May 182017
 

Hillbrook alumni returned to campus for our Alumni Celebration. Many looked back on their Hillbrook experiences and looked forward to exciting new beginnings as they head off to college and into the world.

I find myself becoming increasingly nostalgic. This past Friday, more than 100 alums returned to campus to participate in our reunion activities. It was such a joy talking with alums, particularly those in high school and college, and I marveled at the growth they have shown during the years since they had left Hillbrook. I was particularly struck talking to one high school senior, who described in detail the college program he was entering next year in theatrical direction and writing, a program that he noted accepts only six students each year. Wow, I thought to myself, he is on the verge of being the adult I had imagined he would become back when he was at Hillbrook. Older, more mature, more assured, and ready to fully pursue his passion in drama and theater, and yet his passionate and charmingly unique Middle School self still shone through.

As you read this, we are less than three weeks away from summer break, another reason I suspect I’m feeling nostalgic. Next week, all Middle School students will be off-campus on expeditionary learning trips to Yosemite, Catalina Island, and Washington, D.C. Here on campus, we are gearing up for several year-end experiences, including the 3rd Grade Greek Play, the 5th grade Living History Night, the 1st/2nd grade Author’s Walkabout, and the 8th grade Capstone projects. All of this activity creates a powerful mix of excitement and accomplishment, as well as a strong sense of endings.

And, yet, even as we focus on culminating experiences and projects, I’m struck that what we are really witnessing is a series of new beginnings. Our 1st and 2nd grade authors, for example, will be introducing themselves to us for one of the first times as writers, an identity that will continue to grow and broaden in the years ahead. 8th graders are exploring areas and passions in a new and more in-depth way, building electric bikes, coding virtual reality experiences, drawing message-driven cartoons, apprenticing as teachers for younger students, and learning and then teaching peers and adults how to bind books While their public presentations at NuMu on June 1 will be inspiring, what we are seeing is the emergence of young adults and lifelong learners who are just beginning to understand their full potential. These young people are not at an endpoint at all, they are at a series of extraordinary and exciting new beginnings.

This is also the time of year when we say goodbye to some teachers and staff members who will not be returning for the 2017-18 school year. Included in that group this year are several resident teachers – Yanelly de la Rosa, Rasha Glenn, and Helga McHugh, JK/K PE teacher Regina Reilly, Director of Admission Nikki Butts, Middle School English teacher and Humanities Lead Julia Rubin, longtime Substitute Coordinator Chris Lawrence, Facilities Manager Alan Bahnsen, and our longest serving employee – Physical Education Teacher and coach Sue Yoshioka. As they leave Hillbrook, I know that each of them will be having their own new beginning. In some cases, they leave us to launch into their first lead teacher role, while others are looking to move into the next chapter of their lives as they “rewire” and imagine what the years ahead hold in store for them. All of these talented individuals, whether they were here for 2 years, 39 years, or somewhere in between, have made a difference in the lives of our students and have made our community a better place. We will have an opportunity to recognize each of them at our Final Flag of the year on Monday, June 5.

At the same time as some people are leaving, we are preparing to welcome a new cohort of talented faculty and staff to our community.We will share news about our new community members in August. We are also thrilled to see the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship continue to grow and flourish with the addition of Annie Makela, the Founding Director for the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, joining our community in July.

Ultimately, each goodbye represents an ending and a beginning, depending on the angle from which you view it. The departure of the dynamic and talented Class of 2017, for example, represents the end of an era for many students and families, and yet as they leave they prepare to begin anew at high schools around the Bay Area and beyond. Their departure also opens up space for an extraordinary group of new children and families, including our largest cohort of new 6th grade students ever. A whole new set of Hillbrook stories are soon to be written.

Circling back to where I started this essay, this past Monday one of our 8th graders talked about how this year’s graduation marks the end of an era for her family at Hillbrook. She and her two sisters have been a part of this community for the past 14 years, meaning she has been a part of Hillbrook since she was born. There are seven other families marking a similar transition this year, with the youngest member of the family graduating and thus marking the end of 10 or more years at the school for the family. In addition, there are a number of families with only one child who are also marking their own graduation from Hillbrook as their child leaves for high school.

