Jan 122017

kindjarTen years ago this week, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to the world. As a school, the iPhone – and its many subsequent iterations and offshoots – has challenged us to rethink the meaning of education. What exactly do students need to know if they have near instantaneous access to information in their pocket?

The iPhone, of course, is just one example of the transformative changes that are happening at an ever more rapid pace. Artificial Intelligence may represent an even greater disruption to our lives. In 10, 20 or 50 years, what exactly will we be able to do more effectively than computers in an age of ever “smarter” technology?

Amidst this ever-accelerating rate of change, we as educators and parents are continually challenged to answer the question: How do we prepare children for a future we cannot imagine today? Some schools answer by playing to fear, creating programs that emphasize rote learning at ever younger ages and arguing, indirectly, that stressful, homework-intensive environments are the best way to prepare children for the world of tomorrow. The message seems to be that visible evidence of “accomplishment” represents learning.

At Hillbrook, we offer what I believe is a more optimistic, child-focused answer. We focus on nurturing the growth of each child, and we understand that authentic learning and understanding happens for different children, at different times. The classic one-size fits all approach to education simply does not work in today’s dynamic environment, in which we are looking to equip students with skills – critical thinking, writing, scientific reasoning, creativity, empathy, cultural competency – that are not taught or measurable through traditional, more rote avenues.

At the heart of Vision 2020 is a challenge to us as a school and a community to reimagine the student experience and create ever-more opportunities for students to engage in authentic problem solving activities. In addition, we have challenged ourselves to push beyond our campus and create opportunities for students to reach beyond themselves and make a difference in the world.

With that as a backdrop, I am excited to announce the launch of a program that we believe will help us transform the educational program at Hillbrook and beyond – the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship – the application of an intentional and entrepreneurial approach to prototyping innovative solutions to social problems – lies at the intersection of several key strands of Vision 2020 – project-based learning, design thinking, making, and service learning – and will be a major driver in helping us to reach beyond our own campus to make a difference in the world. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, for example, has been described as an early social entrepreneur, with his groundbreaking work in micro-financing that enabled philanthropists around the world to loan small sums of money – typically less than $100 – to provide the necessary capital to change someone’s life.

The Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship would build upon the Maker Movement, design thinking, and problem-based learning, challenging students to design products, concepts and processes that aim to make a difference in the world. While many schools across the country have focused on pieces of this puzzle – creating centers for design thinking, for example, or building MakerSpaces – few, if any, schools have created integrated programs that prepare children to be the future leaders and problem-solvers that will make our world a better place.

Like other innovative initiatives in the past five years – our 1-to-1 iPad program, our reimagination of learning spaces, the creation of the Resident Teacher program – we believe that the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship will open the door for us to build connections and partnerships with organizations and schools locally, nationally and internationally.

Our first step is to hire a founding Director for the program. The founding Director has the exciting and unique opportunity to co-create with our community a program that will extend the work we are already doing in service learning, making, and project-based learning. The founding director will join us as we near completion of the design phase and embark on the building of the Hub (projected launch date, January 2019), the new state-of-the-art MakerSpace that will serve as the epicenter of hands-on, project-based learning on campus. The founding director will be charged with designing a social entrepreneurship program that serves our own students and faculty and also creates opportunities to engage the broader community outside of our campus. The founding director will also seek and develop partnerships with community organizations, and will help us explore satellite campus facilities and spaces in the community, and will develop both on-campus and off-campus programming for school year and summer sessions. The full position description is posted on our website.

The Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship is being funded by the largest philanthropic gift in the history of the school – a $2.5 million pledge by Shannon and Kevin Scott, which includes seed funding and an endowment that will fund the center in perpetuity. We are so grateful for their extraordinary generosity, and for their understanding that the future of education requires all of us to create opportunities for students to engage in real-world problem solving. With their support, we will be able to build a program that helps our community to reach beyond our campus and truly make a difference in the world.

Steve Jobs said he wanted to make a dent in the universe. The Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship is one way in which we at Hillbrook are trying to impact the world for the better.

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.

Sep 142016


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.

Jun 012016
3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

3rd graders bring Greek mythology to life in our amphitheater.

