Monthly Archives: October 2013


Sometimes it’s helpful to realize just how much work our Eagles get done in an average day and a week.

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As one of the Eagles said recently: “It’s hard to explain to friends that I get a lot more work done than they do, even though we don’t have any homework.”

So here’s a sample from today:

  1.  Check your Personal Learning Plan and SMART goals to make sure you are on pace with your Khan math, reading and Learning Badge plan for the year.
  2. Finish No Red Ink grammar lessons 3&4 and make a 90 or above on the quiz.
  3.  Read the Newsela article on Massive Open Online Courses, score a 90 or above on the critical thinking test and participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question: “In many countries, cell phones were such new innovation that they “leapfrogged” the old landline technology.  If other countries go to “new type schools” while America clings to old style schools, could that be a threat to America?aa ms 10.31 2aa ms 10.31 3
  4. Do independent research on Darwin; Evolution and Natural Selection and bring a great Socratic question as your entry ticket.  While completing an Art lesson in how to draw with the “right side of your brain,” listen to a college level lecture on Darwin.  afterwards, participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question:                         “What exactly was the “turning point” about Darwin’s theory that made it so
  •  Man is not the center of the universe;
  • Creatures evolve and change over time or
  • Those with the best characteristics survive?”

5.   Answer the journal question: A rare bird is set to disappear in West Austin because of real estate developments.  Given Darwin’s theories, should we pass a law to curtail development and protect this species from going extinct?

6.  Write enough in your bestselling book to deliver a minimum of 50% of your rough draft by Friday.

7.  Role play how to deliver warm praise and make time to go to the Elementary School and provide “warm praise” to your individual group members.

8.  Be sure to clean the studio at the end of the day, since we don’t have a janitor.

Whew!  No wonder the day seems to go by so fast!

Eagle Buddies to the Rescue

Today marked an important turning point for Acton Academy.

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Ten Middle School Eagles began guiding in the Elementary School, helping the ES Eagles set and record daily SMART goals.  Each SMART goal group will have a learning contract and every Eagle will work hard to remain in Socratic mode and respect the Rules of Engagement.

Most importantly – no adults involved.  Eagles guiding Eagles.

Young Entrepreneurs: Our Hope for the Future

The Seventh Annual Acton Children’s Business Fair: more than one hundred and twenty five new businesses; nearly two hundred young entrepreneurs between ages six and fourteen; over sixteen hundred eager customers.

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Observing adults in America can leave you with a cynical bent.  But even the hardest of hearts would have melted today in the face of the creativity, energy and enthusiasm of our young entrepreneurs.

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Alexis de Tocqueville wrote movingly of civil society in America, those voluntary gatherings of free citizens intent on bettering the community.  Score one today for the power of civil society and hope for the future.

Why do some civilizations rise and others fall?

Today we tried a new experiment in Civilization, our integrative study of history, economics, philosophy and geography.

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Eagles watched a DVD lecture from The Skeptics Guide to American History, a college level Learning Company course taught by University of Vermont award winning professor Mark Stoler. Today we explored The Great Awakening; over the next nine months we’ll tackle 35 different turning points between 1850 and the present, sampling from several college level course.

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Prior to the lecture, Eagles were asked to explore the Great Awakening, Predestination and the Progressive movement on their own.   Contributing a Socratic Question about the period or one of these topics was the required entry ticket for the session.

Just prior to the start, Ms Abigail gave the first drawing lesson from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as Eagles began working on a “before I learned to draw” sketch of a familiar person or object.

Then this launch:

Imagine this.  Years from now, you begin to see stories about roving religious leaders, moving from town to town, having large, emotional meetings in tents.  They are questioning everything about society; some are saying the old world is about to end. Everyone seems swept up in emotion.  Everything that once seemed settled now seems open to change.

As a leader in the world, you have to decide whether this is an opportunity or a danger?  Which is it?

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For thirty minutes Eagles watched and listened as they worked on their sketches.  Then we followed with an intense Socratic discussion in Pods of 8 Eagles each, featuring questions like:

  • What was the most important positive or negative consequence of the Second Great Awakening:  public schools; prison reform; temperance movement that banned alcohol or the women’s movement?
  • Do you believe there’s more truth in predestination – that you have little control over life – or Progressivism – that mankind can be perfected?  Are these similar or different to the idea of the Hero’s Journey?
  • Should churches be involved in politics?  Should religious people be involved in politics? 
  • When Jefferson and the Founders wrote that there should be no established religion in America, did they mean no government church or that religious matters had no place in politics?
  •  Are there real differences between men and women real or imagined?
  •  If drugs are illegal, should alcohol be illegal?  Why isn’t it?
  • In total, was the Second Great Awakening positive or negative? 
  • Do you believe strongly enough in anything to be willing to go to jail for it?

