Jan 102018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 152017
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 282016
 
Photo Credit: Tammy McGarry Nickel

Photo Credit: Tammy McGarry Nickel

This past Saturday morning, recent Hillbrook alums – Alex Nickel ‘16 and Liam Strand ‘16 – were honored as Los Gatos Youth Citizens of the Year. They join a growing list of Hillbrook alums –  Isabel Perez ’15, Courtney Mathisen ’14, Olivia Borenstein Lawee ’14, JT Belshe ’13, Cole Hammers ’13, Molly Ball ’12, and Jo Sanford ’11 – who have received this high honor, an award that recognizes students who have made a significant contribution to the Los Gatos/Monte Sereno community and are role models for other young people.

Their recognition highlights how members of the Hillbrook community are being noticed for our commitment to reaching beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. Last Spring, for example, Hillbrook was by far the largest team entered in theGreat Race. With more than 65 runners, we earned prize money that was then utilized to sponsor the recent Stop Hunger Nowproject that was part of the Week of Service. In just a little over a week, the school is receiving the 2016 Compassion in Action Award from the African Library Project, a recognition for the 15 libraries created by the school in Malawi and Swaziland since 2009. Over the past five years, we have been consistently recognized byBreakthrough Silicon Valley as one of their strongest and most valued partners, a partnership that has made both of our organizations stronger.

Of course, as a school we are not performing a wide variety of service project in an effort to be recognized. Instead, we are striving to live out a core piece of our vision “to reach beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world.” The recognition simply affirms that what we are doing is making a difference and, we hope, inspires others to join us in seeking out their own way to make the world a better place.

Even more importantly, we are continually seeking ways to integrate our service projects into the curriculum. Last Friday, for example, our Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten students met a visitor from the West Valley Waste Management team who taught them about the importance of the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle as they launch their yearlong study of garbage and the impact we have on the environment. This coming Friday, the 3rd grade will be launching their study of disabilities, with the DisAbility Awareness Presentation, a hands-on presentation that helps students gain insight into the reality of those with disabilities by having them experience different types of challenges that people can face. Students then develop a pen pal relationship with local children and, later in the year, meet and play with the children.

HSPC Service Learning Parent Coordinator Elan Nguyen has recently completed a beautiful, inspiring, and accessible exhibit in the library that ties together children’s literature, a wide-array of grade-level service projects, and big questions about how children can make a difference in the world. The exhibit will help teachers, students, and families extend the work we are doing as part of our curriculum and consider how we can push in new and interesting ways to make things better both on campus and beyond 300 Marchmont Drive. I encourage parents when they are next on campus to swing by the exhibit and check it out.

This coming week, we will be donating 100 iPads to Treasures 4 Teens, an organization that provides holiday gifts to under-resourced teenagers. Founded by a group of Los Gatos high school students back in 2010, the organization is currently led by several students, including their vice-chairperson and Hillbrook alumnae Sophie Mortaz ‘13. Youth Citizen of the Year recipient Alex Nickel and Aleksy Coughlin ‘13 also were active members of the organization last year. Sophie’s commitment to service connected Hillbrook with this worthwhile cause, and enabled us to make a gift that will positively impact a number of teenagers this December. Sophie’s leadership and initiative, traits we know were nurtured during her time at Hillbrook, and her recognition that Hillbrook is committed to giving back to our community enabled this positive outcome.
Vision 2020 calls on us to “deepen and extend the work of our Service Learning program, creating opportunities to partner with a broad range of organizations throughout Silicon Valley in order to engage the Hillbrook community in meaningful service projects both on and off campus.” Clearly we are already doing much of this. I can’t wait to see where we take this program in the next four years and beyond.

Sep 142016
 

p1000453

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.

May 292015
 

At the Opening Flag, I challenged the students and the community to keep a kindness journal. I accepted the challenge for myself as well. While my initial instinct had been that keeping track of my own acts of kindness would lead to increased awareness about how to reach beyond myself to help others, I quickly discovered that keeping track of acts of kindness I observed other people doing, instead of focusing on something I did myself, had a larger impact.

Taking a step back, that actually makes sense, as it forced me to pay more attention to the world around me and to recognize what other people are doing, instead of remaining focused on my own actions. In the process, I started to notice that there are some people who are what I would describe as kindness superstars, people who ended up in my kindness journal multiple times over a short period of time.

These are people who were consistently doing small, behind-the-scenes acts of kindness that I may not have noticed in previous years but, with my focus on finding new acts of kindness each day, quickly caught my attention. There was the family that after hours and without drawing any attention to themselves, filled Alan’s office with balloons for his birthday, or the parent who quietly dropped off baked goods in the office for members of the faculty and staff every few weeks. There were the older students who walked with our younger students over to their classrooms in the morning after getting off the bus or out of the car at carpool, and the faculty members who consistently stayed after faculty meetings to put away the chairs so that the maintenance crew did not have to clean them up the next morning.

