Forming the Tribe: Fun, Hard Work and Commitment

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A secret of Acton Academy:  first we make learning fun.

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Then we make Acton Academy a place where you are known and surrounded by people you like and admire, with group activities designed to challenge, inspire and bond – like each Eagle making a Hero Board about his or her life.

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Then we each promise to embark on a Hero’s Journey, each dedicated to finding a calling that will change the world – that means hard work is a must.

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Finally, Eagles commit to each other, signing the contracts and covenants that they have drafted, debated, revised and ratified.

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Our Eagles are as serious about their promises as our Founding Fathers who pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.”  These commitments bind us and serve as guardrails  for our Learner Driven Community.

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Are you a Bootstrap Tortoise; an Asset Fox or an MBA Hare?

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This year’s Overarching Question asks: Is the truth discovered or created?

Our Session One Entrepreneurship Quest echoes the Overarching Question by asking: Are great opportunities discovered or created?

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Just as importantly, we ask: “Does your entrepreneurial archetype, formed by your gifts, passions and personality, best fit a Bootstrap Tortoise (building businesses one customer at a time;) an Asset Fox (trading assets) or an MBA Hare (chasing the latest hot deal)?

The Quest started with The Trading Game, an action packed, hands on simulation where teams competed not only to win, but to discover which archetype was most appealing for each individual entrepreneur.

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We also launched this session’s Entrepreneurship Genre project, where each Eagle will choose an entrepreneurial role model, request an interview and write a Hero Story about his or her role model’s life.

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In Week Two, Eagles shifted to learning how to sell, playing Acton MBA simulations and creating and practicing a sales pitch for their Children’s Business Fair venture.  The winners of the pitch contest enjoyed lunch at El Chilito, but only after pitching a few customers at the restaurant.

A personal favorite opening line, from an Eagle who will sell voodoo dolls at the Children’s Business Fair: “Have you ever disliked someone so much that you wanted to stick him with a pin?” (Spoiler alert – the pitch worked!)

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In Week Three, we wrapped up our Bootstrap Tortoise challenges playing the Acton MBA simulation Galactic Zappers and then competing to make sandwiches for the homeless, while learning valuable lessons about throughput, cycle times, bottlenecks and Unit Economics.  (Eagles also learned a valuable lesson about empathy and customer service when they learned the sandwiches were really their lunches and that you must never serve anything to a customer you wouldn’t serve yourself!)

Next week we move on the Asset Fox challenges, as Launchpadders also prepare to take on the Acton MBA’s in a winner-take-all Socratic discussion.

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Launching the Year: Is the Truth Discovered or Created?

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So what’s the first step on a Hero’s Journey?

Today we started with Acton Academy’s mission: to inspire each person who enters our doors to find a calling that will change the world.    Moments later, our Middle Schoolers and Launchpadders leaped into a flurry of tribe building and entrepreneurial activities.

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Eagles spent much of the morning questioning each other, probing about heroes, gifts and dreams, simultaneously building bonds of friendship as they practiced interviewing skills they’ll need to write a Hero Story about an entrepreneurial role model for this session’s Genre Challenge.

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In the afternoon, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles dove into the Trading Game, the hands-on, action packed contest that launched the Entrepreneurship Quest, and served as a first step to discovering if they are Bootstrap Tortoises, Asset Foxes or an MBA Hares.

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All of this is preparing us to explore this year’s Overarching Question: Is the truth discovered or created? through seven Quests, including forays into Entrepreneurship; Classical and Quantum Physics; Data Visualization; the McCarthy Trial; Programming and Robotics; Art and more.

And to think – this is only Day One!

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Standardized tests are a scourge, yet….

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Sadly, public school students in Texas spend a reported 45 of their 180 days each year in standardized tests.  At Acton Academy, we prefer to equip and inspire Eagles to learn 21st Century Skills instead.

Still, once a year we subject Eagles to a half day of SAT10 (Stanford Achievement Test) testing, just to make sure they are learning the basics.

This year, Eagles scored an average of 3.5 grade levels ahead of age in Reading; 4.5 grade levels ahead of age in Language Arts and 4.6 grade levels ahead of age in Math.

Approximately seventy percent of middle school and Launchpad Eagles ranked at a Post-High-School (College) level in Language Arts and Math, and almost half ranked at a Post-High-School (College) level in Reading, Language Arts and Math.

Standardized tests aren’t very important.   But it is reassuring to know our Eagles score well, even if we don’t spend one minute “teaching to the test.”

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Death, Taxes and Launchpad Eagles

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More young people ages 18-35 live with their parents than at any other time in modern history.  Over half of post-college aged adults now live with a family member, rather than  living independently.  Sadly, many college graduates are directionless, saddled with large loans and over half are underemployed.  

Not much is certain beyond death and taxes.  But here’s a good bet:  Ten years from now you’ll be hard pressed to find an Acton Academy Launchpadder living on a parent’s couch, lacking grit, skills or direction.

 

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Overheard in the Grocery Store Check Out Line

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Overheard and reported by an Acton Academy parent:

Two cute, young, fun-looking traditional teachers were in front of me in the grocery store check-out line, talking about how busy the end of year was and lamenting the torture of standardized tests.

Then one said: “Oh my god. I didn’t even read their final research papers. I just skimmed over them. If they had as much as an intro and summary, it was good enough for me.”

 Then they both laughed. Such an injustice to the young people who had worked hard.

At Acton Academy, every writing challenged is peer reviewed.  In most cases with a detailed critique; in many cases, posted on the wall for all to see.

Here’s the point.  Of course everyone would prefer having a warm, caring English teacher, who nurtures each student; writes like Hemingway and could offer Tolstoy a helpful literary critique.  But that’s not reality.

The truth is, Acton’s transparency and peer critiques offer far more coaching and motivation than in any traditional model, with a far lower likelihood of the outright fraud that no one even bothered to read your thesis before assigning an arbitrary letter grade.

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Bringing the Tribe Back Together

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Groups of humans split quickly into we/them factions that can spiral downwards into personal attacks, and eventually civil war.

During the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles argued passionately for different causes, on occasion leading to hurt feelings.  Because we are a tribe, not a group, the end of the session meant it was time to come together by:

  • Finding a Common Enemy;
  • Pursuing a Common Mission;
  • Bringing leaders together for Conflict Resolution, where necessary; and
  • Examining our own psychological shadows, to curb the unhealthy projections that drive us apart, so we each rediscover deeply buried parts of ourselves.

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Reconciliation and re-commitment.  All part of the Hero’s Journey.

 

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Our Politics and Economics Quest Exhibition

Tension built as the Libertarian Party, Demo-Green-Surprise Party and independents assembled for a Battle Royal of a political convention.

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Candidates for Executive Office unleashed stump speeches to persuade Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles to support their campaigns.

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Legislators gave floor speeches in an attempt to pass important legislation for the Acton Academy studios and Acton’s worldwide…..

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…. while Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments.

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We celebrated important lessons learned about personal political principles, powerful tools and political Kryptonite (corrupting influences), all combined into a toolkit Eagles could use to change the world.   Eagles also showcased White Papers, Editorials and Hero Stories written as part of the quest.

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In the end, the Libertarian Party prevailed, proving if nothing else that Acton Academy  is the only place in the world Libertarians can win an election.  Or at least until the Demo-Greens-Surprise party regroups for the next election.

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Propaganda or Spreading Truth?

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During the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles earned the right to watch movies such as 2018, a movie based on by Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron

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and Poverty Inc. by the Acton Institute.

Afterwards, Eagles circled up for a Socratic Discussion to debate the power of story to communicate political truths as well as political propaganda.  Of course, the real trick is to tell one from the other.

 

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The Federal Reserve, Depression and Hyper-Inflation

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The Chair of the Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful people in the world, and one of the President’s most important appointments.

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The Great Depression. Unemployed men queued outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. The storefront sign reads 'Free Soup, Coffee and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.' Chicago, 1930s (Newscom TagID: evhistorypix027753.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

As part of the Politics and Economics Quest, Eagles explored Keynesian and Monetarist theories before playing a powerful Inflation Simulation to experience how the Federal Reserve and monetary policy impact economic booms and busts.

Then Eagles had to stand in the shoes of the President of the United States, making difficult economic and political decisions during the 2008 Economic Crisis.

Would the Eagles have approved a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street?  Not likely.

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Political Tools, Well Used

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Traditional students study the three branches of government.  At Acton Academy, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles make learning about governing by running a real campaign.

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Eagles not only wrote and delivered campaign stump speeches, legislative floor speeches and oral arguments for the Supreme Court, but also polled and canvased Elementary Eagles to convince them to register and vote in the Acton Academy election – a task almost as difficult as motivating the average American.

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As the battle between the Libertarian and Demo-Green party grew intense, some Eagles started dressing up each day in order to make a better impression on voters.

If only an Eagle would consider running for President in 2016.

