Category Archives: Core Skills

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.

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.



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.


A Famous Film Critic

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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.


Extracurricular Activities at Acton Academy

“What about ‘socialization’ at such a small school?”

It’s a question that makes  those of us in non-traditional schools cringe.  So being in a classroom with thirty students, all the same age, being fed information in a factory-like assembly line is an approximation for the real world?  Hardly.

We don’t have a massive football stadium or a large marching band.  No pep rallies either. Nor will we have a prom, unless the Eagles decide to throw one.    In fact, that’s the secret to all of our extra-curricular activities: they are organized and run by the Eagles and parents.

Here’s a partial list of the post-school activities we’ve sponsored at Acton:

  • The Children’s Business Fair
  • Computer Coding Club
  • Spanish Club
  • Golf Club
  • Running Club
  • Speaker’s Club
  • Chess Club
  • Lego’s Mindstorm Robotics Club
  • Film club
  • Tennis club

These are just the events led by the Acton community, and doesn’t count citywide club sports or scores of other after-school challenges in music, sports and other areas pursued individually or in small groups by Eagles, or the many home school Co-op programs open to Eagles.

No, we’re unlikely to field a State  Championship Football team, much to the chagrin of some of our middle school boys.  But at least most won’t discover the hard way that there were only eleven starters on offense when our 2,564 student neighbor recently won the district playoffs.

Socialization?  Far better to live in a tight knit, multi-age community, arranging your own fun, all the while preparing for world changing apprenticeships that will deliver real world skills.


Sentence Ninjas versus Sentence Robots

This session we started what will be a continuing series on the Six Traits of Writing: Ideas; Organizing Ideas; Sentence Fluency; Voice; Word Choice and Conventions (Grammar.)

Our long term goal is to equip Eagles to write clearly, convincingly and beautifully, each with an original voice that can be tuned for different audiences and genres.   We want to inspire Communication Ninjas emboldened by Ninjato Tools – named after the swords ninjas wield  — rather than Language Robots, who see each tool as a hard and fast rule.

For example, our focus this week is on Brevity in Sentence Fluency.

A Sentence Robot hears a suggestion like “try short sentences” as a hard and fast rule, and makes every sentence short.  A Sentence Ninja uses sentence crafting tools to tease out and clarify ideas from a sentence, and then decides whether to string ideas together in a rhythmic way or let some ideas stand alone.

Eagles worked in groups of six on Tuesday, breaking a handful of long sentences into individual ideas.  Some then recombined the ideas; others let them stand alone, with much arguing and discussion about which approach yielded the best results.

For example, Eagles reworked this sentence: “I killed him even though didn’t want to because he gave me no choice.”

Some struggled before one Eagle identified the first idea as: “I killed him.”

An Eagle who was passionate about film, argued for this version: “I killed him even though I didn’t want to.  He gave me no choice,” before realizing that no character would ever speak this way.

This led to a more pleasing revision: “I killed him.  I didn’t want to; he gave me no choice.”

Eagles practiced the following steps:

  • Ninjato Brevity move #1: Break down into exactly one idea per sentence.
  • Ninjato Brevity move #2: Remove unnecessary words.
  • Ninjato Brevity move #3: Recombine in a way that delivers ideas in a logically powerful and/or rhythmically beautiful form.

Then Eagles performed surgery on the following sentence, written by a Guide as part of the new Badge Requirements: “Do your best work and be sure to contribute details from your own life and examples and quotes from the lives of heroes you respect because these apprenticeship pieces will go into your Apprenticeship PLP and be part of your first Apprenticeship Badge.”

Why not give it a try yourself, and see if you qualify as a Sentence Ninja?

The Deep Book Badges

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

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

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

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

The initial criteria include:

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

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

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

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

The review includes:

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

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

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

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

Below is an excerpt from a recent pitch:

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

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

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

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

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

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


How to Land a World Changing Adventure

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

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

Dear Ms. Cxxxxxxxx, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Very sincerely,

Reese Youngblood 

(Reprinted with permission from Reese and her parents.)

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

Here’s the reply Reese received:

Hello, dear Reese,

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

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

 Thank you!


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

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

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



Sugata Mitra, SOLES and Acton Academy


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

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


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

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

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

He started with a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Rube Goldberg Celebration of Scientific Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



What constitutes “help” in Math?

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We haven’t spent one minute “teaching” math. Not one minute.  So far, Eagles have learned math from Khan Academy; ST Math; Dreambox; Manga High; ALEX and other game based, adaptive programs.

Eagles have been progressing through Pre-Algebra at a rapid rate. One Eagle has finished most of Pre-Algebra; Algebra; Trigonometry and Geometry in six months.  At this rate, she will master twelve years of traditional school math in less than one year.

Eagles are free to help each other, as long as they stay in “Socratic Mode,” asking questions but not giving answers.

