Monthly Archives: April 2014

Two more governance experiments

Yes, everyone dislikes Eagle Bucks and those who ask for them.  Few people have warm and fuzzy feelings about petty regulations or overzealous Mall Cops on Segways.  Plus governance disputes seem to eat up far too much time.

Yet without a few simple rules and small fines, what would happen to a society?  Would peer pressure alone prevent people from driving at dangerous speeds or rolling through stop signs?

We have just finished Part One of a two part experiment by abolishing Eagle Bucks for up to two weeks, starting last Monday.  Bottom line, we only made it eight days.  The vote to reinstate Eagle Bucks was nearly unanimous, and even some of the harshest Eagle Bucks critics have changed their minds.

Once we digest the lessons from this experiment, we may try one in the opposite direction – arming Guides with Red Cards.  During this experiment, if a Guide sees an Eagle violating a rule adopted by the community, the perpetrator and his or her Running Partner will each owe double the normal penalty.  And Guides will reserve the right to prospectively raise the fines for certain violations that keep occurring.

The idea here is that Eagles will have an excuse for asking for legitimate Eagle Bucks.  Either I ask you, or both of us risk owing a double fine if a Guide has to intervene.  This way, it becomes easier for someone who doesn’t care about popularity to draw crisp boundaries on certain types of disruptive behavior.

If this experiment proves valuable, eventually the Guide’s Red Card prerogative would be transferred to an older Launchpad Eagle, removing adults (but not authority) from the governance structure.

The Deep Book Badges

Some schools favor the Great Books, drawn from a list that most scholars agree form the foundation of Western philosophy.   Our version of this at Acton is a Deep Book, a  “world changing” or “life changing” read.

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The big difference at Acton Academy is that we trust our Eagles to create a list of books that inspire, move and transform them.  During late middle school and Launchpad (high school), Eagles must earn 22 Deep Book badges.

1. It all starts with Gaining Approval for a Deep Book.

Each Deep Book requires a two minute face to face pitch to a three person committee made up of one Guide and two Eagles (eventually this committee will be all Eagles.)  The vote to approve a book must be unanimous.

The initial criteria include:

  • Why you believe this particular book is an important part of your Hero’s Journey?
  • Is this a serious book that others have considered “life changing” or “world changing” by others?
  • Are you stretching your “challenge zone” by reaching for more complex texts or ideas?
  • Does this selection add to the diversity of your reading choices? (In other words, are you choosing different types of ideas, subjects, genres?)
  • Is the material too violent or sexually explicit to be appropriate, at this time?
  • What other three books are next on your list?”
  • What is your deadline for completing the book and review?

Any sense that an Eagle is trying to “take the easy way out” results in an automatic rejection. A series of links to lists of Great Books is provided as a place to start.

2. Once a book is finished, the Eagle must deliver a Video or Written Review

The goal of the written or video review is to convince someone else to read the book.

The review includes:

  1. How did this book change you in an important way? Who else should read it and why?
  2. A description of the history and impact of the book and its author.
  3. The major questions raised by the book or its characters or plot.
  4. Observations about the author’s style and voice.

There must be evidence from the book – facts, questions, quotes, characters, the plot – to back up any recommendations and the review must be completed by the deadline  and judged as superior to the Eagle’s last review or equal to or better than the average review turned in by other Eagles, by unanimous approval of the Committee, or if the Committee chooses, a 4.25 or better ranking by a gathering of Eagles. If a review does not pass, it may not be resubmitted.

Any examples of plagiarism or taking shortcuts like reading summations or watching a movie in place of reading the entire text will be immediate honor code violations.

Already pitches have started and Eagles are reading: 1984; Democracy in America and Lord of the Flies.

Below is an excerpt from a recent pitch:

I would like to read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I believe this book will introduce me to the finer points of physics and science, and it will help me understand more about science and physics, not in the formula way, but in the metaphysical sense, where I will begin to think differently. My mom has been pushing me to read these books for a while now, and I think this is a book that has changed people’s opinions on time.

