Mar 172017

gratitudeI had the opportunity to hear Brené Brown at the recent NAIS National Conference in Baltimore. Author of several books, including bestsellers Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brown has garnered a great deal of attention by speaking to the powerful role that shame and vulnerability play in our lives, and how we need to understand and lean into those feelings if we are ever going to be able to be courageous and do great things.

Brown is a gifted and humorous speaker, and she managed to be simultaneously disarming, funny, and thought-provoking, as she challenged each of us to think about how our fear of being vulnerable leads to misunderstanding. It takes courage to speak our truth, particularly to those closest to us, she noted. She told a story of a morning swim with her husband that quickly devolved into a fight when the two of them failed to understand what the other was thinking. She encouraged us to develop facility with the phrase, “The story I am telling in my head…,” as a way to open conversation with another person and help them understand what you are thinking and, in the process, often help to reveal the misunderstanding at the core of the conflict.

I quickly thought of the many misunderstandings I had with people, especially my own family members, as I leapt up the ladder of inference and became frustrated, judgmental, and angry instead of opening myself up to a real conversation and a search for understanding. I thought of a recent situation in which one of my children came to me to ask if we could get a subscription to Adobe Photoshop. I looked up from my computer, and immediately, angrily, and, let’s be clear, irrationally launched into a mini-tirade about how all my children ever do is ask for things and want more. I was tired of their sense of entitlement and their never-ending need for things. I then turned back to what I was doing, shutting the conversation down.

Later, with the benefit of time and perspective, I went back to said child and asked them to tell me more. It turns out, that this child had already figured out a way to pay for this service by canceling another service we had, and was not simply asking for something more. I sheepishly listened and we worked out an arrangement that, in the end, actually highlighted the importance of financial management and this child’s growing awareness that “money does not grow on trees.”

It was definitely a low point as a parent, and one that I’m not proud of in the least. I could make a number of excuses, but if I’m being brutally honest (ie, fully vulnerable) and if I play out “the story in my head”, the question triggered complex feelings from my own childhood about money, an underlying fear that careless expenditures of money would have long-term consequences, coupled with shame about any type of conspicuous consumption. The latter undoubtedly traces all the way back to a purchase in 7th grade of an expensive pair of Vuarnet sunglasses with money I had earned through yard work and babysitting, a purchase that my parents viewed with a combination of disgust and disappointment. In retrospect, I now recognize their feeling – it was discomfort with the privilege I had (the ability to purchase a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses) combined with a larger fear that I would not recognize my privilege and would simply become entitled.

Brené Brown beautifully addressed this concept when she talked about her own efforts to ensure her children were not entitled. She distinguished between privilege – unearned access to resources  – and entitlement – expectations of access to resources. The key to keeping the one – privilege – from becoming the other – entitlement? Understanding and gratitude.

As a parent, how do we do this? I think it is important to explicitly name the privileges your children have, as well as helping them see how privilege varies across different communities. It is important for children to recognize, for example, that within the Hillbrook community, different families have different types of privilege, whether due to differences in socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. At the same time, even with those differences, it is helpful for our children to recognize the privilege that all Hillbrook children have simply by being students at the school, namely, access to an educational experience that the vast majority of children throughout the Bay Area and around the world do not have.

And how do we teach gratitude? To my mind, the best way to teach that is by modeling it for your own children and by showing your own gratitude for the things and experiences you find valuable. I regularly tell my children about how grateful I am to be part of this community, how grateful I am to live in such an extraordinarily beautiful area, and how grateful I am to have the freedom and the opportunities that I have had throughout my life.

For additional exploration  you might check out the following:

Nov 082016


perspective“To the middle, run to the middle,” I yelled from the sidelines to one of the players on the U9 girls soccer team I’m helping to coach. As her teammate dribbled down the sideline and prepared to send a cross to the middle of the field in the front of the goal, the player turned around and ran back toward the center circle – the middle of the field. I started to yell and then, simply, stopped. After the ball went out of bounds, I called the girl over to the sideline and tried, as best I could, to explain what I had meant. She had a big smile on her face and nodded enthusiastically, and yet I could tell she wasn’t following me. “Just play hard, try to get the ball, and have fun,” I said as I sent her back out on the field.