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Going to War; Paying the Price

Fifteen intense Socratic discussions have put Launchpad and Middle School Eagles in the shoes of a political leader facing a difficult decision.   Perhaps the most difficult of all decisions for a leader is to order American troops into harm’s way.

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Eagles investigated four frameworks that couldhelp a President decide whether or not to commit troops:

  • The Just War Doctrine
  • Vital Interests
  • Idealism and the Spread of Democracy
  • Isolationism

Each Eagle dug deeply into one or more of the following wars to decide if he or she would have committed troops as President:

  • Korean
  • Bosnian
  • Vietnam
  • Iraq I
  • Iraq II

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Then we assembled for an intense simulation where Eagles would take turns acting as the President in a time of war.  Before we started, we watched scenes from Saving Private Ryan to drive home that war is not a video game.   Once the discussion started, in real time new information arrived in the Situation Room and demanded to be included.   The tension kept rising, but in the end, the President had to make a decision.

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As one Eagle soberly commented afterwards: “It is a heavy responsibility.  Someone is going to die, and as President, you have to decide who it will be.  And then you must explain to a mother, father, husband, wife or child why you asked their loved one to make the ultimate sacrifice.”

Quests at Acton Academy are not an academic exercise.  Quests are preparation for real world decision, and the heavy burdens it places on a leader.

 

 

 

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Experiments, Simulations and Role Plays

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The Politics and Economics Quest featured more than ten economic and political experiments, simulations and role plays, including the Lord of the Flies, Tragedy of the Commons and The Power Game.

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Soon, Eagles were finding an executing their own behavioral experiments to prove a point, including the Privilege I and Privilege II experiments shown above to drive home the need for Affirmative Action, as well as a counterpoint M&M Incentives Game to demonstrate the impact of high marginal tax rates on economic growth.

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Sheep, Wolves, Sheepdogs and Shepherds

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According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman there are three types of people in the world:

  • Sheep who go about their business,
  • Wolves who feed on the sheep; and
  • The Sheepdog who protects the flock.

At Acton Academy, we would add Shepherds, the countless servant leaders like Gandhi, King and Borlaug who pursue individual callings that strengthen the fabric of society.

Of course, people are not animals; wolves and the need for protective violence are thankfully rare; and we live in a society where you can enjoy the fruits of freedom without participating in the political or civic arenas.

Nevertheless, in the midst of our Political and Economic Quest, we should never forget that it is the sacrificial love of Sheepdog and Shepherd Heroes who keep our fear of wolves at bay.

Acton Academy.  No sheep allowed.

 

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Session Six Civilization: The Big Questions of Politics and Economics

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Our overarching question for the year is: Must a hero conquer fear to find true love?

This session, the more specific question we are exploring in the Politics and Economics Quest:  Must a hero conquer fear of the public square, to find a true love of country, community and self?

Given this goal, our Socratic discussions in Civilization have been centered around the big questions in politics and economics:

  • Is government’s primary role to protect our individual rights or create a more prosperous and just world?
  • Should we fear anarchy or tyranny more?
  • Who should decide how society should be structured: elites or a strong man; the mob and pure democracy or free individuals making individual choices?
  • Was Hamilton right about centralizing power or Jefferson right about dispersing it? Who would Madison have agreed with more?
  • What happens when governments and markets fail?

Twice each week, Eagles do an hour or more of original research, looking both historical battles and current day dilemmas, followed by a twenty minute Socratic discussion led by an Eagle.

All of this with the underlying question: How will you change the world through political or economic action, without having your morals and principles corrupted by the process?

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What is your Political Kryptonite?

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One of the key themes of the Politics and Economics Quest is the issue of personal corruption.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.

As our Eagles struggle for their party to win the Politics and Economics Quest, they will have to measure principle against compromise, and obeying party leaders versus serving constituents versus staying true to their conscience.  Just like in the real world, we expect them to be tempted.

What will be the greatest temptation:

  • Unbridled competition;
  • Money;
  • Power;
  • Fame;
  • Something else?

Perhaps the most important task for anyone entering the public arena is to discover his or her political kryptonite – the substance for which you might unwittingly trade your freedom and soul.

So what is your political kryptonite?

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Finding a Cause that Matters to You

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How do you discover, explore and sharpen (or change) your core political beliefs, those bedrock principles that form your actions in the public square?  Is it best to dive into ancient texts or current day battles?  To wax philosophical or enter into the fray?

At Acton Academy, we decided to start with conflicts in the studio that matter to Eagles.

For example:

  • Should everyone be taxed an equal number of Eagle Bucks for supplies or should those who earn more Eagle Bucks pay a larger share?
  • Should freedom of speech, press and association be unlimited for Acton Eagles or restricted for the good of the community?
  • Should all possibility of embarrassment be stricken from Acton or do serious consequences deter future bad acts?

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we started with nineteen controversial decisions that could impact the  our community.   Each Eagle then took a test to identify his or her core political principles, and selected five top Acton Personal Political Causes.

We then matched up each Eagles with one side or another of a Personal Cause, while also asking Eagles to identify a real world controversy where the same principle applied. For example: environmental protection, gun rights or freedom of religion.

Eagles will research and write white papers and editorials on the real world issues, and use real world facts and examples to argue for changes in Acton governance during the Exhibition.

The common link between the Acton studio issue and the real world? A firmly held political principle.  In a way, the Politics and Economic Quest is a test of whether each Eagle will stand by his or her deepest principles, or sell out for power, fame, popularity or money.

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Our Eagles are not normal

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Two recent experiments suggest our Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles are several standard deviations away from normal.

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we have been playing a series of role plays and hands-on games to raise important political and economic questions:

  • The Lord of the Flies Game – What happens when anarchy rules?
  • The Power Game and Telephone – How do hierarchy, status and rigid rules make it difficult to organize work and treat others with respect?
  • The Trading and Self Organizing Games: How can free choice and prices add value in daily life and make it easier to accomplish common goals? and finally
  • The Tragedy of the Commons; Free Rider and Bribery Games: Will markets and society fail if our citizens lack character?

The Free Rider game is a classic economic experiment.  In thousands of trials, around the world, humans fail to contribute their fair share to a group activity – and especially so when guaranteed anonymity.

Typically, 50 percent of a population will free ride when first offered a chance, and 100 percent of participants will free ride once they understand that others will defect.

We expected similar results from the Middle School and Launchpad Eagles, who are as rational as any group.  To our surprise, the free riding didn’t occur.  Only one Eagle out of fifteen failed to put in his is her fair share – a 93.3% responsibility rate versus 50% for the general population.

On the same day, Elementary Eagles took the famous Marshmallow Test to measure their ability to defer gratification, a skill with a strong correlation to future success.

In thousands of experiments, 30 percent or fewer of elementary aged students will postpone eating a marshmallow immediately in return for receiving two marshmallows later.  For our Elementary Eagles, forty out of forty young heroes chose to wait for the two marshmallow reward.

Our learning philosophy at Acton Academy is simple:

  • The right questions and analysis lead to the right decisions;
  • The right decisions become the right habits;
  • The right habits shape character; and
  • Character determines destiny.

Our Eagles are far from normal, in a very good way.

 

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Politics, Religion and Economics in the Public Square

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Becoming a citizen who changes the world through political or economic action requires a laser sharp understanding of fundamental principles and definitions – and perhaps an instinctive refusal to allow others to define those principles and definitions for us.

“Politics” comes from the Greek word politikos, from politēs ‘citizen’ and polis ‘city.’  Politics isn’t limited to corrupt acts plotted in smoke filled rooms, but more fundamentally is how people organize to change society.

“Religion” comes from a Latin derivation of ligare to ‘bind’ and ‘connect’ and defines the beliefs and practices we value, whether they include supernatural forces or not.

For most of history, political and religious forces were intertwined  – the King and the Pope – decided how society was organized and the common man was bound, starting with power emanating from the top.

The world shifted when in the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx separated religion from politics and Adam Smith championed the invisible hand – free choice guided by market prices. “Economics” emerged as an alternative to hierarchical power as a way to organize society, even as values were driven from the public square.

Politics, religion and economics have been battling ever since, in America within a competitive political framework constructed by our Founding Fathers, who believed a free and virtuous citizenry through self-governance could build a nation based on ideas and principles.

Why do these definitions matter?  Because in order to change the world, Eagles need to understand the real battles aren’t necessarily about elections or laws, but about principles and ideas.   Debates about how society should be organized – either by the firm hand of government or the invisible hand of economics –then become clearer.

We see that values matter too, and that religion — understood as the commitments and beliefs that unite us as a nation, rather than superstitions that divide us into warring tribes – must be a part of the debate, and debated with judgment and tolerance.

On such definitions do the commitments and covenants of flawed human beings rest, as well as the future of the richest, most powerful and fairest nation on earth.

That’s why it’s important for the young women and men who will lead it to start their trials now.

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The Politics and Economics Quest

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Five weeks from now, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles will gather for a political convention to deliver stump speeches, debate legislation and argue in front of a panel of Supreme Court Justices.

Battles will take place on the federal, state and local level as Eagles seek to make their communities a better place to live, work and raise healthy families.  Not only will Eagles master tools like focus groups, polls and canvassing, they’ll also have to convince Elementary Eagles to register and vote, even if like most Americans they are easily distracted and too busy to engage.

Where will the energy come from for all of this?  First, from a series of games and role plays – like the Lord of the Flies contest – that demonstrate the natural consequences of economic and political choices.  And finally, from organizing political parties, for the party with the most wins in Executive branch elections; passing laws and winning court cases wins the P&E Quest.

Let the games begin!

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Narrowly Defined Challenges or Open Ended Problems?

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Do Eagles learn more from narrowly defined challenges or open ended problems?

Narrowly defined challenges like: “What is the square root of 2?” or “Write a balanced chemical equation for the reaction of acetic acid and water” are simple to design and evaluate.  A series of narrowly defined challenges give Eagles – and especially Type A Eagles and parents — a sense of accomplishment as SMART goals and Weekly Points accumulate like clockwork.  And, of course, there is value in mastering a process.

Open ended problems, like: “How can you mix these elements to create a rocket fuel that will propel your vehicle over four meters in height, with the lowest cost per meter gained?” are much more challenging.   There’s no prescribed process.  Well-worn theories work better in textbooks than in the real world. Team members clash given the time pressure and ambiguity.  Plus, it’s harder to measure progress; and not everyone learns at the same pace.

Avoiding open ended problems means not having to convince Eagles they understand  complex subjects far more deeply than traditional students, who often are capable of little more than  regurgitating answers for an AP test.

Narrow challenges are better than open ended problems in every way except one:  No one in the real world will you pay you to solve narrowly defined challenges more easily executed by an algorithm. 

If our Eagles want to change the world, they will need to solve messy, open ended problems requiring complex collaboration. So brace yourself for more narrowly defined challenges and open ended questions, as we equip Eagles to embrace the beauty and frustration of open ended creativity.

 

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Prototyping Happiness, Satisfaction and Fulfillment

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After weeks of devouring Positive Psychology Deep Books, TED talks and experiments, Launchpadders on Friday pitched Middle School Eagles to try one of two prototype programs designed as part of the Positive Psychology Quest.

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The first program — Connecting with your Superhero — offers 30 days of activities and challenges to strengthen and deepen relationships delivered by an I-Phone-like App.   As they advance, middle schoolers earn points to construct avatars that reveal the superhero inside.

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The second program — Hues of Happiness — offers  Positive Psychology activities, QR codes, videos, nightly journalling and hidden images revealed through an adult coloring book to help rescue middle choolers from  adolescent funks and bad moods.

Can science help young people find more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment?  Thanks to the hard work of the two Launchpad teams, we now have twenty five middle schoolers committed to find out during Session Six.

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The Chemistry and Rocket Quest Grand Finale

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On Friday, over twenty five Rocket Heroes from Wernher von Braun to Neil Armstrong to Elon Musk welcomed visitors to our Chemistry and Rocket Quest Exhibition.

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We started with readings from the Eagles’ Flash Science Fiction stories and continued with a judging of space station, launchpad and rocket designs for the multi-billion dollar Space X contract, with points awarded for virtual drawings, electrical efficiency, scientific documentation and other categories.

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Then it was time for the big event  – the final rocket launches, each featuring a top secret custom-engineered rocket fuel formula, designed to propel rockets as high as possible, with exactly a ten second safety delay and a completely neutral pH effluent.

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Just as in the real world, some launches were flawless; others were less successful.  The crowd pulsed with ohhs and ahhs that would have made NASA proud, as some rockets soared over twenty five hundred feet (OK, in reality, twenty five feet.)

Most importantly, in the final Socratic discussion we listened to lessons learned from our open ended exploration of chemical reactions, from measuring PH to building better batteries to deep insights about the usefulness of scientific theory; carefully measured trial and error and random trial and error.  Most importantly, we heard of hard earned lessons about serving on and leading a team.

Next session – something even harder than rocket science.  How do you build better forms of government?

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A Report from the Cape

For the last few weeks, Eagles have been hard at work on the Chemistry and Rocket Quest.

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First, experimenting with different chemical reactions and fuel combinations to find a combination with the most explosive power and a proper safety delay.  In essence, using equations and trial and error to gain a deeper understanding of reaction rates.

Not too complicated, until you realize the final objective was to find the fuel with the lowest cost per foot of height gained – which means Eagles had to factor in the changing market prices of chemicals.

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Next, Eagles used potatoes, limes, lemons, batteries and LED’s to design a lighting system for the Launchpad.  Again, cost trade offs mattered because the system with the lowest cost system per LED won.  By the end of the day, Eagles were making deep  connections between electricity and economics.

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Environmental conditions came next.  Eagles juggled thermodynamics, temperature and heat to unravel how exothermic and endothermic reactions might impact the launch, then investigated their rocket’s impact on the environment by building a homemade pH meter.

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In between, we hosted a visit from a real Space X Rocket engineer, who described the difficulties and challenges of preparing for reliable and efficient space transport.

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And finally this week, we shifted to testing the “big rockets,” while Eagles complete their space station designs,  continue work building models of their space stations and prepare the fuel that will launch their rocket high enough to win the contest.

Time to start the countdown.

 

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Daily Launches at Acton Academy

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Acton Academy Guides never lecture or teach. In fact, we promise never to answer a question while in the studio. Our job is to act as Gamemakers, offering challenges and tools as part of a Socratic Discussion, in five to fifteen minute launches typically at 8:30 am, 10:30 am and 12:30 pm; followed by a 3 pm closing discussion.

Below is an example from a 12:30 pm launch from the Rocket Quest.  During the week, Eagles had accepted a difficult hands on Chemistry challenge with little formal preparation. For days, nine teams struggled to find the ideal Rocket Fuel recipe. Some used trial and error; others more disciplined scientific inquiry; still others dug into using theory and equations.  Now it was time to discover what had been learned.

The launch started with a reminder of why the Quest work mattered, along with a short video of a real rocket launch:

“Imagine this, it’s two weeks from Friday. Parents, friends and guests are assembled for your rocket launch.  Will your rocket rise majestically or explode on the pad? The decisions you make during today’s discussion just might determine success or failure.”

 On a whiteboard was written a review of the last few days:

Goals:

  • 9-11 second delay for safety
  • At least 4 meters in altitude,
  • Lowest fuel cost per foot of altitude gained
  • Lowest cost per foot

Variables:

  • Mixtures
    • Solid versus liquid?
    • Acids versus bases
    • Chemical elements
  • Concentrations
  • Temperature
  • Physical – tablet versus powder

Once the goals and choices were established, Eagles were asked: “Which of the variables was most important to success and why?”   Then: “Which technique would work best? Why?”

  • Casual trial and error?
  • Rigorous scientific experimentation?
  • Scientific theory and formulas?

Which approach would work best if the goal has a relatively large margin of error and there were few variables?

Which approach would work best if the goal requires precision and specificity?

Which approach is superior if you have expensive chemicals, a limited budget and many possible combinations?

It’s the Guide’s job to offer choices; the Eagles’ job to make decisions and back them up.

Finally, for those groups who were struggling, there was chance to receive some help  —  for a price:

“In the real world, scientific research papers help scientists trade ideas, so your team can purchase  a description of a similar experiment for three Eagle Bucks. Or you can try to  purchase trade secrets from a team who you believe has had more successful experiments.”

Then it was time for the work and learning to begin.

Launches are our way to equip Eagles to solve real world problems in a hands on way; analyze the results; look for connections and debate which tools or processes can help.

That’s one way Guides add value in the studio, without getting in the way of learning.

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Lessons Learned from the Chemistry and Cooking Quest

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How do the insights from quests, exhibitions and  badges compare to the knowledge gained from standardized tests, letter grades and report cards?   Read these reflections from a middle school Eagle and judge for yourself.

My Lessons Learned

from the Chemistry and Cooking Quest

  1. Going into this Quest, I never pictured the microscopic worlds within worlds of molecules, atoms, bonds, and particles.   It truly is an infinite universe at your fingertips. And to learn more about the world, we don’t have to expand outward past planets and into galaxies, but can look inward to understand life in its purest form.
  1. Cooking has always been something I’ve been curious about, but I never thought how much it was intertwined with chemistry. Each dish has a recipe, just like each chemical substance has a balanced equation. Each recipe has ingredients, just like each molecule has electrons, protons, and neutrons. Sure you could be a decent chef by dumping some flour in a bowl, beating in a couple eggs, and dusting some sugar, but every great meal relies on the precise rules and laws of chemistry.
  1. Chemistry isn’t what I thought. It’s not complex math and weird potions, it’s an explanation for everything that is, and everything we are. It’s the reason we can’t walk on water; the reason meat browns when cooked, and why soda contains hundreds of tiny bubbles.
  1. No matter how much you learn throughout the Quest, the Exhibition is what determines your success. And it isn’t all about you, it’s about your team and making sure they’re just as confident and on the same page.
  1. This is a pretty cliched lesson, but it was a reminder for me to never give up. No matter how much stress, how much pressure, how much chaos, just get it done and do your best.  Presenting my chemistry knowledge in front of a panel of well­ equipped parents was nerve­ wracking, but I took a deep breath and spoke in my clearest voice and did nothing less than my best effort. In the end, I was proud of what I contributed.
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Parental Influence

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As parents we have a great influence on our children.   But perhaps not in the way or to the extent we commonly believe.