It is definitely bittersweet to see these families move on from the school, and hard in the moment to imagine Hillbrook without them here. As I was reminded at the reunion last weekend, however, the end of this era represents the beginning of a new relationship, one that is marked by significantly less frequent interactions, but the same level of affection, appreciation, and wonder at the journey we all take through life.

Alexander Graham Bell once said, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” In the weeks ahead, I encourage all of us to celebrate and honor the closing doors of this chapter of the Hillbrook story, while looking with enthusiasm toward the new doors that are just beginning to open.

May 112016
 
6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year's African Library Project

6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year’s African Library Project

What problem are you going to solve?

A recent meme playing out across the educational Twitter-sphere, inspired by a comment made by Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, has been a call to replace the question we typically ask children – “what are you going to do when you grow up?” – with a different question – “what problem are you going to solve when you grow up?”

I love this question. It feels so perfectly Hillbrook in its focus on reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world. It also resonates powerfully with my own childhood upbringing, as both of my parents continually reminded me both through words and actions that the true value of a life is measured through the impact we have on others. My most vivid memories of my parents involve examples of sacrifice, unselfishness, and a focus on doing something for someone other than yourself. I remember my father, a doctor, staying up all night to save someone in the emergency room and then still joining me for an 80-mile bike ride to the beach because he had promised me that important father/son journey. Or, my mother, who would bring me along to her weekly visits to the single units of a number of low-income elderly people living in downtown Portland, isolated, alone, and struggling to retain their dignity and their connection to a world that had effectively turned its back on them. Their eyes would light up when my mother walked into the room, her respect for them as fully realized people, not just someone struggling to survive each day, evident in every interaction.

If you asked my parents what problems they were trying to solve, I suspect my father would have said he was simply trying to solve people’s health problems – from back pain to brain tumors, while my mother might have said she was trying to make a small dent in the twin problems of homelessness and aging in an urban environment. To my mind, the specifics of the answer are less interesting or important than the fact that both of them knew they were engaged in meaningful work that was, in a small way, making the world a better place.

tftLast week, I received an e-mail from one of our high school alums, Sophie Mortaz, who is the vice-chairperson for Treasures for Teens, a student-led non-profit that provides holiday gifts to teenagers between 11 – 18. Founded six years ago, the organization meets a very specific need that is often overlooked in the broader holiday toy drives of service organizations. Hillbrook students supported this effort this past year, and Sophie was reaching out to follow-up on a conversation we had earlier this year about donating some of our iPads that we were going to remove from circulation to the organization at the end of the year.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

The exchange was noteworthy to me primarily in that it was neither noteworthy nor unusual in the day-to-day experience of our community. Sophie’s effort is just one of a myriad  different ways in which the school is continually involved in service learning opportunities. In just the past few weeks, there was the African Library Project and bake sale, the Lighting for Literacy collaboration with the Rotary Club, the adoption by the 1st grade of an animal at the Oakland Zoo, the 1st/2nd grade art exhibition at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, and the monthly 7th/8th grade service learning trips. greatraceIn addition, more than 75 Hillbrook community members participated in the Great Race, a fundraiser for the Los Gatos Rotary. As the largest contingent at the race, we received a donation that we are now working with the Rotary to determine how best to redirect in service of yet another community project.

