Feb 172017

This past weekend, I found myself standing alone in a theater lobby during intermission of the stage production of “Finding Neverland” up in San Francisco. I started to reach into my pocket to pull out my phone, when I stopped myself. Instead, I looked around the lobby and started people watching. Nearly half of the people in the lobby had their phones out, intently looking at their screens. I watched people standing there, often in small groups, immersed in their virtual worlds, ignoring the people standing around them. A few people challenged the norm, talking animatedly with friends and family, phones nowhere in sight. moment

The next day, I was listening to NPR, and a short story came on about a South Korean Buddhist monk, Haemin Sunim, who has taken to Twitter and other social media, including Facebook and YouTube, to share Buddhist philosophy. Sunim’s 140-character tweets have taken South Korea by storm, and a new book that is a compilation of those tweets was just published in the United States. Titled The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, the book provides daily inspiration to challenge us to be be present, to connect more fully with our emotional life, and to find ways to hear within an increasingly noisy world. The irony was not lost on the NPR correspondent or Sunim that he was using Twitter to share this message. As he explained, however, “You can fight against the technology, but I realize that it’s difficult to fight against technology. So rather than fighting it, why don’t I provide better content?”

Apparently, the stars were aligned and the universe was imploring me to pay attention, for the next morning I and other members of our community had the good fortune to hear our own Hillbrook parent and psychologist, Sarah Levoy, talk about mindful parenting at the HSPC meeting. Sarah provided a brief introduction to the topic and then shared several activities that challenged us to reflect on our interactions with our children. She asked us to rate which obstacles most commonly interfere with our ability to fully be present with our child or children, with choices ranging from being distracted by your other children, work on your mind, social media, environmental distractions, or running late. I cringed a bit as I thought about the whirlwind departures that sometimes happen in our household and how I am most definitely not my best in those moments. She also challenged us to think about a moment in which we had felt like we were a parenting superstar, and another in which we had been less than our best. Needless to say, both scenarios gave me pause.

Coming together in such rapid succession, these three touch points challenged me to think about how I am making sense of the always on, often hectic world we inhabit. The biggest takeaway? The way we experience our life is something we can control. It is the lesson we teach children from the youngest ages. We all likely remember telling our children, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” or some variation of that sentiment. While we can’t control every outcome and while we can’t ensure that things always work out the way we want them to, we can always manage how we react to those things. The key, it seems, is recognizing two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time – we have both more control and less control than we think.

Returning to Haemin Sunim, I particularly appreciated this tweet from last week. “Do only one thing at a time. When you walk, just enjoy walking. When you listen, really listen. You will become happier and more centered.” I’m adding one more for myself – “When on Twitter, tweet. When on Facebook, like. At all other times, keep the phone in your pocket and live in the moment.”

Nov 082016


perspective“To the middle, run to the middle,” I yelled from the sidelines to one of the players on the U9 girls soccer team I’m helping to coach. As her teammate dribbled down the sideline and prepared to send a cross to the middle of the field in the front of the goal, the player turned around and ran back toward the center circle – the middle of the field. I started to yell and then, simply, stopped. After the ball went out of bounds, I called the girl over to the sideline and tried, as best I could, to explain what I had meant. She had a big smile on her face and nodded enthusiastically, and yet I could tell she wasn’t following me. “Just play hard, try to get the ball, and have fun,” I said as I sent her back out on the field.

Coaching 7 and 8 year old girls this Fall has been humbling. I find myself trying to balance the need to teach the difficult and technical skills of soccer – controlling the ball with your feet and other parts of your body, passing to a teammate, receiving a pass from a teammate, shooting – with the need to teach basic game sense and understanding of strategy. My co-coaches and I have tried to structure practices so the children are touching the ball all the time, not standing around in lines, and thus they are focusing on moving and developing a feel for the ball. We have also tried to provide some basic understanding of the game so that when we get on the field, they are not just chasing the ball. While the former has been successful – the girls are touching the ball a lot in practice – the latter has been harder. We have been the masters of the swarm much of the season, although there have been moments of passing and spacing these past few weeks that provide hope.

For context, soccer was my favorite sport growing up, and I remain a passionate fan of professional soccer. I also coached older players – high school junior varsity and varsity soccer teams – for a number of years earlier in my career. To be clear, no one is going to invite me to coach a top soccer team anytime soon, and yet I probably know more than your average AYSO soccer coach.  

Coaching this team has reminded me of a few important lessons that apply to parenting and school.

