was beautiful to behold.

The next day, Keystone Director of Development Adriana Villafranca and I flew to San Francisco to spend two days with alumni in the Bay Area. Over our time there, Adriana and I met with former Cobras in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Davis. We had coffee with employees at Dropbox and jazz pianists, we chatted with entrepreneurs and high school teachers, and we met with attorneys and designers of undersea robots (yes, you read that correctly.) All of these fascinating people attended school at 119 East Craig, and they credited Keystone with helping them on their path to success. In particular, they discussed the way that teachers both challenged and supported them to exceed their own expectations, and the manner in which peers were there for one another. As one person pointed out, when you look at the amazing things that Keystone alumni are doing, it’s pretty incredible that they all came from one relatively small school in San Antonio.

So, as one person asked, “what’s in the secret sauce of Keystone?” Perhaps it’s the size that allows teachers and students to know one another so well. It could be the peer culture of high expectations in a mostly non-competitive atmosphere. Maybe it’s the diversity of the community that enables each individual to grow and learn from people who are similar to one another and different from each other. One person described Keystone as a hothouse where children become fascinating young adults.

Based on what I saw over that weekend starting with the dinner on Friday night, I would also include the quality of the relationships between students and teachers and among students. As we know, all too many schools can resemble “Lord of the Flies” where children tear down one another in a zero-sum game. There’s no realization that students can boost each other collectively and all can benefit when each person succeeds individually. Again and again, research has shown that when children, no matter the age, are in relationship with adults and with peers, they connect with the material they are studying in a profound way. As a result, they grow, they learn, and they enjoy the process.

We should all encourage our Cobras to study hard, prepare thoroughly, and do well. After all, academic excellence is one of our core values. However, we should also prod them to develop long and lasting friendships, to give time to their schoolmates, to go meet with a teacher, and to never take those relationships for granted. Long after the memory of a specific classroom lesson will fade, the afterglow of a talk with a beloved teacher or the memories of a shared laugh with a classmate will remain.

Faculty meeting shows more reasons to appreciate our teachers

May 10, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.”
--Nicos Kazantzakis

Staff meetings aren’t usually where you would expect to find moments of ineffable magic, but during a recent Lower School faculty meeting, Ms. Vilagi led the kindergarten through fourth grade teachers in a fascinating activity that was a joy to experience, and provided another reason to appreciate what a special place we have in Keystone.

Lower School in-service

She asked teachers to share an artifact representing something significant in their personal or professional lives from the past year. Teachers shared anecdotes about first grandchildren, working with the theater department, and being selected to travel with the National Geographic Society. The stories were touching and reaffirmed how a purported work-life dichotomy is a myth; we bring the joy of our family to work, and the inspiration that comes from teaching exceptional children at school affects what we do at home.

From kindergarten, Ms. LaVelle described how her students are implementing the Lucy Caulkins Writing Workshop approach of breaking down the writing process into smaller stages rather than looking at an overwhelming goal. They wrote true stories or narratives, how-to books, and pieces of persuasive writing. Each lesson gave youngsters new tools, including editing, and the opportunity for students to choose their topics made them move invested in the final product; as a result, they surprised even themselves. As one student wrote in a dedication, “To my teachers for showing me how to be an author.”  Ms. LaVelle summarized by pointing out that, “Every time we put an expectation out there for our students, they rise to the occasion and achieve.”

From first grade, teacher Ms. Westwood explained the engineering process she introduced this year. It offers a method for students to take risks, try something new, stumble at times, and begin again. The method has the following steps:

  • Ask a question.
  • Imagine.
  • Plan.
  • Create.
  • Test.
  • Improve.
  • Evaluate.  

By turning learning into a process, the first graders understood that there will be mistakes along the way, and that’s an inherent part of the learning. As a result, they took away important lessons about engineering in particular and life in general.

Finally, third-grade teacher Ms. Steward shared a piece of writing from one of her third graders and explained a Social Studies project that asked students to examine historical documents to answer a guiding question in an essay.

