Reaching Beyond with WeWork

Reaching Beyond with WeWork

In the spring of 2017, a parent approached us to share about a community co-working space in downtown San Jose that he was excited about. We heard more, visited the space (at WeWork Valley Towers), and were intrigued; as part of Vision2020, the school’s current strategic plan, we are endeavoring to build more and more opportunities for Hillbrook learners to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. Following on our many explorations of how space and time affect our behaviors and thinking, it struck us that an opportunity to have a space that sort of “belonged” to Hillbrook, but wasn’t on our campus, might open up new avenues for realizing this strategic initiative. So like many Hillbrook endeavors, after asking whether a change of space might improve our ability to engage our community and help our students “reach beyond,” we took a risk and started a pilot, by getting a small membership at the co-working space in May of 2017.

What intrigued us about WeWork? As members, we suddenly had access to a new space, in the heart of downtown San Jose and within biking and public transportation of our Los Gatos campus; we had access to a new social network of entrepreneurs, community organizers, and small business owners who were eager to connect and learn from each other; we had increased connection, based on new proximity and time-structures, to all kinds of organizations that already overlap with our service-learning, and making experiences, and community connections–places where we serve, where our families and friends work, and where we like to go to learn new tools or explore exhibits.

But how to use these new opportunities? And how to use a space that, in many ways, feels like the opposite of school? In May, we invited all our 6th grade students during advisory one day: “Who might like to go this Friday to a place where entrepreneurs work, and interview some people?” We asked, what might happen if we just started to take students to this new space. And then we did. What happened was that a small handful of self-nominated middle schoolers had what they called “the best field trip ever.” And the adults who went along with them found that a surprising number of entrepreneurs and small business owners actually were drawn to come by our table in the middle of the day and be interviewed by our students.

On our first visit with students to WeWork, we learned about Dr. Wang’s invention of a “Green Refuge” non-profit tiny house building project for people without homes. We learned from a digital advertiser who launched his company after keeping track of all his ideas by writing down 5-6 ideas in a journal every day. We learned from Erik, who launched several companies by the age of 30, some of which failed quickly, that time is his most valuable resource “because it’s not infinite. Money is basically infinite, because you can always raise more but time isn’t infinite.” (You can listen to our students voices tell more of the story of what they heard and learned this day on our May 2017 podcast here.)

Since then, we’ve been back to WeWork several times, once with students in the summer, and often with various groups of teachers, staff members and administrators. We’ve reached out to other schools who are using co-working spaces to extend the reach of their learners beyond the bounds of their campus. And we’ve started to tell the story to families, teachers and children. As we collaborate and share, we know we’ll learn more, allowing us to return over and over to the question that started it all: How does Hillbrook achieve its vision to inspire children to reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world?

Place-Based Learning and Sit Spots

Click below to play episode in the browser. Listen in iTunes, or download the episode (link at bottom).

This episode focuses on mobile inquiry and place-based learning, how putting technology in the hands of students changes the conversations we have in the classroom.

A favorite quote in researching this episode comes from Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. Laurie Lane-Zucker writes in the foreward:

A significant transformation of education might begin with the effort to learn how events and processes close to home relate to regional, national, and global forces and events, leading to a new understanding of ecological stewardship and community.

Resources we talk about in the episode:

The Time of Our Lives

The Time of Our Lives

Albert Einstein may have famously claimed that “time is an illusion,” but most educators and students would say it’s something they’re constantly trying to wrangle. This year, eleven teachers and administrators at our school volunteered to serve on a “schedule committee,” looking at how we use time at Hillbrook. To start, we each followed one student for an entire day, from drop-off until pick-up. While each of us had experienced observing whole classes on campus, for many of us, it was the first time to focus on just an individual student experience throughout an entire day.

Our findings on the student shadow days were numerous. We were heartened to see the variety of modes of thinking and activity students were a part of. In my own observation, I watched a seventh grader write independently, make a movie collaboratively, observe insect behavior and propose a taxonomy, practice vocabulary, communicate math problem-solving strategies to peers, play gaga ball, meditate silently, throw a great pass in football, and catch and release a spider from advisory– in one day! Through all thirteen of our total student shadow days, we gained insights into the experience of children on our campus and generated needs and questions. After assembling these take-aways and prototyping some schedules focused on meeting various needs, we set out on visits outside Hillbrook.

