Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Charge of the Acton Brigade

After the sunrise ceremony and breakfast at the ranch, it was time for one more round of fun.

The male Eagles had decided to play a game of capture the flag; the female Eagles would be armed with paint guns, laying down a murderous field of fire.

We assembled to read Lord Tennyson’s famous poem:

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho'(though) the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

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The defenders took their position.  The cavalry prepared to charge the artillery, even though they knew it was suicidal.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

The slaughter was difficult to watch.  Brave Hayes stormed the beach and fell.

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Then Brave Mason would grab the flag before falling in a hail of gunshots, that seemed never ending. (Apparently “cease fire” sounds a lot like “keep firing” if you’ve never been to a firing range.)

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Brave Charlie would capture the flag too.

Following paintball, more swimming and sack races and watermelon eating down by the swimming hole, until a tired band of Eagles gather up to go home.

It would be the last time the original cast would be together as one; next year we will add twelve new Eagles to the original band, and the following year twelve more.

It was a fitting celebration for our original band of pioneers, one that none of us will ever forget.

Beautiful Souls

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After a hayride, Eagles gathered by fireside for s’mores and the first of two ceremonies to close out the year.

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Eagles had been asked earlier to draw avatars of themselves.  One by one, each Eagle placed his or her avatar in the fire, a act signifying that a mask prepared for the outside world was far less important than your true self.

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Just before dinner, each Eagle was asked to collect five objects that stood for a role that mattered to them: Son or Daughter; Brother or Sister; Dancer; Athlete; Actress; Friend.  They carried their sacred objects to the campfire.

Heroes often have to make difficult choices and tradeoffs.  This night, one by one, Eagles were asked to choose the least important role and throw it into the fire.  Then, the second most important role; then the third.  With each completion of the circle, the decision became more difficult, as roles like “Friend” or “Brother” that were precious, had to be given up.

The mood was somber; the decisions were being taken very seriously, by serious people, who understood that their lives would matter. Finally, it was down to two roles, one of which had to be thrown into the fire, before declaring the most important role you held in your hand.

Which role was left?  For two Eagles, it was “servant to God.”  For another: “Compassion.”  Still another: “A meaningful life as a hero.” We heard the pledge to be “a good fellow traveler” and another  to “make a real difference.”  Each Eagle held in his or her hand a role that meant the world to them.

The words were beautiful to hear.  Nothing you would ever expect from a group of young adults.  After it was over, both Guides were speechless, blessed to have been observers.

Later, one Guide turned to the other: “I have tried to convince myself that these are just ordinary young people – but after what I saw tonight, there’s no way I can still believe that.”

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Later that night there would be poker, wagering with points earned earlier in the day, learning more about probabilities and human nature.  Plus watching Jurassic Park and playing pranks late into the early morning hours.

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Then up at 6 AM for a silent sunrise reflection on a nearby mountaintop: the steep climb reminding each Eagle of how far he or she had come in the last year; the forty mile views a preview of how far each could go.

Each Eagle would leave his or her final symbol on the mountaintop, as a promise to themselves and their fellow travelers of what they would hold most dear.

Acton Academy is open to all students; Acton Academy accepts only gifted students; gifted students with beautiful souls.

Closing Out With a Celebration

On Thursday and Friday, we symbolically closed out the year as we started, with a ranch trip.

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The first activities were three real world math experiments, designed by Eagles to introduce trigonometry, algebra and geometry.

For trigonometry, teams competed to solve a surveying problem that required calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle, in order to earn the right to solve a trigonometry puzzle, which revealed the first clues of an algebra puzzle, that involved creating a human Cartesian grid to unearth buried treasure.

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Next came a geometry challenge that led new meaning to the term Pi – as contestants had to find the real life area of an apple pie with one slice removed.

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Did the math challenges go smoothly?  No.

One of the challenges fell apart when a mistake was discovered and the instructions turned out to be confusing.  A shouting match broke out between frustrated Eagles, leading to tears.

A disaster?  Not at all.  Everyone quickly made up and all was forgiven.  But what wasn’t forgotten was the importance of prototyping field experiments before introducing them into the wild.

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Next came competing on an obstacle course designed with input from the Navy Seals.

Two rules: “no person left behind” and “no one can re-enter the course after finishing.”

These rules put Eagles under stress, because after most had crossed the finish line, one Eagle sat down, “paralyzed” (following secret instructions from the Gamemakers.)

Would the Eagles listen to an adult and refuse to re-eneter the course or go to help their fallen comrade?  Of course, most disobeyed the authority figure and rushed to help their fallen Eagle, the same Eagle who had bungled leading the math challenge, carrying him to victory.

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Next it was time for swimming and watermelon eating by the river.

After swimming, time to gather five special objects, eat hamburgers and hot dogs and tour the ranch on a hayride looking for wildebeests, buffalo, elk, deer and other wildlife.

In the next post, our final ceremonies.

Heroes and Toilets

Today we reenacted the end of year Hero Celebration for an Eagle Middle Schooler who was out of town for the original ceremony.

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We also faced a difficult decision with regard to the new campus.  It seems the lowest bid to have daily janitorial service was over $18,000 per year, far above earlier estimates.

The cost could be reduced to $6,000 annually if the complete cleaning was only two days each week, enough savings to offer partial scholarships to several Eagles in the future or keep tuition affordable for everyone.  But who would clean bathroom floors and toilets in the interim?  The Guides?

Yes, occasionally Guides will be asked to clean, as members of the community.  But the bulk of the dirty work between professional cleanings will be done by the Eagles themselves, as part of their ownership of the new studio.

Moms clean toilets.  So do entrepreneurs in one person start-ups.  So do Heroes-in-Waiting who know that answering a calling requires hard work.

Who knows, maybe a few dorm rooms and apartments will have cleaner bathrooms a few years from now.  Or perhaps that’s hoping for too much.

Math Challenge: Algebra, Geometry or Trig?

Today was the conclusion of the Math Challenge, with three Eagles pitching to convince their fellow travelers to take either Algebra, Geometry or Trig next.  (Thanks to Khan Academy, Eagles are free to pick and pursue an individual specialty in Math.)

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Each Eagle described the history of their math specialty, how it could be used in real life, the level of difficulty and the “math heroes” who invented and added to it.

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Following the presentation, a spirited Socratic discussion changed quite a few minds.

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Then the final vote: Algebra wins! (Though each Eagle will be allowed to pick his or her individual path.)

A Dress Rehearsal

Today each MS Eagle presented his or her portfolio to a group of Elementary Eagle volunteers, as a dress rehearsal for showing the portfolios to parents.

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Hard individual work.  Multiple repetitions and drafts.  Doing something that matters to you.

In the end – a new skill.  Showing the world what you can do, using an electronic portfolio.


Next to public expositions, peer based critiques are the most important tool we have to inspire higher and higher standards.

Today the Eagles assembled to critique end of session electronic portfolios.

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First the group established the target audiences (potential apprenticeship employers, friends and parents) and criteria by which portfolios would be judged on a 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) scale:

1. Include examples of excellent work – “the best you can do.”

2. So easy to use that a third grade Eagle could navigate.

3. Lots of variety – Hero’s Journey; Passions; Core Skills; Apprenticeships; Projects and Fun.

4. Multimedia – images, text and video.

5.  The five words you’d want the audience to say about you after seeing the portfolio.

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Next the Eagles split into two groups, where each presented his or her portfolio and received a 1-5 rating and warm (positive) and cool (“I’d suggest this”) critiques.

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The entire group then assembled to listen to the finalists present their portfolios again, provide more warm and cool critiques, and vote for first, second and third place.

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The creator of the top rated portfolio (left) spontaneously congratulated the second and third place finishers.

All portfolio creators then returned to the drawing board to use what they had learned to improve their presentations.

Setting their own criteria.  Giving and receiving critiques.  Choosing the “best work.”  Taking what you have learned for another round of improvement.  A far better approach to 21st century mastery than having an adult award “A’s” to those who obediently regurgitate answers on a standardized test.

Who won?

Coach Carpenter made a special appearance in the Middle School Studio this afternoon.  And wearing a suit (not talking about the Speedo Laura gave him after the Olympics)!  The Eagles wondered: WHY?

“You just got back from a business trip?”

“You are heading to Ellie’s dance performance after this?”

Wrong, he informed them.  The suit is for YOU.

After a year of working with these amazing young people- driven and highly competitive, yet kind. Empathetic. Honest, and able to applaud the best in themselves, their team mates and their competitors.  After a year of this, Coach C came in with data both hard and soft, and certificates and medals for both.

Hard data:  School-wide push-up champ knocked out 70  in one minute, which, more importantly, was an improvement of mega-percents over her own previous record.   Similar stats for our 40-yd dash winner and our mile-run champ.

But the inarguable climax of the ceremony was when Coach invited the Good Sport winners of last semester to stand and deliver the trophies to the newest Good Sports.  How appropriate to have Eagles deliver the news, as they all voted on the issue with no input from any guides.

So who won?  Speculation crossed the room; names thrown out, it could have been anyone.  It could actually have been anyone.  They’re that good.

Congratulations to all the Eagles on their efforts, improvements, and sportsmanship this year- and congrats to Ana and Mason for being….drum roll…. Good Sports of the Semester!

And a HUGE thank you to Coach Carpenter for being a great role model, setting a high bar for the Eagles, and guiding them to value sportsmanship even more than winning… or at least act that way:).

Thanks to the Eagles’ fantastic sportsmanship, everybody won.

(Except the Spurs, unfortunately….)

Higher Math and Journalling

We launched this morning with a Sal Khan video on the beauty of Algebra, a first step in helping Eagles choose between Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry as their next math challenge.

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The speed at which the group is mastering PreAlgebra is impressive.

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So is Khan Academy’s ability to track each Eagle’s progress, including each question, each answer and the time to complete each problem.

As the math becomes more difficult and increasingly conceptual, the Khan videos will become even more important.

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Later in the day, the Eagle run Journal Contest asked: What will you choose as your next math challenge?   Here’s what one Eagle wrote:

“No question; no doubt; no maybes:  Algebra.  Algebra is one of the most useful tools in the world because it covers so much.  Trig uses variables.  Geometry uses variables.  Algebra can write formulas to solve almost anything.

You saw the video this morning. You heard what Sal said.  Isn’t it incredible how two completely different real world problems can be solved using the same equation?

Algebra can help us span the gaps in our understanding of the universe.  Math is the universal language and Algebra is its sub language and best friend.  I look forward to getting to know it better myself.”

Learning new math skills is important. Knowing why learning a math skill matters to your life is more important; and knowing that math can be beautiful, matters even more.

Fun Fridays

Our Eagles are in school while most of their friends are on summer break. So we try to make Fridays extra fun.

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So after a morning of Core Skills, we nixed Pizza Friday for a walk down the street to the local food trailers, for a hamburger, a game of touch football and a few minutes down by the lake.

Then later in the afternoon, Game Time.

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Having fun at school?  Sure, they’ve earned it.


Why are Mondays so difficult?

Many days, the intentionality at Acton Academy is intense.  Eagles are focused and concentrating so hard that you can feel the brain waves pulsating through the room.  Even the extreme  silence seems energized.

On these days, it’s easy to feel smug about how well the incentives, contracts and other cultural levers are working.  The studio and its owners are a well oiled machine.

Then comes the breakdown.  Eagles interrupting “flow” for trivial reasons.  One Eagle shouting across the room at another about an Instagram picture from the night before.  Horseplay erupts.

Of course, it wasn’t a well oiled machine after all, but a living, breathing organism.  Learning is progressing, just not in the way a teacher would decree that it should.

Learning is messy.

How have I changed since the start of the school year?

As we near the end of the school year, it’s time for Eagles to begin to synthesize their “lessons learned.”

Here’s what one Eagle wrote in his journal today:

How have I changed since the start of the school year?

I have changed in so many ways:
I used to hate to read. Now I love to read. I learned how to enjoy it.
I learned to get a job. I learned that from my first apprenticeship.
I mastered seven years of math in twelve months.
I learned to make a great public speech.
I learned how to write a research article.
I learned how to write a mystery story.
Last, but not least, I learned that my fellow Eagles and I are on a Hero’s
Journey that will change the world.

If only everyone could change so much in a single year.

Apprentice Guide – Our Most Important Role

Next to the Eagles themselves, our Apprentice Guides are the most important people at Acton Academy – far more important than the Lead Guide or Head of School role.

