Oct 262017

I received two emails within seconds of each other last week. The first had the subject line, “Permission,” while the second was titled, “Bill validator.” Both were from 5th graders. I was intrigued. Reading the first, I learned that the student wanted to open a pet store. Reading the second, it turned out that the other student wanted to meet with me, the student who wanted to open the pet store, and Head of Middle School Christina Pak to talk about how they could advance their independent study projects. Now, I was even more intrigued. How could I resist? I emailed both of the students back and we set up a meeting time at lunch.

The ensuing meeting was one of the most memorable, endearing, and authentic moments I have had with students in a while. It turned out that the two students had been in their 5th grade independent study class. The student asking about the bill validator wanted to build an arcade-style claw pick up game, and he thought he needed a bill validator (the device that takes dollar bills into the machine) in order to do it. He had looked it up online and it had cost quite a bit of money, which is when the other student, who had wanted to start a pet store, suggested they could partner together to make both things happen.

Christina, Head of Lower School Colleen Schilly and I spent about 20 minutes with the students, asking them lots of questions and, in the process, helping them refine their ideas and next steps. We helped them reframe the project, encouraging them to learn more and to better understand the situation before deciding what to do. By the end, both had a plan of action that involved connecting with an adult mentor on campus who could help them learn more about their respective interests and then find a path forward. It turns out what they had originally asked me for was not what they really needed to know, but rather had provided an opening into helping them explore a curiosity and pursue a passion. I didn’t give them permission to create a pet store or buy a bill validator, at least not yet, but I did give them permission to dream, to start, to make mistakes, and to grow.

A couple of days later I was in Boulder, Colorado with a few Hillbrook colleagues, including Colleen, Director of Teaching & Learning Ilsa Dohmen, and our new Director of the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship Annie Makela. We were visiting some schools and organizations that are playing a leading role in the world of social entrepreneurship. One stop was Watson University, a college that describes itself as “the first incubator leading to a degree for the world’s most promising next-generation changemakers and social entrepreneurs.” During our visit, we had an opportunity to speak to four different students who were developing different ideas that they hoped would make the world a better place. We talked for a bit to one student who was trying to develop an app-based service that would help college students dealing with depression and anxiety. Talking afterwards, both Colleen and I had the same thought – our conversation with this young college student was a lot like the conversation we had with the two fifth graders earlier in the week. While the concept was clearly more well-defined and his thinking much further along, the basic process – the desire to take a passion and turn it into an idea – remained remarkably similar, as did the process his mentors were using to help guide him along. We asked him what he thought were the most important skills he needed to be a social entrepreneur, and he talked about risk taking and about learning to tell his story. He also noted that more than anything, he was gaining a deeper understanding of himself as a person and learner, as he faced the challenges of directing his own learning and collaborating with others to reach his goals.

Returning to our 5th graders, I reflected back on the skills they had practiced in just the short time in which we had been with them. They practiced how to draft a note to an adult, how to reach out and ask for advice, and how to accept and respond to feedback. In addition, they learned that being curious and taking a risk at Hillbrook would be rewarded with real conversation and authentic engagement from adults, perhaps even with the Head of School and both Division Heads.

That’s a lot of critical life lessons that were being learned and practiced in a relatively short amount of time. Perhaps just as importantly, it reaffirmed for me the value of making time and space for students to pursue these types of projects. As we continue to work toward a new schedule next year and as we look for more ways for children of all ages to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world, I expect these types of experiences to become even more common. At their heart, these experiences reflect our belief that what children think and believe matters, and that creating opportunities for students to direct their own learning is essential to prepare students for high school and beyond. It is a concrete example of the Hillbrook way, a process in which we ask, start, collaborate, and show, with student choice and engagement at the center. I can’t wait to see where these two students go in the months and years ahead. While I have no idea if they will ultimately open a pet store or build a claw pick-up game, I am confident they will have the skills they need to pursue their dreams and make a difference in the world.

Oct 212015

Last Thursday evening, a packed theater of parents and educators from Hillbrook and the Los Gatos Union School District joined together to watch “Most Likely to Succeed,” one of the most widely discussed educational documentaries to appear in several years. The film chronicled High Tech High School, a San Diego-based charter school that has been at the leading edge of conversations about the future of education.

