The Value of Values

Contributed by Mark Silver, Head of School
First Appeared on ReMarks & Reflections, the Official Blog of Mark Silver

At the Opening Flag, I started off by reminding students and families of our core values – be kind, be curious, take risks, be your best, and then shared that this year we would focus on the first of those values, be kind. With the infusion of many new students and families into our community, particularly with the addition of a 3rd section of 6th graders in Middle School, the timing seems right to emphasize this first and essential value.

Since that Flag, so many children and families have shared stories with me about how they are making an effort to live this value. A 6th grader shared with me that she had seen one of the new girls in her class standing by herself on the playground. Remembering our values, she walked over and invited her to join some of her friends. A family shared that they have created a kindness journal, placing it in a public space at home that allows each member of the family to share stories about times they have been kind or have seen kindness in others. Another parent shared that their young child had talked about being kind at home with her younger siblings. While it didn’t end perfectly – something all of us with multiple children can appreciate! – she was thrilled that her child had recognized that values at school carry beyond campus into the home and the “real world.”

So why is this important? Kindness is the social glue that holds a community together. Kindness challenges us to look beyond ourselves and show concern for others. A kind person is:

  • friendly – They smile and greet people when they pass, and introduce themselves to people they do not know.
  • considerate – They open the door for people, say please and thank you, and look for ways to make people feel seen and appreciated.
  • generous – They offer to help someone in need, pick up trash or do other things to help the community, and find small ways to make people feel special.
  • compassionate – They understand that as humans we are going to make mistakes, and they are gentle to themselves and others as they seek growth.

Beyond that, kindness calls on us to be our best selves, even when we do not want to be. I think about this particularly when I’m working with a child or a family that is struggling or frustrated. At these moments of conflict, we need to remind ourselves to assume goodwill and to remember that we all have the same goal – to help each child reach their highest individual potential in school and in life. While we do not always agree on the path to take, the recognition that we have the same goal hopefully reminds us to treat each other with the kindness and respect we all deserve. I am not by any stretch perfect in this regard, and it remains for me one of my most aspirational goals.

Taking a step back, the stories parents have been sharing with me about kindness reinforce one of the most important things we do as a school – practice values. We know that talking to children about values matters. And, even more importantly, creating a community in which those values are lived daily highlights for children that the type of person you are is as important as what you do or how much you know.

By naming values it also offers us daily opportunities to talk about what happens when we don’t live up to our values, something that is inevitable when talking about people of all ages. At Hillbrook, I hope we create a community where we regularly talk about values, and where we strive to highlight examples of how different members of our community exemplify those values. I also hope we are a community that is slow to judge, particularly when talking about the behavior of a child, and quick to forgive. Children make mistakes, and our job is not to judge children, but to help them learn with and from each other how to create a community that is kind, curious, supports risk taking, and allows everyone to be their best.

I was talking to a parent of one of our recent graduates last week. He described how his daughter found herself alone at lunch on the first day of high school and, in true Hillbrook fashion, took a risk, walked up to a table of six girls, introduced herself, explained she was from Hillbrook and thus did not know many girls at the school, and asked if she could join them. We both marveled at the self-confidence, the courage, and the resilience she had as a 14 year old, something both of us were pretty sure we did not have at the same age. The story had a happy ending – they welcomed her to eat with them. More importantly, it highlights the difference a Hillbrook education makes. Yes, our graduates do well academically and yes, they gain the skills and knowledge they need for success in high school and beyond. The real difference, however, is that they develop the confidence and the values that make them the classmates, friends, and leaders that are poised to change the world in ways both big and small.

Sharing Your Voice: Mairi Shea’s Graduation Speech for the Class of 2017

Selected by the 8th grade class to deliver this special address during Graduation, Mairi humorously and personally recounts beloved memories from the Class of 2017’s time at Hillbrook. She celebrated this vivacious and larger-than-life class with the same passion and exuberance that characterized the way we will always remember them.

As much as I would like to begin by thanking my teachers, classmates, and parents, I’d love to start with a quick note instead. Back when I was in 6th grade, and my brother was in 8th, I had the opportunity to witness some of his most extreme procrastination. Watching his fingers frantically scramble across the keyboard at 2 in the morning to meet the deadline before his class speech was due, compelled me to promise that I would never allow that to happen to myself. I said, “I would never procrastinate that much. Ever. Period.” However, the recent process of writing my essay on the Tragedy of Macbeth, has taught me, I should not make vows I cannot fulfill because that is a tragedy in and of itself. Also, I remembered this promise, about 8 hours ago, as I too was frantically scrambling across my keyboard, at approximately 2:13 am to meet the deadline. And google docs will in fact, confirm this. Furthermore, before we start, just a few last minute reminders to make sure we are all set: Nina-try not to drop your diploma. Lachlan-do not run away this time-luckily for us there’s no mountains from Catalina nearby. And Ben-well Ben you just keep doing what you’re doing. Okay, I think we’re all set? Let me begin by saying thank you Class of 2017, for your vote of confidence in electing me to speak on behalf of all of you, on this incredibly momentous day-our graduation.

