May 112016
6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year's African Library Project

6th grade students pack books to send to fill a library in Malawi, Africa, as a part of this year’s African Library Project

What problem are you going to solve?

A recent meme playing out across the educational Twitter-sphere, inspired by a comment made by Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, has been a call to replace the question we typically ask children – “what are you going to do when you grow up?” – with a different question – “what problem are you going to solve when you grow up?”

I love this question. It feels so perfectly Hillbrook in its focus on reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world. It also resonates powerfully with my own childhood upbringing, as both of my parents continually reminded me both through words and actions that the true value of a life is measured through the impact we have on others. My most vivid memories of my parents involve examples of sacrifice, unselfishness, and a focus on doing something for someone other than yourself. I remember my father, a doctor, staying up all night to save someone in the emergency room and then still joining me for an 80-mile bike ride to the beach because he had promised me that important father/son journey. Or, my mother, who would bring me along to her weekly visits to the single units of a number of low-income elderly people living in downtown Portland, isolated, alone, and struggling to retain their dignity and their connection to a world that had effectively turned its back on them. Their eyes would light up when my mother walked into the room, her respect for them as fully realized people, not just someone struggling to survive each day, evident in every interaction.

If you asked my parents what problems they were trying to solve, I suspect my father would have said he was simply trying to solve people’s health problems – from back pain to brain tumors, while my mother might have said she was trying to make a small dent in the twin problems of homelessness and aging in an urban environment. To my mind, the specifics of the answer are less interesting or important than the fact that both of them knew they were engaged in meaningful work that was, in a small way, making the world a better place.

tftLast week, I received an e-mail from one of our high school alums, Sophie Mortaz, who is the vice-chairperson for Treasures for Teens, a student-led non-profit that provides holiday gifts to teenagers between 11 – 18. Founded six years ago, the organization meets a very specific need that is often overlooked in the broader holiday toy drives of service organizations. Hillbrook students supported this effort this past year, and Sophie was reaching out to follow-up on a conversation we had earlier this year about donating some of our iPads that we were going to remove from circulation to the organization at the end of the year.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

Students construct solar-powered light sources to promote literacy in communities that live off the grid.

The exchange was noteworthy to me primarily in that it was neither noteworthy nor unusual in the day-to-day experience of our community. Sophie’s effort is just one of a myriad  different ways in which the school is continually involved in service learning opportunities. In just the past few weeks, there was the African Library Project and bake sale, the Lighting for Literacy collaboration with the Rotary Club, the adoption by the 1st grade of an animal at the Oakland Zoo, the 1st/2nd grade art exhibition at Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, and the monthly 7th/8th grade service learning trips. greatraceIn addition, more than 75 Hillbrook community members participated in the Great Race, a fundraiser for the Los Gatos Rotary. As the largest contingent at the race, we received a donation that we are now working with the Rotary to determine how best to redirect in service of yet another community project.

Listening to 8th graders sharing capstone projects at Flag this past month, several of them have focused on projects that involve solving a problem they have experienced themselves or seen in the larger community. One student, for example, is developing a possible course for 7th and 8th graders that would help them better manage stress and anxiety, while a group of students is creating a series of videos and simple tinkering equipment kits to help students in less privileged communities have access to the power of design, engineering, and making.lgrc1

And, lest you think I have forgotten, our parents are continually finding ways to support the school and the community. The school would simply not function without the thousands of hours of parent help, from parent leadership of events like the Auction and our upcoming Walkathon to the tireless work of room parents, service learning drivers and volunteers, parent education coordinators, and so many others. Beyond official roles, parents are also some of our best problem solvers. Two parents, for example, have recently sought to solve one of Hillbrook’s oldest and most intractable problems – the chaotic and ever-overflowing lost & found. Their quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts these past few weeks have made a real dent in the problem and offer hope for all parents that the annual cycle of lost sweatshirts and jackets may eventually be broken.
Big or small, straightforward or complex, solving a problem forces each of us to look beyond ourselves and make something better. Whether talking to our children or reflecting on our own life, we would all be well-served to ask….and ask again…..this simple question, “What problem are you going to solve?”