These kindness superstars had two mains things in common. One, they consistently did things without being asked. They sensed when things needed to be done or when someone needed an extra hand. Two, they never sought – nor rarely received – public acclaim for their actions. They were doing things for selfless reasons, not to receive accolades or attention. It reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote I had seen recently, where he described humility as not “thinking less of yourself,” but “thinking of yourself less.” These kindness superstars are living examples of that quote.

This past month, we have encouraged the community to express its gratitude for the many gifts we have in our lives. In particular, we have encouraged students to express their gratitude for their teachers, the extraordinary individuals who are the heart and soul of this school. Hillbrook’s teachers, like other kindness superstars, are remarkably selfless individuals, people who devote their lives to nurturing, challenging, and inspiring children to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. Wednesday morning the faculty lunch room was filled with notes from students expressing their appreciation and love for their teachers. As I read through many of the notes, I was reminded of the depth of connection between students and their teachers, and the many small things that our teachers do to let students know they are known, valued, and loved.

In the film, “As the Twig is Bent,” former Head of School Robin Clements said that he always wanted students to know that they had been seen, meaning that each day when they arrived on campus they knew they were known and appreciated as an individual and a member of the community. As I think about the 2014-15 school year and the many extraordinary things that have happened inside and outside the classroom, I hope that more than anything, that each child and each family feels like they have been seen. And, perhaps just as importantly, I hope that each student and each family can look back and point to moments when they have made the effort to make sure someone else has been seen. It is, after all, in those moments of humility and reaching beyond ourselves that we are, in the end, most fulfilled and connected ourselves.

I wish everyone a restful and rejuvenating summer.

Mark Silver

Head of School

Apr 252015
 

I watched our core values come to life before my eyes on Monday at Flag.

It started with a short presentation about Nicaragua. Spanish teacher Josyane Kelly and four students – Prianca (‘15), Nikhil (‘16), Sharanya (’16), and Isabel (‘15). – shared reflections from their recent 8-day service learning trip in Nicaragua. Students spoke about the powerful lessons they had learned while helping to build a foundation, literally, for a new school in the community of Tipitapa, Nicaragua. Students worked extraordinarily hard during the trip, moving rocks, connecting rebar, hauling water, mixing cement. They became friends with and worked alongside children and families in the community, gaining an appreciation for how these people, despite extreme poverty, continued to live lives filled with laughter and friendship. Nikhil noted that despite never having experienced air conditioning in extremely hot and humid conditions and living with limited food and resources, these community members exuded a spirit and generosity that inspired all of the students to give more of themselves.

Next up was a group of student leaders from Girls Learn International (GLI), sharing highlights from their educational fundraiser the week before. The four girls – Natalie (‘16), Melody, and Polina (‘18)-  explained the importance of GLI’s work – raising awareness about the critical need to support girls education – and talked about the successful event they had hosted, where students, parents, teachers and administrators came together to learn about the challenges girls face in receiving an education in many parts of the world. They celebrated the successful collection of a little more than $300 through sales of drinks and snacks, money that will be provided to GLI so that they can support efforts to improve educational opportunities for girls around the globe.

Five 8th graders then stepped forward to share their reflections. Brandon talked about shifting friendships through the years, sharing stories about students he had “disliked” in 2nd or 3rd grade who later became his closest friends during his Middle School years. He pointed out the importance of keeping an open mind and of the role that other people had played in helping him to reform relationships with his classmates. Nico, who has only been at Hillbrook for one year, talked about the incredibly warm and welcoming community he found at Hillbrook, and how fortunate he feels to have been able to share his 8th grade year with our community. Justin and Prianca talked separately about the friendship they had with each other, providing related but different insights into the humorous events that had pulled them together and the powerful lessons they had gained from their deep and supportive connection. Charlie reflected on the first joke he told at Flag – the classic “Knock, Knock” banana joke – and the inspiration it had given him to want to be up on stage one day helping to lead Flag. Despite not winning an election in 5th or 6th grade – and only winning in 7th grade when no one ran against him – he continued to believe in himself and he took the risk to run for co-Head, an election he won.

Finally, a group of 6th graders – Alisa, Clara, Yohann, and Zach – reminded people about the African Library Project, one of the school’s long-standing service learning projects. Since 2009, our school has collected enough books to create 10 libraries in Malawi, and our goal once again this year is to collect enough books to seed two new libraries in the year ahead. In addition to encouraging people to donate books, the 6th graders sponsored a bake sale this week raising $590 to cover the cost of shipping the books to Africa.

Listening to each of these student presentations, I was inspired by their poise, their humor, and their commitment to something bigger than themselves. They are kind to each other and to people who they have only just met. Several of them clearly possess a wisdom about relationships and friendship which is wise beyond their years. They are curious, eager to learn about the world, and they are risk-takers, willing to take risks both on and off-campus. They are committed to being their best and to do things that make the world better. They offer powerful evidence that in numerous ways and across the grades our students are continually finding ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference.

This was one Flag – similar to many other Flags I have been privileged to attend through the years – and it reminded me yet again of why I do what I do. These remarkable young people are gaining the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to succeed in school and in life. I have no doubt they are going to change the world. Indeed, as we all could see on Monday, they have already started.