DSC_0366Produced by filmmaker Ted Dintersmith, the documentary focuses on the project-based learning approach at the heart of the High Tech High experience. Through the experiences of two classes – and two students in particular – we see what it looks like when student learning is revealed through public displays of understanding, including a student-written and directed play and an elaborate, multi student-designed artistic installation that merged engineering and historical theory. One student’s inspiring success with the play, coupled with the other student’s struggles, failures, and ultimately success with the installation, highlights the engagement, student ownership, and real world learning that is at the heart of the educational experience.

Central to the documentary’s argument is a refrain increasingly heard from educators, corporate leaders, and thought leaders across our nation – the skills that students need for success in life are changing. As technology has made a growing number of jobs that highlighted muscle and intellectual prowess obsolete (as they noted in the movie, now that IBM’s Watson has conquered chess and Jeopardy, what’s next?), schools need to focus on the skills that are fundamentally human. What are those skills?

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

Courtesy of @MLTSFilm on Twitter.

An article in this past weekend’s New York Times, “The Best Jobs Require Social Skills,” argues that what we learned in preschool is the key to success in the work world. Cooperation, empathy, and flexibility  – skills commonly taught in early childhood programs – are increasingly understood to be essential skills for lifelong success. “Work has become more like preschool,” the author Claire Cain Miller insists, noting that “Jobs that require both socializing and thinking, especially mathematically, have fared best in employment and pay.” She points to the work of James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, who argues that “character, dependability, and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.”

At Hillbrook, we have always believed that social emotional skills are as important as academic achievement. From Kindergarten study teams, where they learn to work together as they explore shared passions, to the 8th grade play, where the entire class comes together to produce a complex theatrical production, we create numerous opportunities for students to work together and to focus on being their best, both as individuals and as a group. So does it work?

Last May, we reconnected with the class of 2011 as they prepared to graduate from high school and head off to college. We asked them to talk about their memories of Hillbrook and how it had prepared them for high school, and created this video to help tell their story.

In addition to talking about how well they were well prepared academically, students spoke glowingly about how they were known as individuals at Hillbrook, and they remembered the emphasis on communication and collaboration that clearly positioned all of them to thrive in high school, despite attending an incredibly diverse set of high schools. Perhaps the most memorable line in the video for me is from the student who notes that Hillbrook taught him to learn how to learn, a skill that will ensure success in whatever environment he finds himself.

As a school, we are incredibly proud of the accomplishments of these extraordinary young people, and yet watching “Most Likely to Succeed” I am reminded that we need to keep asking ourselves how we can continue to provide an extraordinary educational experience that remains vibrant and relevant in a world that is ever-changing. As they note in the movie, we are increasingly preparing children for jobs that do not exist today.

Equally as important, we are educating children, not designing widgets. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in the film, education is like gardening. We need to create the conditions to help children grow and thrive. Mary Orem, one of Hillbrook’s  founders could not have agreed more. “As the twig is bent, the tree will grow,” she often said. 80 years later, we continue to heed her words.

Jun 052015

The following speech was delivered Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at the Hillbrook Class of 2015 Graduation Ceremony.

Good morning students, faculty, parents, grandparents, and friends and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2015. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Marcia Jensen, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, and Ally Weinstock, graduate from the Class of 2011. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2015.

Today marks a significant transition for the dynamic young men and women seated beside me on the stage. Members of the Class of 2015 have been here for varying lengths of time. Four arrived during the Middle School years, six between 1st and 4th grade, 15 of them in Kindergarten, and 11 of them in JK, all the way back in September 2006. All together, they have experienced 295 years of Hillbrook education. Whether they have been here one year or ten, they have from all indications experienced it fully.