As part of the Vision 2020 plank “Reimagine the Student Experience,” we are seeking out schools, around the Bay Area and beyond, that are attempting to treat time differently, perhaps maximizing time spent working on projects, or time spent in cross-grade discussions, or time spent learning on one’s own. Each of these schools offers insight into how we might further personalize student learning, or devote more time to cross-disciplinary projects that reach beyond our campus.

About half our team spent two and half days last week first visiting local Khan Lab School, then San Diego’s High Tech High and Design 39. On our visits, we learned about the choices each school had made in order to create longer windows of time for their priorities. For example, one school had students working on project time every afternoon, though their students did not take Art, or Music, and had Physical Education only twice per week. Another had each student working at their own pace in math, though those lessons were done almost entirely on computers. We saw school hallways that looked like museums of modern art, and empty hallways at schools that had chosen the blankness in order not to overstimulate children. Each of these schedules and environments prompted our team to reflect on what is most important to the learning journey at Hillbrook and how the structures we create promote those priorities.

At Hillbrook, we know environment is not neutral. Our collection of research studies around classroom setup confirm our intuition that physical space affects how people think and learn, and what they do. And we continue to be curious and deliberate in our designs of space based on our learning goals or how we want users to feel. This year’s schedule committee process finds us steeped in the same wonderings and realizations about the less visible ways we create place–those that dictate or differentiate “Science” from “Math” class for example. They’re the structures that cause a student to say yesterday to me “I just want to do math things in math class, you know?” And they’re up to us to shape.

Stay tuned to find out how we progress through the schedule committee process, visiting more schools along the Northwest in early February…





Professional Development on Inclusivity

Jules Greene, Hillbrook’s Diversity and Inclusivity Coordinator, shares recent professional development experiences and how it makes a difference in her work with teachers and students. Jules recently participated in the People of Color Conference (POCC), Teaching Tolerance workshop, and Wildwood Multicultural Leadership Institute.

Click below to play episode in the browser. Listen in iTunes, or download the episode (link at bottom).

Oh the Places You’ll Go (for PD)…

Oh the Places You’ll Go (for PD)…

One of the things I’m most grateful for, and proud of, working at Hillbrook is our dedication to faculty and staff learning. Each year we send employees around the nation, the globe, and Silicon Valley to learn and share about their areas of interest. So far this school year, our faculty and staff have attended or presented at the following workshops and conferences:

Conferences Attended

Summer ceramics membership at Higher Fire Studios

Several Tech Shop Classes (including Sand blasting and powder coating, Arduino and more)

Construction Modern Knowledge Summer Institute

Project Zero Classroom

Thacher School’s Capstone Consortium

Nueva School’s Design Thinking Institute

BATDC’s Mastering Group Facilitation Workshop

Oceanic Society Expedition

Singapore Math Workshop

CATDC Leaders of Color Cohort

Life Lab Plant It, Grow It, Eat It!

PHP‘s Learning Differences Simulation

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) National Conference

NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC)

Responsive Classroom Training

Wildwood School’s Never Too Young: Elementary Age Social Activism

Modern Language Association MLA Annual Convention

Learning Ally’s Spotlight on Dyslexia

Conferences Presented

Fablearn Flagship Conference

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Summer Conference

NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC)

Computer Using Educators (CUE) Fall Conference

Empathy Fuels Connection

Empathy Fuels Connection

At Hillbrook, in order for us to be kind, be curious, take risks, and be our best, we need to build and sustain a connected community. Truly connected communities can differ greatly from one another in what they value and how they address conflict and mistakes, but we do know that what communities that thrive have in common is a healthy culture of empathy. At Hillbrook we have been using this brief three minute video by Brené Brown with faculty and the Inclusivity Task Force to clarify and discuss what empathy is and why it matters for our community. As Brown describes it, “Empathy fuels connection…it is a choice and it is a vulnerable choice…it is feeling with people.” In her talk, she points to four qualities that define empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotions in others, and communicating your recognition. These are things we value developing and nurturing in our students and in ourselves as adults at our school because we know that connected communities are inclusive and best prepared to make a difference in the world.

