Monthly Archives: May 2013

I’m leaving, on a jet plane

Yesterday our Eagles posted their travel itineraries, budgets and Google Earth tours.

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Google earth

Knowing how to plan a trip and make difficult tradeoffs between time, distance, money and which sights to see.  Understanding how to navigate Expedia and compare reviews on Trip Advisor and use Excel to craft a budget.  Seeing how Google Earth can show you the world – from 22,000 miles away or as close as ten feet, all without leaving your home.

All important 21st century skills, and far more important for inspiring critical thinking and great questions than any textbook ever written.

Speeches that change the world

Winston Churchill.

Martin Luther King.

Ronald Reagan.

At key turning points, great leaders use powerful words to change the world.

Yesterday, each MS Eagle gave an original ten minute speech, standing in the shoes of a great leader, at a particular place and time. Winston Churchill; George S Patton; Joan of Arc; Nat Turner; Sam Houston; Ethan Allen; Pocahontas; William B Travis; George Washington and others.

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Over a six week period, draft after draft of the speeches were written, focusing on Ideas; Organization; Sentence Fluency; Word Choice; Voice and Convention (grammar.)  Peer critiques were provided, but not one word of text was changed because of advice from an adult Guide.

Then time to verbally draft.  To listen for which words had impact, cadence and flow; to eliminate others.  To hone the delivery and solicit the advice of peers.  Could middle schoolers really teach each other how to give powerful speeches?

Yesterday, we found out the answer, in front of a roomful of parents, elementary school Eagles and other guests.  The results were stunning.  Truly stunning.  At times you felt that Churchill or Houston or Joan of Arc were in the room.  The words were beautiful.  So were the deliveries.

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Then time for a celebration.  A well earned celebration.

Our Eagles now know that when called on to give a world changing speech, they can deliver.  Quite a skill to have in your quiver.  Even more amazing that you and your friends taught each other how to do it.

Does not compute. Not!

“Raise your hand if you’ve done any programing before” ( a smatter) “Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Java Script” (a few)  “Raise your hand if you have no idea what I’m talking about” (several) :”That’s okay! We’re here to learn together.”Image

And Mason then led the wonderful group of 12 mixed-age Eagles, 3rd-7th grade, girls and boys, through a Socratic introduction to Comp Sci, taking well into account that some of the youngest had accrued more expertise than some of the oldest, but staying true to the Acton belief that every child is a genius that can change the world.

The joy the Eagles find in collaboration and the depth of learning that enables are humbling.

The future they will invent, rather than accept, will be a (perhaps complicated for those of us over 30) joy to behold.


Software Frustrations

Google Earth crashed today for one Eagle, wiping out his carefully recorded tour just before it was ready to post.

Frustrating.  Maddening.  Makes you want to scream.

As a Guide, you want to swoop in and fix these types of technical problems, because they interfere with learning.  But of course, they are part of the messy practice of learning to learn: learning to create back ups; learning to read the directions — and sometimes learning the hardest lesson of all – that life sometimes isn’t fair.

The Acton Olympics

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Spring was in the air (and at 90 degrees, even a little summer) as we held the annual Acton Olympics today.

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Elementary and Middle School Eagles competed to see who was “most improved” in push-ups, the 40 yard dash, the mile run and other events.

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Perhaps the most impressive display came in “the plank,” where Eagles had to hold a fixed plank position for as long as possible.  Six Eagles broke the old school record of fifteen minutes, with the winner “planking” for more than 26 minutes.

If this doesn’t sound difficult, take out a stopwatch, assume the plank position, and see how long you can last (our Guides have a hard time making it past a two minutes.)

The joy of competition; personal improvement — and most of all – mental toughness.  All important if you want to thrive and prosper in the 21st century.

Town Council, Property Rights and the Separation of Powers

An exchange of letters between diplomats.  Tension, with the possibility of all out war. Misunderstandings.  A flurry of activity within and between the leaders of two democracies. Finally, a peace treaty.

History class?  Europe, just prior to World War One?  No, just another day at Acton Academy.

