Feb 172017

This past weekend, I found myself standing alone in a theater lobby during intermission of the stage production of “Finding Neverland” up in San Francisco. I started to reach into my pocket to pull out my phone, when I stopped myself. Instead, I looked around the lobby and started people watching. Nearly half of the people in the lobby had their phones out, intently looking at their screens. I watched people standing there, often in small groups, immersed in their virtual worlds, ignoring the people standing around them. A few people challenged the norm, talking animatedly with friends and family, phones nowhere in sight. moment

The next day, I was listening to NPR, and a short story came on about a South Korean Buddhist monk, Haemin Sunim, who has taken to Twitter and other social media, including Facebook and YouTube, to share Buddhist philosophy. Sunim’s 140-character tweets have taken South Korea by storm, and a new book that is a compilation of those tweets was just published in the United States. Titled The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, the book provides daily inspiration to challenge us to be be present, to connect more fully with our emotional life, and to find ways to hear within an increasingly noisy world. The irony was not lost on the NPR correspondent or Sunim that he was using Twitter to share this message. As he explained, however, “You can fight against the technology, but I realize that it’s difficult to fight against technology. So rather than fighting it, why don’t I provide better content?”

Apparently, the stars were aligned and the universe was imploring me to pay attention, for the next morning I and other members of our community had the good fortune to hear our own Hillbrook parent and psychologist, Sarah Levoy, talk about mindful parenting at the HSPC meeting. Sarah provided a brief introduction to the topic and then shared several activities that challenged us to reflect on our interactions with our children. She asked us to rate which obstacles most commonly interfere with our ability to fully be present with our child or children, with choices ranging from being distracted by your other children, work on your mind, social media, environmental distractions, or running late. I cringed a bit as I thought about the whirlwind departures that sometimes happen in our household and how I am most definitely not my best in those moments. She also challenged us to think about a moment in which we had felt like we were a parenting superstar, and another in which we had been less than our best. Needless to say, both scenarios gave me pause.

Coming together in such rapid succession, these three touch points challenged me to think about how I am making sense of the always on, often hectic world we inhabit. The biggest takeaway? The way we experience our life is something we can control. It is the lesson we teach children from the youngest ages. We all likely remember telling our children, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” or some variation of that sentiment. While we can’t control every outcome and while we can’t ensure that things always work out the way we want them to, we can always manage how we react to those things. The key, it seems, is recognizing two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time – we have both more control and less control than we think.

Returning to Haemin Sunim, I particularly appreciated this tweet from last week. “Do only one thing at a time. When you walk, just enjoy walking. When you listen, really listen. You will become happier and more centered.” I’m adding one more for myself – “When on Twitter, tweet. When on Facebook, like. At all other times, keep the phone in your pocket and live in the moment.”

Jun 042013

The following are my remarks from this morning’s Class of 2013 graduation: Good morning students, faculty, parents, grandparents, and friends and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2013. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Town Council Member Joe Pirzynski, Chair of the Board of Trustees Steve Benjamin, Chair-elect for the BOT Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Joe Connolly, and Chloe Borenstein-Lawee, graduate from the Class of 2009. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the multi-talented, ever enthusiastic, and soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2013.

Today marks a significant transition for the 36 dynamic young men and women seated beside 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 also marks a major milestone. 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.

So what can we say about the Class of 2013? Well, as a starting place, we know that six of them came 10 years ago in JK, 14 came nine years ago in Kindergarten, three in 1st grade, two in 3rd grade, three in 4th grade, two in 5th grade, two in 6th grade, three in 7th grade, and one outstanding young woman joined them in 8th grade. By my calculations, these 36 students have more than 250 years of Hillbrook education between them.

