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.

Nov 112015


This past weekend, we hosted our annual Saturday Open House on campus, the largest turnout of prospective families that we have had in at least five years. The highlight of the day – as it is nearly every time we have an admission event – was watching our Middle School students interacting with prospective families. These dynamic young people confidently led families around the campus, answering questions and interacting with children of all different ages. Several prospective parents remarked to me how impressed they were with the students, and commenting how refreshing it was to hear their unscripted remarks about their school experience. Confident, poised, authentic, comfortable in their own skin – these were the words they used to describe them.

As I watched the students, I was reminded of a line from the mission statement created last year by the students in HERO, a Middle School student group that supports the LGBT+ community and other minority groups that face discrimination. In their mission, the students write, “At HERO, you are recognized as an individual and welcomed to be all of who you are.”

All of who you are.

It’s a powerful idea and something that resonates with our vision as a school – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. In order to achieve your dreams you need to know yourself as a person and a learner. Sounds straightforward enough, right? And yet creating spaces where students can be all of who they are is something that is rarely found or nurtured in traditional schools.

Instead of meeting children where they are and nurturing their growth, schools have traditionally forced children to fit into the structure of school. Rows of desks, teacher-centered classrooms, rote memorization and recitation of disconnected information – this stereotypical image of school persists because it reflects the reality of all too many classrooms across our country. Some children, of course, thrive in this environment, while all too many children simply  survive school and bide their time until they make it into the real world. Even those who thrive develop a set of skills – following directions, paying attention, recalling information, taking tests – that have little connection to the skills our children need to thrive as adults.

As a growing list of books and movies – Creating Innovators, How to Raise an Adult, Most Likely to Succeed  – suggest, people are recognizing that traditional models of school do not work. As I looked around last weekend, I sensed that the families visiting our campus are looking for alternatives and they are seeking a school in which their children will be known and understood as individuals.

At Hillbrook, we are committed to helping children realize their full potential, recognizing that each child is a unique individual. We want them to be the best Devan or Hailey or Naomi or Colin they can be. We want them to be all of who they are. It’s a powerful idea, and it’s at the heart of the Hillbrook experience.

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.


Apr 252015

I watched our core values come to life before my eyes on Monday at Flag.

It started with a short presentation about Nicaragua. Spanish teacher Josyane Kelly and four students – Prianca (‘15), Nikhil (‘16), Sharanya (’16), and Isabel (‘15). – shared reflections from their recent 8-day service learning trip in Nicaragua. Students spoke about the powerful lessons they had learned while helping to build a foundation, literally, for a new school in the community of Tipitapa, Nicaragua. Students worked extraordinarily hard during the trip, moving rocks, connecting rebar, hauling water, mixing cement. They became friends with and worked alongside children and families in the community, gaining an appreciation for how these people, despite extreme poverty, continued to live lives filled with laughter and friendship. Nikhil noted that despite never having experienced air conditioning in extremely hot and humid conditions and living with limited food and resources, these community members exuded a spirit and generosity that inspired all of the students to give more of themselves.

Next up was a group of student leaders from Girls Learn International (GLI), sharing highlights from their educational fundraiser the week before. The four girls – Natalie (‘16), Melody, and Polina (‘18)-  explained the importance of GLI’s work – raising awareness about the critical need to support girls education – and talked about the successful event they had hosted, where students, parents, teachers and administrators came together to learn about the challenges girls face in receiving an education in many parts of the world. They celebrated the successful collection of a little more than $300 through sales of drinks and snacks, money that will be provided to GLI so that they can support efforts to improve educational opportunities for girls around the globe.

Five 8th graders then stepped forward to share their reflections. Brandon talked about shifting friendships through the years, sharing stories about students he had “disliked” in 2nd or 3rd grade who later became his closest friends during his Middle School years. He pointed out the importance of keeping an open mind and of the role that other people had played in helping him to reform relationships with his classmates. Nico, who has only been at Hillbrook for one year, talked about the incredibly warm and welcoming community he found at Hillbrook, and how fortunate he feels to have been able to share his 8th grade year with our community. Justin and Prianca talked separately about the friendship they had with each other, providing related but different insights into the humorous events that had pulled them together and the powerful lessons they had gained from their deep and supportive connection. Charlie reflected on the first joke he told at Flag – the classic “Knock, Knock” banana joke – and the inspiration it had given him to want to be up on stage one day helping to lead Flag. Despite not winning an election in 5th or 6th grade – and only winning in 7th grade when no one ran against him – he continued to believe in himself and he took the risk to run for co-Head, an election he won.

