Monthly Archives: November 2013

Eagles visit a Shark Tank

Eagles are working in teams to write, produce and sell a “bestselling book” in less than nine weeks.  A daunting challenge.

Launching the challenge several weeks ago was entrepreneur Clint Greenleaf, whose experimentation as an author led to building a self-publishing empire.

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Today entrepreneur Yuen Yung, famous for securing $1 million for his How Do You Roll sushi empire on Shark Tank, arrived to hear publishing pitches from the Eagles.

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As requested, Yuen was tough, peppering the Eagles with questions about customers and Unit Economics.  The performances were – shall we say – uneven.  Eagles know they have a lot of work to do in the next month.  But they were brave enough to pitch, and that matters a lot.

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Afterwards Yuen said: “Wow. I would have never been able to do that at their age.”

We bet he could have – at Acton Academy.

The Eagles take on the Shark Tank – and live to fight another day!

The Wisdom of Councils Past

Our Eagles are becoming quite good at governing themselves, and even passing on institutional knowledge, the glue of history that makes sure we don’t have to constantly reinvent wisdom.

Below is our past Council’s advice to the incoming Council.  Our public servants in Austin and Washington D.C. certainly could learn a few things from our Eagles:


Biggest lessons learned:

You can’t always make everyone happy and you can’t just make the popular decision. You have to make the decision that is best for the class.

I learned that being a good leader takes a lot of time and work.

The council this year is ten times harder than last year.

What I’d do differently:

 I would stand out as a leader more and make sure that I was heard.

I will try to address problems as soon as they come up.

Praise more people.

Advice for new council:

 Don’t always make the “popular” decision even if it’s what people want.

Don’t waste your time. If one person is complaining about something stupid, don’t spend 30 minutes of talking to work it out. Just say, “We have made our decision about this and that’s final.”

Don’t get hot-headed.

You can’t make everyone happy so do what’s best for the class.

Have a specific agenda for Town Hall Meetings, and whatever you do, do not “open a topic for discussion.” You will eventually have to end it after it has crunched half your time and you’ve gained nothing, and then everyone will be mad, because they’d be perfectly fine with discussing all day, even if we never came to a conclusion.

Always have meetings for every subject.

Sometimes setting an example is better than speaking directly to someone. Monkey see, monkey do.

Keep appeals short. Listen to both sides of the story (from the people who were actually involved, NOT random onlookers,) make a ruling, and let them know that that’s final. If they keep bugging you, ask them for an Eagle Buck.

Never talk during town meetings unless specifying something.

What’s a parent to do? Part III

How can a parent learn more about his or her Eagle?

Acton’s Head of School Laura Sandefer reminds us it’s really all about asking the right questions:

Car Talk – Questions that Work

The drive home and the chat around the dinner table are precious moments in life. What can seem like routine daily life can be transformed into “aha” moments of learning about each other. It’s all in how we ask the questions. Below are just a few questions that help move us parents off the, “How was your day?” rock and into a more stream-of-consciousness flow of learning about each other:

  • On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being “worst day ever” and 10 being “most awesome day!”) how would you rate today at school?  What would have made it better? What would you have changed if you could?
  • When did you have the most energy today? During a group time or during individual work time?
  •  What was your high today? What was your low?
  •  Are you more comfortable asking another Eagle for help or a Guide for help when you need it?
  •  Did you serve as a Guide to someone else today?
  • What core skills work did you do today? Do you feel you did your best work?
  • Play the “Two truths and a Lie” game: Each person shares three things that they did today. Two statements are true and one is a lie. The others have to guess which is a lie.

Each question can be followed up with: “Tell me more!” or “Why do you think that?” Have fun and feel free to share questions that are your favorites for getting your Eagles to talk about their day.

What’s a parent to do? Part II

Your Eagle won’t tell you much about school.

But you want to make sure he’s keeping up.  You’ve learned to log into Khan Academy, No Red Ink, Newsela and other internet based programs, but what else can you do?

