Monthly Archives: March 2013

A sprint towards reality

Whew! Another Acton Academy session completed.

Weeks and weeks of “intentionality” – this session’s battle cry –  sprinkled with fun and intense learning.  One Eagle captured it perfectly: “This session seemed to fly by in a day.”

The Salem Witch Trials; assembling portfolios; serious reflection; anticipation of next session’s adventure – it was a busy, high energy, intentional final week.

Not every Eagle finished with an apprenticeship; a few have been rejected several times and now must go to “Plan D, E and F.”  Not every Eagle completed the lofty end of session goals, so our special group outing was postponed.

Sure, it would have been easier if we had adjusted the goals, so everyone could win.  If we made exceptions so there was a fairy tale ending.  If we made sure our Eagles won the game every time.

But that’s not the way the real world works.  Our goal isn’t college ready graduates, nursed on “straight A’s” and cheap self esteem.  Not poseurs, nor those who hide behind false perfection. Never “cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Instead, our goal is to equip and inspire Eagles to succeed and fail – fighting a worthy fight; becoming who they were meant to be; building deep and nurturing relationships.

Heroes who will change the world, real world heroes who are willing to accept – and even celebrate — the bumps, bruises and disappointments that reality demands to make a real difference.


When the middle school started in September, a surprisingly large number of Eagles  hated to read – particularly books that were forced on them by adults.

A love of reading had never been sparked, or even worse, had been extinguished.

Early in the fall, we encouraged each Eagle to read something, even a comic book, about a subject they were passionate about.  For the boys, that often meant Lone Survivor or other books about war.

This week, as part of updating portfolios, we asked Eagles for a list of books they have read since January 1st.

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The answer: 80 books. That’s an average of one book, every two weeks, for each Eagle.

Sure, some Eagles are more voracious readers than others.  But each and every Eagle can now be seen sitting on the floor or lounging on a beanbag chair, with a favorite book in hand.

A love of reading; a thirst for curiosity.  Perhaps the most important discover a young hero can make.

And the vedict is….

“All rise. Court is in session.”

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Today the Elementary and Middle School Eagles recreated the Salem Witch Trials.Would those accused of witchcraft and sowing illness in Salem hang or go free?

The setting was 17th century Salem, but Eagles were free to submit 21st century forensic science and psychology experiments as evidence.

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Elementary Eagle Townspeople protested outside.  Opening statements came from the prosecution and defense.  Witnesses were questioned and cross examined.  All written by the Eagles, based on 17th century characters they created.

Finally it was time for closing statements in the Middle School trial. Then the judge delivered instructions to the Parent Jury.

After fifteen minutes, the verdict was in: the defendants were “not guilty,” but asked to close a local bakery that may have been responsible for illnesses in Salem.

Case closed – and the end of another successful Quest.

What would you change about Acton Academy?

Today, I asked in group: “What would you change about Acton Academy?”

The answer below, but first a few glimpses of our Eagles hard at work, making the final push on Core Skills, Portfolios, Apprenticeships, Learning Badges and the Salem Witch Trial (tomorrow.)

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Q: “What would you change about Acton Academy?”

The first response: “I wish we could spend more time at school, because there’s so much to do.” The next four students agreed, each adding their own reasons for wanting more time at Acton.

Gamifying PE

Coach Carpenter was out of town, pursuing an entrepreneurial mission.  So did we cancel PE?  Not a chance.  Before any Guide could intervene, several Eagles seized the moment and began planning the day’s physical activities.

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They even added an element of gamification to PE – with the puzzle problem below.

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In the afternoon, Eagles reviewed the Social Psychology experiments we have conducted, in preparation for Wednesday’s Salem Witch Trial.

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Work hard. Play harder.

Eagles work hard. Every week.

Want some proof? Since January each Eagle has logged an average of 1904 minutes on Khan – that’s five hours per week of activity.  And since each minute logged on Khan comes with another minute or so of focus, it’s really more like two hours a day of intensive math.