I also know that if you talk to teachers, they will describe this class as kind, thoughtful, engaging, and a joy to teach. As many of you heard last night at the Recognition Ceremony, this is a dynamic group of young people who have been impressive both as individuals and as a group. We have dancers, singers, drummers, actors, photographers, future rock stars, and aspiring filmmakers. Athletes who excel in a whole range of sports, including football, volleyball, lacrosse, basketball, soccer, track and field, baseball, softball, and gymnastics. We have aspiring scientists and extraordinary mathematicians, talented writers, linguists, and historians. We even have passionate San Francisco Giants fans, car aficionados, and champion spellers. This class has it all.

For better or worse, this class also has an association with the number 13. As we all know, 13 has traditionally been considered an unlucky number. In fact, there is actually a term for fear of the number 13—Triskaidekaphobia. According to various reports, our economy loses nearly $1 billion each Friday the 13th, as people chose not to leave their home out of fear that something bad will happen to them. Some hotels choose to skip 13 when numbering floors jumping straight from 12 to 14, and apparently in many airports there is no gate 13.

 So is this class doomed to be unlucky? Well, as luck would have it, I came across an article called “The Luck Factor,” by a man named Richard Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman is a psychologist who has conducted experiments about luck. Specifically, he has tried to study why some people are consistently lucky while others seem to always encounter ill fortune. Dr. Wiseman studied 400 people, ranging in age from 18 to 84. The people self-identified either as exceedingly lucky or unlucky and then agreed to participate in interviews, write diaries, complete personality questionnaires, and take intelligence tests.

 According to Dr. Wiseman, his research suggests that luck is not “a magical ability or the result of random chance,” but rather the result of a few basic characteristics common to lucky people. In particular:

·    Lucky people are skilled at noticing opportunities. They were more observant than unlucky people. For example, he did a simple experiment where he asked people to count the number of photos in a newspaper. The unlucky people typically took about 2 minutes to complete the task. The lucky people took mere seconds. Why? Because the lucky people noticed on page 2 in big type the following phrase: “Stop counting—there are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

·    Lucky people were not only better at noticing opportunities they were also better at creating opportunities. He found that lucky people tended to intentionally vary their routines, and to take actions that would increase their opportunity to be exposed to new things. He gave an example of a person who would try to increase the number of people he met at social events by creating seemingly random challenges for himself—I’ll talk to as many people as I can today who are wearing red, for example. While it sounds strange, the result was that it kept him from simply hanging out with the people he already knew.

·    Lucky people were more resilient. Put simply, lucky people tend to see the glass as half full, instead of half empty. For example, take the following scenario. You and your friend are walking down the street when a man comes up from behind you, knocks you over, and steals your wallet. Are you lucky or unlucky? Unlucky people tended to see this as a negative situation—why do things like this always happen to me? Lucky people, on the other hand, tended to be thankful that nothing worse happened. The person could have taken money from both me and my friend or, even worse, we could have been hurt.

 So where does that leave you—the members of the Class of 2013? I think the answer is pretty clear. Your class, and each of you individually, will be as lucky or unlucky as you think you will be over the next four years and beyond. The more you hone your skills of observation, the more you consciously seek out new opportunities, and the more you choose to respond to difficult situations by finding the silver lining in the clouds, the more likely you are to see yourself as lucky and, in the end, the more successful you are likely to be.

 Still not quite sure of the point? Let me share a short story called “The Farmer’s Luck.” Many of you may remember this from 3rd grade, as I know that it has long been one of Ms. Long’s favorite stories.

There was once an old farmer. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit and said, “Such bad luck.” The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day, the horse returned bringing with it two wild horses. “Such good luck,” his neighbors replied. “Maybe,” the farmer said.

 The following day his son tried to ride one of the wild horses and was thrown off and broke his leg. “Such bad luck,” the neighbors replied. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

 The day after that military officials came to the town and drafted all of the young men into the army to fight a war. Seeing the son with the broken leg, they passed him by. “Such good luck,” the neighbors replied. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

I know that while many things are out of your control, there is one thing you can always control—how you respond to the situation in which you find yourself. Don’t be too quick to judge if something is good luck or bad luck, be resilient, and recognize that even the worst situation will almost always turn out better than you originally thought. Good luck, class of 2013. Not that you’ll need it.

