Category Archives: At The Helm

Rise & Shine: Five Lessons from the 2016 Summer Olympics

RoseHelm“Rise & Shine: Five Lessons from the 2016 Summer Olympics” Rose Helm, Middle School Division Head

To say that I am obsessed with the Olympics might be an understatement. For four days, I went to the hottest place imaginable at the peak of August just so I would have an excuse to stay inside, order room service, and watch Olympics all day! Sure, I loved watching newcomers like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, as well as long­time favorites Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Those athletes accomplished amazing records and made their countries proud, but it’s the stories of athletes who faced immense challenges either on the road to Rio or once there that really pull me in. Continue reading

What’s In Your Cup?

As the weather gets colder, I play a little game as I stand outside in the morning greeting the girls. To keep my mind off the fact that I really need a warmer winter coat, I try to figure out what beverage is in the IMG_3899cups of the girls trudging up the steps. Is it hot chocolate? Chamomile tea? Or is that purplish green a combo of beets and kale?

What I realize most from this little game is not that I would make a very sorry barista, but that there are little details about these girls that I don’t know. While I might know the date she gets her braces off, the name of her dog, and what she wrote her last English essay about, there are things 6thDecabout each girl that will remain on the peripheral to me. And it is this humbling realization that reminds me that despite the many waking hours we educators spend with these girls, they are still someone else’s daughters. We are most effective when we work in partnership with our students’ families. It is in this spirit that this installment of At the Helm focuses on research from two leading clinical psychologists about how adults can support children in developing self-regulation and problem-solving skills.

This October, Wanda and I were invited by the National Coalition of Girls Schools to join their board retreat in Los Angeles. The retreat featured a presentation by Dr. Robin Berman, a psychiatrist and associate professor at UCLA, and author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child with Love and Limits.

PermissionToParentAfter reading Dr. Berman’s book and hearing her speak, I was struck by how our good intentions as parents and educators can sometimes translate into the opposite impact on our children and students. Dr. Berman says that we have swung the pendulum from children being seen and not heard to being the center of the universe. In this dynamic, she says, “our good intentions have morphed into intrusion, hyper-concern, and one gigantic piece of bubble wrap. We are insulating against scrapes that haven’t yet occurred.” The philosophy of the past was about respecting your elders, but kids were scared of their parents. Today it is about respecting children, but kids are holding their parents emotionally hostage. Dr. Berman urges us to find middle ground of mutual respect and loving limits.

Last month, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author, spent three days with middle school students and faculty, and concluded her time by meeting with Hamlin parents. She talked about how we should provide endless communication to our kids that we are confident in who they are and who they will be. While we may be feeling crazy or clueless, we must have the “opposite emotion / opposite reaction” when responding to our kid’s moments of distress. We should not meet them where they are with their own irrational fears: “This test counts.” “The school you go to will determine your future.” Instead, we should reassure them and help them see the big picture: “You are a work in progress.” “I believe in you.”

Both Dr. Berman and Dr. Steiner-Adair are similar in their advice for how adults can model self-regulation and help guide children to independent problem solving. Dr. Berman points to neuroscience research that shows that if “adults can model calmness when our emotions are running high, we will teach our kids to manage their emotions.” Dr. Steiner-Adair says, our girls “want to know you are separate. You see it, but you can stay calm.”

Both experts recommend parents model self-regulation in response to their children’s distress. Next time you are met with the catastrophic thinking that starts with a small disappointment, such as an unexpected low grade or not making the desired team, and ends with them projecting their future as “barefoot, jobless, and on the street,” consider the following steps:
• Calm yourself first.
• Show empathy for the child’s struggle or feelings.
• Encourage them to problem solve.

To strengthen our students’ ability to problem solve, Hamlin uses Open Session, a student-generated problem-solving inquiry format created by Janice Toben, Founder of the Institute for SEL. We use Open Session in Toolbox and advisory as a forum for collaborative problem-solving and for strengthening in the girls a sense of self-efficacy. Read more about Open Session.

To practice the principles of Open Session at home, you might try one of these two dinner-time challenges. The first, “The Slovenly Club,” is described by Dr. Berman in her book and can be used if kids are hypercritical of their mistakes and showing perfectionist tendencies. A parent shares his/her biggest mess-up of the day. The other family members follow suit, comparing their mistakes and eventually determining the largest mistake of the day the winner. The second dinner-time challenge, suggested by Dr. Steiner-Adair, can be used if kids are relying too heavily on adults to solve their problems. Dr. Steiner-Adair suggests parents raise a problem that is going on in their adult lives – at work, home, etc. – and ask for advice how to solve it. In both these cases, the children are participating in the analysis of mistakes and problems, and as a result, they are growing a sense of self-efficacy as problem-solvers.