Looked at your children recently? I don’t mean just the standard quick glance to see if they brushed their hair or remembered to tie their shoes. I mean the “take a step back, pause and really look at them” moment. I did it the other day with my three children and I did a literal triple-take. Three things struck me. 1) They have grown a lot since September, 2) They have all matured as learners and people in significant ways, and 3) I wish that I could find a way to slow down time.

This is the time of year on campus where we, as educators, find ourselves taking a step back and reflecting on each child. We are inspired by how much growth we have seen in each student over the year, as scientists, as writers, as problem solvers, as artists, as thinkers, and as people. There is a bittersweet quality to the experience, as we realize that the end of the year – and the impending transitions to a new grade or, in the case of our 8th graders, to high school – are right around the corner.

One of the ways in which this growth is made visible is through public demonstrations of learning. The recent Art Show*, for example, provided an opportunity to view the work of our students across all grades. We saw the beautiful drawings and creations of our youngest students, the elaborate designs on the totem poles and the ceramic tables of our 4th and 5th grade students, the exquisite busts of our 6th graders, and the sophisticated and impressive creations of our oldest students. As a parent, you hopefully had a chance to have your children tour you through the exhibits, hearing them describe what they learned in the process of creating these showcase pieces.


The Hillbrook HERstory museum goes on the road to Makerfaire.

Other events have provided opportunities for students to show their work, demonstrating what they have learned over the course of the year. In just this past week, for example, 5th graders shared their learning and their creativity with peers and makers from around the Bay Area when they took their HERstory installations on the road to MakerFaire in San Mateo.
They also impressed parents and peers with their Heritage projects, showcasing their research and writing skills as they created detailed stories about ancestors. 3rd graders performed on the amphitheater stage*, entertaining and amusing us with their renditions of several well-known Greek tales. The performance capped an extended study of Greek myths and provided a visible example of each child’s growing confidence on stage and in the classroom. And, just today, 1st and 2nd graders read their own original illustrated books to friends and family at the Author’s Walkabout, showing all of us how much they have grown as writers, illustrators, and readers.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Students share their genealogy and their History Projects with parents and peers during Heritage Night.

Tomorrow, a group of our 8th graders will be sharing their results with parents, faculty, and students from the school’s first-ever round of capstone projects. This pilot program, nicknamed the “ultimate elective,” offered students an opportunity to pursue a passion of their choice and then share their work with the community. Some projects were analytical in nature – How does stress and anxiety impact 8th graders at Hillbrook? What makes a book emotionally compelling? How does caffeine impact sleep?. Other projects involved creating something – a series of videos to support STEM education in under-resourced schools, graphically designed t-shirts, or a montage of sports clips that integrated a passion for sports and film editing. Tomorrow, each of these students will deliver a 5-7 minute presentation to their peers and all interested community members. I am excited to see how much each of the students who participated in this pilot program has grown and learned through this process.

As adults, we also have our own “show your work” moments. This past year, as a community, we took a step back, paused, and really took a look at where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as a school. The result will be an ambitious and forward-looking strategic plan – 2020 Vision – that we will be sharing at the start of the 2016-17 school year. Eighty years after our founding, we continue to grow and evolve, always remaining focused on meeting our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. We do it each and every day, one child at a time. Thank you for entrusting us to partner with you in this extraordinary journey.

*Please note: This link points to internal content that requires a Hillbrook Portal login and password.

Feb 242016


There was a minor stampede on Monday morning, as our youngest students raced out of cars and off of buses to head over to the newly renovated and reimagined JK-2 playground. Joyful laughter and enthusiastic yelling could be heard as children bounced across the bridge, came flying out of the treehouse slide, wildly twirled on the spinners, and ran around the track that loops the heart of the playground.

Over the course of the last few days, children have continued to explore their magical new space. Each recess groups of children can be found digging in the sand, an occasional burst of water from the hose revealing the wonderful and messy things that happen when sand and water mix.  Other children have been drawn to the Imagination Playground blocks, big blue oversized “tinker toys” that can be connected, moved, and turned into everything from a roller coaster for small blue balls to the walls of an imaginary house. Other children can be seen climbing, spinning, jumping, and otherwise exploring the various structures, seeing the world around them from many and varied angles. Be careful when crossing the oval track, as an occasional tricycle speeds past, with a second tricycle more often than not close behind.

