Zaira Santiago, Assistant Head of School for External Affairs, formerly Director of College Advising
For many students, the college application process has become a grueling forced march: take as many high-powered courses as you can, prep hard for the SATs and ACTs, and assemble a long “brag list” of as many sports, clubs and activities as possible.
Why this grinding ritual? Because that’s what many students believe “selective” colleges want to see on the applications of prospective students.
But this admissions template is rapidly changing. In early 2016, the Harvard Graduate School of Education issued an influential report that strongly challenged this conventional scenario. Titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,” the report urged colleges to place more emphasis on their applicants’ “ethical citizenship”: the ways in which students have provided meaningful and sustained service to others. (To read the full report online, please go to https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/collegeadmissions.)
Many colleges have taken up this challenge by starting to consider more carefully how students have demonstrated kindness, passion, and commitment to improving the lives of others. Being a good person is now more important to colleges than an activities checklist.

In assessing students’ ethical citizenship, colleges are focusing on five qualities:

Depth of Involvement

Many students list a variety of occasional volunteer or community service activities on their college applications. But now colleges are favoring quality over quantity; they’re seeking out students who demonstrate a sustained and wholehearted commitment to a single project. They want to see students take ownership of one meaningful and consequential endeavor and lead it to completion, and students often devote their college essays to describing this experience.



Colleges are most interested in community service involvement that stems from a student’s own authentic interests rather than from convenience or obligation. A student who loves animals or the ocean or sports, for instance, will find greater meaning in projects that involve these passions.

In recent years, several Kingswood Oxford students where I work have devised and implemented service projects sparked by their own predilections. Last year, for instance, one senior pursued her interest in environmental sustainability by designing, constructing and maintaining an on-campus garden that continues to provide vegetables for the school’s cafeteria. Her classmate turned his love for classic cars into a kindness project by organizing a car show on campus and donating its admission proceeds to the American Cancer Society for colon cancer research.

Acting Locally


While it’s become common and even fashionable for students to take exotic service trips to faraway places, colleges are now just as interested in students who have made a difference in their own communities, whether it’s sprucing up a local playground, visiting disabled veterans, or addressing a pattern of bullying or social exclusion at their schools.

Service to Family

An often hidden component of many students’ lives is their deep dedication to their families. They may be caring for younger siblings or grandparents, taking major responsibility for household tasks, such as cooking, cleaning or shopping, or working at jobs outside the home to provide needed family income.

Day-to-day kindness

Ethical citizenship is manifest, not only in volunteer projects but also in a student’s daily interactions with friends, classmates, and adults. Is the student friendly, helpful and attentive to the needs of others on a day-to-day basis? College recommendations written by teachers, coaches, college counselors and employers often reflect a student’s day-to-day kindness.


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

It’s no secret that we are currently living in a climate of political, social and cultural divisiveness. Mistrust festers among Americans over race, class, geography, religion, political ideology and gender orientation. In recent decades, many of us have retreated to our own islands of belief – protected, isolated petri dishes where everyone agrees with one another.

As this battle roars on, our children are caught in the crossfire. This extreme polarization affects their friendships, classroom discussions, and even family relationships, adding to the anxiety they may already feel about schoolwork, athletics, activities, and relationships.

What can we do as parents, teachers, and advisors to guide children as they seek both to understand this discord and also to play a role in reducing it? In my role as Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Cultural Comeptency where I work at Kingswood Oxford, a private school, I have found these guidelines to be healthy and productive to meaningful conversations with my students.

Explain why this is happening
One way to help reduce adolescents’ anxiety about the current polarization is to explain the forces that are causing it. Our media thrive in ratings and revenue by playing up conflict, so news stories are saturated with words and images of anger, hostility, and resentment. The devolution of the national news media into “liberal” and “conservative” news outlets has also played a role.

Another prime driver of this discord is the Internet. Its instantaneity and anonymity invite insulting, demeaning and angry postings that are much more difficult to say in person. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and other apps thrive on a “hashtag mentality” designed for us to quickly determine what we believe to be the condensed version of the issue. Within our social media networks, we operate in an ideological echo chamber as people we have admitted to our circle of “friends” click and comment as they mostly share our interests and beliefs. We are, in effect, really talking to ourselves.

Encourage thoughtful introspection

Both adults and adolescents can benefit from challenging their own beliefs. Courage comes from questioning what we hold to be true and right. We can inspire courageous and thoughtful self-awareness if our students can ask themselves: What hidden biases might lie beneath my viewpoints? Why do I hate that group so much? Why am I afraid to speak to someone who disagrees with me? Why do I doubt the authenticity of that group of students who want to be friends with me? Such self-reflection can lead to a greater understanding, not only of one’s own motivations, but also those of others.

Advocate exploration of a range of ideas or opinions

Let’s challenge our children to leave their islands of belief and sail to other shores. How can someone authentically understand the culture of another country without going there? This takes courage. We can suggest that our child seek out one other student who holds views different from his or her own and, then to ask that student, in person, why he or she holds those beliefs. Engaging in such constructive, mutually respectful, face-to-face conversations can break down misconceptions and hostility and lead to the surprising discovery of common ideological ground.

Ask open-ended questions
Instead of posing questions that elicit only gut responses, e.g., “What do you think of President Trump?” we adults can initiate more broad-minded discussions with questions such as, “Is political correctness killing conversation?” or “Why do you think our nation is so polarized right now?”

Prompts like these challenge students to lean into the gray area and explore complexities and contradictions. Recent studies have shown that students develop a greater sense of belonging and connection in a school where such topics are debated rather than swept under the rug.

Further resources
In guiding students trying to cope with our current ideological divides, I’ve found two books especially helpful:
“Braving the Wilderness – The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” by Brené Brown (Random House, $28)
“Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald (Bantam, $17).


Jackie Rubin, Director of Academic Skills
Although people learn and study in different ways, there are a few strategies that are effective for everyone. By following the guidelines below, students can find longer-lasting learning and improved results on assessments.
  1. Start early. Cramming does work, but it comes at a price: Increased stress for only short-term gain. Ideally, students should be reviewing gradually and regularly so that they are always engaged with the material and prepared for assessments.
  1. Study in small pieces over time. Break up test preparation into specific tasks (memorizing terms, making a study guide, doing practice problems, writing an essay outline) and plan backward from the test date.
  1. Use active study strategies: Avoid just mindlessly reading over notes. Instead, students can read their notes aloud, teach someone else the information, redo past assessments, walk around while memorizing, or participate in a study group.
  1. Utilize practice quizzing/testing. This is a crucial piece in building retention and retrieval pathways. Quizlet and plain old-fashioned flash cards allow for easy self-quizzing.

At Kingswood Oxford, a private school, where I help students develop strategies for success, students can readily speak to their advisors each week about the challenges they are facing. I always encourage students to talk to their teachers directly and develop an interactive partnership to help them understand not just what to learn, but how to learn, too.


Dan Bateson, Director of Technology

The increasing use of the Internet and cellphones by adolescents creates significant challenges for parents. When used appropriately, these technologies can add value to children’s lives by providing access to vast sources of information as well as meaningful interactions with family members and friends.

But they can also expose children to disturbing images and ideas, harassment, exploitation, and violence. Even when Internet content is benign, the excessive use of technology drains children’s time and energy away from schoolwork, real-world activities, and face-to-face interactions.

What can parents do to ensure their children are accessing the Internet safely, productively and appropriately when they’re at home?

Technical Measures


• Be sure to tell your child what technical measures you’ve taken to monitor them so that they don’t feel blindsided or snooped on.
• Use the Internet safety programs built into computers. Windows users can access the Family Safety Account. Mac users can choose Apple’s Parental Controls. Both of these programs allow parents to block specific websites and applications, disable the built-in camera, and choose the people their children can message with.
• Configure a safety service on their home Wi-Fi router. OpenDNS, for instance, offers a free program called Family Shield to block inappropriate content.This service allows parents to control all Wi-Fi traffic on devices and to block fraudulent messages and proxy servers (which children sometimes use to circumvent parental controls).
• Parents who seek more granular control of their kid’s internet/social media usage can configure one of several programs on their child’s devices. These include AVG Family Safety, Qustodio and Net Nanny 7.

• None of these systems is foolproof. Tech-savvy children can figure out how to bypass almost any protective program.