First, controlling children is not the same as teaching children. Soccer is complex and fluid, and it is not possible to create a script and simply direct children around the field. I can yell to the girls to get to the middle, and yet so many things can make that difficult, from the challenge of controlling the ball to the abstract nature of the flow of the game. The fundamental beauty of soccer to me is that it is a player’s game, not a coach’s game. Just like in parenting our children, we ultimately need to sit back and let them control their own game.

Which leads to the second lesson – I need to understand the children I have in front of me and meet them where they are. A quick review of the Yardsticks developmental continuum that we often share with parents reminds me that 7 and 8 year olds can “Listen well but may not always remember what they’ve heard,” and that they “may give up when things are hard.” It also notes, that they are “full of energy, play hard, work quickly, and tire easily.”  Wondering about the different shapes and sizes of children out there? Well, not surprisingly, they “may have a growth spurt.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have a “limited attention span, and short exercise breaks help concentration.” I’m no longer coaching high school varsity players, nor do I necessarily want to be – but that’s a column for a different day.

Which leads to the final lesson – I should not be measuring success by whether we win or lose the game. I will admit that I am competitive (probably more competitive than I sometimes want to admit) and there have been moments where I’ve been enthusiastically directing the girls on the field and getting pulled into the competitive nature of the moment. “Go, go, go,” I’m yelling from the sideline. And then I look over and see the three girls who are sitting on the sideline with me doing cartwheels. Perspective is important.

Next week, two excellent speakers will be visiting the area as part of the Common Ground speaker series – Richard Weissbroud and Frank Bruni. Both have written interesting books, Weissbroud’s book The Parents We Mean To Be focused on parenting and children’s moral and emotional development, while Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be challenges students and parents to rethink how they view the college experience. The two will be delivering separate talks – Weissbroud at Nueva on Tuesday, November 15 and Bruni at Bellarmine on Wednesday, November 16. In addition, the two will be part of a joint discussion, moderated by Denise Clark Pope, on Tuesday, November 15 at Menlo School. For those who don’t know, Denise Clark Pope is impressive in her own right, as the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and the founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that challenges parents and schools to redefine the meaning of success.

While Weissbroud and Bruni are not talking about soccer, the lessons that I have been reminded of in coaching 7 and 8 year-old girls are not too dissimilar from the lessons they are exploring, albeit in the context of older children. For those who are new to the Hillbrook community, we were one of the founding schools of Common Ground more than 10 years ago and the group continues to bring extraordinary speakers to help all of us – parents, teachers, and coaches – work with our students and children.

A final note about the team. A few weeks back, I found myself at 8:15 am on a Saturday morning with ten eager girls dressed and ready to play an 8:30 am soccer game. The only problem? The other team wasn’t there. The rainy weather had created confusion about whether or not we could use the field and thus the other team did not show. Our team’s other coach and I talked and then we talked with a few other parents. What should we do? “The parents should play the kids,” one child said enthusiastically. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?” One hour later, a number of us collapsed on the sideline, big smiles on our faces, as we completed perhaps the best sixty minutes of the season. A parent smiled at me and said, “You know what? This is what they are going to remember.”

Sep 022011

Hear about the Flash Mob at the end of Flag on Wednesday?

Inspired by an independent school in New York City that had done a similar performance at the end of last year, our faculty and a small group of parents embraced the opportunity to infuse the opening day with a sense of possibility, a dash of risk-taking, and a healthy sense of play. If the reaction of the students was any indication, I think we hit the mark. A special thanks to faculty members Paige Campbell, Roberta Lipson, and Brian Ravizza for spearheading the effort.

The Flash Mob is an apt metaphor for the start of the year, as it represents the sense of possibility that comes with a new beginning. As an educator and a parent, I always see the start of school as an opportunity to start fresh and make this year even better than the year before.

Excited about the positive response to iPads in the 7th grade last year? Let’s implement across the Middle School. Frustrated by the clothes strewn all over the campus at the end of each week? Here’s the chance to create a new lost & found system. Tired of morning battles with my own children to get them out of bed, dressed, fed, and on the road? Let’s find a way to make them increasingly responsible for their own morning routine this year (I’ve got my fingers crossed on this one).

With this strong sense of the possible in mind, I want to offer several pieces of advice that you might consider as you and your children embark on the school year. It is no accident that our faculty spends significant time the first week of school clarifying expectations, establishing routines, and modeling behaviors. I encourage you to think with your children about how you can create the conditions to ensure a successful school year for your family.

