Posted by: scotteckstein | November 24, 2015

May I someday have the wisdom to give thanks every day

Our minds are incredible things – capable of achieving wonders, of creating great works, and of changing the course of history. However, they are also capable of being deluded. Somehow they are more prone to recognize that which is wrong than which is right. While all of us have our share of challenges, overall, we are possibly more fortunate than any people in history. Yet, I feel like so many of us – myself included, too often – lose sight of what we have to be grateful for.

I heard a statistic once that said the average teacher has 15,000 interpersonal exchanges a day, ranging from conversations with colleagues to responding to a question in class. Let’s say 1% of them are negative to some degree. That’s 15 negative exchanges. I know from experience that at night as I’m getting ready for bed, I often find myself rehashing those 15 exchanges and losing sight of the 14,885 positive ones I had. Here’s a second example. I ask my Ethics class to keep a journal, documenting things they have done that they feel were ethical or unethical. It’s an attempt to get them to be conscious of what they’re doing, to learn to identify the values they believe in, and to help them connect the philosophies that we study to their own lives. By a significant amount, students often focus on the things they think they did wrong rather than what they feel they did right. These are wonderful people – kind, smart, responsible, helpful – and yet they focus more on the negative than the positive.

I’m not an expert in neurology, nor in psychology, so I’ll leave it to others to explain why many of us do this; however, I’m using today to make an early New Year’s resolution. I am going to try to be conscious of all I have to be thankful every day, not just the fourth Thursday of November.  To remind myself come the doldrums of February, when my spirits sometimes are at their lowest, here’s my list of what I’m thankful for:

  • I have a wonderful wife who is smart, kind, and a terrific partner and friend in every way.
  • I have two amazing children who bring more joy to my life than I can possibly quantify.
  • I have a mother and sister who are terrific people who I know are there for me if I ever need anything and who love (and like) my wife and kids.
  • I have a mother and father in law, 2 brothers in law, and a sister in law who are people I would choose to be in my life.  They are all simply good people.
  • I have good friends – some I’ve known for just a couple of years, others who I’ve known for decades – who make me smile, make me laugh, and inspire me continue to grow as a person.
  • While I have the aches and pains of any 44 year old, my body is good to me and allows me to do lots of the things I love.
  • I live in an exquisitely beautiful place.
  • I work with tremendous people who are so intelligent, so committed, so hardworking, but who also understand that hard work and fun are two concepts that SHOULD exist together.
  • I work with students whose passion, whose intellect, and whose desire to learn makes me feel wish I had a do-over at being a teenager, and who make me proud and hopeful for the future every single day.
  • I have spent 23 years working at a school that has allowed me to grow as a professional and as a person, that has mentored me, guided me, supported me through a variety of life events and life phases.

There’s more I’m sure, but that’s a pretty good start.  If you see me and I seem down, remind me to read it again.  To all of you, may you and yours have a wonderful holiday this week, may it find you with much to be thankful for, and may all of us in the world work together so that the coming year is one where all people can be grateful for the lives they lead.

Posted by: scotteckstein | November 18, 2015

My students rocked their new advanced music class! Read on…

Guest post from Cathy Block, Visual and Performing Arts teacher (and Director of Solebury’s Jazz Roots Ensemble and our Rock Band)

I have to share one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had at Solebury School. This trimester, I taught a course I always wanted to teach at Solebury, called “Scoring for Big and Small Band”. It was an advanced class where the students learned the basics regarding various voicings, chord scales and other college-level skills. The class required a lot of student work. I’m talking two hours of homework at a time. I couldn’t be sure if they’d follow through, but they did!

musicscoringThis past weekend, my students Josh, Nealon and Eli had their “final exams” played. They each had to score a minimum of 12 bars for 4 horns and rhythm sections. I had four horn players from other schools come in (ones who’d joined us for Solebury’s “Bridging Community Through Music” concert) and play their charts. The kids were soooo excited to hear their work! I can’t stress what an accomplishment this was for all of them! They took in a lot of information in a very short time, ate it up and ran with it. I am truly proud of them.