         I’ve attended Hillbrook for 9 years, and grown up with this class. Over the years, my classmates have taught me so many life lessons- such as how incredibly close a group of people can get-this was proven once again just two weeks ago, on our class trip to D.C., when many of us bonded over sharing similar strains of influenza. I am very appreciative for these charismatic people for allowing me have a- uh well,-‘colorful’ experience for my Hillbrook career. Each of you have meant so much to me–I will never forget you.

          I also want to say thank you to our parents, for putting up with our middle school “challenges”. From our constant mood swings, odd rants, or our requests for the latest craze from fidget spinners to Hydroflasks to pretty expensive sneakers-right Zach? And who here could ever forget our silly band phase. Through all of this, our parents have been supportive, and incredibly patient. Thank you for putting up with our late night noises from finishing a project we probably should have started weeks ago-I imagine we’re all guilty of doing this around 1-12 times.

Looking back over the years, I can tell you that this is probably one of the most talkative groups of people you’ll ever come across in your life. And I’m sure none of the teachers would disagree with me. Therefore, thank you to the teachers, for not losing your heads each time we erupt in chatter when you’re trying to explain directions, patiently, and watchfully guide us back on track… Let me make this more specific-Mr. Stamos, we apologize for every single time about 20 of us flooded into your room, scream-singing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of our lungs when you were telling us to go to class in your most respectful, calmest, and patient manor. Mr. Sears, if a vehicle is traveling at 40 miles an hour for 130 minutes, how many feet per second is it going? We could have figured this out sooner perhaps if we hadn’t talked so much. Mrs. Lee, the last time all of us were with you was in 2011, Lexington was empty-but thanks to you, and all of our teachers at Hillbrook the reservoirs of our minds were filled just like Lexington. But most importantly parents-and teachers, thank you for helping us find our confidence, that gives us our voice; because our voice, is our legacy.

          The importance of leaving a legacy is that someday, somewhere, someone, can look back and see what we were thinking, seeing, and hearing. I want to take an opportunity to ask my fellow classmates if they’re absolutely positive on their definition of legacy. You see, throughout the year, maybe 1-2 times a month, Ms. Pak gathered all the 8th graders in a room, and spoke with us about legacy. How we have to determine what we want our individual legacy to be, how we have to create a positive one for our class, remember? Looking back on our years as a whole, I would definitely say we’ve left a legacy-a very very loud one. I would hope that you would agree with me that the message our class has left for other classes to admire and follow and hopefully hear-is our voices. Whether your voice is loud, or soft, frequent, or not, each and every voice is heard. From quieter voices like Darrow or Camilla, to slightly more audible voices like Elizabeth, or Preston, they all contribute unique characteristics that make us the Class of 2017. As we leave and venture off into different high schools and beyond, our choir of voices will be divided and not unified to any greater extent as it has been for the past 10 years or even this past year as new members joined our choir. That division makes me sad-and I haven’t been this sad thinking about division since Mrs. Butler’s 4th grade class. But all jokes aside-the division of our choir is sad. But, what makes me really happy, is that I know when other students at other schools hear your individual voices, you’ll be extending the Hillbrook choir into whatever school, or state you happen to be in-So Tanner no pressure here on Colorado, buddy.

After spending 9 years with my fellow classmates seated here before you, I’ve been able to hear each and every one of these voices. I’ve heard them individually and I’ve heard them in a collective group. And this collective group of voices, is what made our class so special.  I want to assure you that each one of these amazing students has a voice that we all will always remember. It’s easy to think that every voice must be heard audibly but, I’ve learned that there are many ways to perceive a voice.  For example, some of these voices manifest themselves in art, some in music, some in athletics, or academics. And it is these collective voices that create our unique choir.

There’s an old saying, ‘be careful what you say, because someone’s always listening’. This old saying, is particularly true for us, the Class of 2017 because what we have to say, which can be pretty often, is always diverse, insightful, encouraging, funny, and inspiring to each other within our class. And, I know, that each and every one of you, will use your own voice to honor our legacy. One of the things that made this class so unique, is that each of these voices were different. Some were more frequent than others, some were quieter than others. But when they acted in concert, they were incredible; they were amazing; they were magic. I always wish to remember, when we all leave here, and when we’re not in concert together, is that each of you will continue to be the voice that you are. And to find another concert, in another place, at another time.

As we leave here today, we’re all headed off to different places, schools and new beginnings. My wish, is that we all leave here with the memories of all of our voices-because each of these voices has a story to tell. And what excites me, is that we’ll be able to share this, with new adventures ahead of us.

About a month ago, my understanding of graduation was that once they hand us the diplomas, we’re pretty much done here-right? Well, since that time, I’ve learned-and seen, that this isn’t quite as accurate as what I initially thought. Most of us might be ready to leave Hillbrook, but the memories we’ve made, whether they’ve been from 8th grade, or all the way back to JK and Kindergarten, will follow us forever as will each of our voices loud, quiet or otherwise. So, as my speech comes to an end, much the same as our 8th grade year. We say goodbye today, to our school, our teachers, and to all of you, I want you to know, that I will always take with me, and I will never forget, the unmistakable, and extremely loud sound of each of your voices that made our class what it is today. That choir will always make me smile. Thank you classmates, for your own individual contribution and “voice” that was so memorable. I am very proud to be one of those voices, a member of our choir, and part of the legacy that the class of 2017 leaves with Hillbrook.