Why?  Because we expect each and every Apprentice Guide will run an Acton Academy or a similar school someday soon.  So we only hire superstars who believe that each Eagle is going to change the world in a profound way.

Ms Abigail, the Apprentice Guide in the Middle School, has been an oasis of calm in many storms – unflappable, and determined to deflect any question that comes her way, no matter how cunningly crafted.  We joke at times about how little Guides do at Acton, but it’s incredibly hard to stay in a pure Socratic mode.

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So how do you know when you’ve found the right person?  You ask the Eagles.

Humility; vulnerability; a willingness to work extremely hard; a deep caring for people and respect for each and every journey – Eagles can spot these traits far more reliably than adults.

Yesterday our Eagles interviewed a potential Apprentice Guide by listening to his hero story, asking questions and filling out a detailed questionaire afterwards.

Honest customer feedback and involvement.  Something all too often lacking in the world of education.

Rapid Prototyping a New Scoreboard

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The pictures above may not look like much, but they represent a fascinating experiment.

One team of middle school Eagles is rapid prototyping a new scoreboard for the school – visual displays of SMART goals, Running Partner critiques and examples of work-in-progress for Math, Reading, Writing, MyHJ, Civilization and other projects.

Displaying information in a clean visual format that is easy to use is no simple task – just read Steve Job’s biography to see how hard Apple works on problems like this.

Yet our team of Eagles is working diligently to collect customer feedback, mock up prototypes and hold Socratic discussions to create increasingly powerful displays.

Rapid prototyping. Without doubt a 21st century skill.

Pausing to Celebrate

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Today we paused to celebrate the year with family and friends, listening to the powerful hero speeches of the graduating Elementary School Eagles and hearing each Eagle  praised by friends and Guides for a special character trait.

Not one word about curriculum or buildings or capital campaigns – simply a community celebrating learning and living with their fellow heroes-in-the-making.

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At the end of the celebration, each Eagle received a copy of Our Hero’s, Our Stories, a retrospective of the year, told in impromptu pictures and the words of each Acton hero.

Ceremony matters. It puts into perspective the struggles, mistakes and lessons of the year, setting the stage for even more powerful growth.  A reminder that it is individual sweat and toil that powers discovery and learning, and sharing with those we care about that gives accomplishment greater meaning.




Summer: Intentional Celebration

At Acton Academy, we see the summer session as six weeks of intentional celebration.

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Yesterday, three middle schoolers were awarded Independent Learner badges in a school wide ceremony, symbolizing that they had completed all of the challenges necessary to become an Independent Learner.  An elementary Eagle received his Independent Learner binder during the ceremony, signifying that he had completed all of the math, reading, writing and critical thinking prerequisites needed to start work on his Independent Learner challenges.

The Independent Learner; Running Partner; Socratic Guide; Project Leader and even more senior learning badges present challenges that Eagles need to master to run their own companies and not-for-profits.  Each badge earned is a big event at Acton, and worthy of a celebration.

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Intentional celebration can be just pure fun too, especially since Eagles are still learning  long after most traditional schools have dismissed for the summer.

Today was “Crazy Hair” day, with the middle schoolers inviting the elementary Eagles over to serve them a surprise Ice Cream sundae party.

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Learning can be fun and hard at the same time.  It also can be intentional and celebrated — just like a Hero’s Journey.

From Tweety Bird to Road Runner

How does it feel to choose your own educational challenges, including to accept the challenge of a real world apprenticeship?

Here’s a quote from this week’s Journal Contest, from an Eagle who last year attended an excellent suburban school:

“Public school and Acton are complete opposites. Now I don’t have to wait for my friends in Math. Now when they are falling behind, I can keep going.  Here at Acton, I can run freely because I’m not in a cage like Tweety Bird anymore. Now I feel like a Road Runner, running as fast as I want and stopping at any point.”

Here’s the same Eagle discussing “lessons learned” at his real world apprenticeship:

“The most important lesson I learned from my apprenticeship was to be patient and loyal, because when my golf teacher said: ‘I need you to do an inventory of our clubs,” I was about to say ‘I quit, because this is the most boring thing ever.’ But I told myself I needed to stay loyal and do it.

So I did it and the next time I had my apprenticeship I got to do a lesson on the course with my teacher and teach someone.

This will help me on my Hero’s Journey because now I know there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Syllabi versus Quests

A battle is raging over the Common Core curriculum, a nationwide effort to deliver a standardized syllabus to every teacher in America.

Yesterday, I asked our middle school Eagles how soon they would be comfortable designing their own Learning Quests, the series of real world challenges, set in a compelling narrative, that Acton Eagles use to acquire world skills and “learn to be” lessons.

“Probably a year and a half,” replied one, “I need to see a few more examples.”

“More like a year,” answered another, “if we made it a priority.”

“We could do it now,” chirped a third, “it just wouldn’t be our best work.”

Government committees, decreeing standardized lessons, designed to allow teachers in a classroom to deliver facts, at a cost of over $10,000 per student per year.

Aspiring heroes, creating their own personalized quests, full of real world challenges, guiding each other and preparing for paying apprenticeships, at a cost of $1500 per student per year.

Care to wager which approach creates more 21st century leaders?

Learning on the fly in the 21st century

Overheard at Acton Academy middle school yesterday:

Student #1 to his Running Partner: “I’m going to be in California for the next two weeks, but we’ve got lots of work to do, so we’ll need to be holding each other accountable while I’m gone. How would you like to keep in touch: email, text, Skype, by phone or some other way?”

Running Partner :”Email would work best.  Let me give you my personal email because I check it more often than the school address.  We can Skype too, if we need to discuss something in real time.”

Twelve year olds. Learning while on family vacation.  Affirming and holding each other accountable from 1,500 miles away.

Welcome to the future.

Why read?

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One of this session’s projects is: “How do I choose what to read next?”

Eagles were asked to select favorite subjects, genres, time periods and heroes that might assist in choosing a “next book,” as well as being introduced to ways to analyze titles, first sentences and table of contents as a guide to style and voice.

Then, silence.  Not much energy.  Little interest.

“Why go to so much trouble,” one Eagle asked, “when you simply can read what you enjoy?”

“What about when you need to learn to do something?”.

“Usually it’s easier to watch a You Tube or try a simulation,” came the reply.

Our Eagles read a lot.  Half the class are voracious readers; the other half just avid readers. So this seemingly lackadaisical approach was puzzling.

“What about the classics?,” a Guide pressed.

“We hate the classics. Those are books that teachers used to make us read, so no one likes them.”  Many heads nod in agreement.

“What about books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird or Frankenstein?”

“Those aren’t classics, those are books we enjoy because they help us on our Hero’s Journey.”

Enjoy.  A word like “flow.”  It doesn’t mean easy, it means to be delighted or pleased.  Like when you love to learn, even if learning is sometimes hard.

Starting the summer

Around June 1st, most schools begin to dismiss for the summer.  Not at Acton Academy, where we see the summer session as a time for individual learning projects, reflection on lessons learned during the last ten months and a time for celebration.

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The map above reflects our journey for the next six weeks.  Much of our energy will be focused on completing the Independent Learner and Running Partner badges and inspiring every Eagle to master Khan’s Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra before school starts again in September.

We’ll also have a “What do I read next?” project that explores how using Amazon, Shelfari and recommendations can help Eagles select and prioritize a powerful reading list.

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Eagles also are breaking into teams to tackle one of three mini-projects:

The Math Challenge – for Eagles who have completed pre-Algebra to explore the history, heroes and practical applications of one of the three following areas: Algebra; Geometry or Trigonometry.  The Eagles choosing this mini-project will pitch their specialty to the class, and the winner will be the person who convinces the most classmates to choose their particular area of study.

The Scoreboard Challenge – a rapid prototyping exercise to develop and test the displays and tracking tools we will use to set goals, provide inspiration, incite competition, determine priorities and ensure accountability for next year, when we’ll have 26 middle school Eagles.

The Portfolio Challenge – this group will be choosing formats, designing processes and curating blog posts – as well as crafting journal questions — that will allow each individual Eagle to reflect on all that he or she has learned and assemble a powerful online portfolio.

So while many students are at home watching television, our Eagles will be designing 21st century learning tools for next year’s class.