 I am stretching my challenge zone by reading this book, because I feel like the writing will not be hard to read, but I will have to really think about a lot of the stuff that he is saying in the book. I don’t normally read books like this, so it will be a pleasant change.

 The books I am going to read including this one are:

  1. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  2. Common Sense by Thomas Paine
  3. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  4. The Complete works of Shakespeare
  5. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  6. The Iliad by Homer
  7. The Odyssey by Homer
  8. IT by Stephen King
  9. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I am going to read the book in one month, and write the review a week after that, so my deadline is May 26, 2014

Deep, serious books.  Choice.  Comprehensive proof of a serious struggle and the impact on a hero’s life.  Perhaps civilization has a fighting chance after all.


How to Land a World Changing Adventure

Those of us who hire employees know searching for the right person too often requires a depressing swim through a sea of commodity-like resumes and many cover pages strewn with  grammatical mistakes and misspelled words.

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So imagine  you open an email,  glancing down the text to see a picture of a whimsically dressed eleven year old, holding an equally whimsically dressed puppy.  Then you start to read:

Dear Ms. Cxxxxxxxx, 

 I visited xxxxx last year with my mom, and it was one of the most beautiful, fascinating, imaginative, and inspiring experiences of my life. I learned so much about the methods and processes used to create beautiful clothes and how travel can work to inspire new creations. I admire you (and those you work with) so deeply for what you contribute to this world. I am so grateful for that experience, and I will cherish it forever. Thank you for spending time with us and giving us a tour of this beautiful space.

 At my school here in Austin, Texas (Acton Academy), we believe in learning by knowing, learning by doing and learning by being. Each student is committed to their individual journey to find their passion. Otherwise known as, The Hero’s Journey. We each are blessed with our own gifts, talents, and callings. We nourish them every single day, so we are prepared to change the world some day.

The main gift that I focus on is fashion. I hope to bring beauty to the world, and inspire everyone to be themselves, and have their own style. As an 11 year old middle schooler, I am beginning a fashion blog very soon, and styling a fashion photo shoot with a local fashion photographer and a few friends, which I will then pitch to a magazine. I also designed and created a fashion look book last fall. I styled it completely by myself, and shot the photos on my own, as well. I sold them $15 each at a children’s business fair, and nearly sold out. I will mail one to you if you are interested.

 Fashion is a huge part of my life, and I believe it is one of the things that makes us unique and authentic. I would love everyone to believe in that statement someday, and I am wondering if you would help me by considering my request for an apprenticeship.

 We are nearing the end of our school year. Our next step on our journey is to find an apprenticeship with someone who is considered a hero to you. The apprenticeships will be one or two weeks, and each of us will work with our hero, doing what they do to see if we enjoy it, and want to further pursue it. I immediately thought how amazing it would be to work with you. Inside one of the most beautiful fashion studios in the world. I will be very helpful, and never in the way.

 Please be in touch with me if you would allow me to do this, or if you would like to talk more about it with me or my mom. Thank you so much for considering this request.

 Very sincerely,

Reese Youngblood 

(Reprinted with permission from Reese and her parents.)

How would you reply?  Would you hire Reese as an apprentice, if fashion were your calling?

Here’s the reply Reese received:

Hello, dear Reese,

Your letter has touched my heart. I love the sweet clarity of your vision. Its timing is impeccable and poignant as I spent the weekend writing about my heart’s desires and my own heroic journey. I will need to speak with Christina who is not here right now. But if it were only up to me, I would say yes in a heartbeat! I have an idea that I will propose to my partner and we can see what happens. It would give me great pleasure to have someone as bright, passionate, focused, capable and talented as you are as my apprentice because it is my experience that not only you would have something to learn from me, but I from you, too!   

 I will keep you posted. In the meantime, can you tell me more about the practical aspects and time constraints of your apprenticeship. What is the possible time period – from now until end of June? Or? And more practical considerations such as housing and food – is your mom going to come with you?

 Thank you!


When we critiqued Reese’s email in the studio and reviewed the reply she received, one Eagle chirped: “That sounds like a ‘yes’ to me.”  We all agreed.