Chris Hailey’s (’13) Speech to the Class of 2017

Recipient of the Hillbrook Award, given to the student who best exemplifies our vision – to inspire students to achieve their dreams and to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world, Chris Hailey (’13) returns to share wisdom, advice, and laughter with this year’s graduating class as they look forward to the exciting next step in their journeys.  

Good morning, teachers, parents, students, friends, and guests, I’m honored to be part of this special day of celebration. Congratulations to the Hillbrook Class of 2017!

Four short years ago, I had my Hillbrook graduation. It was held in a different location not far from here, a bit older, more rustic, but it felt the same. The sweet moment of being handed the diploma, a sense of pride and maturity as you shake Mr. Silver’s hand, the sadness of leaving a community that has been so loving and supportive all these years. After this ceremony, you will be set free for the summer. Take full advantage of these three months and enjoy the carefree time with friends and family, because when high school starts, it will be a whole different story.

To me, it’s hard to describe with just a few words the transition from middle school to high school. If middle school is a latte, high school is a Unicorn Frappuccino. If middle school is a cruise down Los Gatos Boulevard, High School is a hi-speed race down Highway 17 at night. High school will take you on wild twists and turns, and yes, there will be more work, greater responsibilities, higher expectations, and certainly increased pressure to get good grades.

And in the midst of all your pursuits: academics, athletics, clubs, extracurriculars, part time jobs, and binge-watching the latest Netflix series, it’s often easy to neglect some basic things, such as getting a good night’s sleep or finding time to relax. But I’m not here today to give you a list of things you need to succeed in high school. Instead I want to share with you three important lessons that I’ve learned from my four years in high school. As you begin planning your next four years, I hope you find some of these tips helpful.

Picture this, you walk into the classroom, a few minutes late. Your teacher asks for your homework, so you open your binder, and there’s nothing there. Now I need some student participation: I would like you to raise your hand if something like that has ever happened to you (forgetting the homework). Good, I was hoping that nobody would be shy. But you are probably used to some level of forgiveness, especially from our kind, accommodating Hillbrook teachers. Unfortunately, high school teachers have much less tolerance. In fact, some of them will just give you a big fat donut for assignments that are not turned in. And this donut is far from sweet: a zero on your report card does not look good. Trust me, having to explain to my parents the “F” on my progress report was not fun. So my first lesson is, as cliche as it may sound, finishing your assignments and turning them in on time – it is better for you to put in the effort and have partially done homework than it is to not turn in at all.

While I was able to catch on my first lesson quickly, it certainly took a while for me to learn my second. Not long after I started high school, I realized that in this big pond of intelligence, talent, and ability, I was merely an average-sized fish. There were science fair finalists, math contests winners, cross country stars, and debate champions. There were freshmen students who had already completed Calculus in middle school and were taking college level Multivariable Calculus. And then there was me, who naively thought he was ahead for already being in geometry in eighth grade. For the first time in school, I felt like I was behind. So what did I do? Well, my school offered these summer courses as pre-requirements for students who wanted to take advanced placement courses the following school year. Given the pace and workload of these classes, most students take only one class. I, however, decided to sign up for two, so I could take 3 AP courses my sophomore year. My first summer of high school went like this: Arriving in the classroom at 7:45 in the morning, attending lessons for 7 hours, getting home at 5 with 3-5 more hours of homework. Sounds like a perfect summer, right? And this went on for two months. Needless to say, I didn’t have much of a break. While I did fine with the 3 AP courses in sophomore year, I felt I was taking these classes not because I enjoyed them, but rather I tried to catch up to the big fish. The summer after sophomore year, I passed the opportunity to take more AP prep courses and decided to implement a mobile app idea that had brewed in my mind for a while. I taught myself JavaScript, HTML, and other programming languages needed to build the application from scratch. This turned out to be the best decision I made in two years: I learned so much that summer and truly enjoyed every part of it. I started my junior year with a sharpened mind and newly gained skills in computer programming. I stopped comparing myself to others and giving into peer pressure. I sought a balance between the challenging courses and the pursuit of my interests outside of school. People often say that junior year is the hardest year of high school; to me it was the best year. So this is the second lesson I learned: find your own path-don’t let external pressures guide you.

