Hope and Joy for our Future

Thinking back on my own elementary school experience, what stands out to me is rote repetition, memorization, and regurgitation. Not much thought or research was put into what or how we were taught; it was just the way it always was.

As I wander through the classrooms here at Saklan now, even in the preschool where my own daughter has the privilege to explore, I am struck by how much more inspiring, fun, and memorable school is for these students. And that gives me so much hope and joy for our future.

Learning at Saklan is interactive, collaborative, mindful, relevant, and thought provoking. And now, more than ever, it is being infused with more Project-Based Learning. I am so proud to see how that has been changing the way the students see their role in learning and in the greater world.

In one short year, Project Work has led to exciting changes at Saklan. There is a buzz that was reflected in the success of the fund-a-needs presented at last Saturday’s auction. In order to continue and enhance their Project Work, teachers have responded with specific requests. 

Grace spoke about the power of professional development and how her past experience with the Broadway Teachers Workshop in New York City reconnected her to her 13 year old self in a way that allowed her to further connect to and inspire her students. 

Lauren spoke of her passion for bringing media arts literacy to our students, through digital art and graphic design learning tools that will apply across subjects and grade levels, helping students produce and share final products with the wider community. 

Peta reminded us how much design and architecture can influence the learning environment.  She asked for support in redesigning her classroom to integrate furniture that promotes collaboration

If you are as inspired as our teachers are and would like to donate to these initiatives, you can make a gift here. We thank you for your support.

In gratitude,


The Power of a Single Individual

On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with 155 mph winds and 40 inches of rainfall. The small community of Villa Del Rio was impacted like much of the island; houses blown off foundations, roofs torn off, down trees making roads impassable, and no running water or electricity for months. For Villa Del Rio, the worst thing may have been the isolation. For eight months, no one from the U.S. or Puerto Rican Government showed up to help. The community of Villa Del Rio was on its own. That meant rebuilding houses, fixing power lines, clearing roads, and sourcing clean water. It meant putting the community’s needs before the individual’s. 

There are so many things that we want our 8th graders to take away from their service learning field experience in Puerto Rico. The confidence from succeeding in an environment well outside their comfort zone. The reward of doing hard manual work shoulder-to-shoulder with those rebuilding their lives. The understanding that even in a community that has lost so much, generosity, kindness, and warmth are still a key part of the social fabric. 

But the stories from people like Angel created the most significant moments.

Angel and his wife Maria were one of the founders of Villa Del Rio. He and his family had homesteaded in a tent for years until the Puerto Rican government issued land deeds. As a carpenter, he built his house from the ground up and raised his family. On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria ripped the roof off his house and drenched his family’s possessions.

After the hurricane, Angel and his family lived under a flimsy blue tarp that covered what was once a beautifully crafted wooden roof. While Angel could have chosen to repair his roof after the storm, he saw others in his community that had greater need. Over the next four years, Angel used his carpentry skills to help his neighbors pick themselves up and rebuild while still sleeping under a leaky tarp roof. It was only when GlobalWorks insisted that the next project be his home that the tarp was replaced with a concrete roof. 

To work alongside people as selfless as Angel was transformational. It was a masterclass in the power of gratitude, love, and putting others first. Most of all, though, it was a life lesson in the power of a single individual to make the world a better place. 

With gratitude,


If you’d like to learn more about our students’ experience from their perspective, click here.

#HeadsCorner #SaklanFieldExperience

Head’s Corner: Be Aware of Wonder

I had quite the “Ah Ha” moment on playground duty with kindergartners yesterday. They were doing something curious, huddled in a tight circle with one student on their knees rhyming. At the end of the rhyme, one student would break out of the huddle.

It dawned on that they were engaged in “counting out by feet.” It was a simple moment that reminded me of Robert Fulgham’s first book, published over 30 years ago. Important values, such as “play fair” and “be aware of wonder” are life lessons that apply as much to us (if not more), as they do to the five-year-olds. We often talk of “modeling” behaviors for children. Maybe we need to pay more attention to what they model for us. 

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life –

Learn some and think some

And draw and paint and sing and dance

And play and work everyday some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world,

Watch out for traffic,

Hold hands and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.

Robert Fulgham

#SaklanHeadsCorner #SaklanWonder

Orange Envelope Day Success

Tuesday, October 25th, marked our second annual Orange Envelope Day! Kicking off our Annual Giving Fund (AGF) with lots of enthusiasm, students and parents were able to drop their orange donation envelopes in the orange box and ring our cowbell to mark the occasion – it brought lots of joy and attention to drop off and pick up!

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in Orange Envelope Day!

It speaks volumes about our community that families are willing to contribute a meaningful gift to the AGF. Each gift supports our commitment to fostering a sense of belonging and being connected to every student. Moreover, it strengthens the bond of shared common values between all of us. Those values of belonging and connectedness are instrumental to who we are and what we do.

This year, in addition to raising funds to support personal attention from dedicated teachers, an engaging curriculum, and specialist classes at all grade levels, we are hoping to raise enough funds through the AGF to purchase an additional Saklan van. An additional van will allow us to more easily take students out into the field for authentic learning experiences, as well as to consider expanding our transportation services in the future.

Thank you for believing in us to partner with you in your child’s educational journey. Thank you to those who have already shown their support for the AGF. We are about halfway to our goals of raising $170,000 and reaching 100% participation, and I am confident that both will continue to rise.

Help us reach 100% participation by making a gift that is meaningful to you and your family today. Gifts can be made online or by completing the donor form that was included in your AGF mailing and returning it to the Saklan Office.

In gratitude,


#SaklanGiving #HeadsCorner

Thankful For a “Re-Newed” Space

Inspired by the generosity of our community we were able to complete the initial phase of our Pavilion renovation this September. What was once a mundane eating spot for 25 minutes a day is evolving into a place where learning flourishes.

The roof was raised to give a feeling of openness and calm. Skylights were installed to bring in light and air. Screened walls drop down on demand from the ceiling, providing privacy and protecting users from inclement weather. It is really coming together.

Our next phase will be to replace the current table setup with furniture that promotes collaboration and fosters creativity, giving students an environment where they can share ideas, develop projects and share their learning with others. It will be a space that will give students the confidence to tackle complex problems.  

And while we were inspired by the generosity of our donors, it is our students who will be inspired by the space you helped create.  

With Gratitude,


A special message from our students!


What is the Ideal Saklan Graduate?

Before the start of the year, I asked teachers to write down words that described the Ideal Saklan Graduate. I then did the same with The Saklan School Board of Trustees and the 8th grade class. What was rewarding to see was the consistency between the groups and the type of traits that came into focus. It was those hard-to-measure but ever-important “soft skills” (confidence, empathy, curiosity, etc.) that were highly valued across our community.

Schools have traditionally seen their primary task as getting students ready for success in high school and college. Unfortunately, this was often translated to mean high grades and SAT scores. I do not want to be quoted as saying those things are unnecessary, but they are also a poor predictor of success in life. Research going back to the 1950s tells us that academic success is a small part of the picture of what makes success in life. 

Word Cloud from Staff, Student & Trustee Ideal Graduate Answers

University of Massachusetts Psychology Professor Seymour Epstein found that success in life has more to do with soft skills than raw intellect (see word cloud). His 10-year study of valedictorians showed that those with high academics had average success in the real world.  While that may be counterintuitive to what we think we know, part of the issue Epstein saw was that these valedictorians lacked those critical soft skills mentioned above.  

One of the things that drew me to Saklan five years ago was the emphasis on helping parents raise “confident, compassionate, good people.” I am so proud to be a part of a school that values the skills that will serve our students well into the future.

With Gratitude,


Comments, questions, thoughts? Email David at doconnell@saklan.org.


The Power of Belonging

The Washington Post recently published an article by two teachers about the six things children need to thrive in today’s world. Of the six, mastery of core skills was the last one mentioned. The other five were “soft” skills, such as emotional safety, unstoppable curiosity, and a sense of agency. I can make a case of how each of the six are things that Saklan practices regularly. But of them all, the one that really “popped” for me was love, trust, and belonging.

A couple of the biggest compliments a parent can pay the school are saying things like “my child is seen” or “Saklan is their second home.” What we most want for our children is an environment where they are understood, supported through thick and thin, and loved unconditionally. We intuitively know that without those pieces in place, nothing else is possible. 

Maslow published his Hierarchy of Needs in 1943. The theory that our belonging and love needs must be met before we can truly realize our cognitive abilities (creativity, curiosity, developing understanding) is as true today as it was in 1943. If we want our students to do the hard work of making meaning out of our complex world, it starts with love, trust, and belonging. 



#HeadsCorner #SaklanCommunity

What’s in a Name?

As many of you know, I ask students to refer to me as David. Some do, but some are uncomfortable with it and use Mr. David or Mr.O’Connell. Either is fine, but I let them know I prefer David. This choice is intentional and built around an approach to working with children that leverages positive relationships.

For some, dropping titles is a bright red line that children should not cross. The argument against dropping titles often revolves around the concept that using the title implies respect, and dropping the title is a sign of disrespect. But that is a false dichotomy.  Respect is built around the entirety of actions, words, and tone. Daily, the messages students receive from us are about positive behavior and treating everyone with consideration. 

Pedagogically, students learn better when teachers get on their level. When we talk to a student at a desk, we are much more effective if we crouch down, get eye to eye and have a conversation about what they are struggling with. Standing over them to have that same conversation does not feel collaborative. It feels top-down. When we are on their level, our interest in their ideas and concerns feels more genuine. Leveling the playing field between teacher and student builds respect between the two. 

In my experience of going by David over the past ten years, the name has never been used disrespectfully. If anything, it has fostered respect, inclusivity, and belonging with students. They see me more as a whole person with interests and a life that transcends being Head of School. It removes some of the anxiety of talking with me and enhances the opportunities for me to partner with students in their learning journey. Partner does not mean equals; students understand I am the senior partner and do not need a title that asserts power over students. Respect and authority come from my daily interactions and positive relationships.  

Using a teacher’s first name is not the magic pill to building positive relationships; it is one of many ingredients. We also know that just because a teacher uses a title doesn’t mean they lack strong positive relationships. But removing a title is one small way to build those relationships. 

This past Monday, I talked with the Saklan teachers about my experience and preference for using first names. We discussed the pros and cons of making the change and also watched a video on the topic. At the end of our conversation, several teachers decided to drop their titles, and some did not. We have left it as a personal preference. With the students, it is the same. If a teacher states their preference to be called by their first name, students may still choose to use the title.

I respect tradition and think we should all be respectful to each other. That said, etiquette and respect are not the same. Nor does following traditions or etiquette create an atmosphere where respect is authentic. As we like to say, respect is earned, not given. 

#HeadsCorner #SaklanConnected

Head’s Corner: Much Appreciation

Dear Saklan Families, 

Saying farewell to our graduates and other students at the end of the school year is always bittersweet, and gives me pause to reflect on the year. As I shared at graduation, there are several groups of people that made this year possible, and I would like to take a moment to share my appreciation. 

The first is our parents. Without your support the year would not have been possible. You have partnered with us as we have helped your children navigate the ups and downs of the school year. You supported us as we continued to adjust to all things COVID: masking, not masking, quarantining, testing, etc. You believed in us when we decided that taking students to Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Westminster Woods, the Marin Headlands, and Coloma was a good idea.   

Parents, thank you.

I also want to thank our teachers; the people on the front line. And while I am not fond of that metaphor, these days it feels accurate. 

Teachers, last year, you came back to teach in the middle of a pandemic, you dealt with masking, distancing, plastic shields, testing, etc. This year you navigated a second pandemic of sorts, one of mental health- as we all now understand the toll the pandemic has put on our children as well as ourselves.

And you showed up to give students the learning experience they deserve. From hands-on learning to a trip to the Moraga Gardens or Hawaii, from fantastic project presentations at CLAS to the musicals, whole-school concert, in-person art show- the list goes on. Thank you.

As educators we often wonder if we honestly deliver on our promise to help students think creatively, act compassionately and live courageously. But as I listened to the graduate speeches on Monday night, the evidence unfolded in front of me. Not in numbers, but in their words. Those 8th grade student speeches were a body of evidence that are an indicator of who the students have become, and the work our teachers do. As Milo said in his speech Monday night, “words matter.”  

And while our students’ words are a graceful reflection of who they are, they are also a tribute to those who show up everyday to make a difference. Their words were so powerful that I want to share some of them.

Everything at Saklan was educational but also fun at the same time. I was very worried whether or not the Saklan community would accept me. I discovered that being yourself makes talking to people much easier. I found that the students at Saklan made it so much easier to be yourself and discover yourself. Everyone at Saklan is all different, but no one lets their differences get in the way of being friends.


If you truly believe in your cause and truly believe that what you are doing is right, nobody can tell you otherwise. Remember the only person that can bring you down is you, so do the best you possibly can and always be yourself. The only way to achieve true happiness is by being yourself, not by being someone else.


I would like to thank all my friends for always supporting me and being there for me when I need it most. I know that if I cry there will always be someone there to check in and help out. Even if they give you an awkward high-five they are still trying to help. And that’s what Saklan is about.


There is no other school where children are encouraged to be their true and best selves while surrounded by incredible love and support; no other school where teachers hop in so eagerly to help you mend problems, whether big or small, to make you feel seen and heard; no other school can you find teachers who fully believe in you and will do whatever they can to help you soar; no other school that becomes another home in which you can seek refuge; no other school that can better nourish a child’s sprout and ignite that curiosity into passion.


The graduate’s speeches were spoken from the heart, but little did they know how much they nurtured our souls. Thank you, Class of 2022.

Thank you, again, for helping us all make it through another challenging year. Our community moves forward to planning for the 2022-23 school year with much strength, unity, humility, and hope.

I wish you all an incredible and rejuvenating summer.

With appreciation,


Saklan Summer Reflection Fund Winners

Due to the generosity of our parent community, we were able to create a fund that supports teachers in creating their own opportunity to reflect on their teaching. This Summer Reflection Fund (up to $2500 per recipient) is meant to encourage teachers and staff to think of out-of-the-box ways to become better at what they do. In past lives I have seen teachers use this fund for anything from poetry camps to traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail. This year I would like to congratulate our two recipients, Lisa Rokas and Peta Siacor.   

As a 5th grade teacher, Peta teaches U.S. History, and as a native of the “Land Down Under” she did not feel as connected to the U.S. as she possibly could be. Hence the fifth grade states project where students researched their chosen state with an eye on persuading Peta to visit it this summer. From New Mexico, to Hawaii and Florida, students not only researched the state, but built a history laden itinerary for Peta to follow. Through an intricate voting process, one state will be chosen for Peta to travel to this summer. From that travel, Peta will bring back true hands-on knowledge of a piece of U.S. History. 

The second recipient is Lisa Rokas, 3rd grade teacher extraordinaire and one of our two Social Emotional Coordinators. Lisa spotted an exceptional opportunity to join several other educators this summer at the Institute for Social Emotional Learning. The institute’s main goal is to empower educators, young people, and parents to transform their schools into caring, inclusive communities. Through experiential learning the institute enables educators to inspire young people to be compassionate leaders and resilient learners. 

I want to thank our generous community for supporting these endeavors and look forward to learning much from Lisa and Peta when they return to school this August. 




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