One of our key initiatives in Vision 2020 is to create an increasingly diverse and inclusive community, with a focus on providing an educational program that prepares students to be leaders in an ever more diverse and connected world. Strengthening the “empathy muscle” of our faculty, students, and parents will be one of the keys to the short and long term success of this initiative. So, what does that empathy-building experience look like for students and faculty?

Empathy work and our faculty

Work with our faculty this year has largely taken place outside of the classroom, allowing teachers and staff to connect as colleagues. This year we brought a SEED group to Hillbrook School. SEED stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, and has been in existence nationally for the past thirty years. Hillbrook’s SEED group is a gathering of faculty and staff who have chosen to spend dedicated time monthly talking about issues of diversity and social justice. Through the sharing of personal stories, a deep analysis of the system of oppression, and the provision of a space for faculty and staff to truly listen to each other, empathy for one another’s experience continues to grow. In a recent faculty meeting, we spent time looking at the emotional impact of this election in our professional and personal lives. During this election cycle, the absence of empathy has resulted in disconnection and division, which has an impact no matter your beliefs or perspectives. In the meeting, faculty were asked to assess their own emotions surrounding the election both at home and work and speak to a faculty member who felt similarly, as well as observe and listen to those who felt differently. As Brené Brown points out in her talk, awareness of the emotional lives and responses of others is a key doorway to empathy and connection. When we see that that other’s experiences can be both different and similar from our own, we can build awareness and strengthen our community’s ability to move through challenges.

Empathy work and our students

Empathy work with students has been centered around giving them an opportunity to take a closer look at familiar traditions and activities and then looking outside of themselves to consider how it may impact others. In 8th grade history, the 8th graders did a project on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes. Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own without understanding the historical and cultural significance of what they are adopting. Students were asked to visit a Halloween costume store and find five examples of cultural appropriation within the costumes and explain what culture was being appropriated and why this would be seen as offensive or hurtful to the members of that cultural group. After turning the assignment in, the class discussion was incredibly reflective about the process of deeply looking at the costumes available and their own costume selection throughout their early childhood.

Comments included:

“I had no idea wearing a Native American costume could be hurtful until I learned all about Native American cultures and how different they were. To make all of the tribes just look like one is unfair to their history and customs,”


“Halloween was always just seen as fun and I never thought about how others might feel when they saw my costume, but I know how I feel when something offends me so I don’t want my costume to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Becoming aware of an experience different than their own truly allowed the 8th graders to develop their “empathy muscle” and start to look more critically and compassionately at the world around them.

We invite you to learn more about this work by joining us Monday, November 7, just after Flag for a school-wide Learning in Conversation to explore the question How do diversity and inclusivity impact my child’s learning?

We look forward to sharing research with you about the value of diversity, as well as resources for addressing children’s questions and teaching empathy at home. Together we can choose empathy instead of judgment, we can choose connection instead of division, and in so doing model for our students the difficult but rewarding work of living our core values.

Reflecting on Instructional Rounds

Reflecting on Instructional Rounds

On Monday, Student Progress Conferences came to a close for the Fall semester. This is one of my favorite times of year, celebrating student growth, acknowledging areas for improvement, and setting goals that students will work towards for the remainder of this semester. In the Middle School, we challenge students to be the leaders of these conversations, boldly presenting a summary of their teacher’s feedback to their families and advisor. Students as young as 4th and 5th grade sit with multiple adults to discuss their year so far, and to plainly share goals they have set for themselves to be better question askers, better organized, or to be better collaborators with their peers. I am always in awe of how well we prepare young people to do this very hard task. The meetings feel celebratory, reflective, and remind me how important it is for adults to model self-study and a growth mindset for students.

Hillbrook is particularly committed to adult learning. Our Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) offers a wide variety of opportunities for teachers and staff to develop their passions and also to gather in groups for self-study and reflection. Back in August, I shared about the new protocol groups faculty and staff were invited to join this year. Each of these is designed to bring adults together to engage in collegial conversations in the service of collective growth.