Coaching 7 and 8 year old girls this Fall has been humbling. I find myself trying to balance the need to teach the difficult and technical skills of soccer – controlling the ball with your feet and other parts of your body, passing to a teammate, receiving a pass from a teammate, shooting – with the need to teach basic game sense and understanding of strategy. My co-coaches and I have tried to structure practices so the children are touching the ball all the time, not standing around in lines, and thus they are focusing on moving and developing a feel for the ball. We have also tried to provide some basic understanding of the game so that when we get on the field, they are not just chasing the ball. While the former has been successful – the girls are touching the ball a lot in practice – the latter has been harder. We have been the masters of the swarm much of the season, although there have been moments of passing and spacing these past few weeks that provide hope.

For context, soccer was my favorite sport growing up, and I remain a passionate fan of professional soccer. I also coached older players – high school junior varsity and varsity soccer teams – for a number of years earlier in my career. To be clear, no one is going to invite me to coach a top soccer team anytime soon, and yet I probably know more than your average AYSO soccer coach.  

Coaching this team has reminded me of a few important lessons that apply to parenting and school.

First, controlling children is not the same as teaching children. Soccer is complex and fluid, and it is not possible to create a script and simply direct children around the field. I can yell to the girls to get to the middle, and yet so many things can make that difficult, from the challenge of controlling the ball to the abstract nature of the flow of the game. The fundamental beauty of soccer to me is that it is a player’s game, not a coach’s game. Just like in parenting our children, we ultimately need to sit back and let them control their own game.

Which leads to the second lesson – I need to understand the children I have in front of me and meet them where they are. A quick review of the Yardsticks developmental continuum that we often share with parents reminds me that 7 and 8 year olds can “Listen well but may not always remember what they’ve heard,” and that they “may give up when things are hard.” It also notes, that they are “full of energy, play hard, work quickly, and tire easily.”  Wondering about the different shapes and sizes of children out there? Well, not surprisingly, they “may have a growth spurt.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have a “limited attention span, and short exercise breaks help concentration.” I’m no longer coaching high school varsity players, nor do I necessarily want to be – but that’s a column for a different day.

Which leads to the final lesson – I should not be measuring success by whether we win or lose the game. I will admit that I am competitive (probably more competitive than I sometimes want to admit) and there have been moments where I’ve been enthusiastically directing the girls on the field and getting pulled into the competitive nature of the moment. “Go, go, go,” I’m yelling from the sideline. And then I look over and see the three girls who are sitting on the sideline with me doing cartwheels. Perspective is important.

Next week, two excellent speakers will be visiting the area as part of the Common Ground speaker series – Richard Weissbroud and Frank Bruni. Both have written interesting books, Weissbroud’s book The Parents We Mean To Be focused on parenting and children’s moral and emotional development, while Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be challenges students and parents to rethink how they view the college experience. The two will be delivering separate talks – Weissbroud at Nueva on Tuesday, November 15 and Bruni at Bellarmine on Wednesday, November 16. In addition, the two will be part of a joint discussion, moderated by Denise Clark Pope, on Tuesday, November 15 at Menlo School. For those who don’t know, Denise Clark Pope is impressive in her own right, as the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students and the founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that challenges parents and schools to redefine the meaning of success.

While Weissbroud and Bruni are not talking about soccer, the lessons that I have been reminded of in coaching 7 and 8 year-old girls are not too dissimilar from the lessons they are exploring, albeit in the context of older children. For those who are new to the Hillbrook community, we were one of the founding schools of Common Ground more than 10 years ago and the group continues to bring extraordinary speakers to help all of us – parents, teachers, and coaches – work with our students and children.

