Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Power of Role Models

One of the most powerful parts of Acton Academy is having Eagles of different ages in the same classroom.

In the Elementary School, five year olds guide ten year olds; in the Middle School, fourteen year olds find they can still learn from someone who is eleven.  Most importantly,  we find that age differences quickly disappear for Eagles and Guides, as the special talents of each Eagle become far more important than age differences.

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And yet, Elementary School Eagles still look up to Middle Schoolers. Recently, the ES’ers requested to have their lunch time adjusted, just so they could watch the Middle School Eagles play sports.

This powerful attraction of older role models is why we are giving Middle School Eagles  a chance to earn the right to serve as temporary Guides to the Elementary School Eagles, by earning one Learning Badge a week.

Our belief is that we’ll find Eagles can curate, create and deliver educational challenges more powerfully than adults.  If anything, our most revolutionary idea so far.

Inner work and the dreams of heroes

This week our Detectives-in-Training become Forensic Psychologists in training, as our Eagles begin to dig into their own inner worlds.

Why do some people keep repeating unhelpful behaviors?  How can understanding yourself make you a more successful athlete or a better friend?  How can you decide whether the boy or girl you just met is the “right one” for you or a passing infatuation?

All pressing questions for middle school students.

During the next five weeks in the Psychology Quest, we’ll explore dreams, the shadow self (projecting); active imagination, scapegoating and mob mentality, all as the Eagles began preparing for a reenactment of the Salem Witch trials with modern day forensics.

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On Day One of the Psychology Quest, Eagles were introduced to Carl Jung as a hero, and explored the unconscious, sub-conscious and conscious mind through word association, free drawing and free sculpting.

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A psychologist would have a field day with the symbols, archetypes and emotions that poured out.

Our Eagles also received dream journals and pledged to start recording their nightly dreams, for later analysis.

Let the dreams begin!


Today we returned from break.  Only eleven weeks until summer session.  Time to put the finishing touches on our learning culture before we let new Eagles into our tribe.

The focus word for this week: Intentionality.

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Acting with intention. Being purposeful. Tapping into your passions. That’s what heroes do.

So time to eliminate the trivial; to minimize the unimportant. Time to put all of our energy into learning. Time for a new definition of work times, based on a survey late last session, asking Eagles how we could reduce distractions.

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So we created new definitions of the our Work Blocks.  All Core Skills time is now silent.  We added No Tech Core Skills time, where all computers are closed and Eagles simply read, write and ponder.  

No interruptions are allowed – if an Eagle needs to collaborate, he or she posts to a Collaboration Request board.  An added benefit – we now have a record of who is helping whom and why.

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We also rearranged the desks in the classroom. All of this was based on recommendations submitted by Eagles.

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Core skills time was incredibly focused and purposeful today.  Deep concentration on “blacking out” Khan skills; serious writing; deep reading.  Not a sound in the classroom.

In the afternoon, the launch of an exciting new project.  But more on that tomorrow.

Celebrating with Peter Pan

A Hero Talk by award winning architect Tom Hatch (who is designing the new Acton Academy campus). Core Skills in the morning.  Then distilling six weeks of work in personal Portfolios; preparing for our next five week sprint.  Cleaning until the classroom was in pristine condition.

Then it was time for a surprise outing, earned by the Eagles by scoring thousands of Eagle Buck points during the session: Peter Pan Miniature Golf and snow cones on a beautiful spring day.

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A special group of young heroes.  Destined to change the world.

Making Waffles, Planning Parties and Standardized Tests

Today the Middle School Eagles had a self organized Waffle Party – each bringing recipes, supplies and equipment.

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Yes, we had Core Skills today. Yes, we practiced how to pitch for an apprenticeship. Yes, we reviewed “lessons learned” from the Detective Quest.

We even had an inspiring Hero Talk from our Acton Academy Guatemala Guide Daniel, who challenged our Eagles to concert their dreams into reality – today!

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Life is short.  Our Eagles worked hard these last six weeks. So as we near the end of this six week “sprint,” celebrating achievements — and learning about cooking waffles and party planning — is well within the Acton curriculum.  Even if it never shows up on a standardized test.