Lately, a bit of controversy has arisen, and a flurry of emails.  The Council ruled (unilaterally) that even Socratic help cannot be offered during the final Khan Mastery Quiz, so that each person proves they have mastered the material before moving on.  Others believe Socratic help is within the student contract.

Here are excerpts from the back and forth on email:

From a Council Member:

A lot of people have been complaining about the new Khan rules, but I will tell you why they are necessary.

If you have heard of the rubber band theory, good for you. If you haven’t, it’s this:

 When you learn something, a mental rubber band forms around that skill in the brain, even if you get it with help. But from there on, if someone helps you on the problem, (even socratic help, Ben!)  that rubber band does not form another one. But if you do it on your own, another rubber band forms. And you get better and better.

The reason Council made this rule, is so those rubber bands form, and you can go into calculus knowing what you’re doing. Now a lot of people might say that it’s their problem, and it’s fine, and they will have problems, and this school gives emphasis on one another helping each other, not the Guides. But something our school focuses even more strongly on, is best work. If you go into calculus not knowing what you are doing. 

That is also why I refrain from helping people on their last problem, because if they have already gotten 4 problems correct by guesstimating, than they won’t understand the last one, no matter how Socratically you explain, that rubber band will not form.  

Another Eagle supported the Council:

I wouldn’t go with the easy way out in this case… remember how none of us really learned everything we did last year on Khan? It was because we would get someone to help us on a skill and move on. Check it off, and forget. That obviously was not the correct way to approach Khan.

A third Eagle disagreed:

Socratic help is perfectly fine, what isn’t fine is when people give the answers; which is a whole different problem.

A forth Eagle reported:

Math is getting harder, so my parents can’t help me as much.

And finally:

When I was in second grade (at a different school) I learned complicated algebra, by using a bead chain system.  The bead chains were just a way to help me understand the problems better.  BUT, when I got to third grade and I had come to Acton, the bead chains were not there, so I forgot how to do that complicated algebra. The bead chains were just a way to help me understand it better, just like Socratic help, but since they were not there I forgot how to do that type of math and I had to learn it all over again.  That is why you need to learn it by yourself.

This is a powerful view into how learning really works in a community.  An open and honest debate about standards.  A discussion of what types of assistance help and which hurt.  Deep insights concerning the effort required to grow.

There will be further bumps in the road. Before long, Eagles may need to band together in small groups to watch Khan videos in sequence, as the math becomes more difficult.  Several are making plans to do so already, and Eagles no doubt will have to reach beyond Khan for even better resources.

But in the end, they will understand math far more deeply than students from a traditional classroom, because they own the process.  No doubt, they will have learned a great deal more about grit and learning as well.

Exhibitions and Eagles: “May I please do more work?”

This week our Eagles will host an exhibition, including each performing a “Four Minute Speech in the Shoes of a Scientific Hero” in front of a roomful of adults.

Recently several Eagles requested to change the speech criteria to “no less than four minutes and up to eight minutes.”  Quite a few had done so much research that they wanted more time to tell their hero’s story.

So what did we do? After all, Guides don’t answer questions.

We decided to turn the organization of the entire exhibition to the Eagles.  The only two constraints:

(1) The total time could not exceed one hour, out of  respect for our guests, and

(2) Speeches will be judged on “value per minute,” to encourage conciseness.

Speak up. Get more responsibility. Just like the real world.


A Pitch Session

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How do we decide whether the quality of an Eagle’s work is ready for an Exhibition?

Answer: the Eagle has to pitch to his or her studiomates, requesting a “green light” to proceed.  This session’s Four Minute Speech; the 30 Second Video and Rube Goldberg device each required a separate pitch.

What follows a pitch?  First, a warm/cool critique, offering affirmation and suggestions for improvement.  Then, a vote.

What if the green light approval is denied?  You go back to the drawing board, make improvements, and try again.  That’s what heroes do when they fail: they get back up, dust themselves off, and get back to work.



Hungry for a meaty BTL?

photoBTL (Between the Lines) is a mentor text literary analysis discussion format designed, led (and named) by Acton Eagles.  Below are the guidelines the MS Eagles came up:

Purpose of BTL:Through reading and discussion, analyze mentor texts (chosen by Eagles in the genre of their current writing project) to lift the curtain on the secrets of masterful writing.

Format: Small group discussions led by Eagles who pitched a text and persuaded a minimum of 3 others to sign on.

Points: 5 pts if you pitch, 20 pts if you lead a discussion (and are ranked an average of 4 or higher by your group), 10 pts if you participate. OPTED OUT on your SMART goals sheet if you opt out.