A final note about the team. A few weeks back, I found myself at 8:15 am on a Saturday morning with ten eager girls dressed and ready to play an 8:30 am soccer game. The only problem? The other team wasn’t there. The rainy weather had created confusion about whether or not we could use the field and thus the other team did not show. Our team’s other coach and I talked and then we talked with a few other parents. What should we do? “The parents should play the kids,” one child said enthusiastically. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?” One hour later, a number of us collapsed on the sideline, big smiles on our faces, as we completed perhaps the best sixty minutes of the season. A parent smiled at me and said, “You know what? This is what they are going to remember.”

Apr 272016

To my mind, there may be no more quintessentially Hillbrook artifact than the white shirt. We have often envisioned an ad which would show a white shirt with a series of stains – a touch of red paint on the front, a dash of Epicurean lunch on the collar, mud stains up the back from running across campus, a bit of whiteboard marker on the sleeve. At the bottom of the ad might be a tagline like, “Got dirt?” or “Evidence of an Extraordinary Education,” and perhaps in really small letters at the bottom, “Bleach and Spray n Wash not included.”

What is it that I love so much about the white shirt?

It tells our story. At Hillbrook, we believe that a good day is a day in which children embrace the messiness of learning. Every morning fresh white shirts arrive on campus, ready to take on the challenge of a Hillbrook day. By 9:30 am shirts look a bit more frayed – perhaps a hand absent-mindedly wiped on the shirt as a student wrestles with a complicated math problem on a white board table or a bit of dirt on the sleeve from efforts to build an artificial hand in science class. By noon, multiple stains have started to emerge, evidence of specialist and elective classes, a few well-traveled trips across campus, a bite of lunch, and an intense game of gaga ball in the Middle School or digging in the sandbox on the JK-2 playground. By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile. One glance as a parent at your child’s white shirt at 3:30 pm tells you that it has been another active, engaging, fully-lived day at school.

As the person who typically does laundry in our house, I am well-aware of the increasingly daunting challenge over the course of the year to restore the white shirt to its original splendor. After several months, even bleach and Spray n Wash have a limited impact.

Thus, it is with genuinely mixed emotions – a bit of sadness AND untold relief – that I share that we have decided to add navy blue shirts to the uniform next year. The decision comes as a result of a two-year effort by the Student Council to expand the possibilities for the student uniform. Through conversation with the Student Council, we learned that students really wanted the navy blue shirt option. As we sought out perspectives from adults in our community, we were not surprised to learn that parents were equally eager to have a new option, one that wouldn’t get quite so dirty day in and day out. Thus, with only a bit of hesitation, we have embraced the change and we will be adding the navy blue shirt option to the mix next year. White shirts are still allowed. In addition, we will likely implement a specific uniform for concerts and all-school pictures, most likely the white shirt, so all students will want to have at least one white shirt in the mix.

So, as students arrive on campus next year, I will be greeted by a new sight – a sea of white AND navy blue shirts. It will be a small, but significant, change, for no longer will I necessarily be able to tell what type of day it has been for each child by reviewing the shirts at carpool. And, yet, I know that regardless of the shirts, the Hillbrook experience will not change. Each day will continue to be a day a joyful learning, filled with all of the excitement, challenge, and, yes, messiness, that we all know is the result of an extraordinary education.

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.

Sep 152015

A few days ago, I was out on an early morning run along one of the local trails. Running through the woods, I found myself enjoying the extraordinary beauty around me – impressive Oak trees, the crunching sounds of small animals running amidst the trees, the vistas heading out towards Santa Cruz, the blue sky.

As often happens when I’m running, I was deep in thought, crafting in my mind an essay. The topic that resonated for me that day, perhaps not surprisingly given the surroundings and my state of mind, was the joy I feel at being part of the Hillbrook community. These first few weeDSC_0078ks at school have been particularly joyful, as we have welcomed families new and old through a series of events and activities. From the opening flag when we launched into “Welcome to Hillbrook,” through the Kick-off breakfasts, and on through last Friday night’s incredibly successful Family Fun Night, it has been a whirlwind of activity bringing the community together to celebrate the opening of the school’s 80th year.

