Monthly Archives: December 2012

From the Peak; Looking to the Horizon

It was before dawn, a few months ago, as the Middle School Eagles trudged up a steep slope in the Texas Hill Country.  As the sun rose, we could see for miles in every direction.

The message: The hard work of the Hero’s Journey is worth it because it allows you to see further (and farther!)  At the top of each peak, a time for celebration, a moment to enjoy, rest and reflect, while planning the next climb.

Yesterday was such a day at Acton Academy.  We assembled the final portfolios – one copy for school and one for home — and the Eagles cleaned and cleaned and cleaned to get the classroom back into a (semi) pristine state.

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The portfolios were imperfect in the sense that they are works in progress, with grammatical mistakes and misspellings to prove that no adult oversight was allowed. True also of equally imperfect and beautiful thank you notes to some of the “fellow travelers” who have helped us this term.

Imperfection. Mistakes. Works in progress.

And yet the learning, the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of ownership were profound, both in the scratchings in the portfolios and the reflections offered  in the final group discussion.  There’s absolutely no question that these Middle School Eagles are heroes-in-waiting, who will change the world.

Our final moments together shifted to the horizon, to the crime solving, genetics, biology, psychology, Salem Witch Trials, apprenticeships and many more adventures that will come in the spring.

But for now, two weeks of rest and celebration with our families, as it should be.

Merry Christmas everyone.


Hard work.  Last minute scurrying. Lights. Adrenaline. Showtime.  Celebration.

Then, the morning after. An energy hangover.

Some Eagles are distracted.  Others listless.  A few, uncharacteristically sleep in.

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Others build protective walls in order to recharge, an innovative approach to self preservation.

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All of this is a natural part of the ebb and flow of human creativity.  Rest. A phenomenon to be explored; a ritual to be incorporated next year..

Some schools consider the week before Christmas a “dead week.”  We’d never be that disrespectful towards time, but building in a purposeful lull to recharge does make sense; a time to just “be” for a few hours; a time for mindfulness; a time for rest.

Most of the afternoon we worked on Portfolios, synthesizing the work of three months into a celebratory narrative.  Tomorrow we finish these portfolios, and begin to look towards the adventures of next semester.

Roll out the red carpet….

The last minute preparations were frantic – the final editing of films; the fine tuning of games; last minute pitch practice: all underway while Eagles simultaneously built their semester end portfolios and shared final “lessons learned” in a number of important areas.

And then it was showtime.  The room filled with customers, and the game play began:

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Pitches were made to real customers, with each Middle School Eagle trying not only to best their classmates, but to defeat the dreaded Elementary School Eagles competing alongside them.

Once the games were finished, it was time for the film festival to begin:

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The smell of popcorn in the air.  The anticipation of launching something you created out into the world, for all the world to see.  Two noted filmmakers in the audience.

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In the end, there were technical glitches.  Two of the films weren’t very good; one was fantastic. An Oscar for the Best Picture and awards for the games were presented.

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Yes, excellence matters.  So does pleasing customers.

But how do you learn how to work in teams towards mastering a skill?  By working on exceptional teams and teams that fail.  How do you learn of the importance of setting and reaching milestones?  By trying to do everything in the last week, and failing.  How do you learn to set deadlines early enough to have a series of dress rehearsals? By failing to do so, and suffering the consequences.

Our Eagles have far to go, but oh they have come so far.

And the dreaded Elementary School competitors in the Game Expo?  Final score: Middle Schoolers, a average of 2.9 votes per student; Elementary Schoolers, and average of 2.96.  Beaten, but not defeated.

Now it’s time to rest, recharge and look forward to a rematch in the spring.  For all real creative ability comes from challenge, failure, rebirth and the kind of steely perseverance that leads, in the end, to the excellence of a personal calling.

What will you remember the most?

Who am I?  A question not easily answered.  Eagles spent the morning journaling on aspects of this conundrum, then circled up to share their reflections.  What new Heroes did they discover over the past four months?   A couple of F1 drivers, Elon Musk, Sully Sullenberg… and several Acton parents, who would have blushed with pride to hear their praises sung as inspirations when things get tough.   “My dad does EVERYTHING! If there’s something that needs to be done, he takes care of it himself.  He never quits when he’s on a project, and he’s always got a few projects going on.”  “My mother… she works so hard, she takes care of all of us and hardly has time for herself, but she’s always in a great mood and she never loses her cool.” 

