Jan 102018
 

The inspiration board in the main office faculty and staff kitchen lines up with this resolution for 2018 – and Hillbrook’s theme of the year!

I was talking with a parent a little over a month ago, right after drop off. She was a bit harried, having just launched each child into the day. She sighed, and said, “I’m glad people don’t see me at home with my children. I’m nowhere near the parent that I want to be.” She went on to describe the conflicts she was having with her elementary-aged children, the controlled chaos of morning and bedtime routines, the difficulty of getting to school on time, the desire to be patient and present for her children and yet the challenge, in the moment, to achieve that goal.

I reassured her that she was not alone, and added that, on a personal level, I often felt the same way. “Be kind to yourself,” I noted, “You are doing the best you can. That counts for a lot.” She smiled and, later in the day, actually thanked me for my comment. She noted that she often feels like she is not doing enough, and it was helpful to have her feelings validated and to know that she was not alone in facing these challenges.

I thought of the conversation this past week as I was reflecting on the start of the new year. While I’m not someone who typically generates a lengthy list of resolutions, I do find myself each year thinking about what one or two things I hope to focus on in the year ahead. Thinking back on this conversation, I found myself drawn to the interrelated themes of judgment and empathy.

Contemporary society is awash with judgment. While judgmental impulses are nothing new (the term Puritanical exists for a reason!), social media has created a space that exacerbates this human tendency. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms all too often use likes and retweets to reward vindictiveness, clever retorts, and the celebration of people’s mistakes, inadequacies, failures, and downfalls. The tone can be nasty and mean-spirited, and there is a re-creation of the worst of classic playground behavior. Just like with the playground bully, the rush to judge and taunt often seems to be driven by fear and insecurity.

Judgmental behaviors, particularly snap judgments, are often in opposition to the empathy we encourage our children to practice. Walking in another person’s shoes requires us to withhold judgment and to strive to understand what a person is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. Unlike the fear and insecurity underlying judgment, empathy is driven by hope and possibility. Empathy is usually harder than judgment, it requires us to slow down, to stop making assumptions, to listen, and to seek understanding.

Returning to the conversation I had with the parent, I was struck by how judgmental behavior impacts how we think about ourselves as parents. Our fear of other people’s opinions, particularly around something that feels as personal as parenting, can lead us to a place of self-doubt. Furthermore, our fear and insecurity about what our children will be like when they grow up, the classic, “How will my failure to do _____ ruin my child’s life,” can leave us feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.  

So, for 2018, I encourage each of you to stop judging yourself. Give yourself credit for being the best version of you that you can be at any given moment. Our children are resilient, and they will survive our imperfect parenting.

Then, apply this same thinking to those around you. Fight the urge to judge another child’s behavior, to criticize someone else’s parenting style, to become exasperated with your child’s inability to get something done. Take a deep breath, ask questions, seek to understand.

Choose hope and possibility, not fear and judgment. That’s my resolution for 2018.

Nov 172017
 

Walking on campus this week, I have found myself pausing to look. The dramatic color of the leaves in combination with the changing light of late Fall make for a tableaux that is consistently stunning. It is a period of time that I anticipate each year, a campus experience that I never take for granted.

Friday afternoon our students will gather together on the amphitheater stage, underneath the colorful canopy of trees, to sing a series of songs as part of Grandparents & Special Friends Day. It is essentially the same set of songs that we have sung for as long as most people can remember. I have several favorites – “Simple Gifts,” “Turkey Trot,” “The Leaves Turn Gold in the Fall,” but there is one – “Home is the Place” – that always strikes a particularly resonant chord.

“Home is the place where somebody loves you, I’m going there,

Home is the same old streets and people, yet I know they care,

I’ve traveled far, and I will travel more,

But my heart longs for my own front door.”

The words, to me, beautifully capture the place that Hillbrook holds in the lives of our children, employees, and families. There is a palpable sense of calm that I feel each day that I step on campus, a sense of coming home to a place where each person is known and valued for who they are. It’s a sense of the familiar and the predictable, of knowing that you’ll know the routines, that you will understand what is happening. It’s the feeling that comes from traditions, from having songs, shared values, and experiences that continue across generations.  It is the feeling of childhood joy and memories. It’s the feeling that draws alumni of all ages back to campus throughout the year.

At the same time, we are a school that is known for being innovative, for asking big questions and challenging ourselves to rethink the possible. We are not, typically, a school that does the same thing every year, that pulls out last year’s notes and repeats lessons from generations ago. We take risks, try new things, and continually strive to better meet our vision and mission as a school.

