Monthly Archives: September 2012

Ending week four

“Is this really the end of the fourth week?” asked one Eagle as we packed up for the day.

“Yes, hard to believe,” I replied. “Did time go by this quickly at your old school?”

“Gosh no.  School days just seemed to drag on forever.”

I remembered the words of one student, the first week of class: “Fun and hard don’t have to be opposites.”  No, they don’t.  Our Eagles have proved that fun and hard work can go hand and hand, when you hand the freedom and responsibility over to a class.

Our Eagles spent most of Friday finishing the last of the standardized tests, working on their MyHJ ‘Stars and Steppingstones” interview preparation and finishing up their scientific paradigm videos and time lines.

Below is a picture of the beginnings of their Paradigm timeline, which captures the fourteen paradigm shifts they’ve independently researched.

Eagles also – entirely on their own – made a list of thank you notes to write, assigned authors, and completed the letters.

Next week we begin to slow the learning rhythm in anticipation of the end of the session, launching the Galileo Trial Debate experience on Monday and continuing core skills, but otherwise beginning to synthesize the learning portfolios for Friday’s exhibition and celebration.

You see, a learning community isn’t like a factory.  It’s more like a living organism, with energy lows and highs and patterns, a combination of the individual learning paths of our young flesh and blood heroes in the making.  There are times to work hard, and times to slow and reflect.

As a Guide, you can lightly touch with an encouraging word and shape around the edges, but mainly you are along for a glorious ride.  The sooner we Guides realize this, the better.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch….

A pretty amazing two days of scientific experimentation “in the wild.”

We started our scientific expedition with a Socratic discussion on the one hour drive to the ranch.  Eagles  debated: (a) which of the six experiments we would conduct was the most important to the world (see previous post); (b) whether or not it would be because of the sheer value of discovery, invention or innovation; and (c) whether the scientific role of Paradigm Buster; Puzzle Poser  or Data-Gatherer best suited their personal gifts.

Eagles also practiced their “paradigm video” stories, and in each car we developed “rules of engagement” as to how scientists would act on a real expedition (these would be combined to determine how we worked with each other on the trip.)

As soon as we arrived, it was time for science – and the chance to earn the ingredients for smore’s by solving scientific puzzles .  Some photos from a few of the real world challenges:

Using trigonometry to find the height of a tree (also helpful for navigation.)

Levers – “Give me a place to stand and I’ll move the world!”

Using the Pythagorean theory for surveying.

Archimedes and buoyancy: “Is the crown pure gold or not?”

Even scientists need some fun – so we took a break for obstacle course practice and a swim in the river.

Below, Mr. Temp leads a Hero’s Journey session about picking role models for Stars and Steppingstones interviews.

Above, our experiments with Radians and the Heavens is thwarted by an overcast, but we were entertained by star gazing myths, smore’s and the Eagles’ gratitude moments.  Some of us even got a few hours of sleep.

We ended the trip with a pre-dawn ceremony at the top of Lone Mountain – 360 degree views for miles around — with each Eagle leaving his or her gratitude object, and seeing for the first time the Founding Eagle’s plaque that will forever mark the pioneering efforts of this first Eagle Middle school class.

Then it was back to Austin, on the way listening to stories about Archimedes, Copernicus and Galileo, in preparation for next week’s debate.  (And yes, a few Eagles even took a nap when we got back.)

Many thanks for all the parents and Guides who joined in for the adventure!

3.  Finally, and most importantly, ask what behaviors would be appropriate for a  scientist on an important scientific mission.  Ask one student to keep a list that we can discuss when you arrive.

Preparing for a Paradigm Shift

Today we prepared for the scientific expedition to the ranch, by continuing to prepare the following scientific experiments and work on the paradigm film.

Some questions we asked:

Question I: The Value of Discovery, Invention and Innovation

If you were king, which of the scientific challenges below would be worth supporting with money and attention?  Why?