At this point, you are probably thinking that high school is all about homework, AP courses, and peer pressure. Well, rest assured, this is absolutely not true. High school can actually be fun too. There are many student organizations that you can join, and you can even create your own club. I remember the first time I went to my school’s annual club fair; I was like a kid in a candy store. With more than 100 clubs presented in the gym, I was naturally drawn to the ones that interested me: Art club, multimedia club, computer club, tutoring club, acapella group, you name it. I was in the midst of chatting with a music club representative when I heard: “Chris, Chris” An upperclassmen whom I had befriended waved me over to his table. “You better sign up for DECA, Chris. Best club ever!” he raved. I quickly read his poster; it described DECA as a competitive business club where members attend different conferences and compete in various business projects. “But I know nothing about business” I told him. “It doesn’t matter. You will learn. We will enlighten you.” Before I could respond, he already put my name on the signup sheet. Since he was the only junior friend I had in this new school, I decided to give it a try. Little did I know back then the impact that this one student organization would have on me. In the next three years, I had learned to be a Founder of a startup pitching an idea to VCs, a salesman promoting a new hotel to a conference manager, a financial advisor to a financially struggling college student, a business lawyer questioning the ethics of a food processing company, and many more. In fact, the mobile application I worked on my sophomore summer was inspired by an entrepreneurship project I did for a State conference. DECA has taught me so much about entrepreneurship, management, finance, marketing, sales, and most importantly, it has helped me discover my interest in business. Although I’ll be studying engineering, I know that I will continue to pursue business in college and beyond. So this comes to my third and final lesson: keep an open mind to new things- It may open your world to new opportunities.

Class of 2017, you are less than an hour away from graduating. You feeling the excitement yet? As a familiar song goes: “It’s a world of laughter a world of tears, it’s a world of hopes and a world of fears.” All these emotions — joy, sadness, hopes, fears– are about to amplify as you enter high school. But fear not, trust me, Hillbrook has prepared you well to take on any challenge you may face. Remember, keep an open mind, be yourself, and most importantly, turn in your homework. High school may not be as confusing and frightening of a place after all. I wish you all the best of luck, and once again, congratulations to the class of 2017!

Introducing the Founding Director for the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship

We are excited to announce that we have hired Annie Makela as the founding Director for the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Annie combines deep experience in the world of social entrepreneurship, serving as a founding team member for two different collegiate centers for social entrepreneurship, with a passion and commitment to teaching children. In her cover letter, Annie wrote, “this has been the job I have been describing to friends, mentors and colleagues for the past five years as my dream job,” and yet, she noted, until now, the job had not existed at any JK-8 school. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Shannon and Kevin Scott and with the creation of the Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Annie has found her new home.

A graduate of Middlebury College with a BA in English and Spanish, Annie has earned distinction as one of Middlebury’s most innovative alums under 30. While an undergraduate, she found her passion for social entrepreneurship, serving as an Assistant to the Director of the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship and supporting the center’s launch during the 2011-12 school year. Following college, she spent two years at Greenwich Country Day School as a 2nd grade assistant teacher. In addition to her core responsibilities, she organized a TEDx for the Middle School students and taught an after-school class, “Design, Engineering, and Wonder.” In 2014, she was invited back to Middlebury to be part of the founding team of the Middlebury Center for Social Impact Learning, a new graduate program located at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey. During the past three years, she has served as the Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives, focusing in particular on the Ambassador Corps, a program connecting college students to the frontlines of social entrepreneurship in emerging market countries.

Annie was selected from a field of more than 50 candidates, including 15 semi-finalist candidates who met with members of the hiring committee, and three finalists who had full day visits to campus. References noted Annie’s unique ability to both think entrepreneurially and execute on ideas. As one reference explained, she is able to be a leader and key voice in strategic sessions, and then is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get things done. Another reference described her as an active relationship builder – curious, collaborative, accessible, and personable. Perhaps most importantly, each person noted Annie’s genuine passion for children and her desire to combine her love for social entrepreneurship with education.

We look forward to welcoming Annie to Hillbrook when she starts in July 2017.

The Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship is a dynamic new program focused on integrating design thinking, making, project-based learning, and community partnerships in order to help students and faculty make a difference in the world. Social entrepreneurship – the application of an intentional and entrepreneurial approach to prototyping innovative solutions to social problems – fosters innovation and problem-solving skills, while challenging students and faculty to reach beyond the Hillbrook campus to contribute to the greater good. The Scott Center for Social Entrepreneurship is named for philanthropists Shannon Hunt-Scott and Kevin Scott. Through their non-profit, The Scott Foundation, the Scott family focuses on hunger and education projects, aspiring to empower Bay Area children to achieve their personal best.

Hillbrook CTE Podcast: MS Student Reflect on Social Entrepreneurship Field Trip

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Listen in iTunes or click to download.)

Created by Director of Technology Bill Selak, this podcast shares a recent field trip that took a group of middle school students, their teachers, and administrators to WeWork in San Jose, where students were able to interview real-life entrepreneurs and ask them questions about what they do everyday. The students were able to reflect and connected the lessons shared by these professionals to the learning experiences they dive into at Hillbrook.

Hillbrook Moments

Contributed by Mark Silver, Head of School

As Flag ended a few weeks ago, I paused momentarily and thought to myself, “Yep, another Hillbrook moment.”

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly reflective about the abundance of quintessential moments that capture the spirit of our school. These moments – usually serendipitous –  bring to life our core values, reflecting in important ways how we are truly living our vision and mission as a school.