1) Help your child develop a growth mindset.

A few years back, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck offered the following somewhat counterintuitive finding – telling children they are smart can actually cause their performance to decline. In her bestselling book, Mindset, Dweck pointed to studies that showed children who are told they are smart are less likely to challenge themselves or take risks, choosing instead to play it safe out of fear that making a mistake will disprove the “smart label.” On the other hand, children who are praised for effort and perseverance are eager to take on increasingly difficult tasks and challenges.

Dweck compared a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” People with a fixed mindset are convinced that they are what they are. The path to success? Focus on the things you already know you can do. Why risk doing something that will make you appear dumb or unskilled?

People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that there is always an opportunity to grow and change. People with a growth mindset are willing to try something new and potentially fail, because they don’t think it defines them forever as a failure. They are focused on effort and always thinking about new ways they can approach a situation or challenge.

How do we help our children develop a growth mindset? Recognize effort, creative problem solving and perseverance and comment upon it. When working with your child on homework instead of saying, “Great job with that problem. You are so smart,” you might comment “I’m so impressed with the creative way in which you approached that problem.” In the car after a soccer game, you might comment, “You were really working hard out there today. I noticed how you tried those new moves you learned in practice the other day. Way to take a risk and try something new!”

Here are a few questions you might ask at the end of the day to foster a growth mindset in your child:
What was the most difficult thing you did today?
What mistakes did you make today? Any failures? What did you learn from those challenges?

In short, celebrate risk taking and applaud mistakes. Children notice what we focus upon. If we only reward success and most of our praise sounds like, “you are smart” they will focus on doing things they know they can do so they are seen as successful. Emphasize effort and perseverance and children are much more likely to take on new challenges and realize their highest individual potential.

2) Maintain balance – don’t let your child’s life become over-scheduled

As we all know, activity creep can happen even to the most vigilant family. Soccer and music on Monday, Taekwondo Tuesday, Girl Scouts, tutoring and soccer on Wednesday….. it’s no wonder that the entire family reaches the weekend ready to drop. Of course, we then find ourselves running around attending various games, competitions, birthday parties, and more.

Child development experts consistently lament the loss of unstructured playtime for children today. Too much time spent in adult-directed activities can prevent children from developing essential life skills – problem solving, conflict resolution, resilience, perseverance, and creativity to name just a few. In addition, too many activities can leave us quickly feeling like we are running non-stop.

Let me be clear – there is no right answer for all children and each family needs to determine its own threshold. I would guess, however, that we all would benefit from taking a step back and really thinking about the schedules our children are undertaking this year. What is the purpose of each activity? Are there any activities that might be worth reconsidering? There is no better time than the beginning of the school year to have this conversation.

I should also quickly add that this is one of those “easier said than done” experiences. As a parent, I find myself struggling to find the right balance. The important thing? Pay attention and don’t be afraid to limit the number of activities.

3) Allow your child to experience the blessing of a skinned knee.

One of my favorite education books of the past 15 years is The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. Dr. Mogel was one of the first people to write about the growth of “helicopter parents” – parents so focused on their child’s “success” that they hover at all times and never allow children to experience life on their own. She recounted story after story of parents who believed that their job was ensuring outcomes and keeping their children from experiencing pain or disappointment.

Colleges now struggle with this, as parents who supported their children 24/7 in high school are now pushing on to college campuses and trying to manage everything from getting their child into the right class to ensuring they have a good roommate to pressuring professors to reconsider their grades on papers. Behavior that would have been considered incomprehensible twenty years ago strikes some as perfectly natural.

As parents, we need to remember that our job is to prepare our children for life – not shelter them from it, which means that we need to help them develop the skills to be independent, confident, and self-reliant. We can’t always solve their problems.

Every day children come into the office with splinters, scrapes, and, yes, skinned knees. As all of us know, a little ice, an occasional band-aid, and a little TLC is all that is needed to get most of them back out there running around on the playground in just a few minutes.

Next time your child comes to you with a problem – “so-and-so was mean to me on the playground”, “Mrs. X was completely unfair because she wouldn’t accept my late homework”, “my life is over because I didn’t make the A team in soccer” – remember the skinned knee and think about what your child really needs to get back out there. It can be tempting to step in and call the teacher or coach and demand something be done, but in most cases this intervention is a missed opportunity to allow a child to solve their own problem. In addition, we need to remember that some situations won’t end well and that it is important that children realize life is not always fair or easy and they won’t always get what they want.