1.  Geometry and surveying:

2.  Trigonometry and trees

3.  Buoyancy and crowns

4.  Radians and the heavens

5.   Time and timekeeping

6.  Levers and the power to move.

Question II:  The Value of Scientists

 Which scientist has added more value to science: the Discoverer; the Puzzle Poser who proposes puzzles to be solved or the Data-Man, the person who carefully collects and measures data?  Which are your gifts best suited for?  Why?

Question III:  Paradigm shifts

 Do any of the discoveries above qualify as paradigm shifts?  Why or why not?

In Art, Eagles continued to work on their self portraits.

Apprentice scientists prepare for real world science

We lightened the core skills workload today, focusing our Khan work on the Pythagorean Theory in order to get ready for our “applied science” ranch trip on Wednesday

Ms Abigail continued her discussion with students about what makes a good story, including a “save the cat” moment to make your lead character likable. Eagles will be practicing their storytelling, writing and filmmaking skills, first honing their scientific paradigm stories, and then shortly thereafter beginning work on a separate film project that will require them to create, pitch, write and film on the question: “Does the past determine the future?”

During project time, Eagles broke into teams to make sundials, inclinometers and star finders that they will use to execute real world science experiments on the ranch.

Lights, Camera, Eagles

Eagles are juggling up to five personal priorities/goals at the moment; some using the leadership rubrics we discussed, others struggling.  Together, the class exceeded its goals of 140 Khan math skills added this week, but two Eagles failed to reach their minimum of 20 skills, so they did not earn the privilege of free time.

At Acton Academy, just like the real world, failure happens often, and is celebrated if it’s early and inexpensive, and leads to valuable lessons.

Friday we continued with our series of standardized reading and math tests, that we hope to wrap up soon (we consider these tests a necessary evil.)

On a positive note, Abigail introduced the new film project, our major writing and communication core skills challenge for the fall, which will involve pitching; story boarding, writing and shooting a film, the be show at the AAMS film festival in December.

Eagles watched trailers from the Toronto Film Festival and as they thought about their films and discussed:  What is a film?  What is a story? Is your life a story?  What makes a good story? They explored the beginning, middle, end of a story and turning points, before dividing into groups to share ideas to compare and contrast various films.

Charlie, Ellie, Jack were elected to the first Governing Council, in a close contest, where all candidates were asked to read selections from The Prince warning about flattery. Next week – to the ranch, to apply science and math to the real world, in search of new paradigms!

What’s your paradigm?

After a morning of core skills and reading, writing and math – and PE –  today in project time we introduced our first scientific challenge.

Unlike many schools, which focus on the scientific method itself as the glue for a disparate smorgasbord of scientific topis, and often veer dangerously close to Scientism (science explains everything), we’re going to take a more Socratic, skeptical – and, well – scientific view of science as a whole, and expand from scientific discovery alone, to include invention and innovation.

That means using Thomas Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions – or paradigm shifts – as our jumping off place.  So today we introduced a series of challenges about paradigms and watched videos on the topic and discussed the following questions:

1. What is more important in science – the scientific method itself or paradigm shifts?

2. Who accomplishes more: paradigm busters; those who pose and ponder puzzles; or those who do the hard work of collecting data?

3.  What matters more: discovery, invention or innovation?

Eagles then chose from a list of scientific heroes and paradigms the one person and period they wanted to research and soon were hard at work.  We’ll get to see their work in  an end of session public demonstration.

Above – students signing up for their scientific heroes and paradigms.

Next week – the ranch trip, where we will apply math and the scientific method in the real world.

Below: Eagles at the new Acton Bistro.

Becoming a writer

Students have been writing in their journals every day; some have been writing a lot; others far less.  Today, we made our first major push into more serious writing.

After checking the day’s SMART goals in morning huddle, we dove straight into the writing project.

Eagles started by reading journal entries from four authors chosen by Ms Abigail: J.K. Rowling on inventing the word “horcrux;” Anne Frank’s diary;  a post from an eighteen year old learning a lesson about “eye contact;” and an entry from a college student about his cat. As they read, each student noted the most powerful parts of each selection.

Next, we had a short Socratic discussion on what elements made for strong writing: “being specific;” “describing sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touch;” and “connecting with the reader’s emotions” were among the student’s observations. We also discussed “man vs man; man versus nature; and man versus himself/herself” as different ways to describe classic conflicts.

We then adjourned for each student to spend fifteen minutes of solitude considering the question: “At the end of your hero’s journey, which question will be most important to you: (1) Have I contributed something meaningful? (2) Was I a good person? or (3) Who did I love, and who loved me?”

Eagles then had thirty minutes to turn their ideas into a rough draft. As shown below, some wrote at desks; some in bean bag chairs; others outside near the lake.

After the drafts we complete, Eagles broke into groups of three, to read their favorite sentences, and receive affirmation and coaching from their peers, reinforcing the “power elements” they had identified before.

Two and a half hours of a concentrated writing workshop had passed in an instant, with the students making almost all of the discoveries. In the “lessons learned,” a powerful series of ideas surfaced about “how to write” (learn to do); about how writing affects your hero’s journey (learn to be) and about how the process we had used to create and critique writing could be improved.

In the afternoon, Eagles focused on their new MyHJ assignments of finding a Guide and Running Partner, and core skills.

Decisions, decisions

Today, the students got even more into the rhythm of core skills.  One student even remarked: “I never know math could be fun until I tried Khan.  I’ve even got my eight year old brother doing it, an hour each day.”

We’re particularly stressing the importance of setting SMART goals and striving for them.
And students are becoming more and more comfortable with the Socratic Method: listening, building and offering evidence.  One student today even referred to two past comments, weaving them together to make a more powerful point.

In Project Time, Eagles took on three decision making challenges, in the form of Acton sim games: Robo-rush (trial and error); Cha-Ching (a sales funnel) and Galactic Zappers (an assembly line process), contrasting these systematic ways to solve a problem with yesterday’s more “one off” methods.

Eagles now have seven different decision making processes to call on as leaders.  Quite an accomplishment for just one week.

Choosing Leaders

Now that the student “contract of promises” and “rules of engagement” have been drafted and signed, it’s time to choose leaders and start establishing classroom norms as habits.  This is difficult work.

Today we introduced a system of “prices” designed to encourage Eagles to practice the key skills of “listening respectfully” and “respecting our studio space” that were promised in the contract and rules of engagement.

Here’s how it works: (1) Each student received three poker chips for the week; (2) every time a student violates one of the listening practices, he or she must give up a chip; (3) if ever a student violates a listening covenant and has no chips left, the entire group looses a special lunch treat on Friday; (4) you may give someone else your chips, but also may require a special promise in return.  (5) If the studio isn’t ready with “everything in its place” by 8:30 AM every morning, everyone loses a chip.

Students also received a new weekly goals sheet, with special points for setting and reaching individually set reading, writing and math targets.  If the class as a whole scores enough points during the week, they earn free time on Friday.

The effect?  Core skills time went from a noisy and sometimes out of hand experience, to having fourteen students completely focused, each managing their own tasks and goals, with the room completely silent.  One student said: “It was great.  I was in ‘flow’ for over an hour and a half.”

Step by step, we’re developing leaders with powerful learning habits.

The focus in project time was extending today’s journalling question of: “Should leaders be chosen because of popularity, skills or character?”  There’s a great deal of energy around this question, because Town Council elections are the end of this week.

Eagles tackled three different types of challenges: (1) 80/20 Pareto challenges with the “poker chip” pick up and “big rocks” experiment, where you had to learn to focus and shift to capture the most value, under time pressure; (2) A paint-by-the numbers challenge where you had to consider aesthetics and the of completely finishing; and (3) A “defuse the bomb” challenge where you had to be precisely correct, or there were catastrophic consequences.

Eagles developed strategy “rules” for each of the different challenges, kept track of the points scored by each team, and discussed which type of challenge they were best suited for as a leader, and how cost, benefit and risk affected the various strategies.

Tomorrow we shift from “one off” challenges to process based decision making.

Heroic Committments

This was an important day for our Acton Eagles.  We continued to work on journaling (today on the question of how “learning styles” and “love languages” affect Heroes’  Journeys and leadership styles); Khan Academy and “reading your favorite book,” as well as leadership challenges during project time (“untie the knot” and “comfort, challenge and panic zones”.)

Much more importantly, today each Acton Eagle signed the Contract of Promises; Rules of Engagement; Governance Framework and They Say-We Say rubric – making a deeply personal commitment to each of his or her peers.  Before doing so, each student reflected on how the Founding Fathers were really just ordinary people, with extraordinary courage, much like themselves.  We also discussed the bravery of the men and women of the Alamo, accepting Colonel Travis’ challenge and crossing the line he had drawn in the sand.  Then, one-by-one, and in complete silence, each Eagle came forward and signed the documents.

Note that these founding documents are the student’s creation.  In less than two weeks, our Eagles have proposed and debated principles, drafted and wordsmithed and finalized a series of promises and pledges that will govern their own learning.  Quite extraordinary for any group, of any age.

We still have many trials and challenges ahead: electing leaders for their skills and judgment rather than popularity; our Guides staying in Socratic mode; developing and reinforcing the habit of committing to learning goals and following through, especially when learning becomes difficult.  But the foundation has been laid – by the students themselves.

Lots of Action

Lots of action at Acton Academy today.  First, in core skills time, catching up on the initial Hero’s Journey exercises, Khan Academy and journaling about yesterday’s personal discoveries concerning “time perspectives” (past/present/future and optimistic/pessimistic.)

Notice how some students prefer working on core skills in groups; others solo.

As Eagle’s contemplate signing the “contract of promises” and “rules of engagement” that they created that will govern their learning community, there’s been a great deal of energy around the election of the three Council Members (a governance system they designed) next week.

Our three Thomas Jefferson’s are shown below, making final adjustments in advance of tomorrow’s ratification of the governing documents.

Ms. Zoey again had the students working on portrait painting just before lunch.

After lunch, during project time we opened with an intense Hero’s Journey session about “beginning with the end in mind” where Eagles imagined they had just died and contemplated this in darkness for five minutes before beginning to draft their eulogies and epitaphs.

The remainder of project time was spent discovering each student’s learning style (auditory; visual; tactile) and “love language” (how they feel treasured), which are the start of a series of challenges to explore what type of leaders they want to elect.

Self-Governance, Art, and Time

After a morning of Core Skills work, the Eagles rearranged their classroom to make room for Art.  Using rulers and mechanical pencils, they sketched grids to transfer photos of their past selves onto heavy-weight, pro-grade paper.  You’ll view their finished pastel drawings at an exhibit in December at Amy’s Ice Cream- double yum.

Lunch in the glorious outdoors, then Eagles returned to their work tables for an energetic discussion on self-governance.  This intense group interaction segued into introspection as they completed the Time Paradox test, gaining insight into their individual Time Perspectives- how they perceive their pasts, their presents, and their futures.  Ask them about their scores, and what they learned from the experience.  You may even chose to take the test yourselves- find it at

Acton Olympics

A big day for both the elementary and middle school students with the Acton Olympics – well done Coach Carpenter!   Middle school students competed in the mile run, 40 yard dash, plank hold, push ups and other events, setting personal records that they will work to surpass all year – and with enough improvement as a team, earn a special prize from Coach C.

Afterwards in the classroom, we had an intense discussion about “Why are you here?” that would have warmed the heart of any parent – special kudos to Jack for his description of “being placed on the earth to do something important,” his willingness to stand out “dressed in yellow, even if everyone else is dressed in black;” his belief that “fun” and “hard” are not opposites, and that “making a joke” out of your life or another’s life isn’t’t something Eagles should tolerate.

Thanks too for Sarah’s courage to take a stand counter to the rest of the group; Hayes’ amazing display of Socratic skills and Ana’s testimony as to the preciousness of life.

Finally, we closed out with more hard work on setting SMART goals, the Student Contract and Rules of Engagement.  Tomorrow, we go deep into core skills and accountability.

Finishing strong – week one

Today marked an important turning point for our Eagles.

During the morning, Eagles worked on the ERB standardized tests.  While necessary, the teacher directed nature of the tests soon had our self directed heroes reverting to a teacher driven paradigm: they stopped thinking for themselves, started treating Guides as teachers and began asking the most minute questions – asking at every step to be told what to do next.

Add to this a messy classroom and a rowdy outburst after “free time” that approached Lord of the Flies level chaos, and you would have thought it was time for the adults in the room to re-establish some order.

Hayes approached a Guide and asked if some discipline could be imposed.  When informed that this was the role of class leaders, and that Guides would not intervene, an important transformation took place:

Hayes called an impromptu meeting of the leaders of the school (everyone immediately volunteered.)  In just a few minutes, order was reestablished by the Eagles themselves, and they soon had a self organized system for keeping the classroom clean and tidy – with no intervention by the Guides.

What’s this have to do with learning reading, writing and math?  Everything.  Near the end of the day, I heard one of our Eagles say to another: “I’m upset the weekend is coming up. I never believed I could miss being in school.”

Now that our Eagles realize that learning is their responsibility, get ready for them to soar.

Above: Anna leads a discussion on the “Student Covenants” and “Rules of Engagement” that will be used to self govern the class.

Building Community

At Acton Academy, we spend an enormous amount of time and energy the first five weeks building a powerful learning community, constructed by the students.

Today, we continued to establish the reading, writing (communications) and math rhythms for core skills, while Ms Anna launched the start of Project Time with a series of experiences that equip students to develop their own “rules of engagement” that will determine how the community governs itself.

Without knowing it, Eagles are absorbing the lessons and habits required to run a world class organization, while they learn.  Notice the intensity of concentration that’s already evident.

A Day in the Barton Creek Jungle

Thanks to Kenzie for this update:

Today was terrific day at Acton Academy! We had our first field field trip. We learned how to trust each other, and guide one another along the way of learning. We started out learning some handy tricks, then did some physical activity’s, then completed a block game that tricked our minds and were the first class in five years to get the cubes in order from greatest to least with the amount 31 tries, then ended rock climbing with a partner. When we got back to the school we discussed the generous traits that each person did for one another.

(Don’t forget to bring *baby pictures and books*)

Thank You!!

September 4th – Observations

Attached are some photos from the day, starting from the first hero’s walk (notice the first photo of Coach Carpenter on the lower left!

Thank you to Ms. Abigail and Ellie for these observations:

– Ellie took ownership of her new space and acted as a community-minded running buddy by being the first to volunteer to oversee/brainstorm room cleaning tasks

-Jack showed good leadership and listening skills when he volunteered to take a turn moderating the question session.

-Charlie, during art, relayed a story he’d read (about a girl who claimed her eyes were the biggest things in the world because they could contain everything she’s seen) that added dimension to the task at hand.

– Ellie would like to add that Pace was a great Socratic discussion leader during the part of the day when we broke into two groups to ask and answer questions from the question  box

The First Day of Acton Academy Middle School

Thanks to Kenzie and Mason for agreeing to be our first classroom reporters.  Below is their report:

September 4th 2012

The first day of school has arrived, along with many new Acton eagles. They are ready to start their new Journey: A hero’s journey. This morning we got to get to know everybody and learn more about each person by asking them simple question about themselves. In art we learned the basics of making a self-portrait . *remember to bring a baby picture by Thursday!!!* And to kick off the day, we got started with Khan Academy. That’s all for today!  Hope you had a good summer!!!