Feb 062015

Photo by quintanomedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Monday evening our family did what we try to do every year on February 2 – celebrate one of our favorite holidays by watching one of our all-time favorite movies, “Groundhog Day”. For those who do not remember it, the movie tells the story of Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), a weather forecaster who finds himself stuck reliving Groundhog Day over and over and over.

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is a self-centered and cynical weatherman forced to cover the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The one day visit turns into an endless loop in which he finds himself waking up each morning to the same song and stuck in a perpetual cycle of reliving Groundhog Day. Initially, he tries to use the situation to his advantage, taking knowledge of what is going to happen each day to do things like steal money from the back of a bank truck or convince people to do things for him. The emptiness of these efforts eventually leads him to try to end it all, only to find himself incapable of even doing that. No matter what he does, he finds himself waking up, the clock at 6 am, “I’ve got you babe,” playing on the radio.

Eventually, Phil shifts his focus in two ways. First, he decides to focus on improving himself, taking piano lessons and learning how to create ice sculptures, for example. Second, he starts to focus on helping others. We see Phil timing his walk down a sidewalk just in time to ensure he catches a boy falling out of a tree, kneeling in the street with a jack and tire iron to change the flat tire of a group of older woman, performing the Heimlich on a man who is choking on a piece of steak. Phil learns about every person in the town, spending the time to find out what each person needs and striving to spend his entire day making each person’s life better. In the end, his producer falls in love with Phil because he is a truly good person and Phil, after what seems like thousands of days, finally wakes up on February 3, freed from his endless Groundhog Day loop.

Watching this past week, I was struck once again that Phil’s resolution happens when he develops a growth mindset and, at least to my mind, embraces Hillbrook’s core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best. Phil shifts from a cynical and selfish individual, to a generous and kindhearted person focused on reaching beyond himself to make a difference in the world. Only when he truly becomes selfless, when he realizes his ability to be his best, does he fall in love and find himself released from his one-day prison.

This Monday morning at Flag I wished everyone Happy Groundhog Day and noted that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, meaning that we are in for six more weeks of winter. While I suspect that very few of us are overly concerned about an extended winter – indeed, if anything, we are all hopeful that a longer winter might bring more rain! – I know myself that keeping tabs on the most famous groundhog in America each year is actually just an excuse for re-watching a classic movie and for reminding myself of the importance of striving each day to be the best person I can be.

To the groundhog.

Dec 122014

Tuesday morning, I reached into my box and pulled out an envelope. Inside, a card greeted me with the following message:

“My Dear Hillbrook Friends, Here is my contribution for our school. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a joyous and prosperous New Year. With all my love, Richerd Cancila.”

Enclosed was a $25 check. As I read the card, I was struck by the following phrase “our school.” Nearly 70 years after graduating, Richerd – The Children’s Country School’s (Hillbrook’s original name) first student and a graduate of the Class of 1946 – remains deeply connected to the school, retaining the same strong sense of ownership that he has always felt for this place and this community. Each month Richerd sends a card with a $25 check.

Last week at the opening session for the People of Color Conference (POCC), NAIS President John Chubb talked about a school, Cathedral School on the Upper East Side in New York City, where he said it was clear that every child mattered. He described a school that was by the standard indicators of independent schools intentionally diverse, with nearly 40 percent of students identifying as students of color and 37 percent of its students receiving tuition assistance. He noted the school’s commitment to producing “citizens of the world,” and highlighted their identity curriculum. As he later wrote in his blog for NAIS:

“Starting in kindergarten, teachers help students, very deliberately, appreciate the similarities and differences among them, and the simple dignity of every child. As students mature, they come to appreciate every difference, including family structure, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. As I visited classrooms, one teacher shared with me a recent conversation with a group of second-graders in which they volunteered differences. One student said, “Money.” The teacher asked for more: “You know, apartments, cars, toys; not everybody has the same things.”

At Hillbrook, we are also intentionally diverse, with 34 percent of our students identifying as people of color and nearly 20 percent of our students receiving tuition assistance. Our commitment to diversity harkens back to our earliest days when the majority of our students, like Richerd, were wards of the state, students who, without Hillbrook, would not have had the opportunities that would help them succeed in school and beyond. Like Cathedral, we have, since our beginnings, been committed to creating an environment where every child matters and where all families feel a full sense of ownership.

A key part of nurturing that strong sense of community is continually reflecting upon ways in which we are or are not meeting the challenge to ensure that all children feel like they matter. In order to do that, we need to create a culture in which children are allowed to be their own people and where difference is recognized, understood, appreciated and valued. Understanding and appreciating differences starts in the many ways in which we strive to know each child and each family, but it goes beyond that, as we look to educate children about differences and to teach them about ways in which inequity and injustice still persist today in our country and around the world. In addition, we strive to teach our students about the opportunities, and the challenges, that different people have faced both historically and today due to differences. During POCC, I heard several extraordinary speakers who told their stories about how difference impacted their lives. Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American comedian with cerebral palsy, joked that she has 99 problems and palsy is just one of them. “I’m Palestinian, I’m disabled, I’m female and I live in New Jersey.” She also noted how she had persisted in spite of these challenges and how her father had always told her, “If I can can, you can can.” As she said, “The doctor said I wouldn’t walk, but I’m here in front of you. If we had more positive images [of handicapped people], it might foster less hate on the internet … If I can can, you can can.”

