Monthly Archives: March 2014

What constitutes “help” in Math?

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We haven’t spent one minute “teaching” math. Not one minute.  So far, Eagles have learned math from Khan Academy; ST Math; Dreambox; Manga High; ALEX and other game based, adaptive programs.

Eagles have been progressing through Pre-Algebra at a rapid rate. One Eagle has finished most of Pre-Algebra; Algebra; Trigonometry and Geometry in six months.  At this rate, she will master twelve years of traditional school math in less than one year.

Eagles are free to help each other, as long as they stay in “Socratic Mode,” asking questions but not giving answers.

Lately, a bit of controversy has arisen, and a flurry of emails.  The Council ruled (unilaterally) that even Socratic help cannot be offered during the final Khan Mastery Quiz, so that each person proves they have mastered the material before moving on.  Others believe Socratic help is within the student contract.

Here are excerpts from the back and forth on email:

From a Council Member:

A lot of people have been complaining about the new Khan rules, but I will tell you why they are necessary.

If you have heard of the rubber band theory, good for you. If you haven’t, it’s this:

 When you learn something, a mental rubber band forms around that skill in the brain, even if you get it with help. But from there on, if someone helps you on the problem, (even socratic help, Ben!)  that rubber band does not form another one. But if you do it on your own, another rubber band forms. And you get better and better.

The reason Council made this rule, is so those rubber bands form, and you can go into calculus knowing what you’re doing. Now a lot of people might say that it’s their problem, and it’s fine, and they will have problems, and this school gives emphasis on one another helping each other, not the Guides. But something our school focuses even more strongly on, is best work. If you go into calculus not knowing what you are doing. 

That is also why I refrain from helping people on their last problem, because if they have already gotten 4 problems correct by guesstimating, than they won’t understand the last one, no matter how Socratically you explain, that rubber band will not form.  

Another Eagle supported the Council:

I wouldn’t go with the easy way out in this case… remember how none of us really learned everything we did last year on Khan? It was because we would get someone to help us on a skill and move on. Check it off, and forget. That obviously was not the correct way to approach Khan.

A third Eagle disagreed:

Socratic help is perfectly fine, what isn’t fine is when people give the answers; which is a whole different problem.

A forth Eagle reported:

Math is getting harder, so my parents can’t help me as much.

And finally:

When I was in second grade (at a different school) I learned complicated algebra, by using a bead chain system.  The bead chains were just a way to help me understand the problems better.  BUT, when I got to third grade and I had come to Acton, the bead chains were not there, so I forgot how to do that complicated algebra. The bead chains were just a way to help me understand it better, just like Socratic help, but since they were not there I forgot how to do that type of math and I had to learn it all over again.  That is why you need to learn it by yourself.

This is a powerful view into how learning really works in a community.  An open and honest debate about standards.  A discussion of what types of assistance help and which hurt.  Deep insights concerning the effort required to grow.

There will be further bumps in the road. Before long, Eagles may need to band together in small groups to watch Khan videos in sequence, as the math becomes more difficult.  Several are making plans to do so already, and Eagles no doubt will have to reach beyond Khan for even better resources.

But in the end, they will understand math far more deeply than students from a traditional classroom, because they own the process.  No doubt, they will have learned a great deal more about grit and learning as well.

Broken Windows at Acton


In the late 1980s, New York City was a mess.  Trash filled many streets; aggressive “squeegee men” stopped cars, ostensibly washing windows, but really shaking down motorists for a protection payment; murder rates rose to all time highs.

A new Police Chief took over, and instituted a policy of “no broken windows,” a theory proposed by economist James Q Wilson that predicted that focusing on minor transgressions would lead to a reduction in more serious crimes.

The police cracked down on the squeegee men, subway toll jumpers and graffiti artists; before long violent crime began to recede too, a trend that eventually made New York City one of the safest large cities in America.

Last week we faced a “broken windows” moment at Acton Academy Middle School, when it came to light that several Eagles had been turning in “less than best work,” playing computer games during school and a host of other violations in the honor code.  A rude response when being asked for an Eagle Buck had become the norm for some.