Thank you Solebury, for allowing such a course to be taught. This is one of the things that sets us apart – you’d normally have to be in a music school to take such a class and hear live musicians play your arrangements. And thank you, Erika Bonner (our Visual and Performing Arts Department Head), for having the vision and faith that this class would fly. It was a huge success. Yes, education can be a blast!!!!

If you see Josh, Nealon and Eli please give them a high five! They really did something terrific here.


Listen to our students’ “final exams” here…

Blue Bossa, composed by Kenny Dorham and arranged by Eli Bramnick

Blue Monk, composed by Thelonious Monk and arranged by Josh Poole

Green Dolphin Street, composed by Bronsilaw Kaper and arranged by Nealon Edgar

Posted by: scotteckstein | November 16, 2015

Meddlesome fairies, smooth jazz, and other great performances

The end of the trimester at schools is a time for culmination, for all the pieces coming together as a whole.  In classes, this can be in the form of a final exam, project, or paper.  For example, my 10th grade Honors Ethics class turned in a paper this morning where among other things they discussed: 1) Are ethics universal or relative?  2) Are people naturally good, bad, or neither?  3) What values do the students think are most important for people to hold and how would a society best develop people who practice these values?  I love reading these papers – the insights the students have into the world is always amazing to see and makes me realize how much more I could have been, and done, at their age if someone had just pushed me a bit.

This culmination happens in other areas as well. In sports, it is a playoff game.  Our Cross Country teams and soccer teams all headed into the playoffs with high hopes, but fell just short.  In the arts, it is a show, a concert, or a performance.  It has been a wonderful couple of weeks in this regard here.  Some beautiful artwork is adorning the public areas of the school, we had a terrific fall play, and our musicians shone on stage.  The fall play was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the Bard, William Shakespeare.  What an amazing job the actors did, and what a tremendous job the tech crew did transforming our black box theater into the woods and castle needed for the play!  I brought my 11 year old and 9 year old children to the play. It was their first experience with Shakespeare, and I was curious to see how they would do.  It is a HUGE credit to the actors and to Shawn our Theater Director that my kids got it; they laughed at the right times, they understood the plot, and they loved the show!  The command of the dialogue and the way the actors used their faces and bodies was incredibly impressive. Here’s a video clip of one particularly funny scene:

Scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

We also had a couple of great concerts recently (clips are in the below video).  Our Jazz Roots group played a variety of numbers. One of the things that was particularly great about this concert was that Cathy, our Jazz teacher, brought in some students from other schools to join with our musicians.  It’s always so nice when students from different schools can be together, share their talents, and appreciate each other.  It was a great show!  The other concert included performances by our Chorus, our Universal Ensemble, and by some students from our Musical Theater Dance elective.  The Chorus and the Ensemble always do a blend of classical and modern pieces (the clip below is of the ensemble doing “Stairway to Heaven”). It’s always great to see such talent on display.

Concert Clips

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday (stay tuned in a few days for my annual Thanksgiving post), I want to give a shout out to all the students and faculty for such a wonderful fall. In more was than I can count, you do the school proud and make it so much fun to come to work every day!

Posted by: scotteckstein | October 29, 2015

The formula for an amazing STEM Week

Guest post from Britta Milks, Math Department Chair, and Cari Nelson, Science Department Chair

Our math and science departments, from left: Jordan Reed, Jen Perez, Rick Tony, Britta Milks, Jon Freer, Michelle Gavin, Dave Merola, Andre Lutz, Dan Perez, Cari Nelson and Matt Baron

Our math and science departments, from left: Jordan Reed, Jen Perez, Rick Tony, Britta Milks, Jon Freer, Michelle Gavin, Dave Merola, Andre Lutz, Dan Perez, Cari Nelson and Matt Baron

Last week was Solebury’s first-ever STEM Week, celebrating Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Our goals of course were to highlight our programs, learn and have fun, but more than that – we wanted to show students who might be intimidated by math and science that these subjects are not just for genius-level thinkers. If you have an interest in these subjects and struggle a little, that’s OK. They’re for anyone who works hard. And they can be really fun! This is an important message to us as educators, now that we’re living in an information age and all kids will need some basic level of comfort with these skills.