As she recounted: “In this lesson, students looked at documents in relation to a cattle drive, a class favorite. After all, what third-grader doesn’t love talking about cow poop in class and not getting in trouble? The students had to look at documents that shared the low pay and harsh living conditions of the work, and write an essay arguing about why they would re-up and work the cattle drive again or not. Would they choose adventure or security? The essay asked students to use the facts and their creativity to respond. This is a difficult task for the students overall, as many tend to just list facts and skip over the creative element and chance for storytelling. One student really struggled with pairing the two this year. His essays read more like bullet points of facts from our documents and his voice was missing. This time, his cattle drive essay finally nailed both and he knew it. He was so excited to turn in his essay and so proud when he saw his final grade.”

Ms. Steward described the moment beautifully: “What I was most excited about was his growth as a writer and historian. He has learned how to think critically about historical documents and use what he’s learned as a author to present his facts in a way that paints a picture for his reader. Seeing that light bulb go off is the reason I teach.”

At Keystone, we take the commitment to lifelong learning very seriously. From the youngest children at the Little School to graduating seniors, we emphasize how our continuously learning and growing is an essential part of a successful and well-lived life. It’s part of what makes this place special and we can feel grateful for teachers who love their students, seek out opportunities to challenge and support them, and take risks themselves to improve their teaching.  We are truly fortunate indeed.

What's the best college? It depends

May 02, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“There is no decision that we can make that doesn't come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.”  
--Simon Sinek

What a wonderful sight! All 37 Keystone seniors lined up for a picture with students sporting T-shirts from the college they will attend next year.  In addition, on May 1, many Keystone faculty and staff members wore shirts from their alma maters as a way to support our twelfth graders as they celebrated their decisions. The seniors’ shirts represented large state universities, small liberal arts schools, Ivy League colleges, and institutions specializing in the arts. For some students, they have known since the fall where they were headed; for others, they were undecided until 11:59 PM when they steeled themselves, hit the "submit" button and sent in their deposit to meet the first of May deadline.

For many years, I have talked with seniors as they went through the college decision-making process. Sometimes, I just sit and listen, say nothing, and eventually the students announce their decision as they verbalize the differences among their choices. Other times, I ask probing questions that may enable them to see things more clearly. For many students, this may be their first major decision; in the process, they may struggle to identify what they want for themselves versus what their parents wish for them. However, I never tell them where they should go, since it is not my decision and I won’t have to live with the consequences.  

A New York Times blog from April 25, 2013 called “Tip Sheet: Making the Final College Decision” provides advice for students as they wrestle with their choices. Brendan Barnard, the Director of College Counseling at Derryfield School in Manchester, NH offers several tips. Initially he recommends to look beyond the numbers. It’s very easy and tempting to read every survey and quantitative analysis: this school enrolls the largest number of incoming National Merit Finalists; that university has a huge endowment; the faculty at another college includes the largest collection of Nobel Prize winners.  Which number is the most significant? What figures matter? Ultimately, students must bear in mind the Benjamin Disraeli line popularized by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The most important criterion is how the school feels to the student and whether she can be happy and successful there.  

Barnard also counsels students to listen to their gut after they have completed their analysis.  Students should attempt to see themselves on the campus and pay attention to how that feels. Do they get excited or do they have butterflies?  Do their nerves stem from anticipation or a bad vibe they felt on campus? I can recall when students would exhibit a huge grin as they visualized themselves at a certain school, and they were almost giddy with excitement. While this is not the sole criterion in their selection, it should not be ignored either.

Barnard advises students to not jump to conclusions as they weigh the pros and cons.  One bad person does not make an entire campus, and a single inclement day does not reflect the entire experience: if that were the case, colleges in Chicago, where our children go to school, would never allow tours between November and April. Students should use the same rational approach to decision-making they have used in other areas and be balanced in their thought process.

Lastly, once the decision is made, celebrate!  As with so many other decisions in life, the path is not always linear and a student may not end up where she predicted at the beginning of the process. That’s all right. In addition, if he is not happy after being at a college for a year, that does not necessarily mean that the initial decision was incorrect; the first decision was based on the information available at the time. Once a student has actually lived on a campus for a while, there’s new information available that may allow her to formulate a different opinion.

