Big Thinkers Blog


Head of School Dennis Bisgaard
Associate Head of School and Upper School Director Natalie Demers
Director of the Middle School Jane Repp
Dean of Students William Gilyard
Director of Enrollment Management Sharon Gaskin
Director of Institutional Advancement Randy Stabile
Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency Joan Edwards
Director of College Advising Zaira Santiago

How does a community stay committed to its mission?

By Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency Joan Edwards

It is challenging to keep a New Year's resolution as an individual let alone a community of hundreds of people. The exercise of goal setting is both inspiring and scary all at once.. We feel the draw of hope for an improved life but fear the inevitable reality of that first misstep when we fail to uphold the promises that we made to ourselves. So how does a community stay focused on its mission?

  • Keep stating the goals and values. When we boldly speak up about how we want to hold ourselves accountable, we increase the likelihood that we will reach the desired outcomes.
  • Prepare for the opportunity to fail. The journey to keeping promises will definitely not be a straight line. We will falter; we will experience self doubt; and we will be tempted to give up. We may even literally give up. This stage in the process is as central to success as the initial steps of setting those goals in the first place.
  • Let go of expectations. While it is important to establish goals and set our intention for reaching them, we need to remain open to how reality will present us with their outcomes. Staying present and trusting the process enables us to learn from the experiences of working to reach our goals.

It is never easy to commit to making community objectives a reality. Chances of falling short are high. Nelson Mandela once stated, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” I agree. There’s nothing to lose by taking the risk to learn from our promises.


Posted by kweldon on Thursday January 19 at 01:47PM
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Five Effective Ways to Feel Empowered

By Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency Joan Edwards

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power” -- Lao Tzu

Growing up is hard to do. Even when we are well beyond the years of formal education, there is much to learn about how to stay grounded as we manage the challenges of life.  I chose this quote from Lao Tzu because I am reminded that the root of feeling empowered is to become more self aware. I offer these five suggestions for mastering your “SELF”.

  1. Breathe. Our body takes care of us by breathing in and out every day. Pay attention to the quality of your breath especially in times of stress. Breathing in deeply (a deep breath will make your stomach rise), will naturally calm your system so that you can move through any moment in a grounded way;

  2. Practice courageous inquiry. As you move through your day, take time to notice the thoughts you have about each moment and each interaction. Notice from a place of curiosity not judgement. Ask yourself: Why am I thinking that thought? Why am I experiencing this moment in this way? When you operate from your “automatic pilot” place, you miss out on what is really going on. Your ultimate goal is to respond from a place of awareness versus reacting from a place of blindness;

  3. Ask questions.  When you are faced with a conflict between you and another person, ask questions that seek to understand what is really at the heart of the matter instead of giving into the desire to judge the other person. This takes courage but it is well worth the effort;

  4. Give yourself permission to speak your truth. Even if it may seem like the only perspective in the conversation, give voice to your experience. It can be a scary prospect to speak up. However, when you speak up, you honor your self worth.

  5. Give thanks. Take time to notice the areas of your life for which you are grateful. Even by acknowledging the smallest examples of the good in your life, you will benefit from how this will put the challenges in perspective.

Take the time to focus on yourself.  If you can devote time to knowing your “self”, you will enjoy your life instead of enduring it.
Posted by kweldon on Thursday December 15, 2016 at 09:35AM
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Four Ways to Teach Kids the Art of Respectful Disagreement

By Dean of Students Will Gilyard

2016 was the year of name-calling. From the very top, one candidate calls a broad swath of her opposition “deplorables” and the other candidate refers to his competition as a “nasty woman” during a debate. What examples are our children learning as they look to adults to model appropriate behavior when the grown-ups have diverging viewpoints? As the Dean of Students in an independent school, I love that I work in a diverse, eclectic community that shares a variety of political leanings and that is invested and interested in talking about the things that matter. That includes difficult conversations.

The wake of this emotionally charged election served as a learning opportunity in the lost art of civil discourse. I pondered on how I could help my students hold each other to a high standard of respectful and enlightening engagement regardless of their point of view. Part of learning and growing as individuals in our society is to be able to exchange ideas and thoughts (much of which is personal) while accommodating the opinions and perspectives of others.

Here’s my four-point plan for my students to consider while on social media:

1. Critique ideas, not people. Treat each other respectfully even when there are differences in opinion.

2. Actively listen to each other and take turns when discussing ideas. Develop empathy for others and their positions on political matters.

3. Embrace intellectual curiosity. Don’t just believe everything that we think. Search out credible resources on both sides so that you are as informed as possible on these topics and create your own understanding based on information. We cannot engage in meaningful dialogue without, first having seeking to understand both sides of an issue.