In the classroom, they have proven themselves as writers, problem solvers, and creative thinkers. Hearing teachers last night at the Recognition Ceremony talk about these students, I was struck by the joy and the engagement they brought to life in the classroom. They described students who were willing and able to wrestle with complex issues connected to social justice and literature. They talked about students with an incredible range of interests and passions, from costume design to video production, from literary criticism to  taxidermy. They described emerging mathematicians, finding and sharing elegant solutions to complex problems with their peers and teachers. As one teacher shared with me, “When I think of the Class of 2015, I see a group of artists, activists, inventors and tinkerers — really smart people who ask the big questions about who has power in society and why.”

This class has talent outside of the classroom as well. They have dazzled us through the years on the stage, from their early days in performances like the Lower School Spring Concert and the 3rd grade Greek Play to more recent performances like the exceptional production of Peter Pan, where, at one memorable moment, they had all of us entranced as over half the 8th grade class pounded the ground with sticks in unison. Everyone cheered when the final drum stick was caught at the end of scene. They are also an athletic class, starring in a broad range of sports both here on campus and off-campus, including volleyball, football, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, golf, squash, gymnastics, and diving. In fact, members of this class hold the records for career high in points in basketball and, as of yesterday, the fastest boys mile time (5:30 second). They even put up a pretty good fight against the faculty and staff in both the basketball and softball games, although at least for now, our height and size made up for aging legs and creaking joints. Of course, we lost to the 8th grade girls volleyball team, a testament to both their superior skill and expertise on the court.

This class, both as individuals and as a group, has time and again shown a willingness to reach beyond themselves to make a difference both here on campus and beyond. They spearheaded the creek restoration project back in 5th grade, provided leadership throughout the past four years in our 1-to-1 iPad program as iPad doctors, and have participated in multiple service projects, including most recently during Spring Break, when several of them traveled to a small village in Nicaragua to help lay the foundation for a new school. A number of them served as founding members and leaders of HERO, a group that advocates for the LGBT+ community and other groups that face discrimination. The group strives to create a safe space on campus where students are recognized as individuals and welcomed to be “all of who they are”. Just this past Spring, the group drafted and approved its first mission statement, ensuring that this valued student organization will continue to thrive long after these students have graduated. And, of course, a group of these students have been the driving force behind the building of the newest addition to the Village of Friendly Relations, the Hillbrook History House, a structure that will sit at the base of the hill and ensure that our school’s history and values continue to be taught and understood by both current and future generations of Hillbrook students.

But lists of activities and accomplishments only hint at the thoughtful, reflective, and remarkably insightful nature of this class. Typically, I look for inspiration for my graduation remarks in a book or essay, or perhaps I look toward a major event or change that is happening around the world. This year, however, I realized that all of the inspiration I needed came from right here on our campus, from the extraordinary set of 8th grade reflection speeches members of the Class of 2015 have delivered at Flag during the last two months. If you have not had a chance to see these speeches, I encourage you to check them out in their entirety on the website. One student shared how the core values had inspired him, after years of reticence and resistance, to learn his mother’s native language, Hindi, and in the process gave him a new appreciation and understanding for his mother’s culture and traditions. Several students spoke about siblings – both younger and older – who had made them better people through love, playful experiences, and stirring examples of perseverance.  Another student recounted the joy she felt each day when she was greeted at school by our first graders, as she realized the opportunity to give back to younger children in the same way that others had supported her during her years of school. We heard about spiders in the toilet, first jokes, overseas adventures, lost elections, and critical life lessons learned on athletic courts, in gyms, and on fields. One student shared how she learned to cope with her fear of public speaking, in a speech that she delivered beautifully and that provided a true testament to her ability to live Hillbrook’s core value – “take risks”.

There were some great lines – “I’m ready to leave Hillbrook,” one student announced in early May, and then followed up by sharing how he would keep the friendships and relationships with him even as he ventured beyond Hillbrook’s walls. “I was whittling in class – what could go wrong here?” asked another, as he recounted injury after injury that he experienced at Hillbrook and the kindness of the community that his injury-prone nature inadvertently revealed. Another shared, “You could say at times I was a bit too curious, and a little too risky, throughout it all I thought I was being my best,” and he went on to explain that because of Hillbrook’s environment he was able to take risks and, as he put it, “try again…and again and sometimes yet again.”

