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.

Nov 112015
 

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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.