Pitching: Sign up by Friday to pitch on Monday.  A qualifying excerpt or text must:
– stay within the genre you are writing in (this session, biography/ autobiography)
– be no longer than one chapter, but as short as one paragraph
– stand alone and convey at least one complete idea
– be an example of masterful writing (person who chose the text must be prepared to defend their decision)

Participating in a BTL: To sign up as a discussion participant, you must agree to:
– read text at least 2x
– read and think about the discussion Q’s provided
– Come up with one new question of your own about the author’s writing style or the craft of writing

Leading a BTL: BTL discussion leaders will ask questions designed to:
– deepen understanding of the text
– help the reader understand the writer’s technique and intentions
– reflect back onto the Eagles’ own writing with an eye towards improving their skills

In this week’s pitching session,  three Eagles showed their powers of 30-second persuasion, sharing a sampling of their discussion questions and each using their own unique hook.  One touted the length of his mentor text excerpt: “Only one paragraph!  Much shorter than the others!”.   Another handed out “free” samples  as teasers.  The third offered a warning:  “This excerpt is rated PG due to adult language!”. (Caveat to parents:  the subject is Clara Barton, so it’s probably not too risqué).


While those hooks may have helped, don’t be fooled- it was the power of the questions that lured participants to sign up.  The Eagles love a meaty discussion and will not tolerate a lack of substance in their BTLs!

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.

Protecting Intentionality During Quiet Core Skills Time

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Silent Core Skills time at Acton Academy means exactly that – a time of deep individual work that isn’t distracted by noise or activity in the studio.  How do we protect such times of “flow,” when the right challenge can lead to deep learning at a rapid clip?

Of course, all intentionality in the studio begins with the Eagle to Eagle covenants and an Eagle Buck system that lets Eagles set and uphold the standards. Without a serious buy-in by all, there is no spontaneous order.

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But even with this, protecting individual work time during Silent Core Skills isn’t easy.  During Silent Core Skills time, you can hear a pen drop in the studio – literally.  So even the smallest creak becomes a distraction.  So we have “white noise machines” that help to block out distractions.

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Sometimes minor distractions can build, until all intentionality breaks down.  Here, the Yacker Tracker – a listening device that can be set to trigger an alarm when a pre-set decibel level is breached – is a big help.  The decibel level is at a whisper for Silent Core Skills and slightly higher for Collaboration time; if the alarm goes off, the person who triggered it owes an Eagle Buck.

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Finally, when all intentionality is lost, we can depend on our Elementary Eagle neighbors below to deliver a Red Card, meaning we’ve disturbed the rights of the Elementary Eagles to learn without being distracted.  A Red Card costs the Middle School community 24 Eagle Bucks.

Layers of habit, protocol and individual and community rights, developed by Eagles, with a little help from technology.  It’s one set of secrets as to why Eagles can learn at a 10X rate when engaged and in flow.

Math without Math Teachers

Guides have not taught any math in Acton Academy Middle School; not a single minute.

Almost every Eagle is on the Calculus track; many are moving much faster.

One thirteen year old Eagle has conquered 443 of the 540 possible Khan skills since September.  To put that into perspective, she’s mastered Pre-Algebra; Algebra; Geometry; Trigonometry and part of Pre-Calculus in a little over six months.   at this pace, she’ll be finished with Calculus by the end of summer.

Again – at this pace she will have mastered – meaning she has proven her competence – in twelve years of traditional school math in less than a year.  Can you imagine how bored this Eagle would have been in a normal school?

Her parents write:

We have recently signed on as parents on Khan’s site.  Looking at the hours that xxxxxx spends working on her Math, we know many of those  skills are not easy to master.   Some took her more than 50+ times of trying .  One skill took her 150 times.  We asked her why she did not ask for  help, xxxx said  “I want to learn it on my own”.   I am sure she knows how to do that problem by heart by the time she got it correctly.   

We think Khan is a cool Math site!  

We think so too.  Especially for hard charging heroes who plan to change the world.

Our blog has been kidnapped

Hi Acton Middle School Parents.  The PE department is taking over your blog! today. (One time only).

You might have heard from your Eagle that we are doing things a little differently in PE than we have in the past.  I thought I’d lay out for you the new curriculum, along with the reasons behind it.

The basics:  The class is broken up into three pods of 8, which will rotate every few sessions. On Mondays each pod competes in a sport (ultimate frisbee), and on Thursdays they focus on conditioning.

The big difference?  Coach Carpenter spends most of the class sitting on his duff, and the EAGLES lead the class.

How does this work?  At the end of every Thursday class, each pod elects a leader for the following week.  Leaders may not be selected twice until every one has led once.

On Mondays, leaders are responsible for:

  1. Helping me lead their pod in the warmup (I’m still active in this to ensure everyone warms up sufficiently).
  2. Selecting teams (within their pod) for the sport and changing them up as needed to ensure fairness.
  3. Keeping score, enforcing rules, and settling disputes (a biggie).
  4. Leading the good sport of the day discussion, and selecting that person.

On Thursdays, in addition to leading the warmup leaders will be responsible for:

  1. Designing the conditioning class for their pod, using the lessons they’ve learned from Coach Carrozza and myself over the last year and a half.  Each leader is free to design their own conditioning class within each pod (ie. there could be three different programs going on). I will be available for them to help them design a plan if they wish, but only if they ask at least two days ahead of time (not during class).
  2. Leading the discussion to choose next week’s leader, and selecting that person.

My goal for this is to increase each Eagle’s experience and skills in:

  • Leadership
  • Being accountable to their pod/providing constructive criticism
  • Public speaking/discussion leading
  • Sportsmanship
  • Fitness levels
  • Learning to Coach
  • Learning and increasing skills in a new sport.

At the end of the session we will have a three-way pod tournament in ultimate Frisbee, with the winning team to play the Acton guides.  This should be fun, and so far seems to be sufficient motivation for the teams to improve.

Again, my role during class is primarily to be a timekeeper (i.e. let them know when they need to transition, etc.), and to ensure their safety. And I’ll pick the music 🙂

So how did this work out the first session?

Sometimes great.  Sometimes not so great.  But we end every session with the Eagles providing constructive criticism to their leader, explaining what they thought went great, and what could use improvement.  It has been INCREDIBLE to watch the eagles grow during this first session, and to see how seriously they are taking their responsibilities.  I look forward to seeing how much further they grow the rest of the year.

And I really look forward to beating them in ultimate Frisbee at the end of next session.

Thank you,

Coach Carpenter

Writing in The Harsh Light of Day

Remember that special English teacher who taught you to write?   How he or she labored to edit papers, filling the margins with red scribbles?  A noble effort, but one with limited scalability.  Also too easy for weaker writers to hide in the shadows until the waves of red ink subsided.

How do we encourage Eagles at Acton Academy to improve their writing skills, without involving an adult?  By having a community where each Eagle is expected to become a strong writer, and each Eagle’s writing is posted for all to see.

We begin with a challenging question at 9 AM Monday morning. For example:

You are a noted astrophysicist who discovers a large asteroid is likely to destroy earth in 30 days.  Will you:

  • Spend time with your spouse and ten and twelve year old children, who you have neglected because of your career;
  • Dig deeply into your spiritual life and whether God and an afterlife exist; or
  • Answer the President’s call to help launch a missile to destroy the asteroid, even though you believe this is a futile effort?

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By Tuesday afternoon, first drafts begin to go up on a board, without a name attached.  Someone from your Writing Group will choose your paper to critique, offering specific advice after learning about a new topic such as “strong opening sentences” or “choosing vivid verbs.”  Specific lessons about grammar come from an online program, ironically called “No Red Ink.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Writing Groups assemble and someone reads your paper aloud, as each team member offers “warm” and “cool” verbal critique, to add to the written critique you’ve received.

Now it’s time for revision and perhaps a pass through an automatic grammar checking program, imperfect but a good start.  Next drafts must be posted by noon on Friday, with your name attached.  You read your final draft aloud to your group, and a winner is chosen.  The best work is read aloud to the entire class, and a Journal contest winner is chosen for the week.

If this is a particularly important paper, it may be revisited and polished next week as well.

Notice that your work always is posted for all to see.  You and others must walk past it every day.  Many pause to read the writing of others.  It’s almost impossible to resist comparing your writing and looking for ways to improve.

Learning to write well, in community, through hard work and revision, with no adult intervention.  No red ink required.



Zombie Tag Distraction

Building a self sustaining learning community is difficult.

Everyone begins with good intentions, but like entropy,intentionality  almost always moves towards disorder.  All will be diligently working, and then one bored studio-mate begins to amble about, distracting others.  Like a game of Zombie-Tag, each person who is infected infects others, and attention and work ethic quickly crumble.

How do we reverse this entropy of learning potential without becoming controlling teachers?  By clarifying rights and privileges, for Guides are allowed to insist that the covenants set by Eagles should be respected.

Eagles have the right to work individually and quietly on Core Skills, to meditate or even rest.    Soon, however, most hit a flat spot with individual work.  The going gets tough; an individual becomes tired or bored.  He or she soon seeks the company of others.

Chance social interaction is like a quick sugar high, a cheap boost of energy.  And while Eagles have the right to work hard individually or even to be bored, they do not have the right to distract others.

Middle Schoolers live for community.  In fact, the love of community is far more motivating than the love of learning.    That means that the privilege of collaborating can be used to encourage serious work.

Yet collaboration, poorly defined, becomes little more than hanging out with friends and frittering away time.  Frittering away time is not a habit for heroes who want to change the world.   So collaboration must be tightly defined as individuals, working toward a specific measurable goal, for a set period of time.  Added to this antidote to bolster intentionality are weekly SMART goals and Long Term goals that cannot be adjusted on a whim.

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we have created a new system to encourage and support these habits.

A Green Card means you have earned morning and afternoon breaks by being current with SMART goals (set and checked) and have reached your weekly Core Skills goals (reading, writing and math.)   A  Yellow Card means you have been respecting the rights of others to work without being distracted, and thus can collaborate with others if your are doing so in a SMART way.

Will this new approach work?  Likely, only for a while.  Yet it seems every step towards transparency and accountability more deeply imbeds the habits of grit and perseverance that will serve our young heroes well, and prepare them to create even more powerful systems themselves.


Learning to Write

In a traditional school, learning to write means a paper filled with red marks; reading a textbook on grammar; or listening to an adult drone on and on about Faulkner (the distorted wah, wah, wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher comes to mind.)

At Acton Academy, the first step towards becoming a writer is developing a love of reading.  Next comes journaling: getting observations, thoughts and feelings on paper to share with others.   Group critique with warm and cool feedback serves as a catalyst for the difficult art of revision.

Yet, this somehow feels incomplete.  At some point a writer needs to hone her or his word crafting skills.   No Red Ink is an interactive program that helps with grammar, as do the best computer grammar checkers, but this is more about art than convention.

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So we asked each Eagle to choose a specific type of word to research – a pronoun or adjective or even more specific term.   Then to prepare a Prezi celebrating the word.

Pods of eight shared their creations, and voted on the two best presentations from each group.  The semi-finalists from each pod shared with the entire studio.

The result – lots of enthusiasm. Full coverage of every type of word, several times over.  Energy; sharing with peers and more finely honed tools: a fertile soil for cultivating powerful writers.

Far more powerful than a textbook, red marks or a droning adult.


Calling Google, Amazon and Apple

Eagles seeking an apprenticeship with  Google , Amazon or Apple likely will be given a difficult, open ended problem, like: “How many cows are in Canada?”

It’s not the answer that matters, but the quality of the thinking.

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On Friday Eagles were challenged with a difficult physics problem.  If given the experimental set up above, and d2 (the distance of the cup), can you solve for h1, the height from which to drop the ball?

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No trial and error experiments were allowed.  No equations or cookbook theories were offered. Eagles had only four tries at three different d2 distances, and each try was expensive (25 pts) relative to the payoff (100 pts.)

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All week we worked on physics experiments that involved Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Four Fundamental Forces and the Scientific Method.  Careful observation and a lot of thought might have led one college student out of a hundred to the right approach for Friday’s competition, and an equation to solve this problem, using theory alone.

Can you solve it? (Hint – consider horizontal velocity and gravity separately.)

No Eagle came up with the perfect solution.  But many theories were proposed and tested.  Lots of frustration. Human error turned out to be important. So did working effectively as a team.  Two teams came close enough that their theories helped predict h1 during the competition.

In other words, our Eagles learned a lot about how science really works, not how it works in textbook experiments.  When you become a hero charged with launching real rockets, in the real world, this distinction will make all the difference.

Who knows, it might even land an apprenticeship with a private space entrepreneur like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson or Elon Musk.

From a Bestselling Book to the Academy Awards

Frank Eakin and his family rediscovered the nineteenth book 12 Years as a Slave and helped turn it into an award winning movie.

12 years

On Friday Frank Eakin shared his Hero’s Story with our middle school Eagles via Skype, giving tips such as:

  • Make sure your book is different and stands out.  99% of books don’t sell more than 1,000 copies.
  • The right cover art and extras help a book sell itself.
  • Use inexpensive E-book editions to encourage first adopters.
  • Having a celebrity like Brad Pitt or Louis Gossett Jr. take an interest in your project can help spread the word, without advertising.

Maybe one day soon we’ll be walking down the red carpet with one of our Eagles!

Eagles visit a Shark Tank

Eagles are working in teams to write, produce and sell a “bestselling book” in less than nine weeks.  A daunting challenge.

Launching the challenge several weeks ago was entrepreneur Clint Greenleaf, whose experimentation as an author led to building a self-publishing empire.

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Today entrepreneur Yuen Yung, famous for securing $1 million for his How Do You Roll sushi empire on Shark Tank, arrived to hear publishing pitches from the Eagles.

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As requested, Yuen was tough, peppering the Eagles with questions about customers and Unit Economics.  The performances were – shall we say – uneven.  Eagles know they have a lot of work to do in the next month.  But they were brave enough to pitch, and that matters a lot.

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Afterwards Yuen said: “Wow. I would have never been able to do that at their age.”

We bet he could have – at Acton Academy.

The Eagles take on the Shark Tank – and live to fight another day!

What’s a parent to do? Part II

Your Eagle won’t tell you much about school.

But you want to make sure he’s keeping up.  You’ve learned to log into Khan Academy, No Red Ink, Newsela and other internet based programs, but what else can you do?

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Here’s an idea: Review your Eagle’s SMART goals every week.

SMART goals – Specific; Measurable; Attainable; Results oriented and Time-bound goals are a deeply imbedded part of our learning community.  Eagles set these goals each Monday, along with their Running Partner, and tally up the points earned at the end of the week.

Use the tracker to ask deeper, more specific questions – about books read; Khan skills mastered and progress on Quests.  The number of points scored or goals achieved in any one week aren’t important – but setting and reaching goals is an important lifelong habit for heroes who want to change the world.

Plus, you can add even more by sifting through several weeks worth of SMART goals, and helping your Eagle spot longer term areas of interest and skills.

In many ways, SMART goals over a long period of time deliver two of the most gifts we can give as parents: solid process skills and perspective.

For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Legend has it when Earnest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in six words, he picked up a cocktail napkin and wrote: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

At once, the mind races with questions.

Today, as part of revising their Bestselling Books, we asked our Eagles to do something similar. In six words or less, answer each of the following:

1. I promise my book will: _____________

2. You should believe me because: ______________

3. The main sub-points (chapters) of my book are:

  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________
  • _________________________

4. The order in which they are arranged is ___________ because _______________________.

5. Each chapter is further subdivided into ________________, then ________________, then ________________, then ______________ because ______________.

Brainstorming is important.  So is letting the words flow onto paper, as part of a rough draft.  But eventually you must organize your thoughts so the real writing can begin.

For this, clarity is everything. (Five words.)

Brevity, a close second.  (Four words.)

Critiquing a Bestselling Book

Today was our first major peer critique of the bestselling book project.

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Eagles have brainstormed ideas; chosen a topic and finished (most of) a rough draft. Next comes the hard part, revision, where main points must be clarified, ordered, deleted and supplemented.

Revision is the most difficult part of writing, more like major surgery as opposed to the finer shaping and tucking that occurs while editing.

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If you a Guide, now is when your palms get sweaty.  Have we asked too much?  After all, it’s crazy to expect middle schoolers to write, produce and sell a book in an eight week period. Right?

Today the Eagles formed into three to four student critique groups.  Each was asked to force rank each rough draft based on the following criteria:

  1. Main point: The main point or question of the book is crystal clear and stated in the introduction.
  2. Chapters: Each main point or question clearly and seriously contributes to the overall  main point.
  3. The order of the chapters makes sense.
  4. There are enough facts, quotes and stories to back up the main points in each chapter.
  5. The perspective (first, second or third person); tense (past, present, future, other) and mood are consistent.
  6. The introduction: immediately engages me; makes the audience and main point or question clear by making a promise and describes the journey we will go on together (the main points.)  The conclusion restates the main point or question; describes the journey we have gone on (main points) and makes a persuasive case that the promise has been fulfilled.

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Some books were surprisingly bad. No central point. Little organization. Evidence of wholesale “cutting and pasting.” (This brought forth a spirited discussion about plagiarism.)

These will improve.

Other books were surprisingly good. Original. Witty.  In need of work, but with some revisions and refining, viable projects.

How will all of this end?  That’s a very good question.

What is a Friday Adventure?

Friday Adventures are special events tied to the weekly Quests.  For example, last week’s Friday adventure was to go to the Bookpeople bookstore, and do rapid prototyping research to see how Eagles could improve the cover, title or organization of their Bestselling Books.

While Eagles may love the “adventure” – being able to go somewhere with their studio-mates, each outing also delivers a serious entrepreneurial lesson.

In order to qualify for a Friday adventure, you must self certify that you have completed the  fundamental challenges from the weekly Challenge Envelope, and delivered your “best work.”  If you miss earning a Friday adventure, the outings can be completed later with a classmate or friend – you just miss out on the fun of going with the group.

What is this week’s adventure?  We can’t tell you, because this week’s Friday Adventure won’t be announced until later this morning, adding more intrigue and (hopefully) motivation.

One hint: It will involve the question: “Is that the best you can do?”

Stay tuned.

Freedom and Accountability Part II

James Madison wrote in Federalist 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Our middle schoolers are no angels, at least not all the time.  But they are an impressive group of young men and women, learning to govern each other with a grace and dignity that few adults could match.

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Today we had a model Town Hall meeting: the choices well framed; each welcomed to speak; the rules of engagement enforced.

Starting next week, we’ll experiment with another self-accountability experiment, and see how it affects motivation.

First each Eagle will certify which weekly challenges from he or she has completed.  Then the Council randomly will draw one computerized deliverable (like Khan Academy) and another non-computerized deliverable (like a journal entry.) Each Eagle will be asked to publicly post his or her results for these deliverables and self rank whether the contribution was in the lower, middle or bottom part of the class.

There is no penalty for choosing not to complete a challenge, except the loss of points towards Eagle Bucks, and possibly missing the weekly adventure, if that specific deliverable was required to qualify.

The penalty for certifying you have completed a deliverable and done “your best work” if it’s obvious you haven’t, will be being sent home, no questions asked, since this is a serious violation of the community honor code.

Next week we elect a new Council, as other Eagles earn a chance to lead.  This Council will be missed.

Self-Reporting and Accountability

We trust our Eagles to report whether or not they have completed a challenge and done their “best work.”  Human beings, however, are fallible, especially when given too much to do, in too little time, with special adventures being offered for delivering everything on time.

Last week we decided to focus on the importance of self reporting, and accidentally created a firestorm of confusion.

We paid special attention last week to self reporting in Socratic discussions, stressing the importance of reporting accurately and turning in “the best work you can do.”  On Friday, when it came time to qualify for this week’s special adventure, we read the checklist of deliverables item by item, asking Eagles to sit if they had missed an item.  Many Eagles sat down, acknowledging that they hadn’t completed one task or another, understandable, given the workload they’ve been under.  By the end, fifteen or so Eagles had certified that they had completed all the items.

Afterwards, a Guide checked the No Red Ink program and noticed that five of those who reported they had scored a 90 or above on this week’s quiz had not achieved this goal, according to the program’s dashboard.

A Council meeting was called, and the Council agreed that the misreporting was serious enough that the five Eagles would be asked to remain home on Monday, and decided to inform each privately to avoid embarrassment.

After the Eagles were informed, one Eagle showed one Guide a screen shot that showed he/she had scored a 100 and the dashboard had not accurately captured his/her score.  Another Eagle swore that he/she had finished with a 90, but the dashboard showed otherwise.  A third Eagle claimed to have accidentally done the wrong test and the dashboard confirmed that the Eagle had scored a 100, but on the wrong quiz.   The last two Eagles, as far as we know, did not lodge an immediate appeal.  Later, one would report that he/she had scored a 90.

At this point, with only a few minutes before Friday’s field trip adventure would begin, there was mass confusion.  It is important to note that there were several categories of errors: (1) An apparent technical glitch in the program; (2) A possible error in submitting a final score, either by the program or an Eagle not hitting “submit;” (3) An Eagle who had done the wrong test but accurately reported his/her score;  (4) An Eagle who reported a 90 but had no independent verification; and (5) One Eagle who said he/she just failed to listen/read carefully enough.

Which of these were “the dog ate my homework” errors; which were forgivable and which were more serious lapses?

Because of all the confusion and ambiguity, the Council voted over the weekend that all Eagles will be invited back to campus on Monday, and this incident will be put behind us.

Further investigation this weekend suggests that while some Eagles may have been genuinely confused, the computer program appears likely to have been accurately reporting scores all along, and that there is a high likelihood that several of the Eagles did not score a 90 or above.

As you can imagine, still lots of confusion and some hard feelings, which we will sort out this week, being careful to separate the personal issues from the governance issues and to prevent long term hard feelings or factions. Those with a personal issue with another Eagle will be encouraged to address the person openly and directly with a facilitated process, either in private or publicly.   Governance issues and strengthening due process in the studio will be addressed in a Town Hall meeting.

As parents, we’ve learned at Acton to listen empathetically; equip our Eagles with the right words, and then send them back into the fray to sort things out for themselves.  It’s hard to do, but the best way to learn to cope and stay healthy in the real world, in high pressure situations.

Human communities are messy, but the Eagles (and Guides) are learning lots of important lessons, especially about self governance in an Eagle led learning community.

Subject: Freedom and Accountability Part I

How do we provide Eagles with freedom and accountability?

We started the year with Evidence Tickets, individual examples of work Eagles were asked to publicly post to earn specified privileges.   High quality work was praised by Running Partners, who also identified places where more effort was needed.

While this system encouraged accountability, having Evidence Tickets arrive unexpectedly made it feel to Eagles that they weren’t in control of their own schedules.

Now we’ve shifted to Challenge Envelopes, providing a week’s worth of deliverables at a time, allowing Eagles more control over their schedules (a suggested weekly schedule is provided, for reference, but Eagles can disregard this and tackle objectives in any order they want.)

Challenge Envelopes ask Eagles to check their long term Personal Learning Plans to set weekly goals for reading and Newsela (critical reading and critical thinking skills); journaling and No Red Ink (grammar) for writing and Khan Academy for math and learning badges for 21st century skills. Also included are a series of Quest related goals for “writing a bestselling book” and “entrepreneurial skills to help sell the book” once it’s written.

But how do we make sure that Eagles are doing “the best you can do” without reading and grading every assignment?  That’s the subject of the next post.


Sometimes it’s helpful to realize just how much work our Eagles get done in an average day and a week.

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As one of the Eagles said recently: “It’s hard to explain to friends that I get a lot more work done than they do, even though we don’t have any homework.”

So here’s a sample from today:

  1.  Check your Personal Learning Plan and SMART goals to make sure you are on pace with your Khan math, reading and Learning Badge plan for the year.
  2. Finish No Red Ink grammar lessons 3&4 and make a 90 or above on the quiz.
  3.  Read the Newsela article on Massive Open Online Courses, score a 90 or above on the critical thinking test and participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question: “In many countries, cell phones were such new innovation that they “leapfrogged” the old landline technology.  If other countries go to “new type schools” while America clings to old style schools, could that be a threat to America?aa ms 10.31 2aa ms 10.31 3
  4. Do independent research on Darwin; Evolution and Natural Selection and bring a great Socratic question as your entry ticket.  While completing an Art lesson in how to draw with the “right side of your brain,” listen to a college level lecture on Darwin.  afterwards, participate in a Socratic discussion. A sample question:                         “What exactly was the “turning point” about Darwin’s theory that made it so
  •  Man is not the center of the universe;
  • Creatures evolve and change over time or
  • Those with the best characteristics survive?”

