Monthly Archives: June 2014

Curriculum at Acton Academy

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Often the curriculum at Acton Academy seems confusing; especially with so many Eagles pursuing independent learning plans.

Below are four principles that form the foundation for our curriculum.  Holding firmly to these makes sure the basics are covered, so everything else is lagniappe.

1.  First, make it fun.

Job number one is to make it fun to be part of the community.  If the Eagles want to belong to the tribe, they will accept hard work and the Hero’s Journey as the price of membership, deeply imbedding the core belief that Grit matters more than IQ for heroes in the long run.

Plus, motivated Eagles work at 10X the rate of average students.

2.  Focus on Core skills.

Reading, writing (communication) and math are fundamental tools for decision making and critical thinking.

Reading:    First, make reading fun and enjoyable (see point number one above.)  Allow Eagles to read anything they want.  Once Eagles love to read, you can offer more challenging ideas, authors and genres.

Hint: Never mention the word “classic.”  Sadly, many children define”classic” as “a boring book that grown-ups make you read.”  You can and should offer Great Books; just be careful what you call them.

Writing (Communication): Make writing fun by starting with journaling or lighthearted creative writing.  Start early with Socratic discussions.   Always write or communicate for a reason, usually as part of an exhibition, so that quality matters to the Eagles.  Over time, offer more difficult challenges and genres.  Use peer critiques to boost motivation; Eagles will write and revise a great deal if they can share with friends.

Handwriting and spelling will come over time, but giving Eagles incentives to improve these earlier helps some parents relax.  Grammar is different.  Too much early emphasis on grammar can kill the joy of getting thoughts and emotions on paper.  If Eagles care about writing and communicating, better grammar will come.

Math:  Khan Academy and other game based adaptive programs make math curriculum a breeze, so you can focus on motivation and including math in real world projects.

Civilization:  Find articles, videos and ethical dilemmas that put the Eagles in the shoes of a heroic decision maker, require them to take a firm stand and debate the alternatives in a Socratic Discussion.

Eagles are competitive by nature.  Ask them to track and post the results for the Core Skills activities above, and deep learning will happen.

3. Add Quests for 21st Century Skills

If you are confident that the Core Skills are being mastered, you can add Quests to master 21st Century skills and subjects like Science.  A Quest is nothing more than a series of hands-on, real world projects that contain a narrative and a public exhibition at the end.

Start with simple Quests first.  Then add more complex Quests.  Once you have a sense of what makes a great Quest, simplify again.  Then hand over Quest creation to your Eagles.

4. Real World Apprenticeships

As soon as possible, ask Eagles to begin real world apprenticeships – often as early as ten years old.  This includes each Eagle considering his or her individual gifts and talents; activities that bring joy or “flow,” and the irresistible opportunities or terrible injustices that inspire a young hero.

Challenge Eagles to identify and pitch apprenticeship opportunities themselves, with as little help as possible from adults.  There’s nothing quite as freeing as knowing you can identify and land your next adventure in life, all by yourself.

Eagle Driven Learning Communities offer a rich tapestry of collaborative discovery with serious rigor, as young heroes negotiate collaborating and learning with Running Partners and in small groups.  But “self organized” doesn’t mean chaos; in fact, it usually requires a rigorous set of  rules and natural consequences.  Embracing the principles above allows the chaos at Acton Academy to (usually) have an upward trajectory, and to self correct when it doesn’t.

A Heroic Year

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Masai warriors are fierce. Yet the traditional Masai greeting is a tender question: “Kasserian Ingera?” or “Are the children well?”  The traditional reply: “All the children are well” signifies that life is good, because the children are growing and flourishing.

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Thursday the middle school Eagles assembled at a nearby ranch for a celebration of the year, with obstacle course challenges, swimming and fellowship.

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Late that night we circled around a campfire. Eagles reflected on the past months of hard work, describing how they had grown and sharing  “greatest lessons learned.”  Words of gratitude flowed from friend to friend, directly from the heart.