This past Monday, CFO Margaret Randazzo, Finance Committee Chair Vlado Herman, and I shared highlights of the initiatives that have emerged from Vision 2020 at the State of the School address. We highlighted how we are striving to reimagine the student experience, make Hillbrook a destination workplace for educators, create an increasingly diverse and inclusive community, and ensure the school’s long-term financial health. Initiatives shared included:

  • The creation of a new schedule for the 2018-19 school year that will enhance our ability to individualize the student experience and reach beyond campus to make a difference in the world.
  • Programs designed to extend learning beyond our campus, including Reach Beyond Week for all 6th-8th graders this Spring, and the newly launched Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the only JK-8 center of its kind in the world.
  • The launch of our Flexible Tuition Model, which has allowed us to broaden the support we are able to provide to students and ensured we are accessible to families from diverse economic backgrounds.
  • Tangible evidence of our commitment to provide competitive compensation and benefits for our employees, as well as a dynamic and innovative environment, that ensures we remain able to attract and retain top educators to our community.
  • The launch of the community phase of the “Be Your Best” Capital Campaign and the incredible momentum that is developing to ensure we can complete the campaign and build the Hub

Clearly, we are not a school that is resting on our laurels.

So how do these two things coexist? How can we be both a place where children and adults feel a grounded sense of belonging AND a place where they are challenged to ask big questions and dream? How do you balance the tension between tradition and innovation?

The answer ties directly back to our history. The Village of Friendly Relations sits at the heart of our campus, an exemplar of the Hillbrook Way since the mid-1930s. The Village represented a leading edge innovative educational model, something that garnered us attention in a national magazine. It was an innovation that placed student choice and engagement at the center. It was an innovation that reflected our deep understanding of children and learning. It was an innovation that preserved and honored childhood. At Hillbrook, tradition and innovation are not in tension, they are forever intertwined.

In “As the Twig is Bent,” the school’s award-winning 75th anniversary video created by Paul DiMarco and alumni parent Felice Leeds, Richerd Cancilla, Hillbrook’s first graduate, describes the school this way, “Coming back to Hillbrook is like coming home. It feels so good to me that sometimes I just like to stay here and take it all in and just pretend that I never left.” Whether you are in your first year at Hillbrook or have been here for generations, I suspect you recognize that sentiment.

At this time of year of thanksgiving, I am grateful that my family and I are privileged enough to be part of this community, a place where innovation and tradition strengthen each other and where our vision – to inspire children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world – remains as compelling today as it did in the 1930s.

Enjoy these videos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 262017
 

I received two emails within seconds of each other last week. The first had the subject line, “Permission,” while the second was titled, “Bill validator.” Both were from 5th graders. I was intrigued. Reading the first, I learned that the student wanted to open a pet store. Reading the second, it turned out that the other student wanted to meet with me, the student who wanted to open the pet store, and Head of Middle School Christina Pak to talk about how they could advance their independent study projects. Now, I was even more intrigued. How could I resist? I emailed both of the students back and we set up a meeting time at lunch.

The ensuing meeting was one of the most memorable, endearing, and authentic moments I have had with students in a while. It turned out that the two students had been in their 5th grade independent study class. The student asking about the bill validator wanted to build an arcade-style claw pick up game, and he thought he needed a bill validator (the device that takes dollar bills into the machine) in order to do it. He had looked it up online and it had cost quite a bit of money, which is when the other student, who had wanted to start a pet store, suggested they could partner together to make both things happen.

Christina, Head of Lower School Colleen Schilly and I spent about 20 minutes with the students, asking them lots of questions and, in the process, helping them refine their ideas and next steps. We helped them reframe the project, encouraging them to learn more and to better understand the situation before deciding what to do. By the end, both had a plan of action that involved connecting with an adult mentor on campus who could help them learn more about their respective interests and then find a path forward. It turns out what they had originally asked me for was not what they really needed to know, but rather had provided an opening into helping them explore a curiosity and pursue a passion. I didn’t give them permission to create a pet store or buy a bill validator, at least not yet, but I did give them permission to dream, to start, to make mistakes, and to grow.