Graduates from prestigious colleges increasingly find themselves unable to find a job, and must move back in with their parents.  Perhaps these graduates should be looking for a calling instead.

Not to mention that a few lessons from an eleven year old about how to write an irresistible email might help too.



Sugata Mitra, SOLES and Acton Academy


Sugata Mitra is the father of the Hole-in-the-Wall experiments, where in poor neighborhoods all around the world, he installed computer terminals that allow students to “self-organize” to learn.

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In case after case, the poorest of children  —  without a teacher or school –  outscored the most privileged private school students in their countries, leading to Mitra winning the first $1 million TED talk prize.  Mitra went on to create Granny-in-the-Cloud, an army of British grandmothers who acted as virtual Running Partners (coaches) for Sugata Mitra’s students.


Now, Sugata Mitra will be coming to Acton Academy the second week in June, to lead our Eagles in a SOLE (Self-Organized-Learning-Environment.)

How does a SOLE work?  Eagles form into four person teams, around one computer.  Mitra asks a compelling question, and the Eagles go to work.  An hour or so later, the teams convene to present their findings.

Here’s an example of a SOLE Sugata Mitra led for group of poor Indian children a few months ago:

He started with a story:

“Five hundred years ago, barbarians invaded India and were repelled, because the natives had better weapons, forged from superior steel.  The barbarians regrouped, wondering how to acquire such steel.   One suggested: ‘Perhaps we could just offer to buy some steel from them in the normal course of trade.”

Another replied: ‘Surely they would not fall for such a trick.’  But they did.  The barbarians analyzed the steel and created a superior metallurgy, forging weapons three inches longer.

Because of that three inches, the barbarians were successful in their second invasion, changing India forever.”

Mitra then asked his question: “What were the metallurgy changes and the science that made the extra three inches possible?”

He left and came back a week later.  The presentations were powerful, incorporating deep questions in and lessons about chemistry and metal working.

Mitra then issued his second challenge: “What problem can you find in the world today, where ‘three extra inches’ would change the world, and how would you propose to solve it?  I’ll be back in two weeks.”

A compelling story to set the stage.  A powerful question.  Four students, a computer and a great deal of faith.  No adult in sight. Perhaps the most effective curriculum and classroom of all.

(By the way, during his visit to Acton, Mitra will invite an Acton parent who knows little about science to lead a second SOLE on physics.  Consider it our chance to learn from a modern day Socrates.)

Session Six Focus: “Which questions motivate a hero?”

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For the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring the theme: “Which questions motivate a hero?”

Our adventure will have three main thrusts:

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1. Which questions will motivate YOU on your Hero’s Journey?

Here we’ll dig deeply into the three questions our Eagles will ask to measure if they are happy, satisfied and fulfilled:  Am I contributing something meaningful? Am I a good person? and Who do I love, and who loves me?

Eagles will work hard to identify their gifts; explore “flow” and investigate the  irresistible opportunities that will motivate them to brainstorm, select and acquire a world changing apprenticeship.

As part of this work, Eagles will learn to write compelling emails, make irresistible phone pitches and dazzle in face-to-face interviews on their way to finding apprenticeships for next session.

The final exhibit will be an electronic portfolio designed to secure an apprenticeship, which will include a two minute “Message to Garcia” video showing each Eagle promising to “get the job done” if given the chance.

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2. Which questions will motivate a FELLOW HERO?

The focus here is  becoming a world class conversationalist, so our Eagles will be able to walk into any gathering and strike up a conversation that will make the other person feel important.

Eagles will practice their new found techniques on Running Partners, incoming 2014-15 Eagles to Acton and students from other schools, until the art of conversation becomes second nature.

The final product here will be a short “Hero Story” about a new friend, that captures what makes that person a “genius on a hero’s journey.”

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3. Which questions will motivate a TRIBE OR NATION?

Oprah, Johnny Carson or William F. Buckley – who is the greatest interviewer of all time?  Our Eagles will compare and contrast world class interviewers, as they learn the art of asking penetrating questions on stage, on the radio or on television.