4. It is ALWAYS okay to agree to disagree without it devolving into name-calling or disrespectful comments towards each other. REMEMBER THAT YOUR WORDS MATTER!

Too much criticism is counterproductive and creates a negative loop where neither party listens to one another. By keeping these four points in mind our children can learn to develop listening and reasoning skills just as they’ve learned how to solve an equation and develop a thesis statement. It takes time and plenty of practice. And that goes for the adults in the room. We should be lifelong learners, too.


Posted by kweldon on Monday December 12, 2016 at 10:55AM
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Effective Questioning Tips to Become a Better Listener

By Director of the Middle School Jane Repp

At a wonderful conference on Educational Leadership earlier this month, I attended a workshop on the power of effective listening.As a Middle School Head, oftentimes, when a teacher comes to me with a concern, I attempt to solve the problem for them. Instead, I should ask what they need from me, dig deeper into their thought process and listen. This is an opportunity for professional growth. The same strategies can be applied to the students we teach and the children we raise. These interactions can empower students because we are not just telling a child what to do, but we are asking them to reflect on the why.

Here are five ways to draw out a person:

·  Attend to non-verbal cues (tone of voice, body language, etc.)

·  Be empathetic

·  Notice the positive; be affirmative

·  Ask questions that require reflection or provoke a different perspective

·  If appropriate, identify next steps or an action plan

Effective questioning is the game-changing part of this process. For example ask:

·  What went well?

·  Where do you need more experience or guidance or practice?

·  Why do you think that?

·  What was your thought process?

·  What would happen if you changed this part?

·  How could you do this differently?

·  How is this connected to something else you know or can do?

·  What might you do differently next time?

Pushing students (and teachers) to analyze and debrief the work they do creates an environment of continuous growth. Creating space for a student to reflect on their writing, problem solving or other output gives them ownership of their learning process. They identify their areas of strength and opportunity so they can develop in the way that is most productive for them. In a similar vein, asking teachers to reflect on their work in the classroom through scripted observation or videotaping has the same effect. Listening to them identify what went well and where they saw positive student outcomes enables me to then ask them questions about where areas for growth might be. The process is theirs instead of mine, affirms their abilities and gives them ownership over their own growth. Now students and teachers are armed with tools and a road map to use everyday. All by becoming a better listener.

Posted by kweldon on Thursday December 1, 2016 at 04:43PM
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How to Put Together the “Perfect” College Application

By Director of College Advising Zaira Santiago

The months of October and November can be particularly chaotic in college counseling offices. Our days are full of back-to-back meetings with anxious students - and sometimes their parents - as they get ready to submit applications with early deadlines. Students spend whatever precious little time they have trying to achieve “perfection,” polishing their applications, obsessing over every word, and trying to find the magical combination of activities and accomplishments that will make it gain an unanimous “admit” recommendation from the admissions committee. In turn, we spend our days - and often evenings - looking over applications, reviewing essays, and trying to convince students that who they are and what they have accomplished in the 17 years they have walked this earth is “good enough” to gain admission to college.

One quick look at some of the questions that students are tasked with answering during this process is enough to understand the stress and anxiety they often experience. For example, Wake Forest has an 8-question writing supplement that spans the gamut, asking students to title their autobiography, imagine who their graduation speaker would be, list the the last five books they read, create a top-ten list with a theme of their choosing and - in no more than 150 words - describe what they “have you done to challenge or change that which outrages you.” Some colleges take a more abstract approach, like the University of Chicago, which asks, “what is square one, and can you actually go back to it?” Others are more lighthearted, like Lehigh, which asks, “what is your favorite ‘Bazinga’ moment?” or the University of Richmond, which asks applicants to “tell us about Spiders” (a reference to their mascot).

But ultimately, it’s important to remember that - yes, perhaps through a somewhat convoluted and flawed system - colleges admission officers are, for the most part, just trying to get a sense of who students are outside of their academic record and what has motivated them to do the things they have done. Their job is not an easy one - they have to ensure that their institutions’ enrollment needs are being met and that there is diversity of background, thought and experience in the student body, but also that the applicants they admit are a good match for the academic rigor, mission and values of their schools. Trying to “game the system” or trick them into believing the applicant is something that they are not is not only not likely to work, but can backfire.

Below are a few more reminders for students to ensure that the college application is “perfect.”