A couple of days later I was in Boulder, Colorado with a few Hillbrook colleagues, including Colleen, Director of Teaching & Learning Ilsa Dohmen, and our new Director of the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship Annie Makela. We were visiting some schools and organizations that are playing a leading role in the world of social entrepreneurship. One stop was Watson University, a college that describes itself as “the first incubator leading to a degree for the world’s most promising next-generation changemakers and social entrepreneurs.” During our visit, we had an opportunity to speak to four different students who were developing different ideas that they hoped would make the world a better place. We talked for a bit to one student who was trying to develop an app-based service that would help college students dealing with depression and anxiety. Talking afterwards, both Colleen and I had the same thought – our conversation with this young college student was a lot like the conversation we had with the two fifth graders earlier in the week. While the concept was clearly more well-defined and his thinking much further along, the basic process – the desire to take a passion and turn it into an idea – remained remarkably similar, as did the process his mentors were using to help guide him along. We asked him what he thought were the most important skills he needed to be a social entrepreneur, and he talked about risk taking and about learning to tell his story. He also noted that more than anything, he was gaining a deeper understanding of himself as a person and learner, as he faced the challenges of directing his own learning and collaborating with others to reach his goals.

Returning to our 5th graders, I reflected back on the skills they had practiced in just the short time in which we had been with them. They practiced how to draft a note to an adult, how to reach out and ask for advice, and how to accept and respond to feedback. In addition, they learned that being curious and taking a risk at Hillbrook would be rewarded with real conversation and authentic engagement from adults, perhaps even with the Head of School and both Division Heads.

That’s a lot of critical life lessons that were being learned and practiced in a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps just as importantly, it reaffirmed for me the value of making time and space for students to pursue these types of projects. As we continue to work toward a new schedule next year and as we look for more ways for children of all ages to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world, I expect these types of experiences to become even more common. At their heart, these experiences reflect our belief that what children think and believe matters, and that creating opportunities for students to direct their own learning is essential to prepare students for high school and beyond. It is a concrete example of the Hillbrook way, a process in which we ask, start, collaborate, and show, with student choice and engagement at the center. I can’t wait to see where these two students go in the months and years ahead. While I have no idea if they will ultimately open a pet store or build a claw pick-up game, I am confident they will have the skills they need to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world.

Sep 152017
 

At the Opening Flag, I started off by reminding students and families of our core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best, and then shared that this year we would focus on the first of those values, be kind. With the infusion of many new students and families into our community, particularly with the addition of a 3rd section of 6th graders in Middle School, the timing seems right to emphasize this first and essential value.

Since that Flag, so many children and families have shared stories with me about how they are making an effort to live this value. A 6th grader shared with me that she had seen one of the new girls in her class standing by herself on the playground. Remembering our values, she walked over and invited her to join some of her friends. A family shared that they have created a kindness journal, placing it in a public space at home that allows each member of the family to share stories about times they have been kind or have seen kindness in others. Another parent shared that their young child had talked about being kind at home with her younger siblings. While it didn’t end perfectly – something all of us with multiple children can appreciate! – she was thrilled that her child had recognized that values at school carry beyond campus into the home and the “real world.”

So why is this important? Kindness is the social glue that holds a community together. Kindness challenges us to look beyond ourselves and show concern for others. A kind person is:

  • friendly – They smile and greet people when they pass, and introduce themselves to people they do not know.
  • considerate – They open the door for people, say please and thank you, and look for ways to make people feel seen and appreciated.
  • generous – They offer to help someone in need, pick up trash or do other things to help the community, and find small ways to make people feel special.
  • compassionate – They understand that as humans we are going to make mistakes, and they are gentle to themselves and others as they seek growth.

Beyond that, kindness calls on us to be our best selves, even when we do not want to be. I think about this particularly when I’m working with a child or a family that is struggling or frustrated. At these moments of conflict, we need to remind ourselves to assume goodwill and to remember that we all have the same goal – to help each child reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. While we do not always agree on the path to take, the recognition that we have the same goal hopefully reminds us to treat each other with the kindness and respect we all deserve. I am not by any stretch perfect in this regard, and it remains for me one of my most aspirational goals.

Taking a step back, the stories parents have been sharing with me about kindness reinforce one of the most important things we do as a school – practice values. We know that talking to children about values matters. And, even more importantly, creating a community in which those values are lived daily highlights for children that the type of person you are is as important as what you do or how much you know.

By naming values it also offers us daily opportunities to talk about what happens when we don’t live up to our values, something that is inevitable when talking about people of all ages. At Hillbrook, I hope we create a community where we regularly talk about values, and where we strive to highlight examples of how different members of our community exemplify those values. I also hope we are a community that is slow to judge, particularly when talking about the behavior of a child, and quick to forgive. Children make mistakes, and our job is not to judge children, but to help them learn with and from each other how to create a community that is kind, curious, supports risk taking, and allows everyone to be their best.

I was talking to a parent of one of our recent graduates last week. He described how his daughter found herself alone at lunch on the first day of high school and, in true Hillbrook fashion, took a risk, walked up to a table of six girls, introduced herself, explained she was from Hillbrook and thus did not know many girls at the school, and asked if she could join them. We both marveled at the self-confidence, the courage, and the resilience she had as a 14 year old, something both of us were pretty sure we did not have at the same age. The story had a happy ending – they welcomed her to eat with them. More importantly, it highlights the difference a Hillbrook education makes. Yes, our graduates do well academically and yes, they gain the skills and knowledge they need for success in high school and beyond. The real difference, however, is that they develop the confidence and the values that make them the classmates, friends, and leaders that are poised to change the world in ways both big and small.

Aug 282017
 

With Jackson (’19) and Lily (’16) – the Silver family’s first day at Hillbrook School.

I first noticed the trend a few years ago. Every August, my Facebook feed starts to fill up with back-to-school photos. Children, often holding brand-new backpacks and dressed in shiny, new school outfits, smile at cameras. The looks vary, some stand proudy with big, broad, confident smiles, others slouch slightly, more understated, lips closed, only the corners of their mouths slightly upturned. Ages and stages can often be determined by tell-tale signs – missing teeth, braces, hairstyles. In families with multiple children, the interactions between the peers are often telling, as is the absence of one or more siblings from a photo or the emergence of multiple first-day photos, a reminder that someone has moved on to a new stage of their lives – high school or even college.

What is missing from my feed, for the most part, are the adults – parents, grandparents, teachers – who are also preparing for their entry to the school year. I love to imagine my feed filling up with photos that capture the complexity of adult feelings. A parent, smiling bravely, as they watch their 4 or 5-year-old enter the junior kindergarten or kindergarten classroom for the first time. Another parent, smiling gratefully, as they watch their 4th grader run onto campus, signalling the end of summer and the return to normalcy and routine that a school year brings. A different parent looking somewhat torn – a mix of pride, excitement, and a twinge of sorrow, as they watch their 8th grader enter Hillbrook for their “final first day.” A teacher, closing their eyes and taking a deep breath, as they eagerly – and yet undoubtedly with a bit of nerves – anticipate the arrival of their students.

The images, whether literal or just in my imagination, are reminders of the promise of a new school year. Each time I see one on the Facebook feed my stomach flutters slightly, as I feel my own mixture of anticipation, excitement, and nerves that comes along with the start of a school year. Nine years into my tenure at Hillbrook, 25 years into my career as an educator, and many, many, many years after my own first day of school in kindergarten, I remain drawn to the possibility that a school year offers. I embrace the opportunity to take on a beginner’s mindset, to view the school with the fresh perspective gained from a summer away, and to try to see the school through the eyes of the many children, families, and teachers who are experiencing Hillbrook for the very first time.

Last year, the night before the first day of a school, a memory popped up on my Facebook feed. It was the first day of school, 2009, my very first day as the Head of Hillbrook School. I was standing behind Lily, who was 7 and entering 2nd grade, and Jackson, who was 5 and entering JK. Piper, not pictured, was still four years away from her first day. All three of us look excited and just a touch terrified at the prospect of the day ahead. So much has happened since that day, and yet the things that drew me to Hillbrook – a strong community, an extraordinary educational program, a belief in the possibility and promise of childhood – remain as strong as they were on that day. Indeed, the ensuring years have only deepened my sense of appreciation and connection to Hillbrook and its community. Hillbrook is and has always been an extraordinary place for children and adults.

Whether you are new to our community or returning for your second, tenth, or twentieth year, I encourage each of you to embrace the promise of the new year. Please join me, the 8th grade co-heads, more than 350 students, our dynamic and talented faculty and staff, and parents of all ages at Flag on Wednesday morning. I can’t wait to see you.

Jun 082017
 

Good morning and welcome to the 2017 Hillbrook school graduation ceremony. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Marico Sayoc, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, 8th grade level coordinator Eden Maisel, and Chris Hailey, graduate from the Class of 2013. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2017.

A graduation is both an ending and a beginning. For the forty 8th graders behind me today, it represents the end of their time as students on our campus, the culmination of elementary and middle school, 10 years of extraordinary learning and growth. Through it all they were nurtured, challenged, and inspired by teachers who know them and care for them as people and learners. Teachers who continually push them to live out Hillbrook’s core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best. I know that all of those teachers share with me incredible pride in their accomplishments to date, as well as extraordinary optimism for what they will do in the future.

Of course the graduates of the Class of 2017 are not the only ones undergoing a change. In front of me sit their proud parents and in many cases proud grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings.  For the parents, today also marks a major milestone. In particular, this year, we have a significant cohort of families who have spent more than a decade of their lives at Hillbrook, and whose youngest child or in some cases only child is graduating, meaning that the whole family will be transitioning to alum status in the year ahead. I trust that those families – and all of our graduates – will return often to share stories about how they are doing in the years ahead. While you may no longer be on our campus each day, you will always be a part of the Hillbrook family.