It seems that Middle Schoolers are disturbing the peace of Silent Core Skills for Elementary Eagles, especially now that spring has come to Austin and classroom windows are open.  Likewise for the Middle Schooler’s Silent Core Skills when the Elementary Eagles are on free time.  Plus, disagreements about the intensity of dodge ball and how younger Eagles can be included in Middle School games without the risk of injury.

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Town Council meetings can be unruly, even to the point of wasting time – just like real world democracies. But eventually conflicts get worked out, property rights are re-established and civil society is sewn back together, stronger than it was before.

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Next fall we’ll grow from twelve Eagles to twenty five in the Middle School.  Time to revisit the US Constitution and hold a Socratic Discussion about how the separation of powers might help the Eagles create an even more effective governance system.

It’s one thing to read about the Founders.  Quite another to be a Founder yourself, and face their same struggles.  No question which approach better prepares the leaders of tomorrow.

Spare time for learning

Eagles are hard at work on speeches, budgets, itineraries and Google Earth tours – not to mention working on Core Skills.  Still, with today’s game based adaptive learning programs, there’s always time for more learning.

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Take, for example, the  student generated computer science craze that is spreading like a virus at Acton Academy.  Eagles are staying inside during their free time to teach themselves to write code.

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We’ll soon begin to experiment with an after-school Computer Science Khan Club, to see how we can help build on this enthusiasm.

Our Eagle’s interest meshes well with an earth shattering announcement (at least for higher education) that Georgia Tech will be expanding its Masters in Computer Science program from 300 to 10,000 students over the next thirty six months, as it slashes tuition 80% (to less than $7,000 for the entire degree.)

If you are a parent, student or taxpayer, these opening shots in a higher education price war, almost surely to be joined soon by Stanford and MIT, are a reason for celebration.  If you are a traditional university president, yesterday was a bad omen, of worse days to come.

Our Eagles are unlikely to care, since many will be taking these same courses not at Georgia Tech, MIT or Stanford, but while they are in Acton Academy high school, between breaks in their apprenticeships.

Please let me know if your Eagle would like to stay late next Wednesday.  Snacks/ supervised free time 3:15-3:30, pick-up 4:30 sharp.

“Blood, toil, tears and sweat”


A young Winston Churchill prepares to address Londoners during the Battle of Britain, 1941.  Nothing quite concentrates the mind like a good hanging, unless it’s a fast approaching speech deadline.

The Acton Academy classroom is humming with intentionality.  Energy is high.  Deadlines are looming.  There’s a hint of anxiety in the air – each and every speech must change the world by moving people to action. A high hurdle indeed.

A pause at the end of a busy day and a Guide’s question:

“What will be more important for your long term Hero’s Journey:

  • Setting and reaching milestones and long range goals?
  • Planning a trip to anywhere in the world?; or
  • Delivering a a speech that moves people to action?”

Some of the answers:

“I’ll use goal setting more frequently, and it will be an important skill for my Hero’s Journey.”

“Yes, and being able to plan a trip will come in handy, if I have to travel for my calling.”

“But the technology for trip planning will keep getting better; someday machines may be able to do it.  A machine will never be able to give a speech that moves people to action.”

Where will tomorrow’s Churchill’s, JFK’s and Martin Luther Kings come from?  Tune in next week for an answer, as a flock of aspiring heroes prepare to give their first world changing speeches.

Intentional Water Fights

Lots of serious intentionality today.  During Core Skills, you could feel the brainwaves in the air, made even more serious by complete silence.  Eagle Heroes at work.

During PE and lunch, a high energy water fight broke out and continued full force. The far ranging water war became the subject of an Elementary School Town Hall meeting, with younger Eagles split between censuring and joining in the fun.

As Project Time kicked off at 12:30 PM, many Eagles dripping wet.  But wet or not, the mood changed back to serious learning.  After all, deadlines loomed next week for Hero Speeches, travel budgets, itineraries and Google Earth tours of far off lands.  The deep concentration continued until 2:45 PM, broken only by a brief Charlie Break at 2 PM.

When asked about the day’s blog theme, one Eagle suggested “Intentional Water Fights” and heads nodded all around.

Work hard. Play hard. Work hard again.  Not a bad motto for becoming a hero who changes the world.