Sep 192014

This past Monday at Flag, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley (BSV), Melissa Johns, shared the exciting news that the Hillbrook community will be recognized at the upcoming, “Are you Smarter than a Breakthrough student?” event on Thursday, October 23 for the extraordinary contributions we have made to the organization.

BSV, a non-profit organization with a dual mission – to launch high potential, underserved middle school students on the path to college and to inspire high school and college students to pursue careers in education – has been a partner organization with Hillbrook for the past five years. The partnership involves hosting BSV at Hillbrook each summer, bringing 100 Middle School students and a dynamic group of high school and college-age teachers to our campus. Several of our teachers have served as mentors and advisors for the program. This past summer, for example, 5th grade science teacher and Makespace Director Christa Flores collaborated with a Breakthrough teacher to bring the world of making and design thinking to a group of 7th grade students.

We also have been fortunate enough to have several extraordinary young people from Breakthrough attend our Middle School, allowing us to extend their experience beyond Breakthrough and into the Hillbrook classrooms. Recent BSV/Hillbrook graduates have gone on to excel at schools including Andover, Thacher, and Notre Dame High School. And this year, for the first time, we have hired a resident teacher — Yanelly De La Rosa – who is both a former Breakthrough student and former Breakthrough teacher. In fact, Yanelly had spent the past few summers teaching on the Hillbrook campus, providing her an opportunity to learn about the school firsthand and inspiring her to apply to and become part of our dynamic cohort of early career teachers.

Our partnership with BSV is one way that our school lives out a critical piece of our vision – to reach beyond ourselves and make a difference in the world. As a school, we are committed to raising young people who want to be change makers, individuals who look at the world around them and strive to make things better. Partnerships like BSV are one way that we as an organization model for the students the importance of engaging with the broader community in an effort to make a difference.

As another example, several of our faculty and staff – 3rd grade teacher Elizabeth Wright, Lower School music teacher Kristin Engineer, 3rd/4th science teacher Jenny Jones, 4th grade teacher and Literacy Coach Kate Ferguson, 6th grade science teacher & CTE Research Designer Ilsa Dohmen, and Director of Technology Bill Selak – were off-campus today participating in EdSummit Los Altos, a conference organized by the Los Altos School District for public and private schools that bills itself as, “A gathering of innovative educators who are interested in pushing the boundaries of learning.” Each of our teachers was invited to participate because they are doing innovative and thought-provoking work that can inspire and inform other educators. They presented on topics that included hacking your learning space, using blogs to support social emotional learning, designing literacy units, curating the world with the Google Cultural Institute, and recreating the Hillbrook sound project, a found object unit integrating art, science, and music. The presence of six Hillbrook educators at this conference testifies to the leading edge work we are doing as a school.

Similar to our partnership with BSV, our participation in events like EdSummit Los Altos affirms our belief that we have an opportunity and obligation to give back to the broader educational community, independent, parochial and public schools. It reflects our belief that in order to be our best, we need to push beyond the confines of our own campus and engage in conversations with other innovative and talented educators from around the Bay Area and beyond. We know that we have a talented team of educators at Hillbrook who have something to share AND we also know that by engaging with the broader community, we will continually challenge ourselves to re-imagine our own practices and ensure we are always making our program better.

Ultimately, the work we do as a school to reach beyond ourselves pays extraordinary dividends here on our own campus. Our partnership with BSV has enriched our community in untold ways, as has our participation in conferences like EdSummit. The benefit can be seen in the lives we influence, the quality of community we create, and the impact it has on our students as we nurture them and help them grow into adults who will be committed to changing the world.

At Hillbrook, we believe it is important to make things better. We are honored that Breakthrough Silicon Valley is publicly recognizing the work we are doing and look forward to celebrating our partnership and the work that we have done together to provide extraordinary educational opportunities for all children.

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.

May 112012

A few weeks back, we had a group of thirteen educators from New Zealand on our campus learning from Technology Director Don Orth, several Middle School faculty members and a group of students about our cutting edge iPad program.  After the visit, the team spent two days at the Apple Campus in an executive briefing. Apparently, the group mentioned to Apple that of the many schools they had visited in Southern and Northern California, Hillbrook was one of two that truly opened their eyes to the power of these emerging technologies. They marveled at the engagement of faculty and students, and the thoughtful manner in which our school is approaching the iPad implementation.

