Dec 092016

p1010251Make the job you want to have.

That’s the advice a Google program manager shared with our 8th graders yesterday during their visit to the Google Campus. It was the punchline to his own story. A graduate student in 2008 at the depth of the economic crash, he and a fellow graduate student took matters into their own hands – they made the job they wanted to have. They founded a toy company that designed apps and, nearly 10 years later, he and his co-founder are program managers at Google. “I get to make toys at age 35,” he said with a smile.

The visit was tied into “Everybody Can Code,” our weeklong effort to create opportunities for students of all ages to participate in a range of coding activities. The goal is to demystify coding and to help students see how coding is at the heart of the transformative changes happening today. In addition, given our yearlong focus on reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world, we want students to understand how coding can make the world a better place.


The focus of the 8th grade field trip was a session with the two founders of Toontastic and one other member of their team. Founded back in 2008, the company was bought out by Google several years ago and the two co-founders became Googlers. The app helps students tell stories by creating cartoons. It is, in essence, a techy puppet show, with the students providing the voices for the computer generated animation. Geared toward 8-12 year olds, the app was a tad young for 8th graders, although it definitely captured their interest and engagement. In just 25-30 minutes, the students quickly explored the app and created some simple stories, mostly silly and not necessarily fully formed, but remarkable in their polish and structure given the short timeframe. The room was full of laughter and enthusiasm, and I’m sure the app would be a hit, particularly with younger students.

Talking with the app’s two co-founders, it became clear that there was a great deal of intentionality and design behind the program. Geared toward educators and students, the app scaffolds the storytelling experience for children, teaching them about the arc of a story and integrating the work of renowned educators like Lucy Caulkin’s, the creator of Writers Workshop at Teachers College Columbia University. The program managers, one of who had taught for several years and another who had initially considered a career in education, were committed to designing a free app that would help children from all different backgrounds learn how to tell stories. Their goal is twofold – the creation of a teaching tool that also becomes a favorite online toy for children.

At the end of the session, the three Googlers took a few minutes to talk with the 8th graders about how the app was making a difference in the world and to offer advice for what a 14-year-old should be thinking about today. We are always telling stories, they noted; indeed, stories are at the heart of the human experience. And, yet, until recently there have been few tools that provide young children the ability to tell a story and speak up. Toontastic gives children a way to share their ideas, to tell their story.

As for advice? One noted that the students need to “rage against the machine of not being creative.” The people he worked with at Google were not just good at ones and zeros, he shared, but knew how to approach problems and how to solve them creatively. Keep drawing, singing, or doing whatever creative things inspire you, he encouraged. Don’t let school stifle your creative soul.

Another manager, as noted early, shared my new favorite line – make the job you want to have. It epitomizes the Hillbrook way, to my mind. Ask what problem you want to solve, start down the path of seeking a solution, collaborate with others along the way, and show your work and learn from it as you make your way back through the cycle. They are the skills we prioritize at Hillbrook – storytelling, creativity, problem solving, risk taking – encapsulated in the idea that we are narrators of our story.

As we often note, we are preparing children for a world that we can only imagine at this point. Yesterday’s visit provided some real-life affirmation that the skills we prioritize at Hillbrook are the skills that will enable our children to change the world.

Thank you to Hillbrook parent and Googler Sherice Torres for setting up this visit for our students.

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.

Dec 162015

During Thanksgiving Break, I had the opportunity to read a book – The End of Life Book Club, which offered a beautiful insight into the power of books to bring people together. The book chronicles the nearly two-year battle of Mary Ann Schwalbe against pancreatic cancer. Written by her son, Will, the book describes the informal book club they create with each other, as they share and discuss a broad range of books during the hours he spends with her during her final years.

Schwalbe’s book reminded me that reading, while ostensibly an individual act as you are actually doing it (unless, of course, you are reading a book aloud to someone), is in reality a powerfully social activity, one that can bring people together and deepen our connection to individuals and ideas. Books often compel us to connect with others, as we want to share what we have experienced or learned. Books can inspire us, challenge us, entertain us, and transform us. Moreover, great books can be read and reread many times, each time providing us a different experience and insights. Where we are in our life or the person we are reading a book with, can profoundly influence our understanding and our experience.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few books I have been reading or rereading recently. While I have read a broad range of books in the last six months, from the bestselling novels The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See to the intriguing history, Dead Wake, which chronicled the sinking of the Lusitania, I thought I would share a few titles connected to education and parenting that are influencing my own thoughts about school. Particularly as the school looks to create a new strategic plan to build upon the transformative work of Vision 2015, I am increasingly struck by the opportunity and the necessity that we face as a school and as an adult community to ensure that Hillbrook, and other schools, prepare our children for the future, and not simply replicate practices that prepared them for the past.

Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner

Written in 2012, Wagner’s book was a follow-up to his earlier work, The Global Achievement Gap. Taken together, the books make a compelling case that schools need to focus less on what you know, and more on what you can do with what you know. Information is readily available and easily accessible, he notes, so education needs to teach you how to make sense of that information. He challenges schools to focus on what he and others have termed 21st century skills, including creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.

People who had the opportunity to see “Most Likely to Succeed,” the film we screened in partnership with the LGUSD this Fall, may remember seeing Wagner in the film.

The End of College, Kevin Carey

Carey shares his vision for the “university of everywhere,” envisioning a future where access to education is easy and inexpensive, perhaps even free. He shares a brief history of higher education, exploring the historical roots of colleges and universities and argues that the current system is seriously broken. While I’m sure that Carey’s vision of MOOCs and online education as a panacea are overstated, I think his questions about the value of a college education should not be taken lightly. Like Wagner and others, at the heart of his book is a critique of what students need to know in order to succeed in today’s world.

How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims

This book has gained a great deal of attention in part because of author Julie Lythcott-Haims professional career, which included a stint as the Dean of Freshman at Stanford University. In her book Lythcott-Haims asks, “Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults?” Her answers echo earlier books on the subject, including one of my all-time favorites, Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, and challenge us to think both about what we are doing as parents and as schools to help prepare children not just for school but for life.

There are several other books still on my book stand that I have not yet had an opportunity to fully read, including Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools – The Grassroots Effort That’s Transforming Education, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, and William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep – The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. These books, like the others I have recently read, challenge us to rethink our traditional models for education and for schools.

With winter break fast approaching, I can’t wait to settle down into a comfortable chair and start reading. During this time of rest and rejuvenation, I invite you to pick up one or more of the books I have read – or I am about to read – and join me in thinking about and discussing the future of Hillbrook. I also encourage you to share with me the books you have been reading and enjoying, whether in education, leadership, or in other fields. As we look forward to welcoming a brand new year, I hope that each of you find within the pages of a book further opportunities to  hope and envision the future of education and our school.

Wishing you all wonderful holidays, a happy new year,  and I look forward to welcoming each of you back to school in 2016.


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Oct 212015

Last Thursday evening, a packed theater of parents and educators from Hillbrook and the Los Gatos Union School District joined together to watch “Most Likely to Succeed,” one of the most widely discussed educational documentaries to appear in several years. The film chronicled High Tech High School, a San Diego-based charter school that has been at the leading edge of conversations about the future of education.

DSC_0366Produced by filmmaker Ted Dintersmith, the documentary focuses on the project-based learning approach at the heart of the High Tech High experience. Through the experiences of two classes – and two students in particular – we see what it looks like when student learning is revealed through public displays of understanding, including a student-written and directed play and an elaborate, multi student-designed artistic installation that merged engineering and historical theory. One student’s inspiring success with the play, coupled with the other student’s struggles, failures, and ultimately success with the installation, highlights the engagement, student ownership, and real world learning that is at the heart of the educational experience.

Central to the documentary’s argument is a refrain increasingly heard from educators, corporate leaders, and thought leaders across our nation – the skills that students need for success in life are changing. As technology has made a growing number of jobs that highlighted muscle and intellectual prowess obsolete (as they noted in the movie, now that IBM’s Watson has conquered chess and Jeopardy, what’s next?), schools need to focus on the skills that are fundamentally human. What are those skills?

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

An article in this past weekend’s New York Times, “The Best Jobs Require Social Skills,” argues that what we learned in preschool is the key to success in the work world. Cooperation, empathy, and flexibility  – skills commonly taught in early childhood programs – are increasingly understood to be essential skills for lifelong success. “Work has become more like preschool,” the author Claire Cain Miller insists, noting that “Jobs that require both socializing and thinking, especially mathematically, have fared best in employment and pay.” She points to the work of James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who argues that “character, dependability, and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.”

At Hillbrook, we have always believed that social emotional skills are as important as academic achievement. From Kindergarten study teams, where they learn to work together as they explore shared passions, to the 8th grade play, where the entire class comes together to produce a complex theatrical production, we create numerous opportunities for students to work together and to focus on being their best, both as individuals and as a group. So does it work?