Some Eagles are quicker on math; others have to put in more time to master a skill.  Thankfully, every Eagle can move at his or her own pace.  And Eagles help each other, as long as they remain in a purely Socratic mode.

Our middle schoolers are on pace to master Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra by the end of spring.  Every Eagle. Not a passing grade of 70. Not even an excellent grade of 90. Mastery.  One hundred percent mastery.

At this pace, all of our Eagles would be through Calculus by spring of 2014.  Through Calculus. Before high school begins.  (Yes, they’ll probably slow down.  Still, a torrid pace.)

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Here’s a shot of the Eagle Scoreboard, a compilation of their individual SMART goals, displayed for all to see.  It’s a visual reminder of all the hours of hard work in various subjects, with each goal set by an individual.

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Eagles work hard.  So by Friday afternoon it’s time for an hour of Monopoly or Life or even a few hands of poker.

Games?  Surely a waste of time. Absolutely, unless you are interested in critical thinking, mastering probabilities, learning about human nature or social skills.

Work hard. Play harder.

Preparing for Trial

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Today Eagles prepared for next week’s trial, analyzing a large decision tree that laid out the possible outcomes for accusers and those being accused.  More Process Drama followed, as characters and scenarios were refined (each Eagle must stay in character the entire period.)

Forensic experts (from the last session) submitted scientific evidence; judges ruled whether evidence was admissible, using standards derived from yesterday’s courtroom simulations.

Then lawyers, defendants and experts prepared opening statements and written testimony.  Immediately afterwards, Eagles watched a series of film clips about opening statements, testimony and closing statements, engaging in pointed critique and debating the most important elements of each.

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Then it was back to work revising statements and preparing for court.

Last night one Eagle went home and spent hours on the courtroom simulator, working  through a complete trial.  This morning she said: “I think I want to be a lawyer.” (The world may have more than enough lawyers already, but not enough great ones who believe in leading heroic lives. )

The virtues of the legal profession notwithstanding, it’s a good bet that our Eagles know more about courtroom procedures than graduates of elite law schools, where rough and tumble courtroom antics take a backseat to legal theory.

Next week, we find if the witches hang or go free.

Something wicked this way comes

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Today the MS Eagles were introduced into Process Drama, where after being given a set of rules, they created characters from Salem, who by interacting with each other, write a drama as they interact.

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All of the lessons we’d learned earlier about crowd psychology and game theory came to life in the town.

Later the Eagles played a rich interactive computer simulation to teach them how a real courtroom works, and how questioning and cross examination can be used to convict or free a defendant.

All of this in preparation for next week’s trial, where a real jury will decide if the Witches of Salem go free or hang.

Is it possible to teach creativity and critical thinking?  Not from a book.  But you can learn to solve difficult problems and overcome challenges – if the stakes are high and you are given the right tools — and freed up to “learn to do” as you explore the “learn to be” parts of your human nature and those around you.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble

This week marks the start of our Salem Witch trials, re-enacted with modern forensics.

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Eagles first played a complex game resembling the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where townspeople were given a series of choices to accuse their neighbors or risk being accused themselves (a game that Federal prosecutors increasingly are using to coerce confessions from lower level operatives to convict higher level bosses – whether they are guilty of a crime or not.)

In eleven minutes, almost every citizen in the town had either been afflicted or put to death – showing just how quickly fear can spread in a mob.

Later, Eagles watched a clip of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and discussed persuasive techniques that an individual could use to disperse a mob.

Next Thursday, Acton Academy parents will sit as jurors as we reenact the trial, deciding whether the witches live or die.

The inspiration that comes from guiding others

The word “inspire” means to “to breathe life into.”

Our Middle School Eagles are full of life already, but have been even more inspired lately by earning the chance to guide Acton Elementary School Eagles in Math and Reading.

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It’s important to note the word “guide” versus “teach.”  We believe the deepest and most powerful learning comes from having a Socratic Guide as your partner, rather than suffering a lecturing adult teacher posing as an expert.

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Our MS Eagles earn the right to guide an elementary school Eagle by completing a Learning Badge challenge.  Each Learning Badge challenge earns the right to 30 minutes of guiding time, which comes with a learning covenant and feedback on the Guide’s performance.  Complete a dozen or challenges and you earn a Learning Badge.

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Our MS Eagles consider it a privilege worth working hard to earn, and are lining up to do so.

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All Eagles will move from the Independent Learner badge to Running Partner to Socratic Guide to Project Guide to Curriculum Creator, until by high school each Eagle is capable of running a school (or company or non-profit) on their own.

Think of it.  An army of bright young people guiding each other, delivering “learn to do” and “learn to be” skills and lessons better, faster and far less expensive than adults.

You might even call it a revolutionary idea.

History, and the stories that bind us

Namaste. The light within me recognizes the light within you.  A lovely tradition started by Ms. Laura, the “Namaste” that begins every session of Middle School History brings us together; as a group in the present, and with the cultures that we meet in our collective past.  It gives us a loving foundation from which to separate in lively disagreement, while always maintaining our curiosity and mutual respect.

History holds a special place in the Acton curriculum. In some ways, it stands alone, yet it also encapsulates everything else we do.

We look at History and ask the Eagles to ponder why civilizations rise and fall, and to notice patterns of Hero’s Journey archetypes.  This year, we also ask the overarching question – which happens to be endlessly interesting when looking at human history- of whether the past determines the future.

Sometimes this thinking happens in the form of silent reflection; more often, in the form of Socratic discussion.  We put the Eagles in the shoes of a decision maker, and ask them to grapple with often thankless propositions, just like real leaders, bold or reluctant, must do.

This session, we’ve broken down the question of why civilizations rise and fall into four categories, inspired by Michael Mann’s extensive studies of the Sources of Power.  For every world-changing event the Eagles explore, they analyze whether the effects were economic, political, ideological or military.  They’ve created an ongoing timeline that cross-references the year, the event, and the implication.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question: What is your place in history?  What history will YOU make?
We use History Challenges as a way to immerse students more deeply into the details  of our world.                                                          Some Challenges have been very analog; fill in the names of the countries on this blank map of the Middle East, for example, after learning about the decline of the Ottoman Empire and noticing together that the lines drawn at the end of WWI have grave implications for international relations today. Other History Challenges are digital; one example would be asking Eagles to play an online game that puts them in the shoes of a young person during the early years of the American Revolution.
  But the most profound challenges have been when Eagles are asked to investigate their own family histories. As an article in today’s NY Times points out, understanding your family history is a powerful motivator.  At Acton, we build community in a way that stresses the narrative of our community, and everyone involved understands why this community exists, what it stands for, and why they are are a part of it.  With gratitude for our community, Namaste.

Just Another Friday (guest bloggers: the MS girls)

Today was a great Friday at Acton Academy Middle School.  After a focused, intentional day of learning and Socratic discussion, the boys left early for AirSoft.  The girls didn’t expect anything unusual to happen, but as soon as the boys left, Ms. Abigail had a surprise for us….as soon as the boys were out of sight, all the girls piled into a car, wondering where they were heading.  After a few hours we started seeing signs for Six Flags!!


After we made it through the gate, we rode roller coasters 200 feet high going down at a speed of almost 100 mph!  After we were done doing roller coasters, we hopped on a bus and Ms. Abigail said, “We’re going to the airport.”  As soon as we got to the airport Taylor Swift was there!  The girls waved frantically at her, yelling “Taylor! Taylor!” but she ignored them because she’s a snooty famous person and she was in first class, while we were in regular class with a throwing up man, a crying baby and a whiny five-year-old kicking the backs of our seats and begging for a cookie.Image

As we were buckling up the stewardess came by and asked us if we wanted pillows for our flight to ENGLAND!  When we got to England, we were greeted by Queen Elizabeth.  Image

Then as we got to the castle, everyone from One Direction rode in on unicorns with bagels and cream cheese (butter for Claire) for all of us!  Image

Then One Direction started performing live and all the girls were eating bagels.  Then an alien rocket came down and took us all in their UFO back home!


From Tribes to Prison

Today we continued the Psychology Quest by recreating (with kinder and gentler oversight) the Stanford Prison experiment made famous by Zimbardo, with Eagles tribal loyalties still fully intact.

During launch, Eagles were informed that there were secret police among them, armed with the power to arrest for a “lack of intention” or even on a whim.  Tension was in the air during Core Skills.

Mid-morning, we paused to run the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and discussed what game theory can teach us about human nature; how “past determines the future” and the importance and fragility of trust.

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Then, at 11 AM, one Eagle donned a hat, reflective sunglasses and a badge and made the first arrest.  Soon, another arrest followed and more Eagles were deputized to serve as jailers.

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At first, all of those jailed were Oranges, leading to charges of prejudice.  Then a few Reds filled out the prison. Only a few Eagles remained as bystanders.

Grievances were filed.  Privileges taken away. Punishments levied.  Punishments increased.  Soon a few guards – surprisingly some of the kindest Eagles – began to let power go to their heads.  Duty became cruel delight.

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One Eagle prisoner agreed to denounce his tribe (photo above as an Eagle changes his tribe colors); in a real prisoner’s dilemma bind, an Eagle ratted out an innocent classmate; another prisoner agree to become an informant in return for pay and privileges.

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Before long, a number of Eagle prisoners were in solitary confinement.  And even some taunting began.  It was time to call the experiment before things got out of hand. (Guides commented how eerily the posing mimicked photos from Abu Graib.)

During a lengthy debrief, it was clear that powerful lessons had been learned, like:

  • “Given power, a human will become an animal;”
  • “Power hides the truth;” and
  • “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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Then it was time to heal the tribe.  In a powerful ritual, the Eagles tied their tribal bandanas to a rope that was used in a trust exercise, and then following a discussion about and photos from Abu Graib and how each of our shadows can cause us to treat fellow human beings as objects, we buried our shadow objects and reunited a tribe.

Understanding the power of Tribes and Shadows.  Feeling the power of a Shadow unleashed. Turning Shadows from projection to Gold.  All experiences that leaders who will someday change the world should experience, long before they hold the corrupting influence of real world power in their hands.

Tribes II

Today was our second day of dividing MS Eagles into the “reds” and “oranges,” an experiment launched by giving each Eagle a red or orange bandana.

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The results were startling. Below, statements overheard during the day:

“We are the Orange Empire.  We must assemble to protect ourselves.”

“Red’s have the smartest and best.”

“We are  going to hold you hostage.”

“From now on, only the Red’s can…”

“You, Orange, you are going to jail in the girl’s bathroom.”

“Freeze Red, in the name of justice.”

“You Oranges are weaklings.”

“Who is your leader?  We will assassinate him.”

The most aggressive tribe began wearing bandanas over their faces, outlaw style, as if to protect their identities.

All of this occurred after Eagles watched a video about mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi in Burundi, and Guides pleaded for all to work together in harmony.

In the Elementary School, where the experiment was running in parallel, a study group that has worked together for over a year split up.  One identical twin Orange turned against her Red sister.

All because some Eagles were handed red pieces of cloth; others orange.

Only one Orange said he couldn’t turn against the Red.  His family has strong ties to the University of Oklahoma (red jerseys), rivals to the hometown Texas Longhorns (who wear orange.)  Apparently some tribal affiliations are stronger than others.

Many years ago, I met a man who worked for General Electric in Yugoslavia.  He told of being warned by the US State Department to leave the country because ethnic tensions were on the rise:

“I told them the warning was ridiculous. I knew these people. The Serb and Croat neighbors on my street had lived and worked together for decades and were peaceful people.  Yet I was ordered to leave.”