The loops continue to circle around, as Eagles finished their game projects and tightened up their pitches.  Lots of hard work on film wrap-up, too.  We welcomed two professionals in the field of poster design to guide the film crews through the process of creating marketing materials in Photoshop, using captured stills from their films and mucho creativity about taglines and typeface.

At the end of the day, Eagles discussed what they’ll remember most from this first session at Acton.  The film projects, their Hero’s Journey via MyHJ, and the very special ranch trip were spoken about with heart and thought.  And the speakers, these brave adventurers, will be remembered always themselves as the intrepid pioneers of a new kind of middle school, where students show up early, miss attending over break, and share their personal stories of being inspired in a safe environment that asks you to be your very best self.

Closing the loops; looking forward to the future

Now is a time to close some of the powerful learning loops we opened just a few months ago.

Last week, we started by closing the Art loop with an exposition of the Acton Dragons at Amy’s Ice Cream.

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Monday, we closed the PE loop with the Acton Olympics, returning to the same challenges Eagles faced in September, to record new personal records (Thanks Coach C!)

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On Wednesday, we close the loop on Projects, with the Game Expo and Film festival.

Below, yesterday Eagles practice and critique Game Expo pitches, with the Middle Schoolers feverishly working to defeat the Elementary School challengers by gathering more customer “votes” at the Expo.

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All week we are recording reflections on “lessons learned” from Math, Reading, Writing, Building the Community, Science and the Pursuit of Excellence, as Eagles prepare their final end of semester portfolios for Thursday.

Then – on Friday — a review of next semester’s adventures and a final CELEBRATION!

Enlightened trial and error

“You can do it!  You will have many more opportunities.  I will help you if you want help.”

“It’s okay- let’s do it again, so you can get it”, because  I do not want them to go through life thinking , “If I fail, it means I’m not supposed to do this”.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Let’s try again.”

These are some of the words the Eagles wrote in their journals this morning as they considered what to say to a friend who fails to reach a goal.  The question arose: would you rather work with a partner who succeeds when you fail, or who fails with you? Many stated that they’d want to work with someone who succeeds, so they can learn from that person.  Some preferred the idea of learning alongside someone on the same level, making mistakes together, growing together.

“An unstoppable force!” is how one Eagle described a team where one partner’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses, and vice-versa.

At the start of history class, Ms. Laura asked students: what motivates you?  why do you work as hard as you do?  and after collecting responses, did a beautiful job of refreshing everyone’s memory about the meaning of Socratic discussion: Socratic discussion is not a debate, it’s a principled discussion.  There’s no argument to be won; the point is to seek truth, to seek a new perspective.  With these reminders, the Eagles participated in student-led Socratic discovery about exploration before lying down to listen to the story of the rise and fall of Dutch New Amsterdam in the New World.


Teamwork was spotlighted during project time, launched by Ms. Anna with a clip about the product design firm Ideo.  The Eagles were taken with this radical approach to collaboration and remarked about how “constructive rather than destructive chaos” could lead to great things.  They got to put the concept into action by dividing into small teams to critique each others’ games (link to the ideo video: use password:academy), reporting afterwards how helpful the extra brain power was in improving their work, experiencing first hand the Ideo mantra of “Enlightened trial and error”  outpeforming the “planning of a lone genius”.


The school day closed with a revisit to our Hero’s Journey map, as we come close to the end of this first semester at Acton.  The questions of Who am I?  What promises must be made and kept?  Who’s walking with me?  have taken on visceral meaning for these young adults as they’ve looked deep within and asked themselves tough questions, worked hard to fine-tune and adhere to their own systems of self-management, decision making and accountability, and collaborated with running partners and small groups on film and other projects.

But for our Heroes, the learning doesn’t stop at 3:15.  Except for a handful of Eagles whose intense sports commitments preclude it, Thursdays are chess club day.  Carpe Diem!


Real heroes never give up

Yesterday, five Eagles failed to finish their My Hero’s Journey project on time, and thus suffered the consequences of their choices by missing the class celebration.  Some missed by a little; some by a lot.

This must have hurt, because failing publicly always hurts.  But at Acton Academy, not everyone wins every race  – just like in the real world, there are successes and failures.

Real heroes know it isn’t about winning or losing,  but about having the courage to fail, get up, dust yourself off and try again.

Winston Churchill knew this when he said during the depths of World War II:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Churchill fought depression all his life.  His political career seemed all but over when he was blamed for 44,000 British deaths at Gallipoli in World War I.

But by 1941, Churchill said at a Harrow graduation : “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

We want our Eagle to try mightily, and when they fail, to feel the sting of temporary defeat.  To know how hard it is to fall and get back up and try again.  Because it is through effort and failure and rebirth that character is formed.

At the entrance to the Acton MBA is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Our Acton Academy Eagles’ place will never be with those timid souls, because they are heroes who will change the world, even if it means knowing the bitter taste of an occasional defeat, and the courage it takes to get back up and try again.

Motivation and Public Exhibitions

Why are the Acton Academy Eagle middle schoolers so motivated to learn and deliver high quality work?

Is it the inspiration that comes from knowing you are on a Hero’s Journey that will change the world?  A strong sense of community, grounded in covenants, contracts and promises to a Running Partner?   The lure of points, badges and competition?

Yes, all of these are important.  But there’s one sure fire way to inspire and motivate Eagles to do their best – the looming deadline of a public exhibition.

You might be able to postpone learning a few skills on Khan; forget to write in your journal, and hope you aren’t called on to recite in public; bluff your way through a critique of your latest project.

But when the stage lights come up on a public show, with your work on display for all to see, there’s no escaping responsibility.  That’s what makes the very real deadline of a fast approaching public exhibition such a powerful motivator.

Soon our Eagles will be showing their Dragon Art at Amy’s Ice Cream, so there’s a scramble to complete paintings:

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Game critiques take on a new urgency when Eagles realize that next week the school will be filled with real customers, deciding which games have the most commercial potential.

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Film crews are hard at work, putting the finishing touches on editing, preparing for Wednesday’s film festival.

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MS Eagles can even attend a public exhibition of elementary Eagle Process Drama at the Zach theater today.

Four public exhibitions in less than two weeks.  No better way to prepare for a “calling” that will change the world.


Having Fun versus Working Hard

So how do you inspire Eagles take control of their own learning?  Not an easy question.

Here’s a start. Today’s launch featured three stories:

1. 18-year-old Stacey Ferreira saw a tweet from entrepreneur Richard Branson about a charity event he was sponsoring , flew halfway across the country to meet him and left with $400,000 in funding for her new website.

2.  Harvard Education professor Richard Elmore, who has observed over 2,000 classrooms, writes a blog post blasting traditional schools as “custodial institutions, designed to hold adolescents out of the labor force and to socialize them to adult control” adding that the “only other public institution in our society that works this way…is the prison system.”

3. A group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs announces a new school where “every child is a genius,” giving credit for its inspiration to Acton Academy.

Stacey Ferreira is a hero who shows what our Eagles can accomplish. Professor Elmore paints a dismal picture of the educational alternatives.  The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are proof that what our Eagles’ efforts matter in the world.

During the day, progress continues in Core Skills, including an early glimpse of math in spring, where Eagles will choose independent paths in either Geometry, Algebra or Trigonometry. We also debate a change in self-governance designed to simplify SMART goals.

One Eagle pays off the loan she took out to start the school store:

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In the afternoon, Eagles work hard on their Game Quest, some creating board games, others making electronic games, all knowing that next week’s public demonstration is fast approaching:

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Story lines and critical thinking are stressed below.

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Near the end of the afternoon, two Eagles demonstrate their game prototypes and receive formal critiques.

The end of the day discussion asks what advice our Eagles would offer to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.  Is “hard work” or “fun” more important for creating the right learning environment?  Which should be stressed first?  Should the approach in the elementary school be different than the middle school?

No two students can agree.  And that’s exactly the point.

Intuition, Martian colonies, and expensive scissors

What are the differences between logic, emotion and intuition? Can you imagine circumstances where you’d be wise to use one over the other to make the very best decision?
After pondering these questions in a Socratic discussion, Eagles dove into their core skills work, paying extra attention to their SMART goals tracking as they prepared their end-of-week wrap-ups. Jack won our Friday journal reflection contest, with his response to “What’s the hardest thing you did this week?” (finishing the production leg of The Bandit film; he was lauded by peers for his excellent word choice, details, and dash of humor).

The morning ended with a debate about whether or not humans should colonize Mars, a la Elon Musk’s long-term vision for SpaceX. Eagles implemented terrific discussion skills: “Building on what Mason said, …” “I STRONGLY disagree with Charlie…..”, “I agree with Jack, and I’d like to add….”. One usually vocal student stayed silent until the end: “At first I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but after listening to the points everyone’s been making, while I really see the value in what Charlie’s saying, I agree with Mason, because…”
It’s inspiring to observe these young men and women listening intently to one another, learning from their peers, and ultimately forming their own opinions.
While most of the Eagles played outdoors during free time, two – then three- then four as the desire to pitch in spread- stayed in to surprise their classmates with a pop-up dance and cupcake party, complete with streamers and helium balloons!
This session’ s theme of celebration seemed to have struck a chord. Special thanks to Ellie and Ana for their thoughtfulness.
After lunch, special guest filmmaker Brandon Dickerson joined us for an editing workshop- not a teacher lecturing to class about how to edit, but a professional bringing in his current project for a hands-on work session.  The Eagles prepared by reading over the bit of screenplay (Scene 41) that corresponded to the footage they were going to watch, and examining a set diagram to imagine how the actors would move through the scene.  After introducing his fancy new editing software while reminding us that all editing tools are basically “expensive scissors”,  Brandon screened his footage.  (Heated, of course) discussion ensued regarding which takes to use and how to cut them together to best tell the story.
Afterwards, during an abbreviated version of our usual Friday game time, a guide became so involved in an intense Boggle match that she forgot to keep an eye on the clock…. fortunately one of our student leaders realized it was five minutes past time to clean up for the weekend, and the Eagles worked together to get the job done.
Cooperation, respectful disagreement, spirited competition, and community celebration made for a fabulous Friday at Acton Academy!


Anxiety versus fear

How does a hero differentiate between healthy fear and anxiety?  That was the subject of today’s launch, and a continuation of our exploration of risk as we ask: “Does the past determine the future?”

We started with video from Gavin DeBecker, the world’s leading expert on predicting violent behavior; an adviser to Presidents and celebrities and author of The Gift of Fear, one of the best books I have ever read on any subject.  Here’s the link to the video:

The basic messages:

  • Trust your instincts.  If you sense danger, respect that warning.
  • Fear is in the moment; the prospect of serious and immediate harm.
  • Anxiety is worrying about the future; a waste of time and energy.

After listening to DeBecker, we role played various encounters with strangers.  Did it have an impact?  Just ask your Eagle about the risk versus reward of getting into a “soundproof metal cage” (an elevator) if your instincts suggest otherwise.  Or ask how you should handle an approaching stranger, if something doesn’t seem right.

Some schools build walls and create a virtual prison.  That’s unlikely to deter determined criminals, and just makes students feel like helpless victims.  Our goal is to empower courageous leaders to make difficult choices in the real world, and especially when the stakes are high.

Lots of hard work in Core Skills followed, then a Skype “hero call” with Scott Rogers (shown below), one of Hollywood’s most famous stunt men, to continue the theme of “risk versus reward” in the real world.

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The room was buzzing with energy in the afternoon, as Eagles worked on Gamestar Mechanics to design, build and play test their creations, in preparation for the Game Expo in less than three weeks.

Rumor has it that the Acton Elementary Eagles are confident that their games will triumph – a challenge not taken lightly by the Middle Schoolers, who have redoubled their efforts.

Showing up

Last night we held an information session for those interested in joining Acton Middle School.  The room was packed.

Without being asked, current MS Eagles and parents showed up in force.  Some of the Eagles had gone home to dress up; others stayed after school to prepare the classroom.  All the Guides were all in attendance too; eager to answer questions.