This lead to a morning launch discussing:

  • The Tragedy of the Commons – Common spaces not defended by private property rights or law will soon be abused.
  • The Rule of Law – Everyone should be treated the same under the law, no matter how popular, rich or powerful.
  • Broken Windows – Attending to small transgressions discourages larger problems later on; and
  • Logrolling – How a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” approach to lowering standards can have a devastating long term impact.

Yet even after this launch, standards continued to slip even more noticeably.

Eagles asked for a 360 Review, an anonymous survey designed to provide frank feedback to every member of the studio – from the Eagles to the Eagles.  From the results – posted in a way that protected the identity of each person but allowed you to know your own scores – it became clear that there was a real problem with some.

What could we do about this as Guides?  Our only right under our covenant with Eagles is to point out a slippage in standards, and ask them to remedy the problem.  We tried that, but some of the leaders in the class had become so fed up with the transgressing group that they chose to  focus on their own work instead of trying to lift up the community.

A few of the Eagles who tried to hold the line were treated more and more rudely by some.

Yes, in some ways this was normal adolescent behavior in America.   A “whatever” attitude and being “too cool for school” and mailing in work are a natural defense again the sting of failure.  Plus, everyone makes mistakes.

But Acton Academy is supposed to be different.  A place where high standards and best work are celebrated; where a warm community cares enough to tell you the truth; where failing and making mistakes is celebrated – if you admit them and honestly try to improve.

The transgressions so far had been fairly minor, though several Eagles had begun to practice deceit and dishonesty on an all too regular basis.  It was a reminder that here’s no such thing as perfect person, only people who make mistakes and admit them and those who keep making the same mistakes until they turn into more serious problems.

Because we thought this was a serious matter of principle and a turning point for the community, the Guides went on strike.  We left the studio and promised to return once Eagles had put their house in order (while watching from a few hundred feet away, using our new video system to make sure everyone remained safe.)

The Eagle leaders leaped into action: designing a new Honor Code, Eagle Buck fines and clear due process and ultimate consequences clear for those who continued to violate community standards.


There would be a “reconciliation moment ,” inspired by Post Apartheid South Africa.  Anyone who admitted a serious honor code violation, in detail, and offered an apology would immediately be forgiven and have the slate wiped clean.

The due process for someone who kept choosing to act outside the contract was made crystal clear.  A serious honor code violation, if not immediately disclosed or later cleared by an appeal, would result in an Eagle being sent home for a minimum of one day.  Repeated smaller transgressions that resulted in someone being in a negative Eagle Buck position for longer than three weeks would count the same as one honor code violation.

After the third serious honor code violation and third time being sent home, an Eagle would not be invited back (for every eighteen months of a clean record, one past honor code violation would be erased, giving each Eagle the chance to earn back a clean slate.)

None of us like to hear that our children have done something wrong.  But just like adults, they will make mistakes all the time, some of them ethical mistakes.  It’s by learning from the natural consequences of these mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, that a strong character is forged.

Honesty;  transparency and caring enough not to let a friend get away with a lie, even if it is a small one.  Then genuinely forgiving others when they stray, as we hope they’ll forgive us. These are the building blocks that make for a strong community.

We will continue to hold the Eagles to their promises and the high standards they set.  And we will celebrate when our children’s friends hold them accountable for small transgressions, before sex, alcohol, drugs and driving make the consequences far more severe.







Launching LaunchPad

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Two weeks ago week we announced at a parent meeting our plans for LaunchPad, the name Eagles have given to our new high school, which will open in the fall of 2015 (though the most advanced middle school Eagles already are working on the model, and will be experimenting with the curriculum next fall.)

LaunchPad will allow Eagles the freedom to choose their own adventures, while preserving the option to attend a selective college.

During the Launchpad years, Eagles will dig into advanced reading, literary analysis, writing and communication skills, tackling advanced Math concepts, serious Socratic discussions in Civilization and even creating Quests for the lower studios, as a way of doing deep explorations into Science and the Arts.

Longer term, serious, for pay apprenticeships will play a big role in LaunchPad as well, giving Eagles a chance to test their skills and thirst for a calling in the real world, long before most young adults make a blind choice of a college major.