He continued: “Less than 24 hours later, neighbors on my street, people I knew, friends who had barbequed together and  whose children were lifelong friends, were butchering each other.”

Tribal affiliations are a powerful and deeply imbedded part of our human nature.  Something Eagles who want to change the world should understand, on a gut level.

Tomorrow, a powerful twist on the experiment. Then we bring all of the Eagles back together into one tribe.


Once the world was patriarchal. Then hierarchical.  Today the world is much flatter.  But relationships still matter – self organizing tribal relationships.

As a continuation of our Psychology Quest, we moved from individual dream and shadow analysis to group psychology. Today we gave each Eagle either a red or orange bandana.

No instructions, except to tie the bandana around your arm.

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In less than five minutes, the groups had formed into tribes and engaged in “us versus them” behavior.  Less than five minutes.

Today the experiment continues.


The discussion this morning was terrible.  Low energy. Lethargic.

Even Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address couldn’t penetrate the fog. Uncharacteristically, no one seemed willing to participate.

What to do?  Simple.  Ask the Eagles what was wrong.  So I did.

The answer: “Daylight Savings Time.”  Everyone was tired and grumpy from getting up one hour earlier.

The solution – an unscheduled fifteen minutes outside in the cold air, running and jumping and playing.  Then back to work, with new energy.

It’s one of the secrets to Acton.  When something’s not going well, we ask the Eagles.  And then let them solve the problem.

Tragedy of the Commons – Part II

Want to take on an impossible task? Try transferring janitorial duties to a group of middle schoolers.

At Acton Academy it’s our Eagles responsibility to clean the sink, mop the floors and empty the trash – every day.  With no help or intervention from Guides.

At first this took a great deal of patience.  The room looked (and at times smelled) like a college dorm.  But finally the Eagles rallied to form a cleaning crew and spruce up their new home.

Sadly, after a while enthusiasm waned and we slipped back into bad habits.  That is, until the Acton elementary students wrote a series of letters complaining about the trash and how it was damaging the Acton brand.  There was talk of an intra-school suit for damages, perhaps a Chapter 11 bankruptcy with elementary students as overseers.

The middle schoolers rallied again. But a few weeks later slipped back into slothful habits.

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Then, a novel idea.  We divide the room in half and separate the Eagles into two teams.  At the end of clean up, the an elementary student serves as referee, with one of two choices:

  • Declare one side the winner.  Winners go outside the next day during free time.
  • Declare the entire classroom “pristine,” which means both sides can go outside (Hasn’t happened yet!)

As shown above, the Elementary Eagles take great pride in their new responsibilities, and the room has never been cleaner.

We set the rules; Eagles decide whether or not to play.  Even when it comes to cleaning the bathrooms!

Our best ideas come from Eagles

Flow, the feeling of being “in the zone” while working, is a powerful force at Acton Academy.  When an Eagle is in flow in completing a Khan math exercise; reading a book or writing a speech, learning happens at an extraordinary pace.

Collaboration is an important part of Acton Academy too.  Sometimes you need a friend to explain a difficult concept, or even more importantly, to ask the right question.  Almost all of the real learning at Acton is student to student, not Guide to student.

But collaboration can interrupt flow.  And too many interruptions can ruin a two hour block of Core Skills time.

So what to do?

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Our Eagles came up with this solution – a Collaboration Request board.  Now if you need to ask someone to collaborate, you post a request rather than interrupting.   When your potential collaborator takes a break, he or she can check the board and rendezvous at a set time.  Plus, we have a record of the peer to peer learning.

Collaboration happens. Flow is protected.  Our best ideas come from Eagles.  Every time. If we just ask.

Only the Shadow knows

Today our Eagles explored their “Shadow,” the unclaimed part of the psyche that leads us to project our fears and worries on others.