Blacking Out

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Khan Academy and the various other game based adaptive math programs make teaching math an anachronism.  Our Eagles have proven they can learn math, even though we no longer teach it.

Two of our Eagles have “blacked out” all of the Khan skills in mathematics and pre-algrebra.  That’s seven years of math mastered in less than nine months.

Several more Eagles will finish all of the pre-algebra skills in the next few weeks, and every middle school Eagle will reach the same lofty goal by the end of the summer term.  All of despite the fact we haven’t taught a minute of math in the studio.

Eagles learn at a rapid clip; Eagles lead each other through Socratic questioning; adults stay out of the way.  There’s an avalanche headed towards your favorite school system, and it will be a lot more fun to be surfing it than being swept away.

de Tocqueville and Civil Society

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A visitor who wants to import the magic of Acton Academy to his school, circled the Eagles to ask the secrets to a strong culture.

Their answers:

1. Strong covenants between students.

2. Eagle Bucks and accountability.

3. A Town Council and Council Meetings that made Eagles, and not adults, responsible for creating and enforcing laws.

4. A belief that “we are all in this together, and not separate tribes like the Stanford Prison experiment.”

5.  Socratic discussions where we hold each other accountable for respecting and upholding the discussion process.

6.  Daily, weekly and session long SMART goals, where we have the freedom and responsibility for our own learning.

7.   Running Partners who are assigned, so you learn to get along with people who are different than you.

8   Faith that we really are heroes, who are going to change the world.

Not only do the Eagles know what makes a strong culture, soon they will be able to build their own, in companies, not-for-profits and community groups.  Exactly the kind of everyday heroes that Alexis-de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America.

Eagles Taking Control

Yesterday, we had some important visitors who wanted to see Acton Academy in Action (we now average three to five visiting groups each week.)

After the morning launch, one of our Eagles asked for a moment to propose changes in the way Running Partners collaborate during Silent Core Skills time.  Here’s a report from an observer on what happened next:

“An Eagle stepped up to facilitate. He grabbed a white board and refocused the group by reintroducing the topic- Collaboration Requests. He asked for suggestions, listened intently, and wrote them down. When more than one person began talking, he reminded them of the Socratic Rules of Engagement.  After a few minutes of discussion, he read the list of suggestions and took a vote.  He kept the discussion on topic and was mindful of time. The class came to a unanimous decision in seven minutes.”

A group of middle school students.  Recognizing a need to make changes in the way they govern the classroom.  Taking control; mindfully discussing; coming to a conclusion and implementing the changes in seven minutes.

Without any help from an adult.

An Acton Academy Riddle

In the last few months, we’ve heard from a dozen or more entrepreneurs and educators who want to open an Acton Academy.

This fall we’ll host a contest/tournament to select between five and ten education-entrepreneurs to open an Acton Academies (or a generic version that doesn’t use the Acton name.)

If you are interested, here’s a riddle that captures the spirit of what we’ll be trying to do.

How can both the following statements be true?

1.  Acton Academy is open to all students; and

2. Acton Academy only serves gifted students.

If the answer to the riddle is obvious, you’d make a great Acton parent, Eagle or education-entrepreneur.

Seeing the World

“Your should start as close as possible, then pan out.  That way there’s  suspense as you unveil the surprise.”

“No, start up high, especially if it’s a large object.  That way, you gain perspective before diving down to street level.”

“Wow, look at this, I can even walk around in the British Museum.”

“I’d much rather go for a visit after I see it in person, otherwise, it would ruin the surprise.”

What in the world?  Actually, it is the world, as seen through the eyes of our Eagles, creating tours on Google Earth.

Road Work


The road gets slippery, and people stumble.  How do you get back on track?  If you, like the Acton Academy Middle Schoolers, are committed to independent learning and being on a Hero’s Journey, you might refer back to the standards that you have set, dig into the specifics of how those standards look and feel in action, and recommit with deeper intentionality.

The Eagles believe that striving towards excellence is an important part of what defines their community.  But what are the signs of that?  And how does it feel- what are the symptoms?

