Monthly Archives: February 2014

What’s Different This Session?

The high scores the new Creator Quest received on this week’s Fun/Important graph indicate that Eagles are finding the work both engaging and relevant to their Hero’s Journeys- for most of them, in stark contrast to last session’s Rocket Quest.  Why?

Guides had theories, yet despite our “no experts” ethic, we suspected the best way to answer this particular question would be to take it to the ones in the know: the Eagles themselves.  We asked:  Why were you so focused this week?  How is this project different for you?  Eagles’ responses fell under four main headings.

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 1.    Choice

High energy around getting to choose a hero who relates to their own gifts and passions.  A dedicated violinist chose Stradivari, a budding filmmaker chose Walt Disney, a talented cinematographer chose the Lumiere brothers, and one Eagle with razor-sharp focus on becoming a future race car driver chose Karl Benz.

They appreciate the independent nature of this project, which provides the freedom to do research, write and draw mind maps during core skills, and conversely, to continue core skills work in the afternoons during “project time”.

And they love getting to design their Rube Goldberg device from scratch, with their own choice of materials.

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2.    Diversity

The combination of specific, individualized work that must still fit into the broader goals of a team resonates with the Eagles’ powerful commitment to both their own Hero’s Journeys and to their learning community.  The diversity of hands-on drawing/design/building, along with deep research and multi-draft writing, keeps them energized.

In the words of one Eagle: “This project has everything: drawing, writing, research, history and even public speaking.”

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3.    Games

“This project has games within games,” one Eagle noted, mentioning the  Cornucopia, the pitches, and the final exhibition/competition.

While much of the work is independent, small groups come together for critiques, and larger groups form for pitches.

There’s nowhere to hide, and while no one wants to lose, if they don’t ace one game they know there will be another they can try to beat.  “Some of us will be motivated more by the Rube Goldberg presentation, some of us by the speech.”  And Eagles with the highest standards are in the powerful position of inspiring and lifting up the rest.

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4.    High Stakes

The Eagles crave meaningful experiences and real-life lessons.  When stakes feel high to them, they soar.  The word “pressure!” came up quite a bit in our discussion, but in the context of a challenge to be met rather then a negative to be avoided.  The space hums with excitement. Speeches, pitches, a public display of a giant Eagle-crafted Rube Goldberg chain reaction… AND a very special reward for the team with the highest average scores as rated by the Acton community.

Nikita’s slogan for this session best sums up the enthusiasm and focus in the studio:

 It’s ON!





Gamifying motivation.

What do Guides  at Acton Academy actually do, if we never teach or respond to questions?

The answer – we’re Game Makers.  We describe an exciting end goal, design the incentives, suggest a few boundaries or rules, provide a list of tools and process —  and then get out of the way.  Our goal is to inspire  Eagles to pack as much learning into the day as possible.

Take for example, this session’s Creator Speech Quest.  First, each Eagle chooses a Scientific Explorer of Ideas (a paradigm buster); Innovator or Inventor.   Five weeks from now, at the public exhibition, each will deliver an original four minute “hero’s journey” speech from the shoes of their Creator and unveil a Rube Goldberg device that celebrates the scientific contributions of their hero.

Here’s the catch –  a maximum of eight Creators per category will be allowed to speak.  So who determines which Eagle qualifies for which spot?  The Eagles themselves.

1. First, all Eagles in a category deliver a two minute pitch displaying their research and mind map, asking  to be “green lighted” (approved.)  Everyone in the group rates each pitch and provides warm and cool critiques.

2. The top rated 2/3 of the group (a maximum of five) are elected to be the Excellence Committee for that group.  The Excellence Committee decides whether those receiving a lower rating should be admitted immediately (up to a maximum of eight) or asked to do more research and polishing and then pitch again.

3.  What keeps the Excellence Committee from quickly approving more members and filling the group?  The final ratings, from customers at the exhibition, will be based on the average rating per person.  So you do not want any slackers on the team to bring down your average score.

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Today was pitch day.  Nine Eagles pitched for Inventors; nine for Innovators; three for Creators.  Five were admitted to the first  and second groups; two to the third group.  Standards were high. Many Eagles were asked to do additional work and pitch again.

The result:

1. A high level of energy and enthusiasm, because each Eagle chose a hero who appealed to his or her calling.

2. Standards were set by Eagles and kept high.  If you hadn’t turned in first rate work, there was no shame, but you got the chance to try again.  Plus you received a great deal of encouragement and coaching.

3. Along the way, there was much work and learning around the processes for research, mind mapping, pitching and how to compete for scarce resources – all with an eye toward rigor.

4.  Eagles learned a lot about the lives of twenty four different scientific heroes, and what motivated them.

Examples of the criteria Eagles developed to judge “productive research:”

  • Quality and credibility of sources;
  • Number and variety of sources;
  • At least one serious biography selected.
  • Facts; opinions and stories.
  • Clearly organized and present with enthusiasm.
  • Tells a Hero’s Story.

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Some of the questions asked during grilling:

  1. How much time will you be able to work on this? What will you sacrifice to make room for this effort?
  2. What progress have you made so far on your Rube Goldberg device?
  3. How will your Rube Goldberg device reflect your hero’s contributions?
  4. Are you going to spend more time or less time and effort on this project than you did on the rocket project?  Do you promise?
  5. Will you spend more time and effort on your hero’s speech or your Rube Goldberg device?
  6. How much research have you done and how much more will you promise to do?

Self organizing learning; making research fun; adding a competitive edge to encourage rigor and excellence – not a bad day’s work for a Guide, especially since we didn’t do much at all.




We should never take this for granted….

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Yesterday, with no outside prodding, Eagles assembled to elect a new Council.

Six candidates were nominated.  Six passionate speeches.  A close election with three winners.  A peaceful transition of power.

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Today, as the Council’s first difficult assignment, a heated debate about the qualifications needed to serve as a Clean Up Champion.  In other words, Eagles arguing for the right to work on behalf of the group.

Self governance.  No adult intervention.   We should never take this for granted, because it is a privilege to watch unfold.

Acton Eagles and Google

How do we prepare Acton Academy graduates to change the world?

That’s a question we’ve been pondering over Winter Break, in preparation for a Parent’s Meeting on Friday to discuss our plans for high school.

Is a prestigious college degree the answer?  Our Eagles will be armed to excel at the best colleges, and their portfolios may lift them above the teeming mass of commodity applicants, who clingto sterile GPA’s, test scores and class ranks.

But in world where too many college graduates are asking: “Would you like fries with that?,” a $300,000 diploma looks increasingly like a prestigious Ponzi scheme.

Google’s chief hiring officer, Laszlo Bock, quoted in Thomas Friedman’s Sunday New York Times column, seems to agree: “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

For Bock, too many colleges “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” So the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time.”

A prestigious college degree?  Maybe it’s still a good bet, if you can afford it.   But our Eagles need a 21st century back up plan, perhaps working at a company like Google.

So what does Google care about?  Three key attributes, beyond technical skill:

  1. General cognitive ability. The ability to make decisions in real time, with disparate and often conflicting information.  This trait has no correlation to traditional test score IQ. Think of Socratic Discussions and Quests.
  2.  Emergent leadership skills: Emergent leaders are a far cry from being President of the Chess Club.  Emergent leaders assess opportunities, assign roles and lead when necessary, but who are just as willing to listen, ask questions and relinquish power to others.  Think of Eagles running their own learning communities.
  3. Humility and ownership. The humility to learn from failure; the humility to ask questions instead of trying to be “the smartest person in the room;” the courage to own your mistakes, to get up and dust yourself off, and try again and again.   A perfect description of the Hero’s Journey.

The least important trait for Google is “expertise.”   Too many experts cling to a false sense of certainty, rather than a willingness to take on the difficult, unstructured problems that lead to breakthroughs and sustained growth.

So are our Eagles impressed that they are qualified to work at Google?  Not hardly.  As one Eagle put it: “Work at Google?  I’m planning on launching the company that destroys Google.”

Sergey and Larry, look out.  Not so long ago, Bill Gates might have wanted to interview you for a job.

Session Five: Creative Motivation and a Rube Goldberg Celebration


What inspired Einstein to imagine himself  straddling a beam of light?  Why did  Edison toil  night after night in his Menlo Park lab?  What led Ford to pay the highest wages in the land?

For the next five weeks our Eagles will dig deeply into what motivated the creative geniuses who changed the world through ideas, inventions and innovations.

Then on Thursday, March 27th, each Eagle will stand before an audience and deliver a four minute “Hero’s Journey” speech as a famous Creator, exploring this year’s Overarching Question: “What motivates a hero?”

Once the speeches are finished, guests will be able to roam the studio and investigate twenty four different Rube Goldberg devices, each handmade by an Eagle to honor the contributions of their Creator, and each with a thirty second video introduction.  (If you are interested in clearing your home of unused electricity and chemistry kits, just send them to the studio and we promise not to return them!)

Finally, after a suitable build up, the first Rube Goldberg contraption will be launched, leading to twenty four sequential celebrations of creation, as one Rube Goldberg device after another is triggered.

During the session we’ll continue to forge ahead on Khan and Learning Badges while engulfed in this frenzy of scientific and economic creation.  And in Civilization, Eagles will watch college level DVD lectures on the Science of Innovation, followed each week by student designed and led Socratic Discussions.

Stay tuned for a lot of creative grit and sweat these next five weeks!


Our blog has been kidnapped

Hi Acton Middle School Parents.  The PE department is taking over your blog! today. (One time only).

You might have heard from your Eagle that we are doing things a little differently in PE than we have in the past.  I thought I’d lay out for you the new curriculum, along with the reasons behind it.

The basics:  The class is broken up into three pods of 8, which will rotate every few sessions. On Mondays each pod competes in a sport (ultimate frisbee), and on Thursdays they focus on conditioning.

The big difference?  Coach Carpenter spends most of the class sitting on his duff, and the EAGLES lead the class.

How does this work?  At the end of every Thursday class, each pod elects a leader for the following week.  Leaders may not be selected twice until every one has led once.

On Mondays, leaders are responsible for:

  1. Helping me lead their pod in the warmup (I’m still active in this to ensure everyone warms up sufficiently).
  2. Selecting teams (within their pod) for the sport and changing them up as needed to ensure fairness.
  3. Keeping score, enforcing rules, and settling disputes (a biggie).
  4. Leading the good sport of the day discussion, and selecting that person.

On Thursdays, in addition to leading the warmup leaders will be responsible for:

  1. Designing the conditioning class for their pod, using the lessons they’ve learned from Coach Carrozza and myself over the last year and a half.  Each leader is free to design their own conditioning class within each pod (ie. there could be three different programs going on). I will be available for them to help them design a plan if they wish, but only if they ask at least two days ahead of time (not during class).
  2. Leading the discussion to choose next week’s leader, and selecting that person.

My goal for this is to increase each Eagle’s experience and skills in:

  • Leadership
  • Being accountable to their pod/providing constructive criticism
  • Public speaking/discussion leading
  • Sportsmanship
  • Fitness levels
  • Learning to Coach
  • Learning and increasing skills in a new sport.

At the end of the session we will have a three-way pod tournament in ultimate Frisbee, with the winning team to play the Acton guides.  This should be fun, and so far seems to be sufficient motivation for the teams to improve.

Again, my role during class is primarily to be a timekeeper (i.e. let them know when they need to transition, etc.), and to ensure their safety. And I’ll pick the music 🙂

So how did this work out the first session?

Sometimes great.  Sometimes not so great.  But we end every session with the Eagles providing constructive criticism to their leader, explaining what they thought went great, and what could use improvement.  It has been INCREDIBLE to watch the eagles grow during this first session, and to see how seriously they are taking their responsibilities.  I look forward to seeing how much further they grow the rest of the year.

And I really look forward to beating them in ultimate Frisbee at the end of next session.

Thank you,

Coach Carpenter

We have liftoff!

The Rocket Olympics finished with a bang – or to be precise, seven powerful blasts.

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We started with a few last minute preparations and a review of the different rocket designs and artwork, with voting by Eagles from the Elementary and Middle Schools.

Next, it was time for seven dramatic countdowns that led to seven spectacular launches — rockets shooting and twisting far out of sight, until with a “pop” parachutes emerged.

We had six successful recoveries and an 84% success rate, with several Rocket Teams making surprisingly accurate predictions of their rockets’ trajectories, especially given the brisk 10-20 mile per hour, swirling, gusting winds.