During the week, we featured hands-on activities, such as solving Sudoku puzzles and Rubik’s Cubes, making Oobleck (a liquid/solid substance) and experimenting with Photoshop. We offered science demos, including one from blacksmith Julie Scott who literally bent metals as students watched. We complemented those activities with guest speakers from STEM-related industries who talked about their jobs and shared their career paths. One guest speaker, Karl Horan, described how he started out as a mortician and eventually evolved into a successful developer of flavors and fragrances, illustrating the point that anything is possible in these fields! There may be jobs available in 5, 10, 20 years that don’t exist right now – just as web developers were nonexistent a couple decades ago. It’s incredibly exciting to think of the possibilities, and that’s the spirit we wanted to convey with STEM Week.

We especially loved two events in particular. One was our visit from high school senior Toby Dilworth. He drove up from Maryland to demo his drone for students and talk about his business, Upshot Aerial Photography LLC, which provides realtors with high-quality images taken by his drones. Toby is just 18 years old, and his story really resonated with students – how he taught himself to build his own drones, tested them out, learned from his mistakes, and eventually piloted his own business in a field so new that it’s only recently (as of last week!) being regulated by the government. Students had dozens of questions for him, loved checking out his drones up-close, and even got to test-drive one of them.

shadowsAnd then there was our school-wide math problem. Students worked all week to solve the problem: How far would Solebury students and staff stretch if they lined up side-by-side, and how far would we would we stretch with arms extended? On Friday afternoon, the whole school (and we mean everyone – students, faculty, and staff) lined up to find out. We stretched from the Dining Hall to the Athletic Center. Math teacher Dave Merola was psyched to learn that his Honors Geometry class won the shoulder-to-shoulder challenge. And my (Britta’s) Honors Algebra 2 (A) came within inches of the correct fingertip-to-fingertip measurement. It was a great conclusion to the week, and so many kids and teachers told us they loved being a part of it. Shout-out to Rick Tony, math teacher and Director of Studies, for the idea. Rick, how will you top yourself next year?

Thanks to all of our guest speakers who gave up their time to spend with us and share their love of STEM. And a special thanks to our math department – Jen Perez, Dave Merola, Michelle Gavin, Matt Baron, and Rick Tony – and our science department – Gretchen Faras, Jon Freer, Andre Lutz, Dan Perez and Jordan Reed – as well as Quinn Waters, Technology Director, for your resourcefulness, time and hard work in pulling off a super-successful STEM Week.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – while I love teaching here and love the intellectualism and insight I see from students and faculty in and out of class here, there is a spirit here that literally can bring tears of joy and pride to my eyes. Every day, in the newspaper and on TV, we are bombarded with news of bullying, of shootings, of a neverending cry of how this generation is more selfish and wounded and cruel than any in history, and then…and then I go to Coffee House here.  And there is happiness and support and unconditional acceptance.  And there is talent, plenty of it, but frankly, it’s secondary.  Yes, I bring my children there so they can be inspired to sing, play, act, or dance with a level of excellence comparable to the students they see up there; however, mostly, I force them to sit through this three times a year so that they can see goodness in action, so that they can see how people support each other even when, maybe ESPECIALLY when, the talent isn’t so impressive.

So enjoy the below video – there’s a little something for everyone in this – classical, Broadway tunes, R&B, pop, rock, comedy sketches, exotic international instruments, etc.  The video will show you the talent and in spots you’ll get glimpses of the spirit of the evening, but frankly, I’m not a skilled enough writer to be able to really capture it and communicate it to you, but man, is it something.

I just returned from an assembly where the Governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, spoke to our students and faculty.  As is true of so many wonderful things that happen on campus, this assembly was the product of student effort. Mei-Lin Sloan, one of our 11th graders, has a connection to the Governor and when she heard he was going to be in Pennsylvania for an appearance, she sprung into action and got him to stop at Solebury for an hour to speak with the school.  Here’s a photo of the Governor with our two Chief Executives, Community Council Presidents JR Madey and Noah Sadoff.