And, on top of these accomplishments, LaunchPad Eagles will assume many of the responsibilities for running the lower studios, earning Learning Badges that would qualify them as exceptional leaders in the world’s leading companies and not-for-profits.

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How will we accomplish all of this?  Two secrets:

  1. Our Eagles can work at 10X the normal rate, when absorbed in something they love.  Allowing individual choice leads to an exponential increase in the quality of work and the number of skills mastered.
  2. Arranging Quests as a series of badges that demonstrate competence and mastery, allows us to sequence challenges in a way that delivers real world skills, while still preserving the ability to map these badges into a more traditional (and artificial) traditional high school curriculum.

How do you create a portal into the real world that equips and inspires young people?

Start with a blank sheet of paper; embrace 21st century learning; combine with ageless wisdom; and above all else, ask the young heroes to help you build it.

Exhibitions and Eagles: “May I please do more work?”

This week our Eagles will host an exhibition, including each performing a “Four Minute Speech in the Shoes of a Scientific Hero” in front of a roomful of adults.

Recently several Eagles requested to change the speech criteria to “no less than four minutes and up to eight minutes.”  Quite a few had done so much research that they wanted more time to tell their hero’s story.

So what did we do? After all, Guides don’t answer questions.

We decided to turn the organization of the entire exhibition to the Eagles.  The only two constraints:

(1) The total time could not exceed one hour, out of  respect for our guests, and

(2) Speeches will be judged on “value per minute,” to encourage conciseness.

Speak up. Get more responsibility. Just like the real world.


A Pitch Session

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How do we decide whether the quality of an Eagle’s work is ready for an Exhibition?

Answer: the Eagle has to pitch to his or her studiomates, requesting a “green light” to proceed.  This session’s Four Minute Speech; the 30 Second Video and Rube Goldberg device each required a separate pitch.

What follows a pitch?  First, a warm/cool critique, offering affirmation and suggestions for improvement.  Then, a vote.

What if the green light approval is denied?  You go back to the drawing board, make improvements, and try again.  That’s what heroes do when they fail: they get back up, dust themselves off, and get back to work.



Hungry for a meaty BTL?

photoBTL (Between the Lines) is a mentor text literary analysis discussion format designed, led (and named) by Acton Eagles.  Below are the guidelines the MS Eagles came up:

Purpose of BTL:Through reading and discussion, analyze mentor texts (chosen by Eagles in the genre of their current writing project) to lift the curtain on the secrets of masterful writing.

Format: Small group discussions led by Eagles who pitched a text and persuaded a minimum of 3 others to sign on.

Points: 5 pts if you pitch, 20 pts if you lead a discussion (and are ranked an average of 4 or higher by your group), 10 pts if you participate. OPTED OUT on your SMART goals sheet if you opt out.

Pitching: Sign up by Friday to pitch on Monday.  A qualifying excerpt or text must:
– stay within the genre you are writing in (this session, biography/ autobiography)
– be no longer than one chapter, but as short as one paragraph
– stand alone and convey at least one complete idea
– be an example of masterful writing (person who chose the text must be prepared to defend their decision)

Participating in a BTL: To sign up as a discussion participant, you must agree to:
– read text at least 2x
– read and think about the discussion Q’s provided
– Come up with one new question of your own about the author’s writing style or the craft of writing

Leading a BTL: BTL discussion leaders will ask questions designed to:
– deepen understanding of the text
– help the reader understand the writer’s technique and intentions
– reflect back onto the Eagles’ own writing with an eye towards improving their skills

In this week’s pitching session,  three Eagles showed their powers of 30-second persuasion, sharing a sampling of their discussion questions and each using their own unique hook.  One touted the length of his mentor text excerpt: “Only one paragraph!  Much shorter than the others!”.   Another handed out “free” samples  as teasers.  The third offered a warning:  “This excerpt is rated PG due to adult language!”. (Caveat to parents:  the subject is Clara Barton, so it’s probably not too risqué).


While those hooks may have helped, don’t be fooled- it was the power of the questions that lured participants to sign up.  The Eagles love a meaty discussion and will not tolerate a lack of substance in their BTLs!