In No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, author Judith Rich Harris use dozens of peer reviewed scientific human development studies on identical twins and siblings to make two points:

  1.  Approximately 50% of your child’s personality is determined by genetics; and
  2.  Of the remaining 50%, no more than 10% is a direct result of parenting.

Focus on the last line…. no more than 10% is a direct result of parenting.

Surprising?  Yes.  Controversial? Definitely.   But if Harris is correct – except for cases of parental negligence or abuse — the community in which our children learn and play is four times as important as our parental interventions, corrections and worries.

Harris splits the important developmental work in schools and self-organizing communities into three sub-systems:

  • Relationship building: knowing others, being known, and learning to predict how another human being will respond to our actions.
  • Socialization: learning how a community clarifies and enforces civil behavior for the good of the tribe; and
  • Status: how individual achievements are celebrated and rewarded to encourage individual growth.

While our decisions as parents impact behavior at home, and as parents we need to offer empathy, nurturing and support, it seems the natural, rough and tumble consequences from peers are more important for preparing children for adulthood and the real world.  If this is true, one of the worst parental mistakes we can make it to intervene to short circuit such tacit learning.

At Acton Academy, our covenants, Eagles Bucks, badges and 360 Peer Reviews are far from perfect, but if Judith Rich Harris is correct, they provide important behavioral guardrails and feedback for young heroes destined to change the world.

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The Launchpad Positive Psychology Quest

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Launchpadders have embarked on a deep dive into Positive Psychology, the study of acts and attitudes that lead to more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment in life.

For decades, Psychology focused on disease and aberrant behavior. Then in the 1990s, University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman proposed Positive Psychology, a new discipline dedicated to helping the average person live a better life.

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Launchpadders will devour the subject by each pursuing individual journeys, frequently comparing notes, and eventually putting their ideas into action with young adults as customers.

The individual journeys will include:

  • Reading a Deep Book, including: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl; Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman; SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal; Inner Work by Robert Johnson; and Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.
  • All watching a TED talk by Martin Seligman and each watching four more TED talks in the area.
  • All committing to four practices: daily gratitude journaling, mediation or prayer; writing a Gratitude Letter; keeping a Happiness Log and serving someone who is powerless. Then each finding seven more discreet practices to try.
  • All taking the Zimbardo Time Test and each finding find five more tests to take and bring back to the group.
  • Each Eagle contributing at least four writing or video deliverables about a Positive Psychology topic or hero.
  • Each creating a Genre piece exploring the most effective way to deliver Positive Psychology exercises to young adults.

What will come of all of this?  A rapid prototyping sprint to create for Middle School Eagles a Positive Psychology program. Success will be based on how many Middle schoolers complete the challenge and report a change in well being.

If the prototypes are a success, the next step may be a Hackathon to produce an App to deliver the program to young adults around the world.

In the early 20th Century, Bell Labs became the home of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists, gathered to dig deeply into important questions and projects to change the world by making people happier, more satisfied and more fulfilled.

Given the intellectual intensity of Launchpadders on this quest, perhaps it’s time to change the studio’s name to Acton Labs.

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“Mission Control, start the countdown.”

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How do you learn Chemistry and Thermodynamics?

Cramming reams of Advanced Placement facts and equations is one approach, except you’ll soon forget most of what you memorized and regurgitated.   At Acton Academy, we’d rather build an advanced space station instead.

So this week, Middle School Eagles began the Rocket Quest, a five week contest to design and pitch a space station to Space X, a private space exploration company,

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Monday and Tuesday’s Challenge

Choose what you will purchase with precious Eagle Bucks: five solid chemicals, two liquid chemicals, plastic test tubes with rubber stoppers or plastic film containers with a pop off lids.  (Both the test tube and the film container can be converted into rockets that launch when the lid releases.)

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Use your team’s curiosity and creativity to design a rocket fuel that meets Space X’s safety requirements – a fuel that has between a nine and eleven second delay before launching.

By the end of the week, your rocket fuel must meet even more stringent requirements:

  • Consistently launch after a ten second delay;
  • Reach a minimum height of four meters .
  • Use the cheapest fuel in terms of cost per foot of altitude achieved.

No textbook. No equations. No guidance. Merely your wits and the internet.

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Will simple trial and error, the Scientific Method or chemical equations, stoichiometry and the Laws of Thermodynamics be more useful?  Only time and experimentation will tell.

Almost immediately, the real world intrudes. If you win, how will you share the profits between team members?  After all, some team members contributed Eagle Bucks for supplies; others know more about Chemistry; and still others provided sweat equity through hard work. Should the equity split be based on fairness, merit or effort?

Wednesday’s Challenge

With the first test launches and many failures behind you, your team now needs to discover a rocket fuel formula that launches in ten seconds, with the least amount of solid fuel. Knowing on Friday that cost will become an issue, you start tracking the fluctuating prices of raw materials.

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You realize that rapid trial and error experiments helped uncover the basic traits of different mixtures, but a mastery of chemical equations may be required to rapidly shift between fuel formulas as market prices change.  It’s time for a crash course in stoichiometry – led by Eagles.

Thursday’s Challenge

The relationships between your goals (safety delay; thrust and cost); variables (solid chemicals; liquids; containers and temperatures) and technique (trial and error; scientific experimentation and scientific theory) are growing more complex.

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What at first the Rocket Quest was pure fun, it’s rapidly becoming a scientific sprint to unravel the chemical secrets of over 125 possible combinations,  with Friday’s launch date looming.

Friday’s Challenge and the Winners

Launch Day arrives too soon. In a last minute flurry of preparations, mistakes occur and tempers flare. Your team must be ready to launch.

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In the end, six of the nine teams achieved a successful launch, but only three within the safety delay window. One rocket soared over forty feet, but failed to meet the safety requirements. A second rocket with the right safety delay sailed high into the air and was  the apparent winner, until it’s fuel was found to be three times as expensive as a competitor.

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The winner? Truthfully, it didn’t matter. Each team learned valuable lessons about Chemistry, Thermodynamics, Science, Economics and Leadership that won’t soon be forgotten.

Next week, we move into a new phase involving electricity and the launchpad. All moving towards a final launch and sales presentation at the Exhibition in four weeks – where the winning team could win a visit to the real Space X.

This sure beats memorizing answers for a standardized test.

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The Power of Peer Leadership

 

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Do you believe young people are capable of forming transformational relationships, with little help from adults?  Is it possible for a learning community to thrive despite —  or perhaps even  because — young people do a better job of leading each other?

Here’s a mid-year update a Launchpadder recently wrote to a Middle School Squad Member (edited to preserve confidentiality.)

Dear xxxxxxxx,

This year has been amazing for you so far. Both in school and outside of school you have taken on fun and challenging adventures. I would like to mention how hard of a worker you are and how delightful it is to have you on my squad. Even when you have to  leave school for a few days for xxxxx practice, you still manage to stay on track. Not many people could do this as well as you have and I would like to encourage you to continue pursuing your passion.

Just this session I have noticed a major improvement in your writing.  Earlier this session, I read one of your deadlines and mistook for a  Launchpadder. Your level of depth and interest make your writing exciting to read. I would like to encourage you to continue writing the way you do and to continue to work hard improve.  Your hard work is paying off.

One thing I think you could improve on more is holding people accountable. I
understand when you ask certain people for Eagle Bucks, they disrupt even more by apologizing.  But I hope you will continue to ask them for Eagle Bucks and that their choices are hurting the studio.  Hold strong! 

I know it’s hard to hold your friends accountable, but in the long run, it will both stenghten your relationship and help you grow as a person too.

I’m really proud of how much you have grown this year. You have become
more independent and responsible and strengthened an already impressive work ethic and attitude. The work you do inspires everyone around you. I’m glad I have you in my squad.

Sincerely,

xxxxx xxxxx

Imagine how you would feel if you received such encouraging words from a role model you respected.

Middle School Eagles are equally gifted at self critique and self management.  Here’s an update one Middle Schooler recently sent to parents ( again edited to preserve confidentiality):

Dear Mom and Dad,

I am writing to give you a mid-year progress report.

On a 1-5 scale, I would give myself a 4.7 for intentionality, because during school hours most of the time I feel like I have a purpose and something important to finish.  Only once in two weeks did I have a time where I didn’t feel a purpose in my work. 

On a 1-200 scale, I would give myself a 4 for being warmhearted and tough minded with my studio-mates because though I am always super warmhearted, I do have trouble holding people accountable.

