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.

Oct 212015

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

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

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

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 192014

This past Monday at Flag, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley (BSV), Melissa Johns, shared the exciting news that the Hillbrook community will be recognized at the upcoming, “Are you Smarter than a Breakthrough student?” event on Thursday, October 23 for the extraordinary contributions we have made to the organization.

BSV, a non-profit organization with a dual mission – to launch high potential, underserved middle school students on the path to college and to inspire high school and college students to pursue careers in education – has been a partner organization with Hillbrook for the past five years. The partnership involves hosting BSV at Hillbrook each summer, bringing 100 Middle School students and a dynamic group of high school and college-age teachers to our campus. Several of our teachers have served as mentors and advisors for the program. This past summer, for example, 5th grade science teacher and Makespace Director Christa Flores collaborated with a Breakthrough teacher to bring the world of making and design thinking to a group of 7th grade students.

We also have been fortunate enough to have several extraordinary young people from Breakthrough attend our Middle School, allowing us to extend their experience beyond Breakthrough and into the Hillbrook classrooms. Recent BSV/Hillbrook graduates have gone on to excel at schools including Andover, Thacher, and Notre Dame High School. And this year, for the first time, we have hired a resident teacher — Yanelly De La Rosa – who is both a former Breakthrough student and former Breakthrough teacher. In fact, Yanelly had spent the past few summers teaching on the Hillbrook campus, providing her an opportunity to learn about the school firsthand and inspiring her to apply to and become part of our dynamic cohort of early career teachers.

Our partnership with BSV is one way that our school lives out a critical piece of our vision – to reach beyond ourselves and make a difference in the world. As a school, we are committed to raising young people who want to be change makers, individuals who look at the world around them and strive to make things better. Partnerships like BSV are one way that we as an organization model for the students the importance of engaging with the broader community in an effort to make a difference.

As another example, several of our faculty and staff – 3rd grade teacher Elizabeth Wright, Lower School music teacher Kristin Engineer, 3rd/4th science teacher Jenny Jones, 4th grade teacher and Literacy Coach Kate Ferguson, 6th grade science teacher & CTE Research Designer Ilsa Dohmen, and Director of Technology Bill Selak – were off-campus today participating in EdSummit Los Altos, a conference organized by the Los Altos School District for public and private schools that bills itself as, “A gathering of innovative educators who are interested in pushing the boundaries of learning.” Each of our teachers was invited to participate because they are doing innovative and thought-provoking work that can inspire and inform other educators. They presented on topics that included hacking your learning space, using blogs to support social emotional learning, designing literacy units, curating the world with the Google Cultural Institute, and recreating the Hillbrook sound project, a found object unit integrating art, science, and music. The presence of six Hillbrook educators at this conference testifies to the leading edge work we are doing as a school.

Similar to our partnership with BSV, our participation in events like EdSummit Los Altos affirms our belief that we have an opportunity and obligation to give back to the broader educational community, independent, parochial and public schools. It reflects our belief that in order to be our best, we need to push beyond the confines of our own campus and engage in conversations with other innovative and talented educators from around the Bay Area and beyond. We know that we have a talented team of educators at Hillbrook who have something to share AND we also know that by engaging with the broader community, we will continually challenge ourselves to re-imagine our own practices and ensure we are always making our program better.

Ultimately, the work we do as a school to reach beyond ourselves pays extraordinary dividends here on our own campus. Our partnership with BSV has enriched our community in untold ways, as has our participation in conferences like EdSummit. The benefit can be seen in the lives we influence, the quality of community we create, and the impact it has on our students as we nurture them and help them grow into adults who will be committed to changing the world.

At Hillbrook, we believe it is important to make things better. We are honored that Breakthrough Silicon Valley is publicly recognizing the work we are doing and look forward to celebrating our partnership and the work that we have done together to provide extraordinary educational opportunities for all children.

Feb 012013

Ask 1st grade teacher Barb Johnson about this year, and you will hear the following, “This is probably my strongest teaching year ever.”

6th/7th grade English teacher Julia Rubin would add, “It’s like everything is better. Everything is in technicolor.”

What are they so excited about? The new Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Resident Teacher Program. More specifically, Barb, Julia, 4th grade teacher Kate Hammond, and 7th/8th science teacher Brian Ravizza are inspired to be teaching shoulder-to-shoulder with our talented cohort of resident teachers—Olivia Swan, Emily Stekl, Emily Drew-Moyer, and Ilsa Dohmen. These eight dynamic educators are collaborating together to help us realize the extraordinary potential of this new program.

The Resident Teacher Program (RTP) is a transformative initiative that emerged from Vision 2015 and our injunction to ourselves to be innovative. The RTP has three main goals:

1) Increase individual attention and differentiation in the classroom. Two teachers in a classroom (or three teachers at a grade level) makes our already small classes even smaller and creates opportunities for increased understanding and support of each child.

2) Create mentoring and co-teaching opportunities for teachers that allow for more opportunities for deep reflection on best practices. What does that mean? Invigorated teachers always pushing forward to make sure they are providing the best possible program for our students.

3) Train and nurture beginning and early career teachers so they are extraordinarily well-prepared candidates for top schools around the country, including Hillbrook.

Spend time in any one of the classrooms with a mentor and a resident and you will immediately see the transformative impact this is having on our program. Walk into a 4th grade classroom and you might see students working in small reading groups with support from three 4th grade teachers. A closer look reveals that groups are split among the entire 4th grade, not just one section. Three teachers for one grade level provides powerful individualized attention.

