Monthly Archives: November 2012

Asking the customers

Customer feedback matters a lot at Acton Academy.  So we continually question our Eagles about what matters to them.

This week Ms. Laura spent time in the Yurt asking what were the most important parts of AAA to preserve for the future.  Here, unedited, are the Eagle’s responses:

  1.  Keep discussion time
  2. Keep the Socratic method
  3. Keep the students in charge of writing the guidelines
  4. Guidelines – not rules
  5. Have more interviews with heroes – people sharing their stories to us
  6. Keep letting students work at their own pace
  7. Keep freedom alive
  8. Create a separate space for town meetings – like a council room
  9. Have proof that we can do things in the real world – we can contribute and think and make good decisions
  10. Attract more students – grow! Advertise with sweatshirts and lawn signs J
  11. Get more space
  12. Have more outside time
  13. Don’t spend too much money
  14. Keep the morning launches with great video clips
  15. And of course, one Eagle really wants sports teams and a cafeteria!

Power tends to corrupt

“Power corrupts” is the phrase often associated with Lord Acton.  But what Lord Acton actually wrote was: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There’s a big difference between the first quote and the second – the words “tends to” and “absolute” and “absolutely.”  Our Acton Eagles understand the difference, because they actively lead their own community.

Yesterday we elected a new Council, in accordance with the governing principles drafted by the Eagles.

Under the terms of the governing constitution, three members are elected; each Eagle has three votes to cast; there must be at least one male and one female on the Council; term limits are enforced and no member can serve a second term until every Eagle has a chance to serve at least once.

Before the vote, a discussion.  Which is most important when electing a leader: character, skill or charisma?  What criteria will you use to evaluate candidates?  Should the quality of the campaign speeches count a little or a lot?

Six nominations; six speeches; 42 votes. Each candidate had read chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and would address in his or her speech whether it was better as a leader to be loved or feared.

Pictures from three of the speeches below.

The new Council members each were elected by a one vote margin. In other words, we had no shortage of leadership material.

Next came the post election discussion.  Did you use logic in casting your vote? Emotion? Intuition?  Did you stick to your criteria or abandon them?

We celebrated the outgoing Council members, who will be passing along a notebook of “lessons learned” to the new council , a form of institutional memory, our own version of The Prince, a voice of experience to help in difficult times.

Then, a rich discussion about power, and why absolute power “tends to corrupt.”  What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a servant leader in politics?

If only some of our grown up politicians could have been there to hear their advice.

A group of self governing ten, eleven and twelve year olds.  In charge of their own learning.  Establishing their own rule of law and civil society.  Profiting from mistakes.

As a society, we expect far too little from young adults.  They are capable of great things, and these small lessons of daily life and community are going to serve them well when the stakes are far larger.

Inspiration, learning and storytelling

One of the biggest surprises about guiding Eagles has been the realization that people learn at a 10X rate when they are inspired, and hardly at all when simply instructed to do so.

Of course, this isn’t surprising when you think about your own learning.  Who cares about learning something simply because you are ordered to do so?  It also explains why most corporate training fails.  Training is for guinea pigs; human beings want to be free to accept or reject challenges, not to be trained..

As Guides, much of our energy goes into creating challenges that matter to Eagles. Difficult, meaningful – and yes, fun challenges.  Our goal is to “inspire,” a word whose root means “to breathe life into.”

Long lasting inspiration requires an important quest or journey – a clear path to a worthy Grail.   We need an end that matters to our Eagles and a map we can continually refer to update our progress as a group, as in “you are here” and “here’s where we are going together.”

Below is an example of such a map from this section of the gaming quest.

In the gaming project, Eagles have entered design mode.  To unlock the final challenge of designing a game for the Game Expo, this week students are working through a series of mini game creation challenges.

Yesterday they designed simple, single-player games of luck, and then manipulated the rules to make their games easier or harder to win.  Today they designed games of skill, then added an element of luck to these games to see which version playtesters enjoyed more.


Tomorrow Eagles will get a taste of online game design on Gamestar Mechanic.  Next week, students will choose whether they want to design an online or offline game for the Game Expo at the end of the session, at which they will pitch their games to parents and fellow eagles.

Is creating games a trivial skill?  Not in the 21st century.  Arguably, being able to weave a compelling story and keep people engaged may be one of the most important 21st century skills of all.

In storytelling, images can be even more important than text.  And in the Hero’s Journey story, dragons are not only possible, but to be expected.  That’s why Eagles have been working in Art on drawing dragons.  As they create, Eagles have been listening to “A Tale of Two Cities,” immersed in images drawn with words, as they create visual metaphors of the challenges each will face on their hero’s journey.

Here’s a sample of dragons in the making.


Inspiration, storytelling and maps – keys to learning in the 21st century.


Our theme for the next four weeks is CELEBRATE!

Celebrate living in Austin; celebrate the holiday season; celebrate learning with friends at Acton Academy.

We started the day with dancing to Cool and the Gang – CELEBRATE!

Then we quickly settled into Core Skills, because fun and hard work aren’t mutually exclusive.  All Eagles are now up to speed on Khan, with many approaching the 107 skills needed by semester break.

Towards the end of Core Skills, Claire and Jack held a Zombie story critique session with their with fellow writers and illustrators.

Then followed PE, lunch and Project Time with Ms Anna, where Eagles created new prototype games, in preparation for the public Acton Game Exposition to be held three weeks from Friday.


At closing group, the following exchange took place:

Guide:  “What’s your biggest lesson learned on the first day back from Thanksgiving break?”

Eagle One: “It’s good to be back.  It’s boring when school isn’t in session.”

Guide: ‘How many students in Austin do you think feel the same way?”

Eagle Two: “Fourteen.”

Eagle Three: “No, more like forty, because you have to count the (Acton Academy) elementary students too.”

No Boredom allowed.  Fun.  Hard work.  Celebrating with friends.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Learning to Gamble – Not!

Friday was Casino Day at Acton, as Eagles spent the afternoon putting their new found probability skills to the test at Blackjack, Craps, Roulette and other games of luck (and some skill.)

Each Eagle traded in Eagles Bucks for chips, and kept careful track of the number of plays, amount wagered and won and lost at each game.  The goal was to decide which game offered the best odds, and why.

The overall lesson – games of chance are not a good bet.  Eventually, the law of large numbers means you will lose!

from Luddites to Las Vegas

Are you more likely to be disappointed by your laptop or by your best friend?  Does it feel worse to be disappointed, or to disappoint someone else?  If you don’t keep yor commitments to the community, who are you letting down- your running partner or yourself?  Tough questions met with candor and courage by our brave Eagles.

So, back to that laptop… or not. The middle school experimented with 30 minutes of Luddite time, focusing on (analog) reading and writing, before plugging in for their SMART goals,daily check-in and their online work.  Collaboration reigned, writers brainstorming monster story plots and presenting drafts for informal peer critique, and math geniuses unleashing their exponential  powers of encouragement.


Sometimes it’s Yurt time, and the MS is always grateful when that time rolls around. Ms. Laura launched with the news that scientists have discovered a powerful correlation between happiness and gratitude.  After a quick survey of Thanksgiving fun facts, including info about the persuasive letter written to President Lincoln that helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday, students eagerly shared their family Thanksgiving traditions and had the opportunity to write their own letters of gratitude.  Those that chose to tackle History Challenge #2  took us back to ancient Rome for some detailed analysis of similarities and differences between their culture and our own, and earned a treasure from the Yurt Treasure Box for their efforts and courage.



Ms. Anna launched today’s probability quest with a video addressing the Monty Hall problem.  Initially as confused as the general populace, the Eagles has a collective Aha! / Eureka! moment as they absorbed the implications of the probability swap.  Then they got to play games to further their insights, poor things.  At the end of the day, Mr. Jeff asked:  If you take a chance and lose, is it gambling or investing?  What about if you take a chance and win?  What if you break even?

Eagles will have a chance to test their hypotheses tomorrow afternoon, when the classroom is transformed into a casino, complete with free sparkling cider for all players.  Do you have to be in it to win it?  Who knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, and can they back up their instincts with evidence?

And most importantly- who will hoarde/hold out out to cash their accrued chips in for an Eagle buck, and who will choose to spend them on donuts?  All bets are off, from this blog’s point of view.

Rock, Paper, Bayesian Data Analysis

Lots of high fives in the room during core skills today!  As students sprint towards Thanksgiving break, enthusiasm for acquiring math skills is running high.  Several members of the class have passed the 100 skills mark on Khan Academy, putting them ahead of schedule for the class requirement of 107 skills by the end of 2012.

Diving into their Independent Learner Badge pamphlets, Eagles are looking to one another for suggestions about engaging yet challenging books to add to their to-read Shelfari shelves, testing their typing skills, and gearing up for the other missions they’ll have to accomplish to earn this very important milestone.

In art, more work on dragons while listening to stories of mythological beasts (today: Theseus and the Minotaur ).



MyHJ brought a lively discussion about flow- what is it? How do you know you’re in it?  Can you get into it at will?
A very special presentation followed the MyHJ work session:  one of the students chose to contact as a potential guide a former financier who lives on the other side of the world and retired from his illustrious career to dedicate his life to helping the less powerful – animals, children, the poor.  Ana gave an amazing, inspiring presentation, and even incorporated Socratic discussion techniques.  After a heartfelt round of applause, students commented that they felt as if they’d been in the live audience for a TED talk!

In project time,  Ms. Anna introduced Pavlovian behavior theory with a hilarious (and memorable) clip from the series “The Office”, followed by a brief intro to some of Dan Ariely’s work on behavioral economics.  Students were then unleashed to learn about tree diagraming and the principles of Bayesian probability.


Pairing up to play (and chart the results of)  Rock, Paper, Scissors provided a practice in calculating percentages, a chance to create and analyze tree diagrams, and a visceral introduction to Bayes’ theory. The debriefing session afterwards yielded opinions about whether or not one can “win” at R,P,S using probability and logic.  Jack explained the Bayesian theory beautifully, based on his own interpretation of his tree diagram results.

Decisions, decisions

When does a young adult accept full responsibility for their own actions, and truly make (and experience the repercussions of) their own decisions? Today, the students called a town hall meeting to discuss two items important to the community, first a vote to revisit whether to mandate a full hour of silent work time during core skills, second a return to the stubborn issue of poor sportsmanship on the playing field. Important questions arose: am I being listened to? who do I ultimately answer to? what are the ramifications of error? who gets to decide?

The student council ran the meeting as a streamlined huddle, showing respect for all points of view yet honoring their commitment to stay on topic, avoid repetition, and keep it to fifteen minutes.  Grievances were aired, solutions proposed, disagreements weathered.  Perhaps a stronger community emerged from the wobbles of dissent.

The cold didn’t stop the Eagles from playing hard during their lunch break; a mentally refreshed  class regrouped for art, working on their watercolor paintings with intense focus.  Half the students introduced their drawn dragon by (often Latin) name, wowing their peers with the creativity and thought they put into the backstories for their paintings.

A larger group, including some Acton 3rd-5th graders, came together for more decision making at the end of day, as the Green Light panel reassembled to hear presentations from the film crews working on The Bandit and The Thing in the Dark.  “Asking us questions will make our work stronger,” one student advised.  Ellie did a fabulous job moderating, the presentations were professional and engaging, and once again the projects received green lights all around.

Curiosity and hospitality

How do you judge the health of a learning culture?  Two good measures might be curiosity and hospitality.

Our MS Eagles showed the first when recently sending a letter to the Elementary Eagles, asking various questions about why the ES learning culture works so well.  The ES Eagles today graciously responded with a long and thoughtful letter, complete with attachments.

Hospitality was showcased today when the Eagles greeted Mia, a recent applicant who was shadowing before joining us this summer.  Without any request from Guides, the MS’ers created a sign to welcome Mia, who as you see below, was well liked by all.

We are trying out a new trick in room design, cardboard “walls” that can be rearranged in moments to create semi-private focus space for one or two Eagles in core skills, and also provide more personal portfolio space.  Just one of many experiments as we continue to design the interior of the new campus.

Finally, today we introduced normal and lognormal-power curves, and how “discovered” probabilities from each could be used in two challenges involving oil exploration and “guessing the height of the next person who comes into the room.”   As you see below, lots of energy in the room.

Which challenge was investing and which was gambling? (The answer was deceptively complicated.)   Which of the five heroes: Gauss; Galton; Pareto; Bezos and Hastings, made the most fundamentally important discoveries?  Which ones used power curves and the internet to build large businesses?  Which one will have the biggest impact on the world?  Which one owns a spaceport?

All questions we will continue to explore and debate the rest of the week.

and the light is…. GREEN!!

What habits can you develop, starting today, to strive towards excellence in everything you do?  The middle school students grappled with that question and committed themselves to developing the following four habits, put forward by their classmates:

1) Pay attention to details     2) Take small steps

3) Keep your mind on what you’re doing       4) Keep the space around you clean 

Reflecting on how well they stuck to that commitment today, Eagles gave themselves high marks for the most part- while acknowledging that, when a squadron of F-16s appeared in the sky north of river, most of them failed at habit number 3.

Sarah pointed out that habit #2, taking small steps, helps her as she reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The language is “difficult but worth it”.  She disciplines herself to only read a few pages at a time, and digests before moving on.  Her journal reflection about that process (“Hardest thing I did this week?”) won the Friday reflection writing challenge- her classmates admired her perseverance and sense of adventure in taking on an classic written in the style of a different era.

What qualities make a presentation persuasive and strong?  After watching a few videos of examples of what to do/what not to do, Eagles came up with their own set of standards and tried them out at the end of the day when two film crews appeared before a panel of Elementary School  peers to present their pre-production documents to a student-moderated panel, hoping to get the green light to move into actual production.


The elementary students provided thoughtful feedback and raised important and challenging questions.  The crews were able to synthesize their effort, their genuine enthusiasm for their projects, and their ever-improving powers of persuasion to receive honest and unreserved GREEN LIGHTS to go, go go forward into production!  Congratulations on a week well spent.

Quick MacGyver, the Secret Code

Terrorists are threatening to attack the City of Austin.  You have to decide whether or not to evacuate the city.  Luckily, you have intercepted a coded message.  If you only you can decipher the code, you have a chance to save the day.

You decipher the code by guessing at the frequency of various letters, and where they occur.  This leads you to a clue, and one chance to draw from a collection of beads – the frequency of blue beads equals the probability of an attack.

Then you realize, the more groups who crack the code, the more draws of the beads, the better probability distribution you can create, the better the odds that you make the correct decision.  But the only way you can help is by asking A/B questions – no direct hints.

Welcome to another day at Acton Academy, preparing the Eagles with the tools to answer:  Does the Past Determine the Future?

PS.  Our Eagles determined that the odds were against an attack – and they were right (this time.)

Football, film and gifts

Reading, writing and arithmetic – critical, fundamental skills, and our Eagles continue to progress faster than most middle schoolers – and thanks to Khan Academy and Shelfari, we have proof of their efforts.

But there’s much more to life, and thus should be much more to learning than the basics.

Like playing sandlot football before school starts.

Or in our morning discussion, exploring the right way to hold a film crew huddle, so you don’t waste your time in meaningless meetings (something I wish I’d learned a long time ago.)

Or as a task preparing Eagles for finding the right spring apprenticeship, having our My Hero’s Guide Mr. Temp inspire them with his drumming gifts as he asks: Are you born with powerful gifts or do you have to develop them?

Or having Allan Staker give his Hero’s story about the entrepreneurial ups and downs of starting a video-game company, a twisting tale about the risks and rewards of believing in yourself.

Yes, there’s far, far more to learning in the 21st century than simply the basics.

dragons and an election

Tuesday mornings are core skills intensive, with an extra hour for students to work on foreign language, math, reading, and writing.  Today they also used some of that time to meet in their film crews as the deadline for getting their projects green-lighted for production approaches.


Art provided a change of pace as students worked on their dragon drawings and studied dragon mythology.

It was election day, and a buzz of nervous energy permeated the room especially during project time when Ms. Samantha presented the opportunity to vote for or against an extra 30 minutes of morning silence in the classroom.  Many students were surprised when, despite some preliminary polling that indicated a likely majority against that extra 30 minutes, the final count was in favor of a full hour of silence during core skills.  Lesson learned:  a poll is a snapshot of the present rather than an accurate predictor of the future.

Self-directed, self-aware

Students entered the classroom to find a new desk arrangement, inspired by their own ideas about reducing distraction and enhancing productivity.  This tool served them well as they applied themselves to core skills with quiet intensity (well, not so quiet after about an hour when the Rosetta Stone headphones went on… but they quickly worked out a plan that allowed the few who weren’t doing foreign language learning to still have the quiet they wanted for their own goal-striving).

PE offered a well-timed physical break.  After the tough (but getting a little easier as we get a lot stronger) Acton Insanity work-out, volleyball was a chance to merge focus and sweat into a happy competition.

History came alive in the yurt post-lunch, when a special guest archeologist (and Acton mom!) inspired the Eagles with tales from her own Hero’s Journey, digging up the past to try to solve the ongoing mystery of pre-literate human culture.

During Project Time students were challenged by the probability quest projects as well as the basic human problem of sharing space and addressing your own needs without compromising those of your community.  “I’m really disappointed in the way I acted,” one student volunteered during a quick critique session on classroom behavior during the Quests.  (Her offense? Getting a little too enthusiastic about probability assessment!)

“This will help me later in life, when I’m trying to decide whether to take a risk,” another offered unprompted, as the lessons learned debriefing moved from behavior critique to real world application of concepts.

Last but far from least, this wonderful group of young adults modeled curiosity, self-management, and terrific discussion and critique skills for a young visitor who skipped kindergarten to learn more about what happens in a real middle school (and find out what the heck his mom does all day)- and were the most gracious hosts imaginable.  Go Eagles!!Image

Inspiring entrepreneurial heroes

It’s easy to make learning too difficult.  To focus too intently on curriculum or rubrics or teacher training, and not enough on the learner.

I’ve found that lighting an entrepreneurial spark in children is relatively simple;  entrepreneurial curiosity and creativity are as natural to children as breathing.

The experience doesn’t need to be any more complicated than:

  • Make something with your own hands;
  • Sell it (safely) to someone you don’t know, for more than it cost to make;
  • End up with some extra cash in your pocket.

Case in point, today’s Acton Children’s Business Fair, attended by many Acton Academy Eagles: 97 businesses; 189 young entrepreneurs; over 1,000 satisfied customers.

Above – a picture of an Acton Eagle selling 25 cent chances to shoot his little brother with a paintball gun.  A double entrepreneurial bonus!