Sep 142016


At the heart of our campus sits the Village of Friendly Relations. Built by our students back in the late 1930s, these small houses represent the physical manifestation of founder Mary Orem’s vision for how Hillbrook (then called The Children’s Country School) could make the world a better place. The Village serves as “an experimental plant for promoting Peace,” she wrote in a letter in September 1937. She continued,

“Training for peace must begin in the nursery, where tolerance and a willingness to share are natural outgrowths in adjustment….to discard the chaff before prejudice has a chance to set in… (to show) that friendly settling of disagreements is possible in a group of variegated backgrounds and so through understanding and working for a common good, Peace is possible.”

More than 80 years later, we remain committed to this idealistic and optimistic notion – the belief that through an educational experience that prioritizes engagement, collaboration, social emotional learning, and student choice, our students are inspired to become changemakers and leaders, individuals who look for ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

We are in the middle of Hillbrook’s inaugural “Week of Service,” a weeklong exploration of how our community can reach beyond ourselves to engage both on and off-campus in meaningful service opportunities. Inspired by the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, the week provides us an opportunity to link our efforts to a broader, national effort.

As we noted at Flag this past Monday, 9/11 has become a historical event for our students, not all that different to them from other historical events like Pearl Harbor, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Vietnam War. For all of us adults, who have strong and indelible memories of that day, it is often hard to recognize how quickly something shifts from a felt memory to just another historical event read about in history books. With this in mind, it is important that we find ways to teach them in age-appropriate ways about that day and help them understand that giving back and making a difference in the world are not only Hillbrook values, but values that are shared by many within our local, regional, and national communities.

p1000443This week our students are having an opportunity to learn about hunger, poverty, and homelessness, serious and complex issues that are somewhat invisible to many within our community, particularly students. We are working with a broad range of local organizations – St. Luke’s Pantry, House of Hope, San Jose Family Shelter, Georgia Travis House – to provide hands-on experience and education for our students. In the process of serving others, our students gain insight into the broader needs of the community and the ways, both big and small, that they can help to make a difference.

p1000438We are also finding opportunities to engage with other local organizations, in the process strengthening our connections with the broader Los Gatos community. Last Spring, our school received an $800 prize from the Los Gatos Rotary as the largest team to participate in the Great Race (over 65 members of the Hillbrook community participated!). When we learned of the prize, we immediately talked with the Rotary Club and decided that together we would utilize the funds to support Stop Hunger Now, an international organization committed to ending world hunger.  Thus, this week, volunteers from Los Gatos Rotary joined with students and parents from Hillbrook to package more than 15,000 meals. As explained on the Stop Hunger Now website, “meals are shipped throughout the world to support school feeding programs, orphanages, and crisis relief. The food is stored easily, transported quickly, and has a shelf-life of two years.”

We are proud of the impact our efforts are having this week, efforts that build upon the extraordinary work we have done in previous years as part of our service learning efforts. Whether it is the fifteen libraries created in Malawi through the African Library Project or the school foundation laid in Nicaragua by our students two years ago, the thousands of meals served at local shelters or the hundreds of students at local elementary schools positively impacted by our Middle School students, the indelible connections forged between our third graders and special-needs students from the local public schools or the passionate commitment to recycling inspired by our many green projects, our community has always been committed to making a difference in the world.
Since 1935, we have believed that through the creation of an educational environment that nurtures, challenges and inspires, we can raise children who will change the world. While many things have changed in the past 80 years, our “experimental plant for promoting peace” continues to thrive and grow both on and off campus.

Aug 242016

August is a time of entries (and reentries). The largest cohort of new students and families in our history is joining the community this year, as we increase our enrollment to 339 students. In addition, we welcome a new group of teachers and staff members to join our extraordinarily talented team.

At Hillbrook, we put a lot of time and thought into how we structure these entry experiences. From those first moments in March when families enthusiastically open the envelopes with their acceptance letters through the welcoming committee events coordinated throughout the summer, we focus on helping families not only learn the organizational details that they need to know to prepare for the first day of school, but also on helping families develop the connections they need to ensure they feel like full members of our community when school starts on August 31.