Rewatching these speeches, I’m inspired by these students. They are funny, thoughtful, confident, open, wise, and often disarmingly vulnerable in ways that are both beautifully authentic and powerful. Ultimately, I’m struck by how this class is already living out our school’s vision – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

So, Class of 2015, as you prepare to venture outside of Hillbrook’s campus to high schools around the South Bay and beyond, I ask you to keep finding ways to make things better, both at your schools and in the greater community. Keep looking to inspire those around you, as you find ways to improve the world in ways both big and small. Never lose sight of the lessons we have taught you here – be kind, be curious, take risks, and be your best, and return often to share with us the ways in which you continue to strive to make the world a better place.

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
Mar 132015

Recently, several of us attended the NAIS Conference in Boston. The theme of this year’s conference – Design the Revolution: Blending Learning, Leading & Innovation – made it clear that the conversations we have been having at Hillbrook the past five years are increasingly finding their way onto the national stage. An entire section of the exhibit hall was devoted to Maker Spaces, for example, an affirmation of the Making program we have been developing as a school. Of course, this is a conversation that has been a part of Hillbrook since 1935, when our earliest students built the Village of Friendly Relations – the original Makers Movement project.

Indeed, the conversations we are having about topics including individualized learning, learning spaces, the meaningful use of technology, and making place us squarely in the forefront of a national dialogue that is challenging us to reimagine schools. Furthermore, our attention to the craft of teaching and our focus on professional development has created a team of teachers that are not only participating in but leading these conversations themselves. A few weeks ago, for example, Director of Technology Bill Selak and CTE Research Designer Ilsa Dohmen were featured in a webinar about agile learning spaces that was viewed by more than 250 educators around the world. As another example, this past Monday, more than a dozen Hillbrook administrators and teachers led sessions at the CAIS Conference in Oakland.

One of the more thought-provoking sessions at NAIS involved a panel discussion with four university presidents speaking about the future of higher education. NAIS President John Chubb asked them what elementary, middle and secondary schools should be doing to prepare students for college. President Pamela Gunter-Smith of York College encouraged our schools to focus on two things – preparing students to be part of a community and teaching them the self-advocacy skills needed to be independent, self-confident learners. President Rebecca Chopp from the University of Denver agreed with Gunter-Smith, adding that the students she sees today are less socially mature and self-aware than earlier generations, and that they show a need for instant gratification. She added that schools are seeing incredible rates of depression and anxiety. Chopp also noted that schools are looking for students who can write.

Perhaps the most provocative comments came from Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University. He believes that higher education is beginning to undergo a disruptive change, and argued that in 10-20 years, the entire industry will be different. He believes that technological innovation and the unbundling of what he termed the “coming of age experience” and “education” will lead higher education to become more affordable and accessible. In essence, he noted that business as usual will no longer serve universities well and, by extension, he suggested that all of us in education need to be thinking about how to respond to a rapidly changing world.

The collective comments made me reflect on what I see as Hillbrook’s fortuitous space in the independent school market. Our intentional approach to social emotional learning, our emphasis on collaboration and collective problem solving, and our focus on preparing students not only for school but for life helps our students develop the maturity and self-awareness necessary to be valued members of their future communities. Our rigorous and well-articulated writing program, starting with Writer’s Workshop in the Lower School and evolving into a high-school level analytical writing program in our Middle School, ensures that our students leave well on their way to becoming highly proficient writers. Finally, while we have a storied history and financially stability, we remain entrepreneurial and nimble, continually looking for ways to strengthen our program and willing to take risks and try new things in order to keep ourselves at the leading edge of the educational conversation.

This coming Monday, the first group of 8th graders will share reflections at Flag. This relatively new tradition provides an opportunity for our soon-to-be graduating students to share thoughts about who they are and about where they are at this moment in their lifelong educational journey. Over the course of the remainder of the year, 4-6 students will share reflections at each Flag. I invite you to attend at least one Flag during the remainder of the year as it will offer you a window into the thoughtful, articulate, and talented young people that make up the Class of 2015. Like 78 classes before them and like future classes that will come later, these young people vividly reflect the values that are at the core of the Hillbrook experience.

Knowing these students, I am incredibly optimistic about their future and the future of our school.