Monthly Archives: October 2012

Critiquing critiques

Today, along with Core Skills and our Gaming Quest, we worked on critiquing skills.

Abigail began the day with our Halloween clad Eagles by asking:  “Is it more important when pursuing excellence to practice hard or have a world class example?” and demonstrated how feedback improved a butterfly drawn by a six year old child.

We then each critiqued writing from the Eagle’s journals, so students could practice the art of writing as “re-writing.”

Ms Anna continued the day with a workshop on critiquing itself, using fresh baked zucchini bread as a tool to practice the four rules for critiques: (Be kind; Be specific; Be helpful; and Critique the work and not the person;) as well as a procedure for giving powerful feedback:  (1) Presentation of work (audience is silent; presenter asks a focusing question); (2) Audience feedback (warm; cold; warm) and (3) Presenter reflection (comments on how and why the feedback was helpful.)

Eagles ended with a story boarding exercise, sequencing and editing photos to hone their storytelling and story boarding skills for the film project.

In between, Mr Temp held court as Curious George’s Man-in-the Yellow-Hat, discussing this week’s MyHJ “look-in-the-mirror” experience on loyalty (look closely, and you’ll see George in the background.)

probability and the choices we make

This afternoon, Ms. Anna launched a new series of probability-based Quests for the MS’ers.  After discussing the concepts (and even the morality) of games of skill vs. games of chance, students relished the opportunity to expand their own informed opinions based on their Quest discoveries.

Meanwhile, back on the Commons… The Elementary School, with its rigorous yet self-generated standards of decorum (specifically in the areas of focus, sportsmanship, and cleanliness), has threatened legal action against the Middle School for a perceived defamation of brand image.  The MS will meet tomorrow morning in a Town Hall format to discuss these accusations and formulate potential responses.

As they weigh the potential outcomes of various possible actions and reactions, they will likely indulge in the quintessentially human hobby of also considering probable counter-moves by their fellow travelers/adversaries.

Stay tuned!

Friday at AA MS

Friday started with videos and a discussion about the power of compounding – both in terms of the compounding of interest on money and the power of good deeds to spread throughout a population.

The morning included an intense focus on Core Skills and MyHJ, as Eagles worked hard to catch up on SMART goals before Monday’s deadlines.  Ellie also won a close contest for the best “end of week written reflections,” barely edging our Kenzie in voting for the weekly honor and then besting Jack’s entry last week.

Eagles reading and critiquing weekly reflections.

After lunch, there was a mad dash to the finish for the 3 D Game lab challenges on “the past determining the future.” Next week we begin a new quest on probabilities and statistics.

Friday winds down with an hour of Game Time.

Tragedy of the Commons and de Tocqueville

Why can a few distracted students infect an entire learning community?  Why is it so hard to keep the classroom clean?

Today we opened with a video on the Tragedy of the Commons and a discussion about why public spaces so often are abused.  This was followed by video on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, followed by a discussion of how a civil society helps intermediate between individuals and government, civilizing the first and restraining the latter.

These discussions, and observations by our MS Eagle “industrial spies” of the alien culture in the AA Elementary School, led our Eagles to propose changes in the classroom architecture and governance.  Now we have “quiet zone” three sided cubicles (see ) in one area and two other dedicated classroom areas, each with its own Mayor in charge of maintaining “focus.”

All of this led a a burst of productivity: in Core Skills; in 3D Game Lab and in the Film Project.

Intense focus in Core Skills.

Working on story boarding the Film Project (thanks to Matt Hovis for yesterday’s expert advice!)

Working hard to unlock the final “Does the past determine the future?” challenge in the 3D Game Lab quest.

Distraction, Focus and a Yurt

We opened today by playing video clips of Top Gun pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise) panicking and spinning his F14, killing his best friend Goose; juxtaposed by a clip of the calm voice of Sully Sullenberg, as he safely guided US Air flight 1549 into the Hudson, saving all aboard

The topic: Distraction versus Focus.  The difference between faux heroes like Maverick, full of blusters, and the quiet, real heroes like Sully, who train hour after hour in the simulator; who are focused and diligent; who prepare for when their name is called.