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We welcomed dawn from a mountaintop, looking towards the horizon in silence, with reverence and anticipation for the year to come.   On leaving, each Eagle made a sacred pledge to future growth, the growing  pile of stones a group commitment to the individual dreams of each young hero.

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Last night, we celebrated with parents and friends, listening to speeches from graduating  Eagles.  We left in awe of our young heroes, with great hope for the future they will create.

Kasserian Ingera.  All the children are well indeed.

Fun Campus Improvements

Two new campus improvements are generating great glee among the Eagles.

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GaGa ball is drawing a crowd of elementary and middle school Eagles alike: before school, after school and during every break.

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Construction Corner is like having a human sized LEGO kit.

The Eagles have worked hard all year, so a few new toys and lots of summer fun are well deserved.  Enjoy.


“One of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”

Ideas have consequences.  Heroes armed with ideas change the world.

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Sugata Mitra changed education with his Hole-in-the-Wall Experiments: armed only with the internet and each other, some of the poorest children in the world bested students and teachers from elite private schools.

Last week Sugata Mitra visited Acton Academy to lead two of his SOLES (Self Organized Learning Environments.)   The Eagles loved their SOLES, though some wanted more “learn to do” action.

Afterwards, one of the youngest middle school Eagles led a powerful impromptu Socratic Discussion, with all the skills of an Oxford Don.

Sugata Mitra asked: “How long did she have to prepare?”

“No time at all,” came the reply. “It was spontaneous.”

“That’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

Quite a compliment, because he has seen quite a lot.  What an honor to have Sugata Mitra spend time with all of us.

But I Want to Do Your Homework


It hurts to watch your child struggle, whether it is with a math problem, a poorly written story, or even worse, a social issue or that first crush.

So we offer a little assistance; perhaps even a tutor.  Before long, the parental ego kicks in.

Empathy is a skill we all need to model as parents; no child should feel alone or without emotional support.  So we need to acknowledge struggles and frustrations.

But in a world where the best tutors and teachers are only a click away, and with our Eagles surrounded by a caring culture of peer collaboration, direct help is no longer a necessity; perhaps even harmful for heroes in the long run.

So next time you are tempted to intervene, pull up Judith Newman’s New York Times piece But I Want to Do Your Homework.  If nothing else, you’ll have a good laugh.

The End of an Era; the Dawn of a New Adventure

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Significant passages deserve to be recognized and celebrated.  Ceremony and ritual are an important part of the human experience and a Hero’s Journey.

Four young heroes started in the Little Blue House at Acton five years ago.  Now they have earned to right to pass from the elementary studio to the middle school.   This brave group marks the last  who will remember the launch of Acton Academy and the bravery it took for Founding Families to start out on an uncharted journey.

We marked this passage with a weekend ranch trip; an evening ceremony by the fire; the creation of FAMP, a small tribe that will enter the middle school dedicated to changing it for the better with three objectives to by transferred by the actions of the tribe. (The meaning of FAMP and the three objectives will remain a secret within the tribe, which will be melted into the middle school tribe on December 1st.)

In the morning, we walked in silence before dawn to a hilltop with forty mile views.  In silence we watched the sun rise.  Each Eagle placed a special memento in an ancient rock pillar and marked the moment with a word dedicating themselves to the journey ahead: Try; Future; Responsibility; Diol (an imaginary word meant to distract you from your troubles.)

Heroes conquer mountains; then rest and recharge; then look for new challenges on the horizon.   The end of an era; the dawn of a new adventure.

Ethical Dilemmas

According to a recent customer satisfaction survey, our Eagle love to wrestle with ethical dilemmas we often use for morning launches.  Would you like to give one a try?

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Ethical Dilemma One

You take your six year old niece and a friend to the beach.   Suddenly, a scream and you see the girls being swept to sea by a riptide. As you swim out, you realize you can only save one girl at a time.  Your niece is the stronger swimmer, but there’s at best a 50/50 chance she’ll drown if you save her friend first.  Who do you choose to save? Which of the following ethical frameworks would you use to make your decision and why?