I want to celebrate my hard work in earning badges and finishing previous badges I hadn’t completed yet.  My greatest need is to improve on finding and efficiently using time to finish badges.

So far this year, I have earned xx badges, bringing my total at Acton to xx badges. This session I averaged xxx  Weekly Pts.  When I get my 360 score, this will determine if I am in Freedom Level 2 or 3.

I also have read four serious books since the beginning of the year, including earning one of the total of four Deep Book Badges. I want to finish Algebra 1 by my birthday, so  I will need to complete 14 skills per week.  I will  need your encouragement to complete it  on time.

In order to move into Launchpad, next session I need to earn 115 Khan Skills and add 6 more discussions and 8 critiques to my Socratic Leader Learning Badge, plus earn 5 more badges overall. I’ll also need to average 400 Weekly Points and score a 8 or above on the 360 survey.

again, the  area where I need the most support from you is Khan, in order to finish all of my math work on time.

Thank you,

xxxx

Yes, having young people lead each other is a more efficient way to run a learning community.  But that’s not the point.  Nor is it solely practice for future leaders, though that’s certainly true.

The real reason we ask young people to lead is that they often are better at leading than adults.   That’s the power of the Hero’s Journey.

 

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The PFQ Exhibition: Changing the World at Twenty Five

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It’s not often you can see ten years into the future with great clarity.  Our Launchpadder’s Personal Finance Quest Exhibition was one of those moments.

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Parents and Launchpadder’s joined for a seated dinner.

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After a short welcome, each Launchpadder presented a preview of his or her life at age 25 – a chosen calling; family; college experience (or not); past apprenticeships; car; apartment and other important life choices, plus a fifty year personal financial projection on Google Sheets.

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Parents and guests also reviewed LOOPS letters – carefully crafted applications for a life changing apprenticeships — designed to hone persuasive skills.

Then over dinner we discussed “life lessons learned” from the Personal Finance Quest and Stars and Steppingstones interviews with role models, as well as enjoying well crafted debates on some of life’s most important financial questions.

The evening closed with one final debate and a toast to parents who have the courage to give young heroes the freedom to soar.

The takeaways? The difficult choices of real life.  Life’s surprises –  financial, health, career, children and relationships — that can throw a kink into the best laid plans (simulated in this case, by a roll of the die.)  The importance of long talks with mentors who ask hard questions.

This is an extraordinary group of self-directed learning pioneers, a decade ahead of most young people.  The future may be impossible to predict, but the fact that they will change the world in an important way is 100% guaranteed.

 

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The Chemistry and Cooking Exhibition

The Chemistry and Cooking Exhibition was — well, it was an extravaganza.

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Middle School Eagles gathered for a “Chopped-like” cooking contest, where teams would be charged with creating tasty dishes from a random collection of ingredients, under intense time pressure.

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But there was a catch.  In order to earn extra time and ingredients, Eagles had to make original one minute Chemistry pitches to an esteemed panel of judges.

The better the pitch, the more points you would earn for your team to enhance its culinary masterpieces – and there was extra credit for tying Chemistry to the specific dish you were cooking.

In other words, science meets real life.

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Luckily, the Eagles had been deeply immersed in independent research and were well prepared with Chemistry displays, skills and facts that could be re-purposed for almost any set of ingredients.

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At the end of the Exhibition, a Master Chef declared a winner, making courageous decisions about the Tastiest; Most Original and Best Presented dishes.

Deep science learning; practical cooking skills; team work and decision making under pressure — plus a lot of fun. That’s how we make make science meaningful and great fun at Acton Academy.

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The Science of Delicious

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Solutions, solvents, gases, nutrition, calories and taste – welcome to Week Five of the Chemistry and Cooking Quest and the Science of Delicious.

After spending all week in research and hands on experiments, Eagles divided into teams, researching roles and compensation as scientists in the food testing companies Microbac, Certified Laboratories, Vanguard Sciences and Biorad (note – some of these do NOT have good reviews from their employees!)

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Teams competed to present the most compelling data in a series of food tests including the sweetness of sodas; low fat versus regular cookies; the impact of smell on taste; bread, enzymes and taste and the complex versus simple flavors in wine (OK, we really used Tang and orange juice.)

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Next Eagles dyed and mapped taste buds location from experimental data alone – no use of the internet on this one!

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Then each team created a recipe for ketchup, one of the few foods that features sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami.

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Eagles also embraced an open ended challenge:

Using only water, a measuring cup, a thermometer and a microwave, estimate how many people would need to eat how much of what foods to generate enough power for a  microwave.  (Warning – it’s a lot more complicated question than it seems.)

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We ended with an egg toss, cupcakes and a french fry taste test for ketchup recipes.  What do these last tasks have to do with science?  Not much, but definitely delicious!

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The Loafer’s Loaf or the Worker’s Loaf?

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A morning launch.  Two loaves of bread.  Discussing sacred pledges and falling standards.

An Eagle read aloud from  the Contract of Promises.  Then a reading from the Guide-Eagle Contract on the sworn duty of Guides to act as studio mirrors, making clear any gaps between promises and actions.   Mistakes and missteps may be necessary but they are no excuse for obfuscation – either intentionality in the studio needs to rise or the standards must be explicitly lowered.

Next, a discussion. First holding up the white bread: “What words come to mind when you see this?”

The Eagles: “Ordinary;” “soft;” “cheap;” and “unhealthy.”

Then holding up coarse multi grain bread: ‘What words does this evoke?”

“Special;” “unique;” “healthy” Eagles offered, one by one.

Talk of heroes: Washington; Lincoln;  Colonel Travis at the Alamo; Martin Luther King  in Birmingham.   None of these would have chosen the ordinary Loafer’s Loaf. Real heroes choose from the Worker’s Loaf, no matter what sacrifices are required.

“You have promised to act as heroes; young people around the world are depending on you. Yet recently our intentions seem to have slipped.  What should we do about it?”

Promises flowed. Re-commitments. Pledges.  An invitation was offered: sometime today, take a piece of the Workers Loaf as a sign you are serious about being more intentional in your work.

By the end of the day the Worker’s Loaf was gone, carried off bit by bit.  The Loafers Load left untouched.

 

 

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All Rise for Mock Trial

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It was the final contest of the Regional Mock Trial  Competition.  A real judge called the courtroom to order.

The defendant Adilai Cheney was accused of shooting down a spying drone, sending it crashing into a next door neighbor’s yard, killing her prize dog and best friend Little Pixel Poo Poo.

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A crack Acton defense team prepared for weeks to face a corrupt District Attorney’s office staffed not by a drunken DA, but even worse, private school over-achievers.   Cheney’s fate hung in the balance.

The verdict?   Wise people know you go to the courthouse to pick winners and losers, not to find justice.  So it won’t be the Eagles heading to state.

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It was a valiant effort.  Especially for rookies against seasoned competitors.

Just wait until next year!

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Chocolate Chip Stoichiometry

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Few Chemists believe Stoichiometry and chocolate chip cookies go together.   After Friday’s cooking challenge, Our MS Eagles know it’s true.

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First we offered a series of difficult questions about chemical equations and stoichiometry.  If you solved these, your earned a chocolate chip cookie recipe and the right to buy ingredients.  Each individual had to answer individual questions and each mistake cost five Eagle Bucks, so learning about science early in the week made you a valuable team member.

Two challenges.  First, the recipe was for 40 cookies.  Second, it was stated in cups. Eagles had to translate into a smaller batch of cookies and into grams of ingredients, applying a different cost per ingredient to calculate the overall cost.

Then a team had to reserve and pay for a slot time in the oven.  Reserve a slot too late in the day, and cookie demand might be sated.  Reserve too early in the day, and you might not be ready in time.

Either way, you would have a lot of Eagle Bucks were at risk.  Welcome to our attempt to make Chemistry and Cooking relevant

Most of us in the real world don’t need to know much about chemistry or cooking.  Thanks to modern science and a free economy, you just spray a little Raid on a wasp’s nest to rid yourself of pests or toss a burger on the grill when hungry   Tolerances are high and mistakes are cheap.

Pest control professionals and chefs have a higher standard – they get paid to master a process and get it right every time.   Likewise, those charged with inventing the world’s fastest computer chip or tastiest potato chip need a firm grasp of theory;  trial and error is just too costly and imprecise.

How could we convince Eagles to care about process or theory with such a minuscule impact on their lives?  The answer: make it into a contest with scarce resources, where accuracy and speed matter, and theory leads to a more valuable product.

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Yes, it was messy.   And a Guide’s mistake on the answer key didn’t help.  But the studio pulsed with the energy of a high end bakery or Bell Labs, because “getting it right” mattered to the Eagles.

That’s how you turn Chocolate Chip Stoichiometry into an unforgettable scientific and culinary experience, with real world implications for our young heroes.

 

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Hooray for Launchpad Montessori Guides!

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Eagles run most of our Learner Driven Community at Acton Academy.

