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.”

Sep 142016


At the heart of our campus sits the Village of Friendly Relations. Built by our students back in the late 1930s, these small houses represent the physical manifestation of founder Mary Orem’s vision for how Hillbrook (then called The Children’s Country School) could make the world a better place. The Village serves as “an experimental plant for promoting Peace,” she wrote in a letter in September 1937. She continued,

“Training for peace must begin in the nursery, where tolerance and a willingness to share are natural outgrowths in adjustment….to discard the chaff before prejudice has a chance to set in… (to show) that friendly settling of disagreements is possible in a group of variegated backgrounds and so through understanding and working for a common good, Peace is possible.”

More than 80 years later, we remain committed to this idealistic and optimistic notion – the belief that through an educational experience that prioritizes engagement, collaboration, social emotional learning, and student choice, our students are inspired to become changemakers and leaders, individuals who look for ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

We are in the middle of Hillbrook’s inaugural “Week of Service,” a weeklong exploration of how our community can reach beyond ourselves to engage both on and off-campus in meaningful service opportunities. Inspired by the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance, the week provides us an opportunity to link our efforts to a broader, national effort.

As we noted at Flag this past Monday, 9/11 has become a historical event for our students, not all that different to them from other historical events like Pearl Harbor, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Vietnam War. For all of us adults, who have strong and indelible memories of that day, it is often hard to recognize how quickly something shifts from a felt memory to just another historical event read about in history books. With this in mind, it is important that we find ways to teach them in age-appropriate ways about that day and help them understand that giving back and making a difference in the world are not only Hillbrook values, but values that are shared by many within our local, regional, and national communities.

p1000443This week our students are having an opportunity to learn about hunger, poverty, and homelessness, serious and complex issues that are somewhat invisible to many within our community, particularly students. We are working with a broad range of local organizations – St. Luke’s Pantry, House of Hope, San Jose Family Shelter, Georgia Travis House – to provide hands-on experience and education for our students. In the process of serving others, our students gain insight into the broader needs of the community and the ways, both big and small, that they can help to make a difference.

p1000438We are also finding opportunities to engage with other local organizations, in the process strengthening our connections with the broader Los Gatos community. Last Spring, our school received an $800 prize from the Los Gatos Rotary as the largest team to participate in the Great Race (over 65 members of the Hillbrook community participated!). When we learned of the prize, we immediately talked with the Rotary Club and decided that together we would utilize the funds to support Stop Hunger Now, an international organization committed to ending world hunger.  Thus, this week, volunteers from Los Gatos Rotary joined with students and parents from Hillbrook to package more than 15,000 meals. As explained on the Stop Hunger Now website, “meals are shipped throughout the world to support school feeding programs, orphanages, and crisis relief. The food is stored easily, transported quickly, and has a shelf-life of two years.”

We are proud of the impact our efforts are having this week, efforts that build upon the extraordinary work we have done in previous years as part of our service learning efforts. Whether it is the fifteen libraries created in Malawi through the African Library Project or the school foundation laid in Nicaragua by our students two years ago, the thousands of meals served at local shelters or the hundreds of students at local elementary schools positively impacted by our Middle School students, the indelible connections forged between our third graders and special-needs students from the local public schools or the passionate commitment to recycling inspired by our many green projects, our community has always been committed to making a difference in the world.
Since 1935, we have believed that through the creation of an educational environment that nurtures, challenges and inspires, we can raise children who will change the world. While many things have changed in the past 80 years, our “experimental plant for promoting peace” continues to thrive and grow both on and off campus.

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.

Oct 072015

I’m writing to invite you to join a conversation that will lay the foundation for Hillbrook School in the next five years and beyond. We have launched a strategic planning process that will set a direction for Hillbrook that will guide us past 2020 and toward our 100th anniversary in 2035. A Strategic Planning Committee, made up of members from all constituent groups – parents, faculty, staff, Board members – has been convened to lead the process, with a goal of having the Board approve a new strategic plan by the start of the 2016-17 school year.

DSC_0263A key part of the process will be a series of community conversations held in the coming weeks in people’s homes, where parents and other members of our community will have an opportunity to talk about the school’s strengths and areas of concern, and also help us understand how different people prioritize the needs of the school in the years ahead. It will be an exciting and engaging evening.

Five years ago we created an ambitious strategic plan, Vision 2015, that promised to deepen our connections to our past while charting an ambitious path toward the future. The goals focused on four areas – program, operations, community, innovation – and challenged us to take a good school and make it even better.

Five years later, visible signs of the impact of Vision 2015 are everywhere. Program audits have led to dramatic improvements in our core programs – a full restructuring of Middle School English and math, consistent implementation of Readers & Writers Workshop across the Lower School, engineering and making integrated in both Lower and Middle school science, and a revised Social Studies program centered around essential questions. Perhaps just as importantly, our professional development program has never been stronger. Led by Aimee Giles, our Director of Teaching & Learning, with strong support from a program admin team that includes both division heads, the director of technology, and a group of coaches and teacher leaders, we are approaching professional development in a way that is collaborative, integrated, and inspiring. The Resident Teacher Program provides the foundation for our co-teaching model, a model that has significantly improved our ability to individualize our program and meet each child where they are. In addition, it has established us as a leader in elementary education, a school where early career educators and experienced professionals work together to create an extraordinary educational experience for all children.

newplaygroundAcross campus, the results of our campus master plan are increasingly visible. Nearly every classroom on campus has been reimagined, with flexible classroom furniture and expansive white board space creating an environment that supports choice, engagement, and purposeful learning. Remodeled science classrooms provide an inspiring space for children to engage in a broad range of problem-based scientific experiences, while also creating a highly collaborative space for the science teachers. The outdoor stage is nearly complete, and it will soon be the central space on campus for community gatherings and celebrations. Soon after, we will be breaking ground on the new JK-2 playground, a space that supports a range of play – dramatic, physical, creative, exploratory – for our youngest students. As a school, we are increasingly creating learning spaces and environments that support and shape teaching and learning in profound ways.

Supporting these efforts has been a transformed advancement program. Over the past six years, we have seen our annual fund increase from just over $400,000 to more than $1 million. Philanthropy has not only allowed us to strengthen and expand our programs, but it has also served as a catalyst for innovation, allowing us to initiate things like one of the first iPad programs in the world, our Resident Teacher program, and a campus-full of reimagined classrooms across campus. Capital fundraising has enabled us to initiate our campus renovation projects, as well as pushing our endowment above $1 million.

Today, we have the opportunity to create the next plan for Hillbrook’s future. As we have shown the past five years, the creation of our vision leads to real and tangible change that impacts each child’s experience, each day at school.

I invite you to join us for one of our community conversations. For 80 years, we have been committed to a central idea – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. As we look toward the next 80 years and beyond, we are excited about how we can continue to strengthen our connection to our roots while creating a school that is at the leading edge of education in the Bay Area and beyond.

To R.S.V.P. for a strategic plan conversation, check out the links in the latest Hillbrook Happenings. Space is limited to 25 attendees per evening, so sign up today! Each session happens from 6:30-8:30 PM.

Feb 012013

Ask 1st grade teacher Barb Johnson about this year, and you will hear the following, “This is probably my strongest teaching year ever.”

6th/7th grade English teacher Julia Rubin would add, “It’s like everything is better. Everything is in technicolor.”

What are they so excited about? The new Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Resident Teacher Program. More specifically, Barb, Julia, 4th grade teacher Kate Hammond, and 7th/8th science teacher Brian Ravizza are inspired to be teaching shoulder-to-shoulder with our talented cohort of resident teachers—Olivia Swan, Emily Stekl, Emily Drew-Moyer, and Ilsa Dohmen. These eight dynamic educators are collaborating together to help us realize the extraordinary potential of this new program.

The Resident Teacher Program (RTP) is a transformative initiative that emerged from Vision 2015 and our injunction to ourselves to be innovative. The RTP has three main goals:

1) Increase individual attention and differentiation in the classroom. Two teachers in a classroom (or three teachers at a grade level) makes our already small classes even smaller and creates opportunities for increased understanding and support of each child.

2) Create mentoring and co-teaching opportunities for teachers that allow for more opportunities for deep reflection on best practices. What does that mean? Invigorated teachers always pushing forward to make sure they are providing the best possible program for our students.

3) Train and nurture beginning and early career teachers so they are extraordinarily well-prepared candidates for top schools around the country, including Hillbrook.

Spend time in any one of the classrooms with a mentor and a resident and you will immediately see the transformative impact this is having on our program. Walk into a 4th grade classroom and you might see students working in small reading groups with support from three 4th grade teachers. A closer look reveals that groups are split among the entire 4th grade, not just one section. Three teachers for one grade level provides powerful individualized attention.

Walk into an 8th grade science classroom and you might see students intensively working in teams building a rocket. The challenge? Get the rocket to stay up in the air as long as possible. The two teachers move among the groups offering advice and feedback, a level of personal attention not possible in previous years.

Walk into the library classroom on a Thursday afternoon and you might see the residents, RTP Director Aimee Giles, and a member of our faculty or administration actively discussing an important topic in education as part of the resident’s weekly seminar. Topics might include supporting a range of learners, adolescent development, or building your own professional learning network. The seminar shows that curiosity and lifelong learning are happening all across our community, not just with our students.

In the end, the evidence is strong—the program works and it is allowing us to better meet our mission as a school to help each child reach their highest individual potential.

Looking ahead to next year, we expect to hire a second cohort of four residents to join our initial cohort of residents. With eight residents on campus, we will be able to have one resident each in grades K–4 and three residents in the Middle School. Every student will benefit from the increased individual attention, the active collaboration of teachers, and the energy that this program is infusing into our campus.

We cannot do it, however, without raising the funds to pay for this second cohort of teachers.

Last year, a small number of families provided the seed money—a little more than $200,000 —to allow us to launch this program and fund our first cohort of four residents. This year, some of those same families and a few additional families have stepped forward to offer another round of funding to support the program for the 2013–2014 school year. To date, we have raised over $180,000 to help fund the program, with several families contributing more than $30,000.

Next Friday’s auction—A License to Bid—will provide all families an opportunity to support this program and make our vision a reality. We are looking to raise at least another $100,000 to fully fund the eight residents for next year.

So when the moment comes on Friday night, please raise your paddle and show your support for the Resident Teacher Program. Your contribution will help ensure that this initiative continues to grow and transform our program in the ways that it has already done this year. Most importantly, your gift enables Hillbrook to continue to be a place where both students and adults are learning, growing, and reaching their highest individual potential.

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.