Listening to 8th graders sharing capstone projects at Flag this past month, several of them have focused on projects that involve solving a problem they have experienced themselves or seen in the larger community. One student, for example, is developing a possible course for 7th and 8th graders that would help them better manage stress and anxiety, while a group of students is creating a series of videos and simple tinkering equipment kits to help students in less privileged communities have access to the power of design, engineering, and making.lgrc1

And, lest you think I have forgotten, our parents are continually finding ways to support the school and the community. The school would simply not function without the thousands of hours of parent help, from parent leadership of events like the Auction and our upcoming Walkathon to the tireless work of room parents, service learning drivers and volunteers, parent education coordinators, and so many others. Beyond official roles, parents are also some of our best problem solvers. Two parents, for example, have recently sought to solve one of Hillbrook’s oldest and most intractable problems – the chaotic and ever-overflowing lost & found. Their quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts these past few weeks have made a real dent in the problem and offer hope for all parents that the annual cycle of lost sweatshirts and jackets may eventually be broken.
Big or small, straightforward or complex, solving a problem forces each of us to look beyond ourselves and make something better. Whether talking to our children or reflecting on our own life, we would all be well-served to ask….and ask again…..this simple question, “What problem are you going to solve?”

Mar 232016
 

Sunday morning, my family and I were digging in the earth, pulling weeds and preparing a small area of land in the backyard for a garden. For the first time in several years, we decided that we would clean up a space and plant some vegetables. It was a beautiful morning, with the sun shining and a cool breeze, and it didn’t take long for me to lose myself in thought.

I thought about the 8th graders, a group of young adults who I have watched grow through the years as both Head of School and parent. This time of year finds our 8th graders looking ahead, anxiously and enthusiastically making decisions about where to go for high school, while also simultaneously embracing their moment as the proverbial kings of the Hillbrook hill, the oldest students at school and the leaders on campus. As has been true every year, our 8th graders did extremely well in the high school application process, earning spots at all of the top high schools in the Bay Area as well as several leading boarding schools. The process of declaring where you are going to high school signals a major transitional moment for these young people, one that is bittersweet for both students and adults. Knowing where you are going next year makes the end of 8th grade feel decidedly more real for everyone.

Digging in the dirt, I had a vague recollection of hearing Sir Ken Robinson speak about gardening as a metaphor for childhood development and learning several years ago. A quick Google search later in the afternoon took me to this short clip:

In this short piece, Robinson contrasts the traditional industrial model of education – the notion that children are educated through a linear and predictable pathway akin to the factory-line production of a car – with an agricultural model, that views teachers as gardeners and children as plants. As Robinson notes, “You don’t stick the roots on and paint the petals and attach the leaves. The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions.” In the same way, as a school, we don’t make the children bloom and grow – we create the conditions that allow them to become the best version of themselves.

Tonight our 8th graders will have a chance to blossom and shine, as they take the stage for the first of two productions of Once Upon a Mattress. For those of us who have known them for years – whether as parents or teachers, coaches or staff members, we will marvel at the extraordinary young people they have become. We will cheer for them as they show us what happens when young children are raised in an environment that emphasizes risk taking, kindness, curiosity, and a focus on being your best. We will celebrate their collective achievement, not necessarily any one actor or actress, for what is most noteworthy about the 8th grade musical every year is how a group of students – most of whom have little to no formal acting training – come together to produce a show that is professional and delightful. The musical itself is a celebration of the learning process, a public demonstration of the qualities that our 8th graders have developed along their Hillbrook journey – asking questions, working together, talking and listening, solving problems, and making things better.

Heeding the words of Sir Ken Robinson, we will also hopefully remember that these two shows are just one moment in a lifetime of moments in which these young people will blossom and shine. They are a confident, creative, and impressive group of young people – and, yet, they are still only 13 and 14 years old. There is much growing and much to life that lies ahead for each of them. As Sir Ken Robinson noted, good gardeners create the conditions for plants to grow, recognizing and honoring the unique needs of each plant at different moments throughout the life cycle. Learning is something that we engage throughout our lives, not just when we are young, and our 8th graders should be no exception.

Sir Ken Robinson’s words are also a reminder to all of us – educators and parents – that ultimately our children’s journeys are something we share and support, not control. We cannot add the petals and attach the roots – we can only guide them and love them unconditionally. We can celebrate with they reach the top of a mountain, and console them when they fall, but their successes and their challenges are ultimately theirs, not ours.

This summer, with the right care and attention, my family and I will be able to watch our garden flower and grow. Each beautiful blossom will remind me of the community at Hillbrook, the conditions we are creating in an effort to allow all children to reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. Each blossom will also remind me that my work as a parent and an educator is vital to the success of children, and yet, in the end, children grow and bloom in their own unique way and at their own unique pace.

Feb 242016
 

powerofplayground

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.

Jan 272016
 

DSC_0741

Last spring, the Board of Trustees adopted a revised Statement of Inclusivity, building on the original statement approved by the Board in 2002. Developed by the Inclusivity Task Force, a multi-constituent group made up of faculty, staff, administrators, parents, and members of the Board of Trustees, the statement reaffirms Hillbrook’s commitment to be an intentionally diverse community that reflects the extraordinary diversity of Silicon Valley. It calls on us to lean into the sometimes complex and challenging conversations about inclusivity that are required to create a community in which each individual feels valued and has a voice.

This past Monday, we talked about the new Statement of Inclusivity at the HSPC meeting and shared some of the work new Director of Inclusivity and Diversity Jules Findlay has been doing this past year to support teachers in creating activities and discussions connected to diversity and inclusivity within our program. Recent examples include an 8th grade history study where they analyzed and discussed stereotypes in Disney characters, a conversation that emerged from an initial study of Walt Disney’s character, Jim the Crow, in “Dumbo.” Other examples include a unit that is being developed about stereotypes in 2nd grade and an integrated history/English unit in 6th grade connected to the reading of Chains, a book about two young slave girls in the antebellum era.

In addition to the work we are doing in the classroom, the Inclusivity Task Force will have its first meeting of the year this Friday, focusing on this year’s topic – socioeconomic diversity. This work dovetails with conversations we are having about tuition assistance and how we can create a long-term financial model to support this important commitment from the school. As one example, the fund-a-need at this year’s auction will be in support of tuition assistance, helping us to generate increased philanthropic support to grow and sustain the tuition assistance budget which is over $1 million per year and allows us to provide tuition support to over 20 percent of our students.

Clearly, as a school, we are broadening and strengthening our work in this area. So some may ask – why?

The answer hearkens back to our earliest years as a school. Since our founding in 1935, we have been committed to attracting a diverse group of children to the school, knowing all children – regardless of their background – will thrive if given the right educational environment. It is at one level a question of equity, a recognition that the opportunity for a Hillbrook education should be available to students of all ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic status, and that we should continue to seek to enroll students who have been historically underrepresented in independent schools.

In more recent years, we have also come to understand that there is an academic argument for how creating a diverse environment benefits all students. Indeed, a growing body of research has emerged in the past few years arguing that diversity makes us smarter. An article by Katherine Phillips in Scientific American in September 2014, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” for example, described a series of studies that show that individuals respond differently to ideas when they come from diverse individuals. In one study, for example, university students were asked to discuss a social issue for 15 minutes. Researchers then wrote a dissenting opinion and had it delivered by a white or black member of the group. Phillips writes, “When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.” Viewed collectively, the studies in Phillips article make a compelling case that “we need diversity -in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.”

In a New York Times article titled, “Diversity makes you brighter,” Sheen Levine and David Stark described studies showing that people in diverse groups make smarter decisions. They write, “When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.” In the end, they argue, “Ethnic diversity is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it.”

If diversity matters for issues of equity and academic excellence, inclusivity matters because it ensures that all children are given the best opportunity to thrive. If we are going to commit to attracting and enrolling a diverse student body, something that has been part of our mission since our founding, we must create a culture and climate where all children and families are celebrated for who they are, and where all children and families feel like they have full membership in our community. We understand that children must be known and valued as individuals in order for them to achieve their highest individual potential in school and in life.

People often remark that we are preparing children for a world that we cannot imagine. Creating a diverse and inclusive environment and equipping our children with the skills and knowledge they need to live in an increasingly diverse world is one way we can ensure that they will thrive in that world, even if we don’t know exactly what it will be.

Nov 112015
 

DSC_0483

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.