Walk into an 8th grade science classroom and you might see students intensively working in teams building a rocket. The challenge? Get the rocket to stay up in the air as long as possible. The two teachers move among the groups offering advice and feedback, a level of personal attention not possible in previous years.

Walk into the library classroom on a Thursday afternoon and you might see the residents, RTP Director Aimee Giles, and a member of our faculty or administration actively discussing an important topic in education as part of the resident’s weekly seminar. Topics might include supporting a range of learners, adolescent development, or building your own professional learning network. The seminar shows that curiosity and lifelong learning are happening all across our community, not just with our students.

In the end, the evidence is strong—the program works and it is allowing us to better meet our mission as a school to help each child reach their highest individual potential.

Looking ahead to next year, we expect to hire a second cohort of four residents to join our initial cohort of residents. With eight residents on campus, we will be able to have one resident each in grades K–4 and three residents in the Middle School. Every student will benefit from the increased individual attention, the active collaboration of teachers, and the energy that this program is infusing into our campus.

We cannot do it, however, without raising the funds to pay for this second cohort of teachers.

Last year, a small number of families provided the seed money—a little more than $200,000 —to allow us to launch this program and fund our first cohort of four residents. This year, some of those same families and a few additional families have stepped forward to offer another round of funding to support the program for the 2013–2014 school year. To date, we have raised over $180,000 to help fund the program, with several families contributing more than $30,000.

Next Friday’s auction—A License to Bid—will provide all families an opportunity to support this program and make our vision a reality. We are looking to raise at least another $100,000 to fully fund the eight residents for next year.

So when the moment comes on Friday night, please raise your paddle and show your support for the Resident Teacher Program. Your contribution will help ensure that this initiative continues to grow and transform our program in the ways that it has already done this year. Most importantly, your gift enables Hillbrook to continue to be a place where both students and adults are learning, growing, and reaching their highest individual potential.

Nov 022012

Earlier this week, I visited the 4th graders during their first publishing party of the year, a key part of our newly implemented Writer’s Workshop program. When I walked into the classroom, the children were silently reading stories authored by their classmates. The room had the quiet and powerful energy of a fully engaged class of students. I joined in, as quietly as I could, and then had the privilege of reading a few of the stories myself—adding my own feedback next to the comments they made on their peers’ work.

As they reached the end of the sharing time, I spoke with the students about what they had done. They described the process they had undertaken to write their stories, from identifying a personal moment through writing, revising, and final publication. I marveled at the language they used, as they described how they came up with the seed ideas that became the basis of their stories, their use of anchor texts as models for story openings, the genuine challenges they had overcome (what should I write about? how do I find the right word to describe this moment?), and the pride they felt in producing a published work. They spoke like real writers, not 4th grade students. I was impressed.

Later that same day, Director of Technology Don Orth shared with me a short video he had put together about art teacher Ken Hay’s clay animation project with 3rd graders. Ken has explored clay animation with his students for many years, but this is the first time that he used iStopMotion, an application on the iPad. Ken explained that the intuitive nature of iStopMotion allowed the students to begin producing their animations immediately, instead of having to focus extensive time and energy on the technology and the software. Freed to focus on the story—and not the filming process itself—students produced elaborate stories with sophisticated examples of movement. My favorite moment is a scene in which creatures go underwater, a scattering of air bubbles on the surface the only evidence they were there.

As I reflected on it later that night, it struck me that these two projects are perfect examples of how we are always looking for ways to encourage our students to author their own stories. Sometimes we do this literally, allowing them to create written or artistic narratives. Much of the time, however, we do it by placing children as the lead characters in their own educational story. Our teachers are not the classic “sage on the stage” talking at children for six hours a day, but rather are talented guides and coaches who create a lively and interactive classroom where children are empowered to make decisions, solve problems, and become the the joyful authors of their own learning adventures.

As a school, Hillbrook has its own narrative. It is a story rooted in the school’s earliest years, when our students built the Village of Friendly Relations. The story has carried through the interceding years as we evolved from a small boarding school for wards of the state to the Hillbrook of  today—one of the premier elementary independent schools in the South Bay. Even as we have evolved and grown, we have not lost touch with our earliest roots. Indeed, when I look at Hillbrook today with its focus on problem-based learning, extensive opportunities for hands-on learning, and a commitment to innovation as seen through our iPad program and the iLab, I’m struck by the resonance between what we are doing today and the vision of our founders.

Each year, I have an opportunity at the State of the School to stop at a moment in time and share with the community how the Hillbrook story continues to unfold. During this presentation, I will share with parents the programmatic improvements we have implemented as a school in the last few years, the major initiatives we have underway this year, and the many ways in which we are constantly striving each day to better meet our vision and mission as a school. In addition, Tom Archer, the Chair of the Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees, will discuss the school’s financial model, affirming our strong financial health and answering questions about the school’s finances.

I ask you to join me, Tuesday, November 13, at 8:15 am or 6 pm in the multi-purpose room to talk about Hillbrook today. It is a narrative that is firmly rooted in our storied past as well as thoughtfully focused on an extraordinarily promising future. A story about a community of teachers, parents, and students who are linked together by a powerful vision of what a school should be—a place that inspires students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. I look forward to our conversation.

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.