Mar 172017

gratitudeI had the opportunity to hear Brené Brown at the recent NAIS National Conference in Baltimore. Author of several books, including bestsellers Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brown has garnered a great deal of attention by speaking to the powerful role that shame and vulnerability play in our lives, and how we need to understand and lean into those feelings if we are ever going to be able to be courageous and do great things.

Brown is a gifted and humorous speaker, and she managed to be simultaneously disarming, funny, and thought-provoking, as she challenged each of us to think about how our fear of being vulnerable leads to misunderstanding. It takes courage to speak our truth, particularly to those closest to us, she noted. She told a story of a morning swim with her husband that quickly devolved into a fight when the two of them failed to understand what the other was thinking. She encouraged us to develop facility with the phrase, “The story I am telling in my head…,” as a way to open conversation with another person and help them understand what you are thinking and, in the process, often help to reveal the misunderstanding at the core of the conflict.

I quickly thought of the many misunderstandings I had with people, especially my own family members, as I leapt up the ladder of inference and became frustrated, judgmental, and angry instead of opening myself up to a real conversation and a search for understanding. I thought of a recent situation in which one of my children came to me to ask if we could get a subscription to Adobe Photoshop. I looked up from my computer, and immediately, angrily, and, let’s be clear, irrationally launched into a mini-tirade about how all my children ever do is ask for things and want more. I was tired of their sense of entitlement and their never-ending need for things. I then turned back to what I was doing, shutting the conversation down.

Later, with the benefit of time and perspective, I went back to said child and asked them to tell me more. It turns out, that this child had already figured out a way to pay for this service by canceling another service we had, and was not simply asking for something more. I sheepishly listened and we worked out an arrangement that, in the end, actually highlighted the importance of financial management and this child’s growing awareness that “money does not grow on trees.”

It was definitely a low point as a parent, and one that I’m not proud of in the least. I could make a number of excuses, but if I’m being brutally honest (ie, fully vulnerable) and if I play out “the story in my head”, the question triggered complex feelings from my own childhood about money, an underlying fear that careless expenditures of money would have long-term consequences, coupled with shame about any type of conspicuous consumption. The latter undoubtedly traces all the way back to a purchase in 7th grade of an expensive pair of Vuarnet sunglasses with money I had earned through yard work and babysitting, a purchase that my parents viewed with a combination of disgust and disappointment. In retrospect, I now recognize their feeling – it was discomfort with the privilege I had (the ability to purchase a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses) combined with a larger fear that I would not recognize my privilege and would simply become entitled.

Brené Brown beautifully addressed this concept when she talked about her own efforts to ensure her children were not entitled. She distinguished between privilege – unearned access to resources  – and entitlement – expectations of access to resources. The key to keeping the one – privilege – from becoming the other – entitlement? Understanding and gratitude.

As a parent, how do we do this? I think it is important to explicitly name the privileges your children have, as well as helping them see how privilege varies across different communities. It is important for children to recognize, for example, that within the Hillbrook community, different families have different types of privilege, whether due to differences in socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. At the same time, even with those differences, it is helpful for our children to recognize the privilege that all Hillbrook children have simply by being students at the school, namely, access to an educational experience that the vast majority of children throughout the Bay Area and around the world do not have.

And how do we teach gratitude? To my mind, the best way to teach that is by modeling it for your own children and by showing your own gratitude for the things and experiences you find valuable. I regularly tell my children about how grateful I am to be part of this community, how grateful I am to live in such an extraordinarily beautiful area, and how grateful I am to have the freedom and the opportunities that I have had throughout my life.

For additional exploration  you might check out the following:

Feb 152013

One of my personal goals this year has been to say “yes”, more than I say “no”. To be more specific, I have become increasingly conscious of those moments in conversations where I shift from listening mode to responding mode and, how frequently, my knee-jerk reaction is to say “no” or “yes, but” instead of saying “yes” or “yes, and”. It is part of the broader pattern that many of us often fall into when having a conversation, waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas or focusing on why something can’t happen, rather than truly listening to the other person and then building upon their ideas.