A few days later, two executives from Apple called us to learn more about what we are doing.

Increasingly, Hillbrook is being recognized as a leader in JK-8 elementary education. Our iPad program has been a catalyst for these conversations, as we have hosted hundreds of educators in the last year who wanted to learn more about our program.  Yet it is not only technology. Art teachers from throughout the Bay Area visited campus earlier this year to learn from our talented art faculty. This summer, we will be hosting forty independent school leaders as part of the joint Center for Teaching Excellence/Santa Fe Leadership Center Innovative Leadership Conference. In addition, we will be hosting twenty-five teachers as part of the joint Center for Teaching Excellence/Martin Institute John Hunter Master Class in August.

We are pushing the conversation in other areas as well. The adoption of Singapore Math places us at the forefront of the national math conversation, while the implementation of Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs has us deeply engaged in understanding and enhancing our already strong social emotional learning program. The recent English/LA and science audits identified opportunities for growth that promise to stretch us and keep us striving to provide an innovative, engaging, and rigorous academic program for our students.

All of these things reflect an essential truth at the heart of the Hillbrook experience – our teachers not only strive to foster a love of learning in our students, they live it every day themselves.

Our teachers are true lifelong learners, passionate about what they teach and about the students they work with each and every day. Like all active learners, they need opportunities to reflect, renew, and grow. One of the ways we do that is through our Faculty Fellowship Program.

Each year the school funds a number of summertime fellowships providing faculty an opportunity to explore new interests, pursue passions, dive deeply into specific curricular areas, and collaborate with colleagues.  The goal – to provide faculty with meaningful professional development opportunities that meet their needs as adults for lifelong learning, reflection, exploration, and rejuvenation.

The last few years, faculty have been asked to focus their proposed fellowships on areas that will enhance the school’s efforts to successfully implement and realize the school’s strategic plan, Vision 2015. The four core areas of Vision 2015 are broad – program, operations, community, innovation – providing teachers ample flexibility to craft an experience that connects with the school’s vision and yet also is connected to individual passions and interests.

This year we have a series of exciting fellowships that we are planning to fund, including:

  • Participation in the Writer’s Workshop and Reader’s Workshop training at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University for eleven Lower School teachers
  • Participation in the John Hunter Master Class, to be hosted on campus in mid-August, providing our three Middle School Social Studies teachers an opportunity to ask important questions about building genuine problem-solving curricula, understanding the role of the teacher, and empowering and engaging students to make a difference
  • Independent technology-related initiatives, including science teacher Christa Flores who is proposing to create an eTextbook, English teacher Tom Bonoma who is seeking to do Khan-academy style video lessons for grammar, and Technology Director Don Orth and a team of teachers who are looking to kick-off next year’s Technology Audit with several days of exploration and collaboration this summer
  • Participation in the Georgetown Day School Equity Collaborative for several administrators and teachers as a kick-off for next year’s scheduled Inclusivity Audit
  • Membership to the Tech Shop for three teachers who are hoping to nurture their “inner Tinkerers” which in turn will help us build innovative programming in design thinking and the arts
  • Participation in The African Performing Arts Workshop in Ghana for LS music teacher Roberta Lipson to deepen her understanding of African music and dance and augment our already excellent Orff-Schulwerk program
  • Support for unofficial school historian Paul DiMarco to develop a history walk on campus, building on the remarkable work he has done with both the recent movie and book about the school’s history

The Walk-a-Thon provides an opportunity for students and families to support the lifelong learning of our teachers.  As always, we are striving for 100 percent participation by students and families. Any amount makes a difference.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to visit the website and set up a Fundly account for your child. It is quick and easy and a great way to encourage friends and family to sponsor your child as they seek to raise money to support our talented teachers.

We hope that all students will be inspired to raise some money to help support the continuing education and growth of their teachers. Each day our teachers inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. This summer, let’s help our teachers continue to seek out and achieve their own dreams.

Oct 072011

Walking on campus Tuesday morning a little after 10 am, you could sense the buzz. Despite the wet and rainy conditions, students were eagerly anticipating the beginning of one of our most beloved traditions – buddies.