At this particular Flag, we saw students speaking about the importance of reaching beyond themselves to make a difference in the world, including two children, inspired by their own family’s lived experience, who chose to spearhead a drive to support the International Rescue Committee. We saw an 8th grade student share a personal reflection about her Hillbrook experience and how she valued this community and the opportunity to be part of it. We heard a brief account of the recent Middle School trip to Ecuador, a trip that included a service component where students dug a 50 meter portion of a trench to lay pipe for a new water system that will deliver filtered/treated river water to 82 families living nearby. We heard students young and old share jokes, including one kindergartner who bravely joined his grandfather to share his first joke in front of the school.

In just a 15-minute time span, we saw strong evidence of the values that define our school –  a belief in creating spaces for students to take risks, be themselves, and publicly share ideas and passions, a commitment to reaching beyond ourselves to make a difference in the world, and an appreciation for the importance of humor.

Earlier this week, faculty and staff received an invitation from Camilla W. (‘17). The event? A bookbinding class she is leading for students and teachers that will focus on “Coptic bookbinding, tools or makeshift and easily accessible substitutions to use and materials used to make hardcover books.” Camilla’s class is a part of her 8th grade capstone project, in which she has taken her passion and self-taught expertise in bookbinding and extended herself by learning how to teach the skill to others of all ages. It was yet another Hillbrook moment, as I marveled at the many things that Camilla’s project, and the 8th grade capstone more generally, reflect about our program – the ability to pursue an independent passion project, the value of making, artistic expression, design, and production, and the confidence to share your knowledge with learners of all ages. How inspiring that one of our students is inviting us to participate in a multi-day workshop imagined, created, and run by herself. This is just one of the myriad projects our students are pursuing. I encourage you to join us at NUMU, the New Museum of Los Gatos, on Thursday, June 1 from 5 – 7 pm to learn more about Camilla’s work and that of her many talented peers.

And lest we think that Hillbrook moments are limited to current Hillbrook students, I have recently been inspired by several of our recent alums.

Maya Wilcox (‘13) and Natasha Brown (‘13), seniors at Thacher School, organized the first-ever diversity conference for the school as part of their Senior Project. What’s more? They invited our own Diversity and Inclusivity Coordinator Jules Greene to be the keynote speaker. Inspired by their participation in the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference two years ago, these two dynamic seniors created an experience for high school students from several different schools. And then there’s recent alum Alex Nickel (‘16). While at Hillbrook, Alex started creating educational videos and then quickly turned it into his own YouTube channel, Technicality. Recently, Technicality was trending on Reddit’s YouTube page and also was recently highlighted on Mashable. With over 20,000 subscribers, Alex’s playful and educational explorations into subjects including science, math, pop culture, and music are drawing national, or probably international, attention.

Seeing these stories on Facebook, I was so proud of the efforts these young people are making to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in their community and in the world. I was inspired by their willingness to take risks, and the confidence they had to share their stories and teach peers and people of all ages. And, thinking back to the recent Flag, I’m confident that at least some of their ability to do this has its roots in their Hillbrook experience.

Hillbrook moments. Once you start looking for them, you will find them everywhere. I hope you’ll share some of your favorites with me.

Conversations in History: Empathy, Listening, and & Global Perspective

By Jenn Gingery, 7th & 8th Grade History Teacher

Before spring break, our school assembly about the IRC (the International Rescue Committee), helped our entire student body understand that it was not just ancestors who were internationally displaced, but also young people from all walks of life. When asked to share their thoughts, here were some of our students’ thoughts:

“This was really important because some of us (students at Hillbrook) are exposed to other cultures and experiences more than others.”

“We need to know that there are still refugee camps in the twentieth century”

“This is real life. Some of us can forget what real life is like.”

The ability of our young learners to make connections to what we’re learning in class and what they see in the world around them is essential. Our 7th graders explore world geography, immerse themselves into different cultures, and learn more about religion around the world. Through the lively, thought-provoking, candid, and engaged storytelling, question-asking, and discussion that blossomed after each unit, our students learned that history is not just something to look back on and reflect on through the pages of a book or collections of photos, but it is actually happening here and now, everyday.

As our students connected their families’ personal journeys and stories to their lessons, we took special intention to support the diversity in our own student population. Our current students and their families represent many faiths, for instance – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic and others. When we learned about the ancient polytheist beliefs in the Middle East, then Judaism, Christianity and the origins of Islam in the middle ages, students first observed and then questioned, ‘Why was the Middle East so sacred to so many people and so many faiths over time?’ They then started to make ties about how modern dynamics of different religions and cultures co-existing in a space are affecting their lives today.  

As they dove more deeply into the way in which ancient history as well as today’s happenings tell profound cultural stories, the students reflected on the ebbs and flows of their own ancestors’ experiences from around the world and throughout time. For instance, they shared stories about the conflicts their grandparents faced during times of great change, such as European experience during World War II or Indian and Pakistani experience during Partition. They reflected about the sacrifices their families made, like enduring family separation and property loss. Meanwhile, they also acknowledged the kindness of others across cultures and continents. Some of the more memorable stories featured a Christian neighbor who supported a Russian Jewish child, a Palestinian refugee who was able to seek asylum in Jordan before making her way to America, a grandfather who survived almost a decade in an Asian refugee camp before resettlement in Europe, a Polish immigrant who began a new life on the distant continent of Australia, and south Asian victim of religious persecution who was able to find safety in a neighboring country.