Feb 152013

One of my personal goals this year has been to say “yes”, more than I say “no”. To be more specific, I have become increasingly conscious of those moments in conversations where I shift from listening mode to responding mode and, how frequently, my knee-jerk reaction is to say “no” or “yes, but” instead of saying “yes” or “yes, and”. It is part of the broader pattern that many of us often fall into when having a conversation, waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas or focusing on why something can’t happen, rather than truly listening to the other person and then building upon their ideas.

I take no credit for this insight. Patricia Ryan Madson, a professor at Stanford University, offers this as the first rule in her charming book Improv Wisdom. I was introduced to Patricia’s ideas last summer after she led one of the sessions in the Center for Teaching Excellence Innovative Leadership Seminar. On the improv stage, Patricia’s concept makes perfect sense. As she explains in her book, improvisation requires you to view everything as an offer. In order for it to work, you must retain an open mind and build a relationship of trust; in other words, you need to explicitly accept that you are in this scene together. Knowing that someone is going to always respond with yes provides that security. Given the level of vulnerability associated with doing improv, a simple rule like always say yes provides a safety net.

So how does it work in the real world?

I first saw the impact of this in meetings with several other administrators who had also participated in the seminar. Following Patricia’s session last summer, we informally challenged ourselves to respond to each other by saying, “yes, and…”  instead of “no” or “yes, but.” For example, in the past, if we were discussing calendar dates for the upcoming year and someone said, “Do you think we should consider shortening summer to 6 weeks and start school the first week of August?” the response would likely be, “No, that’s ridiculous. We would never do that.”

Now, however, the response might sound like this: “Yes, AND we should make sure to talk to faculty, parents and students before making that decision.”

The impact is subtle, yet I have found it to be profound. While we are unlikely to make that change, the second answer is additive and builds on the original comment, instead of simply shooting the idea—and, in the process, the person—down. This is more than a simple clever play with words—it is a mindset shift that leaves you more open to possibilities, and more open to collaborating with other people.

Let me quickly add, there are still times where we have to say no. “Can I have another piece of candy, Daddy?” rarely merits a yes. The key, however, is to pay attention to how our initial reaction is often to block someone instead of trying to find a way to work with them.

Today, more than 50 children took to the stage to perform in the Talent Show. The acts varied dramatically from children playing classical music to children singing and dancing to children swinging hula hoops. Each year, I am always struck that what makes this show special is that it is a show for children by children. Each act is met with generous applause, each participant is appreciated for who they are and what they bring to their moment in the spotlight. As I watch the Talent Show, I am inspired to see that as a school community, we are focused on saying yes, on recognizing each offer that is being made. I am reminded yet again that as an adult I sometimes need to relearn those lessons that came so naturally to me as a child.

Sep 072012

During my summertime meetings with new families, I typically ask parents to share a little about their child. “Describe them for me,” I’ll say. Parents become animated and their faces light up, noting the child is playful, confident, outgoing, and, yes, a bit stubborn, or perhaps shy and reserved but a non-stop talker once they warm-up to the situation. The deep sense of knowing, the unconditional love, and the honest description of personality traits that are both strengths and challenges always make me smile. I feel a deeper sense of connection to the family—and to the child—having heard these responses.

These meetings are one of many intentional steps we take as a school to help us build a partnership with families. Knowing parents—just like we know each child—provides a foundation that allows us to work with families through the years to support each child.

At the heart of the parent/school partnership is communication. Last year, the faculty and staff adopted a set of communication norms to guide all of our interactions. These norms are: Assume good will, Come from your experience, Practice a growth mindset, Suspend judgment, Avoid avoidance, and Don’t triangulate. During the past year, we found ourselves continually returning to these norms, especially during difficult conversations with each other. We even printed credit card size, laminated copies of the norms so that each faculty member could keep the norms with them. I have two sets at all times with me in my wallet.