The conference opened the morning after the recent grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case in New York and in the wake of the nationwide conversation about Ferguson. Participants at the conference talked formally and informally about the historical and contemporary roots of contentious police relationships with communities of color, and about the continuing need for our communities and our society to challenge our students to think about racism and prejudice today. Inspired by the experience and realizing the importance of engaging our students in these critical conversations, Middle School history resident Jules Findlay, who was part of the nine-person Hillbrook delegation that attended the conference, and 7/8 history teacher Jenn Gingery helped guide their students through a two-day conversation about Ferguson and the related issues earlier this week. As Jules noted in a conversation with some members of our faculty earlier this week, she knew that we as a school have an obligation to create spaces for these types of difficult dialogues, particularly with our oldest students. Other teachers who attended the conference echoed similar sentiments about the need to find age-appropriate ways to have conversations about diversity and inclusivity.

The Inclusivity Task Force, which is made up of Board members, parents, and members of the faculty and staff, is actively working to revise the school’s Statement of Inclusivity and to create a 3-5 year strategic road map to help us nurture an increasingly inclusive community. As a school, we continue to engage this conversation in multiple ways because we know that the work of inclusivity, diversity and community building is never done. I hope that, like Richerd, all members of our community feel like they are coming home when they step foot on campus, that every student and every family feels part of our school.

Mark Silver
Head of School
Nov 212014

I remember a trip to my grandfather’s house when I was 13. I was the youngest of six grandchildren and the only grandson. It was the first time I had visited him on my own, and I remember a sense of both excitement and a bit of trepidation. What could I possibly do with my grandfather for three days?

The first morning, I woke up and sleepily walked into the dining room. My grandfather looked up from his cup of coffee and bowl of porridge and nodded at me. He was a man of few words. I gathered my own breakfast, and I sat down at the table and started to eat. After a minute or so, he cleared his throat and started talking about the next few days. He described some of the different activities he thought we could do. For a kid who lived in a major metropolitan area and who was used to racing from one activity to another, I remember thinking it was going to be a long few days.

The next few days proceeded at a different pace than my usual life. We spent time sailing, my grandfather allowing me to guide the tiller and teaching me how to raise and lower the sails. We drove into the “big town,” a community of just under 10,000 people. We hit some golf balls, my grandfather patiently teaching me to swing for the first time. And, we spent a great deal of time just sitting together in the living room or on the porch, reading a book or just staring off into the distance. Much to my surprise, the three days passed quickly.

Looking back at it, I now realize that he was as anxious and uncertain as I was. What could he possibly do with a 13 year old boy for three days? I have no doubt that he had spent considerable time talking to my mother before my arrival, trying to figure out how to keep a 13 year old entertained. In the end, we quickly adapted to each other and developed an appreciation for each other’s company. I was a teenager, only beginning to see that there was a world beyond myself, while he was a retiree who had played a distant, formal father role in the 1940s and 1950s when my own mother was growing up. Spending time with a teenager was a new experience for him.

Today, our campus was filled with grandparents and special friends who made the effort to spend time with our students. They had an opportunity to learn a bit about the program our students experience each day, and also were treated to a short concert. Some of the grandparents and special friends have been attending for years, while others were here for the first time.

Each year as I walk among the grandparents and special friends, I’m taken back to my own childhood and the time I spent with my grandfather. I suspect that for both the older and younger generations, there were moments today where they were not quite sure what to do with each other. I also imagine that very few children took the time to thank their grandparents or special friends for attending today. As a parent sandwiched between my own children and my parents, however, I recognize the extraordinary power of these relationships across the generations. I am so grateful that my own parents and my in-laws have consistently made the effort to be involved in my children’s lives.

I suspect I never adequately thanked my grandfather for the time he spent with me, although I also trust that he knew that I appreciated the time, even if I didn’t know how to say it. To my parents, my in-laws, and the many other grandparents and special friends who are making the effort to engage with the children of today, thank you.

And, as I watch Jackson whistling away as he moves around the house, I’m struck by how our forbears remain with us long after they have gone. While my grandfather died nearly 30 years ago, his spirit clearly lives on.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Silver

Head of School

Oct 242014

“Good morning,” I said enthusiastically, opening the door for one of our JK students yesterday morning. “Looking forward to a great day at school?” A big smile came across his face. “Of course,” he exclaimed, “It’s Buddies Day.”

Buddies Day. Once a month, across the campus, everything else stops for 45 minutes as we bring our students together for one of our most beloved and long-standing traditions. The program knits our community together, building relationships across the grade levels. Our younger students learn that they have older friends around campus who are there to support them and who know them by name, while our older students are reminded of the importance of being a role model and are given permission to play and have fun. Yes, even as 8th graders, our students are given opportunities to be children. It is one of the joys of an elementary school, the ability to bring different ages together and celebrate the spirit of community.