Governor Markell and Presidents

Frankly, I didn’t know much about the Governor prior to today, but I have to say I was incredibly impressed with him. Some of this was due to his description of his policy views and philosophy, but most of it was due to two other factors.  The first is that he comes off as someone whose heart is in the right place, who believes in service, and who approaches things with reason and rationality rather than vitriol.  Second, and more importantly, is that he devoted the majority of his time here to letting students ask him questions, and when he spoke, he treated the students as adults and spoke TO them rather than AT them.  Sometimes when speakers come to Solebury, they do what too many adults tend to do – they give our students too little credit and dumb down their talk.  I believe too often in society we minimize the depth of thought and insight our youth are capable of to our, and certainly to their, detriment.  One of the hallmarks of Solebury is the mutual respect that exists between students and faculty, so they are used to being spoken to a certain way. As a result, I think our students are particularly sensitive to this. The Governor, however, was fantastic in this regard. He spoke on a wide range of issues and spoke the same way as he would have to an “adult” audience. As I always am, I was so proud of our students and the questions they asked as they pushed the Governor on topics ranging from what should be done regarding the minimum wage, to the way Senators and Governors do and do not work together effectively, to the relationship of low voter turnout to his agenda, etc.

So thank you Mei-Lin, thank you to the Governor, and as always, thank you to the students for making all of us proud!

Tom Wilschutz, Head of School

Tom Wilschutz, Head of School

Guest Post from Tom Wilschutz, Head of School

Recently I read an article that resonated with the various threads of who I am, with my ongoing reflections on the value and goals of an independent school education. The article, The Big University, is broadly concerned with the evolving nature of a college education, especially with the human beings who emerge from institutions that have been stripped of their moral and spiritual trappings.

The author, David Brooks, traces the evolution of higher education institutions from their beginnings, when a majority focused on “the cultivation of their students’ spiritual and moral natures”, to today, when most have been highly secularized and, he argues, rather devoid in addressing the larger questions humans are wont to contemplate: why am I here; what is my role, my purpose…and yes, what is the meaning of life? Brooks believes he detects a return on many campuses to curricula meant to infuse 21st century colleges with greater spirituality, moral and values education, mindfulness and meditation, programs and classes he writes, “designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.”

As I read Brooks’ article, I reflected on my own journey. I thought about the school I lead and the vision for where my school, and more broadly education, are headed. I was trained as an historian; I believe in the humanities; I believe we must wrestle with questions of why and whether; I believe context is critical; I believe we must nurture the soul and spirit all the while probing for meaning. If I’m a humanist, I also value the practical (plumbing, electricity, the capability of my smart phone to record a TV show in Pennsylvania when I’m in San Francisco). I am also a manager, of a business, a school. I have a bottom line. I have personnel and insurance and facilities and procedures. And I’m a leader, seeking to shape a vision for a school entering its 90th year, one that seeks to thrive for another 90 years and beyond. Against the near, and far, horizon I am testing always the staying power of my business, my relevance in a world where the pace of change is accelerating and the trajectory is as unknowable as the path of a hurricane.

As Head of School I devote more than a little time and mental capacity wondering about this next 90 years. Wondering daily about our value proposition: what do we offer that is worth the tuition dollars my customers pay; a free education, after all, is available at their local public school. This challenge is only amplified with the inexorable advances in technology: now, in 2015, much of the content of what we teach – World History, Algebra I, Shakespearian Literature – has been commodified and can be accessed for free on the web, 24/7, from my students’ computers in the comfort of their jammies at home. What is my value proposition in this modern world?

The answer Brooks offers us: we must cultivate the whole student, not just the intellect.

If my colleagues in the post-secondary world, and thinkers like Brooks, are pondering questions of relevance, then so must we in independent schools. What role should post-secondary education play in this century, and what role could it play in sustaining democratic institutions, improving the quality of the human experience, adding meaning to lives. For Solebury School, our raison d’etre already reaches beyond the narrow confines of content and knowledge, to wisdom, to shaping context, probing not what, but why and how and whether.