If you are interested in the continued exploration of encouraging self-regulation and independent problem-solving, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author and former Stanford Freshman Dean, will be presenting “How to Raise an Adult” at Convent of the Sacred Heart on Monday, December 7, 2015, from 7:30-9:00. Click here for more information.


And remember, this is a partnership. Just like only you know the peripheral details that make your daughter uniquely who she is, only you know what parenting strategies work best in your family. In preparation for the unknown crises that lie ahead, I think I’ll take a note from the girls and pour myself a warm, calming beverage for those cold mornings out on the steps. Maybe I’ll throw in some marshmallows…

We Are Shaped By Our Stories

Below is my message to the middle school at the opening day assembly, 9/2/15.

When the faculty and staff reconvened for 2015-16 school year last week, we explored the theme “We Are Shaped By Our Stories” by sharing about our favorite story from our elementary years and how that story has shaped us even now as adults. You can see all of our responses on display in McKinne Lounge. This morning, we heard from Annabel about how stories from our own experiences also have the power to shape us. As Annabel suggested, maybe the story that will shape you has yet to happen. I would like to suggest that if our stories have the power to shape us, we also have the power to shape our stories. In this way, we are all authors, making up and editing our own stories as we go.

A new chapter in my own story started today as my daughter Millie began kindergarten here at Hamlin. Over the past five years of her life, Millie has been contributed to many experiences – many stories – that have shaped me, mostly in humbling ways. I have also had a lot of experience making up my own stories, bedtime stories. It is no longer enough for me to simply read Goodnight Moon, The Giving Tree, or even a chapter from Little House in the Big Woods. Now she almost always requests I tell a made-up story. The other night, Millie made such a request, and I was thinking about a message that might serve her well as she starts kindergarten. It turns out I don’t really know much about kindergarten, and the story ended up dealing with more middle school themes like changing friendships and ignoring your inner critic. I thought I might give this one another try, but with perhaps a more appreciative audience. Here you go…

There once was a little purple dragon named Penelope. She was smaller than all the other dragons. She didn’t have sharp teeth, she didn’t have sharp claws, she couldn’t breathe fire, and she couldn’t fly more than a few feet off the ground. For most of her life, Penelope did not realize she was different from the other dragons. In fact, she considered her small size an advantage when playing hide and seek. She could squeeze into the cracks and crevices of the Great Cave and almost always be the last dragon found. But recently, her dragon friends had lost interest in playing hide and seek. They wanted to sit around comparing their sharp teeth and sharp claws. They wanted to show off their fire breathing to each other, especially in front of dragons from other caves.

One day at lunch, the biggest, scariest dragon flew away quickly to a different lunch table when Penelope tried to sit down with her. This made Penelope incredibly sad. Instead of viewing her small size, nubby teeth, and round claws as what made her special, in that moment, she came to see them as what made her different. With her head hung low, Penelope left the Great Cave and wandered to the Fields Beyond.

In the middle of the field, she found a small flower with drooping petals and tiny little leaves. It was so much smaller than the other grand flowers that surrounded it and who were boasting vibrant colored petals that rose upward toward the sun and broad leaves that held suspended heavy dewdrops from their strong limbs. Penelope looked at the sad little flower, which was so unlike the others surrounding it, and made a wish that it would realize its own beauty and confidently push toward the sun so that it would survive amongst the other bigger plants that surrounded it.

Just as a tear fell from Penelope’s eye, a dewdrop from one of the grand flowers also fell onto the same leaf and shot her tear up to the sky above. Her teardrop carrying her wish ricocheted off of a star in the sky and showered light down on the sad little flower below. Some of the light hit Penelope as well. Penelope, feeling suddenly warmer, wiped away her tears and looked up. Little did she know that the light that shone down on her was her wish spreading over her and her sad little flower. Penelope saw her sad little flower straighten up, stretching out its petals and leaves as far as it could, bolstered from the confidence of Penelope’s wish come true.

Walking back home, Penelope came across the big dragons baring their teeth and claws and showing off their fire breathing to each other. As she passed, they all looked her way, enthralled by the light that seemed to shine all around her. The biggest, scariest dragon called over to her, “Where have you been?”

Penelope hesitated, considering if she should lie and say she was practicing her fire breathing or sharpening her claws. Suddenly she remembered her sad little flower that now stood tall with its newfound light, and she thought to herself, “How can others like me if I don’t first like myself?” She replied, “I was out wandering in the Fields Beyond.”

The dragons looked to each other, and then the biggest, scariest dragon said, “That sounds really fun. Can we join you sometime?”