As I was running, I reflected on the joy and engagement I was seeing as I walked into classrooms around campus these first few weeks, the enthusiastic greetings I received from children eager to show me what they were doing – a new book they had just started to read, a self-portrait they were creating, academic and social goals they had set for themselves, a new iPad they had just pulled out of the box. I became even more excited as I thought about the extraordinary enthusiasm of our teachers that had been continually on display. I had seen countless examples of how teachers were intentionally and thoughtfully using these first weeks to build community within the grade levels, creating an environment that provided the sense of security and belonging that are essential in order to help each child reach their highest individual potential.

I thought to myself – I am so incredibly fortunate to be part of this school and this community.

And then, I swallowed a bug.

I immediately made that awkward, pinched, and slightly exasperated face you make when you realize that the bug has gone straight into your mouth and down your throat before you even can react. My joyful reverie broke. I gagged a bit, and realized that it was too hot, my legs were really tired, and I definitely needed a drink of water. I stopped writing the essay in my head and started focusing on my run. The next 20 minutes were challenging, but I made iDSC_0020 t to the end.

It was only later when I sat down to write this essay that I realized what a perfect metaphor the bug was for education and parenting. As parents and as educators, we are naturally drawn to the moments of joy that are part of raising children. Our Facebook pages are full of the happy times, those moments that sustain us and that, in the end, showcase the beauty of childhood and the extraordinary sense of satisfaction that we feel watching our children as they move along the pathway toward becoming confident, capable, independent, and thoughtful adults.

Less often discussed – but no less real – are the challenging moments, those evenings when our children break down into tears because of an argument they had with someone at school, or because someone said something mean to them, or because “no one” likes them, or because the homework is too hard and they are struggling in class. There are also the arguments they have with us, over cleaning up, bedtimes, technology use, or perceived or real injustices they feel about how they are being treated vis a vis a sibling or their friends. On top of this are those things outside school, life struggles that every family faces at some point – illness, for example – that impact our children in ways that are often hard to understand but that we know are real.

DSC_0032Put another way, we all have moments where we feel like we have swallowed a bug. They are inevitable. How we respond to those moments, however, is what ultimately defines us and our children.

When our children “swallow a bug,” it can be difficult to maintain our perspective. Our first instinct can be to try to solve their problems for them, to step in and make things better. We can sometimes become frustrated or angry ourselves, momentarily forgetting that swallowing a bug is simply a normal part of life. While Hillbrook is a joyful place to be a child, that does not change the fact that not every moment of school or childhood is joyful.

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes that I have heard from several different parent education experts, “Our job is not to prepare the path for our child, but to prepare our child for the path.” Life will be full of moments of joy and moments of challenge, moments where we will be lost in reverie amidst the Oak trees and other moments where we will find ourselves gagging on a bug. As parents and educators, we serve children best when we recognize that both are an essential part of childhood and life, and that, in the end, we have done our job most successfully when we equip our children with the skills to manage these challenges on their own.


Aug 272015

Eighty years ago, a small group of women took a risk.

2nd Grade ClassroomThey started a boarding school for wards of the state, and made what was, at the time, an audacious claim – all children, regardless of their background, placed in the right environment could reach their highest individual potential and become leaders who could change the community and the world. “As the twig is bent, the tree will grow,” they declared.

Their vision remains as compelling today as it was back in 1935. During the ensuing 80 years, The Children’s Country School has evolved into what we now know as Hillbrook School. The school, and the world surrounding us, has changed dramatically. The orchards and farmland of Santa Clara Valley transformed into Silicon Valley, one of the most innovative places in the world. Fittingly, the spirit of risk-taking at the heart of the school remains as strong as ever.