Respect topped their list of characteristics that distinguish them from any other group.  Nice word, but what does that look like?  How does it feel?

After brainstorming specifics, they discussed how to bring these back into the classroom to return the bar to where they prefer it (quite high).  So, how’d they do?  The group ranked itself at a (low) 3 on a scale of 1-10 coming into the morning.  By closing, they’d climbed to an 8-9, and left the classroom with enthusiasm about striving for a 10 tomorrow.

ImageEveryone has off days, and no road is always smooth.  The Eagles are learning how to attend to the rough spots, then get right back to the business of their Hero’s Journey.   Maybe, some days, that IS the business of their Hero’s Journey.

And speaking of Excellence…. Congratulations to Claire, who became our first Eagle to nail her Khan goal (2.5 weeks ahead of schedule!).  She’s looking forward to taking a break from all that math… so she can move on to a couple of weeks of intense computer science.  No wonder Hayes commented, “I felt really respected when Claire took the time to help me on math”.

Take me to your leader. (Beeeeepp…. Does not compute?)

If a Martian had shown up on campus today and presented that demand, the outcome would vary depending on the moment.  Core skills?  An elementary school guide who came in to verify the Friday pizza order was amazed at the intensity of the Eagles’ focus.  Who led that?

The Socratic discussions during Civilization learning?  Well, it depends on which question was put to the group.  If it was “If you were a noble during the French Revolution, would you have joined the fight or stayed loyal to the Second Estate?” it would have been Sarah, who came up with the question, which was deemed by her peers to be worthy of discussion. Different question, different student leader.

If our otherworldly visitor had shown up during the journal reflection contest, it would have sought out Claire, who MC’ed the event (after a guide misguidedly tried to tap a student to MC only to be told indignantly that “we’ve already decided who’s doing it”).

Any Mars native who floated in at 2:45 would have been certain that the go-to guy was Crayton, who assembled the troops and set them to task with the surety of General Patton, the notable figure he’s delivering a powerful speech in the shoes of in just a couple more weeks.

And if the Martian had come during Game Time, it would have been certain that the committee of  four guests from the elementary school (in the MS to guide our Eagles in learning a rhythm game) was where the power dwells.   Happy Friday, and here’s to all the leaders of tomorrow!


We play games.

Clue, Boggle… Alamo Dodgeball, check. But we also use games to inspire and motivate, to gauge comprehension, and to challenge the Eagles to keep striving towards excellence.
Yesterday the Eagles spent the morning doing core skills as usual, with the added twist of acting as members of the clergy, nobility, bourgeoisie or peasantry of late18th-century France (didn’t take long for a revolution to manifest). In the afternoon, they competed in the Anticipate the Questions game, putting their virtual travel itineraries through a series of fun but grueling real-world troubleshoots.

Thanks to the dad of an incoming Eagle for sharing this article about the latest research on the creaky monarchy of the A-F system:
Games, projects and discussions instead of lectures, tests and grades. In the words of King Louis XVI’s advisor, it’s not a revolt, sire, it’s a revolution.

Motivating with Drafts on Display

Exhibitions naturally motivate, without the need for a grade.  A looming speech focuses the mind like a good hanging (with apologies to Samuel Johnson.)

But how do you motivate someone to do their “best work” on the first, second or third draft of a multi-week project, without having a teacher assign a grade?

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Here’s one way: Post a few examples of world class finished products (in this case, a travel itinerary and budget.)  Then ask students: “We are xx% finished with the time allotted for this project; are you xx% of the way to ‘the best work you can do’ at completion?”

The Beauty of Competition

Why does spontaneous order work in the classroom and society?  Because individuals in community, learn to compete; to launch efforts to serve the community while also helping themselves, without being brutish and nasty.

A few months ago, one Eagle started a store at school, selling snacks for admittedly high prices.  Still, with a monopoly, she did quite well.

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Yesterday, a competitor opened, with lower prices and different offerings.

Neither Eagle is selling health food – these are middle school efforts, not adult directed activities.  Nor has the original entrepreneur lowered her prices – at least not yet.  But healthier food and lower prices will emerge, if the individuals who make up the market demand it.

Competition within community, that’s what makes a health civil society.