Finally, a group of 6th graders – Alisa, Clara, Yohann, and Zach – reminded people about the African Library Project, one of the school’s long-standing service learning projects. Since 2009, our school has collected enough books to create 10 libraries in Malawi, and our goal once again this year is to collect enough books to seed two new libraries in the year ahead. In addition to encouraging people to donate books, the 6th graders sponsored a bake sale this week raising $590 to cover the cost of shipping the books to Africa.

Listening to each of these student presentations, I was inspired by their poise, their humor, and their commitment to something bigger than themselves. They are kind to each other and to people who they have only just met. Several of them clearly possess a wisdom about relationships and friendship which is wise beyond their years. They are curious, eager to learn about the world, and they are risk-takers, willing to take risks both on and off-campus. They are committed to being their best and to do things that make the world better. They offer powerful evidence that in numerous ways and across the grades our students are continually finding ways to reach beyond themselves to make a difference.

This was one Flag – similar to many other Flags I have been privileged to attend through the years – and it reminded me yet again of why I do what I do. These remarkable young people are gaining the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to succeed in school and in life. I have no doubt they are going to change the world. Indeed, as we all could see on Monday, they have already started.

Apr 032015
A few weeks ago, a 2nd grader and his mother approached me at drop-off on Monday morning. As he eagerly looked on, she asked if I could call on him for a joke at Flag that day. She quickly explained that this would be his first joke he had ever told at Flag. Twenty minutes later he stood in front of the entire community, introduced himself, and then told his joke. I don’t remember the joke itself, but I won’t soon forget the smile on his face.

I thought of him these last few days as I watched our 8th graders acting, dancing, and singing their way across the stage during this year’s 8th grade production of “Peter Pan.” The show was fantastic, providing a wonderful showcase for the talented young people that our 8th graders have become. Many of our students have only limited musical theater experience, but under the careful guidance of Director Elisabeth Crabtree and her patient and talented team of adults, and with the can-do confidence of a Hillbrook education coursing through their veins, the students brought the house down both nights. Whether singing solos and playing leading roles or belting out songs as part of the chorus, they proved yet again that there are no small parts in theater. Just like my young 2nd grade friend, many of these children had first found there way onto stage telling a joke.

I had the privilege of spending part of each performance backstage in the green room. Here, I witnessed the students working as a cohesive team, helping each other with costumes and props, cheering each group as they rushed off stage, reminding each other about what was up next. Several seventh graders served as stagehands. Other than a few of us who were doing cameos in the show, there were rarely any adults to be seen. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. Elisabeth and a group of teachers and parents had worked tirelessly to set up the show. For several months, they have put all of the pieces into place. Yet, when the house lights dimmed and the spotlight came on, the adults stepped back into the wings and allowed the students to shine.

It is, in many ways, a perfect analogy for what we are all striving to do as parents. We spend our children’s early years creating opportunities and partnering with teachers and other trusted adults with the hope that our children will develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to thrive on their own. The older they get, the more we have to step back and let go. The transition can be challenging, particularly during Middle School, leaving us as parents with a sense of loss for the young children who had just a few years before rushed into our arms or snuggled with us at night. Watching the 8th graders both on and off the stage, however, provided the joy of getting a glimpse into both the independent, talented, and impressive adults these young people will be in only a few years, and the sometimes goofy, enthusiastic, and earnest adolescents that they still are today.

During the show, Peter Pan and his Lost Boys declare, “We won’t grow up.” Quite to the contrary, over the past few days, these young people have grown up right before our eyes. In just a few months they will be leaving Hillbrook. I have no doubt they are ready and prepared to fly.

Mark Silver
Head of School
Feb 152013

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

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

So how does it work in the real world?

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

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

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

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

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