For me, on-boarding new community members means dedicating a significant amount of my time during the summer to meeting with new families. These conversations provide me an opportunity to connect with people and hear their Hillbrook stories. I’m always impressed with the thought and intention that people have put into their decision to join Hillbrook, and I continually find myself inspired and humbled by the commitment that families are willing to make to ensure their children are able to be part of Hillbrook’s extraordinary educational experience. As in past years, several families shared with me that they moved to our area in order to be part of our community.

In addition to working with new families, we also pay careful attention to how we integrate new teachers and staff members into our community. Last week, we had a three-day orientation that helped prepare these new employees for the start of the school year. While some time was spent sharing nuts and bolts essential to helping new employees successfully perform their jobs, a significant amount of time during the orientation was devoted to conversations focused on Hillbrook’s vision, mission, core values, and history. We shared stories about Hillbrook traditions, like Flag, reflected on our continuing connection to the progressive educational philosophy visibly reflected in things like the Village of Friendly Relations and our many flexible classroom spaces, and talked about how the core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best – animate everything we do as a school.

One of the threads that struck me this year during conversations with both new families and new employees was that Hillbrook is a school of optimism and hope, a school committed to celebrating and preserving childhood. It often feels like we live in a time of fear and anxiety, a culture that is particularly visible when we look at how our society approaches parenting and education. The sometimes overwhelming narrative that we as parents hear is that we need to protect our children from the world around us, that our children must do more, earlier and faster than before, or else they will not make it when they grow up. We are told to fear for their futures, and to start preparing and protecting them from the day they are born to help them compete in an ever-more competitive world.

At Hillbrook, I like to think that we reject the fear. We believe that preparing our children for the future means creating an educational experience that prioritizes skills – communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity – that will equip our children to tackle any and all challenges that come their way. We believe that creating experiences that prioritize student engagement and choice, and leave room for struggle and even failure, help children develop the independence, the flexibility, and the resilience necessary for success in an increasingly ambiguous world. Our job is to help students develop a sense of agency and to identify a purpose larger than the self, so that they may be positive solution-makers when they leave school. Just as importantly, we believe that preserving childhood – allowing children to remain children longer – enables our young learners to develop into confident, self-aware, and capable adults. Imagination, play, joy, and laughter remain critical components of the Hillbrook experience.

The night before the first day of school I always have a difficult time sleeping. Despite more than 20 years as an educator, I find myself tossing and turning, anxiously anticipating the arrival of students and families to campus. Yet, each year, as I look out at the sea of clean uniforms, fresh haircuts, and smiling faces eagerly awaiting the start of our first Flag, I am filled with an incredible sense of optimism and calm. It is the confidence of knowing that I am working with an extraordinary team of educators and that we are partnering with you – our families – in the most important and rewarding work there is – inspiring children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. The future is bright indeed.

Jun 082016

Please enjoy a transcript of  Mark Silver’s speech at the Graduation of the Class of 2016:

Good morning and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2016. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Barbara Spector, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, 8th grade level coordinator Eden Maisel, and Izzy Braham, graduate from the Class of 2012. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2016.

The Class of 2016 has the distinction of being the first class to graduate in this beautiful new amphitheater. Sitting here – surrounded by the Village of Friendly Relations, including the newest addition to the Village – the History House, this reimagined space beautifully links our past and our present. It seems fitting that this new space was created during our 80th year, a testament to the school’s commitment to continually find ways to strengthen and improve our program and facilities while remaining true to the spirit and values of our founders. Perhaps the highest praise that we have received since we finished this project in October came from our alumni community during the 80th anniversary celebration in May, when numerous alums remarked, “It seems like it has always been here.”