For those of us on the outside watching students go through the decision-making process, it’s imperative that we provide support without judgment. There are many factors that go into a decision, including location, program, feel, and familial finances. A student may not decide how we would have, but we are not privy to all the information. As the old country song by Charlie Rich went “No One Knows What Goes on Behind Closed Doors.” Once a student has announced her selection, we should cheer and wish her the very best. They are embarking on their next adventure, and we want them to have the sun on their face and the wind at their backs.  




Learning resilience is a major life skill

April 25, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“A Good Half of The Art of Living is Resilience.”
-Alain De Botton

From the perspective of a sports fan, it was definitely a feel-good week. On Monday evening, the University of Virginia won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. UVA’s first time winning the “Big Dance” came a year after being the first team in NCAA history to be seeded number one in its region and lose to the sixteenth, or lowest, seed. The victory for Virginia fans was redemptive and sweet. (As transplants to the Lone Star State, we cheered for Texas Tech, and even though they lost, the Red Raiders still had an amazing run.)

Six days later, Tiger Woods came storming back to win golf’s preeminent tournament, the Masters in Augusta, Georgia. Woods had not won a major tournament in twelve years, and his son had never seen him take a title. Even a non-golfer like me had to appreciate Woods’ victory after the decade of trials and tribulations he experienced.  Here again, we could celebrate a victory of vindication.

These triumphs carry lessons beyond sports for our children. For years now, writers, thinkers, educators, and pundits have bemoaned a lack of resilience in today’s children.  According to many people, this generation of children, disparagingly called “snowflakes” for their purported fragility, crumble in the face of difficulties.  Rather than pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they surrender and shy away from any sort of conflict. Please note-I am not saying that this is necessarily true, but this is the perspective of some people. screen grab

Dr. Wendy Mogel, a psychotherapist from California, has written two excellent books on ways to help children rebound from adversity. In “The Blessings of A Skinned Knee” and “The Blessings of a B-” she provides instructions for parents on ways to teach children resilience by not interfering every time their kids hit a rough patch. With the best of intentions, says Mogel, parents swoop in, pick up their children, and attempt to shelter them from experiencing failure or difficulty. As a result, children find themselves incapable when they face rejection or grapple with hard times.  

Intuitively, we know that if children are taught how to deal with difficult situations, they will be better prepared when this actually occurs.  According to a February 11, 2016 “New Yorker” article called “How People Learn To Become Resilient” by Maria Konnikova, children can learn to respond positively or negatively to hardship. “From a young age, resilient children tended to ‘meet the world on their own terms.’ They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a ‘positive social orientation.’ Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an ‘internal locus of control’: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.”   

According to the studies Konnikova cites in this article, the attitude children develop toward problematic situations in general can play a large role in determining how they respond to particular problems. If they believe that they have neither agency nor control over their own lives, they will wilt; if they realize that they may not be able to control everything, but they can determine their reaction and the resultant course of action, they will bounce back. If they realize that a difficulty they are facing is specific and unique rather than an indication of their overall status in the world, they can address it and fix it. In addition, if they have a growth mindset that enables them to see setbacks as challenges to be overcome rather than a fixed mindset that views their world as immutable, they will rise to the occasion.

As parents and as educators, we need to help them see that their problems do not define them. We should allow them to fail at times so they learn how to deal with its inevitability. We should share stories from our own past or times when we have struggled, and we can point out to them examples where people have come back. We can say that as a friend of mine once said, “a failure is an event, not a person.”   

Perhaps we can start here at home by looking at our Spurs and the 2014 NBA Championship. As I don’t need to tell you, after losing the 2013 NBA Finals to the Heat, the Spurs could have easily folded when playing Miami in the championship a year later.  However, in heroic fashion, they defeated the Heat in five games. There are numerous other stories from a variety of fields where people came back, including Steve Jobs’ return to Apple after being fired from his own company and Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant and its description of Grant’s revived military career during the Civil War; perhaps no recent movie portrays resilience and determination better than “Hidden Figures” with its portrayal of he African-American female mathematicians who helped the US win the race to the moon. Whether it’s in sports, tech, history, or science, we can teach our children what Sheryl Sandberg says so eloquently in her book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy:”  

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”




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