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.

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.

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.

Jan 062012

One of the early lessons I learned as a parent was how to short-circuit toddler-driven decision-making gridlock.

You know the routine. You don’t ask, “What do you want to wear today?” Instead, you pull out two outfits and say, “Do you want to wear the polka-dotted dress or the one with the frilly skirt?” Over the last year, I’ve been living this almost daily with my very opinionated three-year old, Piper. Most of the time the strategy works. Piper gains some control and is able to make the decision, and yet I avoid the process of having her look at every dress in her closet. Most of the time….

I was reminded of this last weekend when I happened to catch a short piece on National Public Radio where they were talking about a book that made the rounds just a few years back, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Cass Sunstein and Richard H Thaler. One of the central arguments of the book is that people’s decisions – or behaviors – can be strongly influenced by the context – or “choice architecture” –  in which they make those decisions.

As an example, they talk about the setup of a cafeteria. Placing things in key places – sticking the salad bar at the front of the line instead of hidden behind the burgers and fries – can influence decision-making and encourage healthy choices. As another example, they note that countries that require people to actively opt out of organ donation, instead of having to opt in, have significantly higher organ donation rates.

As parents, our role is to create the framework – the “choice architecture,” so to speak – to support our children in their efforts to make good decisions. When they are toddlers, it may sometime feel like we are just performing tricks to maintain our own sanity – how can I avoid a 10-minute tantrum about today’s outfit? As they get older, however, it becomes increasingly clear that it is about creating a safe and nurturing framework in which our children can grow into independent, self-reliant adults.

Allowing older children to decide how they are going to complete weekend chores, for example, can be a good way to teach them responsibility and offer them a level of choice. Instead of telling them they need to do something at a set time, you can provide them a list on Saturday morning – clean your room and weed a portion of the garden, for example – and then tell them it needs to be done by Sunday evening.

At Flag last Monday, I took a few minutes to talk to the students about kindness. I reminded them that it was the first of our core values and explained that, like a cold, kindness can be contagious. I encouraged them to share heartfelt compliments this week with their classmates, their teachers, and their parents. By actively embracing the challenge to be kind, all of us – students, teachers, parents – can create the strong, nurturing community we all believe in as the foundation for a healthy school.

In a sense, I see our core values as the “choice architecture” of the school. These values provide a strong framework that students operate within. I have no doubt that our constant injunction to student to take risks, for example, creates an environment in which students are more likely to volunteer to complete a difficult math problem or to speak in front of their peers. At Hillbrook, kindness, curiosity and risk taking are default settings within which our students operate on a daily basis and something we hope they take with them to high school and beyond.

Oct 282011

As Head of School, I have numerous opportunities to connect with families and hear their Hillbrook stories. I’ve spoken to people at all different moments during their Hillbrook journey, from families brand new to the community to those who have been part of the school for more than 10 years.  During these conversations I often ask, “Why did you chose Hillbrook?”

Time and time again I hear something like this: “Well, I heard about the school from a friend/neighbor/relative and so thought I should go visit and see what it was all about. As soon as I arrived, I was impressed with the beauty of the campus and I noted what an ideal place it was to be a child. But, in all honesty, what really made me choose Hillbrook was the student who led me on the tour during the Open House.”

At this point, families launch into detailed stories about the Middle School student who guided them around campus. People use words like poised, articulate, reflective, genuine, and refreshingly unscripted. More than one person has said, “After spending time with the tour guide, I hoped that my own child would grow up to be half as impressive.”

Hearing the story over and over provides for me strong confirmation that we are what we say we are – a life preparatory school. After all, the consistent development of these exceptional young adults does not happen by accident. The ingredients? Supportive parents, caring teachers, and an approach to educating children that emphasizes the development of academic and life skills.

It starts from the earliest days when we greet children by name when we open doors for them at carpool. I’m always appreciative of the number of students, even from the youngest ages, who greet me with a “Good morning, Mr. Silver” in response. Teachers continue to model this in the classroom during morning meetings, emphasizing the importance of recognizing other people and making sure that each child is known and valued.

Jokes at Flag teach public speaking and poise in a light-hearted but powerful way. Heard at Flag last week? “What is the difference between a teacher and a train? A teacher tells you to spit out the gum but the train says choo-choo.” Presentations in class are a staple of our program and students are expected as they move through the grades to be able to explain their ideas persuasively and articulately.

The buddies program is another core piece of the experience, bringing together students of different ages to create meaningful connections throughout our campus. For older students, the buddies program teaches them how to take care of a younger friend and helps them develop empathy and, in many cases, patience and understanding. For younger students, they gain a role model and an older friend, someone they can run into as they navigate around campus, a friendly face on the other side of the bridge.

In the end, the life skills – confidence, poise, empathy, self-control – displayed by our Middle School students come from being part of an extraordinary elementary (JK-8) school. Michael Thompson, author of the bestselling book Best Friends, Worst Enemies, writes, “If I could design psychologically safe schools, every elementary school in the United States would go from kindergarten through grade eight and be no larger than four hundred students.” There is an unquestionable benefit to being in a JK-8 school for children, a benefit that is often most pronounced for our oldest students. The chance to be the school leaders, to take risks, to prolong childhood and to develop independence in a safe and nurturing environment is invaluable.

This Monday’s Halloween celebration is a prime example of how Hillbrook allows children to be children. The excitement – and some well-deserved nerves – as the JKers join hands with me and we start off on our journey, the anticipation of the rest of the Lower School students as they eagerly await their turn to join in on the parade, the enthusiastic spirit of our Middle School students as they cheer the younger students on as they come across the bridge, and the energy and excitement of everyone as we gather at the outdoor stage and have an opportunity to see all of the grades show off their costumes. This is an event where everyone – from the youngest JKer to our oldest 8th grader – can be a child, free to dress up, laugh, and revel in the joy that is Halloween. Truth be told, quite a few adults reconnect with their inner child on Halloween as well.

Returning to the tour guides, we don’t do anything to formally prepare students for these tours. No scripts, no coaching, no detailed guidelines for what they should or should not say. All we ask is they wear a uniform and show up on time. We trust these dynamic young adults to share their genuine affection and appreciation for Hillbrook with our visiting families and to answer openly about their school experience. We are confident – and experience has shown us – that they have been and will continue to be exceptional ambassadors.

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.