Prepping for John Hunter: Reflections on Aspirations of PBL at Hillside School

On January 21st Hillside is fortunate to welcome John Hunter, legendary educator and leader, to speak to our Faculty and extended community. I heard John speak at NAIS last March and then again at the Martin Institute over the summer and found him both inspiring and visionary. I am including here a note I just sent to Faculty in an effort to frame our Master Class with John and ensure we all get the most out of our time with him. I hope to update a few more blog posts inspired by our work with him in the near future. John’s evening talk at Hillside will also be open to educators who are interested to attend. If you live nearby, let me know if you want to visit and I’ll save you a seat!


Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to provide a few resources for our upcoming Master Class with John Hunter on January 21st. As you know, this day promises to be both engaging and enlightening. I hope you will review the included documents, some new and some review, surrounding PBL. Please reflect on the following questions as John will work with us to address them, and myriad others, during our time together. I hope these guiding questions and articles get you excited and thinking about our time with John, and our important work with PBL, both now and in the years ahead.



Guiding Questions


  • What is our understanding of the value of PBL at Hillside?
  • What roadblocks, real or perceived, stand in the way of PBL at Hillside?
  • Do we collaborate across subject areas in a way that produces authentic interdisciplinary study?
  • How are YOU using PBL in your classes? What has worked and what have you learned from your failures?
  • What more can we do to cultivate empathy in our students?

Articles and Videos for Review

If you have not yet seen it, please watch John Hunter’s TED Talk

Project Based Learning Resources: Some of these are review, and some are new. All are worth a close look!

Parameters of PBL

Article Outlining Differences Between Projects and PBL

What Project Based Learning Isn’t

What Project Based Learning IS


Twitter: No Excuse DIY P.D.

I recently returned from an excellent TABS ( The Association of Boarding Schools) conference where Courtney and I presented Health Services Management: A Model for Small Independent Schools. As always, I left TABS feeling inspired, invigorated  and more connected to the vast network of Boarding School educators out there. Face to face conferences are wonderful opportunities to better connect and share with those who work in our unique industry. They are reminders of how much more we have to learn, and how many excellent schools are out there leading change initiatives at this pivotal time. I enjoyed meeting and spending time with too many people to properly shout out to all of them here, but i do want to say thank you to all who inspired me and made the weekend meaningful. 

If I have one criticism of the conference it is that I am surprised by how little social media engagement I found there. I expected that more of our colleagues would share their opinions, experience, and perspective via the hashtag #tabs12. While TABS did a good job of setting the stage for this level of engagement, it was the attendees who were less active. In fact, when you search #tabs12, you’ll find a few heavy users and not much more. I hope that things like the initiative to create #tabschat, a boarding school centered Twitter chat which resulted from the collaboration of Scott MacClintic (@Smacclintic) and others, will help more boarding school educators understand and harness the use of Twitter for both connecting with each other and for ongoing PD.

To steal a quote from Dan Love (@danielwlove) and Hans Mundahl’s (@hmundahl) presentation on innovation in schools, Twitter is  a key element to “DIY PD.” I could not agree more and am happy to say that Hillside School Faculty understand and use Twitter to share and learn on a regular basis and in a self directed way.

If you doubt me about the efficacy of Twitter to create both engagement with boarding school and education specific topics, take the 3 minute challenge. Go to Twitter and search out a hashtag in your subject specific area. I guarantee you’ll find amazing resources that will provoke your thinking, inspire you to learn more, or even reinforce something you already believe. Give it a try and I know you will not be disappointed!

I hope to see you on #tabschat on Wed. and that the traffic on #TABS13 will be even more robust!

Rewarding Student Perseverance and Grit

While we focus on leadership development across our entire school culture, both formally and informally, the ultimate leadership appointment for Hillside students is that of Prefect. Each  spring we go through an open nomination process to allow students to apply or encourage others to apply for the Prefect role. After a long series of interviews and discussions a small group of students make the cut and are announced, and given their coveted vests as a signal of their acceptance into this elite group. Each year, however, there are excellent students and emergent leaders who fail to make the cut. We make a point of meeting with those boys regularly to let them know that their journey has not ended, and that determination and perseverance can help them reach their goals.

Last night, during our annual Thanksgiving Chapel Service, I am happy to say that we announced the appointment of two new Prefects. Both great guys, and both boys who failed to make the initial cut. I have a great deal of respect for these boys, and for mid-year appointees in general. These students used their failure to earn Prefect last spring as an opportunity to work harder towards self improvement. They did not give up. Their determination, dare I say grit, earned them Prefect. 

I am sure that other schools use this form of open enrollment for leadership positions, and if they don’t, I hope they will. We need to continue to cultivate in students the mindset that it is acceptable to fail on your first try, and that improvement and success are attainable through continued hard work. Recognizing students determination and improvement through formal programs like this is one way of celebrating grit. I wish these two the best of luck, and look forward to other mid-year appointees as other boys follow their examples of personal growth.

Community Service Day: One Important Step in a School Wide Initiative

Today is the first of three of our Community Service Day’s at Hillside. Students will spend the morning working in small groups supervised by their Advisor, to improve our campus, our farm, and the local Marlborough community. The boys enjoy seeing the results that their actions have to improve our campus, and always enjoy the accolades they get from the various external groups they work with. Personally, I marvel at the amount of work we are able to accomplish when you put a large amount of motivated students and faculty to task on specific initiatives. I am similarly impressed each year at the lack of grumbling from our middle school boys, who are always happy to lend a hand to others and genuinely value the notion of working in service to others to improve our community. However, when I reflect on this, I realize that our school does value service, and that value is firmly woven into our curriculum and mission. The following are a few of the official programs and initiatives that occur each year that help build the value of service into the lives of our students:

9th Grade Community Work: Each morning, our 9th Grade boys have an AM chore that they are personally responsible for. They are dismissed from breakfast early and they handle tasks from outdoor trash pick up to lost and found. The 9th Grade role are excellent role models for the younger boys, doing their visible and important chores on a daily basis.

Kitchen: At each meal we “employ” up to 8 boys to work in the dish room. The boys covet these roles and are given both leadership development through this, and a heightened sense of esteem, all through their dedicated work to serve others.

Leadership: All students at Hillside have a Leadership class one term per year. A core aspect of this class is to build and maintain relationships with locals in elder care facilities. Students spend up to 2 hours per week playing games with seniors, singing songs, and sometimes doing work for them. The students value the relationships they build with these seniors and look forward to this ongoing tradition.

Campus Clean and Farm Chores: Each weekend a portion of Sunday is spent cleaning up our Campus and monitoring and feeding the animals at our Farm.

Global Learning: This year we are taking our passion to serve abroad with a trip for  up to 12 students to the Bateyes, in the DR, to work with a local community for a week. Students who go on this trip will then report back on what they have learned at school, attempting to cultivate an ongoing relationship and connect our school to theirs.

It is one thing to espouse the value of community service, and another to build a structure of community service activities into the academic and residential curriculum. Through our intentional approach to cultivating the value of community service, we have successfully created a culture of students who care about service and embrace it regularly.