In thinking about the parent/school partnership, these same norms apply to the many conversations we have with parents. I encourage parents to ask themselves the following questions the next time they are frustrated, confused, annoyed, or even angry about something that happened at school. Before sending a “screaming” email or coming to a meeting ready to “set things straight” ask yourself:

1) Am I assuming goodwill? Our goal as teachers and administrators is the same as your goal as parents – to help your child reach their highest individual potential. We may disagree at times on how to reach that goal, but we are all trying to accomplish the same thing.

2) Am I speaking from my own experience or am I basing my opinion on other people’s perspectives or stories? We want to work in partnership with you, and the best way to do that is for each of us to speak directly from our own experiences. Don’t try to represent a “cause”. If other parents have concerns, encourage them to come in and talk to the appropriate person.

3) Am I practicing a growth mindset and have I suspended judgment? It is important that you provide your own perspective during conversations, but it is also important that you remember to listen and really try to understand the teacher’s perspective. Enter conversations with an open mind and a willingness to learn. You should expect the same of us.

4) Am I addressing problems directly and at their source? If you didn’t agree with something a teacher did, talk to the teacher directly instead of immediately going to the division head. If your middle school child is frustrated by something that is happening in class, encourage your child to approach their teacher or advisor to seek a solution instead of immediately going to the division head yourself and demanding that things change. If you have a concern with a school policy, set up a time to meet with the appropriate person to share your concern instead of trying to convince your friend to talk to the school for you.

I know how hard it can be to suspend judgment when having a difficult conversation, particularly when your own child is involved. Our protective instincts as parents are strong; knee-jerk reactions are tempting—and, at least initially, can feel cathartic. Remember, however, that we expect these same communication norms of our children. When a conflict arises on the playground, we ask students to put themselves in the other’s shoes, use “I statements” to explain how they feel and what they experienced, and look for ways to resolve the problem that allow everyone to retain their dignity. As adults, we want to be role models for our children, showing them that we can address problems directly, actively listen with an open mind, and disagree respectfully.

It is tempting to try to resolve conflicts over email. I continually remind the administration and faculty, email is not an effective way to address complicated issues. The tone and nuance of a face-to-face conversation are lost. Furthermore, it is much easier to say things in an email that you would never say in person. How many of us have written an email at 11:30 pm (or later) that we regretted the next morning?

In order to help all of us manage communication, as a school we are trying to set some boundaries around communication time. As in the past, you can expect a response to a phone call or email from us within 24 hours. Parents should not, however, expect responses between 7 pm and 7 am. We all—teachers, administrators, and parents—need an opportunity to disconnect. During the weekends, just like the evenings, parents should not expect a response. If a true emergency arises during the weekend, administrators can be reached by phone. Undoubtedly there may be exceptions to this rule, but we believe that the overall goal —to allow each of us as adults to maintain boundaries around communication—is an important one for us to aspire to and something that we can model for our children.

In the end, the most effective communication almost always occurs face to face. Reminding ourselves of communication norms allows us to reconnect with each other on a personal level as individuals. As a school, you can expect us to know and value your child, to provide them an extraordinary educational program, and to communicate with you directly and in a timely manner. We will not always get everything right and we expect you to talk to us when something is not working. Please remember, however, that we all have the same goal—to raise confident, articulate, and intellectually curious young adults who will leave Hillbrook prepared to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

Aug 252012

One of the joys of parenthood is the opportunity to see – or at least catch a glimpse – of the world through your child’s eyes. This past summer, I had one of those moments as I watched Piper, our youngest, interact with a horse at a stable. The horse was in a stall, eating, with its head at her eye level. The trough was located next to the fence so that, if she wanted to, she could reach through and touch the horse’s head. I watched her standing a few feet away, sizing up the situation. Should I move closer? Should I reach in? What will the horse do? Piper moved a bit closer to the horse and stopped, so that she was standing less than a foot away from the horse’s head.