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Here’s an idea: Review your Eagle’s SMART goals every week.

SMART goals – Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Results oriented and Time-bound goals are a deeply imbedded part of our learning community.  Eagles set these goals each Monday, along with their Running Partner, and tally up the points earned at the end of the week.

Use the tracker to ask deeper, more specific questions – about books read; Khan skills mastered and progress on Quests.  The number of points scored or goals achieved in any one week aren’t important – but setting and reaching goals is an important lifelong habit for heroes who want to change the world.

Plus, you can add even more by sifting through several weeks worth of SMART goals, and helping your Eagle spot longer term areas of interest and skills.

In many ways, SMART goals over a long period of time deliver two of the most gifts we can give as parents: solid process skills and perspective.

Profound Happenings

Progress is messy. Noisy. Full of angst.

Often you wonder if lessons about pricing; rapid prototyping; and haggling are getting through. Then you have a day of profound happenings.

Today’s Friday Adventure requires finding the most efficient and effective production process for making sandwiches for the homeless; applying lessons learned  from MBA level challenges in Pampered Pooches and Galactic Zappers.

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Those who have earned the adventure are split into two teams and armed with $30 for supplies: one team assigned to Costco; the other to Whole Foods.

The goal: Build as many “excellent sandwiches” as possible, at the lowest possible cost per sandwich.

Immediately a question: “Can we haggle to reduce the cost?”  Eagles find a way to use last week’s hard earned skill again.  A great start.

A list of ingredients.  Estimates of amounts needed for each ingredient and the expected cost per sandwich. We are ready.

Overheard on the way to Whole Foods:”At Acton we work hard all week on an impossible set of tasks, to earn the right to do something even harder where we learn even more.  But that’s OK, because  it’s so fun you can’t wait to get started.”

A profound lesson about motivation.

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Eagles split into teams in the stores.  Every minute counts because labor costs are $1 per hour, per person.  One team hasn’t planned as well and has to start over. Precious time is wasted.

We return to the studio.  The first task is for one Eagle to make sandwiches by hand.   Five sandwiches take a little over seven minutes, requiring 2.5 cents per sandwich in labor.

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Next Eagles are assigned a role in an assembly line, still paid by the hour.  Five sandwiches take one minute and forty seconds.  A much faster cycle time, but with six on a team, a cost of 3.3 cents per sandwich in labor.

Management theory is wrong.  An assembly line is not more efficient than artisan labor.

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Then one more test.  We pay Eagles by the sandwich instead of by the hour.  Workers are given the right to self organize.  Productivity doubles and the labor cost per sandwich plummets.

Lessons begin to tumble out:

“It’s better to work alone than in an assembly line, if a boss makes the assignments.”

“But if you pay people for completing a task and let each person do what they do best, working as a team is more efficient and more fun.” A profound truth; one of the bedrock lessons of entrepreneurship and a civil society.

One Eagle observes: “If you see a bottleneck, you can assign two people to relieve it.”

Another disagrees: “It’s cheaper to just add WIP in front of a station.”  (Adding Work-in-Process inventory is an insight most Harvard Business school graduates would have missed.)

A third Eagle adds: “If you put WIP in the middle of the table where everyone can use it, the process moves even faster.”

This is an  intuitive leap into cell manufacturing and the Toyota Method – never mentioned in the readings but discovered through trial and error by a twelve year old. It might have saved Detroit but eluded American auto executives for decades.

Much math is done on the board, in search of Unit Economics.  The Costco team is declared the winner, with lower cost ingredients and far higher output.  Then a voice from the crowd: “We have to inspect quality.”

Another agrees: “We can’t ask the homeless to eat anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves, just because they don’t have a choice.”

Half of the Costco sandwiches fail inspection; most Whole Foods sandwiches pass.  The Unit Economic results are reversed – the Whole Foods team has won.

One last insight: “Increasing volume doesn’t count if you can’t keep quality high too.”

Profound insights.  Lessons for a lifetime, deeply imbedded by authentic discovery. Plus forty homeless in Austin who won’t go to bed hungry tonight.

What’s a parent to do? Part I

It’s often hard to be an Eagle Parent.  Your child won’t tell you much about school. You hate to press.  And yet, you want to know whether or not your Eagle is making progress.

What to do?  Here’s one idea: Use the Contract of Promises (shown below) to ask your Eagle if her Running Partner and classmates would agree that she is living up to her promises.

Press for specific, positive examples and explore ways to improve.  Ask your Eagle to “force rank” which three promises she is doing her “best work” which three she needs to “try something different.”

     Acton Middle School

Contract of Promises

 As an Acton Eagle, I promise to:

  •  Relentlessly pursue my “next adventure,” so I can find my own special purpose for being on this earth.
  • Always do my best work.
  • I promise to hold my classmates accountable and help them on the path to success.
  • Learn from my failures and never give up.
  • Respect others, their choices, differences, and beliefs.
  • Never accept snarkiness, poor sportsmanship, or bullying of any kind.
  • Never give up on myself or my fellow travelers.
  • I further promise to learn something new every day as I gather the tools I will need for later in life.
  • To be positive.  To be curious.  To keep an open mind. To have fun and find joy in daily activities.
  • To be honest and speak the truth, even when it is difficult.
  • To have the courage to be different.
  • To be respectful and treat others how I want to be treated.
  • And to follow through on my promises. EVERY TIME.

I hereby solemnly pledge to uphold these promises.

Signed, this 13th day of September, 2013.

At Acton, the choice of work and pace often are left up to the individual Eagle.  But keeping one’s promises is a non-negotiable part of the learning community.

War or Peace?

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Do not let the smiles fool you.

Consider Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.

Picture Khrushchev and Kennedy nose to nose over Cuba.

Imagine Serbs and Croats at a backyard gathering in 1990.

Pure power politics, as the duly elected members of the Middle School Council and Elementary School Council meet to discuss an agreement over joint usage of the play fields.

But consider this.  No adult was consulted.  The Council members contacted each other to set up the parley.  Then they peacefully negotiated a settlement to take back to their respective tribes for ratification.

Today the play fields; tomorrow the Middle East.

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Legend has it when Earnest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in six words, he picked up a cocktail napkin and wrote: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

At once, the mind races with questions.

Today, as part of revising their Bestselling Books, we asked our Eagles to do something similar. In six words or less, answer each of the following:

1. I promise my book will: _____________

2. You should believe me because: ______________

3. The main sub-points (chapters) of my book are:

  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________

4. The order in which they are arranged is ___________ because _______________________.

5. Each chapter is further subdivided into ________________, then ________________, then ________________, then ______________ because ______________.

Brainstorming is important.  So is letting the words flow onto paper, as part of a rough draft.  But eventually you must organize your thoughts so the real writing can begin.

For this, clarity is everything. (Five words.)

Brevity, a close second.  (Four words.)

Could you run a real factory? Some of our Eagles could.

This week’s entrepreneurship focus is on operations – breaking down and sequencing a series of tasks in a cost effective way.

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Above, Eagles record their scores on the Pampered Pooch exercise.  Think it’s easy?

Then try your hand by clicking the link below :

Feeling especially good about your operational skills?  Then give Galactic Zappers a try at

Pay careful attention to the relationships between revenue, variable, fixed period costs, primary sunk investments and profits if you want to progress.

A few of our Eagles made it past Level 21, which would be considered a feat for a Harvard or Stanford MBA.

Critiquing a Bestselling Book

Today was our first major peer critique of the bestselling book project.

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Eagles have brainstormed ideas; chosen a topic and finished (most of) a rough draft. Next comes the hard part, revision, where main points must be clarified, ordered, deleted and supplemented.

Revision is the most difficult part of writing, more like major surgery as opposed to the finer shaping and tucking that occurs while editing.

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If you a Guide, now is when your palms get sweaty.  Have we asked too much?  After all, it’s crazy to expect middle schoolers to write, produce and sell a book in an eight week period. Right?