The Class of 2016 is less than an hour away from becoming part of that alumni community. Since our founding in 1935, I suspect we have graduated well over 1,500 students. Whether in graduating classes of 2 or 3 – as was true in the early years – or classes of 35-40, as has been more typical in recent years, students have retained strong ties with Hillbrook long after they leave. In just the past few weeks, we had an alumna from the Class of 1946 who showed up on campus one day, and another alumna from the Class of 1952 who returned on two different occasions to look through old photographs and historical materials. Both took us on a joyful walk down memory lane, and both described a feeling like coming home. We saw that same connection last Fall when so many of our alumni returned to campus to be together following the tragic death of Loukas Angelo. In that moment of extraordinary grief and loss, this campus and this community was indeed a second home for our young alums. Thus, even as we celebrate the graduation of this impressive group of young people today, I hope they know that there will always be a place for them back on our campus.

As I thought about what I should talk about today, I found myself continually drawn back to one of the biggest “things” in American society this past six months. Not the presidential primaries, not drones or self-driving cars, not the Golden State Warriors or San Jose Sharks, not even the emergence of “the dab”. No, I’m thinking about a phenomena which, at my house, is best captured in three words, “Alexa, play Hamilton.”

That’s right, I’m talking about the most popular musical on Broadway. If you somehow missed it, “Hamilton” has become a national phenomena in the last year, winning a Grammy, earning an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations, grossing over $60 million in Broadway ticket sales and creating more conversation among people of all ages than any musical….ever. It tells the story of “the 10 dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton, and his unlikely rise from an immigrant orphan to”decorated war vet” and George Washington’s “right hand man”. A gifted and prolific writer “whose skill with a quill” made him the primary author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury, battled fiercely with Secretary of State (and later President) Thomas Jefferson over the creation of the Treasury, and, ultimately, fell to an early and tragic death in a duel with longtime rival and one-time Vice President Aaron Burr.

Now, as an American historian by training and a longtime US history teacher, I can think of few topics that are more interesting than the early Republic. I get why it entrances historians and history buffs, but teenagers? That’s right, many of the biggest fans of Hamilton are sitting next to me here on stage. How do I know this? Well, at a minimum, I know that several students on stage – and in the audience – know every word to every song. So, given that Hamilton mania has struck both young and old, I thought I’d use this opportunity to share some lessons from Hamilton.

The Revolutionary Era was a time of incredible change, when the world was truly turned upside down. We live in a place and time today – Silicon Valley – that is in the midst of its own modern day revolution. The technological changes that are happening right here where we live – changes that are being led and driven in many cases by people only a few years older than each of our students on stage – are creating opportunities that seemed unimaginable 14 years ago when our soon-to-be graduates were born. Back in the late 1700s, Hamilton recognized that he was in a moment of change and he embraced that opportunity. Hamilton’s story is, in many ways, a quintessential American story – the story of an ambitious, scrappy immigrant who managed to rise up and change the world. In the musical, Hamilton sings, “I am not throwing away my shot.” I encourage all of our 8th graders to heed his words – you are living in a moment of incredible opportunity, seize that moment, don’t throw away your shot.

Second, stand for something. One of the most compelling moments of the musical is when Alexander Hamilton shocks everyone by supporting Thomas Jefferson for President in the election of 1800. Hamilton and Jefferson had disagreed on everything during their time in Washington’s cabinet. In fact, the dramatic reenactments of their debates make up some of the best songs in the musical. They did not like each other at all, and thus Jefferson’s presidential bid seemed doomed when it became clear that Hamilton’s endorsement would carry the day. In the musical, the tension builds as Hamilton notes:

“The people are asking to hear my voice, for the country is facing a difficult choice, If you were to ask me who I’d promote, Jefferson has my vote. I have never agreed with Jefferson once, We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts, But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.”

While Hamilton disagreed with Jefferson, he at least knew that Jefferson was willing to take a stand. As Hamilton says to Burr earlier in the musical, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Hamilton saw that the greatest danger to our country was a leader who would say anything to get elected.