  • Utilitarian (cost/benefit)
  • Justice-Fairness (treat everyone the same)
  • Virtue (do the right thing)
  • Judeo-Christian (act out of love, no matter what)


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Ethical Dilemma Two

While taking a high stakes college admissions test, the stranger next to you appears to be cheating.  She is poorly dressed and seems ill.  This may be her only shot at college, and she may have braved great odds to get this far. Do you turn her in or not?

Would it change your answer if you knew the person well and didn’t like them?  If it was your best and only friend, who recently stood by you in difficult times?  If it was your brother?

What consideration, if any, do you owe to every human being?  Do you have a special duty to a family member?  To one of your “tribe?”  To a fellow American?  Do these same duties extend to animals?

Ethical Dilemmas are like airplane simulators: a chance to practice making difficult decisions under pressure, so you can make better decisions in the real world, when lives, fortune and honor are at risk.

At Acton Academy, our educational philosophy is:

  • The right analysis and thinking lead to the right decisions;
  • The right decisions become virtuous habits;
  • Virtuous habits deeply etch the lines of character; and
  • Character determines destiny.

Ethical dilemmas are just one more way our Eagles prepare for the destinies worthy of a hero.

Volunteering to Change the World

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“Would you like to watch a speech about changing the world, even if it means missing game time?”

Every Eagle in the studio replied “yes.”  All gathered to watch Navy Seal Commander William McRaven deliver the 2014 University of Texas Commencement speech.

Admiral McRaven stressed importance of showing up every day, working hard and never giving up.  The studio was completely silent as the Eagles soaked in the lessons.

Who suggested the speech?  A Guide?  A parent?  Another adult?

As you probably guessed, it was one of the middle school Eagles.  One Eagle made the suggestion; all agreed to give up free time to learn something important.

Changing the world indeed.

Apprenticeships Deliver

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Apprenticeships remain our most popular challenge.  Do they deliver valuable lessons?

One twelve year old Eagle observed after two weeks of full time work:

“Even if you love what you do and love the people you work with — which I did — working from 8 am to 5 pm every day is a long, long time. 

So you absolutely have to follow your passion or you will have an extremely boring life, where all you do is look at the clock all day.”

How many people fritter away their lives in a cubicle, waiting for the day to end?  That’s not going to be a problem for our Eagles, because they understand the importance of a calling.

A Customer Review of 2013-2014

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At Acton Academy we believe deeply in customer feedback.  So last week we displayed the Journey Maps for this year’s sessions, and asked Eagles to rank which processes and exhibitions were the most “fun” and most “important.”

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Being surrounded by the breadth and depth of forty six weeks of very hard work is  overwhelming.  Our Eagles have an incredible capacity for learning, that is only minimally captured by the class being, on average, five grade levels above age in Math and Reading.

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The customers have spoken, giving us suggestions for more exciting challenges for next year.  Even better, perhaps we’ll just ask the Eagles to create the curriculum themselves.





An Apprenticeship Update

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Apprenticeships are in full swing.   Almost every Middle School Eagle has secured an apprenticeship or is well on the way to doing so.

What are our Eagles doing?

Helping save pets at an animal hospital; making sushi at a restaurant; decorating cakes at a bakery.  Going door to door for a political campaign and analyzing the results.  Working for a small business owner and for a clothing store that provides an outlet for the poorest villages in Africa.  Apprenticing for one of the top fashion designers in the world in Los Angeles.   And many more adventures.

What have the Eagles learned from their apprenticeship searches? Being brave enough to hit “send” on an email asking to be given a chance to prove yourself.  Negotiating for a role and fair pay.  Showing up the first day and not knowing anyone.  Scrubbing bathroom floors when necessary, and caring enough to do it right.  Realizing that working from 8 AM until 5 PM makes for a very long day, unless you are doing something you love.

All of these lessons are becoming part of the DNA of our Eagles, who long before college will  know the importance of work hard as part of delivering far value, in return for lessons that will move them along on a Hero’s Journey.

What will be the first question we’ll be asked when Acton Academy resumes in September?  This one: “When can we start working on our apprenticeships again?”