At Solebury School, we can identify intentional ways we build character, instill values, create resilience, calibrate in our students the moral compass we hope will guide them as adults. Our curriculum offers balance, cultivating the arts and humanities as equal partners with the sciences and math. The engineer must appreciate the visual arts, dance and an understanding of not what, but the why, of history; and the dancer, the painter, the poet must appreciate why their cell phone works, why the architect shaped a space thus, why stem cell research is critical.

This kind of growth and learning and understanding cannot happen in isolation, in one’s jammies in front of a screen. It is the difference between being apart from, and a part of, community. It is the difference between content and wisdom, it is context that shapes meaning and answers the ‘why’, and it is learning how to build, tend, and sustain community. If we can accomplish all this for our students, and do so in the four, final brief years of adolescence, then I believe we have answered the question of our value, and our sustainability, and staked a bright future for Solebury School on the corner of Phillips Mill and School Lane.

Posted by: scotteckstein | September 29, 2015

Two days that will help to make an incredible four years

Last Friday was Class Trip Day. This is a Solebury School tradition where early in the year, each grade takes an adventure together to bond and to grow as individuals and as a class. I had the pleasure of going with the 9th grade. This was an overnight trip to a camp in the Poconos. It’s arguably the most important of the trips since the 9th grade is basically all new students. I was one of six faculty chaperones who went on the trip. It was a really full and fun day! We began with some trust-building exercises, then moved on to some group challenges where we all had to work together and communicate effectively. Then we got to do some of the high-rope challenges that the camp has (I have a thigh muscle – and an ego – that hasn’t quite recovered. The students then had some time to enjoy all the things the camp had to offer. There were kids fishing, canoeing, hiking, playing basketball. It was so much fun to see students who were so different and from so many different places and backgrounds interacting. It is exactly what makes Solebury so special!  I joined the basketball players and fared a little better thankfully. Later that evening we cooked dinner together and then there was a night-time game of Capture the which was a blast!  Then smores and a campfire and then sleep (we were all exhausted).   Another chaperone and I talked about getting up early and going for a run the next morning.  It was one of the highlights of the trip for me when four boys said they wanted to come.  How cool are these kids?  Volunteering to get up at 7am to run with their teachers! Just awesome. There are a bunch of pictures below.

There was so much about these two days that was wonderful.  First and foremost was the attitude of the students.  They were so open, so eager, and so …well…pleasant. There was legitimately zero negativity the entire two days.  It is clear that they are every bit the people we thought they were when we accepted them and that the next four years will be wonderful ones at Solebury because of their presence as a group.  As part of the admissions team, it was also personally gratifying.  To watch this collection of people become more comfortable with one another, to begin to see each other’s talents and to come together as a group is incredibly gratifying.  They are a puzzle my team and I put together whose beauty I’ve seen in my head and on paper for months.  To see it actually happening always fills me with pride and joy.

Thanks to the students for being so amazing and for all the fantastic things that are ahread of you!







Guest Post from Rick Tony, Solebury School’s new Director of Studies

“Welcome to Solebury!” I’ve received this friendly greeting dozens of times since beginning my tenure as Director of Studies on July 1. And welcomed is exactly how I feel with members of the Solebury community engaging me in conversation, always willing to share their favorite local sights to see and places to eat. I am thrilled to be here after teaching mathematics in Pittsburgh for the past 18 years. While I am now serving in an administrative role, I will always be a teacher, and I’m teaching one section of Precalculus this year.

As Scott’s first guest blogger, I cannot help but make mathematics the subject of my first post. One of our goals at Solebury is to ensure that your child graduates as a numerate (fluent in numbers) citizen and consumer. We want students to think for themselves but also to think critically.

The following is an exercise that conveys the idea of number sense, or numeracy. Grab a pencil and paper if you’re up for a challenge!