Non-technical Measures


• Encourage children to use a family desktop computer in a shared space that’s visible to everyone. If a desktop or laptop is located in a child’s bedroom, make sure that the screen faces toward the door.
• Require children to charge any mobile devices in YOUR bedroom each night. This will prevent them from staying up late to play games, messaging or talking on the cell phone.
• Obtain your children’s passwords. By being able to log-in to your child’s accounts at any time, parents can see everything their child is doing online.
• Talk to your children regularly about Internet safety. The more children know about the distractions, distortions, and dangers of the Internet, the more responsible they’ll be as digital citizens. Ask them about their Internet activities and familiarize yourself with the sites your children are visiting. In your conversations, emphasize that there’s no privacy on the Internet and that anything they’ve ever posted is archived there. Even a brief Snapchat post can be screen-shot and permanently captured. Urge your children to tell you if they ever feel bullied, harassed or uncomfortable in any way when using technology.
•Trust your gut. Observe your children for any sign of inappropriate or excessive Internet use. These include:
      • Shifts in the location of Internet use. A child who always used the computer in the family room, for instance, might suddenly start using it only in his or her bedroom.
      • Tiredness or a crankiness. A child who is staying up late to be online or to text will be sleep deprived.

      • Decline in grades or loss of interest in non-computer activities. These could be signs of overuse of technology.

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Will Gilyard, Dean of Students
When children encounter difficulty or disappointment, parents are sometimes tempted to try to rescue their children.
They might rush to school to deliver a forgotten homework assignment, call the school to excuse a skipped class, or allow a child to stay home to avoid a challenging test.
But such interventions, while well-intentioned, can actually deprive children of essential opportunities to build resilience, self-advocacy, and independence.

Every situation and every child is different, of course. But, based on my experience working with students and parents, I offer these guidelines:

Adversity teaches life lessons


When children face and overcome setbacks on their own, they learn to solve problems, to make adjustments, and to stand up for themselves. They develop flexibility, persistence, and courage.
When children make mistakes, meaningful and reasonable consequences can work wonders. The student who earns a low grade for missed homework learns to make a checklist of items to bring to school. The student who receives a Saturday detention for missing class will suddenly achieve perfect attendance. The unprepared student who takes the test as scheduled will start studying earlier next time –and might even do much better on the test than he expected!

But when parents intervene in such situations, they’re actually sending the child this message: “You’re not capable of handling this yourself; you still need our help.”Such over-parenting undercuts a child’s sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

Take the long view


When parents hear negative news, whether it’s a disappointing grade, a social snub, a disciplinary penalty or an athletic frustration, their initial reaction is often to lash out at either the child or the school or both.
This response is normal and understandable. It’s very hard to see your child in pain, whether it’s caused by a skinned knee or a bad grade.
But it’s also important to maintain perspective and to ask what your child can learn from this experience that will help him or her to resolve similar situations in the future.

It’s easy to fix things for your child now. It’s much harder to step back for a while and allow the child to grow wiser and stronger by solving problems independently.

Discuss the problem with your child


Allowing a child to work through a difficult situation independently doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to him or her about it. Listen carefully to your child’s description of the situation and then help him or her to identify needed changes, to develop new strategies, and to find new ways of tackling challenges.

During this process, remember that teachers, advisors, counselors, and coaches will also be providing encouragement, support, and resources to help your child respond to adversity with thoughtfulness, optimism, and ingenuity.

Assess the stakes

When deciding whether to intervene, consider the level of adversity being faced by your child. If it’s a low-stakes infraction, such as forgotten homework, a missed class, or a low grade, let the child address the problem without your intervention.

But when there’s evidence of serious academic or behavioral difficulties, or of social exclusion, bullying or harassment, parents should step in right away.

Consider these resources

For parents interested in further discussions of these issues, I highly recommend two recent books:
The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey, and Permission To Parent: How To Raise Your Child With Love and Limits by Robin Berman.


Natalie Demers, Former Associate Head of School

When young people ponder their future lives as adults, they’re usually thinking of a job, a title, or a profession. But I would suggest that they consider these questions instead: What fascinates me? What problems do I want to solve? Where do I want to make a difference?

As they ask these questions, it may be helpful to consider the following guidelines:


Embrace Your Curiosity


Rather than falling into well-trodden paths where you think you should go, spend your high-school years discovering what fascinates you.
Try to ascertain what moves you, what prompts you to try to know more and to do more. What endeavor or enterprise makes you want to shout, “I want to be part of THAT!”?
Your true passion doesn’t always strike you like a bolt of lightning. Discovering it sometimes demands initiative, risk-taking and entering unfamiliar environments. As you explore, don’t look simply for the easy open doors; knock on the closed doors and open them.

Each year, make an effort to try something new, whether it’s enrolling in an intriguing course, joining a new club or auditioning for the school play.