Near the end of the session, we’ll invite adult heroes to class (especially those who might sponsor an apprenticeship) and allow our Eagles to conduct interviews in front of a live audience.  The final product will be an edited transcript of the interview.

Executing an apprenticeship that may lead to a calling in life; learning to make excellent conversation, anytime, anywhere, with anyone; asking penetrating questions from a stage – all 21st Century Skills for our young heroes who plan to change the world.

Exhibitions are not without difficulties

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At Acton Academy, we don’t issue grades.  Instead, we invite the outside world to gauge the quality of our Eagles’ work through public exhibitions.

Whether it’s a play, a Casino Night, Hero Speeches, a public display of board and electronic games or trying to triggers dozens of Rube Goldberg inventions without a miss, exhibitions require thoughtful design, relentless hours of deliberate practice and a great deal of courage.   They are difficult to pull off well.

Add to this the difficulty of drawing an objective audience; parents are always welcome, but outsiders raise the stakes even higher. Yet to attract paying customers, you have to offer something special.

All of this makes it tempting for the Guides to guarantee that the Eagles shine; polishing a bit of work here or making an important suggestion to keep from suffering a catastrophic failure.    Such interventions almost always a mistake, because it teaches dependence, not independence; and still, no one wants parent to think that our young heroes aren’t learning.

Bottom line: We’re still learning a lot about exhibitions, with many more lessons yet to come.

A Rube Goldberg Celebration of Scientific Heroes

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As our end of session celebration, we invited parents and other adults to an exhibition honoring Scientific Heroes, the men and women who improve the world through creating new ideas (like Einstein); new inventions (like Edison) and new innovations (like Ford.)

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Guests were asked to listen to one minute video pitches, to see which full length Eagle speeches they wanted to attend (there were six speech pods going on simultaneously) and then mingle among the various Rube Goldberg contraptions honoring different scientists. (Here’s a link to some of the video pitchers: )

The votes of the crowd would decide not only the best pitches, best speeches and best Rube Goldberg contraptions, but also whether the Explorer, Inventor or Innovator team would win the grand prize – a trip on Friday to see a documentary about how Vermeer’s paintings were made.

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The speeches were terrific, as each Eagle stood in the shoes of a Scientific Hero he or she had chosen, and explained what motivated the hero to persevere through hardships and failures to create a idea, invention or innovation that changed the world.

The votes were tallied. There was a narrow margin between the three teams.  Now it was time to trigger the first of twenty four sequential Rube Goldberg devices; for every device that failed, the corresponding team would lose 100 points.

In other words, the entire contest would come down to the reliability of the Rube Goldberg devices. (In the unlikely event that ALL the Rube Goldberg machines worked, everyone would win a trip to see the documentary.)

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A drum roll; then the big moment.  The first machines were flawless; then a vibration from a guest sent one machine off prematurely; then another failure and another.  By the end, the Inventors won by a narrow margin.

Some Eagles were crestfallen; they had worked hard on their Rube Goldberg machines, adding redundancies and testing, only to seem them fail because of a quirk or unexpected error.

Of course, the odds were against them.  Some Rube Goldberg videos require up to one hundred takes to reach perfection, even with professionals in charge.  But the objective wasn’t success, but deep hands-on-learning to better understand what motivates a hero to keep trying, even after public setbacks.

Our Eagles certainly got a real taste of what it feels like to be a real Explorer, Inventor or Innovator.  It’s very, very hard work.



A New Approach to Civilization

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This session there were thirty six college level lectures about the history of inventions we wanted to  discuss in Civilization, but only six weeks in the session.

What did we do?  We held a weekly contest.

Each Eagle chose a hero, watched the associated  DVD and created Socratic questions.  Then once each week, the class came together for six Eagles to pitch their heroes.

A vote followed, the winning DVD was watched by all and a Socratic Discussion debated deep questions about the impact of invention and creation on civilizations.

This way, each Eagle had an opportunity to delve deeply into a hero he or she cared deeply about, everyone learned something about thirty six  world changing inventions and the lives of six heroes were deeply probed by the group. looking for larger themes.

All of this with great energy and enthusiasm.