As I was trying to think of a good topic for today’s speech I found myself getting distracted. Every time I started to put a thought together, my mind was pulled in another direction. I felt like I was spinning out of control. What exactly was the problem? I was under the spell of fidget spinners. So instead of fighting it, I finally decided to give in and ask – what, if anything, can we learn from these ubiquitous little devices?

First, a little background for those of you in the audience, if there are any, who don’t yet know what I’m talking about. I remember the first time I saw a spinner. It was a Thursday in late April – or thereabouts – and I was walking through the Kindergarten area, past the bike track, by the swings, nearing the Kindergarten porch when I saw them – two Kindergartners spinning these little things, one on their finger, the other on their foot. “What’s that?” I asked innocently. By the end of the following week, I was seeing spinners everywhere – near the 1st/2nd grade picnic tables, on the 3rd/4th playground, in the Middle School science classrooms, even during Flag. Everyone was writing about them – the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly. Even the Pope talked about them in a speech. I decided I had to get one for myself. And, since I didn’t want our 8th graders to feel left out, I decided that we should provide them with Hillbrook-engraved fidget spinners on their graduation. Hey, 8th graders, check under your seats.

So, now that we are all on the same page as to what a fidget spinner is, let’s get back to my question – what can we learn from the emergence of this toy?

Popularity can be difficult to explain. As numerous people have pointed out, fidget spinners have been around for years. Why did their popularity explode now? The best answer that I’ve heard argues that Youtube videos fed the craze, and yet no one can really point to a specific catalyst. One store owner described receiving a call in mid-April asking for one. He had never heard of it. 30 minutes later he received his second call. Today, he is receiving 20-30 calls per day. Others have pointed to previous toy trends – I am sure all of the 8th graders remember Silly Bandz when they were in 1st grade, Rainbow Loom in 2nd or 3rd grade, and Pokemon Go at the beginning of this school year. All of these things caught people’s attention and for a brief period of time seemed to be everywhere. They also seemed to disappear – or at a least fade – nearly as quickly as they appeared. Which takes me to my first point….

Don’t confuse popularity with meaning or significance. The fact that nearly everyone has a fidget spinner does not necessarily make the item important or meaningful. As previous toy trends have shown us, things appear and disappear quickly. While it may be difficult to buy a fidget spinner today, within a few weeks or months you’ll likely have no problem buying them. I encourage each of you to recognize the similarity between the fleeting popularity of a toy and the fleeting satisfaction of other things in your lives, like social media popularity. Receiving 100 likes on Instagram or Snapchat may feel good in the moment, but it is not – and should not be – seen as a measure of your value.

And, yet, while we will be well-served to remember that the fidget spinner is, ultimately, a toy, I also encourage you to recognize the positive lessons that a simple toy can provide. One of the mistakes that people sometimes make as they grow up is they forget how to play. While we are well aware of the importance of play for young children, many people don’t realize that play is critical for adults as well. Dr. Stuart Brown the head of the National Institute for Play – yes, that’s a real organization – points out the value. He describes play as “something done for its own sake.” He notes “it is voluntary, it’s pleasurable….and the act itself is more important than the outcome.” Think joining a soccer league, board games with friends and family, brain puzzlers on a Sunday afternoon. Play brings people together, keeps our minds active, and creates opportunities for us to laugh and be joyful. I think about the various moments in which I’ve seen groups of children playing with fidget spinners, and I see evidence of how a toy and play can bring people together.

Play is also an essential component of innovation and entrepreneurship. A playful mindset keeps us open to possibilities, encourages us to make new connections with people and ideas, and fuels our imagination. Silicon Valley is known for creating workplace cultures that incorporate play and silliness. Why? Because entrepreneurial leaders know that we need to retain a playful spirit in order to solve the world’s most complex problems. As playwright Nagle Jackson wrote, “The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that.” Put another way, I encourage each of you to take your work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously. Never be afraid to be silly, take risks, and even occasionally make yourself look like a fool. You never know – it may lead to the next great innovation that will take over Silicon Valley and the world.

So, Class of 2017, I guess the final lesson is don’t underestimate the power of something unexpected – even a toy – to teach you important lessons about life. Stay curious, keep taking risks, lead with kindness, and above all, be your best. Keep those Hillbrook fidget spinners as a reminder, and come back and visit often. We can’t wait to see what you will do to change the world.