Monthly Archives: September 2013

Sleepy geniuses

Friday morning, and everyone’s tired.  Yet the Eagles lean in.  They show up.  They do what they said they’d do- they are present and real.  Fridays are a big day for the Running Partner relationship.  SMART goals set on Monday are reconciled with achievements made or missed; points are tallied.  Running partners sit next to each other to optimize encouragement and accountability.

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We’re asking questions about motivation all year long.  This morning, we opened with a look at the Latin root – “mot”, meaning “move”- and discussed whether a person is better moved by a push, from a pull, or from the momentum of someone beside them moving in the same direction.

At closing, another question:  what should I blog about this weekend?     “Clean-up; we’re really get good at that,” one Eagle suggested (parents please take note!).

“Collaboration.  It’s been very intentional and we are a lot smarter when we work together and learn from each other,” another offered.

“The DANCE!” Lillian begged, meaning of course the Carl Rogers dance (you’ll learn more at the Motivation Heroes debate on Oct. 10th….).

But the number one most popular answer to “what should I blog about?” was…..  Poker!!!  Have a great weekend, and try not to lose too many eagle Bucks to Jack.


Dad, can I go back to school? It’s boring at home.

Today an Eagle broke her collar bone.  It was a simple game of tag; then feet tangled, followed by an awkward fall and a cry of pain.

After an hour or so at the emergency room, it was time to go home.  Except the young Eagle asked: “Dad, can I go back to school?”

“Back to school,” the father replied, “but you need to go home and rest.”

“It’s boring at home.  And I don’t want to miss something important.”

So back to Acton it was.  Only this time, no tag.  At least for a few weeks.




Working ourselves out of a job

At closing, Eagles responded to the question: What’s one thing you want to make sure any observer at Acton takes away, one thing they must keep in mind if they plan to open their own schools?

Several alumni volunteered “Our intentionality when we’re working; we can work hard and focus and get into flow”.  One 6th grader said, “Children must not be underestimated!”.  “They should get a council,” an 8th grader offered, quickly clarifying that he meant that the students should organize their own government immediately, and not that the observers should hire attorneys.  Then a new Eagle spoke up.  The most important take away should be… “Guides are not teachers!” she declared.  So what’s the difference?  “Guides don’t answer questions.”

Really?  Is that the only difference?  Another Eagle added, “Yeah, new Actons shouldn’t even hire Guides.  We can go there and show the students how to make their schools work.”

A show of hands to gauge interest in how many Eagles would be interested in actually doing that, perhaps as a pre-requisite for graduating from middle school or as a project in high school yielded a practically unanimous, very enthusiastic, yet notably serious and almost somber “Yea”.

ImageAfter that, The Eagles played poker to determine who’d get to be the first Acton Ambassador to help open a new school.  Okay…. not; this was during a Charlie Break.  Parents, those are Eagle Bucks, not Benjamins.

Though Guides don’t say much, we do listen, and when we hear, “I see your five and I’ll raise you thirty,”

Can We Try an Experiment?

Today an Eagle asked if he could try an experiment about motivation (Our overarching question for the year is: “What motivates a hero?”)

Our Eagle was was curious how caffeine and sugar affected motivation. So with the permission of parents, he wanted to offer each Eagle a six ounce cup of coffee at the start of the day.

In a blind test, some Eagles would get caffeinated coffee, others decaf.  Some Eagles would get natural sugar; others artificial sugar.  Eagles would be asked to track their motivation levels and accomplishments during the day.  The results would be discussed and published.

Suddenly the questions began.  About getting permission.  Setting up the trial.  Whether subjective or objective results would be more important to track.  Whether their was a large enough sample size.

A curious twelve year old.  Proposing a real experiment.  Debating the structure of the experiment and the questions that should be asked of classmates.

This is how real scientists are equipped and inspired.

Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve got a new way to encourage excellence at Acton.

Eagles manage several projects at once, with “Evidence Tickets” and deadlines tracked by various Eagle Champions (Math, Reading, Writing, Projects.)

Today we began asking each individual Eagle to post his or her Evidence Ticket on a board, choosing whether they believed it belonged in the top, middle or lower third of the class in terms of quality. Running Partners then either affirmed this judgment with a “check mark” or used an arrow to indicate whether they believed the work deserved to be ranked higher or lower.