I take no credit for this insight. Patricia Ryan Madson, a professor at Stanford University, offers this as the first rule in her charming book Improv Wisdom. I was introduced to Patricia’s ideas last summer after she led one of the sessions in the Center for Teaching Excellence Innovative Leadership Seminar. On the improv stage, Patricia’s concept makes perfect sense. As she explains in her book, improvisation requires you to view everything as an offer. In order for it to work, you must retain an open mind and build a relationship of trust; in other words, you need to explicitly accept that you are in this scene together. Knowing that someone is going to always respond with yes provides that security. Given the level of vulnerability associated with doing improv, a simple rule like always say yes provides a safety net.

So how does it work in the real world?

I first saw the impact of this in meetings with several other administrators who had also participated in the seminar. Following Patricia’s session last summer, we informally challenged ourselves to respond to each other by saying, “yes, and…”  instead of “no” or “yes, but.” For example, in the past, if we were discussing calendar dates for the upcoming year and someone said, “Do you think we should consider shortening summer to 6 weeks and start school the first week of August?” the response would likely be, “No, that’s ridiculous. We would never do that.”

Now, however, the response might sound like this: “Yes, AND we should make sure to talk to faculty, parents and students before making that decision.”

The impact is subtle, yet I have found it to be profound. While we are unlikely to make that change, the second answer is additive and builds on the original comment, instead of simply shooting the idea—and, in the process, the person—down. This is more than a simple clever play with words—it is a mindset shift that leaves you more open to possibilities, and more open to collaborating with other people.

Let me quickly add, there are still times where we have to say no. “Can I have another piece of candy, Daddy?” rarely merits a yes. The key, however, is to pay attention to how our initial reaction is often to block someone instead of trying to find a way to work with them.

Today, more than 50 children took to the stage to perform in the Talent Show. The acts varied dramatically from children playing classical music to children singing and dancing to children swinging hula hoops. Each year, I am always struck that what makes this show special is that it is a show for children by children. Each act is met with generous applause, each participant is appreciated for who they are and what they bring to their moment in the spotlight. As I watch the Talent Show, I am inspired to see that as a school community, we are focused on saying yes, on recognizing each offer that is being made. I am reminded yet again that as an adult I sometimes need to relearn those lessons that came so naturally to me as a child.

Nov 162012

Our youngest, Piper, woke me up at 3 in the morning the other night. It has become a pretty consistent pattern. She’ll sleep through the night for one or two days and then, all of a sudden, her big brown eyes will be staring at Carla and me from the side of the bed. Of our three children, she has been the quirkiest sleeper. She slept through the night early and was a “good” sleeper until she was about 2½. The last 18 months, however, she has struggled to sleep through the night consistently.

I wish I could claim I was a perfect parent who calmly and rationally found a way to soothe her at this dark hour of the night. Unfortunately, I have found myself increasingly frustrated and at certain moments desperate for a solution. We have tried one of us lying down next to her in her bed, bringing her into our own bed, or just plopping her back into her bed and letting her cry herself back to sleep. One or two nights will go by and, just when I think we may have a resolution, she’s back in our room, eyes wide open, pleading for Mom and Dad.

I mention all of this not for sympathy—I know that all of you have been there at some point, and many of you are there right now—nor in an effort to ask for help finding a solution. I mention it because it was the first thing that popped into my mind today as I was thinking about why I am thankful.

With Thanksgiving next Thursday, it is the season to take a step back and reflect on the many things we have in our lives for which we are thankful. In a community where we are blessed with so much, it is easy, I suspect, for most of us to generate answers relatively quickly. Speaking for myself, I immediately note that I am grateful for my health, for a partner and children who love me and who are blessed with their own good health, and for a job that I find challenging, inspiring, and incredibly rewarding. I am thankful for this community where my entire family has been welcomed these past three years and to be at a school that has a vision, mission and core values that are closely aligned with my own personal values and beliefs.

All of those things are true, and yet I find myself drawn to thinking this year about how I am—and should be—thankful for those things in my life which may not at first glance be obvious things to appreciate. I started to think about how important it is to challenge myself to keep a perspective on life that strives to find the positive—the proverbial silver lining—in difficult moments. It is easy to be thankful for the good things, but shouldn’t I also strive to be thankful for at least some of the challenges?

When I was 13 years old, I competed in nine tennis tournaments. It was my first year in the 14 and under division and I won only two matches the entire season. During the summer, I know I found little to appreciate in the experience, yet, looking back, I know that I learned more about perseverance, humility, and good sportsmanship than perhaps at any other time in my life. I’m thankful for that summer and for the important life lessons it taught me.

