Monthly Archives: September 2014

Calling all Budding Entrepreneurs

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On Saturday, October 25th at 10 AM, Children ages six to fourteen will compete at The Acton Children’s Business Fair to see who can build the best business selling exotic foods, unusual gifts and handy services.   Worried about the future?  Here is your antidote.

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Last night at the Thinkery – Austin’s Children’s Museum – Amy’s Ice Cream founder Amy Simmons delighted an overflow crowd of young entrepreneurs and parents who were preparing for the Children’s Business Fair.

Only a few spots are left, so if you know a child who wants to discover the joy that comes from making something with his or her hands; having the courage to sell it  and earning the freedom that comes from having money left over to spend, urge him or her to apply ASAP.

Most importantly, join us on Saturday, October 25th for a glimpse of some very bright days ahead.


Democracy in Action

Alexis de Tocqueville would have been proud to see a well functioning civil society in action.

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Eleven Eagles nominated.  After a quick pitch by each, narrowing the field to six.

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The next day, six candidates spoke:  concrete promises; pledges to serve; appeals to past “lessons learned”  and painting visions of future greatness.   Genuine applause after each speech.  All excellent, a few exceptional, even by world class standards.

Tocqueville must be smiling.

Then, a vote.  Three capable Council Members were selected by their peers.  Now the Eagles take over.

All of this from muscle memory from sessions past.  No adult intervention or help at all.


Preparing for Success by Failing

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Failures hurt.  No one likes to fail.  No one should learn to like it.

Yet failure is a a necessity when “learning to do” and “learning to be” and an integral part of the Hero’s Journey.  It’s not as much about success as it is the magic ingredient for satisfaction and fulfillment.

Today Edu-Guru Bernard Bull writes about 10 Ways Schools Can Prepare Students to Fail Well.  Not only do we practice all ten of these at Acton Academy, we routinely fail at a few more too.

Unschooling Rules: a Report from Acton Academy’s Front Lines

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We were blessed by a visit last week from Clark Aldrich, sim-Guru, author of Unschooling Rules and in many ways an intellectual Founding Father of Acton Academy.  Below is his unedited report: (Warning – this is an especially long post.)

Thoughts on Acton Academy

It seems that Acton Academy is an incredible success. The question is not if the school approach is a great one, but more, why and how might it appropriately grown and evolve?

In some ways, Acton reminded me of corporate story I researched a while ago. There was a very successful manager at Gallop. She ran a virtual team. No one could understand why she got such strong results. It turns out she spent almost half of her valuable weekly management call with her team discussing personal and non-work issues. She believed, rightfully, that this investment in her group getting to know each would payoff in greater collaboration, productivity, and work satisfaction.


The “secret sauce” of Acton Academy is the strong and unique culture. The culture itself could be compared accurately to a great corporate culture such as Southwest Airlines.

The culture is created in dozens of aligned ways, from the leadership to group building activities to rules of engagement to mission.  And this investment in culture pays off many dividends:

  • Acton has productive self-work time. This has also allowed Acton to do an extraordinarily good job at offloading some of the traditional high-teacher effort activities such as math.
  • The culture successfully uses a lot of peer interactions for coaching, work products, and evaluations, including one-on-one, small groups, and full-group presentations.
  • The community itself is very good at self-policing. When the noise or other ruckus grew, typically it was a student, not a coach, who intervened and controlled the group.

This culture is now so worked into the environment that students carry it on from year-to-year. The culture has inertia. Students are stewards of the culture as much as the adults.

This “value of culture” requires, if I may be blunt, not letting in the students who are not compatible with the culture. Certainly students will thrive in Acton who do not thrive in industrial schools, and vice versa. But as Acton becomes more successful, the impulse to “help” certain students who are not good fit will grow, and should be fought.   Cost containment also gives Acton control over its culture. We all know of traditional schools that have had to compromise by accepting and keeping the wrong students in order to get full board, which has led to their eventual demise.

I imagine it will be very difficult to start up a new acting Academy and have to create the culture from scratch, especially where there is an expectation on anyone’s part – coach, student, or parent – of a traditional industrial education model. I believe counselors for the very best camps will be a logical pool of talent with the right instincts.

Further, the success of the implementation of a full high school program, with the abundance of hormones and the persistent threat of drugs, will work only if there is a significant stream of students already stewards of the culture from middle school. Introducing “new” students into the high school program will be a bigger risk and thus should be done at a lower percentage and with more care, if possible, even than done at the middle school level.

Badges and Bucks

Badges are completely understood, along with Eagle Bucks, as the currency of the environment. It is reasonable to assume the role of badges will grow considerably in the next few years, including as a structuring framework for the leadership of new Acton Academies. The badges eco-system may evolve:

  • To include different levels of badges, perhaps one to five stars in magnitude.
  • More external recognition in the marketplace. Internships may be granted, by smart companies, only to student who have earned certain, very specific badges, in both technical and leadership/inter-personal areas.
  • To include a system that always presents five or six open badges, unlocking new ones as old ones are completed, much as an adventure game would.