This way, all work is displayed publicly.  There’s no place to hide.  And Running Partner judgments are displayed too.  While it’s acceptable to be in the lower third on an assignment, by tracking such self rankings over a long period of time, a Running Partner can ask classmates for support if his or her partner is struggling.

One new middle school Eagle was near tears when his Evidence Ticket wouldn’t print and he missed the deadline, so his ranking wasn’t recorded on the tracking sheet.

“It’s just not fair,” he complained.  No, it’s not.  Sometimes the dog really does eat your report.  Sometimes you get a flat tire on the way to an important interview.

It would have been easy for a Guide to intervene “just this once” and allow the distraught Eagle to post.  Instead, we shared stories about how sometimes you do get unlucky and life isn’t  fair, but that hard work and perseverance almost always triumph in the end for true heroes.

Real consequences. Even when it’s hard.  Even when unfair.  Because a caring adult won’t always be around to “fix things,” so you need to learn to pick yourself up and try again.

Time for an intervention ?

Friday, not so pretty. Guides are prone to slip, under certain circumstances, into parental mode: almost as if our own parents are about to arrive, and cast judgement upon us.

For one thing, there was rain. What a joy! (Later in the weekend, neighborhood children reported on how their schools went into “lock-down” or that it was an “emergency”… I’m keeping mum on this).

Another thing: on Friday, work that Guides felt should be getting done was not getting done, or more precisely, it was not being logged as accomplished in the ways we expected it should.

So, at Acton, we know that our role as Guides is to very much step back, and hoping that we’ve modeled the standards the Eagles have themselves asked for, give a nod to the Eagles and their huge accomplishment in putting together a set of guidelines for the Studio, and trust that this will all play out in a manner that’s ultimately beneficial to the community.

But Guides are human, and we make mistakes. Mistake number one: neglect to trust. Trust the Eagles, trust yourself.

Mistake number two: don’t rectify mistake number one.

Friday, with concern that the standards of excellence were heading south in a way that would impact the whole Acton community (and affect the plans for the rest of the session), Guides had a quick pow-wow while the Eagles had lunch. Should we re-launch the afternoon and draw some new lines in the sand about what’s necessary and what’s optional? Eagles that hadn’t chosen to set their own goals or deadlines were putting the community at risk, and it might be time for Guides to step in. We should outline the consequences of choosing NOT to to do the work that we’ve asked them to do, and within the time-frame that we’ve created. Right?

Thankfully, wrong.
The intervention needed was actually a guide-to-guide huddle, a quick re-set of the most basic tenets that we adhere to in contract and in spirit, but that can slip without accountability. So after we egged each on to come to the conclusion that it was, surely, time for guides to get parental… we realized that we were suggesting that it’s time for guides to get parental. And the real intervention was Guides using each other as a checkpoint, to make sure that never happens.

Trust, trust, trust.

It will or it won’t be okay, but your best chance to make it work is to TRUST.

The Results Are In

Ten candidates. Ten speeches.  Each making promises. Each putting their hearts on the line.  Not an easy task during middle school, especially when only three could win.

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A few speeches were pedestrian and could have used more work.  A few were stellar, even moving.

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In the end, it was close, but three leaders were elected by their peers: Mason, Anna and Sara.

Now its time to hand over even more of the responsibilities to the Eagles, because they are ready to lead.  The hardest time of the year for Guides is behind us.

An Election Update

Since Eagles run our Studio, Council elections are much more important than at traditional schools.  Energy is high as preparations continue for Thursday’s speeches and election.

Today, we combined our overarching question of the year, “What motivates a hero?” with the campaigns by asking: “Can an Acton election be earned or bought?”

The ten Eagles running for office were charged with collecting Eagle Bucks from classmates for violations of the Rules of Engagement or Community Standards (“Can you ask for an Eagle Buck while still being encouraging?”) and allowed to award Eagle bucks for extraordinary acts of kindness or accountability. (“Can you resist the temptation to try and bribe your classmates?”)

The results were impressive.  Only a handful of Eagle Bucks were collected or awarded, but the room hummed with energy during Core Skills and Project Time.  One Eagle accumulated 35 skills in Khan Academy in a single day.

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The Eagle Buck tally was tabulated and displayed along with campaign slogans.

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Campaign posters continued to proliferate.