The past 18 months I have worked tirelessly along with many other members of the community to put together our application to modify the conditional use permit, thus allowing us to grow our enrollment. The opposition has, at times, been fierce and the situation is definitely not resolved. I am thankful, however, that through it all the Hillbrook community has remained respectful and professional, and that as a community we have proactively taken steps to improve the traffic situation in the neighborhood. The process has made us better neighbors, and for that I am grateful.

So, I ask myself, why should I be thankful for Piper’s 3 am visits?

I’m thankful that I still have at least one child who believes that being with her parents can be comforting in the middle of the night. I’m thankful that Piper is challenging me to become a more patient and understanding parent. I’m thankful that she gives me a kiss and a hug every morning, even after those nights when I have eventually had to take her back to her own bed and let her cry herself back to sleep.

And, finally, I’m thankful that she reminds me that the true test of our character and unconditional love is not how we respond to the good times, but how we react during the inevitable times of challenge.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Jun 052012

The following are my remarks from this morning’s Class of 2012 graduation:

Good morning students, faculty, parents, grandparents, and friends and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2012. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Mayor Steve Rice, Chair of the Board of Trustees Steve Benjamin, Head of Middle School Brent Hinrichs, and Sean Reilly , graduate from the Class of 2008. I also want to extend a special welcome to our first graduate, Richerd Cancilla. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the multi-talented, ever enthusiastic, and soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2012.

Today marks a significant transition for the 28 dynamic young men and women seated behind me on the stage. Yet they are not the only ones who are undergoing change. In front of me sit their proud parents and in many cases proud grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings.  For the parents, today marks a major milestone, the movement of your son or daughter from middle school to high school and the beginning of an exciting new chapter in their lives. I hope that your sons and daughters have thanked you for all of the love and support you have provided through their years at Hillbrook, but if, by chance, they have not, let me, on their behalf, thank you. You have given them the gift of an extraordinary educational foundation, a gift that will stay with them throughout their lives.

Today also marks a transition for long-time Middle School Head Brent Hinrichs. Brent joined Hillbrook back in 1999 and has played an instrumental role in making Hillbrook the school that it is today. He helped to rebuild the campus – both literally and figuratively – and he has helped to lay the foundation for the Middle School’s long-term success. We wish Brent the best of luck as he and his family head off for the East Coast and a new opportunity at the Congressional Schools outside Washington, DC.

The Class of 2012 might be thought of as the iKid class. As 7th graders, they were the fortunate group who had the opportunity to pilot the first set of iPads. Along with their teachers, they boldly ventured into new and uncharted territory, territory that no other school in the country or the world occupied in the Fall of 2009. In December of that year they found themselves on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News and later that spring a video was made showing the new iPad program in action. That video, by the way, has now gone viral. Just last month, one of our administrators was at a meeting with schools from throughout California and all of a sudden a clip of 8th grader Sophie Green talking about the benefits of the iPad appeared onscreen.

I should add that by calling them the iKid class I don’t mean to suggest that their time at Hillbrook is defined only by the iPad experience. The first 8 years of their time at Hillbrook, after all, predated the invention of the iPad. Indeed, when the original cohort of JKers arrived in the Fall of 2002, iPods had only just recently been invented and YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were still several years away from being created.

No, the iKid moniker reflects the type of class they are. There is an openness to new ideas, a willingness to take risks, and a spirit of creativity. They are flexible and adaptable. They are also articulate, able to share their experiences and their insights with others.

Looking at the Class of 2012 a word that keeps surfacing for me is – possibility. These young people have the skills, knowledge and confidence to do anything to which they set their minds.

I have recently been reading Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book, Imagine. In the book, Lehrer talks about creativity, focusing on the key factors necessary to foster and nurture creativity in people. At one point in the book, he talks about the classic children’s story, Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. I’m sure all of our youngest students in the audience remember the story, but just in case we have some people who haven’t read it in awhile, here is a quick synopsis: the book follows a young boy, Harold, who decides to go for a walk in the moonlight. Using a purple crayon, Harold draws the moon and a path and starts off on his adventure. Realizing the path doesn’t seem to be taking him anywhere, he draws a shortcut that leads to where he thinks a forest should be.  Fearful of getting lost in the forest, he draws a single tree that then becomes an apple tree. To protect the apples on the tree until they have a chance to ripen, he draws a monster that ends up scaring Harold. As he backs up his hand shakes and, before he can stop himself, he realizes he has created an ocean. Thinking fast, he draws a boat and climbs in. The book proceeds in this way until at the very end he ends up back in his home, where he literally makes his bed , draws up his covers, and falls asleep.