Many activities are not stored or structured. There is a make-it-up-as-we-go along environment. This is currently very effective. But I do not know how best practices will flow from Acton Academy to Acton Academy.


Writing may be a challenging place to develop deep levels of skills. Until there is an equivalent of Kahn Academy for writing, this may be a tricky to maintain a non-directive culture. Ironically, most writing itself is a directive. One might wonder if branching stories may end up being a genre of choice, bridging the gap between web pages and traditional writing, as much as directive and collaborative leadership, and even a bit of simulation style modeling. (Certainly one could image part of any kit to propagate Acton beliefs coming in the form of branching stories as well.)

Tapping Additional Real Ecosystems

There may be an opportunity for real feedback from ecosystems, including gardens, even bird feeders, to augment the critically important internships. Finally, kitchen facilities with some students preparing meals for others may also encourage community and real activities, as I am sure is done on any field trips.

Positives Framed as Negatives

I can imagine Acton champions will face a barrage of useless challenges and fake criticisms. In many cases, the strengths of the school will be reframed as weaknesses. Here are some traditional fake criticisms, with some generic responses, put forth here as a bit of inoculation:

1. This only works because of a specific leader/teacher:

There are no strong educational programs that do not have strong leaders. Ever. Anywhere. At all. The worst corporations treat employees as interchangeable widgets as well.

 2) This would not work everywhere, for all students, and all of the time.

Despite the model propagated by foundations and PhD’s, education is not like a factory where immutable rules, once discovered, be can infinitely applied. Education is more similar, although obviously very different, to entertainment, which has to constantly evolve and provide options.

 3) This is not a perfect solution.

New approaches should be evaluated based on if they are significantly better for some children than the alternatives, not how far they are from perfect. The goal has to be a rich educational ecosystem, not a single perfect model.

 4) This only works because of who is accepted and who is expelled. This program is skimming the best students.

In successful education programs, culture is king. The wrong people in a great culture destroy the great culture. Some people, however, who are failures in one culture can be superstars in another.

5) This will not help test scores/this will not help my child get into the most selective college.

Successful performance on standardized tests cannot be the goal of education. Tests are trapped in a cycle of more efficiency measuring increasingly useless attributes. The most selective colleges are in their own bubble, where the assumption that “intensity of competitiveness” necessarily equals “value delivered” will increasingly be challenged. Having said that, more universities are creating more flexible ways to admit success students, and over time students with the skill developed by Acton will be in higher explicit demand.

 6) There are ways students can cheat.

There are always going to be ways for students to cheat.   Students in the default education model cheat all of the time. Cheating in traditional schools is the giant unspoken truth that threatens to destabilize all of our current industrial education model.

 7) This approach works now but it may not always. Cracks will appear.

All approaches to education have to adapt, and be ever calibrated. Just as large corporations cycle between centralization and decentralization, or between innovation and incremental improvement, so too the best approaches will require constant calibration based on internal and external conditions.

I can imagine Acton tightening up standards for a year, then loosening them. Some changes should be thought of as temporary.

 8) This has not been proven to work.

The current industrial classroom model has not been proven to work, and in fact has been proven not to work. New approaches cannot be compared against a default standard, because there is not default standard. But new approaches are critical, and Acton’s entry into the ecosystem is critical.


Along with the photographs, I took some video clips of moments throughout the day, not as proof statements but to capture snippets of what this approach looks and sounds like.

A) In the morning session, outsiders would be surprised that a student could lead a deep, serious conversation about morality. This speaks well for the student leader, of course, but also for the group of students who were willing to accept that leadership. As well, the “rules” of engagement, of how to productively participate, were already so well internalized. It seemed like an advanced MBA class. This was more remarkable given that the school year had so recently begun.

B) During the self-work time, I believe outsiders would be surprised at how well students got real work done “on their own,” working hard towards badges. There was neither stifling quiet nor chaos. It resembled a creative open-office setting of any successful company.

C) The work group assembled to look at quests and think about school rules and policies was impressive for its serious acceptance of the problems and their role in the solution. It resembled any real world problem-solving task force.

D) The group challenge portion felt like the best summer camps, and perhaps a vision of the future workplace that integrates movement (see with lessons learned about self. Even then, one of the most impressive moments came when it was the students, not the coaches, who brought order to a loud room.

E) The reading assignment video clip showed how powerful peer to peer instruction could be. In this small group, the questions asked of each other (in deciding which of three or four pitched ideas would be accepted) were very sophisticated and truly supportive. Once again, even in peer groups, non-directive forms of leadership were being used.

F) The clean-up at the end was done with amazing vigor and competence.

G) Finally, the wrap up at the end closed the day, not with the traditional sense of parole, but with a satisfying conclusion, like the end of a great movie or play.

Making Tribal Committments to True North

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Our overarching question for the year is:  When does a Hero submit to authority? Another way to view this question is as a search for Truth.