Whether it’s studio self-governance and maintenance; Middle Schoolers shepherding Elementary Studio Eagles as Eagle Buddies; or Launchpadders leading Middle School Squads and creating Middle School Quests, there’s a constant stream of Eagles moving from one studio to another throughout the day.

Now Eagles have introduced Launchpad Montessori Quest Guides, where Launchpadders have taken complete responsibility for equipping our youngest Eagles with the tools and habits they need to become independent learners.

How is it working?  Here’s one parent’s take:

“Something has clicked for our son.  He’s feeling so positive about the Montessori Quest.  He begged me to take him to get donuts to bring to school tomorrow for his fellow questers. I asked him why and he said: “it’s because of the new Launchpad Guides.”  I hope they know their kindness is paying dividends already.”

Leading through serving.  Learning through real world responsibility.  Congratulations to our Launchpad Montessori Guides for helping those just starting their Hero’s Journeys.

We know it’s a kindness that will be paid forward for years to come.

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Periodic Table Bingo

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We aren’t fans of memorization at Acton Academy.  Einstein’s advice: “Never memorize anything you can look up in a book” is even better counsel in the Internet Age, when world’s of information is a click away.

That said, some information is elemental, so Middle School Eagles jumped at the chance to dive deeply into the Periodic Table, as preparation for this week’s Chemistry and Cooking Challenge.

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In Periodic Table Bingo, teams of Eagles competed to cite the atomic number and atomic mass; describe an element as a solid, liquid or gas at room temperature; name common characteristics of the Period and Group where an element was found; give an example of a chemical reaction involving the element; name who discovered it; describe real world uses and draw or create of model of the electron shells and electrons.  Whew!   That’s a lot of information to digest.

The amount of learning and comprehension was beyond belief.  One group of Eagles petitioned to have the next day’s round delayed, so they could spend the even at home preparing.

Useless memorization?  Not at all. All of this work will come in handy when it’s time to compete in the final Chemistry and Cooking Exhibition.

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Choosing a Path

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There are few decisions more daunting than purposefully choosing a path in life.

Making a choice means accepting responsibility for your actions.  Just “letting life happen to you” seems far easier.

So this week each Launchpadder took a courageous step in imagining “for real” what he or she would choose as a vocation at age 25.   Each chose a job that could be landed just after college.

Some of the early picks:

  • An Art Director Creating Video Games
  • A Political Campaign Staffer
  • A Pre-K Teacher
  • A Marriage and Family Counselor
  • A Biotech Scientist
  • A  Program Director for a non-Profit designed to stop the Animal Abuse
  • A Photographer.

In each case, Launchpadders had to pitch the job, providing proof of talents and passions and explaining which apprenticeships and college degrees had prepared them for the position.  In doing so, the twists and turns and path dependencies of early choices became clearer.

Each Launchpadder also presented a salary distribution from Salary.com for his or her position, and the audience acted as employers conducting a job interview, ultimately deciding to make an offer or not.  Those with no offers would start the Personal Finance Quest as a Gap employee at the mall or flipping burgers at McDonalds.

Thankfully, everyone eventually received an offer.  Final salaries ranged from $28,000 a year to $70,000.  Many were surprised that society values video game designers more highly than teachers.

Next Launchpadders will make decisions about houses, apartments and insurance, so to better understand the expenses of real life, and what you can afford on a teacher’s salary.  Money isn’t everything; but it does clarify hard choices.

One thing is for sure.  Our Launchpadders are far ahead of most college graduates in finding a calling, and will be making far more informed trade-offs and decisions, as they compare one path to another.

 

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Chemistry and Cooking

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The sweet smell of success at Acton Academy’s state-of-the-art Chemistry Lab – freshly baked bread.

Middle Schoolers this session are immersed in a Chemistry and Cooking Quest, largely designed by Launchpadders.  Each week MS Eagles dive into atoms, electron orbitals and reactions, while at the same time learning to apply science to the kitchen.  Every Friday, Eagles roll up their sleeves and take part in a cooking contest.  To win ingredients or utensils, you have to solve a scavenger hunt full of Chemistry riddles and equations.

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Week One on Friday,  Eagles solved puzzles and answered questions to win the right to cook omelets.  It turns out that the chemistry of eggs is a bit more complex than you might imagine.

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Week Two on Friday was all about making Ice Cream.   Phase changes and foams seem a bit more intriguing when covered with chocolate.

Week Three this Friday was even a more complex logistical challenge, with four contests evolving simultaneously:

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Making Bread

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Making Cheese

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Making Jam; and

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Making Butter

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Of course,  our Safety and Health Inspectors were hard at work too.

The Final Exhibition will be a giant Chopped episode, where Eagle teams will have to solve a Chemistry Scavenger Hunt to earn ingredients to cook the perfect meal.

Stay tuned!

 

 

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A Great Awakening?

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Requests from parent-entrepreneurs to open an Acton Academy continue to arrive from  around the world.

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We expect to have forty Acton Academies by September, 2016, including new launches in Irving and Weatherford, Texas;  Atlanta, Georgia;  Jacksonville, Florida;  Raleigh and Durham North Carolina;  Washington D.C.;  Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor Michigan;  Chicago, Illinois;  Sacramento, California;  Phoenix, Arizona;  Albuquerque, New Mexico;  San Pedro Sula, Honduras;  San Salvador, El Salvador;  Panama City, Panama and Budapest, Hungary.

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Equally as exciting, we expect up to forty Acton Children’s Business Fairs around the world in 2016, including another Guatemala Acton Children’s Business Fair, which recently attracted over 6,000 visitors.

Word continues to spread.  This week we received 64 applications to start an Acton Academy and 13 Children’s Business Fair applications.

Young heroes and parents seem to be answering a call.  Our charge is to translate the lessons emerging from existing Acton Academies into a kit that will allow our spontaneously emerging network to build even more powerful Learner Driven Communities.

 

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A 007 Spy Puzzle

 

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Our Launchpadders have worked hard this year.

As a final Negotiation Project, we created a new, more ambitious Launchpad Agreement to take learning and fun to new levels in 2016.  Here’s a copy of that agreement.

So for one last December activity, we decided to take on a lighter task, the Spy Challenge at the Perplexium Puzzle Room.

A Puzzle Room is a new form of entertainment, where a team is locked into a room, assigned roles and a compelling narrative, and given difficult series of puzzles to solve within sixty minutes.

Our team was tasked with finding the location of a dangerous secret agent.  As the minutes ticked by, puzzles were solved but tension rose.  It all came down to defusing a ticking time bomb.

Were the Launchpadders successful?  Let’s just say it was an explosive – though not completely successful end to a great first term.

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MS Eagles on Santa’s Naughty List

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Just a few weeks before Christmas, MS Eagles discovered they had been added to Santa’s Naughty List.

What to do?  With no time to spare, each MS Eagle had to write a letter to Santa to negotiate a return to the “nice side” of the ledger.

Some MS Eagles thought the challenge a bit light at first, but after a series of detailed writing exercises, critiques, drafts and edits, the results speak for themselves.

Did your MS Eagle escape from the Naughty List?  You be the judge.  And along the way, you can celebrate your Eagle’s progress in writing skills this year, as well as offer some growth mindset encouragement for the months ahead.

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A Negotiations Fable and Framework

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This year’s Overarching Question:  “Must a hero conquer fear to find true love?”  was answered by all the hard work MS and LP Eagles put into their Negotiations Quests.  Because in a Win-Win Negotiation, you must set aside the fear of being duped for long enough to hear what the other side truly values.

Yes, tackling Harvard, MIT and other role plays and well tested challenges like The Prisoner’s Dilemma was important.  So was learning your natural  negotiating style, from Avoidance to Accommodation to Collaborative to Competitive, and how to predict what your partner on the other side of the table might do.

Equally valuable was following a disciplined process,from Preparation to Questions to Bargaining to Closing, as well as setting the right first impression; asking about your partner’s needs and interests.

But nothing in win-win negotiation is more important than:

  1. Getting each what he or she values most;
  2.  Finding hidden treasures your partner will share; and
  3.   Setting incentives that encourage long term cooperation.

All of these require trust, which means giving up the fear of being hoodwinked, which makes being warmhearted far more important than the skills of a tough bargainer.  Or as Aesop put it:

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In the end, Eagles created a valuable framework below to complement Aesop’s fable, both of which will serve them well on their Heroes’ Journeys.

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Learning to Learn in Launchpad

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Launchpad in Session Three has featured two major initiatives, an introduction to the Mock Trial Competition and a Negotiating Quest.

Award winning Mock Trial Coach Karen Reynolds is helping LP Eagles begin a two month sprint towards a late January competition with hands-on, in person coaching.

In the Negotiations Quest, Launchpadders devoured a series of DVD lectures by world class negotiator Herb Cohen, preparing for a series of role plays that moved from simple distributive negotiations to complex multi-party win-win scenarios.

As Launchpadders moved between two such different learning experiences, they experimented with six different note taking methods, from the Cornell method to Outlining to Mind Mapping.