Most people believe numbers form the backbone of mathematics. As a student, you learned to count long before engaging in algebra. Did you find it exciting learning that numbers just kept going, from hundreds to thousands to millions and beyond? Our number system allows for big changes in a quantity simply by adding more zeroes to a number. This was not always the case and an argument can be made that the invention of the “zero” is among the greatest technological advances in history. But that’s a topic for another day.

Now let’s consider lengths of time in seconds: one thousand, one million, one billion and one trillion seconds. What can be accomplished in 1000 seconds? Is an average human lifespan close to one of these time periods? How about the time it takes for a cross-country drive? Translating large numbers into understandable, easy-to-grasp concepts takes some effort. Go ahead, think about it.

In this upcoming election year, voters are likely to hear candidates using terms like thousands (miles logged on a campaign bus), millions (legal immigrants to the U.S. annually), billions (total annual Social Security payouts), and trillions (the national debt). An educated citizen must be comfortable with numbers to put these orders of magnitude into perspective. Getting back to our time units, 1,000 seconds is almost 17 minutes so you could probably cook a meal or eat it in that time span if you’re quick or on the TV show Chopped. But 1,000,000 (one million or one thousand thousand) seconds is more than 11 days! That’s plenty of time to drive back and forth across the country while enjoying lots of meals along the way. Surprised? OK, take a few seconds to mull over one billion and one trillion seconds. We’ve got the time.

The numbers we are mulling increase in magnitude by 1,000, and we do this by adding three more zeroes at each step. One billion is written 1,000,000,000 and it is the same as one thousand million. One trillion is written 1,000,000,000,000 and is the same as one thousand billion or one million million. Since it can be easy to lose track of those zeroes, scientists often use more concise notation when dealing with very large numbers. Using powers of 10, one billion is simply 109 and one trillion is 1012 , where the exponent indicates the number of zeroes. Not only is this language shorter and prettier but it also allows for easier computations.

Rick Tony, our new Director of Studies (over a billion seconds old) and daughter Theodora at only 2.5 million seconds old.

Rick Tony and his daughter, Theodora. Thea is just 2.5 million seconds old (d’awww!), while Rick clocks in at well over one billion.

It turns out that one billion seconds is almost 32 years. Many Solebury students will be studying for their driver’s license test as they near that seminal milestone of turning half a billion seconds old. That’s a big jump from our cross-country road trip of one million seconds.

A similar leap takes us to one trillion seconds which is 317 centuries — far further back than any recorded human history! So the next time you hear the national debt is over 18 trillion dollars, imagine dollar bills rolling off a printing press each second for five times longer than recorded history. And that’s just 1 trillion for starters!

I hope my introduction proved interesting and educational. Come back often to read about the exciting things happening in and out of our classrooms over the next few million seconds!

Posted by: scotteckstein | September 23, 2015

Boarding – the way to avoid the boredom that characterized my youth

When I was a teenager, my closest friends were guys named Evan, Jon, and Mitchell.  We spent a lot of time playing Atari and Intellivision (I am indeed a child of the 80’s), and we’d go outside and play some basketball or whiffle ball, but it felt like we mostly sat around asking each other “What should we do?”.  You can tell I was a real rabble-rouser, but such was life in the suburbs of New York City.  There was a lot of inertia, a lot of malaise, a lot of bugging our parents to drive us places. This is why I’m constantly so jealous of the opportunities both our boarding and day students get to enjoy here with the variety of weekend activities that are available.  There are always lots of friends around, and there’s always tons to do. The last two weekends offer a glimpse at how different their teenage life is from the one I had.  There was an all Community BBQ with great food prepared by our chefs. After the BBQ, we brought a food truck on campus to give us all some amazing ice cream.  Later that night, we showed an outdoor movie in the center of campus.  There have been trips to a local park for some hiking and outdoor fun, to a Phillies game, to Six Flags, and to a local festival.  In addition, our incredible Director of Activities somehow managed to get a band I’m told is really popular with the young folk – Jukebox the Ghost – to come to campus to do a Saturday night concert for us.  They were indeed fantastic – check them out ( Keep checking out the blog and Solebury School’s other social media channels to keep up on all this as it’s just the beginning of what is ahead this year!

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