This session our sub-question is: How does a Tribe find True North?

Our goals for the first two weeks were simple:

  1. Work hard.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Like each other; and
  4. Commit.

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Today we came to the final step: commitment. Signing the behavioral contracts that will govern the studio for the next year.    Each of the contracts was written from scratch by the Eagles, setting up promises to each other; Rules of Engagement for discussions; an Honor Code; an agreement between Guides and Eagles and an agreement establishing our governing system.

We discussed the Founding Fathers pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor; the existence of good and evil and the importance of heroes in the world.  We  acknowledged the importance of keeping your word.

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Then each Eagle carefully read and signed each document.  The process took over twenty minutes, but the room was silent, respecting the significance of the moment.

Then a celebration:  working hard; having fun; liking each other; making commitments.  Now we are a tribe.  Yes, we’ll have challenges, but we’ll never again be merely individuals traveling  alone.

What a remarkable group of young heroes.

Week One: Check

Preparing for the first week is hard.  Scurrying to prepare the studio.  Memorizing faces, names and dreams of new Eagles; working hard to welcome new parents.  Of course, little of this matters to our young heroes; it’s mostly the anxiety of grown ups.

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Our returning Eagles were excited to see old friends and meet new ones.  New Eagles were a bit apprehensive, but quickly warmed up as they were welcomed and honored by a week  of ice breaking challenges.

Big surprises?  How quickly and diligently Eagles settled into Core Skills.

  • Our thirty Eagles earned over 700 Khan Math skills for the week, an average of twenty three each, or four times a normal week’s output, in just four days.
  • Eagles were writing by day two; critiquing a partner’s writing by day three; sharing in a journal contest by Thursday.
  • Deep books were being pitched and read all week.

Eagles also jumped into organizing the self governance of the studio.  With the drafting of the Contract of Promises between classmates ; Rules of Engagement for Socratic discussions; creating Eagle Bucks Systems and appointing Clean Up Champions, the self organizing moved at a rapid pace.  We appear to be a week ahead of schedule.

Our new systems are helping.  Eagles are eager to earn badges and the electronic Points Tracker system was launched with few glitches.  Good riddance to paper blizzards and bottlenecks at the printer; a warm welcome to electronic accountability, run by the Eagles.

Did the Eagles have fun?  Here’s an email excerpt from one parent:

I have never seen xxxxxx so excited about school.  He is exhausted by the time he gets home, but I don’t think he can get enough of Acton.  In the past I would have to drag info about school out of him.  Not now.  He is bubbling (is it ok to say that about a boy?) with excitement telling me about his day.  I think he would spend 24/7 there if he could.

Revisiting our goals for the first two weeks:

  • Have fun – check.
  • Work hard – double check.
  • Like each other –  triple check.
  • Commit – more and more, every day.

Oh yes, they’ll be plenty of problems ahead.  All human organizations are dysfunctional, it’s just a matter of how and when it manifests.  But for now, we’ll count our blessings, because successful launches should be celebrated.

Inspiring Writers

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How do you teach writing?  By diagramming sentences?  By learning the rules of grammar?  One should respect proper conventions, or at least stray from them purposefully.  But rules do not make the writer.

Observation. Hearing the Muse. Putting words on paper even when you don’t. Rough drafts.  Critiques. Revisions.  More revisions.  A final proof for typos and grammatical mistakes.  Good writers become great writers by writing. Period.

At Acton Academy, Eagles are offered challenging questions; encouraged to write every day; frequently critique each other and perform in public exhibitions.  Competition and collaboration offer inspiration at each stage.

Eagles started writing on the second day of the session.  By the third day, they were sharing and critiquing in groups.  Today, each Eagle read a piece of original writing aloud in his or her critique group.  Then the entire studio assembled to hear the two best pieces from each group, and an overall winner was selected.

What a gift to hear those last seven pieces.  Inspiring writers inspiring each other.





Crossing the Threshold for 2014-15

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So what are the priorities when launching a new year at Acton Academy?  Reading, writing and math?  Preparing for standardized tests?


Our goals for the first two weeks revolve around forming the Tribe and transferring the responsibility for the learning community to the Eagles.  If we get that right, everything else is easy.

Our priorities are simple:

1. Have fun together.

2. Work hard.

3.  Discover that we like each other; and

4. Commit.

Today we opened with a launch quoting the Gettysburg Address, comparing Lincoln’s vision for America to the Eagle’s opportunity to reshape learning in the 21st Century.

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First, an Ice Breaking Exercise centered around exploration and questions; then hard work during Silent Core Skills, setting SMART goals and drafting and discussing the Contract of Promises; finally, a series of challenging trust building exercises.  In a flash, it was 3 PM and time for “lessons learned” for the day.

All along, it was the Eagles’ energy and leadership that mattered most.  The Guides failed today – we answered two questions each, four serious lapses in all.   Thankfully, there’s always tomorrow to redeem ourselves.  Even more exciting, soon Eagles won’t be asking Guides for anything at all.