Having two intense but different approaches to prepare for hands on challenges gave us the chance to explore which approach to learning works best.   So for a Genre Project, each LP Eagle tackled a “compare and contrast” paper to explore which method packed as much learning as possible, in the least amount of time, in the most enjoyable way, for the lowest possible cost.

Which approach worked best?    We won’t spoil the surprise, but will leave it for parents to discover, as they compare this session’s Genre piece to earlier writing work, to see just how far Launchpadders have come in their analytical and communication skills.

 

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MS Foreign Relations

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Our Middle School Eagles have been on a three week Negotiations Quest.

You might think negotiations are merely haggling – issuing demands and holding your ground.  Bargaining certainly can be a critical part of a negotiations strategy, but as the MS Eagles discovered, it’s far better to “make the pie bigger” with a win-win approach than to battle over crumbs.

During the session, MS Eagles tackled a series of difficult negotiating role plays, moving from simple distributive negotiating, mainly over price;  to destructive “lose-lose” battles to be avoided at all costs; to more complex “win-win” negotiations that require a humble demeanor, listening, creativity and generosity; to the complexity of multiparty negotiations.

Along the way, MS Eagles listened to Master Negotiator Herb Cohen, who gave a key piece of advice – “you gotta care….but not that much.”

Our final test was a real world negotiation.  Some MS Eagles made a win-win approach to  parents; others elected to engage in “foreign relations” with the Elementary Studio, hoping to craft an Eagle Buck treaty between studios.  In both cases, the results had to be “win-win,” with complete honesty and a relationship that was stronger at the end of the discussions than at the beginning.

The result?  Across the board success. Those who entered discussions with parents found that a carefully timed approach, attention to the relationship and a generous heart led to far better results than bickering.  And with the Elementary Studio deliberations, Eagles were surprised by the number of win-win issues that surfaced, in the end signing a Trans-Studio Eagle Buck Treaty.

Yes, it’s important to identify whether your opponent has a competitive, destructive or collaborative intent.  But as our MS Eagles discovered, when possible, win-win negotiations make the pie bigger for all.

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“Well, unlike the last Russian novel I read, this one…..”

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Deep Books encourage Eagles to devour “world changing” and “life changing” books.  As part of the badge requirements, you must pitch your book to the studio for approval.

Yes, occasionally we have to make sure the standards are upheld.  But far more often we overhear exchanges like this between a Launchpadder and a Middle Schooler: “Well, unlike the last Russian novel I read, this one…..”

How do you convince young heroes to read The Brothers Karamazov; Anna Karenina or War and Peace?  You don’t.  Only a trusted friend can convince you that a 1,000 page Russian novel just might change your life.

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Chemistry Quest Creation

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On Thursday Launchpadders hosted a final Chemistry Quest Creation Mini-Quest for parents and guests.

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From the fundamentals of Chemical Bonding; to Reaction Rates to Thermodynamics;

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to Deep Dives into Ceramics; Cooking; Essential Oils and Global Warming.

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from a proposed Middle School Quest on Cooking to a proposed Middle school Quest on Explosives and Rockets, Launchpadders showed what it means to pursue a Hero’s Journey through Chemistry, conquering a fear of Chemistry to develop a deeper love of science.

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The MS Behavioral Economics Quest

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“The Winner’s Curse;” “Sunk Cost Fallacy;” and “The Endowment Effect.”  Since the time of Adam Smith, the Science of Economics begins with the premise that economic man is a rational creature who makes rational decisions. But is this true?

  • Do most people make rational decisions when it comes to money?
  • More importantly, do you make rational decisions when it comes to money, and if not, should you?
  • Finally, are there reliable experiments to help decide when to ‘trust your gut’ and when to slow down and apply rational thinking, experiments that will lead to more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment?

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Last Thursday Middle School parents and guests toured many of the fifty Behavioral Economics experiments performed by Eagles.    One guest bested the  Wisdom of the Crowds, walking away with a giant glass jar of coins;  another lost  $26 trying to win a $20 bill at auction.

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Following the Exhibition, a parent observed: “I graduated with honors in Economics from the University of Chicago, and I just learned more common sense lessons about   money than in four years of college!”

An MS Eagle agreed: “The Biology Quest last spring was great fun.  I  learned a lot about plants, animals and evolution.  But I’ve worked even harder on the Personal Finance Quest and Behavioral Economics Quest because I know they’ll help me more in life.”

At the end of the Exhibition, an Eagle offered one last bit of Type I and Type II advice:   “Parents and guests – thank you for honoring us with your presence. May a gorilla never catch you unaware in the jungle; may you never be lured into a foolish auction and we hope “the wisdom of the middle school crowd” will help your intuitive and rational minds  bring you all the happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment you deserve.”

Sound like Greek?  Not if you are as well versed as the Eagles in Behavioral Economics.

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“Welcome to my financial life at age 25….”

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“Welcome to my financial life at age 25….”

With these words, a Middle Schooler launched our Personal Finance Quest, the culmination of five weeks of work where each Eagle:

  • Researched the most important financial decisions he or she would face in life – like deciding whether college is worth the cost; selecting a profession; and choosing when to start a family.
  • Kept a log of personal spending, to see how cheaply you can live, without sacrificing the things in life that matter.
  • Learned to use Google Spreadsheets to create personal income statements and balance sheets from age 25 until age 70.
  • Practiced writing, critique and revision; as well as delivering ethos, logos and pathos; preparing to debate life’s most important financial decisions; and
  • Most importantly, explored whether money represents a false sense of security or love, instead of just a way to keep score.

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The Exhibition started with a series of debates, as Eagles faced off with opposing arguments on life’s most difficult financial questions.  One crowd favorite: “Is having children a wise financial decision?”

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Following the debates, visitors examined each Eagle’s personal finance displays and spreadsheets, asking probing questions about “financial life at 25.”

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We ended with a discussion of “lessons learned” by guests and Eagles about money and its relationship to a life well lived.

Reading, writing and arithmetic – important.   Lifelong lessons about personal finance and the meaning of money – priceless.

When we return from Fall Break, we begin a Behavioral Economics Quest, to explore how instincts and impulses can derail even the most carefully constructed financial plans.

 

 

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Baking for Science

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“I just realized there’s no way I can cook twenty eight cakes for the Chemistry Quest Exhibition. It’s simply too expensive.  And I can’t reduce the recipe any further, because I need one egg yolk per 1/2 cake.”

“So what are the choices?”

“Well, I have to keep the experiments that deliver the most learning about Chemistry.  Those are essential.   I could drop a few where the substitutes for products like salt and vanilla aren’t likely to work.  But I need to keep the experiments that substitute for ingredients like eggs, that most often will be in short supply, because that will have the largest practical impact in the real world.”

The next day…..

“Good news.  I’ve reduced the list to ten experiments that will prove ninety percent of what we need to know, and I’ve dramatically cut the budget.”

Just a cooking lesson?  No.  It’s exactly the same critical thinking process a real science would use when forced with budget limitations.

Repeating decades old experiments may demonstrate the Scientific Method, but at the risk of boredom and turning bright minds away from science.    Far better to tackle more complex real life challenges, like needing to deliver a Wedding Cake as promised, even after you’ve discovered that some critical ingredients are no longer available.

 

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“Dude – You’re Seven Million Dollars in Debt!”

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“Dude – you’re seven millions in debt!”

“That can’t be true.  All I did was borrow some money for college and buy a house.”

“Well, interest payments do add up.”

“Not that quickly. Something’s not right with my projections.”

“Well, you must have forgotten to use ‘F4’ to fix a cell or misplaced a negative sign or mis-copied a formula..  Let’s take a look and see how to fix it.”

If you are familiar with spreadsheets, this may sound like a conversation between two CPA’s of MBA’s.   Actually, it’s a critique session between two Acton Middle School Eagles, working on the Personal Financial Quest.

Real world problems.  Real world tools.   Eagles learning from Eagles.

The best learning of all.

 

 

 

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Back at the Ranch

We packed as much learning and fun into the Middle School Ranch trip as is humanly possible.

We started with a series of team based competitions.

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First, a spirited obstacle Navy Seal course contest that included trivia clues and “spelling a sentence” challenges.

Next to the paintball course for some target competition, including a few parent approved human targets.

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Finally, building a raft and sailing across the lake and back to determine which team would have first choice of a bed and an extra helping of smores.

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After so much activity, mounds of BBQ quickly disappeared.  Just after sundown, we gathered around the fireside for a ceremony where each Eagle burned a picture of “how I want others to see me,” instead choosing to pursue a heroic quality like curiosity,  courage, kindness or perseverance.

A spirited game of flashlight tag and capture the flag followed, then The Truman Show movie — and finally  – bed (or at least, “lights out.”)

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6:00 AM came early, as our first group began a long hike towards Lone Mountain to watch the sunrise together.  Why do Heroes climb mountains?   So we can see farther.

Each Eagle left a small stone or symbol on the mountain, as a solemn commitment to the heroic quality he or she had chosen the night before.

Our covenants are signed and sealed. The tribe is formed.  Let the learning continue!