  • Be authentic. Admissions officers are experts at sussing out the “list checkers;” they can easily differentiate between the insincere, pedantic and superficial from the authentic. Don’t try to impress them or write what you think they want to hear, but rather reflect on your experiences and what you are hoping to get out of a college education.
  • It’s OK to sound like a 17-year old. Nothing raises a red flag faster for an admissions officer than when an application sounds like it was completed by a middle-aged person with years of life experience. There certainly should be a level of formality to the writing in an application, but ultimately, it has to sound like a high school student completed it.
  • More is not always better. Most admissions officers have a short amount of time to read through an application - some as little as 15 minutes. They can’t always devote more time to an application just because it has more recommendations or more example of a student’s academic work. Provide only what each school asks for; if a college is open to receiving additional materials, they will let it be known.
  • Trust your instincts. While it’s OK - and helpful - to have friends, teachers and family members look over your application, be careful to not lose your voice in all the revisions. Be open to constructive criticism, but trust your instinct in terms of what you want to say and how you want to say it. Read every part of the application out loud to yourself. If it doesn’t sound like you, go back and try to simplify or ask yourself what exactly it is that you are trying to say.
  • Have faith in yourself and the process! If you have done your due diligence, you will be applying to a list of schools that are a good match for your personality, your ability, your interests and your academic goals. A school that is the right fit for you will not only appreciate you for who you are, but will see your potential for growth, what you can contribute to their community and what you can accomplish there. At the end of the day, you should have faith that being perfectly imperfect is perfect enough. 


Posted by kweldon on Friday November 18, 2016 at 11:55AM
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“Wyverns for Life” Using the Kingswood Oxford Alumni Network

By Director of Institutional Advancement Randy Stabile

Ahh – the art of networking. Some people are naturals at it, some people are not so comfortable with the concept. Our Kingswood Oxford School students and alumni, especially our young alumni should all take advantage of Wyvern Nation. One of the many advantages of an Independent School is the close friends that are made and the common bond that forms between all Wyverns. Wyvern Nation is a large underutilized group of almost six thousand alumni. Should we take advantage of this wonderful network? ABSOLUTELY.

Kingswood Oxford School alumni have a great tool available to them – Evertrue. This mobile application uses LinkedIn information and allows KO alumni to contact Wyverns all over the country. You can search by class year, location, industry or name. We want Wyverns to stay connected! What about our current students? We also want them to use the Wyvern network. While our current students don’t have access to Evertrue until they graduate – the KO alumni office wants them to begin reaching out to Wyvern Nation. Just stop by the top floor of Seaverns and visit the KO Alumni office and we will share the contact information you need to reach out to Wyverns across the country!

Posted by kweldon on Friday November 11, 2016 at 02:26PM
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KO Conversations: The Importance of Dialogue in a Community

By Dean of Students Will Gilyard

I must admit that I love my phone. It keeps me connected to people I love across the world; it almost instantaneously gives me access to information, and the amazing photos that it takes help me capture moments of my family that I will cherish forever.

And yet, sometimes you have to disconnect to reacquaint oneself with the people around you -- to learn about the folks in the community who are doing extraordinary things, students and adults who are totally committed to and passionate about an endeavor that they are undertaking.

Dialogue comes from the Greek word dialogos, which translates, into ‘through reason’. This translation suggests that dialogue is meant to elicit understanding through rational thought and logic. It also suggests that we can better understand ourselves and society at large through discourse.

The KO Conversations series is aimed at creating opportunities for students and faculty to learn together, to accomplish as a community what we cannot realize individually. These are opportunities to question, scrutinize, synthesize, find contradictions and/or inconsistencies without being offensive or rude, t so that we reach a better understanding through the shared experience of having these conversations.

Hopefully, through these exchanges, we will learn something about our peers and ourselves by examining our own assumptions, being empathetic, challenging assertions without judgment and actively searching for common ground as opposed to putting a stake in the sand with the express purpose of never budging.

Dialogue is challenging, but if we enter the space respectfully, with open hearts and examine others’ perspectives without judgment then we are speaking with each other, not to each other.

Our students have experienced two KO Conversations at this point; one with Rose Essylsten ’17 and her experience at the Chewonki School for her Junior spring semester and the second with award winning author Brendan Kiely, discussing his book All American Boys and race relations in America.

Posted by kweldon on Thursday October 27, 2016 at 12:20PM
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Brave Space

By Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency Joan Edwards

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”- James Baldwin

There are many things that scare me like public speaking, going to the dentist, or explaining what sex is to my children. But these aren’t the types of fears that I want to talk about right now. How do we face the fear of talking with others when we know (or suspect) that their worldview is very different from ours? How do we push through that scary feeling of disagreement? Or worse yet, how do we handle that sickening feeling that the other person’s viewpoint represents a total misunderstanding about something that deeply affects us? Given the tenor of conversations this election season, I can tell that so many of us are afraid to offend or to be misunderstood. All of this while our youth watch us muddling through disagreements, arguments, and one-sided monologues. What are we to do?