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One group began to offer political consulting advice – for an Eagle Buck fee.  Another took a poll of likely voters – again, charging for their service.

All of this while still working hard on reading, reading, arithmetic AND finishing writing a Eulogy and Epitaph.  Civil society in action.  Alexis de Tocqueville would be impressed.

Motivating Voters

Motivation remains the hot topic at Acton Academy.

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We started the day discussing the Personal Learning Plan each Eagle will build for the year.  Is it more for Eagles, their parents, those who will hire them for apprenticeships or the world?

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Next came a posting of Evidence Tickets, deliverables from the Motivation Hero Debate project.  What motivated Eagles the most: a public display of work; force ranking from the top third to the bottom third or having your Running Partner sign off on the quality of your work?

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Finally, a discussion about the upcoming Council elections.  Since Eagles run the studio, Council members have a critical role.  Immediately after ten Eagles were nominated, campaign posters began to appear.

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The final question of the day: “What advice about motivating voters would you give to those who are running for Council?”  Suggestions ran from the Machiavellian to the mundane.

During Thursday afternoon’s campaign speeches, we’ll see how well the candidates listened.





Inspiration, Intentionality and Excellence

The high end prep school of the late 1990’s featured a didactic curriculum and a cadre of well trained teachers. Today that seems, well, so “old school.”

Given the resources available on the internet, crafting a world class curriculum today is more about curation than creation.  There’s simply so much great material to choose from, and quite a bit of it is high quality.

Even better, you can equip students to choose challenges for themselves, and order the experiences in a way that appeals to their individual learning styles.

Teacher training is an anachronism too. Peer-to-peer exchanges are far more powerful than having a gaggle of lecturing adults hanging around the teacher’s lounge.

What remains difficult is keeping our Eagles inspired, intentional and aiming for the highest quality work.

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Today we tried something different.  Taking volunteer Champions, Eagles who would take responsibility for different parts of the studio and learning areas.

Just another experiment in helping young heroes take control of their education.

“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”

On July 4th, 1776 the Founding Fathers sparked a revolution with: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”

Today, our Eagles dedicated themselves to their own revolution, a revolution that promises the freedom to use your own gifts, in a way that brings great joy, to satisfy a deep burning need in the world.

It was not an easy path.  Earlier in the week we debated the views of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, fundamental beliefs about human nature and whether men and women are capable of governing themselves, and if so, what form the self government should take.

The Eagles continued the creation and debate over four documents:

  • A Contract of Promises that contained their pledges to each other;
  • Rules of Engagement to encourage healthier Socratic discussions;
  • Community Standards to create a more civil society; and
  • A Governance Plan that describes the political contract that will bind them.

The path was not easy, and as the Eagles witnessed in a video about the Declaration of Independence, neither was the founding of America.

At the end of the day, Eagles voted to ratify the covenants and gathered in silence for a signing ceremony.

Each Eagle rose as his or her name was called,  placed a sacred object into a community keepsake basket, carefully read each document and added his or her signature.

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After the last Eagle had signed, the room erupted into applause and cheers.  Our Eagles understand the seriousness of giving your promise and the significance ratifying it with a signature.

It was indeed, a pledge of Sacred Honor. Perhaps even the start of a revolution that will change the world.







Democracy…. it’s complicated

Democracy.  Power to the people!   It sounds pretty, but it’s pretty messy.

ImageThis week, the 24  (plus a 25th in and out of Skype range) Eagles revisited the Governing Documents created by the very first crop of Middle Schoolers at the beginning of the last school year- the Contract of Promises, the Rules of Engagement, the code of Community Standards and the Student Governance Plan – and took on the task of refining them, revising them, or even tossing them away and starting over from scratch.

They divided into pods of 8; each pod elected a leader; and the leaders listened, took notes, added their opinions judiciously, withheld their opinions judiciously, and provided a calming base for the intense disagreements that frequently arose.

ImageClaire, Nikita and Sarah won deep appreciation (and an Eagle Buck apiece) for their willingness to take on those leadership roles, and their elegance in carrying them out.

It was intense this afternoon.  (Picture the Second Constitutional Convention, but with women and a/c. )






The values the Eagles have already adopted- of making clear points in as few words as possible, avoiding repetition, listening respectfully and building on each others’ statements- kept this community forum from turning into an after school event.