I walked quietly into the JK classroom to see the pairing up of our youngest students with our newest cohort of older buddies. 4th graders, many who had been talking about this since the first day of school, took the younger children by the hand and gently escorted them to seats to start their opening activity.

The gentle confidence and pride of the 4th graders was extraordinarily touching, as they took up their new leadership role. JK students looked up wide-eyed and a bit shy, but clearly eager to connect with the big kids. 10 minutes later the room hummed with the sound of busy buddy pairs punctuated by occasional laughter and clapping.

The kick-off of buddies turns out to be well-timed with another important kick-off that is happening next week – the launch of our Annual Fund campaign. Inspiration for this year’s theme – Rock the Annual Fund! – came from the handpainted buddy rocks that can be found around scattered around campus, reminders of a buddy activity that took place several years ago.

Annual Fund co-Chair Marie Williamson came up with the idea for the campaign as she was walking the campus and noticed the colorfully painted rocks. The rocks symbolized not only the buddy program, but the powerful relationships between students, teachers, and parents that define the Hillbrook experience. A decision to rock the annual fund by supporting Hillbrook with a tax-deductible donation reflects a decision to support every child, every day at our school by covering operating costs that are not fully covered by tuition.

A gift to the annual fund ensures we can continue to provide an ever stronger educational program for all of our students. During the last few years, we have:

  • restructured our 6th grade to more closely reflect the 7th and 8th grade experiences
  • added a JK-8 Writing Coordinator position
  • adopted Singapore math up through 6th grade
  • created an advanced math track in 7th/8th grade
  • adopted a new Social Emotional Learning program
  • launched a take-home iPad program across grades 5-8.

This year we are already at work on the science audit, which will provide direction to help us establish ourselves as a leader in science education in Silicon Valley, as well as reviewing our approach to reading in the Lower School.

The Rock the Annual Fund campaign is focused on achieving our goal of 100 percent participation. Last year’s 90 percent of Hillbrook parents donated to the Annual Fund. Thank you so much for your extraordinary support for our school.

Annual Fund co-chairs Nancy Yu and Marie Williamson, along with their team of class captains, are focused on achieving 100 percent participation this year. Every gift, no matter the size, helps us to provide an extraordinary educational experience. Our community can send no stronger signal in its belief in our school than by putting its time and its resources behind the school’s long-term growth and success.

Some of you might wonder – why don’t we just set tuition to cover our full costs? Hillbrook, like other independent schools, sets tuition to cover a percentage of our operating expenses. This year Hillbrook’s tuition covers about 84% of operating expenses, right in line with the National Association of Independent School average.

Philanthropic donations bridge this tuition gap allowing us to fully fund our program. This year’s gap is $4033 per student.

It is important to recognize that our funding model reflects a strategic decision, one that places us firmly in line with the leading independent schools in the country. There are two main benefits to this funding model. First, because Hillbrook is a 501c-3 non-profit organization, donations to the annual fund are tax deductible, thus allowing families to receive a tax benefit from their gifts to the school. Second, by using donations to offset some of our operating expenses we are able to make our school and our program economically accessible to a broader range of families.

To learn more about the school’s financial model, I strongly encourage you to read the Annual Report on Giving which will be arriving in the mail next week and also attend our State of the School presentation on November 8. During this presentation, we will share highlights from Vision 2015 as well as provide our annual financial overview.

Hillbrook educates students for school and for life. Talk to any of our recently graduated 9th graders and you will learn that our academic program has prepared them exceptionally well for the rigorous independent, parochial, and public high schools they attend not only here in Silicon Valley but across the country.

Talk to them about their Hillbrook experience and they are likely to share a story about a favorite teacher or coach who challenged them to push themselves further then they thought they could go, or about a favorite activity – the regatta, the trip to Catalina, or even jokes at Flag – that they vividly remember and miss now that they are gone.

Many of them would also mention buddies and the relationships they created with students both younger and older through the years. Indeed, many would say that coming back to Hillbrook feels a little like coming home.