Today the Eagles formed into three to four student critique groups.  Each was asked to force rank each rough draft based on the following criteria:

  1. Main point: The main point or question of the book is crystal clear and stated in the introduction.
  2. Chapters: Each main point or question clearly and seriously contributes to the overall  main point.
  3. The order of the chapters makes sense.
  4. There are enough facts, quotes and stories to back up the main points in each chapter.
  5. The perspective (first, second or third person); tense (past, present, future, other) and mood are consistent.
  6. The introduction: immediately engages me; makes the audience and main point or question clear by making a promise and describes the journey we will go on together (the main points.)  The conclusion restates the main point or question; describes the journey we have gone on (main points) and makes a persuasive case that the promise has been fulfilled.

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Some books were surprisingly bad. No central point. Little organization. Evidence of wholesale “cutting and pasting.” (This brought forth a spirited discussion about plagiarism.)

These will improve.

Other books were surprisingly good. Original. Witty.  In need of work, but with some revisions and refining, viable projects.

How will all of this end?  That’s a very good question.

Eagle Buddies and the Power of Feedback

Each middle schooler who has earned an Independent Learner badge has can serve as an Eagle Buddy, guiding a team of elementary school Eagles in setting and delivering on their weekly SMART goals.

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Being an Eagle Buddy is an honor, it must be earned.

Each Eagle Buddy leader has negotiated a relational covenant with his or her group, setting forth clear expectations and consequences.  This covenant was signed with great ceremony.

If an elementary school Eagle is not keeping his or her part of the bargain, the Eagle may be asked to leave the group.

Every week, the elementary Eagles rate the effectiveness of their Eagle Buddy leader, using Survey Monkey to provide feedback.  One low score means probation for the leader; the second low score means the leader must resign.

A worthy task. Serious promises.  Clear feedback loops. Reasonable consequences, quickly enforced.

We’re well on the way to equipping and inspiring Eagles to run the school.



“Is that the best you can do?”

Entrepreneurship is one of our themes this session, part of the Quest to write and peddle a “Bestselling Book.”

Today many of our Eagles learned how to haggle – the art of buying something at a discount – as a Friday Adventure earned by delivering their “best work” on a week’s worth of difficult challenges.  Many were successful; some failed; but all learned to overcome the fear of asking for a discount.

So what prepared our Eagles to haggle?

First a series of readings and on-line experiences on Unit Economics, learning to set price and to calculate revenues, variable costs, contribution, fixed period expenses and primary sunk investments – and more importantly – break even; payout and total profits.

Then playing the Acton MBA PricePoint game, a difficult online simulation where Eagles battled each other as they learned to start, avoid and survive price wars, honing the skill of setting marginal prices in that slippery region between maximizing profits and encouraging competitors to enter.

Next, Eagles read Everyone Needs a Little RLC – a note that describes the “rat-like-cunning” that entrepreneurs develop in the marketplace: enjoying the art of selling; reading people; haggling; not paying cash; protecting your downside and collecting free options.

Finally, Eagles prepared for battle with role plays, asking: “Is that the best you can do?” after a price was quoted and sitting in silence, for as long as it takes, to receive a discount.  And then it was off to used bookstores; used sporting goods stores and other retail outlets and bazaars to work on haggling in the real world!

Does haggling work?  It does for Eagles.  Simply by politely asking and tolerating silence, many Eagles received discounts of 40%; 50% and in one case 71% off list price.  Some Eagles even received major discounts at a popular sandwich shop for lunch.

Today’s lesson?  That simply by having the courage to ask politely and take advantage of the motivating power of marginal economics, you can  reduce you average daily cost of living by 50% or more.

Not a bad lesson for young heroes, preparing to take the real world by storm.





A 360 Review: Is my self-image aligned with how others see me?

Last week we experimented with 360 reviews, a community building tool used at some of America’s top companies, like Apple and Google.