Look Deep into Your SOLE

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Next Wednesday Sugata Mitra, the inventor of the Hole-in-the-Wall experiment and the SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment), will visit Acton Academy.


In preparation, Eagles prepared their own list of five questions each, then met in Clearness Committees to critique and prioritize.

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Each then brought their best questions to a studio-wide discussion to select the best “abstract” and the best “concrete” questions.

Some of the finalists:

  • Who invented the first sport?
  • Is there something invented long ago by humans that hasn’t changed at all?
  • Why don’t we remember our dreams?
  • What is the motivation of the Taliban?
  • What are thoughts?
  • How and why is the universe endless?
  • What steps have we taken to make money more valuable?
  • Are zoos good for animals or not?
  • If all humans were to die, would another species take over the earth?

Here’s a challenge for you: “Which of these questions are ‘abstract’ and which questions are ‘concrete?’ Why?”

The SOLE winners:

Concrete: “You crash in the West Texas desert where you are certain you will be stranded for several days to one month.  What are the five most important things you need to do?”

Abstract: “Why are humans inclined to judge?”

This week Eagles will divide into teams to dig for research and begin preparing to present their findings.



Please, can it be my turn to pick up the trash?

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What to do? Strong spring winds and lots of Eagle play spread small pieces of trash across the campus.

Should Guides pick it up?  Surely not, because the campus belongs to the Eagles.

Should we order the Eagles to police the area?  That wouldn’t be very Acton-like.

Instead, the Middle School Eagles were treated to a challenge.   Tom Sawyer convinced a friend that fence painting was a special honor.  Could they concoct a scheme to inspire Elementary Eagles to pick up the trash?

The MS Eagles went to work.  A game was created. Roles set. Rewards invented.

Soon eager cries were heard downstairs.  Before long, bags full of trash appeared and the campus was pristine.

Let’s just call it a double-Tom Sawyer moment.

A Love of Reading

What is more important, which books you read, how many books you read or how you are transformed by what you learn?

Yes, some of our Eagles love to read about the military and guns; others prefer Harry Potter, Science Fiction or a juicy romance novel.   But walk around the studio and you’ll also see Democracy in America; 1984; A Brave New World;  A Brief History of Time and Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs.

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Sixteen Eagles we surveyed read a total of 1133 books in the last nine months, or an average of 67 books per Eagle.  ( And yes, some Eagles truly have read over 200 books.)

Even the Eagles who have read fewer books, choosing on math, writing or more serious tomes, have devoured between six and ten books since the start of the school year.

Has your Eagle been transformed by reading?  Well, you’ll just have to judge yourself.  If, that is, you can tear her away from a book long enough to ask.


Principles for Parenting Heroes

It is not easy to be an Acton Academy parent.


Yes, you love the fact that your Eagle loves to go to school.

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Yes, it’s nice to know that working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

But it still can be difficult to believe that the most powerful way we can encourage deep learning is to relinquish control.

So here are seven principles  recently sent to incoming middle school parents, to help ease the transition to a Learner Driven Community:

A Primer for

Acton Academy Middle School Parents

 Acton Academy is a self governing Learner Driven Community where Eagles set individual goals, manage their own time and govern themselves.

Given that it can be frustrating for parents when Guides do not intervene to address concerns, but instead put this responsibility back on the Eagles, we thought a few principles might be worth restating:

Parents have the ultimate responsibility for each Eagle.

We believe our parents are the ultimate authority in their Eagle’s life.  You pay the bills so you get to make the decisions.  This also mean upholding Acton’s written promises to you is our highest responsibility and trumps even our promises to Eagles.  Because of this, we respect your responsibility to set expectations for how much work your Eagle will do and how long it will take him or her to graduate to LaunchPad (high school.)

Eagles run our studios.

We trust your Eagle and give great latitude to our young heroes to practice self governance.

Allowing your Eagle to fail early, cheaply and often can be painful for parents.