Is there a politician you truly despise because he or she seems “dogmatic?”  Carl Jung would say this is a part of you disowned at an earlier age, more than likely because you were shamed when you exhibited a similar behavior.  (Shadows also show up as the dark or scary characters in your dreams.)

Shadow projections cause us to blame others.  Shadow projections are the root of scapegoating.  Shadow projections waste an incredible amount of energy that could be put to a more positive use.

The antidote to your shadow is to turn the negative into a positive – “dogmatic” becomes “principled” when the cause is just;  “laziness” becomes “rest” when used wisely; “silliness” becomes “fun” with a different perspective.

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Above Eagles trace their real shadows.  The interplay between symbols and ritual in the real world can help reveal new insights in the inner world.

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Here Eagles turn “dark” shadow images into their positive counterparts.

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Why does this matter?  Because our young Eagles are going to change the world.  Having the tools,  intentionality and courage to take an inner Hero’s Journey provides reserves of moral judgment and energy for the times our Eagles will need them the most.

Preparing our new home

Acton Academy started four years ago with seven elementary school Eagles in a small, rented house near downtown Austin.

The school quickly outgrew its original campus, so we moved to the Acton MBA campus, our only alternative given the glacial speed at which the City of Austin approves building permits.

In July, we’ll move to Acton Academy’s permanent home, a four acre campus just east of the University of Texas, in a hip,  fun, funky Austin neighborhood that’s becoming one of the new hot spots in town.

Last week our parents and Eagles toured the new campus.  Many schools become too focused on buildings, at the expense of learning; we won’t make that mistake.  But great architecture – twenty foot ceilings and movable walls and outdoor decks do add something special to transformational learning.  Here’s to our new home!


Active Imagination and the Hero’s Journey

As part of the Forensic Psychology Quest, Eagles today experimented with Active Imagination, a challenging technique invented by Carl Jung.

Building on their work in dream analysis and word association, Eagles learned to “daydream” in an intentional way to invite and record conversations with different archetypal characters inside them, revealing inner thoughts and conflicts and clarifying real world struggles.

While Active Imagination at first sounds somewhat “far out,” it was Jung who championed the idea of an inner Hero’s Journey as an important part of fully lived life, and many people have found the technique brings great clarity to important life decisions.

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Theory aside, the Eagles were fascinated with Active Imagination, not only taking quickly to the technique, but begging for more time to continue the conversations with the characters who emerged from their unconscious.  Several learned extremely powerful lessons about themselves.
photo (241) photo (242)Add the Active Imagination challenge to a day where Eagles listened to and analyzed a Winston Churchill speech, and several guided younger Eagles in the Elementary School as part of their Learning Badge project, and it was quite an important day for our young leaders who someday will change the world.


Being in charge of your own learning is difficult, crucial, and liberating.Image

Below, Eagles decompress by spontaneously designing and building a fort out of scrap lumber, sand castle-like in its joy and impermanence.


Later, an exuberant visit to the construction site that will soon become our new roost!


Apprenticeships: Ready for Lift Off

We launched this morning by listening to Ronald Reagan’s Challenger speech and comparing it to Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address.

The goal is to have Eagles luxuriate in great speeches – soaking in the most powerful words, phrases and symbols as they listen and observe more intentionally.

Next session each Eagle each will choose a historical figure and write and deliver a speech as that character, at an important time and place.

This morning Eagles rehearsed and polished their final Apprenticeship pitches – determined to secure each a real world apprenticeship by April.

  • How do you grab someone’s attention early in an email, call or in person meeting, long enough to ask an important question?
  • How do you explain a complex idea like an apprenticeship, in just a few words?
  • How do you ask for the job; clearly, directly in a way that’s difficult to refuse?

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Bravely, our Eagles explored these questions and prepared for the “Big Ask” next week.

Then, in the afternoon, ink blot tests and more Jungian dream analysis, the beginning of understanding the power of that FDR and Reagan’s symbols – and especially the Hero’s Journey — are deep inside each one of us.