As we carried our studies around the world, our students started to weave America’s story into this global timeline. Students unpacked differences between terms such as refugee, immigrant and naturalized citizen. Several individuals shared what the green card meant, “It’s my LIFE!” offered one girl, reflecting on how challenging it was for her family to obtain and how it affected her personally. “My mother had a difficult pregnancy with me, and because she was able to get specialized medical treatment here in America, we both survived. She would not be alive if she had stayed in her home country.” “I have a green card too,” offered another girl who made connections about what it was like to attend schools in different countries. “I was helping my grandmother study for her citizenship test in another country last December,” shared a third individual. Another student was able to retrieve his expired card from his backpack when his family lived in overseas. From there, students discussed different types of visas, which precede green card eligibility. “My mom was helping a friend study for the exam last month and those questions were hard. My mom didn’t even know the answers to them!” Students of different races and nationalities were able to relate to shared experiences. The compassion of others who helped people’s’ transitions also resonated in the global microcosm of our classroom with twenty students and the history of ‘us’ unfolded through their narratives.

By learning to listen to –  and value – the collective stories and the journeys of our school’s community members our students also learn cultural competency skills and ensure their own connections to our increasingly diverse world. Through their shared voices, as well as their collective efforts and donations, our students are determined to make a difference in their world while learning about history and each other.

A Place Where Each Child – and Each Family – is Known and Valued

By Leila Johansson, Parent of the Classes of ‘21 and ‘22

Last Monday morning at Flag, my son and daughter stood up in front of the entire school to share their story and an idea:

“Hi, my name is Sebastian & this is my sister Soraya. One night we were talking at dinner about recent events going on in the world and our mom said, instead of complaining about the things that are upsetting us, we should think about how we can help. That while we might not have the power to change certain things, we did have the power to make something good come out of a bad situation.

We both immediately decided we wanted to help refugees. A refugee is a person forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. When our mom was a baby, she & our grandparents fled the Islamic Revolution in Iran & came to the United States. They came with one suitcase expecting to go back when things returned to normal. But never did. We’re glad our mom got to live in a free country.

We have decided to support International Rescue Committee (IRC) to help Refugees who have just arrived in the US.  We are collecting money for bus passes, and also collecting bikes, helmets & bike locks to help newly resettled refugees get to places like IRC for english classes, or school or work. $70 buys a one-month bus pass!”

I was born in Tehran, Iran when mass demonstrations against the Shah began mobilizing. As the strikes and demonstrations escalated into what we now know as the Islamic Revolution, my Father managed to get two plane tickets for my Mom and Grandmother to flee to the United States with my brother and I, and- literally- a single suitcase. In my parent’s mind, this was a temporary move and we would return home to Iran when the political climate settled. As we now know, the newly formed Islamic Republic was in Iran to stay, more than a handful of our family’s close friends were executed, and so the US was to become our new home- for good.

My parents assimilated… as best they could. As a child, I admittedly had no understanding for why my mom insisted on packing my school lunch bag with our rather strong smelling but delicious kabobs wrapped in lavash, tossed in a brown paper bag, while my blonde, blue-eyed “American” friends enjoyed less fragrant PB&J sandwiches on white bread, packed in cute Strawberry Shortcake lunch boxes- mind you, this all in a pre-Top Chef, pre ‘ethnic food is cool’ era. As a parent, I now realize how challenging indeed it must have been for my parents to carry all the responsibilities naturally associated with raising children, but with the added complexity of a culture, country, and language that was completely foreign to them. Add to this the unnerving uncertainty of their life and family in Iran, and I can now appreciate that packing “American” style snacks was not exactly a priority. Save for the 1980’s when the Iranian Hostage Crisis brought the now highly unoriginal but at the time novel (read, I had no good comeback) “camel-jockey” and “unibrow” insults to my brother and I on the school playgrounds, I have never taken for granted how fortunate we are to have been allowed into the United States.

In the video that IRC played at Flag – which I hope you will watch, Madeline Albright talks about how her own experience as a refugee has shown her “how grateful a refugee is and how important it is to be able to fit into some other communities.” This statement resonates strongly. Even as a young teen, I was well aware that had we not been allowed into America I would have never enjoyed the educational or personal opportunities afforded us by this truly great country- not to mention the freedom of speech and religion that we hold so sacred here. I have profound respect and deep compassion for my parents, and all refugees and immigrants, that leave everything they know to come to the US or another country for a safer, better life for their families.

Sebastian and Soraya are well aware of how my family got here. My parents and I have shared with them the aforementioned lighthearted stories, which I can comfortably include on my children’s school blog. We have also shared with them the deliberately omitted heavy-hearted stories, which I’m neither comfortable nor able to include on my children’s school blog. They know that the circumstances under which we came to the US, and stayed in the US, was relatively fortunate. They also know that the circumstances under which many refugees- ranging from Syria to Somalia- are seeking to flee their countries are not simply less fortunate but harrowing. Between their Persian mom’s personal experience and their Swedish father’s indirect but relevant experience coming from a country that has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country (something visibly noticeable and something we discuss on our annual visits to see their grandparents), I can’t say I was surprised when Sebastian and Soraya decided that night at dinner that they want to help Refugees.