Learning To Do: Robots and Apprenticeships

Learning at Acton takes place in five to seven week sprints, followed by a week off from school, for reflection and recharging.

Today, as we near the end of a six week sprint, two examples of “learning to do:”

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First, an exhibition by the Lego Robotics team, a collection of elementary and middle school Eagles who have been hard at work for weeks creating and programming robots to perform a complex set of tasks.

This is just one example of the spontaneous after school challenges that have been organized by Eagles and parents, including: Robotics; Chess Club; Spanish Club; Speech Club and Art.

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In our Apprenticeship Quest, Eagles built on last semester’s work in gifts, flow, opportunities and injustices to create a list of possible spring apprenticeships, chose the real world job that is the best “next adventure” for them, and then began to do the research necessary to convince someone to hire them..

Today, Eagles started practicing their “pitches” – the phone or in person pitch that no employer could refuse.

Learning to find your “calling;” identifying the next real world adventure to pursue it; having the interview skills necessary to get the position.  All part of “learning to do” at Acton.

Mystery Solved; Suspect Arrested

So who had abducted Detective Anna?  The Acton campus was in an uproar, as Detectives-in-Training fanned out to collect evidence and interview suspects, using all of the tools and skills they had earned during the Detective Quest:

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  • Documenting the crime scene;
  • Fingerprint analysis
  • Footprint analysis
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Deductive ability
  • Decomposition
  • Life cycle of flies
  • Microbes
  • Tooth impressions
  • DNA and genetics; and
  • Facial reconstruction.

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Detective Anna’s first cousin “Dora” appeared to help as a lab assistant.

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Evidence was carefully analyzed and weighed.

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The prime suspect was relentlessly questioned until she finally broke down and confessed.

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A grateful Detective Anna was rescued, and the Eagles shared their top “lessons learned” about the scientific method and forensic analysis:

  • You have to get it exactly right, because an innocent person might go to jail if you make a mistake;
  • This means that details matter; and
  • What you do impacts others; so
  • You most go slow, and work hard to uncover evidence and clues far beyond what’s given; and
  • Be careful to cross check your team’s work for accuracy.

A pretty good checklist for any scientific project that’s going to change to world.

Whodunnit: An Acton Guide Goes Missing

For six weeks Acton Eagles have been learning forensic skills during the Detective Quest – everything from fingerprint analysis to microbe decomposition to how to detect when someone is telling a lie.

Yesterday, these skills became a blessing when Detective Anna failed to show up for class.  Eagles soon realized that Detective Anna had been kidnapped!  Quickly they self-organized; marked off the crime scene and began their own investigation.

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Who to suspect?  The other Guides, of course.  For days there had been dark hints: Mr. Jeff’s interest in Detective Anna’s job; Ms. Laura’s grumpiness about Detective Anna’s performance; Ms. Kaylie’s frustration with Detective Anna using her school supplies.  It seems that every Guide had a motive.

Interrogations began immediately and are ongoing.

Keep Away Today; College Tomorrow

Today our Eagles took advantage of a beautiful spring day for a spirited game of keep away.

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“Keep away today; college tomorrow?”  You might take that as a philosophical observation about the ephemeral nature of childhood.  True, but not the whole truth.

Our Eagles are so far ahead academically that many soon will be taking college courses in high school (Maria Teresa at Acton Academy Guatemala, age 14, already is taking Harvard, Stanford quality level from Coursera, Udacity and EdX.)

Yesterday, a major accreditor announced that five MOOC’s (massive open online courses) may know be taken for college credit (note – most MOOC’s are free!)

The courses:

  • “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach,” from Duke University.
  •  “Pre-Calculus” and “Algebra,” from the University of California at Irvine; and
  •  “Calculus: Single-Variable,” from the University of Pennsylvania.

Expect hundreds more such courses, from elite universities, to follow soon.

Our Eagles will be well qualified for a four year, on campus experience at an Ivy League university; many of our families may choose to invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars required for such an enriching experience.