(And they actually did have time to clean up afterwards; the resulting Studio was, according to our Clean-Up Champion Anaya Mehta, “almost pristine but with room for improvement”).

Try to get 24 people to agree on anything – anything important, that is, that affects their ability to do the work they’ve chosen and pursue the calling of their choice, to be on their own Hero’s Journey and support those of their Fellow Travelers- and it gets complicated fast.  Most adults understand how hard it, even with the perspective of maturity,  is to mesh one person’s Journey gracefully with that of another, let alone several or a dozen or two.

At the end of the day, they succeeded- they unanimously passed a set of documents:  drawn up by Eagles, argued about by Eagles, approved by Eagles- that they will ceremoniously sign, and sign off on, tomorrow afternoon.

How nice it will be to live under the rule of a benevolent majority… until dissent, the threat of mob rule, and potential tyranny bring everyone back to the Town Hall for another argument.  Probably sooner rather than later.

Vigorous Beginnings

Yesterday, Coach Paul Carrozza inaugurated his 2-month Athletics Project with the MS Eagles.Image

Eagles listened thoughtfully and worked HARD.  Later, they ranked the experience on the Daily Fun/Important graph:

blue = Fun (1 low, 5 high). and yellow = Important (1 low, 5 high).  Clearly, fitness is important to this group.





Anaya would like to point out that taking a break to recover is important, too.

Another beginning: Computer Science Club.  After a rigorous school day, 12 Eagles, 3-8th grade, stayed late for an extra hour of collaborative coding, led by 8th grader Mason Dickerson.  They were probably ready to head home by the end of that, right?

In fact, the five-minute warning to save their work was met with groans and protests.  What motivates them to work so hard?  This is the question they’ll explore all year long.

These are times that try Guide’s souls…

To steal a line from Thomas Paine: “these are the times that try Guide’s souls.”

The early euphoria of the first week is wearing off.  Some students are working hard; others are not.  Some are too noisy.  The studio is messy, getting messier and beginning to have a slight, unidentifiable, yet sour smell.

If only an adult would step in and bring some order.  We need an expert to teach. Eagles  need some direction.

Eagles long for such authority, especially the new ones who keep pestering Guides with questions, even if  reply is always the same: “Sorry, I’m a Guide, I don’t answer questions. I bet you can figure that out yourself.”

Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Barely correlated most days. Learning requires struggle.  And failure.  Even when it’s hard to be patient.

A Guide has four important tasks:

1. Applaud great effort;

2. Hold others accountable for their promises; and

3.  Design challenges that are difficult and fun, including world class examples and the rules of the game.

The fourth task?  That’s the most important one of all.  To transfer the first three tasks to Eagles.  If we step in as experts or answer questions or solve problems, we destroy the chance for Eagles to learn their own lessons.

Today we’re going to call for Champions, Eagles who are willing to step up and assume a leadership role.

Stay tuned.


Decisions, Decisions, Decisions….

Work hard. Play hard. What comes next?

Decisions. Or better put, decision strategies.

Having a toolkit of decision strategies – different recipes for solving unstructured problems in different ways — is similar to a carpenter having a hammer, a screwdriver and a saw.

If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. If you have different decision making tools, it increases your chances of solving a difficult problem.  And it widens your perspective, so you see more of the world that’s in front of you.


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Seeing how many “big rocks,” ping pong balls, sand and water you can fit into a container delivers lessons about limits, time, scheduling and the need to decide whether a problem is urgent, important or neither.

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Playing a game where you have a limited time to scoop up low and high dollar poker chips from piles located around the room gives you a visceral sense of the 80/20 Pareto rule, and the need for busy entrepreneurs to “focus and shift.”

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A challenge that simulates defusing a bomb teaches that some tasks must be done exactly right, requiring an entirely different approach to these types of problems.

Core skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. Fundamental.  That’s why Eagles spent three hours this morning in Core Skills “flow.”  But in the 21st Century, having a toolkit of decision making skills is every bit as important as mastering Core Skills for heroes who expect to change the world.