One of the groups, Instructional Rounds, is designed to support individual improvement by recognizing and sharing practices of good teaching. It is based in a discipline of description–learning to name and describe teaching practices with detail, while unlearning to judge. Instructional Rounds provides adults a method of self-study and reflection on practice, so that they too can acknowledge feedback and set goals for their growth.

Last month, a group of 20 administrators, faculty, and staff participated in the first round of visits to multiple classrooms, taking notes of everything they saw and heard related to some guiding questions about the physical learning environment. Our observations included everything from how materials are laid out, to lighting and sound, to teacher language, to how students were using their bodies in the classroom. After the visits we met to debrief our observations, naming practices we noticed, and discussing questions like, “What options do students have to mentally or emotionally take a break?” and, “How do we talk to students about managing their bodies?” The conversation was high-energy, with each member sharing take-aways to try out in their own space, or a new area of practice they wanted to observe more about.

Hillbrook’s CTE has invested a lot in this area of our program. In the past few years we designed the iLab to be our first agile classroom, studied student and teacher use of it, drew conclusions about its best features and brought those into nearly every other space on campus during our Reimagining Classrooms project. In the past three years, we have run several research studies around the effects of space on teaching and learning. After the Instructional Rounds visits, ranging from Kindergarten to 3rd grade Writer’s Workshop to 8th grade Geometry, I was heartened to hear a group of adults describing shared understandings and also asking hard questions of each other about the topic of learning spaces.

In 2015, I was among a group of 10 educators funded by the CTE to attend the Project Zero Summer Institute at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In one of the closing sessions, Steve Seidel (former director of PZ) said something that stuck with me: “Schools are the only place where we’re required to get together and work on how we all want to live together.” I am so grateful that Hillbrook is a place where learners of all ages have decided this is how we want to live together: by pausing throughout each year to reflect, ask hard questions, think aloud about our own behaviors and set goals for growth. Each time we pause for this moment, I smile to think how well-prepared we are for it, how gladly we engage in the cycle, and what an exciting future we have together as learners of all ages.

Reflections on “Screenagers”

Reflections on “Screenagers”

Last week, a student from San Jose State University came to Hillbrook to observe a classroom. Taking a child development course, he needed to observe technology in a class. Our first stop was one of our 8th grade science classes. The students were designing rockets, working on modifying two liter bottles by adding wings, parachutes, and even a second stage booster. To the unpracticed eye, this might not seem like a “technology” assignment. I said to our visitor, “You might not see technology. You’ll see engagement, collaboration, problem solving, but you might not see an iPad being used.”

At Hillbrook, we believe technology is a resource. iPads are one of the many classroom tools that Hillbrook students use that we include under the rich umbrella of education-driven technology. iPads can also be a powerful storytelling device.  With one in hand, a student can write a script, record footage, edit the movie, and publish it for the world to see. In this way, the iPad provides an all-in-one way in which students can reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

And that brings us to the movie, “Screenagers,” which our community screened last night at the Los Gatos Theater. While this thought-provoking film encouraged us to remain mindful of family technology usage, it is not necessarily a film that shows the unique and intentional way in which we use and embrace technology at Hillbrook.

The documentary highlights family members grappling with common dynamics of the digital age – a daughter purchasing her first smartphone, a son addicted to playing video games. We also come face-to-face with the allure of using social media to gauge self-worth, especially among adolescents. There is even a piece that brings cyberbullying to light when a girl experiences the major repercussions of sharing a personal photo via text message.

The film highlights the very real, everyday technology challenges that families juggle, including screen time, personal phones, and texting at the dinner table. And, as the film shows, technology use is an incredibly complex issue. To say devices are “all bad” is to oversimplify the issue. To ban our children from being connected to a world of devices does not guarantee resolution.

At our school, the key to successful integration of technology and devices has been active dialogue with our students regarding digital citizenship and proper use of these tools in their educational and everyday lives. In fact, despite mentioning schools several times, the film is not necessarily about school usage of technology at all. However, as a school that partners with families on their children’s educational and developmental journey, we are meeting this 21st-century parenting challenge of monitoring recreational device usage, together.