At a time when articles increasingly lament the disappearance of play and joy from schools, I am proud to be at a school that prioritizes the needs of children. Made possible through the extraordinarily generous support of families who have participated in the early stages of the “Be Your Best” Capital Campaign, our new state-of-the-art playground creates a space for children to explore, imagine, create, move, and discover.

To be clear, the playground is not simply a nice to have amenity, it is an essential extension of the classroom. Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little, notes the power of play versus more traditional, structured in-class activities in a recent interview with NPR. She says:

[W]atching kids build a fort is going to activate more cognitive learning domains than doing a worksheet where you’re sitting at a table. The worksheet has a little pile of pennies on one side and some numbers on the other, and you have to connect them with your pencil. That’s a very uni-dimensional way of teaching skills. Whereas, if you’re building a fort with your peers, you’re talking, using higher-level language structures in play than you would be if you’re sitting at a table. You’re doing math skills, you’re doing physics measurement, engineering — but also doing the give-and-take of, “How do I get along? How do I have a conversation? What am I learning from this other person?” And that’s very powerful.”

When you explore the playground, you will notice something that I think is quite profound – the space is designed to allow children to structure and control it. While there are different types of activities – climbing structures, sandpits, spinning objects, swings – they are all activities that tap into the world of a child’s imagination and physical needs. As adults, we consistently make the mistake of overscheduling and overstructuring our children’s lives. The results have been well-documented, with colleges and workplaces describing a generation of young adults – the product of checklist childhoods – who struggle to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, and manage their own lives.

A children’s playground full of adventures, challenges, joys, and skinned knees (that’s right, we can’t forget the blessings of a skinned knee) provides the foundation that children need in order to find success both in school and in life. Take a moment to visit the playground when you are on campus next time to experience the joy, the energy, the imagination, and, yes, the education that is happening each and every minute that children are at play.

Cross-posted from this post in Hillbrook Voices, the Official Blog of Hillbrook School.

Nov 112015


This past weekend, we hosted our annual Saturday Open House on campus, the largest turnout of prospective families that we have had in at least five years. The highlight of the day – as it is nearly every time we have an admission event – was watching our Middle School students interacting with prospective families. These dynamic young people confidently led families around the campus, answering questions and interacting with children of all different ages. Several prospective parents remarked to me how impressed they were with the students, and commenting how refreshing it was to hear their unscripted remarks about their school experience. Confident, poised, authentic, comfortable in their own skin – these were the words they used to describe them.

As I watched the students, I was reminded of a line from the mission statement created last year by the students in HERO, a Middle School student group that supports the LGBT+ community and other minority groups that face discrimination. In their mission, the students write, “At HERO, you are recognized as an individual and welcomed to be all of who you are.”

All of who you are.

It’s a powerful idea and something that resonates with our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. In order to achieve your dreams you need to know yourself as a person and a learner. Sounds straightforward enough, right? And yet creating spaces where students can be all of who they are is something that is rarely found or nurtured in traditional schools.

Instead of meeting children where they are and nurturing their growth, schools have traditionally forced children to fit into the structure of school. Rows of desks, teacher-centered classrooms, rote memorization and recitation of disconnected information – this stereotypical image of school persists because it reflects the reality of all too many classrooms across our country. Some children, of course, thrive in this environment, while all too many children simply  survive school and bide their time until they make it into the real world. Even those who thrive develop a set of skills – following directions, paying attention, recalling information, taking tests – that have little connection to the skills our children need to thrive as adults.

As a growing list of books and movies – Creating Innovators, How to Raise an Adult, Most Likely to Succeed  – suggest, people are recognizing that traditional models of school do not work. As I looked around last weekend, I sensed that the families visiting our campus are looking for alternatives and they are seeking a school in which their children will be known and understood as individuals.

At Hillbrook, we are committed to helping children realize their full potential, recognizing that each child is a unique individual. We want them to be the best Devan or Hailey or Naomi or Colin they can be. We want them to be all of who they are. It’s a powerful idea, and it’s at the heart of the Hillbrook experience.