The book beautifully captures the spirit of the possible – Harold imagines what he wants to happen and then draws this new reality. It is empowering to watch Harold create his own world. The possibilities seem endless. At the same time, however, the book also captures the obstacles that inevitably appear as you create your own adventure. As Harold draws the new reality he has to deal with the world he is creating. In other words, the world he imagines becomes real and he then has to confront the challenges or problems that he inadvertently creates. Harold never falters, as he realizes that he holds the key to the solutions in his purple crayon. He falls into the ocean but he is able to draw a boat to pull himself out. Later in the story, he falls from the top of a mountain, so he draws a hot air balloon that safely brings him to the ground. At the end, he can’t seem to find his way home until he remembers that when he sees the moon in his bedroom it is always surrounded by his bedroom window. He draws the window and, lo and behold, finds himself back at home.

The lesson I ask the members of the Class of 2012 to take away is thus twofold. First, don’t lose your belief in the possible. You have shown yourselves to be flexible, creative, and open to new ideas and opportunities. Keep that spirit – it will serve each of you well.

Second, and just as importantly, recognize that as you pursue new things and create your own reality – you will be faced with obstacles that you won’t be able to foresee. Life will be full of challenges that are, in reality, opportunities. Remember Harold and his purple crayon and realize that you have the resilience, the creativity, and the ingenuity to tackle any problem that may come your way. Put another way, each of you possesses your own purple crayon – don’t be afraid to use it.

Class of 2012 – you are a bright, talented, and thoughtful group of young people.  I know you will have many adventures in the years ahead and I’m confident you will make the Hillbrook community and your families proud. Congratulations.

Jun 012012

Several years back, Anna Quindlen published one of the more memorable essays on parenting I’ve read. Written after all three of her children had left home, she reflected upon the anxiety and worry that had accompanied so much of the journey of raising children, as she kept trying to figure things out. To make matters even more complicated, each child responded differently to different things.

So what did she learn? All the child-rearing advice in the world was not as important as learning from each child what he or she needed. Indeed, in spite of differences in approach, each child in the end learned to talk, walk, “go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves.” Put another way, even the fussiest toddler sleeper eventually ends up as a teenager who wants to sleep until noon on the weekend.

So what was her biggest regret?

“The biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough…. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”

In just a few days, we will celebrate the graduation of the Class of 2012. These 28 talented young 8th graders will walk across the outdoor stage and head off into the next exciting chapter of their lives. Some of them have spent 9 or 10 years at Hillbrook, the longest tenure they are likely to spend at any school during their lives.  All of them are impressive and each has their own unique gifts. They are thoughtful, articulate, interesting young people, quick to ask questions, poised around adults, and, for the most part, comfortable and confident in their own skins.

Clearly, they all still have a lot of growing up to do, physically, intellectually and emotionally. Indeed, one of my favorite moments at graduation is listening to the speech from the high school senior who won the Hillbrook Award four years earlier. Seeing these soon-to-be-college students – only four years removed from their Hillbrook experience – reminds me of how much change still lies ahead for our graduates.

For parents, I know there is a bit of a paradox. Major milestones – whether it be the first day of school, the first lost tooth, crossing the bridge to 5th grade, or graduation all seem to sneak up on us, occurring long before we expect them. At the same time the day-to-day process of raising children can seem at times overwhelming, exhausting, and, sometimes even endless. I suspect there is not a parent who hasn’t had nights where they have felt at wits end, clueless about what to do, whether it involved trying to resolve the bed-time trials of a young child, the social turmoil of a 3rd or 4th grader, or the homework angst of a middle schooler.

I think the simple wisdom that Anna Quindlen tapped into in her short article is worth remembering. Raising children is unpredictable, often complicated, and occasionally destabilizing. There are no right answers and, ultimately, we can only do the best we can do, providing our children with a variety of opportunities, unconditional love and as much patience as we can muster on any given day.

Amidst the ups and downs, the daily grind, we don’t want to become so obsessed with getting it done that we lose sight of the process. As a school, we constantly remind students that it is the process – not just the final product – that is at the heart of real learning. Parenting is the same way.