From spending time with your children who ask excellent questions and who want to make sense of the world they will inherit, I have learned to be curious. The best way through this time is to move out of our corners in order to talk to each other with as much courage as we can muster. I believe that we all need to develop the capacity to listen compassionately, speak our truth courageously, and then reflect honestly so that your children and mine will no longer be afraid to learn from others who are different than they are.

Come visit Our Brave Space (between Mead Dining Hall and Conklin Library) if you are interested in exploring through conversation a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. 

Posted by kweldon on Wednesday October 19, 2016 at 09:43AM
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When it comes to finding the right college, it's all about the fit

By Director of College Advising Zaira Santiago

Every fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) hosts its annual conference and membership meeting. This year, over 6000 professionals from “both sides of the desk” - college admissions officers and school counselors - came together in Columbus, Ohio, to network, socialize and spend some dedicated time thinking and discussing the issues currently facing our profession that also affect the students and families that we all aim to serve.

Our opening keynote speaker was Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. During her speech exploring the myths and realities of American higher education today, she challenged the current obsession with rankings and selectivity rates and reminded us that higher education holds value for individuals and society that cannot always be measured by “straightforward” metrics such as the starting salary of a college graduate. At one point, she stopped and asked the audience, “What is a ‘selectivity rate’ but simply a measure of how many students are rejected? How did that become a surrogate for quality?”

This is a question that I often find myself wondering about after receiving the umpteenth college newsletter touting an increase in their number of applications and a decrease in their admissions rate or reading the newest “rankings” article. It’s easy to get mired in all the hype and forget that there are over 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the US and that - as I was reminded in a later session - only about three percent of 18-year-old college-bound students are headed to a college or university that admits fewer than half of its applicants.

It would be ridiculous to believe that only this three percent of college-bound students will find academic, social, personal and financial success during and after their college tenure. Available research overwhelmingly supports the idea that the key to success in college and beyond - by every measurable standard - is not the “ranking,” selectivity or “name” of the college that a person attends, but rather the opportunities, research, experiences and connections that the person avails themselves of at their institution.

This is why, here at KO, we believe that the focus of the college advising process should be on the “right fit” for the student, not the “right name” of the school. We don’t see getting into college as the culmination of a student’s career at KO, but rather, as the first step in the next phase of our alumni’s educational journey. The “right fit” for any student, then, is the college or university that is going to best allow them to succeed academically, to continue growing as a person and as a student, and to build up a portfolio that will help them to reach their educational and/or career goals.

Sitting in the audience listening to Ms. McGuire’s comments, I felt grateful and privileged to work at school that is serious, thoughtful and deliberate about what it means to be a college-preparatory school. I am confident that by the end of their career at KO, our students are well prepared for the academic rigor of college and that they have gained the skills necessary to make the best of the opportunities and experiences available to them on a college campus. This makes it easy for us in College Advising to focus on helping them go through the college search process in a way that will allow each student to find the right fit school and start focusing on the next phase of their academic journey.
Posted by kweldon on Wednesday October 19, 2016 at 09:30AM
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The Unexpected Benefits of Attending Parent Night at School

By Director of the Middle School Jane Repp

One of my favorite parenting books is Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall by Anthony Wolf. It normalizes the push and pull of parenting an adolescent who wants to simultaneously do everything on their own and stay a dependent child forever. This is the age when children start to give parents one word (or no) answers, but will also run to them in tears when they make a mistake or come across a challenge or disappointment. Anthony Wolf does a great job in the book of explaining the wild swings of emotion in our children who are going through puberty, and also suggesting strategies for helping them navigate this challenging time in their lives.

  • As many parents know, there is nothing like a car ride to create space for children to talk and parents to listen. The topics that we so badly want to give them advice about are many times the ones they will bring up on their own.

  • Know that often times, your child is presenting their “baby self” to you, as they have held their more mature self together all day long. Give them the love, but also encourage them to develop ways to solve problems on their own.

  • As parents you may obtain less information from your child about their life outside of the home. Take advantage of opportunities to gain insights whenever you can. The upcoming parent night at school is one such opportunity. Make your way through their academic day, open their locker, meet their teachers, and sit in a chair in their classroom. The evening will give you much common ground to connect over. The story a teacher shares or the work you see on the walls will give you insight into what your child’s day is like and will also give you a shared experience to draw on.

Of course parent night is more than that; you will also learn about course content and skills and gain a sense of teacher personalities and the rhythm of the school day. But, the real bonus might be an opening to talk about a world that your child inhabits without you and give you common language to continue that conversation.
Posted by kweldon on Thursday September 15, 2016 at 09:30PM
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