Last May, we reconnected with the class of 2011 as they prepared to graduate from high school and head off to college. We asked them to talk about their memories of Hillbrook and how it had prepared them for high school, and created this video to help tell their story.

In addition to talking about how well they were well prepared academically, students spoke glowingly about how they were known as individuals at Hillbrook, and they remembered the emphasis on communication and collaboration that clearly positioned all of them to thrive in high school, despite attending an incredibly diverse set of high schools. Perhaps the most memorable line in the video for me is from the student who notes that Hillbrook taught him to learn how to learn, a skill that will ensure success in whatever environment he finds himself.

As a school, we are incredibly proud of the accomplishments of these extraordinary young people, and yet watching “Most Likely to Succeed” I am reminded that we need to keep asking ourselves how we can continue to provide an extraordinary educational experience that remains vibrant and relevant in a world that is ever-changing. As they note in the movie, we are increasingly preparing children for jobs that do not exist today.

Equally as important, we are educating children, not designing widgets. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in the film, education is like gardening. We need to create the conditions to help children grow and thrive. Mary Orem, one of Hillbrook’s  founders could not have agreed more. “As the twig is bent, the tree will grow,” she often said. 80 years later, we continue to heed her words.

Sep 202012

I vividly remember a moment early in my career as a Middle School history teacher. My 8th grade students were recreating the Second Continental Congress, the meetings in Philadelphia in 1775–1776 that ultimately led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Students played fictional characters loosely based on real people, allowing them to represent different viewpoints and different regions and have some grounding in historical reality, while also enabling them to think for themselves and develop their own perspectives.

I had done the simulation for several years and it always went well. But this day, as we started to debate the final resolution—whether or not the members of the Second Continental Congress should approve the Declaration of Independence—I sensed something different. The classroom and the students temporarily transformed and, for the next 50 minutes, I sat back and watched as student after student gave articulate, persuasive, and moving speeches both for and against the decision. Many delegates decried their treatment by the British and demanded the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, insisting that these rights could only be secured as an independent nation. “Give me liberty or give me death,” a character from Virginia appropriately declared. A smaller number of delegates pushed back, arguing that the colonies were incapable of surviving on their own, that the colonists were and had always been British, that they should remain loyal even amidst unfair regulations placed on them by the Crown and Parliament, and that declaring independence would all but guarantee a war that would end in death, destruction, and defeat. Like in the real 1776 convention, the Patriots carried the day, but the decision was in no way foreordained and the final vote left all of us exhilarated and exhausted.

Looking back at the simulation, I realize that it was powerful in large part because the students were not participating to get a good grade, nor were they concerned about getting the “right answer.” They were fully immersed in the complex issues, and for a brief moment, brought to life the emotions—pride, honor, a strong sense of what is right, and a willingness to die for a cause—that would have been on display in Independence Hall more than 235 years ago. No group of students, including high school or college, could have done a better job. I did this simulation and many others during my more than 10 years of teaching, and this transcendent moment still stands out.

I thought of that experience this summer when I had the privilege of spending two days with John Hunter, a 4th grade teacher whose 2011 TedTalk (the most watched Ted Talk of that year) and documentary, “World Peace and other 4th grade Achievements,” have propelled him into the national and international educational spotlight. John’s Master Class, co-sponsored by our newly created CenterforTeachingExcellence, brought together a small group of teachers, including our three Middle School history/humanities teachers, for an intensive, two-day workshop. They looked at how to create a problem-based curriculum—one that places students at the center of the classroom, letting them grapple with authentic and meaningful issues, and leaves the teacher at the periphery serving as a coach, guide, or facilitator. John’s World Peace game, which he has run with 4th graders for more than 30 years, serves as a model, but the teachers who participated were not simply recreating John’s game. Consistent with his approach to teaching students, John served as a facilitator and coach for the teachers and helped each of them begin the process of creating curriculum that was consistent with the goals represented in the World Peace game but that reflected the individual reality and personality of each teacher’s own classroom.

What is particularly inspiring to me about John’s game is that over a 30 year period, he created an experience that ensured that every year students reached the type of transcendent moment I so vividly remember happening that day with my 8th graders. How did John do it? In talking to him, he noted that the secret to his success is that while he created the conditions for the game, he truly lets go once the experience has begun. Each year is a unique experience. He insists—and I believe him—that he doesn’t know what is going to happen. As educators, we often talk about placing children in charge of their own education. John is one of the most powerful examples I have seen of someone who actually walks the walk.