Celebrating a Milestone

Friday morning, we gathered along with the Elementary School to mark an big milestone achieved this summer by four Middle School Eagles (and one highly motivated fifth grader!)- the completion of the Independent Learner Badge.
While Eagles don’t suffer homework “assignments”, at Acton they must teach themselves to manage their time, juggle projects, and prioritize. The work involved in gaining the Badges is completely up to the Eagles to organize, and make time for, or not. One  aspect of our over-arching Motivation Question for the year will be to explore what motivates them to work so diligently to accomplish the Badge Challenges.

One prediction: witnessing the pride on the faces of those who’ve mastered the Challenges, and the wonder and honor on the faces of their peers as their efforts are applauded by the whole community.

“This is important.”

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During three hours of Core Skills you could have heard a pin drop.  The room was alive with energy – directed, serious, purposeful energy.

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Likewise the room was humming with intentionality during Project time, as Eagles worked individually and in squads on The Contract of Promises and Rules of Engagement that would govern our learning community.

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There was even time for a team building exercise and some reflective reading.

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When asked to rate the day, it wasn’t as “fun” as Tuesday and Wednesday, but the results were a solid “5” for importance.

When we asked “Why?,” the response was immediate and unanimous.

“This is the foundation for everything that follows.”

“This school matters.”

“This is the beginning of my Hero’s Journey, so I need to focus and work as hard as it takes.”

Our Eagles understand that what they do matters. A lot.  There’s no more important foundation for a learning community that will change the world.




Our first battle cry for 2013-14: “Work hard, play hard.”

Battle cries for each session at Acton Academy are important.  We post them on the front door and refer to them often.  Today the Eagles chose our first battle cry: “Work hard, play hard” in a close vote (“Soar” and “Dream ” were popular too.)

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We started today with an evolutionary game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, where winners progress from eggs to chickens to dinosaurs to (finally) kings and queens, acting out each part with wild gestures and animal noises.

Why such a silly game?  Because it’s OK to be yourself at Acton, and sometimes that means acting with great abandon, even if it risks looking silly.

If Eagles are having fun and know it’s OK to be themselves, they’ll do anything to remain at Acton.  Even work harder at learning than they’ve ever worked before.

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Next Eagles worked in teams to build the tallest, most profitable and most beautiful Lego tower (reportedly the most popular experience at Harvard Business School orientation.)

Why such a challenge?  To learn that teamwork matters.  And to experience making difficult cost-benefit decisions under time pressure.  Because someday, our Eagles will have to make these decisions when real lives are on the line.

Finally, we introduced Running Partners to affirm and hold each Eagle accountable during Core Skills work in journalling, choosing favorite books and which books to read next and bearing down on math with Khan Academy. Because hard work matters too.

As we learn to work in Running Partner pairs of 2 to 3; Squads of 3 to 4; Discussion Pods of 8; Teams of 12 and a Tribe of 24 Eagles, important and complex 21st century collaboration skills are being absorbed, as if they were a natural part of life.

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Having fun is job #1.  Working hard follows.  So does having a Running Partner who cares enough to hold you accountable and affirm you, through those inevitable dips and struggles.  All basic building blocks for a healthy learning community.

Still lots to do, but a great start for our 2013-14 Eagle adventure.

Ready for Liftoff

Today was the launch of the new Acton Academy campus, complete with 25 middle school Eagles (of course, counting Ellie, who is on an around-the-world adventure, and will be joining us by Skype.)

So what did we accomplish today?

  • An icebreaking exercise where Eagles quizzed each other, one-on-one about  personal Portfolios and asked their favorite “What motivates a Hero?” question (our overarching question for the year.)
  • A “comfort zone/challenge zone/panic zone” hands-on experience.
  • A  competitive egg tossing contest, complete with complex cost-benefit calculations.

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What, no reading, writing or arithmetic?  Well, as a matter of fact, we did work in some Core Skills practice, including starting to re-evaluate Khan Academy’s new dashboard and some journal writing and “reading aloud” to group members (a brave task for some who had never before read their inner thoughts aloud.)

Plus, we practiced launches and Socratic discussions in groups of 24, 12 and 8, just to test the dynamics.

And finally, Eagles self organized for their first (messy) clean up, since they’ll be responsible for most janitorial services (including scrubbing toilets.)

Lots of work for a first day, but our goal these first few weeks is laser focused: To make Acton Academy so much fun that no one ever wants to leave, while setting sky high standards for being a member of the the learning community.

Because once you get this magic right, the rest is easy.