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.

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.

Mar 232016

Sunday morning, my family and I were digging in the earth, pulling weeds and preparing a small area of land in the backyard for a garden. For the first time in several years, we decided that we would clean up a space and plant some vegetables. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun shining and a cool breeze, and it didn’t take long for me to lose myself in thought.

I thought about the 8th graders, a group of young adults who I have watched grow through the years as both Head of School and parent. This time of year finds our 8th graders looking ahead, anxiously and enthusiastically making decisions about where to go for high school, while also simultaneously embracing their moment as the proverbial kings of the Hillbrook hill, the oldest students at school and the leaders on campus. As has been true every year, our 8th graders did extremely well in the high school application process, earning spots at all of the top high schools in the Bay Area as well as several leading boarding schools. The process of declaring where you are going to high school signals a major transitional moment for these young people, one that is bittersweet for both students and adults. Knowing where you are going next year makes the end of 8th grade feel decidedly more real for everyone.

Digging in the dirt, I had a vague recollection of hearing Sir Ken Robinson speak about gardening as a metaphor for childhood development and learning several years ago. A quick Google search later in the afternoon took me to this short clip:

In this short piece, Robinson contrasts the traditional industrial model of education – the notion that children are educated through a linear and predictable pathway akin to the factory-line production of a car – with an agricultural model, that views teachers as gardeners and children as plants. As Robinson notes, “You don’t stick the roots on and paint the petals and attach the leaves. The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions.” In the same way, as a school, we don’t make the children bloom and grow – we create the conditions that allow them to become the best version of themselves.

Tonight our 8th graders will have a chance to blossom and shine, as they take the stage for the first of two productions of Once Upon a Mattress. For those of us who have known them for years – whether as parents or teachers, coaches or staff members, we will marvel at the extraordinary young people they have become. We will cheer for them as they show us what happens when young children are raised in an environment that emphasizes risk taking, kindness, curiosity, and a focus on being your best. We will celebrate their collective achievement, not necessarily any one actor or actress, for what is most noteworthy about the 8th grade musical every year is how a group of students – most of whom have little to no formal acting training – come together to produce a show that is professional and delightful. The musical itself is a celebration of the learning process, a public demonstration of the qualities that our 8th graders have developed along their Hillbrook journey – asking questions, working together, talking and listening, solving problems, and making things better.

Heeding the words of Sir Ken Robinson, we will also hopefully remember that these two shows are just one moment in a lifetime of moments in which these young people will blossom and shine. They are a confident, creative, and impressive group of young people – and, yet, they are still only 13 and 14 years old. There is much growing and much to life that lies ahead for each of them. As Sir Ken Robinson noted, good gardeners create the conditions for plants to grow, recognizing and honoring the unique needs of each plant at different moments throughout the life cycle. Learning is something that we engage throughout our lives, not just when we are young, and our 8th graders should be no exception.

Sir Ken Robinson’s words are also a reminder to all of us – educators and parents – that ultimately our children’s journeys are something we share and support, not control. We cannot add the petals and attach the roots – we can only guide them and love them unconditionally. We can celebrate with they reach the top of a mountain, and console them when they fall, but their successes and their challenges are ultimately theirs, not ours.

This summer, with the right care and attention, my family and I will be able to watch our garden flower and grow. Each beautiful blossom will remind me of the community at Hillbrook, the conditions we are creating in an effort to allow all children to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. Each blossom will also remind me that my work as a parent and an educator is vital to the success of children, and yet, in the end, children grow and bloom in their own unique way and at their own unique pace.