Focus is important. That’s why today we put in a series of steps to remove those students who are struggling with distraction.  Taking away potential distractions, step by step, until they can catch up with the rest of the community. Middle Schoolers love community; but participating in a community is a privilege that cannot be allowed to become a distraction.

Some of you have been wondering, “What’s a Yurt?”  Here are pictures of our Yurt, a special outdoor place where our Eagles listen and retell the great stories of history, engaging in Socratic discussion with Ms. Laura around our one great question of History: Why do some civilizations rise, and others fall?


Integration and Accountability

Many people ask how we integrate the disparate parts of a day into a single narrative.

Here’s an example:

We launched our morning huddle with a video clip of Susan Boyle, the surprising singer who bravely overwhelmed skeptics with her powerful voice on the 2009 version of Britain’s.  The point?  That following your dream requires perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Each Eagle then contributed an “imagine this” scenario, playing the part of the hero in his or her special moment (like winning the Super Bowl or debuting on Broadway.)

Next we focused on SMART goals for the morning in Core Skills; listened to Ms. Samantha’s “trial and error” hero story; finished self portraits in Art and continued with the Game Lab 3D work on probabilities and decision trees.

Ms. Samantha’s Hero Story.

At the final huddle, all this was wrapped into a discussion about using probabilities and decision trees, the need to adjust (but not abandon) our dreams as life happens – for example, a severe knee injury might require you to become an NFL team owner instead of an NFL quarterback  — and how our work with SMART goals in Core Skills not only imbed perseverance as a habit, but provides basic skills to fall back on when life throws us a curve.

All of this served  as a reminder that our Eagles need to be weighing what type of Apprenticeship they want to test in the spring.

Above, the decision tree used at day;s end that links an Eagles gifts, joy and opportunities to his or her dreams for tomorrow, providing a visual map of how life can force us to adapt.

Finally, we are adding even more accountability and consequences to the mix, so be prepared to hear some squawks.

Above – a more obvious signalling device to help students understand which “discussion mode is in effect: “red” is full focus; “yellow” collaboration; “green” free time.

The first five weeks we focused on building the community – making it a gathering no one ever wants to miss.  Then we added SMART and Excellence goals to encourage the habit of hard work.  Soon the few students who are still struggling with committing completely to day to day work will find themselves increasingly removed — literally hell for middle schoolers – until they find the focus needed to excel.

Because at Acton Academy, we are very serious about the learning covenants that our Eagles and Guides signed.

Excellence Goals and History-in-the-Yurt

We started today with a clip from “Karate Kid” about mastery, as a way to launch our new Excellence Goals.

SMART goals are terrific for daily and weekly progress; Excellence Goals are for bigger and longer term objectives, the multi-week commitments and milestones required to master a skill or deeply imbed a habit.   For example: a SMART goal would help you learn a few words of Spanish; an Excellence Goal would be to work for twelve weeks on Rosetta Stone to be able to read Don Quixote in Spanish.

We started today by setting our SMART goals for the week. By Wednesday, each Eagle also will have set a longer term Excellence Goal in vocabulary; handwriting; typing; a Rosetta Language or the Independent Learner or Running Partner badges.

During project time, Ms Anna introduced Decision Chains as another problem solving tool.

In the most exciting development of the day, Ms Laura launched History-in-the-Yurt, which required each Eagle to submit their favorite “big question” about history.

What’s a Yurt? You’ll have to ask an Eagle to find out.

Eagles guiding Eagles

Many outsiders have been skeptical when I predict we’ll find peer guiding and peer course creation to be far more powerful than using adult leaders.  After all, who would believe that a middle or high schooler could be trusted with the learning of an younger student?

Today we had our first real test as two elementary school Eagles, Lazlo and Sam, came into the middle school to lead the six MS Eagles who had reached 50 skills in Khan  in an introduction to the Manga High math program (our three MS’ers who graduated from AA ES already know Manga.)  Given the round of applause at the end, the mission was a rousing success.

The Elementary Eagles invited the MS’ers to join them in a Manga challenge against a high school.  Last year, the ES’ers made it all the way to third place in all of North America, competing against middle schools and high schools.

We worked hard this week on SMART goals and encouraging Eagles to set goals and hold themselves and their Running Partners for “giving their best.”  We’ll continue that emphasis in the weeks ahead.

Ms Abigail pushed forward on the film project.  Below an Eagle is presenting a specific filming technique he had researched, as Eagles discuss how they might use it in their individual films.

How bright is the future of our Eagles?  So bright, they have to wear shades!

Eagles spent much of today in collaboration mode.  They held group discussions on decision making and process vs.result, ran quick meetings among film crews, had an usually competitive PE, and worked with running partners on 3D GameLab Quest projects.

On top of the nuts and bolts learning they foment, these team activities provide inspiration and joy- but character and life skills are in the forefront as students learn for themselves how to manage the occasional frustrations and disagreements of group work.  Balancing their individual needs and desires with those of their team and community proves an exciting challenge, and balances the individual and intensely focused work the students do as they go ever deeper into math, reflection writing, and other core skills.

The day ended with a beautiful surprise note from Ms. Laura, presenting her Gift of the Yurt.  Starting next week, the Eagles will meet for world history stories and discussions in a real yurt (which will move with us to our new campus next September), another way for these young men and women to come together as a meaningful, synergistic community.


Hard work and the Hero’s Journey

Lots of hard work today in Core Skills today – on Khan; journaling, reading and the film project.

We also dug deeply into the Hero’s Journey, discussing the spring apprenticeships that will be supported by the MyHJ program and in Ms Anna’s story mapping of the Hero’s Journey archetype (see below.)

It’s not all hard work at AA.  Can you identify the masked marauder who appeared today during free time?

Relaunching the learning community

Monday was a difficult day in many ways; it seemed many of the new learning habits had worn off after a week off.  Not surprising, since new habits take more than a few weeks to deeply imbed.

Our response: simplify; provide perspective; appeal to heroes; reinforce shared accountability.

First, to simplify.  Some Eagles were overwhelmed by five or more types of assignments they had to juggle – an issue that would vex many adults.

So we regrouped deliverables under three headings: Core Skills; Projects and Quests; and MyHJ and the new Learning Badges.

Next, provide perspective.  That meant a new map, a wall display we could use to track progress, as we addressed four defining questions: Who am I?; What promises must be made and kept?; Who is walking with me?; and Why am I here?

We’ll use this display to mark our journey, moving from experiences designed to track: “Who am I?” –  and exploring individual Gifts; Joy & Flow and Opportunities – and Core Skill practice to identify which Apprenticeship will be right for each Eagle in the spring.

 Appeal to Heroes:  we started the morning with a video on Richard Branson and a quote from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Did our Eagles aspire to lives in a cubicle?

Or taking on life as an adventure, like Richard Branson?

Branson started the first of his 400 companies at 16.  We went around the room, and asked each Eagle how many years between their current age and 16, and what would be the most important this week to get them back on the right path?

Finally, accountability.  We put renewed emphasis on tracking SMART goals, and the responsibility of Running Partners to hold each other accountable.

Before long, the learning community was humming with energy again.

Breaking ground

Today was a big day for Acton Academy as we broke ground for the new campus, which will open this summer just east of the University of Texas on the corner of Alexander and Manor.

While the facilities will be “state-of-the-art,” the most important part of Acton Academy will remain the courage of our Eagles and their families.  Far too many schools lose this perspective when it comes time to move into new buildings; ours won’t be one of them!

After the celebration, it was back to Core Skills and the re-introduction of SMART goals to focus the attention of our Eagles.  And Ms Anna introduced the 3D Game Lab project, which will focus on probability, statistics and prediction for the next nine weeks, as Eagles learn the 21st century skill of game creation and we continue to explore the “Will the past determine the future?” overarching question for the year.

Perspective, Energy and Rhythms

The first task in any new school is establishing a healthy learning culture:  this requires paying attention to perspective, energy and rhythms.

Perspective means giving Eagles a map showing where we are heading as a group, and how it connects to their personal journey.  The map should display the final goals; important  mileposts and include the most important questions we will ask.  A map helps us to pause occasionally; mark where we are in the journey; reflect on where we have been and foreshadow where we are going next.

Included with this map should be an easy to read list of projects and mini-projects for the session and a weekly schedule to shows at a glance when we will be in Core Skills; Art; PE; History or Project time.

The more uncertainty you can remove by providing a road map and schedule, the more energy that goes into discovery and deep learning.

Monitoring energy is important too.  We want the class humming with excitement.  We want our Eagles engaged, in flow, laser focused, losing themselves in the learning. But such engagement can only be sustained for so long before you need a break.  And points of reflection are needed to synthesize ideas and let important lessons soak in.

That’s why we carefully think about the flow of energy during a six week session, and include exhibitions to add excitement, as well as times of reflection to recharge.  We take a similar approach to energy management when designing the weekly  and daily schedules and when planning Socratic Discussions.

One student even came up with an idea we adopted: color coding the peaks and valleys in energy.  A “red” rectangle posted on the wall mans we are fully focused in Socratic mode – it’s like the “red light” in recording studios  – in our case signaling that serious learning is taking place. Discussion “rules of engagement” are in force, so no squirming in your seat; no getting up for the bathroom or a snack.

The “yellow” sign means collaborative rules are in effect: Eagles can move around or talk quietly with others, as long as they aren’t disturbing anyone else.  A “green” sign means free time.

Intense, high energy “red” periods can only be maintained for brief periods, usually no more than fifteen to twenty minutes; “yellow” collaborative time for an hour to two hours, particularly if individuals are shifting between projects and skills;  “green” periods need to be no longer than fifteen minutes, but are critical to blowing off excess energy or mentally recharging.

Within discussions, forcing students to take a stand and defend it raises classroom energy.  So does asking concrete A/B choice questions.  So does asking for specific examples and evidence to back up a point or conclusion.  Conceptual questions drain energy.  Conceptual questions may be needed for synthesis or deep learning, but must be used judiciously:  like a pilot, a Socratic Guide only has so much energy to burn before the conversation stalls.

Perspective, energy and rhythms – if we manage these well, deep learning is sure to follow.

How do you inspire deep learning?

How do you inspire deep learning?

This is perhaps the most difficult question in education, and I must admit, still a bit of black magic.  If we remove incarceration – our outmoded educational system’s preferred for of persuasion – what will inspire students to learn?

So far, we’ve found a mix of tactics.  First, make it fun, particularly to do something in a group.  Make it clear that the work will be shown to others; preferably to the public.  Stage a debate.

Provide clear standards of excellence; a great piece of writing; great art; a beautiful bridge; then ask students to develop a rubric to measure the differences between their work and the higher standard.

Don’t criticize.  Simply inquire: Is this your best work?  If not, invite them to try again. Or ask: what would you do differently next time? Even better, invite a peer to become a Running Partner, trained to give positive critiques.

Don’t be afraid of using gamification.  Competition works. So do game techniques, particularly for easily measured skills like math.

Be patient.  Our Eagles want to do great work.  But you have to give them the freedom to discover this from within.

“Mom, I miss school.”

What’s the best measure of customer satisfaction?  At our school, it’s the fact that our Eagles want to be here. To us, being a great school isn’t about standardized test scores, perfect SAT’s or straight A’s, but simply having a place where Eagles love to gather, share and learn.

At Acton, we run on an (almost) year round schedule, with five to seven week sprints, followed by a week off from school.  The Guides aren’t on vacation this week, but hard at work  preparing the next sequence of experiences and adventures.  So I thought I’d use these next few days to record some “lessons learned” from the first session, to help others who might be considering opening a school like ours.

We’ve succeeded in creating a sense of excitement and belonging.  There was great energy as we asked students questions about themselves, their hero’s journey and how they would change the world.  Eagles drafted and ratified their own “rules of engagement” and governance system. We’ve worked hard AND had a lot of fun.

Once you’ve got a place where young people want to belong, you have the magic raw materials of energy and commitment that will lead to excellence and transformational learning.   Without this, it’s just another institution run by grown ups.

Where did the time go?

With gravitas and quiet excitement, the Eagles welcomed parents and grandparents into their classroom this morning to share their hard work from the past five weeks.  Students led their parents on math tours of Khan Academy, talked them through the scientific paradigm shift timeline they built together, and shared writing and art.  They demonstrated their rules of engagement and how they hold one another accountable for keeping the classroom a terrific learning environment.  The Eagles regrouped after a brief critique session with their running partners, and with the honesty, candor and courage they regularly show during discussion mode, shared their thoughts and opinions in front of a captive parent audience.

More courage about public speaking followed after lunch when the Eagles recreated the Trial of Galileo.  The Pope and his allies presented their case to a panel of judges, then Galileo and his allies presented their well-reasearched defense.  As in the real world, judges were faced with hard decisions- not just about the facts of the case but about their own ethics as well.  Would they let their opinions be bought for the price of gold?  Your Eagles can talk you through the outcome.

Congratulations to a remarkable group of young men and women on the first leg of their Hero’s Journeys at Acton.  Enjoy a well-earned week of down time!  See you on the 15th for our groundbreaking ceremony at the new campus (then back to Riverside campus for our launch of the next session).

Pitching your film idea

Core Skills time featured lots of work on Khan Academy, as well as the Eagles  pitching their script ideas to the class. Later in the day, the Eagles voted to turn Charlie, James and Mason’s scripts into real films over the next few months

Later in the afternoon, Ms Anna continued to work with the Pope, Galileo’s team and our panel of judges to prepare for Friday’s trial, and Jasper’s dad David Herman came to give his Hero’s story about working in Hollywood, as well as sharing some tips on acting and directing.

We also implemented Pace’s idea of signalling what mode the class was in: Red for discussion time, with all Rules of Engagement in force; Yellow for collaborative time when students can mill around freely, as long as no one who is focused on work is being disturbed; and Green for free time.  Interestingly, we calculated that in the average day Eagles spend 1-1.5 hours in Red (discussion) mode; 1.5 hours in Green (free) mode (including the 30 minutes before class officially starts); and 4-4.5 hours in Yellow (collaborative) mode.

Spending 5.5 to 6 hours intensely “on task” every day is the reason we can pack so much discovery and learning into a single day.

Pitching and Preparing for Trial

Core skills today was spent on Khan and developing pitch ideas for the film project.  Then in Art, working to complete the Eagle’s portraits.

Then Mr. Temp joined us for a My Hero’s Journey session that will have each Eagle
keeping a promise journal, to record promises made and promises kept.

Project time continued work on the Galileo trial, with each Eagle writing an ethos, pathos or logos based argument, and auditioning for a role as Galileo or the Pope in Friday’s trial.

Oh yes, and the Eagles decided to make today crazy hat day.

Striving for Excellence and Galileo Galilei’s Trial

Our Eagles love learning and being with each other.  Now it’s time to aspire to excellence.

Inspired by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s NutureShock and Ron Berman’s An Ethic of Excellence, we are turning over even more responsibility for managing the learning environment to the three member Council and the Eagles themselves, but providing them with language to hold each other accountable (see below):

We also introduced a new accountability system run completely by the students themselves:

In Core Skills, students began planning and executing their Khan Academy lessons for the next nine weeks, by which time we expect every AA MS student to have demonstrated mastery in arithmetic and the other AA Elementary School Math skills (many students already have accelerated past this.) Ms Abigail continued guiding students in writing the storyline for their the “Past/Future” film project.

Ms Zoey continued the self portrait project in Art.

Ms Anna introduce the Galileo Trial debate, where over the next several days Eagles will research and assume roles to recreate Galileo’s dilemma of whether to advance or abandon his heliocentric paradigm, with real world consequences for all – either lost freedom for Galileo and his friends (lost free time) or lost riches for the Church (a loss of chocolate coins.)

Researching the trial of Galileo.

Shifting paradigms

Today we started to consolidate all of the learning that’s taken place in the last four weeks, by beginning to reorganize and synthesize the portfolios in preparation for
Friday’s celebration.

Eagles also revisited and refilmed their paradigm mini-film projects, each choosing a scientific hero who changed the world by having the courage to introduce a totally new way of looking at the natural world.

Researching scientific heroes.

A rough draft of the timeline for 14 scientific paradigm shifts.

A pictograph of how scientific paradigms are related today.

Ms Abigail continued with the work on the major “How does the past determine the future?” film project.

Some nice words about AA MS from education disruption guru Carolyn VanderArk, who visited a few weeks ago: