Category Archives: Art

A Famous Film Critic

Godzilla 2

We ask a lot of our Middle School Eagles:  Quests; Deep Book Badges; Between the Lines Literary Analyses; Civilization Discussions plus Khan, Reading and Writing.  Yet most find time to do so much more.

Take for example one MS Eagle who has started both the popular Computer Science Club and Film Club.  Now he’s launched a Film Blog.

Who needs Godzilla to fight the forces of evil?  We have Mason.


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.

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.

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!

We have liftoff!

The Rocket Olympics finished with a bang – or to be precise, seven powerful blasts.

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We started with a few last minute preparations and a review of the different rocket designs and artwork, with voting by Eagles from the Elementary and Middle Schools.

Next, it was time for seven dramatic countdowns that led to seven spectacular launches — rockets shooting and twisting far out of sight, until with a “pop” parachutes emerged.

We had six successful recoveries and an 84% success rate, with several Rocket Teams making surprisingly accurate predictions of their rockets’ trajectories, especially given the brisk 10-20 mile per hour, swirling, gusting winds.

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In the end, the winners celebrated, complete with an Olympic style rendition of the national anthem.

Rocket Scientists of the world unite!

Why do some civilizations rise and others fall?

Today we tried a new experiment in Civilization, our integrative study of history, economics, philosophy and geography.

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Eagles watched a DVD lecture from The Skeptics Guide to American History, a college level Learning Company course taught by University of Vermont award winning professor Mark Stoler. Today we explored The Great Awakening; over the next nine months we’ll tackle 35 different turning points between 1850 and the present, sampling from several college level course.

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Prior to the lecture, Eagles were asked to explore the Great Awakening, Predestination and the Progressive movement on their own.   Contributing a Socratic Question about the period or one of these topics was the required entry ticket for the session.

Just prior to the start, Ms Abigail gave the first drawing lesson from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, as Eagles began working on a “before I learned to draw” sketch of a familiar person or object.

Then this launch:

Imagine this.  Years from now, you begin to see stories about roving religious leaders, moving from town to town, having large, emotional meetings in tents.  They are questioning everything about society; some are saying the old world is about to end. Everyone seems swept up in emotion.  Everything that once seemed settled now seems open to change.

As a leader in the world, you have to decide whether this is an opportunity or a danger?  Which is it?

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For thirty minutes Eagles watched and listened as they worked on their sketches.  Then we followed with an intense Socratic discussion in Pods of 8 Eagles each, featuring questions like:

  • What was the most important positive or negative consequence of the Second Great Awakening:  public schools; prison reform; temperance movement that banned alcohol or the women’s movement?
  • Do you believe there’s more truth in predestination – that you have little control over life – or Progressivism – that mankind can be perfected?  Are these similar or different to the idea of the Hero’s Journey?
  • Should churches be involved in politics?  Should religious people be involved in politics? 
  • When Jefferson and the Founders wrote that there should be no established religion in America, did they mean no government church or that religious matters had no place in politics?
  •  Are there real differences between men and women real or imagined?
  •  If drugs are illegal, should alcohol be illegal?  Why isn’t it?
  • In total, was the Second Great Awakening positive or negative? 
  • Do you believe strongly enough in anything to be willing to go to jail for it?

Finally, each Eagle chose one person, trend or event to illustrate, and placed these on the master civilization timeline that charts history from the Big Bang to the present.

How did the Eagles rate the experiment?  On average, a 9.8 out of 10.  They loved being able to watch, listen and work on art.  They found the lecture fascinating, even though they had to look up some of the more advanced terms.

Did they learn anything?  Here are a few of the Socratic questions they posed:

  • Why did the Second Great Awakening happen?
  • If mankind could be perfected, would that be a good thing?
  • Who was the most powerful person in the Second Great Awakening?
  • What is the biggest way the Second Great awakening has impacted our lives?

College level work.  Deep questions.  A sense of perspective.  Debating why some civilizations rise and others fall, and the impact of military, economic, political and ideological forces.   Learning to draw like a master while you study the turning points of human history.

It simply doesn’t get much better than that, as Eagles prepare to take on the world.

Hearts v. Brains

What’s inside you?  What’s important?

This is Acton- take a side!  Learn, choose, defend, learn more, listen, and  maybe change your mind.Image

It’s July 8th.  Most friends are out of school, and unlike the peers of the Elementary School Eagles, most of these friends are old enough to be left to their own devices (of course, school starts again for those friends about 3 weeks before Acton starts… hard satisfaction to enjoy right now).

But at Acton, it’s cool despite the heat.  The Eagles gamely undertook a mini-project, Hearts V.Brains, and will compete for most persuasive argument on Wednesday.

During free time, they played in the rain.


A grand sweep of the classroom in anticipation of our move to the new Studio yielded a happy surprise- Eagles’ pastel paintings of their earliest selves, done early in the school year.  As we focus in on our year-long exploration of whether the past determines the future, we lucked upon these remnants and touchstones that help us delineate the journey and the lessons learned.

So what is it- hearts or brains?  We’ll find out Wednesday from the Eagles, but for now, see below, this makes me happy in both ways and I hope it has the same affect on you.


Proud Citizens!

At Acton, we share as a community a deep appreciation of the freedoms and responsibilities that go along with the good fortune of American citizenship. To celebrate and commemorate Fourth of July week, the Eagles explored why so many immigrants from the world over choose to seek citizenship here, and what they must do to attain it. The week began with a visit from Sheetal Kakkad (dad of Eagles Nikita and Akshay), who shared his story of making the difficult decision to relinquish his Indian citizenship and become an American. After going through the arduous processes of applying for student visas, work visas, and a green card, there was one hurdle left- the Citizenship Exam.

photo-2For Mr. Kakkad, passing the exam was less difficult than the other terrain he’d already navigated. But what about for our Citizens of Acton?
The Eagles were handed the challenge of passing the U.S. Citizenship Exam themselves. To prepare, they studied. Hard. They had Socratic discussions about issues including the balance of power between federal government and states, the meaning of equality, and individual freedom vs. the rule of law. They read stories of recent immigrants/new U.S. citizens, and researched the stories of not-so-new immigrants who helped shape America.

So, finally- testing day….did they pass? Not without a bit of sweat and panic. But yes- everyone of them symbolically won the right to the freedoms they were given at birth, and more importantly also won a deeper understanding of the struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments of the people who built our nation and keep it strong, whether born here or not.
photo-4They gained insight into the complexities of our ever-evolving nation, deeply dedicated to freedom but with a diverse population and many opinions about what freedom really means. Whatever it means to you, this weekend and always, let it ring!

Why do some civilizations rise and other fall?

“Why do some civilizations rise and others fall?”  This is the overarching question in History at Acton Academy.

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History is delivered by using great texts, powerful video and penetrating Socratic discussions to explore the great hinge points and heroes of history.

This session Eagles will be exploring important moments and people between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth century, including Tulipmania in Holland and the American and French revolutions.

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Eagles will be adding heroes and events to a timeline and plotting them on a map to add perspective, as well as choosing various history challenges to dig deeply into individual areas of interest.

In each case, they’ll examine the effects of the following “sources of power” on various civilizations:

  • Economic power
  • Political power
  • Military power; and
  • Ideological power.

One more powerful tool to help our Eagles to make better decisions as begin to change a 21st century world.


Town Council, Property Rights and the Separation of Powers

An exchange of letters between diplomats.  Tension, with the possibility of all out war. Misunderstandings.  A flurry of activity within and between the leaders of two democracies. Finally, a peace treaty.

History class?  Europe, just prior to World War One?  No, just another day at Acton Academy.

It seems that Middle Schoolers are disturbing the peace of Silent Core Skills for Elementary Eagles, especially now that spring has come to Austin and classroom windows are open.  Likewise for the Middle Schooler’s Silent Core Skills when the Elementary Eagles are on free time.  Plus, disagreements about the intensity of dodge ball and how younger Eagles can be included in Middle School games without the risk of injury.

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Town Council meetings can be unruly, even to the point of wasting time – just like real world democracies. But eventually conflicts get worked out, property rights are re-established and civil society is sewn back together, stronger than it was before.

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Next fall we’ll grow from twelve Eagles to twenty five in the Middle School.  Time to revisit the US Constitution and hold a Socratic Discussion about how the separation of powers might help the Eagles create an even more effective governance system.

It’s one thing to read about the Founders.  Quite another to be a Founder yourself, and face their same struggles.  No question which approach better prepares the leaders of tomorrow.

Take me to your leader. (Beeeeepp…. Does not compute?)

If a Martian had shown up on campus today and presented that demand, the outcome would vary depending on the moment.  Core skills?  An elementary school guide who came in to verify the Friday pizza order was amazed at the intensity of the Eagles’ focus.  Who led that?

The Socratic discussions during Civilization learning?  Well, it depends on which question was put to the group.  If it was “If you were a noble during the French Revolution, would you have joined the fight or stayed loyal to the Second Estate?” it would have been Sarah, who came up with the question, which was deemed by her peers to be worthy of discussion. Different question, different student leader.

If our otherworldly visitor had shown up during the journal reflection contest, it would have sought out Claire, who MC’ed the event (after a guide misguidedly tried to tap a student to MC only to be told indignantly that “we’ve already decided who’s doing it”).

Any Mars native who floated in at 2:45 would have been certain that the go-to guy was Crayton, who assembled the troops and set them to task with the surety of General Patton, the notable figure he’s delivering a powerful speech in the shoes of in just a couple more weeks.

And if the Martian had come during Game Time, it would have been certain that the committee of  four guests from the elementary school (in the MS to guide our Eagles in learning a rhythm game) was where the power dwells.   Happy Friday, and here’s to all the leaders of tomorrow!


We play games.

Clue, Boggle… Alamo Dodgeball, check. But we also use games to inspire and motivate, to gauge comprehension, and to challenge the Eagles to keep striving towards excellence.
Yesterday the Eagles spent the morning doing core skills as usual, with the added twist of acting as members of the clergy, nobility, bourgeoisie or peasantry of late18th-century France (didn’t take long for a revolution to manifest). In the afternoon, they competed in the Anticipate the Questions game, putting their virtual travel itineraries through a series of fun but grueling real-world troubleshoots.

Thanks to the dad of an incoming Eagle for sharing this article about the latest research on the creaky monarchy of the A-F system:
Games, projects and discussions instead of lectures, tests and grades. In the words of King Louis XVI’s advisor, it’s not a revolt, sire, it’s a revolution.

Our class journey into History became 3-dimensional for the Eagles on Friday, when they left campus for an expedition to the Alamo.  For an hour and a half, the Middle Schoolers explored the Alamo with an audio tour tool to use as they wished.  This was a terrific opportunity for them to exercise their skills as independent learners, sometimes exploring in pairs or clusters, sometimes going off alone to study details that grabbed only their attention. Some spent more time in the shrine, some became absorbed in the museum displays… and quite a few were captivated by the Koi.

At a given time, we all rejoined for a guided Alamo Battlefield tour filled with stories of early Texas history and details about the battle.  As always, Eagles came up with probing and creative questions that took the group deeper into the lives of the heroes and bystanders whose lives were changed by the events and decisions made.

Then a well-earned lunch on the Riverwalk, in a restaurant chosen by the winners of our series of History Challenges.  The two winners also had the privilege of choosing a streamlined menu with options within our budget, and the responsibility of navigating the group to the chosen establishment.  (Yes, we made it!).

The ride home gave all a chance to reflect and share surprises and take-aways from the Alamo.  Oh, and (at least in one car) to listen to music at exceptional volume.  Who says hard work and fun can’t go hand in hand?

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble

This week marks the start of our Salem Witch trials, re-enacted with modern forensics.

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Eagles first played a complex game resembling the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where townspeople were given a series of choices to accuse their neighbors or risk being accused themselves (a game that Federal prosecutors increasingly are using to coerce confessions from lower level operatives to convict higher level bosses – whether they are guilty of a crime or not.)

In eleven minutes, almost every citizen in the town had either been afflicted or put to death – showing just how quickly fear can spread in a mob.

Later, Eagles watched a clip of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and discussed persuasive techniques that an individual could use to disperse a mob.

Next Thursday, Acton Academy parents will sit as jurors as we reenact the trial, deciding whether the witches live or die.

History, and the stories that bind us

Namaste. The light within me recognizes the light within you.  A lovely tradition started by Ms. Laura, the “Namaste” that begins every session of Middle School History brings us together; as a group in the present, and with the cultures that we meet in our collective past.  It gives us a loving foundation from which to separate in lively disagreement, while always maintaining our curiosity and mutual respect.

History holds a special place in the Acton curriculum. In some ways, it stands alone, yet it also encapsulates everything else we do.

We look at History and ask the Eagles to ponder why civilizations rise and fall, and to notice patterns of Hero’s Journey archetypes.  This year, we also ask the overarching question – which happens to be endlessly interesting when looking at human history- of whether the past determines the future.

Sometimes this thinking happens in the form of silent reflection; more often, in the form of Socratic discussion.  We put the Eagles in the shoes of a decision maker, and ask them to grapple with often thankless propositions, just like real leaders, bold or reluctant, must do.

This session, we’ve broken down the question of why civilizations rise and fall into four categories, inspired by Michael Mann’s extensive studies of the Sources of Power.  For every world-changing event the Eagles explore, they analyze whether the effects were economic, political, ideological or military.  They’ve created an ongoing timeline that cross-references the year, the event, and the implication.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question: What is your place in history?  What history will YOU make?
We use History Challenges as a way to immerse students more deeply into the details  of our world.                                                          Some Challenges have been very analog; fill in the names of the countries on this blank map of the Middle East, for example, after learning about the decline of the Ottoman Empire and noticing together that the lines drawn at the end of WWI have grave implications for international relations today. Other History Challenges are digital; one example would be asking Eagles to play an online game that puts them in the shoes of a young person during the early years of the American Revolution.
  But the most profound challenges have been when Eagles are asked to investigate their own family histories. As an article in today’s NY Times points out, understanding your family history is a powerful motivator.  At Acton, we build community in a way that stresses the narrative of our community, and everyone involved understands why this community exists, what it stands for, and why they are are a part of it.  With gratitude for our community, Namaste.

Inner work and the dreams of heroes

This week our Detectives-in-Training become Forensic Psychologists in training, as our Eagles begin to dig into their own inner worlds.

Why do some people keep repeating unhelpful behaviors?  How can understanding yourself make you a more successful athlete or a better friend?  How can you decide whether the boy or girl you just met is the “right one” for you or a passing infatuation?

All pressing questions for middle school students.

During the next five weeks in the Psychology Quest, we’ll explore dreams, the shadow self (projecting); active imagination, scapegoating and mob mentality, all as the Eagles began preparing for a reenactment of the Salem Witch trials with modern day forensics.

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On Day One of the Psychology Quest, Eagles were introduced to Carl Jung as a hero, and explored the unconscious, sub-conscious and conscious mind through word association, free drawing and free sculpting.

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A psychologist would have a field day with the symbols, archetypes and emotions that poured out.

Our Eagles also received dream journals and pledged to start recording their nightly dreams, for later analysis.

Let the dreams begin!

Imagine this…

Imagine this….

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We often appeal a lot to imagination at Acton Academy.

We ask Eagles to imagine that they are:

  • A world leader, at a historical inflection point, facing a difficult decision…
  • A scientist; Thomas Edison, disappointed after another failure, but determined to try again;
  • A hero in their own story, in search of an apprenticeship adventure that will be a steppingstone to a calling that changes the world.

Vision is only the first step to a powerful journey, but it’s an important part of the motivation that drives deep learning.

Friday’s Lessons Learned

At day’s end, Eagles reflected back to lessons learned from the morning’s weekly wrap-up, discussing the amount of effort they’d put into their work vs. the amount of payoff they received in terms of personal achievement and our classroom points-tracking system.  In Core Skills they determined individually which work to focus on to best reach the goals they’d set for themselves on Monday.

ImageWhile all journaled in hopes of winning the weekly writing contest (congratulations, Kenzie!), some focused on Khan skills, others on their Mystery Fiction writing, others on their Apprenticeship Quest work including some beautifully rendered Mind Maps.


Looking for tools to increase focus and help in their pursuit excellence, some students experimented with making their own “Claire Boxes”, named for the Eagle who first had the idea of creating a sensory-deprivation space to block out distraction and help her dive deeply into her independent work.ImageImageLater in the History Yurt, all Eagles were able to enjoy special personal space with our new eye pillows; Eagles lay back with the lavendar-scented pillows weighing pleasantly against their eyelids and listened to stories from 17th Century England, including the military and political strategies of Oliver Cromwell during and after the English Civil War, and a look at daily London life through the diaries of Samuel Pepys.  We learned that one of our Eagles’ ancestors was likely the actual executioner of King Charles!   All students are working towards learning about their ancestry as part of their ongoing series of History Challenges.

Enjoy the three-day weekend and have a Happy MLK Day, see everyone on Tuesday!

In Pursuit of Excellence

How do you encourage a learning community to strive for excellence?  That was today’s challenge, with a roomful of energetic Eagles back from Christmas Break.

We opened the day debating whether our overarching goal this session should be Excellence or Mastery?  Excellence won the day, based on the Eagle’s logic that the practice of Excellence must precede Mastery.

So Excellence became the “word of the session,” with signatures as a sign of commitment.

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We continued with a review of the spring session, which will include a Crime Solving project and a reenactment of the Salem Witch Trial.

Silent Core Skills time began with Eagles setting long term Khan goals, including mastering the last of the basic math skill sets, before individual Eagles will be asked to choose whether to dive deeply into Algebra, Geometry or Trigonometry in a few weeks.

We followed with a Socratic Discussion about how you decide what book to read next.  Should the decision be based on ”fun” or some other criteria?  Fiction or non-fiction? Genre? A focus on the time period we’ll cover in History this spring (1600 to 1776); a scientific subject we’ll explore in projects like DNA or genetics or psychology?  Improving a skill like writing or speech making?  Or perhaps going deep into a biography of a hero.

Eagles get to choose what they read, but we want them to choose wisely.

Just before lunch we unveiled this spring’s plan for securing an apprenticeship in April, and how Mind Maps might encourage some new paths or people who can help.

Then after lunch, the launch of our newest project, using science to solve crimes, complete with a real crime scene.

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How do you encourage a learning community to strive for excellence?   Paint a vision of an exciting journey. Offer choices.  Insist on clarity.

No guarantees, but a good start.

Closing the loops; looking forward to the future

Now is a time to close some of the powerful learning loops we opened just a few months ago.

Last week, we started by closing the Art loop with an exposition of the Acton Dragons at Amy’s Ice Cream.

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Monday, we closed the PE loop with the Acton Olympics, returning to the same challenges Eagles faced in September, to record new personal records (Thanks Coach C!)

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On Wednesday, we close the loop on Projects, with the Game Expo and Film festival.

Below, yesterday Eagles practice and critique Game Expo pitches, with the Middle Schoolers feverishly working to defeat the Elementary School challengers by gathering more customer “votes” at the Expo.

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All week we are recording reflections on “lessons learned” from Math, Reading, Writing, Building the Community, Science and the Pursuit of Excellence, as Eagles prepare their final end of semester portfolios for Thursday.

Then – on Friday — a review of next semester’s adventures and a final CELEBRATION!

Enlightened trial and error

“You can do it!  You will have many more opportunities.  I will help you if you want help.”

“It’s okay- let’s do it again, so you can get it”, because  I do not want them to go through life thinking , “If I fail, it means I’m not supposed to do this”.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Let’s try again.”

These are some of the words the Eagles wrote in their journals this morning as they considered what to say to a friend who fails to reach a goal.  The question arose: would you rather work with a partner who succeeds when you fail, or who fails with you? Many stated that they’d want to work with someone who succeeds, so they can learn from that person.  Some preferred the idea of learning alongside someone on the same level, making mistakes together, growing together.

“An unstoppable force!” is how one Eagle described a team where one partner’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses, and vice-versa.

At the start of history class, Ms. Laura asked students: what motivates you?  why do you work as hard as you do?  and after collecting responses, did a beautiful job of refreshing everyone’s memory about the meaning of Socratic discussion: Socratic discussion is not a debate, it’s a principled discussion.  There’s no argument to be won; the point is to seek truth, to seek a new perspective.  With these reminders, the Eagles participated in student-led Socratic discovery about exploration before lying down to listen to the story of the rise and fall of Dutch New Amsterdam in the New World.


Teamwork was spotlighted during project time, launched by Ms. Anna with a clip about the product design firm Ideo.  The Eagles were taken with this radical approach to collaboration and remarked about how “constructive rather than destructive chaos” could lead to great things.  They got to put the concept into action by dividing into small teams to critique each others’ games (link to the ideo video: use password:academy), reporting afterwards how helpful the extra brain power was in improving their work, experiencing first hand the Ideo mantra of “Enlightened trial and error”  outpeforming the “planning of a lone genius”.


The school day closed with a revisit to our Hero’s Journey map, as we come close to the end of this first semester at Acton.  The questions of Who am I?  What promises must be made and kept?  Who’s walking with me?  have taken on visceral meaning for these young adults as they’ve looked deep within and asked themselves tough questions, worked hard to fine-tune and adhere to their own systems of self-management, decision making and accountability, and collaborated with running partners and small groups on film and other projects.

But for our Heroes, the learning doesn’t stop at 3:15.  Except for a handful of Eagles whose intense sports commitments preclude it, Thursdays are chess club day.  Carpe Diem!


“Is that the best you can do?”

What do the lottery, Will Smith, El Dorado, Edgar Allan Poe and the question: “Does the past determine the future?” all have in common?

Answer: A day in the life at the Acton Academy Middle School.

Our focus this next few weeks is celebrating all that we’ve accomplished, as we prepare for the spring.

We started the morning with a launch that contrasted lottery winners – who against all the odds win millions, and then all too often are miserable afterwards, with Will Smith, an actor who through hard work and “loving life” became an international star.

Why does someone choose a Hero’s Journey and “loving life?”  What causes someone else  to choose a “small life” instead?  Is it genetics?  Upbringing? Or personal choices?

The theme continued in history, reading the story of El Dorado and the Spanish conquistadors in South America, Edgar Allan Poe’s El Dorado story and how people can spend their lives seeking the ultimate treasure of gold, true love, happiness or success in vain – the lure of seeking gold/quick money/winning the lottery/ can lead to despair (at best.)

How do we help someone choose to “love life” rather than “mail it in?”  The Eagles decided it was asking each other: “Is that the best you can do?,” and not being satisfied until the answer is “yes.”

Inspiration, learning and storytelling

One of the biggest surprises about guiding Eagles has been the realization that people learn at a 10X rate when they are inspired, and hardly at all when simply instructed to do so.

Of course, this isn’t surprising when you think about your own learning.  Who cares about learning something simply because you are ordered to do so?  It also explains why most corporate training fails.  Training is for guinea pigs; human beings want to be free to accept or reject challenges, not to be trained..

As Guides, much of our energy goes into creating challenges that matter to Eagles. Difficult, meaningful – and yes, fun challenges.  Our goal is to “inspire,” a word whose root means “to breathe life into.”

Long lasting inspiration requires an important quest or journey – a clear path to a worthy Grail.   We need an end that matters to our Eagles and a map we can continually refer to update our progress as a group, as in “you are here” and “here’s where we are going together.”

Below is an example of such a map from this section of the gaming quest.

In the gaming project, Eagles have entered design mode.  To unlock the final challenge of designing a game for the Game Expo, this week students are working through a series of mini game creation challenges.

Yesterday they designed simple, single-player games of luck, and then manipulated the rules to make their games easier or harder to win.  Today they designed games of skill, then added an element of luck to these games to see which version playtesters enjoyed more.


Tomorrow Eagles will get a taste of online game design on Gamestar Mechanic.  Next week, students will choose whether they want to design an online or offline game for the Game Expo at the end of the session, at which they will pitch their games to parents and fellow eagles.

Is creating games a trivial skill?  Not in the 21st century.  Arguably, being able to weave a compelling story and keep people engaged may be one of the most important 21st century skills of all.

In storytelling, images can be even more important than text.  And in the Hero’s Journey story, dragons are not only possible, but to be expected.  That’s why Eagles have been working in Art on drawing dragons.  As they create, Eagles have been listening to “A Tale of Two Cities,” immersed in images drawn with words, as they create visual metaphors of the challenges each will face on their hero’s journey.

Here’s a sample of dragons in the making.


Inspiration, storytelling and maps – keys to learning in the 21st century.

from Luddites to Las Vegas

Are you more likely to be disappointed by your laptop or by your best friend?  Does it feel worse to be disappointed, or to disappoint someone else?  If you don’t keep yor commitments to the community, who are you letting down- your running partner or yourself?  Tough questions met with candor and courage by our brave Eagles.

So, back to that laptop… or not. The middle school experimented with 30 minutes of Luddite time, focusing on (analog) reading and writing, before plugging in for their SMART goals,daily check-in and their online work.  Collaboration reigned, writers brainstorming monster story plots and presenting drafts for informal peer critique, and math geniuses unleashing their exponential  powers of encouragement.


Sometimes it’s Yurt time, and the MS is always grateful when that time rolls around. Ms. Laura launched with the news that scientists have discovered a powerful correlation between happiness and gratitude.  After a quick survey of Thanksgiving fun facts, including info about the persuasive letter written to President Lincoln that helped make Thanksgiving a national holiday, students eagerly shared their family Thanksgiving traditions and had the opportunity to write their own letters of gratitude.  Those that chose to tackle History Challenge #2  took us back to ancient Rome for some detailed analysis of similarities and differences between their culture and our own, and earned a treasure from the Yurt Treasure Box for their efforts and courage.



Ms. Anna launched today’s probability quest with a video addressing the Monty Hall problem.  Initially as confused as the general populace, the Eagles has a collective Aha! / Eureka! moment as they absorbed the implications of the probability swap.  Then they got to play games to further their insights, poor things.  At the end of the day, Mr. Jeff asked:  If you take a chance and lose, is it gambling or investing?  What about if you take a chance and win?  What if you break even?

Eagles will have a chance to test their hypotheses tomorrow afternoon, when the classroom is transformed into a casino, complete with free sparkling cider for all players.  Do you have to be in it to win it?  Who knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, and can they back up their instincts with evidence?

And most importantly- who will hoarde/hold out out to cash their accrued chips in for an Eagle buck, and who will choose to spend them on donuts?  All bets are off, from this blog’s point of view.

dragons and an election

Tuesday mornings are core skills intensive, with an extra hour for students to work on foreign language, math, reading, and writing.  Today they also used some of that time to meet in their film crews as the deadline for getting their projects green-lighted for production approaches.


Art provided a change of pace as students worked on their dragon drawings and studied dragon mythology.

It was election day, and a buzz of nervous energy permeated the room especially during project time when Ms. Samantha presented the opportunity to vote for or against an extra 30 minutes of morning silence in the classroom.  Many students were surprised when, despite some preliminary polling that indicated a likely majority against that extra 30 minutes, the final count was in favor of a full hour of silence during core skills.  Lesson learned:  a poll is a snapshot of the present rather than an accurate predictor of the future.

Self-directed, self-aware

Students entered the classroom to find a new desk arrangement, inspired by their own ideas about reducing distraction and enhancing productivity.  This tool served them well as they applied themselves to core skills with quiet intensity (well, not so quiet after about an hour when the Rosetta Stone headphones went on… but they quickly worked out a plan that allowed the few who weren’t doing foreign language learning to still have the quiet they wanted for their own goal-striving).

PE offered a well-timed physical break.  After the tough (but getting a little easier as we get a lot stronger) Acton Insanity work-out, volleyball was a chance to merge focus and sweat into a happy competition.

History came alive in the yurt post-lunch, when a special guest archeologist (and Acton mom!) inspired the Eagles with tales from her own Hero’s Journey, digging up the past to try to solve the ongoing mystery of pre-literate human culture.

During Project Time students were challenged by the probability quest projects as well as the basic human problem of sharing space and addressing your own needs without compromising those of your community.  “I’m really disappointed in the way I acted,” one student volunteered during a quick critique session on classroom behavior during the Quests.  (Her offense? Getting a little too enthusiastic about probability assessment!)

“This will help me later in life, when I’m trying to decide whether to take a risk,” another offered unprompted, as the lessons learned debriefing moved from behavior critique to real world application of concepts.

Last but far from least, this wonderful group of young adults modeled curiosity, self-management, and terrific discussion and critique skills for a young visitor who skipped kindergarten to learn more about what happens in a real middle school (and find out what the heck his mom does all day)- and were the most gracious hosts imaginable.  Go Eagles!!Image

Integration and Accountability

Many people ask how we integrate the disparate parts of a day into a single narrative.

Here’s an example:

We launched our morning huddle with a video clip of Susan Boyle, the surprising singer who bravely overwhelmed skeptics with her powerful voice on the 2009 version of Britain’s.  The point?  That following your dream requires perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Each Eagle then contributed an “imagine this” scenario, playing the part of the hero in his or her special moment (like winning the Super Bowl or debuting on Broadway.)

Next we focused on SMART goals for the morning in Core Skills; listened to Ms. Samantha’s “trial and error” hero story; finished self portraits in Art and continued with the Game Lab 3D work on probabilities and decision trees.

Ms. Samantha’s Hero Story.

At the final huddle, all this was wrapped into a discussion about using probabilities and decision trees, the need to adjust (but not abandon) our dreams as life happens – for example, a severe knee injury might require you to become an NFL team owner instead of an NFL quarterback  — and how our work with SMART goals in Core Skills not only imbed perseverance as a habit, but provides basic skills to fall back on when life throws us a curve.

All of this served  as a reminder that our Eagles need to be weighing what type of Apprenticeship they want to test in the spring.

Above, the decision tree used at day;s end that links an Eagles gifts, joy and opportunities to his or her dreams for tomorrow, providing a visual map of how life can force us to adapt.

Finally, we are adding even more accountability and consequences to the mix, so be prepared to hear some squawks.

Above – a more obvious signalling device to help students understand which “discussion mode is in effect: “red” is full focus; “yellow” collaboration; “green” free time.

The first five weeks we focused on building the community – making it a gathering no one ever wants to miss.  Then we added SMART and Excellence goals to encourage the habit of hard work.  Soon the few students who are still struggling with committing completely to day to day work will find themselves increasingly removed — literally hell for middle schoolers – until they find the focus needed to excel.

Because at Acton Academy, we are very serious about the learning covenants that our Eagles and Guides signed.

Excellence Goals and History-in-the-Yurt

We started today with a clip from “Karate Kid” about mastery, as a way to launch our new Excellence Goals.

SMART goals are terrific for daily and weekly progress; Excellence Goals are for bigger and longer term objectives, the multi-week commitments and milestones required to master a skill or deeply imbed a habit.   For example: a SMART goal would help you learn a few words of Spanish; an Excellence Goal would be to work for twelve weeks on Rosetta Stone to be able to read Don Quixote in Spanish.

We started today by setting our SMART goals for the week. By Wednesday, each Eagle also will have set a longer term Excellence Goal in vocabulary; handwriting; typing; a Rosetta Language or the Independent Learner or Running Partner badges.

During project time, Ms Anna introduced Decision Chains as another problem solving tool.

In the most exciting development of the day, Ms Laura launched History-in-the-Yurt, which required each Eagle to submit their favorite “big question” about history.

What’s a Yurt? You’ll have to ask an Eagle to find out.

Striving for Excellence and Galileo Galilei’s Trial

Our Eagles love learning and being with each other.  Now it’s time to aspire to excellence.

Inspired by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s NutureShock and Ron Berman’s An Ethic of Excellence, we are turning over even more responsibility for managing the learning environment to the three member Council and the Eagles themselves, but providing them with language to hold each other accountable (see below):

We also introduced a new accountability system run completely by the students themselves:

In Core Skills, students began planning and executing their Khan Academy lessons for the next nine weeks, by which time we expect every AA MS student to have demonstrated mastery in arithmetic and the other AA Elementary School Math skills (many students already have accelerated past this.) Ms Abigail continued guiding students in writing the storyline for their the “Past/Future” film project.

Ms Zoey continued the self portrait project in Art.

Ms Anna introduce the Galileo Trial debate, where over the next several days Eagles will research and assume roles to recreate Galileo’s dilemma of whether to advance or abandon his heliocentric paradigm, with real world consequences for all – either lost freedom for Galileo and his friends (lost free time) or lost riches for the Church (a loss of chocolate coins.)

Researching the trial of Galileo.

Lots of Action

Lots of action at Acton Academy today.  First, in core skills time, catching up on the initial Hero’s Journey exercises, Khan Academy and journaling about yesterday’s personal discoveries concerning “time perspectives” (past/present/future and optimistic/pessimistic.)

Notice how some students prefer working on core skills in groups; others solo.

As Eagle’s contemplate signing the “contract of promises” and “rules of engagement” that they created that will govern their learning community, there’s been a great deal of energy around the election of the three Council Members (a governance system they designed) next week.

Our three Thomas Jefferson’s are shown below, making final adjustments in advance of tomorrow’s ratification of the governing documents.

Ms. Zoey again had the students working on portrait painting just before lunch.

After lunch, during project time we opened with an intense Hero’s Journey session about “beginning with the end in mind” where Eagles imagined they had just died and contemplated this in darkness for five minutes before beginning to draft their eulogies and epitaphs.

The remainder of project time was spent discovering each student’s learning style (auditory; visual; tactile) and “love language” (how they feel treasured), which are the start of a series of challenges to explore what type of leaders they want to elect.

Self-Governance, Art, and Time

After a morning of Core Skills work, the Eagles rearranged their classroom to make room for Art.  Using rulers and mechanical pencils, they sketched grids to transfer photos of their past selves onto heavy-weight, pro-grade paper.  You’ll view their finished pastel drawings at an exhibit in December at Amy’s Ice Cream- double yum.

Lunch in the glorious outdoors, then Eagles returned to their work tables for an energetic discussion on self-governance.  This intense group interaction segued into introspection as they completed the Time Paradox test, gaining insight into their individual Time Perspectives- how they perceive their pasts, their presents, and their futures.  Ask them about their scores, and what they learned from the experience.  You may even chose to take the test yourselves- find it at

September 4th – Observations

Attached are some photos from the day, starting from the first hero’s walk (notice the first photo of Coach Carpenter on the lower left!

Thank you to Ms. Abigail and Ellie for these observations:

– Ellie took ownership of her new space and acted as a community-minded running buddy by being the first to volunteer to oversee/brainstorm room cleaning tasks

-Jack showed good leadership and listening skills when he volunteered to take a turn moderating the question session.

-Charlie, during art, relayed a story he’d read (about a girl who claimed her eyes were the biggest things in the world because they could contain everything she’s seen) that added dimension to the task at hand.

– Ellie would like to add that Pace was a great Socratic discussion leader during the part of the day when we broke into two groups to ask and answer questions from the question  box