It may be painful to see your Eagle struggling, whether it’s a tightly wound Eagle who needs to learn to relax or a slumping Eagle struggling to find the right motivation.  Painful though it may be for all, we believe the lessons learned in our studio prepare our Eagles for glorious adventures in an even less forgiving real world.

Quality is judged by Eagles.

There are no grades at Acton Academy. We use real world standards instead.

All work approved by Eagles to count for a badge will either:

  • Be “the best work I can do” if it is something being done for the first time; or
  • Show improvement from previous work in a skills or area; or
  • Be green-lighted (approved) by fellow Eagles as being worthy to represent Acton Academy quality work to parents or the public; or
  • Be judged as high quality by outsiders in a public exhibition.

Interpersonal issues are addressed without adult intervention (unless it is a matter of safety.)

While Guides will listen to a parent’s concerns about interpersonal conflicts, we always will put the responsibility back on the Eagle to work out any problems, just like in the real world.

Eagles do receive frank anonymous feedback from their peers through periodic 360 surveys to help build stronger relationships and Guides will provide safe dispute resolution processes.

High community standards may result in an Eagle being sent home for a day.  This is a serious message from the Learning Community. Under the current accountability system, an Eagle being sent home three times within a year will not be invited back.  Your Eagle will understand these rules and has a responsibility to keep you abreast of any serious issues that may lead to being asked to stay home.

Eagles are busy so please limit outside communications.

Under the current studio rules set by Eagles, cell phone use is not allowed inside the studio, so email is the best way to communicate.  If you need to text or talk, please set a specific time so your Eagle can pick up his or her phone and step outside.  If you have an emergency, please email or text a Guide or Laura.

If you have a question about how Acton is working, ask your Eagle.

We believe in the power of customer feedback.  If you want to know how school is going, ask your Eagle or read the blog or the weekly surveys.  Out of respect for both you and your Eagle, Guides are not allowed to offer detailed feedback.

Eagles know what needs to be done.  Each has a list of badges needed to move to Launchpad and the requirements for each badge.  While we always are improving this system, your Eagle should know when he or she can expect to leave Middle School, given his or her current pace.

From time to time we will schedule a meeting in which your Eagle can present his or her Personal Learning Plan (electronic portfolios) and a physical portfolio of work.  You also may want to review your Eagle’s progress on his or her Khan math plan or review Points Tracker sheets at the end of every week or session.  As part of the Honor Code, Eagles are required to be truthful and transparent about their progress.

No, it’s not easy some days being an Acton Academy parent.  But it is an exciting adventure.



An Intellectual Appetite that Leads to Purposeful Action


David Brooks offers advice on learning in today’s New York Times:

1.  “Say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

At Acton Academy, we call this “being in flow.”

2. “Look at the way children learn in groups. They make discoveries alone, but bring their treasures to the group. Then the group crowds around and hashes it out. In conversation, conflict, confusion and uncertainty can be metabolized and digested through somebody else. If the group sets a specific problem for itself, and then sets a tight deadline to come up with answers, the free digression of conversation will provide occasions in which people are surprised by their own minds.”

This is the magic of  a Learner Driven Community, built and owned by Eagles.

3.  “The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.”

This is the challenge and the reward of the Hero’s Journey.

Our mission is to equip and inspire Eagles to whet an intellectual appetite, one that drives them to master the skills, habits and questions required to change the world.


A Curiousity Filled Summer

Middle school students all across America are eager to be released from bondage, looking forward to forgetting facts as quickly as possible.

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At Acton Academy, our middle school Eagles are preparing for six weeks of freedom and curiosity in Session Seven, exploring the questions that interest them most.

In the Inquiry Quest each Eagle will choose one or more of the following:


1. Attacking a SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment), digging deeply into a serious question;

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2.  Taking something apart;

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3.  Building something useful with his or her own hands;

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4.  Working on mastering a new skill at DYI.

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Each Eagle will start with a Curiosity board, filled with puzzling questions.

Next a Project Plan and then the journey will begin.  (And yes, all of this will occur on the days when our Eagles aren’t in the real world working at their apprenticeships.)

Sure sounds like more fun than spending all summer forgetting random facts.