As we prepare to embark on the 2015-16 school year – our 80th year as a school – we honor the audacity and vision of our founders by making “Take Risks” our theme for the year. One of our four core values – Be Kind, Be Curious, Take Risks, Be Your Best – Take Risks has always had a special resonance given our history and our location in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Risk-taking flourishes in a culture where children feel safe making mistakes and where failure is recognized as an essential part of the learning journey. From their earliest days at Hillbrook, children are encouraged to try new things and to push themselves out of their comfort zones. For some children that may be pushing themselves to make a new friend, while for others it is raising their hand and telling a joke at Flag. Walking up to the whiteboard to share an answer to a complex math problem or volunteering a perspective during a literature conversation are examples of intellectual risks that are daily occurrences at the school. Within our culture, the risk is tempered by the knowledge that at Hillbrook, people celebrate and learn from mistakes. In many school cultures, children are afraid to participate because the downside of a mistake or a wrong answer outweighs the benefit of a right answer. Put another way, at some schools, the need to look and act “smart” is more important than the need to learn. At Hillbrook, the focus is always on creating experiences that inspire engagement and learning.

This past week, the faculty and staff have been together preparing for the start of the school year. Like the students, as an adult community we are also continually challenging ourselves to take risks and to seek new and better ways to create an extraordinary educational experience for our students. Teachers shared new ideas gleaned from summer fellowships at places including Harvard’s Project Zero, Wildwood School’s Multicultural Institute and Thacher School’s Capstone Project summit, and worked collaboratively to envision how we create an environment that helps us meet each child where they are and challenge them to reach their highest individual potential. Conversations both formal and informal about student choice and engagement, problem solving and exploration, learning spaces, literacy and math, and inclusivity laid the foundation for what promises to be an inspiring year for children and adults.

How might you support your children in taking risks?

First, encourage your children to try new things. Whether it’s trying out for a team, running for student council, eating a food they’ve never seen, riding a bike without training wheels, or reading a new genre of book, encourage them to push outside their comfort zone. At the end of each day, replace “What did you do today?” with “What did you do today that was challenging” or “How did you take a risk?”\

Second, praise the process, more than the product. If your child runs for student council, celebrate the risk – not the result. If your child plays a sport, don’t focus on whether they immediately showNolan & Christopher signs of being the next Buster Posey or Carli Lloyd, but talk to them about what they are learning and how they are continuing to grow. In fact, particularly for children who show early signs of doing well in sports, the more you should emphasize effort and challenge, not outcomes. As we know from Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, children who are praised for outcomes – not effort – will quickly learn to play it safe and often will limit their potential, while children who are praised for effort are more likely to develop the resilience and perseverance needed to make it through life’s varied challenges. In other words, don’t tell your child they are smart, but instead tell them how impressed you are with the way they solved a problem or the hard work they showed to get better. Don’t tell them they are a great athlete, tell them how impressed you are with their tireless effort on the field or the way they quickly bounce back when they make a mistake.

Remember that childhood – and life – is a marathon, not a sprint. Success or failure at 7..or 8….or 12…. does not translate into success or failure at 30…..or 35…..or 70. Childhood is a time of extraordinary growth and change, and children will often master things in fits and starts. Remember watching your child learn to walk? or talk? Think of those early developmental processes as you watch your child taking on new and different challenges. Remember the patience it required – and the joy it eventually brought – and try to keep that same perspective as they tackle increasingly challenging and complex learning experiences.

Finally, remember that as much as you can support and nurture and love them through the learning process – you can’t do it for them. As a parent, one of the risks we must take is to gradually release responsibility and let our children make their way on their own. It takes courage and we will make mistakes along the way, and yet the greatest joy that we will ultimately find is being part of our children’s journey as they grow into confident, articulate, successful, and independent adults.

Next Wednesday, we will gather as a community at the pavers for the opening Flag of the year. It is one of my favorite moments of the year, a moment of possibility and promise, as a community of students, faculty, and parents turn their eyes toward stage and eagerly await the official start to the year. It will be a year in which we challenge ourselves – children and adults – to take risks, secure in the knowledge that there will be twists, turns and bumps along the way, but that our founders had it right – as the twig is bent, the tree will grow.