Finally, each Eagle chose one person, trend or event to illustrate, and placed these on the master civilization timeline that charts history from the Big Bang to the present.

How did the Eagles rate the experiment?  On average, a 9.8 out of 10.  They loved being able to watch, listen and work on art.  They found the lecture fascinating, even though they had to look up some of the more advanced terms.

Did they learn anything?  Here are a few of the Socratic questions they posed:

  • Why did the Second Great Awakening happen?
  • If mankind could be perfected, would that be a good thing?
  • Who was the most powerful person in the Second Great Awakening?
  • What is the biggest way the Second Great awakening has impacted our lives?

College level work.  Deep questions.  A sense of perspective.  Debating why some civilizations rise and others fall, and the impact of military, economic, political and ideological forces.   Learning to draw like a master while you study the turning points of human history.

It simply doesn’t get much better than that, as Eagles prepare to take on the world.

A Hero who disrupted the world of publishing

A real treat today.  Clint Greenleaf, an entrepreneur who disrupted the publishing industry by launching Greenleaf Publishing, shared his Hero Story.

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Here’s Clint’s tale: As a 22 year old accountant he was working sixteen hours a day, successful but not fulfilled.  Then Clint wrote a book about shining shoes; a simple, somewhat crude book, but to his surprise customers bought hundreds of copies each day.  This led to new editions.  Finally to launching a highly successful self-publishing company that changed the world.

The message to our Eagles?  You can do it.  It takes hard work and passion.  Start small. Fail early, cheaply and often.

A powerful message for young entrepreneurs, hard at work disrupting education at Acton Academy; hard at work this session, dedicated to writing and marketing a bestselling book.

Thirty minutes of one man’s generosity that may have launched several budding authors and publishers.  Not a bad morning’s work.

Beware Eagle Buck Inflation

Eagle Bucks are the Acton Academy currency.  You earn them for brave or kind acts or by delivering excellent work on time; you lose them when a fellow Eagle asks for an Eagle Buck as a consequence for behavior that falls outside the community standards.

Early this year, we made an error by setting the rewards too high on the weekly points tracker.  Eagles who were reading several books at a time began ten or more Eagle Bucks a week, where two had been the norm.

Now getting called for an Eagle Buck meant less, because you had plenty to spare.  Community intentionality began to suffer.  What to do?  Just like the Fed, we decided to drain the excess reserves from the system and ask Eagles to trade in old currency for new.

When the new policy was first announced, one Eagle, remembering an economic simulation from last year, cried out: ‘But will that cause the Acton Great Depression?”

Thankfully, it didn’t.  We auctioned off the rights to some special desks; Eagles bought cardboard partitions they could use and decorate; a few special Lego creations drew high bids.  Inflation plummeted.

Today we exchanged the old currency for a new one, and tightened up the points system for earning new Eagle Bucks.  We also adopted a “three strikes” policy, setting serious consequences for Eagles whose behavior repeatedly left them with a negative balance. Then came a Socratic discussion about why Eagle Bucks were so important in our community.  some of the responses:

“So we can have our own currency.”

“To provide consequences.”

“To give us self-worth.”

“To reinforce that with freedom comes responsibilities.”

“It’s our system of rewards and punishment.”


“To keep us in check.”

“Compensation for our hard work.”

If only American Politicians understood the reasons for a free economy as well.  Perhaps someday soon we’ll have a much wiser generation to replace them.

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Last session seems so far ago.  Creating a Learning Community; researching Motivation Heroes; conducting a crisp debate; constructing a Personal Learning Plan for the year.

At times it felt like an all out sprint; at other times frustratingly slow.  Some days the community hummed with intensity; other days Lord of the Flies seemed just around the corner.  And yet, the Eagles owned it; all of it.

Perhaps it’s fitting we saw the movie Gravity the last day of the session, because looking back, it seemed an out-of-this-world experience.

Now it’s time for Session Two.  The overarching question remains the same: “What motivates a Hero?”  As a civilization, it seems we know so little about motivation, despite dozens of theories.

This session we tackle Entrepreneurship and Writing a Bestselling Book.

What motivates an entrepreneur to create and innovate? How do you motivate a team?  Is it really money that drives the world or the love of using your gifts?

Middle schoolers writing a bestselling book?  In nine weeks? Is that really possible?

Most people would say “no.”  What a ridiculous idea. But they haven’t met our Eagles.



Favorite quotes of the week

My favorite quote this week from an Eagle:

“It’s really hard to explain to my friends who attend other schools that I work harder and get more done than they do, yet I never have homework.  They just don’t get it.”

Another favorite from an Eagle parent following the debate:

“The debates on the porch were amazing!  I was a speech major at UT and never participated in a debate—how can that be?

When my friends ask me about Acton, I tell that that my middle schooler very simply goes to college!”

Out of this world

Work hard; play hard. That was this session’s motto.

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Yesterday we worked hard, with the Hero’s Motivation Debate and Personal Learning Plan Exhibition.  Today, when the Eagles arrived we announced a surprise: We were all invited to ride the train downtown to see Gravity, a hauntingly beautiful new movie about space, with award winning cinematography.

A perfect prelude for Session 4, when we’d be studying the motivational effects of “feeling small” – standing on the edge of the universe as we build rockets, versus “feeling big” as we explore a microscopic world and perform chemistry experiments.

There was a twist with today’s trip, however.  The Eagles paid for the outing, popcorn,  lunch and drinks with the Eagle Bucks they’d accumulated during the semester.

A “well earned” celebration indeed.

And the winners are….

The big day finally arrives…Freud vs Jung; Machiavelli vs Victor Frankl; Plato vs Carol Dweck.  Some of the world’s foremost experts in motivation stand toe to toe, debating which theory best describes human behavior.

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Tension was high with last minute preparations.

The opening: rock, paper, scissors to see who goes first. The Opener has two minutes “in the box” minimum to begin; three maximum. The Challenger follows.  Each then has two minutes to rebut and another one minute to close.

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The pace was fast; the barbs sharp.  Allegations of logical fallacies were as thick as the ethos; pathos and logos.  But in the end, only one Motivation Hero would be the winner for each pair.

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After the debates, each Eagle has two minutes to show his or her Personal Learning Plan, an electronic portfolio that describes an individualized learning plan for the year – created by the Eagle.

Parents and visitors then tour the studio looking at writing samples and displays of individual work.

Who won?  It would be easy to every Eagle, because there was so much learning. But at Acton Academy, just as in the real world, not everyone gets a trophy.   Failure is just too big a part of learning to ignore.

In the debrief, the question was asked: Do we want to equip and inspire successful Eagles or Eagles who succeed and fail?  The Eagles unanimously supported the latter, and firmly rejected the idea that everyone should win an award.  Our Eagles know they are preparing for the real world.

In the debrief, Eagles describe three kinds of failures:

  • When you prepare all you can and leave everything on the field, but come up short;
  • When you prepare all you can, but make some mistake that costs you a victory;
  •  When you don’t put your heart into preparing, and aren’t ready to compete.

The first type of failure is noble; you can’t ask for more.  The second is a learning opportunity.  The third happens and should be acknowledged, but never excused.

Lights, camera…dress rehearsal

Today was Dress Rehearsal Day.

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Eagles formed in groups of six.  Each debating pair faced off, one by one.  Rock, paper scissors to decide who would start.  The Opener had two minutes minimum; three minutes maximum “in the box;” then the Challenger followed.

Rebuttals came next; each side allowed two minutes to spot logical fallacies or attack with logos, ethos or pathos. Finally, one minute each to close, with the Challenger going last.

All of this captured on video, for later debriefing.

Some Eagles had too little material, and had to stand “in the box” (a taped area on the floor) until the minimum time expired, a reminder of what would happen on Thursday if you didn’t have enough to say.  Some had too much material, and would have to pare.

Each Eagle received a critique; first warm critiques of praise; then cool critiques with advice of how to improve.

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Then it was time to download and review the video. All getting ready for Thursday’s Debates and Personal Learning Plan presentations.

Soon “standing in the box” would be all too real, in front of a live audience.


Influencing the world

“Oh great. No pressure. It’s just that the whole future of education depends on us.”

Yes, it reads as a little snarky; even a bit sarcastic. But the tone was much more accepting; more like the recognition of a serious truth.

We don’t talk about it much, but deep down our Eagles know they are leading an important experiment; a bold experiment that just might change the world.

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Pictured above is Paulette, a visitor from one of the most disruptive education companies in the world.  She came to Austin to see Acton Academy for herself.

Paulette watched the elementary and middle school Eagles in action: launches; Socratic discussions; preparing for this week’s exhibitions.  Then she convened a focus group.

One by one she heard strong statements about the importance of having the freedom to control your own education.  And then one that was heartbreaking, when Paulette asked about failure at Acton compared to other schools:

from an elementary school Eagle: “Failure at Acton is part of what we do: heroes fail early, cheaply and often.  At my old school, the three students who scored the lowest on a test had to go and sit in the bathroom, on the floor, and think about why they were failures.  The three students with the top scores got candy.”

Sometimes we forget the great wrongs done to little heroes by adults, and the grace with which they bear them.

So what did Paulette think about Acton.  Her parting words: “Even after this short exposure I know I would have loved for my own children to have experienced the learning environment at Acton.”

The whole future of education depends on a determined band of Eagles?  Yes, it just might.  And that’s what gives us hope for the world.

Newsflash: A Guide is About to Answer a Question!

But first, a congratulatory shout out to the nine Eagles who earned their Independent Learner Badges over the past month.  We celebrated them in a special school-wide ceremony Friday morning.  There are only 7 pictured below because two were pursuing dreams off-campus that day; Eagles lead busy lives!

Though there will never be homework assigned at Acton, completing the missions and challenges to earn the Badge involved making time at home for things like baking bread and doing research to pitch a trip, garden or new pet to their family.  These Eagles have proven their ability to work independently, analyze information, solve problems by themselves, and follow instructions carefully.


These nine now join seven other Middle School Eagles (and one in the ES!)  in working towards earning the next badge in the series, the Running Partner Badge.  They will learn how to help others set goals and identify and reach for their greatest dreams; they will learn how to have difficult conversations, how to set a relational covenant, and much more.  Some of this work will be done while guiding younger Eagles in the elementary school, an exciting development for our student-centric community.  The Badges are a crucial part of the work Eagles do at Acton.  If you haven’t, consider asking your child which badge challenge they’re currently working on, which has been their favorite, which has been the hardest.  The standard for “passing” each challenge is that the Eagle certifies they’ve done their very best work.

Okay, so about that question mentioned in the title.  In the middle school you’ll hear, “Guides don’t answer questions,” sometimes many times each day.  A bit sassy perhaps, but never meant to be discouraging or indifferent.  The polar opposite, in fact:  it’s a gesture of deep respect.  In the studio on Friday, Eagles discussed the role of Guides.  One offered that the most important thing a Guide can do is “to set up guidelines then sit back and let the classroom function on its own”.  Another wrote that Guides should “ready us so we can turn the classroom into a student-run studio”.  Many thought that for Guides to keep their promises to the Acton students and parents was the most important thing.

One promise we make to the families is that we believe each child is a genius capable of changing the world in their won unique way.  But answering a question says that we don’t trust them to be able to come up with their own best answer, to engage in the potent thinking, research and analysis we believe each of them are capable of, or to learn from their mistakes.

Eagles, the number one reason WHY Guides won’t answer your question is…. drum roll, please…. we absolutely positively 100 percent completely respect your intelligence.

( Okay Gage, you got me.  I answered that one.  But never again!)

Slouching towards intentionality

Don’t let anyone kid you that building a self governing learning community is easy – for adults or middle school Eagles.

We’re still struggling with intentionality, and the Eagles not living up to the promises they made to each other.

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Finally, noise became such a problem that it started distracting the elementary Eagles below, so we gave our neighbors the right to take 24 Eagle Bucks and a Mason Break/Charlie Break away anytime they are disturbed.

Yesterday, a “red card” signalling a violation was deliver on two occasions. 48 Eagle Bucks – ouch! We’ll see if these natural consequences from violating a neighbor’s property rights will help.

We also realized it was a mistake to make it too easy to earn Eagle Bucks, which takes away the sting of losing one for poor choices.  So we’re making Eagle Bucks harder to earn in the future and asking anyone with more than ten Eagle Bucks to cash them in ( one Eagles Buck = $1) to buy something fun for their classmates.

Despite our struggles, lots of powerful learning taking place:

After hearing that we’re draining Eagle Buck liquidity from the financial system, one Eagle, remembering the “inflation game” from last year, asked: “Will this cause an Eagle Buck Great Depression?”

A parent sent this:”Last night, <our daughter> told us ‘I have just realized something so interesting and special! Did you know that so far NONE  of the guides have taught me anything … It’s ME, I  am learning everything on my own , all on my own?'”