From developing their powerpoint proposal to Student Council as to why Hillbrook should support refugees, choosing the best IRC video to share at Flag, rehearsing their announcement and making posters during Spring Break to place around campus, I have watched Sebastian and Soraya dedicate themselves to this Refugee Support effort in a way that has surprised me. Throughout this process- as throughout their time at Hillbrook – they have felt known, respected and valued as individuals.  It has been so encouraging to see them come home excited as the Hillbrook community has rallied around them and supported them in making a difference. They have felt empowered to be advocates for refugees and know that instead of complaining about the problem, they are actually making a difference by having their voices heard through practical help. This process has reminded me of those early years in the US and makes me so grateful to be part of a community that is helping the next generation of refugees feel welcome in a foreign place. Five years ago, when we chose Hillbrook School as the school for our children, we were captured by the vision statement to “inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world”.  I can honestly say that vision is becoming a reality for our children, and we are so very grateful to Hillbrook.


Experiences Workshopping To Kill A Mockingbird

Contributed by Julia Rubin, Middle School English Teacher, Jules Greene, Middle School History Teacher and Diversity & Inclusivity Coordinator, Jenn Gingery, Middle School History Teacher, Yanelly De La Rosa, Resident Teacher, History

To this day, Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of the most widely read novels in the United States, and continues to be studied in schools. The 2015 publication of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman both fueled readership of Mockingbird and brought to light questions about one of our great heroes of literary fiction, Atticus Finch, particularly in relationship to his views about race and the importance of racial equality. Here at Hillbrook, To Kill a Mockingbird has been a part of the eighth grade curriculum for many years. As teachers, we take pride in our ability to ask why, to reflect on our own teaching practice, and to provide for our students the most meaningful learning experience that we can. So we asked ourselves, how can we continue to make To Kill a Mockingbird relevant to our students’ lives today?

This year, as we approached Mockingbird Season, history and English teachers, Jenn Gingery, Jules Greene, Yanelly De La Rosa, Julia Rubin, and Head of School, Mark Silver, came together to design a series of conference-style learning experiences that would bring Mockingbird to life.

In order to reach those goals, the 8th grade class participated in three two-hour workshops on varying topics related to race, gender, class, and intersectionality. The first workshop in the series, entitled, Legacies of Reconstruction & the Current State of Race for Blacks and Whites in the United States, served as a deep dive into the history of race in the United States in order to better understand the way in which this historical dynamic shows its presence in our social climate today. For example, students studied the impact of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, vagrancy and Jim Crow laws, alongside current-day resistance movements like Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. With this historiographical deep dive under their belts, the novel provided an impactful launching point for students to connect personally with the characters and think about Harper Lee in the context of her time, intently exploring her strengths as well as wonder about her biases as a writer.

The next workshop in the series, An Introduction to the Culture of Poverty: The Current-Day Impact of the Moynihan Report, focused on ideas around class and socioeconomic status, and provided an introduction to the social theory called the Culture of Poverty, attributed in part to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, written during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon Johnson. Alongside an investigation of the Moynihan Report, students looked closely at Harper Lee’s construction of the Ewell family from To Kill a Mockingbird, the antagonists of the novel who are responsible for causing the death of another character, Tim Robinson. It is compelling that, unlike other marginalized groups in the novel, Lee does not encourage her reader to “walk in another man’s shoes” as Atticus from Mockingbird urges. Instead, she uses her authority as storyteller to regard the Ewells as “trash.” The Ewell family embody much of what The Moynihan Report described about impoverished people — not only are they impoverished, but they also have “poor” values. Looking at class and socioeconomic status in Mockingbird allowed students to “read against the grain”, or look at the ways in which the novel leads readers toward certain biases, with a deeper goal that encourages cultivating awareness and empathy for marginalized groups – even the most difficult ones –  which is one of the central tenets in building cultural competency.

In our third and final workshop, students were introduced to a concept coined by Civil Rights Advocate Kimberle Crenshaw, called intersectionality. Intersectionality argues that people who have more than one social identifier that places them in a minority group will likely encounter greater degrees of difficulty in achieving equal representation in the eyes of the law. Harper Lee’s novel includes several characters who are “standing at the intersection” and these characters allowed students to dig deeply into the issues, substantiating their claims using evidence from the novel.

Students deepened their understanding of intersectionality and privilege by engaging in a dramatic simulation. “Stepping into the shoes” of characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, students, as these literary characters, stood at a starting mark on the ground, and then were asked a series of questions that allowed them to reflect upon  the characters’ experiences in the novel. Examples of reflections included, “If your character can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward” or, “If your character were ever discouraged from an activity because of race, class, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation, take one step back.” After responding to the questions from this fictional perspective, the student-as-characters who arrive at the front of the line are the ones with the “most privilege.” Through this hands-on experience, our class decided together that the character they perceived as possessing the most privilege was Atticus Finch.