During the session, several Eagles gave beautiful and honest testimonials – a courageous act in a roomful of strangers; a number of parents gave direct and moving testimonials too.

Afterwards, in the classroom, MS Eagles were showing their work to interested parents and applicants.  All without anyone asking them to do so.

Why?  Because they care.  Because it’s their school, and it matters who we allow into the community.  Because they know they are going to change the world, and that means every admissions slot is precious, and should be treated as such.

If you want a glimpse inside AA MS:

What an amazing group of human beings, and an honor to work with them.

Learning to set your own standards

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At Acton Academy, we turn over the governance of the classroom to Eagles.  Above, the past Council met with its recently elected replacements to discuss ways to inspire their fellow travelers to even greater heights.

Why do we trust the setting, encouragement and enforcement of maintaining incredibly high community learning standards to a group of students?  Because they govern themselves far better than if lorded over by adults.  And because we want our Eagles to be leaders, not rule followers.

So how does a beginning author or artist or game designer set their own standards of excellence?  By looking at world class examples and comparing those to his or her first attempts.

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Below, photos of Eagles creating and comparing prototype games.

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And most importantly, the criteria they developed to judge whether or not a game is “world class.”

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Here, an example of a group critique in action.

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Because if you can learn to set your own standards; set them high; judge your progress draft after draft, gathering honest critiques as you move towards excellence, you are well on your way to the mastery of any skill, craft or art.

“Is that the best you can do?”

What do the lottery, Will Smith, El Dorado, Edgar Allan Poe and the question: “Does the past determine the future?” all have in common?

Answer: A day in the life at the Acton Academy Middle School.

Our focus this next few weeks is celebrating all that we’ve accomplished, as we prepare for the spring.

We started the morning with a launch that contrasted lottery winners – who against all the odds win millions, and then all too often are miserable afterwards, with Will Smith, an actor who through hard work and “loving life” became an international star.

Why does someone choose a Hero’s Journey and “loving life?”  What causes someone else  to choose a “small life” instead?  Is it genetics?  Upbringing? Or personal choices?

The theme continued in history, reading the story of El Dorado and the Spanish conquistadors in South America, Edgar Allan Poe’s El Dorado story and how people can spend their lives seeking the ultimate treasure of gold, true love, happiness or success in vain – the lure of seeking gold/quick money/winning the lottery/ can lead to despair (at best.)

How do we help someone choose to “love life” rather than “mail it in?”  The Eagles decided it was asking each other: “Is that the best you can do?,” and not being satisfied until the answer is “yes.”

What would you do?

Morning launch is an important time at Acton Academy.

The AA campus opens at 8 AM; the launch of the day begins at 8:30 AM sharp.  Many Eagles arrive at 8 AM and play hard on the play field, but everyone is seated and ready for group no later than 8:29.

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Launches are “brief huddles” – no more than fifteen minutes total —  that set the tone of the day.  Just a few sentences to connect to the last few days; a brief glimpse of one of the maps on the wall to locate “where we are” (the Hero’s Journey; our current Quest or the trajectory of a major project) ; and then a foreshadowing of the immediate challenges ahead.

Almost always the launch is framed in terms of a question; often connecting to the “overarching question” for the year, which for this year is: “Does the Past Determine the Future?”  Sometimes we show a brief video clip; other times we feature a governance question or behavior that’s challenging our community norms; more recently we’ve been focused on difficult ethical dilemmas.

For example, this week we explored the difficult question of how you would decide who lives and who dies, if faced with the choice of a speeding train that you could direct down one track or another.  Either way, someone will be killed, but by changing the scenarios, we explored the value of individual human life and how it differs for each Eagle.

What does this accomplish?  First, a focus on the difficult decisions our young Eagles will face as leaders.  Second, it sharpens their ability to reason and persuade, as we work hard to hone their Socratic process and rhetorical skills.  Often the discussion leader will pause to point out a Socratic technique that Eagles may want to use when they (soon) begin to lead discussions on their own.

Framing the day; putting the week, month and next six week sprint in perspective; reinforcing group learning norms; honing thinking skills; setting the tone for the day.

Quite an important fifteen minutes.