In the middle of her essay, Anna Quindlen noted, “Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay.” She also adds, “When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousands ways that I back off and let them be.”

Ultimately, the essay is being written by our children, not by us. We get to be the editors, but we need to use our red pens wisely.

I wish everyone a restful and restorative summer. Savor these moments.

May 132011
While there are many lessons that I learned from my mother as a child, none has stuck with me quite as much as the importance of saying thank you.
As soon as the last present was unwrapped on my birthday, I knew the clock was ticking. Handwritten thank-you cards had to be out within one – or at most two – weeks. When picking me up from a friend’s house or a birthday party, she would always make sure that I went up to the host, looked them in the eye, and thanked them for letting me participate in the day’s activities.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. The act of saying thank you became a habit, a sign of good manners, but I didn’t really understand why it was important to show gratitude or how it impacted me or others.
As I grew older, my mother’s consistent emphasis on gratitude – her expectation that I recognize the good in my life and express appreciation for it – fostered in me a positive mindset and a desire to, as the saying goes, “make lemonade out of lemons,” It’s an attitude that I have tried to retain to this day.
Researchers in the new positive psychology movement are increasingly finding evidence to support anecdotal observations of the importance of fostering gratitude in our children. As Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and a Common Ground speaker earlier this year, noted, “Countless studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious or lonely.”
Gratitude can also be a catalyst for positive behaviors. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been inspired to do something – or do something again – because someone expressed appreciation for my behavior.
It doesn’t take much. A few weeks ago, I read to a group of 2nd graders. The next morning, as I was opening the door at carpool, one little boy jumped out of the car and said, “Thanks again for reading to us yesterday, Mr. Silver. I really liked that book.” With those two quick sentences, that little boy made a huge impression on me, for I realized that my visit to his class had meant something to him. More importantly, his gratitude was completely unsolicited. He wasn’t just trying to be polite or show me good manners. He was expressing genuine appreciation for a small thing I had done for him and his classmates. You can bet his comment has made me even more enthusiastic about reading to his class and others.
As we near the end of the school year, I am particularly attentive to the many ways in which we as a community express gratitude for each other. Earlier this week, the HSPC used their final meeting of the year as a forum to thank people for their involvement in the community. In addition, the group honored Lower School Head Shelly Luke Wille, a moving recognition for a remarkable educator who has given so much to this school in the past six years.
Last weekend, during our 75th anniversary festivities, alumni recognized two Hillbrook legends – retired JK teacher Peggy McNutt and soon-to-be retired librarian Charlene Douglass – as honorary Hillbrook alums. This new recognition, which will become an annual part of our alumni luncheon, is a way for the alumni and the school to show gratitude for teachers who have devoted significant portions of their careers to our school. Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Douglass are worthy entrants into what will eventually become Hillbrook’s equivalent of a faculty hall of fame.
In just a few weeks, we will have an opportunity to appreciate all faculty as part of the annual Faculty Appreciation Day. I know that each family has stories of the powerful impact that different faculty members have had on their children. As a longtime teacher, I can assure you that I still treasure notes from students and parents who thanked me for playing a role in their lives.
Next week will be our first-ever Gratitude Week, an opportunity for us as a community to focus on the many things that we are grateful for at Hillbrook. The week emerged out of conversations of how we can show appreciation for the extraordinary philanthropic support provided by our community this year for the Annual Fund, the Auction, and the Walk-a-Thon. Starting next Monday at Flag, students will have an opportunity to participate in a week-long scavenger hunt to locate signs placed around campus identifying things that people are grateful for at the school. Throughout the week, there will be small expressions of gratitude, a reminder of things both big and small for which we are thankful.
The week promises to raise our awareness about what we are thankful for at Hillbrook and, in the process, foster that spirit of gratitude that my mother tried so hard to develop in me as a child.
I encourage everyone in our community to take a moment to express appreciation to someone. Write a short note to a teacher, thank a fellow parent for the ways in which they have helped you at some point during the year, tell your child’s coach or music teacher how much you appreciate their extra work and effort. It doesn’t matter how you do it – just make the effort to say thank you.

As for me, I’m going to start by expressing appreciation for a very important Hillbrook grandparent – my mother. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to be grateful. Not a day goes by that I don’t recognize how lucky I am.