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 By the end of the day, the clean white shirt has been replaced by a dirty, stretched out, off-white shirt that bears only a passing resemblance to its early morning facsimile.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.

Mar 232012

Be curious.

It is the second of our four core values but the one, I sense, least discussed. Take Risks resonates strongly amidst the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, and Be Kind is at the tip of many a parent’s and teacher’s tongue. As for Be Your Best, I always offer it as my parting shot at Flag, and it is easy to invoke when talking to children who are doing something especially well or, perhaps, acting in a way that doesn’t reflect their best selves.

Curiosity, however, sometimes seems to fall through the cracks. Its importance, however, should not be underestimated. After all, isn’t the root of problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity – indeed, all learning – curiosity?

The recent results of the Science Audit reaffirm the many strengths of our science program, while also providing some clear suggestions about how we can make our program even better. In the process, it also reminded me of the central role of curiosity in our program.

The Science Audit Committee, chaired by 7/8 science teacher Brian Ravizza and Director of Summer, After-School & CTE Programs Elizabeth Deitz, conducted a thorough review of our science program. The committee compared our approach and curriculum to programs in other top Bay Area schools (visiting Harker, Castilleja, Marin Country Day School and others), reviewed surveys from parents and alumni, consulted the National Science Standards, reached out to parent focus groups, and spent significant time reflecting as a group on how they could take a good program and make it even better.

One outcome of the process was the clear delineation of the skills and understanding we expect from a Hillbrook graduate: an understanding of the core concepts of science, the ability to apply the scientific method and write a formal lab report, an understanding of design thinking and its application, and a healthy degree of skepticism.

Survey responses from graduates of the Class of 2011 offers encouraging news about how well we are currently meeting these goals, with 100 percent of respondents saying that they strongly agree/agree that Hillbrook prepared them in understanding scientific concepts, and 95 percent of respondents saying that they strongly agree/agree that Hillbrook prepared them in designing and conducting independent experiments, understanding and using the scientific method, and producing a written lab report.

During the audit, other strengths of the program also became apparent. Hillbrook is one of the few schools in the Bay Area with a dedicated science lab and science specialists from the earliest grades, a robust garden program, and a burgeoning program in design thinking.  Perhaps the greatest strength is how the school nurtures a genuine sense of inquiry, encouraging our children to be curious, ask good questions, and actively engage in the process of finding the answers.

The committee also identified several areas to focus that will help us strengthen our program. Key recommendations include:

  • Further integrate physics, particularly engineering & Design Thinking, into our program
  • Increase the amount of classtime dedicated to science in 5th grade
  • Develop JK-4 and 5-8 science notebooks, which will allow students and teachers to capture the growth in scientific understanding and skills of our children as they move through the program
  • Create new opportunities to highlight and support student engagement in science, including the creation of science showcases like an “Invention Convention” and increased participation in outside scientific competitions
  • Collaborate with a landscape architect to enhance our outdoor learning spaces and further strengthen our garden and sustainability program
  • Create a network through LinkedIn to help facilitate connections between our many parents in scientific fields and our teachers and students

As a school, we believe that these recommendations will help us take what is already a strong program and make it a showcase program in Silicon Valley. Furthermore, the strong support of the parent community at the auction will give us a running start on the implementation process. We are hugely grateful for the more than $85,000 we raised through the fund-a-need that will be used directly to support the science program.

Toward the end of the audit presentation at the most recent HSPC meeting, one of our parents observed that that the audit process itself was a wonderful model for what we hope to see our children doing. As a school, we have developed a way to look intensively at a program, analyze it from all directions, gather feedback from key stakeholders, explore how other schools are structuring their programs, reflect upon what we are seeing and learning, and then offer recommendations of what we can do to further strengthen the programs in the years ahead.

The process affirms the passion our faculty feel for what they do, their natural curiosity about what is happening at other good schools, their willingness to take risks and try new things, and their commitment to being the best they can be as individuals and as a school. It is gratifying to see the Hillbrook motto – especially the injunction to Be Curious – works for the entire community.

Nov 042011

I love TedTalks. Whenever I watch one, I am reminded of the famous Mark Twain quotation, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” TedTalks are limited in time – the speakers have no choice but to produce the well-crafted and articulate “short letter”.  As someone with a propensity to write and speak long, I’m impressed by other’s abilities to share in 18 minutes or less important, inspiring, and thought-provoking ideas.

One of the rock stars of TedTalks is Sir Ken Robinson. In his first TedTalk from February 2006 – downloaded over 7 million times, he argued that school’s kill creativity, while in his second talk from February 2010 – downloaded over 1.7 million times, he called for a revolution in education to ensure that school’s help students find their passions and reach their highest individual potential, instead of squashing their dreams. The second talk was also the topic of his recent bestselling book, The Element, a book that the entire faculty read this past summer.

Sir Ken makes a compelling case for rethinking the dominant metaphor in education. As he says, “We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

His basic argument is that schools should nourish the growth of children by helping them find and develop their passions. He further argues that everyone has “their Element,” what he defines as “the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” In his estimation, the work of schools should be helping students discover their Element, so that they can be inspired to achieve their dreams. He laments that all too often the one-size-fits all approach of some schools does the opposite, leaving students feeling disconnected and uninspired. He points to examples of people who survive school, drop out of college and then achieve extraordinary success seemingly in spite of their schooling. That story is all-too-familiar in Silicon Valley.

One of Hillbrook’s great strengths is that we have always embraced a more organic, less mechanistic, model of education. Our vision statement – Inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world – speaks to our deeply held belief that school should be about nurturing children along a path that helps them find their Element. Our constant injunction to students to take risks is a key part of this passion equation.

Of course, identifying your Element is just as important for you as it is for your children. This past summer when I met with new families, I surprised more than one person when I asked, “What is your passion?” I was quick to add, “not the passion of your child, but your own personal passion.” After the initial moment of surprise, I had some wonderful conversations as parents opened up and offered me genuine insight into the place where their natural aptitude meets their personal passion.

For the record, my passions include exchanging ideas, envisioning future possibilities, and studying the past. Reading books, newspapers, blogs, and, increasingly, different tweets from a growing network of educators and thinkers keeps me inspired and engaged.

Another passion is hands-on-learning, something I used to create in my own 8th grade history class through dramatic simulations and debates, and something I now celebrate, nurture and support throughout our JK-8 program. It is no coincidence that I was attracted to Hillbrook with the Village of Friendly Relations, the ultimate example of hands-on learning, at its philosophical and physical heart. I love nothing more than to watch students actively engaged in constructing their own understanding. Recent conversations among faculty, parents, and educators from around the country about tinkering, Maker’s Fairs, and design thinking have me excited to think about how we can expand those elements in our program.

Next week, members of our community have the rare opportunity to see Sir Ken Robinson in person as part of the Common Ground 10th anniversary speaker series. Having seen him speak several years ago at the National Association of Independent School’s Annual Conference, I can assure you that Sir Ken is every bit as impressive in person as he is on TedTalks. Sir Ken will be speaking at the Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton on Wednesday, November 9 at 7 pm.

I look forward to attending this exciting evening, and I hope a number of you will be able to join me. You might also pick up his book and spend some time asking yourself an important question – what is your passion?

P.S. I also want to invite all parents to Tuesday’s night State of the School presentation at 6:30 pm in the multi-purpose room. Don’t miss out on our Vision 2015 progress report as well as the annual presentation about the school’s finances. Join me, members of the Board of Trustees, and the HSPC leadership for this important evening.

To see his first TedTalk click here, his second TedTalk click here

Aug 262011

The night before school starts I almost never sleep.

Excitement at seeing all the students back on campus, anticipation about the extraordinary experiences that await us in the year ahead, and a small – but healthy – dose of anxiety conspire to keep me up late into the night.

You might think after experiencing 35 first days of school in my life – both as a student and then as a teacher and administrator – that the opening day would lose some of its luster. But year after year I find myself in the wee hours of the night staring at the ceiling, picturing the students and families that I will see, and going through mental checklists in the hopes that nothing has been forgotten.

The first day butterflies usually don’t fully subside until I’m standing in front of the school at the start of our first Flag. Looking out at the students, teachers, and parents, a sense of calm comes over me right before I speak. At that moment, there is nothing more I can do – the year is starting whether I’m ready or not – and I can start being and doing – and stop planning. It is one of my favorite moments of the year.

As I write this, however, we are not quite there.

We have just completed a dynamic week of faculty meetings, and faculty and staff are putting the final touches on their classrooms. During the meetings, we looked at the important pieces of Vision 2015 that we will be focusing upon this year, including the development of JK-8 learning outcomes, the implementation of a one-to-one iPad program in grades 5-8, the building of a better Middle School by applying to modify our conditional use permit and increase our enrollment, and the development of the Center for Teaching Excellence, an innovative teacher training and professional development program to be launched in Fall 2012.

We also reflected a bit upon our shared summer reading, The Element by Sir Ken Robinson, and were inspired and challenged by a presentation from nationally renowned psychologist and educator Rob Evans. Dr. Evans challenged us to think about how we can create a culture that allows the difficult conversations necessary for genuine collaboration and growth. I will share more details about each of these topics in the months ahead.

We have added a number of talented and dynamic members to our faculty and staff this year. New members of the administration include Lower School Head Stephanie Deitz and Technology Director Don Orth. New faculty members include MS English teacher Julia Rubin, MS math teacher Shushan Sadjadi, science teacher Christa Flores, 4th grade teacher Kate Hammond, Kindergarten teacher Katie Florio, JK/K PE teacher Michele Richards, and librarian Kelly Scholten. New staff members include Receptionist Lina Saleski and Staff Accountant Holly Earlywine. See the separate article below for more detailed biographies of each of our new hires.

While we have been hard at work preparing for the year, I hope that you have completed the back-to-school tasks that we shared with you in early August – filling out emergency forms through Magnus Health, buying uniforms, ordering lunches, signing-up for extended care, and coordinating transportation among other things.

This year, I would ask that you once again work with us to be good neighbors and to mitigate the impact of traffic in our neighborhood. We urge all families to either carpool or use one of our two shuttles, limiting the number of cars that travel on and off campus in the morning and the afternoon.

In addition, we ask you to carefully monitor your driving in the neighborhood. Please remember to:

  • drive 15 mph on Upper Marchmont
  • come to a complete stop at all stop signs
  • avoid using cell phones when driving through the pick-up/drop-off
  • follow the directions of our on- and off-campus traffic monitors who are working to ensure traffic flows smoothly and that safety remains our top priority


Parents driving on campus will notice we have repaved a section of the parking lot, and have added an extra stacking lane as well as an additional drop off/pick-up spot in front of the Administrative Building. These changes are part of our continuing efforts to keep traffic from backing up onto Marchmont Road.

I suspect that Tuesday night I will not be the only one who has difficulty going to sleep. My own children have been chomping at the bit to get back to school since mid-August, and I have heard similar things from Hillbrook parents and students as our paths have crossed around campus and in Los Gatos during the past few weeks.

All of us – parents included – feel that mix of excitement, anticipation, and, yes, some anxiety that will likely peak as we struggle to get to sleep Tuesday night and then as we make our way onto campus on Wednesday morning. New students and parents of our JK and K students, of course, will feel it somewhat more intensely, but even our veteran 8th graders and their seasoned parents undoubtedly are feeling a little bit of unease.

Like any transition, the beginning of school will have its share of ups and downs for each of us. We all need to remember that it takes time to adjust and that the first few weeks are never without their hitches. Patience, good will and a sense of humor will help us all ease through any slippery patches in the weeks ahead.

Last year, my oldest daughter, Lily, moved across the campus from 2nd to 3rd grade. At the time, the transition did not strike me as particularly significant. After the third day of school, I asked her how it was going. She looked at me in all earnestness and said, “It’s going okay, but I’m still trying to figure out the 3/4 playground. I just don’t quite know how to play on it yet.”

The comment reminded me that every year is a transition – and that the challenges are not always what we expect as parents or teachers.

After 35 years in schools, I know enough to know that I can’t predict exactly what will happen on the first day of school let alone throughout the year. That, of course, is what makes education such a rewarding profession. Children and schools are predictably unpredictably, which is part of the magic. I know I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Sweet dreams, Tuesday night. I’ll see you at Flag.