The Cornucopia

How do we provide raw material for the Eagles’ Rube Goldberg machines?

First, we put out a call to all Eagle families, asking parents to clear their closets of unused toys and gadgets, and send them to campus..

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Next we hold a Hunger Games Cornucopia – a competitive contest to see who can plan, search and secure the most important raw materials.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Eagles rank each Scientific Creator research pitch.
  2. The five highest ranked Eagles get the first two minutes at the Cornucopia, and can select whatever materials they need. The only rule:  You must use anything you take.  Any item bought from the Cornucopia afterwards will cost an Eagle Buck.
  3. Repeat Step 2 until every Eagle has had a chance to graze at the Cornucopia.

Friendly competition. Dealing with scarce resources. Empty closets.  Complex Rube Goldberg machines.

Everyone wins.


How many questions should a Guide answer in a perfect day?

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We recently held a reception at Acton Academy for  The over one hundred Disruptors and Educators who attended were treated to a Quest: a scavenger hunt to discover the answers to a series of provocative questions about Acton.

At one point in the presentation, the Eagles took over answering questions from the crowd. In a word, they were “brilliant.” Or as one parent put it: “It was magical.”

There were some humorous moments too.

One visitor couldn’t believe the Eagle’s answers were spontaneous.  He kept asking: “How did you stage that so perfectly?” (Answer: We trusted them.)

Later, a traditional educator, seeking to answer a question on the scavenger hunt list, turned to an Elementary Studio Guide: “So how many questions does a Guide answer in a perfect day”

In perfect Socratic Guide mode, he replied: “How many do you think a Guide answers in a perfect day?”

“At least 200,” she said.

Her companion disagreed: “At least 400. Maybe 500.”

The Acton Guide provided a clue: “We’ve been having a contest that records how many questions we answer in a week.  You can see the results in the Elementary studio.”

On a whiteboard in the Elementary studio was the answer: “Ms. Terri  2.  Ms. Samantha 1. Mr Brian 11.” (Eagles had been trying to trick Mr. Brian all week by catching him off guard with personal questions.)

The two traditional teachers were heard saying: “I just don’t understand how this place works.”

Neither do we.  We just know that it does.

Seeing the world as it is

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The rate of technological change in the world is breathtaking.  Ten years ago, at the Acton MBA classroom, we installed a series of high definition cameras in the Socratic Classroom so MBA students could debrief their performances on video.  Total cost: over $500,000.

Last week we installed eight discrete high definition cameras in the Acton Academy studios, allowing us to record “to the cloud” every interaction and discussion between Eagles.  Total cost: $3,000 – including a much more user friendly playback system.

Our goal is not surveillance.  In fact, parents and strangers are not allowed access to the password protected system and we’ve pledged never to use the system in a disciplinary way. (Eagles are allowed to review the video, with permission from the Council, to settle any disputes over a breach of the promises Eagles have made to each other.)

Instead, Eagles and Guides now have the ability to record, review and critique every performance, either individually or as a group.  The energy around these critique sessions has been high, and we’ve already seen a quantum improvement in discussion techniques and embracing the  “rules of engagement.” (Even though standards already were high.)

This also gives the nine other Acton Academies we’ll have open by fall the ability to learn from each other, since having password protected access to cameras in each studio is a precondition of opening a new Acton Academy. Just imagine how this will multiply the rate of experimentation and learning.

New technology. Direct feedback. Rapid learning.  It’s going to be powerful to watch what our Eagles do next.

Sir Isacc Newton, as seen through a Rube Goldberg Machine

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How can an Eagle capture the ideas of a Scientific Creator in a Rube Goldberg machine?

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Here’s a glimpse of one Eagle’s Scientific Hero, Isaac Newton.  If you look closely, you’ll see that each step demonstrates one of Newton’s  Three Laws of Motion, and ends with an apple dropping off the table.

Now imagine twenty four of these Rube Goldberg devices, lined up in a purposeful order, telling the story of Explorers of Ideas (like Newton), Inventors and Innovators; each triggering the next to begin.

A week from Thursday, we push the button and begin the journey.

Finding Apprentice Guides Who Will Change the World

It is not easy to become an Apprentice Guide at Acton Academy, because it’s our most valuable position.

All Apprentice Guides go through the following eight step Hiring Funnel:

Step One.  Submit a resume, cover letter and answer three questions

Step Two.  An Email interview requiring extensive research about Acton Academy and answering six questions

Step Three.   A twenty minute phone interview with a Lead Guide

Step Four.  Read the Message to Garcia note about taking initiative and answer, “When have you been like Colonel Rowan?”

Step Five.  An on campus interview with the Head of School.

Step Six.  An Eagle panel interview and presentation of a Pathbrite portfolio and a personal Hero’s Story.

Step Seven.  A final interview with three guides.

Step Eight.  The Decision.

Why so much effort?  Because we only hire superstars who we believe will launch their own Acton Academy, after a three to four year apprenticeship.

In other words, our Apprentice Guides are not here to train Eagles, they are here to be prepared by Eagles to go out and change the world.

Which is the most telling step in the hiring process?  Step Eight, where the applicant must face a panel of Eagles.  Young people have an uncanny sense when an adult is “posing” and doesn’t really believe that each and every Eagle is a genius, who deserves a calling that will change the world.

In the last round of hiring, we started with 79 applicants.  Only three made it to Step Five.  Only one made it to Step Eight and received an offer.

Even the best companies are successful in hiring only thirty percent of the time.  So all of our Apprentice Guides go through a 180 trial period.   We hire slowly and carefully and remove someone quickly if it’s not a good fit.

Just one more lesson for our Eagles, as they prepare to assemble, lead and serve on teams of superstars themselves.

Protecting Intentionality During Quiet Core Skills Time

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Silent Core Skills time at Acton Academy means exactly that – a time of deep individual work that isn’t distracted by noise or activity in the studio.  How do we protect such times of “flow,” when the right challenge can lead to deep learning at a rapid clip?

Of course, all intentionality in the studio begins with the Eagle to Eagle covenants and an Eagle Buck system that lets Eagles set and uphold the standards. Without a serious buy-in by all, there is no spontaneous order.

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But even with this, protecting individual work time during Silent Core Skills isn’t easy.  During Silent Core Skills time, you can hear a pen drop in the studio – literally.  So even the smallest creak becomes a distraction.  So we have “white noise machines” that help to block out distractions.

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Sometimes minor distractions can build, until all intentionality breaks down.  Here, the Yacker Tracker – a listening device that can be set to trigger an alarm when a pre-set decibel level is breached – is a big help.  The decibel level is at a whisper for Silent Core Skills and slightly higher for Collaboration time; if the alarm goes off, the person who triggered it owes an Eagle Buck.

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Finally, when all intentionality is lost, we can depend on our Elementary Eagle neighbors below to deliver a Red Card, meaning we’ve disturbed the rights of the Elementary Eagles to learn without being distracted.  A Red Card costs the Middle School community 24 Eagle Bucks.

Layers of habit, protocol and individual and community rights, developed by Eagles, with a little help from technology.  It’s one set of secrets as to why Eagles can learn at a 10X rate when engaged and in flow.

The Value of Surprise

What does this session’s exploration into the motivation of Scientific Creators – Explorers of Ideas, Inventors and Innovators – have to do with educational disruption?  Perhaps quite a bit.

So much energy is put into standardizing schools – testing, segmenting and applauding assembly lines of students shaped and formed by teachers.  What if this is exactly the wrong approach in the 21st century?

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Early in the electronic age, engineers believed that sending more energy through a noiseless conduit was best way to transmit data, much like shouting through a megaphone to be heard.   Bell Labs paradigm buster Claude Shannon turned this idea on its head in 1948 with his classic paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” proposing that listening for “surprises” in a noisy communications channel was a better way to transmit information.

From Shannon’s single insight came all of modern communications, including the internet, digital encryption and the compression algorithms that allow us to watch YouTube videos for free.

Economist George Gilder has applied Shannon’s insights into the value of surprises to the Information Age.  Gilder argues it is the surprises created and spread by entrepreneurial scientists and business leaders that add most of the value in the world, not the forces tending toward standardization and economic equilibrium studied by most economists.

The Explorer of Ideas, like Shannon, is someone who comes up with a novel concept, like throwing a rock into a still pond.    The Inventor sculpts the rock.  The Innovator throws the rock and sets in play ripples that spread across the pond.  All of this energy comes from the surprises generated from the three Creators.

Standardization can be necessary at times, but its job is to minimize variability and surprise.  Once all of the ripples have been quieted, the value added is nil as commoditization reigns.

Our Eagles are being inspired and equipped to become Surprising Forces in the world, creators of great value, daring to be different, never settling for a standardized or commoditized life.

How fitting our Eagles are delving deeply into what has motivated the great Scientific Creators of the past, as they prepare to be the Creators of the future.

What can I learn from Rube Goldberg?

Imagine this…. someone who knows nothing about Acton Academy wanders into the studio and notices all the students tinkering joyfully, building crazy-looking Rube  Goldberg-like contraptions.  The visitor is puzzled and possibly even indignant.   “Looks like playtime to me,” she thinks.  Aloud, she asks, “ Where is the value in this?  Shouldn’t you be learning something?  This is school, after all.”

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Guides try to come up with challenges that hit the sweet spot where rigor intersects joy.  The Rube Goldberg design-build project has many layers; “Games within games within games,” one Eagle noted.  Not all elements are immediately visible to a random visitor, but most are easily teased out by asking a few good questions.

So, where is the value?  According to the Eagles, the value lies in:

  •  hands-on experimentation
  • letting their imaginations freely flow
  • nudging their creativity from “bud to blossom” (thank you, Anaya)
  • answering an open-ended question
  • working without instruction
  • problem solving
  • incorporating evidence of their biographical research into their designs
  • having FUN

When Eagles begin designing their own Quests from scratch, chances are very good they will do an even better job of hitting the right balance. They already do the best job of answering visitors’ questions!

Math without Math Teachers

Guides have not taught any math in Acton Academy Middle School; not a single minute.

Almost every Eagle is on the Calculus track; many are moving much faster.

One thirteen year old Eagle has conquered 443 of the 540 possible Khan skills since September.  To put that into perspective, she’s mastered Pre-Algebra; Algebra; Geometry; Trigonometry and part of Pre-Calculus in a little over six months.   at this pace, she’ll be finished with Calculus by the end of summer.

Again – at this pace she will have mastered – meaning she has proven her competence – in twelve years of traditional school math in less than a year.  Can you imagine how bored this Eagle would have been in a normal school?

Her parents write:

We have recently signed on as parents on Khan’s site.  Looking at the hours that xxxxxx spends working on her Math, we know many of those  skills are not easy to master.   Some took her more than 50+ times of trying .  One skill took her 150 times.  We asked her why she did not ask for  help, xxxx said  “I want to learn it on my own”.   I am sure she knows how to do that problem by heart by the time she got it correctly.   

We think Khan is a cool Math site!  

We think so too.  Especially for hard charging heroes who plan to change the world.

Another Snow Day – Not!

Most schools are starting late today, because of concerns over snow and ice.  Acton Academy will be starting on time, for those families who believe the streets are safe enough to travel.

The email below, received yesterday from a middle school Eagle (and edited for anonymity), explains why we stay open:

Subject: School tomorrow?

Please, PLEASE let us have school tomorrow. I can give you many reasons why we should, despite the bitter weather:

We have a critique due tomorrow, and we need all the critiques we can get to improve the quality of our writing.

We have some important visitors coming tomorrow. We don’t want to make them re-schedule.

Everyone will be thrown off track by having one less day in the week, and it is as important as ever for us to keep up with our long-term goals.

I hope that I have convinced you that the benefits of having school tomorrow outweigh the risks of icy roads. Even if many parents do not want to drive their kids to school in the predicted conditions, some may wish to, so I believe that that option should be preserved for those who want it.

Thanks, xxxxx

A student arguing for Acton Academy to open on time, when most schools will be closed or delayed.  That’s what happens when you out young heroes are in charge of their own learning.