Surprised by their interest in her, Penelope stammered, “Yes, I’d, uh, like that.”

As the biggest, scariest dragon thanked her for being willing to include them, Penelope straightened up, stretching out her wings as far as she could, bolstered from the kindness of the dragons toward her. In that moment, she thought to herself, “I am glad I am a small purple dragon with nubby teeth and round claws, who can’t breathe fire and who can’t fly more than a few feet off the ground. I love myself just the way I am. And because of that, others will love me too.”

The star in the sky above twinkled just a little bit brighter. And so did Penelope.

As you begin the 2015-16 school year, I encourage you to remember Penelope’s story – maybe it is similar to your own story – and, most importantly, to remember that you are the authors of your own stories. We may be shaped by our stories, but we also have the ability to shape those stories for ourselves

The Performing Arts: Connections to the Community

December and January seemed to race by this year, and as a result, I am finally sitting down in what is almost mid-February to capture some of the extraordinary happenings of this past winter. School wide performances and assemblies are common this time of year, but Hamlin’s middle school had three recent performances that were not so common in their audience, venue, and format. It has led me to ponder on how the performing arts – specifically Hamlin’s drama, music, and dance programs – have the power to connect us to our community – internally, locally, and globally.

Connection amongst students

Heidi Abbott pushed into fifth grade Toolbox and seventh grade Health & Wellness sessions to explore a style of drama known as verbatim theater. In traditional verbatim theater, the playwright interviews many people who are connectedEmpathyProject to a particular topic and uses the real words from the interviewees to construct the script. Heidi was inspired to bring this style of theater to Hamlin as a way for our students to build empathy and self-awareness. In the aptly named “Empathy Project,” each Hamlin fifth grader was paired with a Hamlin seventh grader to interview and later embody in a dramatic performance. During the interviews, the fifth graders took a transcript of the seventh grader’s words and also paid careful attention to their partner’s body language and speech rhythms. The questions ranged from how the girls spend their free time to what word in the Creed is the hardest for them to uphold. Throughout the workshop sessions, the seventh graders had an opportunity to review the script and provide feedback on the fifth grader’s performance of them. During the final sharing, approximately 12 fifth graders performed for all of the fifth and seventh grade students and teachers. During the post-performance reflection, the fifth graders shared how valuable this exercise was in developing their sense of what it is like to be in seventh grade at Hamlin. The seventh graders articulated a greater sense of self-awareness and even set goals for their high school interviews next year. Above all, this project forged a bond between two grade levels that would otherwise not have an opportunity to connect on this personal level. Read more about verbatim theater in the classroom.

Connections to the local community

On December 17, Margaret Clark and Jill Randall brought a group of Hamlin students to the Century Club for the organization’s annual Holiday luncheon. Students in the Red Chorus (Grades 4-6) and Gold Chorus (Grades 7-8) serenaded the club’s members with songs of the season. Members of the 7-8 dance elective and Grade 8 students in the PE dance rotation performed several winter-themed pieces as well. In Wanda Holland Greene’s introduction to the performance she noted the poignant connection between the Hamlin School and the Century Club, a women’s club of which Sarah Dix Hamlin was an original founding member. The club members joined the Hamlin performers in singing the final three carols, and the effect was an intergenerational shared experience among nearly 200 girls and women, all of whom had ties to Sarah Dix Hamlin’s vision for the Century Club as a place for women to come together and give voice to their ideas.

Connections to the global community

Jill Randall and Hamlin 7-8 Dance Elective students launched the On/Line Teen Dance Film Festival this fall, inviting submissions from any middle or high school across the US or even internationally. The Dance Elective students developed a rubric for evaluating the submissions and ended up choosing 11 final films, including 5 from Hamlin students. At an assembly last month, the entire middle school enjoyed the screening of the films, which included submissions ranging from North Carolina to Bangkok. It was powerful to see young people connect with a common vocabulary: movement. Additionally, the medium of film allowed the young dancers to share in performance spaces that would otherwise not be able to be viewed, be it a hallway or a secluded garden. The students were excited to begin making connections with other dance students outside of the walls of Hamlin.

Thanks to Heidi, Margaret, and Jill, our students are exploring the Project Based Learning concept of an authentic audience in a multi-faceted way. On that note, don’t miss the opportunity to be in the audience for the Grade 7 and 8 Drama Elective’s production of “The Curious Savage” tonight at 7:00 PM in the gym!