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In the end, the winners celebrated, complete with an Olympic style rendition of the national anthem.

Rocket Scientists of the world unite!

Mission Control is Buzzing with Anticipation

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Mission Control buzzed with energy as rocket scientists prepared for tomorrow’s launches.  Rocket points were tallied, to make sure each team had paid for the rocket parts they had ordered.

This morning we reviewed experiments from the last few days, noting the different approaches that different groups of scientists had taken:

  •  Gathering large amounts of experimental data and using proven equations;
  •  Using fewer empirical observations and a simulator to make predictions;
  •  Inventing entirely new approaches and equations, that might or might not work.
  • Adjusting initial estimates based on new learning.

Depending on the the approach, Eagle teams celebrated:

  • Preciseness;
  • Diligence and perseverance;
  • Creativity;
  • Teamwork; or
  • Curiosity.

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Then, focus shifted to tomorrow’s Rocket Olympics, as nothing concentrates the attention quite like a countdown (with apologies to Samuel Johnson.)  Estimating the impact of winds forecast at 10-20 miles per hour, and aiming the rocket so it drifts back to the launch site will be no easy task.

The countdown begins at 12:30 Central Standard Time on Thursday.  Let the games begin.



Writing in The Harsh Light of Day

Remember that special English teacher who taught you to write?   How he or she labored to edit papers, filling the margins with red scribbles?  A noble effort, but one with limited scalability.  Also too easy for weaker writers to hide in the shadows until the waves of red ink subsided.

How do we encourage Eagles at Acton Academy to improve their writing skills, without involving an adult?  By having a community where each Eagle is expected to become a strong writer, and each Eagle’s writing is posted for all to see.

We begin with a challenging question at 9 AM Monday morning. For example:

You are a noted astrophysicist who discovers a large asteroid is likely to destroy earth in 30 days.  Will you:

  • Spend time with your spouse and ten and twelve year old children, who you have neglected because of your career;
  • Dig deeply into your spiritual life and whether God and an afterlife exist; or
  • Answer the President’s call to help launch a missile to destroy the asteroid, even though you believe this is a futile effort?

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By Tuesday afternoon, first drafts begin to go up on a board, without a name attached.  Someone from your Writing Group will choose your paper to critique, offering specific advice after learning about a new topic such as “strong opening sentences” or “choosing vivid verbs.”  Specific lessons about grammar come from an online program, ironically called “No Red Ink.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Writing Groups assemble and someone reads your paper aloud, as each team member offers “warm” and “cool” verbal critique, to add to the written critique you’ve received.

Now it’s time for revision and perhaps a pass through an automatic grammar checking program, imperfect but a good start.  Next drafts must be posted by noon on Friday, with your name attached.  You read your final draft aloud to your group, and a winner is chosen.  The best work is read aloud to the entire class, and a Journal contest winner is chosen for the week.

If this is a particularly important paper, it may be revisited and polished next week as well.

Notice that your work always is posted for all to see.  You and others must walk past it every day.  Many pause to read the writing of others.  It’s almost impossible to resist comparing your writing and looking for ways to improve.

Learning to write well, in community, through hard work and revision, with no adult intervention.  No red ink required.



Welcome to the Disruptive Matrix

Conventional wisdom suggests project based learning is the best way to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)  Acton Academy takes this one step further, adding narrative and gamification to projects to create Quests.

Despite these high sounding goals, our recent Rocket Quest was a flop.  The experiments, videos and equations seemed too structured – a series of old style science experiments disguised in Quest clothing.  Our Eagles weren’t fooled and weren’t interested.

In our quest to make science more interesting, we’d made the journey too complicated.  we’d forgotten that science is a curiosity powered, relentless pursuit of natural truths, no gimmicks required.

So we punted, “took the red pill” and posed two open ended challenges (the “red pill” is a Matrix allusion, for those of us old and lame enough to be Guides.)

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  1. Point the nozzle of a tennis ball machine straight up and fire.  Then predict where the ball will land if the machine is positioned at 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees from horizontal.  No equations, videos or intermediate exercises offered. No trial and error allowed.
  2. Shoot a pressurized water rocket – a two liter plastic bottle –  straight up.  Then predict where the rocket will land if launched  from 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees. No trial and error allowed.

An added incentive is that the closer our Eagles predictions were to reality, the more Rocket Points they could can earn, which then could be used to buy larger Estes rockets for next week’s Rocket Olympics.

Most Eagles had to purchase rockets in advance, increasing pressure because they had to spend points before earning them; any deficit would have to be made up using Eagle Buckets, at an unfavorable exchange rate.

In attacking these problems, Eagles could:

  1. Use the equations of physics;
  2. Locate a projectile simulator on the internet or
  3. Pattern match parabolas.

The most dedicated teams could cross check answers from all three approaches.

Each Eagle group took a different path.  Three groups made predictions for the tennis ball machine that were remarkably close to reality; the last two closed the gap after a misfire or two.

After success with the tennis ball machine, the  water rocket  experiment should have been a breeze.  Simply apply the same equations and simulations a second time.  Lesson learned: math is a “force multiplier” because it allows you to learn something once, and apply it again and again.

Here’s where the real world intervened.   The water rocket predictions  were  50% longer than the real world tests at 45 degrees.  What had gone wrong? Guides were stumped.

The teams went back to their tracker programs, video tools that allow our young scientists to track the x-y position of a projectile at precise time intervals.  They soon discovered  that the rockets went up much faster than they came down, a discovery that made  the simple projectile formulas useless.

Lots of conjecture followed: Was it that the two liter bottles lost mass as they rose?  Did the rockets fall more slowly because they tumbled?  Eagles drew from their experiences in mini experiments, began re-watching videos and checking the assumptions in formulas.

The room was humming with hypotheses being born.  Formulas and simulators were tested with the new data.  One team re-fired the rocket without water, to see if losing water mass really was the problem.

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On an icy day when most schools had been dismissed for a snow day, our young scientists were out in the cold, firing rocket after rocket, trying desperately to squeeze in as many tests as possible.

This time the results fit with predictions!  Eureka!

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Our debrief centered on how good it felt for an experiment to succeed, and how dangerous this longing for validation was for real scientists.  As one Eagle put it: “To be true to a scientific calling, you have to care more about truth than yourself.”

So real science is about never forgetting to “take the red pill.”

Quite a lesson indeed.


Rats, it’s a snow day!

Traditional schools have a difficult time with threatening weather.  As complex bureaucracies with large workforces and administrators who take responsibility for the  lives of others, traditional schools must make decisions about tomorrow’s snow and ice as as early as possible.

It’s a no-win situation. If school is cancelled and the weather turns warmer, students are thrilled to but some parents are angry.  Many teachers are delighted to be away from the daily grind.   All grumble when a make-up session is scheduled during the next holiday.

If school isn’t cancelled, and even one teacher, employee or family is involved in a wreck, school officials are criticized for not being more cautious.    The skills of the least experienced driver or the trek of the most distant family set a cautious bar for everyone.

To make matters worse, there’s great pressure to keep traditional schools open because every lesson in a factory-like curriculum must be delivered in sequence to prepared for the next standardized test.

These conflicting pressures are why you see traditional schools closed at the slightest hint of frost one week, and then kept open in dangerous conditions the next, as educrats are whipsawed by public opinion.

We’re blessed at Acton Academy that we don’t have these problems.  When bad weather threatens, we trust our families to make the decision that’s right for them.  Likewise, parents know we’re more likely to be open when other schools are shuttered, because Guides and students love to be at Acton Academy.

Families who need certainty can just assume the worst and plan to stay home.  With self paced, web enabled lessons and students who are far ahead in their learning,  Eagles easily can learn a lot at home (or even take a month off to travel to an exciting place.)

Families who have the flexibility can wait and judge the weather themselves, confident than one of our Guides will be at school, unless conditions are too treacherous for all.

It makes a big difference when parents know that Eagles and Guides want to be at school, because it’s more fun than staying home.  And that we can each trust each other to make the right decisions, instead of relying on a school bureaucrat to make our decisions for us.





Wickedly Open Ended Challenges

What do our young heroes need the most in science:

  • A specialized vocabulary to discuss a technical subject clearly and intelligently;
  • The processes, formulas or equations to solve a clearly defined problem; or
  • The curiosity and tenacity to tackle a wickedly open ended question?

In a way, these three types of learning track our promises to parents:

  • Learn to know;
  • Learn to do;
  • Learn to be.

Is it better to learn about velocity, acceleration and gravity from watching skill based videos; experimenting for hours with deeply immersive simulations or learning through hands-on trial and error?

We’ve struggled to get Eagles to engage with pre-formed problems, which haven’t piqued their imaginations, even when disguised as demonstrations.

So we gave up, and in desperation posed a wickedly open ended challenge:

  1. Use a tennis ball machine to shoot a ball straight up in the air.
  2. Using only this experiment, predict how far a tennis ball will fly if the machine shoots a ball at 30, 45 and 70 degrees from the horizontal.

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Suddenly, the teams were engaged.  Some Eagles dove straight into algebra and geometry; others searched for a simulation that would help; some just kept plugging numbers into formulas hoping the answer would magically appear.

Before long, it was clear that there were three problems plaguing the teams:

  1. A failure to define the problem and goal;
  2. Not knowing how to find and use a process, framework, formula or tool to help; and
  3. Interpersonal conflicts between team members.

The most damaging of these was the failure to define the problem and goal.  For many Eagles it was fire, ready, aim.  The second biggest problem was interpersonal conflicts between team members.  A distant third was the difficulty of solving the problem, once properly defined.

Isn’t that the case in real life?  Aren’t most colossal mistakes usually a failure to recognize the real problem?  Aren’t the biggest blunders often a result of talking past each other?  How often have arguments between team members doomed a project?

So at least for now, open ended problems seem to deliver the most powerful learning.  Even if it is a frustrating and messy process for the Guides.


Soaring to the stars through simulations

The simulations now available for learning about physics and astrophysics are mind boggling.

Kerbal Space Program lets you build rockets and fly them to distant planets – but only if you put in the hard work to master complex physics problems.

Universal Sandbox allows you to manipulate time and space in a way that makes the universe come alive, traveling side by side with a comet or a beam of light.

If you don’t believe the internet and simulations are going to change the way we learn physics and astrophysics, just spend some time with these tools and prepare for a powerful awakening.

Now it’s up to us to find a way to use these tools to inspire and equip our young heroes.

Zombie Tag Distraction

Building a self sustaining learning community is difficult.

Everyone begins with good intentions, but like entropy,intentionality  almost always moves towards disorder.  All will be diligently working, and then one bored studio-mate begins to amble about, distracting others.  Like a game of Zombie-Tag, each person who is infected infects others, and attention and work ethic quickly crumble.

How do we reverse this entropy of learning potential without becoming controlling teachers?  By clarifying rights and privileges, for Guides are allowed to insist that the covenants set by Eagles should be respected.

Eagles have the right to work individually and quietly on Core Skills, to meditate or even rest.    Soon, however, most hit a flat spot with individual work.  The going gets tough; an individual becomes tired or bored.  He or she soon seeks the company of others.

Chance social interaction is like a quick sugar high, a cheap boost of energy.  And while Eagles have the right to work hard individually or even to be bored, they do not have the right to distract others.

Middle Schoolers live for community.  In fact, the love of community is far more motivating than the love of learning.    That means that the privilege of collaborating can be used to encourage serious work.

Yet collaboration, poorly defined, becomes little more than hanging out with friends and frittering away time.  Frittering away time is not a habit for heroes who want to change the world.   So collaboration must be tightly defined as individuals, working toward a specific measurable goal, for a set period of time.  Added to this antidote to bolster intentionality are weekly SMART goals and Long Term goals that cannot be adjusted on a whim.

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we have created a new system to encourage and support these habits.

A Green Card means you have earned morning and afternoon breaks by being current with SMART goals (set and checked) and have reached your weekly Core Skills goals (reading, writing and math.)   A  Yellow Card means you have been respecting the rights of others to work without being distracted, and thus can collaborate with others if your are doing so in a SMART way.

Will this new approach work?  Likely, only for a while.  Yet it seems every step towards transparency and accountability more deeply imbeds the habits of grit and perseverance that will serve our young heroes well, and prepare them to create even more powerful systems themselves.