The culminating assignment for eighth graders upon completion of Mockingbird was to write a sourced “This I Believe” speech, in which they were given the choice to bring their own voice to their investigations on  race, class, gender, or intersectionality. They also supported their personal claim with textual evidence from Mockingbird as well as multiple sources of scholarly research in these areas of study today.

Finally, they read their essays for their classmates, an opportunity to share their work and their individual reflections with each other. In one eighth grader’s speech she stated, “Privilege is an advantage given by certain identities. For example, I am extremely privileged. I have grown up in a financially stable home, I am able bodied, I have an education and I have grown up in a very stable and safe community. However, I am also a female and am Asian. Even though I have so many more privileges than disadvantages, I think about my disadvantages so much more than my privileges.” Another of her classmates wrote, I believe that now, more than ever before, we as Americans must climb into the skin those who are in need. We must see things from their point of view and be able to understand that stereotypes, while easy to believe in and use, do nothing but hurt the people who they depict. If we all manage to take Atticus’s advice, we will be able to truly make America the land of the free, and through empathy and courage, the home of the brave.”

In our efforts to fulfill our goals for Vision 2020, students were provided with dynamic experiences created by teachers that “enhance cultural competency and prepare our students to be leaders in an increasingly diverse and connected world.” Returning to our initial essential question, Is reading To Kill a Mockingbird still relevant today? We respond, indeed!

How do we keep privilege from becoming entitlement?

Contributed by Mark Silver, Head of School

I had the opportunity to hear Brené Brown at the recent NAIS National Conference in Baltimore. Author of several books, including bestsellers Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, Brown has garnered a great deal of attention by speaking to the powerful role that shame and vulnerability play in our lives, and how we need to understand and lean into those feelings if we are ever going to be able to be courageous and do great things.

Brown is a gifted and humorous speaker, and she managed to be simultaneously disarming, funny, and thought-provoking, as she challenged each of us to think about how our fear of being vulnerable leads to misunderstanding. It takes courage to speak our truth, particularly to those closest to us, she noted. She told a story of a morning swim with her husband that quickly devolved into a fight when the two of them failed to understand what the other was thinking. She encouraged us to develop facility with the phrase, “The story I am telling in my head…,” as a way to open conversation with another person and help them understand what you are thinking and, in the process, often help to reveal the misunderstanding at the core of the conflict.

I quickly thought of the many misunderstandings I had with people, especially my own family members, as I leapt up the ladder of inference and became frustrated, judgmental, and angry instead of opening myself up to a real conversation and a search for understanding. I thought of a recent situation in which one of my children came to me to ask if we could get a subscription to Adobe Photoshop. I looked up from my computer, and immediately, angrily, and, let’s be clear, irrationally launched into a mini-tirade about how all my children ever do is ask for things and want more. I was tired of their sense of entitlement and their never-ending need for things. I then turned back to what I was doing, shutting the conversation down.

Later, with the benefit of time and perspective, I went back to said child and asked them to tell me more. It turns out, that this child had already figured out a way to pay for this service by canceling another service we had, and was not simply asking for something more. I sheepishly listened and we worked out an arrangement that, in the end, actually highlighted the importance of financial management and this child’s growing awareness that “money does not grow on trees.”

It was definitely a low point as a parent, and one that I’m not proud of in the least. I could make a number of excuses, but if I’m being brutally honest (ie, fully vulnerable) and if I play out “the story in my head”, the question triggered complex feelings from my own childhood about money, an underlying fear that careless expenditures of money would have long-term consequences, coupled with shame about any type of conspicuous consumption. The latter undoubtedly traces all the way back to a purchase in 7th grade of an expensive pair of Vuarnet sunglasses with money I had earned through yard work and babysitting, a purchase that my parents viewed with a combination of disgust and disappointment. In retrospect, I now recognize their feeling – it was discomfort with the privilege I had (the ability to purchase a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses) combined with a larger fear that I would not recognize my privilege and would simply become entitled.

Brené Brown beautifully addressed this concept when she talked about her own efforts to ensure her children were not entitled. She distinguished between privilege – unearned access to resources  – and entitlement – expectations of access to resources. The key to keeping the one – privilege – from becoming the other – entitlement? Understanding and gratitude.

As a parent, how do we do this? I think it is important to explicitly name the privileges your children have, as well as helping them see how privilege varies across different communities. It is important for children to recognize, for example, that within the Hillbrook community, different families have different types of privilege, whether due to differences in socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. At the same time, even with those differences, it is helpful for our children to recognize the privilege that all Hillbrook children have simply by being students at the school, namely, access to an educational experience that the vast majority of children throughout the Bay Area and around the world do not have.

And how do we teach gratitude? To my mind, the best way to teach that is by modeling it for your own children and by showing your own gratitude for the things and experiences you find valuable. I regularly tell my children about how grateful I am to be part of this community, how grateful I am to live in such an extraordinarily beautiful area, and how grateful I am to have the freedom and the opportunities that I have had throughout my life.

For additional exploration  you might check out the following: