Jun 082017
 

Good morning and welcome to the 2017 Hillbrook school graduation ceremony. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Marico Sayoc, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, 8th grade level coordinator Eden Maisel, and Chris Hailey, graduate from the Class of 2013. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2017.

A graduation is both an ending and a beginning. For the forty 8th graders behind me today, it represents the end of their time as students on our campus, the culmination of elementary and middle school, 10 years of extraordinary learning and growth. Through it all they were nurtured, challenged, and inspired by teachers who know them and care for them as people and learners. Teachers who continually push them to live out Hillbrook’s core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best. I know that all of those teachers share with me incredible pride in their accomplishments to date, as well as extraordinary optimism for what they will do in the future.

Of course the graduates of the Class of 2017 are not the only ones undergoing a change. In front of me sit their proud parents and in many cases proud grandparents, uncles, aunts, and siblings.  For the parents, today also marks a major milestone. In particular, this year, we have a significant cohort of families who have spent more than a decade of their lives at Hillbrook, and whose youngest child or in some cases only child is graduating, meaning that the whole family will be transitioning to alum status in the year ahead. I trust that those families – and all of our graduates – will return often to share stories about how they are doing in the years ahead. While you may no longer be on our campus each day, you will always be a part of the Hillbrook family.

As I was trying to think of a good topic for today’s speech I found myself getting distracted. Every time I started to put a thought together, my mind was pulled in another direction. I felt like I was spinning out of control. What exactly was the problem? I was under the spell of fidget spinners. So instead of fighting it, I finally decided to give in and ask – what, if anything, can we learn from these ubiquitous little devices?

First, a little background for those of you in the audience, if there are any, who don’t yet know what I’m talking about. I remember the first time I saw a spinner. It was a Thursday in late April – or thereabouts – and I was walking through the Kindergarten area, past the bike track, by the swings, nearing the Kindergarten porch when I saw them – two Kindergartners spinning these little things, one on their finger, the other on their foot. “What’s that?” I asked innocently. By the end of the following week, I was seeing spinners everywhere – near the 1st/2nd grade picnic tables, on the 3rd/4th playground, in the Middle School science classrooms, even during Flag. Everyone was writing about them – the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly. Even the Pope talked about them in a speech. I decided I had to get one for myself. And, since I didn’t want our 8th graders to feel left out, I decided that we should provide them with Hillbrook-engraved fidget spinners on their graduation. Hey, 8th graders, check under your seats.

So, now that we are all on the same page as to what a fidget spinner is, let’s get back to my question – what can we learn from the emergence of this toy?

Popularity can be difficult to explain. As numerous people have pointed out, fidget spinners have been around for years. Why did their popularity explode now? The best answer that I’ve heard argues that Youtube videos fed the craze, and yet no one can really point to a specific catalyst. One store owner described receiving a call in mid-April asking for one. He had never heard of it. 30 minutes later he received his second call. Today, he is receiving 20-30 calls per day. Others have pointed to previous toy trends – I am sure all of the 8th graders remember Silly Bandz when they were in 1st grade, Rainbow Loom in 2nd or 3rd grade, and Pokemon Go at the beginning of this school year. All of these things caught people’s attention and for a brief period of time seemed to be everywhere. They also seemed to disappear – or at a least fade – nearly as quickly as they appeared. Which takes me to my first point….

Don’t confuse popularity with meaning or significance. The fact that nearly everyone has a fidget spinner does not necessarily make the item important or meaningful. As previous toy trends have shown us, things appear and disappear quickly. While it may be difficult to buy a fidget spinner today, within a few weeks or months you’ll likely have no problem buying them. I encourage each of you to recognize the similarity between the fleeting popularity of a toy and the fleeting satisfaction of other things in your lives, like social media popularity. Receiving 100 likes on Instagram or Snapchat may feel good in the moment, but it is not – and should not be – seen as a measure of your value.