The Hillbrook School Parent Council has done an exemplary job sharing and inviting this conversation and discussion with our parent community. Led by our HSPC President and our volunteer Parent Education Coordinator, this morning’s discussion of the film was a dynamic and constructive gathering. Great conversation flowed and helpful resources were shared as parents chose an area of interest and delved into topics including managing family screen time, mindfulness, and designing a family contract for device usage.

While we recognize the complexity of this problem at home, in the school context, technology is used in ways that engage students and offer them tools to enhance the educational experience. For example, students in 3rd grade created an underworld in Minecraft during their Greek unit. It’s difficult to imagine what an underworld could look like, but these students collaboratively constructed an underground cavern, that had the result of enhancing their understanding of Greek mythology.

5th and 6th grade music classes are using a new platform, Sesame, to capture performances and facilitate introspection. She, along with students, can record video, take a photo, or post a brief reflection. With a simple tap on a name, you can view student work, such as a recorder performance or an improvised composition using the Orff Xylophone app. Using these platforms encourages students to collaborate, problem solve, and through this holistic process, improve on their skills with the recorder and xylophone.

In addition to finding ways to use technology that enhance the learning experience, we also spend time working with our students to teach them how to be digital leaders. Through our digital leadership program, our students use technology to improve the lives, well-being, and circumstances of others. By creating digital citizenship videos geared toward younger students to collaborating with peers, our students are inspiring further conversations about how might we use these devices to be leaders at our school.

As an Apple Distinguished School, we are recognized leaders in innovation not just for having “cool gadgets” in our classroom, but for deeply and intentionally integrating the role of technology (in all senses of the term) within our school. Through our work, we are enhancing, personalizing, and expanding the educational experience of each of our students, and helping them reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world.

Getting to Know You…

Getting to Know You…

We’re all familiar with the highlights of a new school year starting—new pencils, shoes and haircuts, new people to talk to and have lunch with, and the certainty that something interesting will come along soon and change us all for the better. To be clear, I’m talking about the adults on our campus. Since mid-August, teachers and staff have been buzzing into the new school year with pretty much the same hopes, dreams and nerves as our youngest learners. We’re all ready to find out more than we knew before, and to hopefully make some friends along the way.

Two weeks ago, new staff and faculty were the first “new” people to settle into campus at orientation. Each year we’ve invited them, in addition to watching the award-winning video on our school’s history, to read a handful of articles that help communicate the school’s culture and values. Among these is Robert Evans’s 2012, “Getting to No: Building True Collegiality in Schools.” In it, Evans summarizes research, philosophy, and arguments of others to make the case that schools tend to be congenial places, but not always collegial ones. He writes, “True collegiality requires more than being cordial and caring. It requires a focus on development and performance. It means sharing…and it means talking candidly, and being able to disagree constructively, about professional practice.”

This is not new work for Hillbrook faculty and staff. Over the past few years, you may recall hearing about teacher and staff involvement in inquiry groups, program audits, co-teaching relationships, research studies, data collection and transformations around learning spaces, and more. Hillbrook continually strives toward being a great place to be an adult learner—one who engages deeply and thoughtfully with other adults and with our program, in order to better serve students.

What is new this year is a series of teacher-led, protocol-based discussion groups. Last week, we invited teachers and staff on-campus to take a risk and join their peers in delving into their practice through either Critical Friends, Instructional Rounds, or SEED ( groups. Each of these groups is based on a structure practiced by other educational institutions around the country. Each will meet monthly, bringing together teachers, administrators, and staff, across our departments, divisions, and disciplines, to critically examine our beliefs and practice. We will be visiting one another’s classes, examining one another’s dilemmas and sharing deep, heartfelt stories about what it has been like to grow up as our own unique selves. In each, we will continue to build what Evans describes as collegiality: “shared commitment to appropriate candor in the service of collective growth.”

The new protocol groups will be one more way that adult learners on-campus reach beyond themselves to make a difference for students. By examining ourselves as teachers, we become continually better at meeting our mission, to make every day at Hillbrook “a journey of self-discovery, imaginative thinking, creative problem solving, laughter and friendship,” for our students.

I, for one, am eager to see how the year unfolds, new haircut, new friends and all.