Hillbrook has been a rock in their lives helping them strive toward their highest individual potential and preparing them for the new challenges and adventures they face as they have moved on from our campus. When you support the annual fund this year you will help to ensure that we remain a powerful source of knowledge, skills and inspiration for this year’s students. Rock on.

May 132011
While there are many lessons that I learned from my mother as a child, none has stuck with me quite as much as the importance of saying thank you.
As soon as the last present was unwrapped on my birthday, I knew the clock was ticking. Handwritten thank-you cards had to be out within one – or at most two – weeks. When picking me up from a friend’s house or a birthday party, she would always make sure that I went up to the host, looked them in the eye, and thanked them for letting me participate in the day’s activities.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. The act of saying thank you became a habit, a sign of good manners, but I didn’t really understand why it was important to show gratitude or how it impacted me or others.
As I grew older, my mother’s consistent emphasis on gratitude – her expectation that I recognize the good in my life and express appreciation for it – fostered in me a positive mindset and a desire to, as the saying goes, “make lemonade out of lemons,” It’s an attitude that I have tried to retain to this day.
Researchers in the new positive psychology movement are increasingly finding evidence to support anecdotal observations of the importance of fostering gratitude in our children. As Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and a Common Ground speaker earlier this year, noted, “Countless studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious or lonely.”
Gratitude can also be a catalyst for positive behaviors. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve been inspired to do something – or do something again – because someone expressed appreciation for my behavior.
It doesn’t take much. A few weeks ago, I read to a group of 2nd graders. The next morning, as I was opening the door at carpool, one little boy jumped out of the car and said, “Thanks again for reading to us yesterday, Mr. Silver. I really liked that book.” With those two quick sentences, that little boy made a huge impression on me, for I realized that my visit to his class had meant something to him. More importantly, his gratitude was completely unsolicited. He wasn’t just trying to be polite or show me good manners. He was expressing genuine appreciation for a small thing I had done for him and his classmates. You can bet his comment has made me even more enthusiastic about reading to his class and others.
As we near the end of the school year, I am particularly attentive to the many ways in which we as a community express gratitude for each other. Earlier this week, the HSPC used their final meeting of the year as a forum to thank people for their involvement in the community. In addition, the group honored Lower School Head Shelly Luke Wille, a moving recognition for a remarkable educator who has given so much to this school in the past six years.
Last weekend, during our 75th anniversary festivities, alumni recognized two Hillbrook legends – retired JK teacher Peggy McNutt and soon-to-be retired librarian Charlene Douglass – as honorary Hillbrook alums. This new recognition, which will become an annual part of our alumni luncheon, is a way for the alumni and the school to show gratitude for teachers who have devoted significant portions of their careers to our school. Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Douglass are worthy entrants into what will eventually become Hillbrook’s equivalent of a faculty hall of fame.
In just a few weeks, we will have an opportunity to appreciate all faculty as part of the annual Faculty Appreciation Day. I know that each family has stories of the powerful impact that different faculty members have had on their children. As a longtime teacher, I can assure you that I still treasure notes from students and parents who thanked me for playing a role in their lives.
Next week will be our first-ever Gratitude Week, an opportunity for us as a community to focus on the many things that we are grateful for at Hillbrook. The week emerged out of conversations of how we can show appreciation for the extraordinary philanthropic support provided by our community this year for the Annual Fund, the Auction, and the Walk-a-Thon. Starting next Monday at Flag, students will have an opportunity to participate in a week-long scavenger hunt to locate signs placed around campus identifying things that people are grateful for at the school. Throughout the week, there will be small expressions of gratitude, a reminder of things both big and small for which we are thankful.
The week promises to raise our awareness about what we are thankful for at Hillbrook and, in the process, foster that spirit of gratitude that my mother tried so hard to develop in me as a child.
I encourage everyone in our community to take a moment to express appreciation to someone. Write a short note to a teacher, thank a fellow parent for the ways in which they have helped you at some point during the year, tell your child’s coach or music teacher how much you appreciate their extra work and effort. It doesn’t matter how you do it – just make the effort to say thank you.

As for me, I’m going to start by expressing appreciation for a very important Hillbrook grandparent – my mother. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me to be grateful. Not a day goes by that I don’t recognize how lucky I am.