But the whole concept of a college education is changing so rapidly that the brightest and most motivated students may soon be able to gain all of the academic value from a college experience for pennies on the dollar.

If this comes to pass, our Eagles will be at the front of the line.

From Eagles to Parents

Three times each year with have an Acton Parent’s Meeting.  These Parent’s Meetings are to talk about our own hero’s journeys as adults, not to discuss school matters.

This week’s Parent’s Meeting was focused on sarcasm and passive-aggressive behavior, and how examining our own lives can add depth and value to the entire family, as well as to help us change the world.

Since we’ve been examining similar questions in the Middle School, I asked our Eagles what advice they’d give to parents on the use of sarcasm in the home:

  • Remember that we’re all on the same team
  • Stop for a moment and think about the other person before you respond…
  • If you are in a bad mood, it’s better to hold your tongue
  • Speak honestly and clearly, but not harshly
  • When you respond sarcastically, ask yourself: “Where did that come from?”
  • Never forget that you have a deep influence on others

Amazing what we learn from our Eagles every day, just by trusting them enough to ask.

The Courage to be Vulnerable and Grateful

Yesterday, as a continuation of our discussions about sarcasm and passive-aggressive behavior, we asked our Middle School Eagles to share their greatest fears.

The remarkable outcome?  Each shared a deep, serious, personal fear; fears that all humans share, but few ever voice.

Then, one by one, each Eagle expressed gratitude to a classmate who had inspired or helped them.  Face to face; eye to eye.

It was remarkable to witness.  A real honor.

“Being around others who are better than I am makes me want to do my best work”.

Given the choice between five motivators to rank, based on this TED talk by Dan Pink,, many Eagles gave top billing to other options of their own invention.  Beyond reward, pride, praise, mastery and autonomy they spoke matter-of-factly of deadlines, competition, and for one student, “Getting good at this will help me in the long run”.

Monday, with two weeks to go until the end of the session, Eagles recommitted to excellence in all their work, which on this day included tracking bacteria growth (excellence in keeping their lunches down)photo

carrying out science experiments of their own design (excellence in interrogation techniques)


And of course, excellence in Poppy

“Poppy needs help. Stat.”

A few weeks ago, as part of our Detective Quest, each Eagle was given a pair of rubber surgical gloves.  One especially creative Eagles filled a glove with water, then used a black marker to draw eyes, a nose and a mouth, and named his creation “Poppy.”

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Poppy became a class pet.  When Poppy sprung a leak, students rushed to “save him,” even establishing an OR to perform “Poppy surgery.”

Soon more and more students created and adopted their own Poppies.  Even after we started charging a hard earned Eagle Buck  for a surgical glove, the mania continued.  Eagles were close to obsession over their charges.

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At first, I’ll admit the whole episode seemed a distraction.  But after close observation, I believe there’s something deeper going on.

  • Middle School Eagles welcome having “life and death” responsibility over another, even a make believe pet.
  • Exercising such important care leads to a more closely knit community.
  • Plus, it’s fun.

Just another example of Eagles preparing, in their own way,  for making real life decisions that will change the world.  And a lesson for Guides who want to inspire and motivate Eagles to take on real world challenges.  They are ready and hungry to do so.

Cardboard, Claire Boxes, Creativity and Joy

Some days the noise at Acton Academy can be distracting: the buzz of collaboration; critiquing and Rosetta-chatter.

So an Eagle-inventor took cardboard and duct tape and created the Claire-Box, a personal cocoon named after it’s inventor. Claire-Boxes became quite popular.


Yesterday was a beautiful day in Austin, bright and sunny.

Eagles rushed outside for lunch. Soon Claire-Boxes were converted into cardboard sleds, and the hillside was filled with Eagles sliding, riding and rolling together on cardboard magic carpets, laughing and screaming with delight.

Destruction of school property?  Hardly.  More like transformation.  And clinging with all your heart to childhood play.

Hard work. Creativity. Friends. Enjoying the gift of a warm spring day.  Pure joy.

Thank you for the lesson and the memory.