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Our Natural Instincts as Parents

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Our natural instincts as parents are driven by the “happy chemicals” in the brain like Oxytocin, Dopamine, Endorphins and Serotonin and the “unhappy chemicals” like Cortisol.

When a son or daughter succeeds, Serotin rewards with a chemically induced surge of: “You are a good parent” pride. When a son or daughter struggles, Cortisol brings discomfort.   If we intervene, Dopamine sends an evolutionary reward for protecting our future DNA. Evolutionary science at work.

Unfortunately, these natural instincts often interfere with the skills needed for our sons and daughters to earn independence. One way or another, real world lessons will be learned, beyond the reach of parents. In traditional schools, the lessons often come from the shame of poor grades, exclusionary cliques or bullies who lurk in the shadows.

At Acton Academy, we reward effort and character with more freedom and responsibility. In the Elementary studio, our focus is on kindness and respecting the rights of others. In Middle School, self-management and consistently delivering high quality work are more important, as is servant leadership.  By Launchpad, the freedom and accountability systems look more like Google, Apple or Bell Labs than a school.

None of this means our natural defense systems as parents aren’t triggered. It’s an evolutionary and chemical reality. But if we truly believe in the Hero’s Journey, we have to override these impulses for the Hero’s Journey to do its magic.

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Why do You Get up in the Morning?

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So why do you get up in the morning? A sense of duty to family? For a paycheck? Out of habit?

When Launchpad Eagles were asked this question…. silence. Follow by more silence. Then a few halfhearted responses like: “College, I guess.”

These are the best and brightest young people we have. Hard working. Independent. Deeply invested in the Hero’s Journey. Still, the best we’ve offered them as a society to the meaning of life seems to be: “college.”

Only 19% of Texas High school students from graduate from college within six years of leaving high school.  According to national estimates, only half of these college graduates will find a job worthy of a college graduate.  So less than 10% of Texas high school students will find college level jobs. For disadvantaged young people, the number is far lower.

And, of course, life is about far more than your job.

As a society, we are failing our young heroes.  It would be difficult to design a system to produce worse results.

We will do a better job serving our Launnchpad Eagles, whatever it takes.  As a start, we’ll offer for challenges to help spark a calling:

  • Circles of Trust – intimate, protected discussions about what matters in life and why.
  • Tortoise-like Contemplation – protected, quiet reflection times, free from distractions. Time for free writing or deep thought, armed with only a pad, pen and an inspirational reading.
  • Learning by Doing – setting SMART goals and measuring progress towards a goal that matters to the individual. Finding the “AND” so you can access personal passions while doing something that’s valued by the world.
  • Servant Leadership – practicing serving others, in a way that encourages your growth and theirs.

We’ll also ask Launchpadders to identify what drives her or him personally, and why:

  • Who I am.
  • Where I belong.
  • My promises.
  • Winning the game.
  • Curiosity
  • Serving others.
  • Pursuing an Opportunity
  • Righting an injustice or fighting against something.
  • Fighting against something or someone.
  • Duty to a person or God.

Accessing deep pools of inner motivation is an important and never ending life skill. The answer of “Why should I get up in the morning?” is a difficult one, and many of us change our answers as we grow.

College can be an effective and transformational experience. But answering “college” to the question of “Why do you get up in the morning?” will never be a sufficient answer at Acton Academy. We expect far more from our young Launchpad heroes.

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A Civilized Debate in Launchpad

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Our Civilization discussions in Launchpad had grown stale.

Watching great college lecturers and following with Socratic Debates just no longer seemed as interesting as it once did.  So it was time to add some spice.

One third of Launchpad was assigned to play the role of Tories, those in the American Revolution who were loyal to King George.  Another third were assigned to be radicals like Thomas Paine.  The final third were neutral Colonists, unable to decide whether or not to revolt, tasked with asking questions of the Tories and Rebels.

At the end of the debate, the Neutrals would cross a line to join one side or another.  The winning side would earn more points.

Launchpadders watched a college level DVD.  Then went out and did original research, devouring letters, speeches and diaries from the period.  Finally, it was time for the debate to begin.

It was a spirited exchange, with raised voices on both sides.  Logic met with emotions and fevered appeals to loyalty.  By the end, the Rebels won by a whisker, likely just as it happened in Boston and Charleston.

Once again, we have heroes making tough choices as leaders.

 

 

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Our Personal Finance Quest

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For the last few weeks, Middle Schoolers and Launchpadders have been hard at work on a Personal Finance Quest, preparing to thrive in the real world. Our quest goes far beyond delivering a few basic financial tools and skills, delving deeply into the helpful and destructive ways money can influence our lives.

We started by investigating the meaning of money for each person. Is money a proxy for security, love, power or merely a way of keeping score?

Next Eagles had to research the “ten hardest financial decisions you’ll face” and pair off in teams, preparing for a live end of session debate. We also started keeping detailed expense logs and began to learn to use spreadsheets like Google Sheets for financial projections.

Week Two focused on income: choosing three possible jobs and looking up salary distributions on Salary.com. Eagles couldn’t simply choose a high paying job. Each had to convince semi-hostile panelists he or she could excel at the position.  Even if an Eagle were hired, the panel could set a high or low spot on the salary distribution, depending on the power of the pitch.

Week Three was spent on expenses, as Eagles used the internet to pick and price  automobiles, houses, insurance, colleges and the other financial decisions he or she would face at age twenty five. Self-taught lessons in Google Sheets became more difficult, requiring formulas, sorting and other complex operations, with only the internet as a teaching tool.

Preparation continued for the Big Financial Question Debate, with work on inductive and deductive arguments; using ethos, pathos and logos to make more compelling points and drafting, critique and revision of opening statements, rebuttals and closing.

Some of the comments from the quest have been priceless:

  • “What do you mean I have to pay taxes? I already spent my salary.”
  • “It costs how much to go to college?”
  • “If my parents knew how much it cost to raise a child, I might not be here.”

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On Friday, Eagles practiced the art of haggling – asking for a discount with “Is that the best you can do?” –then spread throughout the city to haggle with unsuspecting merchants. Almost every Eagle achieved at least 40% off list price, and the winning team averaged over 81% in discounts from retail.

The final victory – one Acton Academy parent who read the preparatory material for the outing decided to give it a try and asked: “Is that the best you can do?”

She received a $2000 discount just for having the courage to ask question!

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Our Launchpad Chemistry Creation Quest

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Launchpadders are hard at work on their Chemistry Quest Creation.

We are in Week Six of a ten week Introductory Duke University college level Chemistry course so Launchpadders have the basic vocabulary, tools, frameworks and historical perspective needed to design a Chemistry Quest for the Elementary and Middle school Eagles.

In addition, Launchpadders are:

  • Taking deep dives into the practical application of Chemistry and cutting edge challenges in areas like hydrogen fuel powered autos, cooking and the neurochemistry of addiction.
  • Writing 2000 word mini-biographies on Chemistry Heroes like Isaac Newton and Alfred Nobel, investigating the fears and passions that drove these heroes, while learning to translate complex scientific discoveries into clear language and compelling analogies that can be understood by the average person.
  • Preparing for an October 28th Exhibition with models, displays, experiments and simulations on Chemistry Heroes; Basic Chemistry and Real World Deep Dives, with the goal of inspiring visitors to learn how Chemistry can improve their lives, all powered by an engaging Chemistry Scavenger Hunt.

For each Real World Deep Dive, a Launchpadder must answer:

  • WHY – asking what problem or limitation in the natural world needs to be solved;
  • WHY NOT – describing a solution to the problem;
  • HOW – a detailed description of how Chemistry might provide the answer.

For example:

Why do people become addicted?

Why not protect people from addiction with a simple pill?

How do we need to chemically change brain receptors to achieve this?

By the end of the Quest Creation we expect to have a series of questions and experiments for the spring  Elementary and Middle School Chemistry Quests.

Learn to learn; learn to do; learn to be.

 

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Week One: Conquering Our Fears with No Excuses

Can young people learn without hourly direction from an adult?

Anyone who witnessed the  flurry of team building and excitement Week One would be full of hope.  New relationships were forged; old friendships rekindled.  One new Middle School Eagle, summed up the mood: “I got more done in the last two days than in two months in my old school.  And it was fun too!”

Yet we know by October  some parents will begin to doubt.   Who could blame them? Report cards and standardized tests will be given at other schools.  Grandparents will raise concerns about college.  All we will have by then are one or two Exhibitions and a few dozen Khan Skills, which likely will be a bit rough.

This year’s Overarching Question will become all too real: “Must a Hero Conquer fear to find True Love?”

Yes, we could point out that our first graduating Acton Academy Eagle from Guatemala has been accepted to the University of California at Berkley to study Math and Neuroscience.   But one data point is no antidote for deep unease.

Here’s a Hero Story you can bookmark for when you need some reassurance.  And when you read it,  you likely not only will feel better about trusting young people to take learning into their own hands, but begin to realize just how high they can soar.

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