First, each Eagle was given the survey below and asked to rate every classmate’s Tough- mindedness (a measure of how they hold themselves and others accountable) and Warmheartedness (a measure of how encouraging they are to others) on a 1 (low) to 5 (high) score.

The purpose of this survey is to provide anonymous feedback to your fellow Eagles to help them become more “tough minded without being hardhearted” Level 5 Leaders.

 Below you will be asked to rate each of your classmates on their “tough mindedness” and “warmheartedness,” each on a 1-5 scale.

Level Five Leaders are toughminded and warmhearted. They are encouraging,  draw boundaries, set consequences  and keep promises to themselves and others, while remaining cheerful and friendly.

Policeman hold firm boundaries but tend to focus on criticizing mistakes and individuals rather than praising behavior and progress.

Pushovers praise often but are afraid to hold people accountable; because of a lack of courage they do not help their friends grow.

Snarks make the poorest choices of all.  They criticize and tear people down AND fail to hold themselves and others accountable.”

We collected the surveys, then summarized and plotted  results on a 2×2 matrix (low to high Tough-mindedness versus low to high Warmheartedness)  and made the output  anonymous by substituting a number for each Eagle’s name.

Each Eagle then was asked to (silently) assess and write down where they thought their classmates had ranked them, before each learned his or her actual position on the graph (results were privately distributed to avoid any embarrassment.)

In most cases, Eagles accurately assessed where they would be ranked.  Those in the lowest quadrant were the most accurate, while those in the higher quadrants tended to be more modest about their studio-mates’ opinions.

The effects on motivation?  We don’t know yet.  But at least each Eagle now has areas where they can improve, and a clearer sense of how their classmates view their contributions.

What is a Friday Adventure?

Friday Adventures are special events tied to the weekly Quests.  For example, last week’s Friday adventure was to go to the Bookpeople bookstore, and do rapid prototyping research to see how Eagles could improve the cover, title or organization of their Bestselling Books.

While Eagles may love the “adventure” – being able to go somewhere with their studio-mates, each outing also delivers a serious entrepreneurial lesson.

In order to qualify for a Friday adventure, you must self certify that you have completed the  fundamental challenges from the weekly Challenge Envelope, and delivered your “best work.”  If you miss earning a Friday adventure, the outings can be completed later with a classmate or friend – you just miss out on the fun of going with the group.

What is this week’s adventure?  We can’t tell you, because this week’s Friday Adventure won’t be announced until later this morning, adding more intrigue and (hopefully) motivation.

One hint: It will involve the question: “Is that the best you can do?”

Stay tuned.

Freedom and Accountability Part II

James Madison wrote in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Our middle schoolers are no angels, at least not all the time.  But they are an impressive group of young men and women, learning to govern each other with a grace and dignity that few adults could match.

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Today we had a model Town Hall meeting: the choices well framed; each welcomed to speak; the rules of engagement enforced.

Starting next week, we’ll experiment with another self-accountability experiment, and see how it affects motivation.

First each Eagle will certify which weekly challenges from he or she has completed.  Then the Council randomly will draw one computerized deliverable (like Khan Academy) and another non-computerized deliverable (like a journal entry.) Each Eagle will be asked to publicly post his or her results for these deliverables and self rank whether the contribution was in the lower, middle or bottom part of the class.

There is no penalty for choosing not to complete a challenge, except the loss of points towards Eagle Bucks, and possibly missing the weekly adventure, if that specific deliverable was required to qualify.

The penalty for certifying you have completed a deliverable and done “your best work” if it’s obvious you haven’t, will be being sent home, no questions asked, since this is a serious violation of the community honor code.

Next week we elect a new Council, as other Eagles earn a chance to lead.  This Council will be missed.

Self-Reporting and Accountability

We trust our Eagles to report whether or not they have completed a challenge and done their “best work.”  Human beings, however, are fallible, especially when given too much to do, in too little time, with special adventures being offered for delivering everything on time.

Last week we decided to focus on the importance of self reporting, and accidentally created a firestorm of confusion.