Keep these three things in mind – develop a growth mindset, maintain balance, and honor the blessing of a skinned knee – as you and your family embark on the coming year. Most importantly, remember, while we often find ourselves measuring life by how we feel at the end of each day, the true measure of success for our children and ourselves can only be measured by taking the long view. We are a life preparatory school – focused on raising confident children who love learning and who have the skills and knowledge they need to allow them to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. It is a marathon, not a sprint. I look forward to joining you for an important part of your journey.

Jun 032011
More than once this week, I’ve had people ask me, “How are you doing?” and then pause, giving me that that I know the end-of-the-year is near look. Each time I’ve answered honestly, “I’m feeling a little tired.”
To be clear, it’s a happy tired, the feeling you have when you know you are near the end of something that has been really worthwhile, something that has required commitment, energy, and perseverance; something satisfying because it has had moments of difficulty and setback, as well as of great joy; something rewarding because it has required real effort.
As I reach the end of my second year at the school, I know that we have accomplished some significant work as a community in the last two years – revised our mission and philosophy to more clearly articulate who we are and what we do, adopted a new strategic plan – Vision 2015, implemented new math and social emotional learning programs, successfully completed our first programmatic audit – English/Language Arts – and started to implement changes including the creation of a Writing Coordinator position, piloted iPads in the 7th grade with plans to start a full, take-home program across the Middle School next year, launched an effort to build a better middle school by expanding our enrollment.
Looking at the list, I am proud of what we have accomplished but also mindful that it is only the beginning of the exciting work we hope to do as we more fully implement Vision 2015 in the years ahead. As a school we are a dynamic and evolving organization, always striving to be the best we can be, never content to rest on our laurels.
Spending time on campus this week, I was struck that the same dynamic is at play with our students. Several times this week I saw students almost sink into their seats as I helped them into the car at the end of the day. Many were lugging bags of items – treasures from the classroom that they were taking home to share with their family. As they sat down, it was clear that they were tired.
Evidence of why they are tired was in full display this week on campus.
Touring the Art Show, for example, I marveled at the exceptional work that our students had produced. Looking at the various pieces – from the ceramic penguins created by our Kindergartners to the exquisite busts, photographs, drawings, chairs, and ceramic pieces of our middle schoolers – there was ample evidence of craftsmanship. Touring the work of our oldest students, I marveled at the attention to detail and the hours of meticulous work that had to be done in order to produce such high quality artistic pieces.
Wednesday’s Author’s Walkabout provided a remarkable showcase for the writers and readers in our 1st and 2nd grades. Despite the weather, the enthusiastic and unflappable students read their stories to an eager audience of adults. Students – some that had not even been fluent readers in September – proudly shared the product of several months of hard work and effort.
Across the campus similar scenes have played out over the last month, some big, some small. For each student, there is undoubtedly a moment they can look back on over the course of the last few months when they recognized that they have grown and changed. Take a few minutes this weekend and ask your child. What was the biggest challenge he or she faced this year? A moment of accomplishment? A time they took a risk? Perhaps a failure….what did he or she learn from it?
As a school, we strive to challenge students and provide them opportunities that will allow them to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. All of that hard work however is, in the end, tiring, which takes us back to where I started today’s column.
Look at any great athlete’s training schedule. You will notice that there is a balance between intensive workouts and focused practice, on one hand, and significant time for rest and rejuvenation, on the other hand. All of us – students, faculty, and parents – need to make sure we maintain that same balance.
In just a few days, we will say good-bye to the fabulous Class of 2011, put students in the car for the last time for the summer, and then take a few days to hold end-of-year meetings, clean-up classrooms, and close out gradebooks. By the end of next week, the faculty will have started scattering for their summer adventures. Some of these adventures involve intensive work – a significant number of our faculty are engaged in meaningful summer fellowships – but the rhythm, the pace, and the intensity of summertime will be different from what we experience during the school year. This shift is a good thing.
It is important to work hard and it is also important to disconnect, to relax, and to provide time for reflection and rejuvenation. I hope that everyone has an opportunity this summer to take some time to disconnect with your family. I’m looking to take advantage of the slightly slower pace of summer to get out of the office a little earlier on many days, spend more time playing outside with my family, read books that are not connected to school, and maybe even take a risk and try something new.

It has been a fantastic 2010-2011 school year. I wish everyone much rest, relaxation, and renewal this summer.