And, yet, while we will be well-served to remember that the fidget spinner is, ultimately, a toy, I also encourage you to recognize the positive lessons that a simple toy can provide. One of the mistakes that people sometimes make as they grow up is they forget how to play. While we are well aware of the importance of play for young children, many people don’t realize that play is critical for adults as well. Dr. Stuart Brown the head of the National Institute for Play – yes, that’s a real organization – points out the value. He describes play as “something done for its own sake.” He notes “it is voluntary, it’s pleasurable….and the act itself is more important than the outcome.” Think joining a soccer league, board games with friends and family, brain puzzlers on a Sunday afternoon. Play brings people together, keeps our minds active, and creates opportunities for us to laugh and be joyful. I think about the various moments in which I’ve seen groups of children playing with fidget spinners, and I see evidence of how a toy and play can bring people together.

Play is also an essential component of innovation and entrepreneurship. A playful mindset keeps us open to possibilities, encourages us to make new connections with people and ideas, and fuels our imagination. Silicon Valley is known for creating workplace cultures that incorporate play and silliness. Why? Because entrepreneurial leaders know that we need to retain a playful spirit in order to solve the world’s most complex problems. As playwright Nagle Jackson wrote, “The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that.” Put another way, I encourage each of you to take your work seriously, but never take yourself too seriously. Never be afraid to be silly, take risks, and even occasionally make yourself look like a fool. You never know – it may lead to the next great innovation that will take over Silicon Valley and the world.

So, Class of 2017, I guess the final lesson is don’t underestimate the power of something unexpected – even a toy – to teach you important lessons about life. Stay curious, keep taking risks, lead with kindness, and above all, be your best. Keep those Hillbrook fidget spinners as a reminder, and come back and visit often. We can’t wait to see what you will do to change the world.

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.

Oct 122016
 

In a little more than a week, we will have Student Progress Conferences, a twice-yearly opportunity for parents to learn about how their child is doing at school. The focus is on the student, the academic and social emotional growth they are making and the goals they are setting with their teachers to challenge themselves. In the Middle School, students join parents and teachers for student-led conferences. Each student facilitates their own conference, proudly sharing what they have accomplished and the goals they have set for the year ahead. The conference is organized in close consultation with the student’s advisor and offers an empowering moment for each student to take ownership of their own learning journey.

Our teachers know children extraordinarily well, and they are experts at understanding where each child is on their learning journey and finding ways to help them continue moving forward. Part of that expertise is knowing that all children have jagged learning profiles. Put another way, each learner is at a different place for different areas at any given moment in their learning. A student may be an exceptionally talented writer, for example, and yet find themselves struggling to solve problems in math. They may quickly design and create a complex experiment to prove a scientific concept, and yet struggle to comprehend and speak Spanish. And, just as importantly, the “struggling” Spanish student may find themselves thriving two months from now in Spanish class, just as they discover that essay writing is no longer quite so straightforward. We are each unique learners and, as a school, we are committed to trying to meet each child where they are to help them reach their highest individual potential.

Conferences are a snapshot in time, an opportunity to stop and pay attention to where each child is on their learning journey. As parents, we have a chance to celebrate our child’s growth and to understand their struggles. We can learn what is happening in the classroom, and how we can best partner with the school to support our child throughout the school year.

During two recent Lower School Learning in Conversation events, Lower School Head Colleen Schilly shared some excellent articles about how we can support our children in school. One of them, “Give Late Blooming Children the Time They Need,” by Jessica Lahey, particularly resonated with me as it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite children’s books, Leo the Late Bloomer. Lahey recounts the story of Leo, a tiger cub who cannot read, write, draw, eat neatly, or even “say a word.” Leo’s father watches Leo for signs of blooming, but nothing seems to change. He anxiously questions Leo’s mother about whether or not Leo will ever bloom, but his mother keeps reassuring him: “a watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.” All the while, Leo’s father looks around and sees the other young animals doing all of the things that Leo can’t do.

As Lahey writes, “We all watch our children as they grow, for signs that all is well. We crave evidence, both of their healthy development and of our own competence as parents, and lacking any other source of information, we scan the playground for comparisons. That boy can count to 100 in Spanish while my son can barely speak his native tongue. That child can traverse the playground structure with the athleticism of a spider monkey, while mine needs help climbing up the slide. That girl can eat her healthful snack with chopsticks, while my child eats his boogers.”

Next week’s Student Progress Conferences are our effort to provide you information about your child so that you do not need to “rubberneck on the playground.” It is our effort to share with you information about the joyful, challenging, and unique journey your child is on, to help fill in the gaps of knowledge that can lead to anxiety about their development. It is also, however, a moment to remind each of us that children all bloom at “their own rate, in their own sweet time.”

All children bloom early in certain areas and later in others. For some children those moments of early blooming are more obvious, while for others, like Leo, it may feel at times like nothing has bloomed at all. While late blooming can sometimes leave us, as parents, feeling anxious, I encourage you to remember that the journey from childhood to adulthood is a long one, best measured in years.

And, to paraphrase Lahey, in the end – spoiler alert – they all bloom.

Aug 242016
 

August is a time of entries (and reentries). The largest cohort of new students and families in our history is joining the community this year, as we increase our enrollment to 339 students. In addition, we welcome a new group of teachers and staff members to join our extraordinarily talented team.

At Hillbrook, we put a lot of time and thought into how we structure these entry experiences. From those first moments in March when families enthusiastically open the envelopes with their acceptance letters through the welcoming committee events coordinated throughout the summer, we focus on helping families not only learn the organizational details that they need to know to prepare for the first day of school, but also on helping families develop the connections they need to ensure they feel like full members of our community when school starts on August 31.

For me, on-boarding new community members means dedicating a significant amount of my time during the summer to meeting with new families. These conversations provide me an opportunity to connect with people and hear their Hillbrook stories. I’m always impressed with the thought and intention that people have put into their decision to join Hillbrook, and I continually find myself inspired and humbled by the commitment that families are willing to make to ensure their children are able to be part of Hillbrook’s extraordinary educational experience. As in past years, several families shared with me that they moved to our area in order to be part of our community.

In addition to working with new families, we also pay careful attention to how we integrate new teachers and staff members into our community. Last week, we had a three-day orientation that helped prepare these new employees for the start of the school year. While some time was spent sharing nuts and bolts essential to helping new employees successfully perform their jobs, a significant amount of time during the orientation was devoted to conversations focused on Hillbrook’s vision, mission, core values, and history. We shared stories about Hillbrook traditions, like Flag, reflected on our continuing connection to the progressive educational philosophy visibly reflected in things like the Village of Friendly Relations and our many flexible classroom spaces, and talked about how the core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best – animate everything we do as a school.

One of the threads that struck me this year during conversations with both new families and new employees was that Hillbrook is a school of optimism and hope, a school committed to celebrating and preserving childhood. It often feels like we live in a time of fear and anxiety, a culture that is particularly visible when we look at how our society approaches parenting and education. The sometimes overwhelming narrative that we as parents hear is that we need to protect our children from the world around us, that our children must do more, earlier and faster than before, or else they will not make it when they grow up. We are told to fear for their futures, and to start preparing and protecting them from the day they are born to help them compete in an ever-more competitive world.

At Hillbrook, I like to think that we reject the fear. We believe that preparing our children for the future means creating an educational experience that prioritizes skills – communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity – that will equip our children to tackle any and all challenges that come their way. We believe that creating experiences that prioritize student engagement and choice, and leave room for struggle and even failure, help children develop the independence, the flexibility, and the resilience necessary for success in an increasingly ambiguous world. Our job is to help students develop a sense of agency and to identify a purpose larger than the self, so that they may be positive solution-makers when they leave school. Just as importantly, we believe that preserving childhood – allowing children to remain children longer – enables our young learners to develop into confident, self-aware, and capable adults. Imagination, play, joy, and laughter remain critical components of the Hillbrook experience.

The night before the first day of school I always have a difficult time sleeping. Despite more than 20 years as an educator, I find myself tossing and turning, anxiously anticipating the arrival of students and families to campus. Yet, each year, as I look out at the sea of clean uniforms, fresh haircuts, and smiling faces eagerly awaiting the start of our first Flag, I am filled with an incredible sense of optimism and calm. It is the confidence of knowing that I am working with an extraordinary team of educators and that we are partnering with you – our families – in the most important and rewarding work there is – inspiring children to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. The future is bright indeed.

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.

Jan 272016
 

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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.