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Lots of collaboration in preparation for the Personal Learning Plan Exhibition and Debate next week.

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Today we received a gift of some terrific books, and Eagles swarmed around the box, eager for new reading.

 Next step – draft a clear contract between each Guide and each Eagle – something we should have done long ago.



Nothing concentrates the mind like a…

Nothing concentrates the mind like a public exhibition.

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Samuel Johnson said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind 

In this same spirit, the air is sizzling in anticipation for next Thursday’s Motivation Hero Debate and Personal Learning Plan exhibition.  Nothing like having to perform in public to motivate an Eagle.

Today, we upped the ante with the following Personal Learning Plan Challenge:


  • Do you want to impress your parents and friends with your Personal Learning Plan (“PLP”)?
  • Do you want to “prove what you can do” to land an exciting apprenticeship this spring? or
  • Would you just like an Ice Cream Party next Friday to celebrate the end of the session?

Here’s the deal: If everyone meets the requirements below, we’ll have an Ice Cream Party next Friday afternoon.  You can even invite the Elementary Eagles to attend if you throw in 40 Eagle Bucks to pay for their ice cream.

All returning Middle School Eagles have to send an email (vetted by another Eagle or Running Partner for grammar) to the entrepreneur or manager who sponsored your apprenticeship with a “thank you for what you inspired me to do this year at Acton” note AND a link to your PLP by next Friday at 10 AM (copy Ms Abgail).

All Eagles new to the MS need to send an email note to your Running Partner’s parents saying “look what my Running Partner inspired me to do,” including a link to your PLP.

Each Eagle’s Running Partner must certify that your Personal Learning Plan has met the minimum recommended requirements, including the Evidence Tickets for each area below, presented in a clear and attractive way:

  • Math deadlines for Pre-Algebra and the next math challenge (Algebra; Geometry; Trig)
  • Reading goals;
  • Writing goals, including typed versions of your three best journaling examples.
  • Civilization goals;
  • Learning Badge goals
  • At least eight MyHJ tickets, including: Gifts; Flow; Opportunities and Injustices; Eulogy and Epitaph; My Heroes; My Three Apprenticeships;
  • For your Motivation Hero Debate:  at least one of the Mentor Text analyses; your final written presentation and at least one of the written video analyses.

Note: As part of the PLP Contest, every parent will receive: (1) a schedule comparing your commitments for this coming year in reading, writing, math and Learning Badges to your classmates; (2) a complete copy of all of the Evidence Tickets for the session; and (3) the minimum requirements listed above, so they can have more perspective on the work you’ve done this semester.

Please feel free to revisit and update your plans – especially for Math and Learning Badges.”

Making promises – to yourself and people you respect.  Public exhibitions, even when it’s hard, because real world consequences prepare heroes for the real world. Special celebrations, because hard work and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Spotted: an Entire Colony of Bigfoots!

Reported in today’s Edsurge is the sighting of Bigfoot – defined as “spotting kids learning at their own pace.”

According to the article, students mastering skills at their own pace is so rare that few educators can claim to have “seen it in the wild.”

Seriously?  Lots of what we do at Acton Academy is hard.  But convincing Eagles to soar at their own pace isn’t one of them.

So for those of you who like to chase legendary creatures, here’s an entire colony of Bigfoots.

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Perhaps next we’ll go in search of the Loch Ness Monster – Eagles guiding Eagles without an adult in the room.

PS.  If we went looking for educational Unicorns next, what would these beasts represent?  Extra credit for the best submission. (Whoops, I forgot that Guides don’t award credits.  Must be the influence of a misspent educational youth.)


The Perils of Leadership

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Today was the first Town Hall meeting of the new Council.  Let’s just say it was a little rocky.

During the meeting, the Council gave into the demands of a few loud voices calling for the easing of standards.  Allowing music back into the classroom.  Voting out the existence of Evidence Tickets (voluntary examples of work designed to help Eagles manage their many commitments.)

Bread and Circuses would have come next. Except the Council doesn’t have such broad authority.

There is a signed covenant covering music – parental approval is required.  Plus the Eagles already have failed to hold each other accountable for music distractions – another violation of a covenant they had promised to uphold, and already forgotten.

Evidence Tickets are a part of the curriculum, which Guides have the right to design and propose until Eagles take on the responsibility of creating their own courses.

So later in the afternoon, the Council had to apologize to their constituents for failing to do the hard work and preparation required to be leaders, and for allowing the Eagles to take that first slippery step towards a lowest common denominator.

The first real lesson of leadership.