Yesterday’s Buddies Day was a particularly memorable one, as each group of students – JK/K-4th/5th; 1st-6th; 2nd-8th; 3rd-7th – created paper kindness quilts. Inspired by the children’s story The Kindness Quilt, by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace, students listened to a videotaped reading of the story by librarian Kelly Scholten and then had an opportunity to design their own square for the paper quilt. Students were asked to think of an act of kindness they had seen at school, and then create an illustration to show others what had happened. Squares were attached to a paper quilt and the quilts were then hung in the office for everyone to see.

A quick perusal of the squares, reveals wonderful examples of kindness in action at Hillbrook.

“I saw someone carrying something for a person whose hands were full.”
“I saw someone playing what others wanted to play.”
“I saw someone playing with new people”
“Somebody was kind to me when they let me sit next to them on the bus when it was full.”
“Someone helped me with confusing math terms.”
“My friend gave me a hug because I was sad.”
“I volunteered to sing with a friend when she was scared to perform.”
“I saw someone open the door for the whole class.”
“My sister was kind to me when she let me use the swing.”
“After someone dropped all of their colored pencils, another person helped the person pick them up.”
“I saw a person helping someone else go up to the office when they were hurt.”

What strikes me about all of these examples is that they are simple actions that require little to no preparation. What do they require? A recognition of the world around you, an ability to empathize with other people, and a willingness to take a risk and reach beyond yourself to offer a hand to someone in need.

Yesterday I wrote entry #60 in my kindness journal. As I shared on the first day of school, I am keeping this journal this year in an effort to pay more attention to the acts of kindness that take place every day around me. I have found that this daily ritual has heightened my awareness of the generosity of others and has also increased my sense of gratitude and wonder both personally and professionally. Reviewing entries, I am struck by the extraordinary number of people who have reached beyond themselves to make a difference in someone’s life. It inspires me, often humbles me and challenges me to be more aware of how my own actions – whether big or small – can make a difference.

We are building community at Hillbrook, one square at a time. What would you place on your square?

Mark Silver

Head of School

Take a peek at this sweet video which captures the spirit of the project, compiled by School Lbrarian and Instructional Technology Coach, Kelly Scholten.

Oct 032014

I did a double-take a few weeks ago, as I walked by a few parents and children lingering in the front office in the middle of the afternoon, all cleaned-up and snazzily dressed in well-coordinated outfits. Why do they look so good? Had I forgotten about an event? A quick glance down toward the Village of Friendly Relations, however, and I was reminded why they were there. There, in the sweltering September heat, was photographer and parent Jessie Salas, enthusiastically and effortlessly guiding families through photo shoots as part of our annual Family Photo Project.

Given the heat on this particular day, families had wisely decided to use the office as a staging area, ensuring that everyone, including the youngest children, appeared fresh and enthusiastic in the photographs, not sweaty and cranky. Jessie and her team of parent volunteers – Tina Briceno, Kaylyn Lehmann and Vanetta Wiseman – were not quite so fortunate to escape the heat over the course of the afternoon, but it did not seem to phase them in the least. They happily welcomed, coordinated and photographed families, ensuring that everyone who participated left with a smile on their face.

The Family Photo Project was introduced to the school a few years ago, part of an HSPC effort to build community. While most people were initially drawn to the event for personal reasons, knowing they would end up with a high quality photo of their family, many people quickly recognized that the highlight of the event was actually the hanging of the photos in the Multi-purpose room. This year, Jessie provided a sneak peek with the following video that includes photos from the different shoots.

A tour of the photos provides a glimpse into the personalities of different families, as well as the extraordinary diversity of our community. Some families are color coordinated, while others adopt a more laissez-faire approach to outfits. Some children smile widely, while others are a bit more demur. Playful, pensive, slightly formal, or delightfully devious – the photos offer an enticing window into the personalities that make up our community. We even have an opportunity to meet some of the pets.

Watching the video – and thinking back on the many photos from previous years – I find myself reconnecting with why I think Hillbrook is such an extraordinary community. The photos offer reminders to me of what makes each person and family unique, a celebration of the individuality that enriches our community. At the same time, as I view the photos in their totality, I am struck by the extraordinary collective strength we possess as a group.

The past few weeks have been an intense moment for the school, with back-to-back Planning Commission meetings that have seen hundreds of Hillbrook parents, students, teachers, and staff come out to support our school. While the proceedings have been long and at times challenging, I have been inspired by the articulate, passionate, and respectful way in which our community has shared our application and our hopes for the future.

Last night, as I found myself starting to gear up for another round next week, I pulled up the Family Photo video and watched it again. The video recenters me and reminds me of why we are doing what we are doing. It’s about families and it’s about children. My family and I feel so privileged to be a part of this extraordinary community.

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.