Learn To Solve Problems


Our world is changing so rapidly that the career you eventually pursue might not even exist yet. But one skill you’ll need in any career is the ability to solve problems.
Your school offers you the chance to practice tackling problems now –in the science lab, art studio, classroom or club meeting.

Then, when you enter the work world, you’ll be an experienced problem-solver, capable of adapting to a multitude of scenarios. This transferable skill will prepare you for anything, making you an indispensable leader in any enterprise.


Be Persistent


Problem-solving is hard. Solutions will not always come quickly and sometimes they won’t come at all. When you encounter a problem, big or small, dive into it with grit, determination, and persistence.
As you strive to solve problems, be self-aware and notice your own reactions and responses to the process. Ask yourself, What did I do well? Where could I have done better? How did I respond to challenges, setbacks, suggestions from others? What did I learn about myself?
And when the problem is seemingly “solved,” don’t stop there. Take full ownership of your work. Revise and polish your solution until it’s accurate, thorough and complete –so that you can present it to your teacher and classmates with pride.

Proofread your papers and lab reports, check your math test for careless errors, and review your French homework for proper accent marks.


Care Beyond Self


South African leader Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” His words might prompt you to consider how your passion and problem-solving can help others.
If you’re interested in medicine, what diseases do you want to cure? If you enjoy writing, what human issues do you want to address? If you’re intrigued by business, what services or products do you want to provide to enhance the lives of others?
By considering these questions, your education will not only enrich your own life but the lives of others as well.


Dennis Bisgaard, Former Head of School
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 annual Global Education and Skills Forum was eye opening and a wonderful reminder just how important excellent teaching and teachers are.


Natalie Demers, Former Associate Head of School
Each winter, all Kingswood Oxford seniors embark on an exciting, challenging and meaningful journey – the writing a scholarly thesis. Under the guidance of an English teacher, each senior chooses a topic based on a literary work or works, explores and researches academic criticism related to those works, and then writes a 15- to 20-page paper that draws on these literary texts, academic scholarship and the student’s own insights.
Demanding both persistence and passion, the senior thesis is the culmination of each student’s academic experience at Kingswood Oxford. It allows seniors to bring together everything they’ve learned about research, organization, literary analysis, and writing to focus on an author, literary work or theme they love.
Recent thesis topics have ranged from “Shakespeare’s Manipulation of Conscience in Richard III and Macbeth” to “The Rise and Fall of Religious Fundamentalism in Gish Jen’s World and Town and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” to “Comparing the Transition to Adulthood in The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
KO’s thesis program has drawn national recognition. During the past two years, Benjamin Waldman ’16 and Noah Stanton ’17 each won the top award (a $5,000 scholarship) when their senior theses were judged to be the best student research papers in the nation by the National Cum Laude Society.

Producing a senior thesis is a rigorous, three-month process that offers students the opportunity to gain and develop a variety of academic and personal skills:

• Decision-making

Seniors are given wide latitude in selecting their topics, but with this freedom comes the challenge of choosing a writer, book or idea that engages them and then refining and shaping their subject to produce a clear and manageable area of focus.

While some seniors have known what they wanted to write about ever since they were freshmen, most students find they need to change or revise their topics several times – a necessary and instructive part of the process.

• Perseverance 

As they begin to assemble and take notes on primary and secondary sources during late January, seniors immerse themselves in the rigorous demands of scholarly research. They learn how to perform the academic spadework necessary to identify, evaluate and assemble evidence. Such preliminary work, conducted weeks before the writing process begins, requires persistence and patience.

• Exposure to Literary Scholarship

For many seniors, the senior thesis provides their first opportunity to immerse themselves in the world of literary criticism. By reading books and journal articles by professors and scholars, they’re exposed to textual analysis, contrasting viewpoints, and a variety of literary theories. They gain confidence by immersing themselves in this provocative academic conversation.

• Synthesizing, Writing and Revising

After formulating a thesis and constructing an outline, seniors craft a rough draft that supports their views clearly, persuasively and eloquently. They learn how to annotate their text to indicate their sources and to edit and revise their prose, not only as they compose the paper, but also as they respond the teacher’s comments and suggestions on their rough drafts.

• A Sense of Accomplishment

After revising their final drafts, seniors make oral presentations of their theses to their classmates, thus sharing with their peers the intellectual stimulation they’ve derived from the entire process and their sense of accomplishments in perfecting a finished product that reflects their best work.


Jane Repp, Head of the Middle School
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!


Joan Edwards, Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competency
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.