Mountain Lake: A Good Project Indeed

Last month, I attended a conference held at Lick-Wilmerding High School put on by Project Zero, an education research group out of Harvard University, who describes their research as “investigations into the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, ethics, and other essential aspects of human learning.” In one of the sessions at the conference, I learned about a specific arm of their research spearheaded by Howard Gardner and other intellectual heavyweights, known as “The Good Project.” The Good Project explores the cross section of ethics, excellence, and engagement that combines for what the group calls, good work or “work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners.”

In the group’s research, they discovered that younger people who tended to compromise their core values or integrity in the pursuit of excellence did not see themselves as someone who possessed the ability to challenge the status quo or effect meaningful change. Through reading the case studies from the Good Project’s research, it struck me that these young people who had made choices that compromised their integrity lacked a sense of agency.

Hamlin’s mission statement audaciously states that we aim to inspire our girls to become innovators and leaders. In order to become extraordinary innovators or leaders, Hamlin girls need to have a belief that they have the capacity to act independently and to make their own free choices; they need to possess a sense of agency that is grounded in ethical decision-making, or integrity.

image1 copyA few weeks ago, I visited one of Rachel Davis’s sixth grade science classes and was struck by how the work they are doing in conjunction with the Presidio Trust is providing them with a platform to be innovators and leaders in an ethical decision-making context and fostering in them a sense of agency. For the past several years, the sixth grade has partnered with the Presidio Trust to study the water quality in Mountain Lake; the data collected by our students is actually the Presidio’s key source of information for understanding the state of the water.

image1Inspired by the conversations in their science classes, two girls in the sixth grade, Ava L. and Mikayla W., attended an open meeting about the problem of San Francisco residents releasing non-native species, such as carp, goldfish, and turtles into the lake. The Presidio Trust’s proposal is to eliminate a non-native species of fish from the lake using a chemical toxin that specifically targets the invasive, non-native species. The girls reported back to the class, and the class read and responded to an article published on SFGate. Scientist Jason Lisenby was so taken by the girls’ passionate interest in this situation that he came to Hamlin to speak directly with the girls Friday, October 24. As a result of his visit, many girls have already taken action by signing the pledge to stop releasing non-native species in the lake.


That the girls have a voice in this ethical dilemma – poison non-native fish to clear the lake of toxic algae and restore it to a healthy state – is powerful in its own right. But what is perhaps more powerful is to see how their sense of agency in this context increases the engagement of all the students. When I asked the girls about how they felt about doing this work, many remarked about feeling good about doing something for their local community or laying the groundwork for future Hamlin classes that will continue the partnership with the Presidio. The common thread among all their comments was that they saw themselves as making an impact; they saw themselves as leaders and innovators.

In the words of sixth grader Laurel F., Hamlin girls “are participating in, like, a scientific revolution.”

Read more about Howard Gardner and The Good Project.

“You Should Be Falling Off The Wall”

When her algebra students are struggling with a proof, Sheena Tart-Zelvin exhorts, “I expect you to be making mistakes. If you are getting everything right, then it is too easy, and I am wasting your time.” Lauren Allen, who teaches Grade 6 math and Grade 7 science, imparts a similar message to her students by connecting it to one of their shared interests, rock climbing. She tells them, “You should be working hard enough to make mistakes; you should be falling off the wall.”

In order to work hard enough to make mistakes – to be falling off the wall – one must first be willing to take risks. Sure, we can encourage our girls to be risk-takers, but as educators and parents, if we don’t create the conditions under which our girls can take risks, they will not be inclined to do so. This means we have to implement classroom norms and learning activities that not only encourage risk-taking, but also offer a chance for experimentation in a safe, trusting environment. Take for example, Grade 7 and 8 social studies teacher Kirsten Gustavson, who accomplishes this in two ways: using structured collaborative learning techniques to encourage 005dialogue between small groups of students and “learning logs,” a digital journal of sorts, which allows for an intimate, facilitated dialogue between student and teacher. Because the topics Kirsten asks girls to reflect upon can be polarizing in terms of public opinion, the small-group or private student-teacher format allows girls to practice sharing their personal opinions in low-stakes settings before sharing out with the larger group.

So what happens when students take risks? They either succeed or they make mistakes. By establishing norms in our classrooms and homes that mistakes are our girls’ way of showing us what they still need to learn, we invite more risk-taking and, ultimately, more learning to happen. Research shows that when we make mistakes, our brain actually grows. 007Just ask our Grade 5 students who are participating in the Stanford online math course that teaches them this very principle. Michelle Icard of the Washington Post espouses the benefits of middle schoolers making mistakes at this time in their life and takes it even further, advising parents to encourage risk-taking in their young adolescents, as it will actually prevent them from getting into trouble later on.

So what happens if a Hamlin girl falls off the wall? We tighten our supporting ropes, encourage her to get back on, and help her plan a new route to the top.