The horse – a classic, tourist-trail-riding horse that was used to being touched, prodded, hugged and ridden – barely raised its head as she approached. He took a quick look, decided there wasn’t anything to worry about, and went back to eating. Piper moved even closer so that she was inches from the horse’s head, nearly face to face. The horse barely registered her presence. Ever fearless, she leaned in and gave the horse a quick hug and a kiss on its nose.

As I watched this short scene unfold, what struck me was the sense of wonder that drove Piper’s actions. She was exploring her world, interacting with it, and trying to understand what would happen as she did. Her reaction to the horse letting her not only hug it but kiss it was unbridled joy. She laughed, clapped, took a step back, and then hugged the horse again. She had made a friend and was overjoyed by the experience.

One word that seemed to capture the moment? Curiosity.

It is at the heart of all learning, discovery, and growth. We hold it up as one of our four core values, and we consistently challenge members of our community to strive towards understanding the word in all its complexity and nuance. In fact, we think curiosity is so important that it will be our school-wide theme for the 2012-2013 school year.

From my perspective, curiosity involves three key concepts – a sense of wonder about the world, a recognition that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know, and a desire to spend life relentlessly asking questions and seeking answers.

At some level, the challenge for schools is less inspiring curiosity in our youngest students – like Piper, our early elementary students are overflowing with wonder, a desire to ask questions, and an eagerness to understand the world – but in sustaining that curiosity as children move further along their educational journey. At Hillbrook, we have always been deeply committed to an education that nurtures curiosity and inspires a lifelong love of learning.

This past week during our opening faculty meetings, I had an opportunity to hear countless ways in which teachers spent their summers striving to satisfy their own curiosity. Tinkering at the Tech Shop, leading a group of Hillbrook alumni through the rain forest in Ecuador, studying music in Ghana, exploring the teaching of reading and writing with colleagues at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and discovering the power of games with internationally renowned-speaker and educator John Hunter. Our faculty are true lifelong learners, continually asking questions, seeking new answers, and reveling in the exploration process.

Next Wednesday at our opening Flag, I will challenge each member of our community to approach the 2012-2013 school year with a spirit of curiosity. As parents, I encourage you to not only celebrate your child’s curiosity but to consciously model your own curiosity when appropriate moments arise. We all need to adopt a “curiosity mindset,” one that values learning, growth, risk taking, and exploring what we don’t know, instead of a cautious mindset that plays it safe and focuses on things we already understand.

Whether a student is entering Hillbrook for the 10th year or for the first day, they all have new things to learn, new people to meet, unexplored problems to tackle, great book to read and re-read, and concepts to revisit, re-engage, and understand with a new set of eyes.

At the close of our opening faculty meeting, I shared the following T.S. Eliot quote:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Welcome back – I look forward to a year of exploration, curiosity, adventure and an opportunity to know each of you and our school again for the first time.

Apr 202012

According to Chinese legend, the Empress Dowager Cixi was the first person to own a car in China, receiving it as a birthday gift in 1902.  While she apparently liked the car, she never rode it. The reason? Custom dictated that no person was supposed to sit in front of her. Obviously, no one could drive the car without doing just that, so the car was never driven once it came into her possession.

I heard this story while touring the Forbidden City in Beijing during our recent Middle School student trip to China. The story struck me as a wonderful example of the powerful role that perspective plays in our lives. The Empress Dowager’s fixed mindset prevented her from ever taking advantage of an opportunity that only a few people in the world had at that time.

Traveling China with our students, I was struck by the stark contrast between her unwillingness to take a risk and the open-minded perspective adopted by our students during our 8-day adventure.  Perhaps just as importantly, her perspective seemed out of step with the China of today that we experienced. During our travels, I marveled at the impressive level of development in Shanghai, Beijing, and Jianyang (the “small” 2 million person city we visited about 2 hours outside of Shanghai). Indeed, if anything, the China today we experienced seems a country desperate to embrace the “new.” The Pudong district, the most highly developed and cosmopolitan section of Shanghai, for example, did not even exist 20 years ago.

I should quickly add that I don’t claim to be an expert on China, and I certainly recognize that our tour was short and we visited only a handful of places. I also realize that China’s development is complex and that, despite significant economic growth, there remains large areas of China that would still be classified as third world regions. What I took away, however, was a deep appreciation for the rapid rate of change in China and for the importance of maintaining an open perspective when trying to understand China today.

As part of our tour, we visited an elementary school and a junior high school in Jianyang.  Students had an opportunity to spend an afternoon and evening with a Chinese family, visiting their home and participating in a variety of activities with the families. The next morning, we started the day at the elementary school’s Flag Raising ceremony.

The ceremony represented what I would have expected in a Chinese school – 1300 students marched in to the courtyard, lined up in perfect order, and sang a song as they raised the flag. The students, ranging in age from 1st to 6th grade, were perfectly behaved. Then, the principal introduced our group. The students started talking, laughing, and jumping up in the back to see our students as they came onto stage. While it remained relatively orderly, the entire energy changed.

Later in the morning, I had a few moments to myself, and I stood on the 2nd floor of one of the buildings and watched a group of 1st graders with a PE teacher. The PE teacher had the students pretend to be different animals and the children fully embraced the activity.  At one point, he attempted to bring the children back to attention. I watched as he asked one, two, three times for attention and still students giggled, played, and struggled to regain focus. Even as he finally managed to pull the group together, two little boys in the back were pushing and kicking at each other, just out of sight of the teacher’s vision. Clearly, at some level, children are children.

Perhaps the most challenging thing for me while in China was the navigation of what I would term conversational diplomacy. This year we adopted communication norms with our faculty, including “avoid avoidance” and “don’t triangulate.” The underlying message is the importance of speaking directly and from one’s own experience. After spending a week in China, I think I can safely say that these norms were not the cultural norms we experienced in China.

During our visit at the two schools, I spent considerable time with both principals. Conversations tended to move in circuitous and meandering ways. My questions generated lengthy answers, and I often had to try to decipher the meaning. During the evening, we had a formal Chinese banquet hosted by the two principals. I tried to follow the complex art of toasting the people at the table, and I found myself relying heavily on our tour guide and our Mandarin teacher, Mei Chen, for guidance. The expectations were unlike anything I had ever experienced in the United States.

The experience left me exhausted but also reflective, as I found myself having to accept that my cultural values were not the same as our Chinese hosts. I was reminded that it is important to maintain an open perspective and to think critically about our “standard operating procedures” lest we find ourselves trapped in the same fixed mindset that kept the Empress Dowager from driving in a car.

The trip to China challenged me to expand my perspective and opened my eyes yet again to the powerful experience of international travel. A cultural exchange is the perfect embodiment of the learning by doing philosophy at the core of our school’s program. The seventeen students who participated in this trip gained invaluable experience in connecting with new people and understanding new ideas, and the experience reinforced for them and for me the high return that can be gained from taking risks. Climbing up the “wild” section of the Great Wall, haggling with a vendor in a market, teaching Chinese children how to play American games, performing for teachers and students as part of a Welcome Ceremony, or eating a duck head at a formal banquet are all experiences that stretched our students and allowed them to broaden their perspective.

It was a privilege to be able to travel with these students and the other two chaperones and to have an opportunity to experience first-hand China today.  This is the beginning of what I hope will be a long-term relationship with these two Chinese schools, a relationship that will offer invaluable learning to our community and to theirs. As we move forward, I will certainly be mindful of the importance of understanding different perspectives and of maintaining a growth mindset. After all, I don’t want to miss out on the 21st century equivalent of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s car ride.