Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Acton Academy Eagle Reading List

deep books 6.30

What would Middle Schoolers read in English class if free to choose?  Harry Potter?  Video game instructions?  Comic books?

At Acton Academy, Eagles can choose which Deep Books to read, as long as studio-mates agree the book is “life changing: or “world changing.”

Here’s this year’s list.  (Many Eagles are out on apprenticeships, so only sixteen out of thirty five are represented .)

  • 1984 (2)
  • A Life Decoded (Craig Venter)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (2)
  • Flowers for Algernon
  • A Brief History of Time
  • A Sand County Almanac,
  • Animal Farm (6)
  • Animal Liberation
  • Brave New World (3)
  • Catch-22
  • Death of a Salesman
  • Democracy in America
  • Extra Lives
  • Heart of Darkness
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People (2)
  • Lord of the Flies.
  • Madame Bovary
  • Man’s Search for Meaning
  • The Once and Future King.
  • One World Schoolhouse
  • Reality is Broken
  • Redesigning humans
  • Silent Spring
  • Sophie’s World
  • Steal Like an Artist
  • The Art of War
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
  • The General Theory of Money, Interest, and Employment
  • The Giver
  • The Iliad
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • The Jungle
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
  • The Prince (2)
  • The Rule of Law,
  • The Screwtape Letters,
  • To Kill A Mockingbird (4)
  • To Sell is Human
  • With the Old Breed.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“It’s pretty hard.”

ed x

A thirteen year old Eagle taking MIT’s Introductory Course in Python Computer Programming for a grade says: “It’s pretty hard. It might take until the end of the summer to finish it.”

Two Middle School Eagles taking a Harvard University course on Chemistry and Cooking send the following:

  •  Cola = Molecular Density
  •  Sugar = Oven Calibration and Melting Point
  •  Eggplant = Moles
  •  Cabbage = Acids and Bases
  •  Eggs = Heat
  •  Tea = Heat and Mass
  •  Cookies = Moles

“So far, we have spent 16 hours on it, and that’s only the first two weeks!”

Another Middle School Eagle completes a University of Pennsylvania Law course, earning an “A.”

EdX (MIT and Harvard) announces anyone can earn the first two years of college credit from Arizona State University for a minimal fee, with hours that will transfer to any university.

How will our Eagles perform in college? We’ll know long before they enroll — as Sophomores and Juniors.

Work Rules!


Books about business and leadership typically disappoint.  Not so Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, who heads hiring and culture for Google.

Below are insights from the book, followed with similarities to our learning community at at Acton Academy:

1.  Attract the best people, trust them and believe they will do great things.  Micromanagement doesn’t work.

Google aspires to change the world for decades to come, sets high standards in hiring and trusts its people to execute.   At Acton Academy, we believe each person who enters our doors will change the world in a profound way.  We use our call-to-greatness and a series of difficult challenges to attract extraordinary parents and Eagles. Then we trust the Eagles to run a Learner Driven Community.

2.   Ask people to set challenging SMART goals and make all personal achievements (and failures) transparent.  What matters in the end is making significant progress towards solving a real world problem, with limited resources.

As a Googler, you set ambitious individual and team goals and publish them for all to see.  At Acton Academy, each Eagle sets highly visible weekly (and often daily) SMART goals;  measures and publishes how many intense, focused hours of work he or she spends in each area, whether or not individual and team goals were achieved.

3.   Relentlessly eliminate unnecessary effort and overhead and guard against the micro-managers who misuse power. 

Managers at Google do not have the power to hire, fire or set compensation: the lure of hierarchy and power is simply too corrupting.  At Acton Academy, adults are granted the respect due every person, but may not teach to a test or control students.   Eagles experience the joy of learning through self governance; worthy challenges and engaging  experts, coaches and mentors of all ages, all a part of their Hero’s Journey.

4.  Use the “wisdom of the crowd” to judge excellence and when it’s time to reward and promote.

At Google, salaries are low; bonuses, stock options and advancement are based on surveys of those who work with, under and above an individual.   At Acton Academy, we use 360 surveys and peer reviews to judge excellent work against crowd sourced rubrics and world class examples, as well as to measure leadership and character.   Studio-mates know far better than adults who deserves to be praised, rewarded and promoted.

5. Separate extrinsic rewards from critique and coaching .

The research is clear – if you reward with money, you discourage more powerful and deeper motivations.    At Google, performance reviews and coaching are separate from compensation discussions.  At Acton Academy, we track points and force rank submissions to encourage friendly competition.  But we spend far more time on the importance of a growth mindset, the Hero’s Journey and helping each individual move forward on his or her journey, as part of a larger learning community.

Do we really trust tightly knit young heroes to run their own Learner Driven Community, free from the daily control of adults?   Can they possibly inspire thousands of young heroes around the world to do the same?  Hard to imagine.

But who would have guessed Google would have 53,600 employees ten years ago?






A Simpler Model


We often contrast Acton Academy’s “Learn to Learn; Learn to Do and Learn to Be” goals with the “Learn to Know” approach favored by traditional schools.

Recently I realized our view of traditional schools is incomplete.  The full mantra is more accurately stated as: “Learn to Know; Learn to Obey.”

In most traditional environments young people are rewarded for doing as they are told (Learn to Obey.)  No character development or critical thinking required; simply memorize a slew of facts and it will be assumed that you have mastered a subject (Learn to Know.)

It’s a far simpler model than Acton Academy.  Our approach requires messy real world challenges (Learn to Do;) choosing a process and path (Learn to Learn;)  and the courage to forge character by battling pressure, ambiguity and failure on a Hero’s Journey (Learn to Be.)

In most cases, the simpler the better.  But not when you are preparing young heroes for life changing callings in the tumultuous 21st Century.

No Pecking Order


“Some Eagles may have issues dealing with popularity if they ever leave for a regular school.”

The Middle School Eagle before me had only been at Acton Academy a few months, and I wasn’t quite sure I understood her point.

“What do you mean by ‘popularity?'”

“I mean, there’s no pecking order.  At my old school, I was called…..”

The mean words that followed took me back to my middle school years.  The “popular kids” used labels like this to demean those lower in the social standing, just like stronger chickens will peck a weaker chicken to death if it dares to get out of line.

“Why doesn’t that happen at Acton Academy,” I asked.

“Because you’d be asked for a hundred Eagle Bucks and then sent home by the tribe.”

I sense the reasons go even deeper, but what an interesting question to ponder.