We paid special attention last week to self reporting in Socratic discussions, stressing the importance of reporting accurately and turning in “the best work you can do.”  On Friday, when it came time to qualify for this week’s special adventure, we read the checklist of deliverables item by item, asking Eagles to sit if they had missed an item.  Many Eagles sat down, acknowledging that they hadn’t completed one task or another, understandable, given the workload they’ve been under.  By the end, fifteen or so Eagles had certified that they had completed all the items.

Afterwards, a Guide checked the No Red Ink program and noticed that five of those who reported they had scored a 90 or above on this week’s quiz had not achieved this goal, according to the program’s dashboard.

A Council meeting was called, and the Council agreed that the misreporting was serious enough that the five Eagles would be asked to remain home on Monday, and decided to inform each privately to avoid embarrassment.

After the Eagles were informed, one Eagle showed one Guide a screen shot that showed he/she had scored a 100 and the dashboard had not accurately captured his/her score.  Another Eagle swore that he/she had finished with a 90, but the dashboard showed otherwise.  A third Eagle claimed to have accidentally done the wrong test and the dashboard confirmed that the Eagle had scored a 100, but on the wrong quiz.   The last two Eagles, as far as we know, did not lodge an immediate appeal.  Later, one would report that he/she had scored a 90.

At this point, with only a few minutes before Friday’s field trip adventure would begin, there was mass confusion.  It is important to note that there were several categories of errors: (1) An apparent technical glitch in the program; (2) A possible error in submitting a final score, either by the program or an Eagle not hitting “submit;” (3) An Eagle who had done the wrong test but accurately reported his/her score;  (4) An Eagle who reported a 90 but had no independent verification; and (5) One Eagle who said he/she just failed to listen/read carefully enough.

Which of these were “the dog ate my homework” errors; which were forgivable and which were more serious lapses?

Because of all the confusion and ambiguity, the Council voted over the weekend that all Eagles will be invited back to campus on Monday, and this incident will be put behind us.

Further investigation this weekend suggests that while some Eagles may have been genuinely confused, the computer program appears likely to have been accurately reporting scores all along, and that there is a high likelihood that several of the Eagles did not score a 90 or above.

As you can imagine, still lots of confusion and some hard feelings, which we will sort out this week, being careful to separate the personal issues from the governance issues and to prevent long term hard feelings or factions. Those with a personal issue with another Eagle will be encouraged to address the person openly and directly with a facilitated process, either in private or publicly.   Governance issues and strengthening due process in the studio will be addressed in a Town Hall meeting.

As parents, we’ve learned at Acton to listen empathetically; equip our Eagles with the right words, and then send them back into the fray to sort things out for themselves.  It’s hard to do, but the best way to learn to cope and stay healthy in the real world, in high pressure situations.

Human communities are messy, but the Eagles (and Guides) are learning lots of important lessons, especially about self governance in an Eagle led learning community.

Subject: Freedom and Accountability Part I

How do we provide Eagles with freedom and accountability?

We started the year with Evidence Tickets, individual examples of work Eagles were asked to publicly post to earn specified privileges.   High quality work was praised by Running Partners, who also identified places where more effort was needed.

While this system encouraged accountability, having Evidence Tickets arrive unexpectedly made it feel to Eagles that they weren’t in control of their own schedules.

Now we’ve shifted to Challenge Envelopes, providing a week’s worth of deliverables at a time, allowing Eagles more control over their schedules (a suggested weekly schedule is provided, for reference, but Eagles can disregard this and tackle objectives in any order they want.)

Challenge Envelopes ask Eagles to check their long term Personal Learning Plans to set weekly goals for reading and Newsela (critical reading and critical thinking skills); journaling and No Red Ink (grammar) for writing and Khan Academy for math and learning badges for 21st century skills. Also included are a series of Quest related goals for “writing a bestselling book” and “entrepreneurial skills to help sell the book” once it’s written.

But how do we make sure that Eagles are doing “the best you can do” without reading and grading every assignment?  That’s the subject of the next post.