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

The Celebration of Teachers and the Teaching Profession

By Head of School Dennis Bisgaard

I had the privilege and good fortune to be invited to attend the 5th annual 2017 Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates – a conference sponsored by the Varkey Foundation, Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and a number of other entities. Close to 2000 individuals from 140 countries were present in what was by far the most diverse setting I have ever encountered. Attendees included dignitaries, celebrities, education ministers from 40 countries, international experts in a number of fields as well as public and private school classroom teachers – all focusing on and discussing what it means to be a true, well-educated global citizen and what critically important role all countries must place as its number one priority – education - in order to address and help solve current and future world-wide problems and complexities.

The conference is one that emphasizes the power and impact of teachers across the globe and the importance of the teaching profession at large. The culminating event is the awarding of the Global Teacher of the Year Award ceremony. Each year 50 teachers from across the world are invited and 10 are selected as finalists. The winner, this year Canadian Maggie MacDonnell who teaches in an isolated fly-in-only poor and troubled Inuit community in the Canadian arctic, not only walked away with the honor but indeed a prize of $1,000,000. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was beamed in to offer his personal congratulations. The actual prize was announced from an international space station, and the audience on screen witnessed a parachuter jump from a plane, land safely on the grounds of Atlantis, the Palm and then run the trophy onto stage.

Much of what we saw and experienced in Dubai was extraordinary, completely over the top, glitzy and often unreal. Monica, Saudea and I saw the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa 2,716.5 feet or 828 meters tall; we witnessed the spectacular musical Dubai Fountain show; we visited the Dubai Mall with over 1200 stores and spectacular museums; we were in close proximity to one of the richest men in the world, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rachid el-Maktoum; and Saudea even convinced me that I should put caution to the wind in the Atlantis Aqua Park and join her several times on two very scary water slide rides - “The Leap of Faith” (a 100 foot almost vertical drop) and the “Shark Attack” (you end in a tube in the midst of a gigantic shark-infested water tank). 

Bigger, grander, better, over the top – Dubai in a nutshell! However, the red-carpet extravaganza to celebrate teachers (and the global winner) symbolized quite effectively that just maybe we often recognize and place emphasis on celebrities and stars who are not necessarily the most important ones in our lives.  Why should teachers who make a difference in children’s lives every single day not be celebrated, recognized and placed center stage with bright shining lights directed their way, walking away with the big prize, the congratulations from world leaders, and knowing that they are respected, valued and recognized? The 5th annul Global Education and Skills Forum was eye opening and a wonderful reminder just how important excellent teaching and teachers are.





Posted by kweldon in Education on Thursday March 23 at 01:14PM
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How Feedback vs. Grades Helps Students Grow

By Director of the Middle School Jane Repp

I have been amazed over the past year at the change in my students’ attitude towards learning as a result of a simple shift from using the language of “feedback” instead of “grade”. They are consistently striving to learn and grow instead of seeing the grade as an endpoint to their learning. They don’t see “feedback” as an endpoint, but as an opportunity to improve. Grades feel like a permanent and final assessment of their learning, whereas “feedback” is just information to use to further their learning.

This all began last spring when I experimented with “exam wrapping” as a vehicle for our middle school students to reflect on their development as students while studying for and performing on final exams in most of their courses. Teachers worked together to develop questions for reflection after their students had taken their exams in June, and in the process the teachers became more transparent with the students about the study skills they were teaching them and how students might best use them to study in a way that was effective for them. After the exam, students had the opportunity to reflect on how successful their strategies had been and how they might use this information during the next school year. The last days of school then felt more process oriented and reflective, aligning more closely with our core values and goals for our students.

One of my goals for this current school year was to continue this work. The most effective feedback vehicle I have used thus far is a rubric with the unit goals along with column headings of Beginning, Developing, Proficient and Expert. I evaluate each student’s ability to demonstrate the unit goals and also comment on where improvements need to be made. Even when giving a formal assessment, such as a test, the students receive feedback in this way. At times the rubric is accompanied by a grade and others it is not. Regardless, the students have maintained this shift in perspective! I was especially pleased by the feedback I received from my students in a survey I gave them in early January. They appreciated the new system as it felt to them that they were being given room to improve and grow and that I did not see them as ever being “done”. I love that I am learning from feedback, too!

Posted by kweldon on Thursday March 2 at 02:02PM
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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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