I mention all of this because you will have the opportunity to see John speak as the first Common Ground speaker of the year in early October.  For those who are new to the school, Common Ground is a collaboration between more than 20 South Bay independent schools that brings 5-6 leaders in parenting and education to our schools each year. Speakers are hosted at different schools, with each speaker typically presenting three or four times. All events are free to Common Ground member schools. As one of the founding schools, Hillbrook has long been a proud member of this valuable organization. Visit the CommonGroundwebsite for more details about this year’s speakers and for specific details about John Hunter’s presentation.

I strongly encourage you to attend John’s session in early October. He is a remarkable man—wise, thoughtful, and deeply committed to children and to an audacious vision that believes that you can teach children how to interact and solve problems and, in the process, take a step toward achieving world peace. Of course, our very own Village of Friendly Relations was started with the same vision in mind. Hillbrook’s philosophical founder Mary Orem and John Hunter would undoubtedly have had much to discuss.

Aug 252012

One of the joys of parenthood is the opportunity to see – or at least catch a glimpse – of the world through your child’s eyes. This past summer, I had one of those moments as I watched Piper, our youngest, interact with a horse at a stable. The horse was in a stall, eating, with its head at her eye level. The trough was located next to the fence so that, if she wanted to, she could reach through and touch the horse’s head. I watched her standing a few feet away, sizing up the situation. Should I move closer? Should I reach in? What will the horse do? Piper moved a bit closer to the horse and stopped, so that she was standing less than a foot away from the horse’s head.

The horse – a classic, tourist-trail-riding horse that was used to being touched, prodded, hugged and ridden – barely raised its head as she approached. He took a quick look, decided there wasn’t anything to worry about, and went back to eating. Piper moved even closer so that she was inches from the horse’s head, nearly face to face. The horse barely registered her presence. Ever fearless, she leaned in and gave the horse a quick hug and a kiss on its nose.

As I watched this short scene unfold, what struck me was the sense of wonder that drove Piper’s actions. She was exploring her world, interacting with it, and trying to understand what would happen as she did. Her reaction to the horse letting her not only hug it but kiss it was unbridled joy. She laughed, clapped, took a step back, and then hugged the horse again. She had made a friend and was overjoyed by the experience.

One word that seemed to capture the moment? Curiosity.

It is at the heart of all learning, discovery, and growth. We hold it up as one of our four core values, and we consistently challenge members of our community to strive towards understanding the word in all its complexity and nuance. In fact, we think curiosity is so important that it will be our school-wide theme for the 2012-2013 school year.

From my perspective, curiosity involves three key concepts – a sense of wonder about the world, a recognition that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know, and a desire to spend life relentlessly asking questions and seeking answers.

At some level, the challenge for schools is less inspiring curiosity in our youngest students – like Piper, our early elementary students are overflowing with wonder, a desire to ask questions, and an eagerness to understand the world – but in sustaining that curiosity as children move further along their educational journey. At Hillbrook, we have always been deeply committed to an education that nurtures curiosity and inspires a lifelong love of learning.

This past week during our opening faculty meetings, I had an opportunity to hear countless ways in which teachers spent their summers striving to satisfy their own curiosity. Tinkering at the Tech Shop, leading a group of Hillbrook alumni through the rain forest in Ecuador, studying music in Ghana, exploring the teaching of reading and writing with colleagues at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and discovering the power of games with internationally renowned-speaker and educator John Hunter. Our faculty are true lifelong learners, continually asking questions, seeking new answers, and reveling in the exploration process.

Next Wednesday at our opening Flag, I will challenge each member of our community to approach the 2012-2013 school year with a spirit of curiosity. As parents, I encourage you to not only celebrate your child’s curiosity but to consciously model your own curiosity when appropriate moments arise. We all need to adopt a “curiosity mindset,” one that values learning, growth, risk taking, and exploring what we don’t know, instead of a cautious mindset that plays it safe and focuses on things we already understand.

Whether a student is entering Hillbrook for the 10th year or for the first day, they all have new things to learn, new people to meet, unexplored problems to tackle, great book to read and re-read, and concepts to revisit, re-engage, and understand with a new set of eyes.

At the close of our opening faculty meeting, I shared the following T.S. Eliot quote:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Welcome back – I look forward to a year of exploration, curiosity, adventure and an opportunity to know each of you and our school again for the first time.