Finally, there is a lesson in the success of the show’s composer, lyricist, and creator Lin Manuel Miranda. It is no accident that Miranda appeared on the cover of the most recent Fast Company magazine, earning the  title most creative person in business. As the article explains, Miranda was reading an 800-page biography of Hamilton several years ago when he had an epiphany. Hamilton’s story – the rise of an immigrant with a powerful ability to use words – felt to him like the story of a Revolutionary-era hip hop star. Building on this revelation, he cast the show almost exclusively with actors of color, creating in the process a musical that both reflects and reimagines our past in powerful and compelling ways. His gift was to see connections that no one else saw. Just as importantly, in true Hillbrook style, he took a risk. He tried it. Now, to be clear, many of us have tried things and failed. I’m sure Miranda himself has had many ideas that didn’t make it past the initial draft. Yet what Miranda knows – and what I hope each of you on stage never forgets – is that the only way to succeed is to take a risk and start. In this case, he created something that has, I’m sure, gone well beyond even his wildest dreams. But don’t let the extraordinary success he is experiencing today fool you. Miranda’s accomplishments required an ability to see things that others did not see, a tireless work ethic, and a willingness to take a risk and try something completely original.  It hopefully raises the question for each of you – what will be your “Hamilton” moment?

Our vision – as it has been for 80 years – is to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. As you sit here today, I hope you know how proud we are of each of you and the extraordinary growth that we see that each of you has made during your Hillbrook journey. You are ready for high school and, just as importantly, for what lies beyond. One of my favorite songs from Hamilton includes the following refrain:
“When America signs for you will they know what you overcame? Will they know you rewrote the game? The world will never be the same.” Class of 2016 I can’t wait to see what each one of you does in the years ahead, the stories you will write, the problems you will solve, the industries you will reimagine, the lives you will change. I have no doubt, the world will never be the same.

Jun 012016
3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

Looked at your children recently? I don’t mean just the standard quick glance to see if they brushed their hair or remembered to tie their shoes. I mean the “take a step back, pause and really look at them” moment. I did it the other day with my three children and I did a literal triple-take. Three things struck me. 1) They have grown a lot since September, 2) They have all matured as learners and people in significant ways, and 3) I wish that I could find a way to slow down time.

This is the time of year on campus where we, as educators, find ourselves taking a step back and reflecting on each child. We are inspired by how much growth we have seen in each student over the year, as scientists, as writers, as problem solvers, as artists, as thinkers, and as people. There is a bittersweet quality to the experience, as we realize that the end of the year – and the impending transitions to a new grade or, in the case of our 8th graders, to high school – are right around the corner.

One of the ways in which this growth is made visible is through public demonstrations of learning. The recent Art Show*, for example, provided an opportunity to view the work of our students across all grades. We saw the beautiful drawings and creations of our youngest students, the elaborate designs on the totem poles and the ceramic tables of our 4th and 5th grade students, the exquisite busts of our 6th graders, and the sophisticated and impressive creations of our oldest students. As a parent, you hopefully had a chance to have your children tour you through the exhibits, hearing them describe what they learned in the process of creating these showcase pieces.


The Hillbrook HERstory museum goes on the road to Makerfaire.

Other events have provided opportunities for students to show their work, demonstrating what they have learned over the course of the year. In just this past week, for example, 5th graders shared their learning and their creativity with peers and makers from around the Bay Area when they took their HERstory installations on the road to MakerFaire in San Mateo.
They also impressed parents and peers with their Heritage projects, showcasing their research and writing skills as they created detailed stories about ancestors. 3rd graders performed on the amphitheater stage*, entertaining and amusing us with their renditions of several well-known Greek tales. The performance capped an extended study of Greek myths and provided a visible example of each child’s growing confidence on stage and in the classroom. And, just today, 1st and 2nd graders read their own original illustrated books to friends and family at the Author’s Walkabout, showing all of us how much they have grown as writers, illustrators, and readers.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Tomorrow, a group of our 8th graders will be sharing their results with parents, faculty, and students from the school’s first-ever round of capstone projects. This pilot program, nicknamed the “ultimate elective,” offered students an opportunity to pursue a passion of their choice and then share their work with the community. Some projects were analytical in nature – How does stress and anxiety impact 8th graders at Hillbrook? What makes a book emotionally compelling? How does caffeine impact sleep?. Other projects involved creating something – a series of videos to support STEM education in under-resourced schools, graphically designed t-shirts, or a montage of sports clips that integrated a passion for sports and film editing. Tomorrow, each of these students will deliver a 5-7 minute presentation to their peers and all interested community members. I am excited to see how much each of the students who participated in this pilot program has grown and learned through this process.

As adults, we also have our own “show your work” moments. This past year, as a community, we took a step back, paused, and really took a look at where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as a school. The result will be an ambitious and forward-looking strategic plan – 2020 Vision – that we will be sharing at the start of the 2016-17 school year. Eighty years after our founding, we continue to grow and evolve, always remaining focused on meeting our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. We do it each and every day, one child at a time. Thank you for entrusting us to partner with you in this extraordinary journey.

*Please note: This link points to internal content that requires a Hillbrook Portal login and password.

May 112016
6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year's African Library Project

6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year’s African Library Project

What problem are you going to solve?

A recent meme playing out across the educational Twitter-sphere, inspired by a comment made by Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, has been a call to replace the question we typically ask children – “what are you going to do when you grow up?” – with a different question – “what problem are you going to solve when you grow up?”

I love this question. It feels so perfectly Hillbrook in its focus on reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world. It also resonates powerfully with my own childhood upbringing, as both of my parents continually reminded me both through words and actions that the true value of a life is measured through the impact we have on others. My most vivid memories of my parents involve examples of sacrifice, unselfishness, and a focus on doing something for someone other than yourself. I remember my father, a doctor, staying up all night to save someone in the emergency room and then still joining me for an 80-mile bike ride to the beach because he had promised me that important father/son journey. Or, my mother, who would bring me along to her weekly visits to the single units of a number of low-income elderly people living in downtown Portland, isolated, alone, and struggling to retain their dignity and their connection to a world that had effectively turned its back on them. Their eyes would light up when my mother walked into the room, her respect for them as fully realized people, not just someone struggling to survive each day, evident in every interaction.

If you asked my parents what problems they were trying to solve, I suspect my father would have said he was simply trying to solve people’s health problems – from back pain to brain tumors, while my mother might have said she was trying to make a small dent in the twin problems of homelessness and aging in an urban environment. To my mind, the specifics of the answer are less interesting or important than the fact that both of them knew they were engaged in meaningful work that was, in a small way, making the world a better place.

tftLast week, I received an e-mail from one of our high school alums, Sophie Mortaz, who is the vice-chairperson for Treasures for Teens, a student-led non-profit that provides holiday gifts to teenagers between 11 – 18. Founded six years ago, the organization meets a very specific need that is often overlooked in the broader holiday toy drives of service organizations. Hillbrook students supported this effort this past year, and Sophie was reaching out to follow-up on a conversation we had earlier this year about donating some of our iPads that we were going to remove from circulation to the organization at the end of the year.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

The exchange was noteworthy to me primarily in that it was neither noteworthy nor unusual in the day-to-day experience of our community. Sophie’s effort is just one of a myriad  different ways in which the school is continually involved in service learning opportunities. In just the past few weeks, there was the African Library Project and bake sale, the Lighting for Literacy collaboration with the Rotary Club, the adoption by the 1st grade of an animal at the Oakland Zoo, the 1st/2nd grade art exhibition at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, and the monthly 7th/8th grade service learning trips. greatraceIn addition, more than 75 Hillbrook community members participated in the Great Race, a fundraiser for the Los Gatos Rotary. As the largest contingent at the race, we received a donation that we are now working with the Rotary to determine how best to redirect in service of yet another community project.

Listening to 8th graders sharing capstone projects at Flag this past month, several of them have focused on projects that involve solving a problem they have experienced themselves or seen in the larger community. One student, for example, is developing a possible course for 7th and 8th graders that would help them better manage stress and anxiety, while a group of students is creating a series of videos and simple tinkering equipment kits to help students in less privileged communities have access to the power of design, engineering, and making.lgrc1

And, lest you think I have forgotten, our parents are continually finding ways to support the school and the community. The school would simply not function without the thousands of hours of parent help, from parent leadership of events like the Auction and our upcoming Walkathon to the tireless work of room parents, service learning drivers and volunteers, parent education coordinators, and so many others. Beyond official roles, parents are also some of our best problem solvers. Two parents, for example, have recently sought to solve one of Hillbrook’s oldest and most intractable problems – the chaotic and ever-overflowing lost & found. Their quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts these past few weeks have made a real dent in the problem and offer hope for all parents that the annual cycle of lost sweatshirts and jackets may eventually be broken.
Big or small, straightforward or complex, solving a problem forces each of us to look beyond ourselves and make something better. Whether talking to our children or reflecting on our own life, we would all be well-served to ask….and ask again…..this simple question, “What problem are you going to solve?”

Apr 272016

To my mind, there may be no more quintessentially Hillbrook artifact than the white shirt. We have often envisioned an ad which would show a white shirt with a series of stains – a touch of red paint on the front, a dash of Epicurean lunch on the collar, mud stains up the back from running across campus, a bit of whiteboard marker on the sleeve. At the bottom of the ad might be a tagline like, “Got dirt?” or “Evidence of an Extraordinary Education,” and perhaps in really small letters at the bottom, “Bleach and Spray n Wash not included.”

What is it that I love so much about the white shirt?

It tells our story. At Hillbrook, we believe that a good day is a day in which children embrace the messiness of learning. Every morning fresh white shirts arrive on campus, ready to take on the challenge of a Hillbrook day. By 9:30 am shirts look a bit more frayed – perhaps a hand absent-mindedly wiped on the shirt as a student wrestles with a complicated math problem on a white board table or a bit of dirt on the sleeve from efforts to build an artificial hand in science class. By noon, multiple stains have started to emerge, evidence of specialist and elective classes, a few well-traveled trips across campus, a bite of lunch, and an intense game of gaga ball in the Middle School or digging in the sandbox on the JK-2 playground. By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile. One glance as a parent at your child’s white shirt at 3:30 pm tells you that it has been another active, engaging, fully-lived day at school.

As the person who typically does laundry in our house, I am well-aware of the increasingly daunting challenge over the course of the year to restore the white shirt to its original splendor. After several months, even bleach and Spray n Wash have a limited impact.

Thus, it is with genuinely mixed emotions – a bit of sadness AND untold relief – that I share that we have decided to add navy blue shirts to the uniform next year. The decision comes as a result of a two-year effort by the Student Council to expand the possibilities for the student uniform. Through conversation with the Student Council, we learned that students really wanted the navy blue shirt option. As we sought out perspectives from adults in our community, we were not surprised to learn that parents were equally eager to have a new option, one that wouldn’t get quite so dirty day in and day out. Thus, with only a bit of hesitation, we have embraced the change and we will be adding the navy blue shirt option to the mix next year. White shirts are still allowed. In addition, we will likely implement a specific uniform for concerts and all-school pictures, most likely the white shirt, so all students will want to have at least one white shirt in the mix.

So, as students arrive on campus next year, I will be greeted by a new sight – a sea of white AND navy blue shirts. It will be a small, but significant, change, for no longer will I necessarily be able to tell what type of day it has been for each child by reviewing the shirts at carpool. And, yet, I know that regardless of the shirts, the Hillbrook experience will not change. Each day will continue to be a day a joyful learning, filled with all of the excitement, challenge, and, yes, messiness, that we all know is the result of an extraordinary education.