5.   Answer the journal question: A rare bird is set to disappear in West Austin because of real estate developments.  Given Darwin’s theories, should we pass a law to curtail development and protect this species from going extinct?

6.  Write enough in your bestselling book to deliver a minimum of 50% of your rough draft by Friday.

7.  Role play how to deliver warm praise and make time to go to the Elementary School and provide “warm praise” to your individual group members.

8.  Be sure to clean the studio at the end of the day, since we don’t have a janitor.

Whew!  No wonder the day seems to go by so fast!

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.

Lights, camera…dress rehearsal

Today was Dress Rehearsal Day.

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Eagles formed in groups of six.  Each debating pair faced off, one by one.  Rock, paper scissors to decide who would start.  The Opener had two minutes minimum; three minutes maximum “in the box;” then the Challenger followed.

Rebuttals came next; each side allowed two minutes to spot logical fallacies or attack with logos, ethos or pathos. Finally, one minute each to close, with the Challenger going last.

All of this captured on video, for later debriefing.

Some Eagles had too little material, and had to stand “in the box” (a taped area on the floor) until the minimum time expired, a reminder of what would happen on Thursday if you didn’t have enough to say.  Some had too much material, and would have to pare.

Each Eagle received a critique; first warm critiques of praise; then cool critiques with advice of how to improve.

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Then it was time to download and review the video. All getting ready for Thursday’s Debates and Personal Learning Plan presentations.

Soon “standing in the box” would be all too real, in front of a live audience.


Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve got a new way to encourage excellence at Acton.

Eagles manage several projects at once, with “Evidence Tickets” and deadlines tracked by various Eagle Champions (Math, Reading, Writing, Projects.)

Today we began asking each individual Eagle to post his or her Evidence Ticket on a board, choosing whether they believed it belonged in the top, middle or lower third of the class in terms of quality. Running Partners then either affirmed this judgment with a “check mark” or used an arrow to indicate whether they believed the work deserved to be ranked higher or lower.

This way, all work is displayed publicly.  There’s no place to hide.  And Running Partner judgments are displayed too.  While it’s acceptable to be in the lower third on an assignment, by tracking such self rankings over a long period of time, a Running Partner can ask classmates for support if his or her partner is struggling.

One new middle school Eagle was near tears when his Evidence Ticket wouldn’t print and he missed the deadline, so his ranking wasn’t recorded on the tracking sheet.

“It’s just not fair,” he complained.  No, it’s not.  Sometimes the dog really does eat your report.  Sometimes you get a flat tire on the way to an important interview.

It would have been easy for a Guide to intervene “just this once” and allow the distraught Eagle to post.  Instead, we shared stories about how sometimes you do get unlucky and life isn’t  fair, but that hard work and perseverance almost always triumph in the end for true heroes.

Real consequences. Even when it’s hard.  Even when unfair.  Because a caring adult won’t always be around to “fix things,” so you need to learn to pick yourself up and try again.

Time for an intervention ?

Friday, not so pretty. Guides are prone to slip, under certain circumstances, into parental mode: almost as if our own parents are about to arrive, and cast judgement upon us.

For one thing, there was rain. What a joy! (Later in the weekend, neighborhood children reported on how their schools went into “lock-down” or that it was an “emergency”… I’m keeping mum on this).

Another thing: on Friday, work that Guides felt should be getting done was not getting done, or more precisely, it was not being logged as accomplished in the ways we expected it should.

So, at Acton, we know that our role as Guides is to very much step back, and hoping that we’ve modeled the standards the Eagles have themselves asked for, give a nod to the Eagles and their huge accomplishment in putting together a set of guidelines for the Studio, and trust that this will all play out in a manner that’s ultimately beneficial to the community.

But Guides are human, and we make mistakes. Mistake number one: neglect to trust. Trust the Eagles, trust yourself.

Mistake number two: don’t rectify mistake number one.

Friday, with concern that the standards of excellence were heading south in a way that would impact the whole Acton community (and affect the plans for the rest of the session), Guides had a quick pow-wow while the Eagles had lunch. Should we re-launch the afternoon and draw some new lines in the sand about what’s necessary and what’s optional? Eagles that hadn’t chosen to set their own goals or deadlines were putting the community at risk, and it might be time for Guides to step in. We should outline the consequences of choosing NOT to to do the work that we’ve asked them to do, and within the time-frame that we’ve created. Right?

Thankfully, wrong.
The intervention needed was actually a guide-to-guide huddle, a quick re-set of the most basic tenets that we adhere to in contract and in spirit, but that can slip without accountability. So after we egged each on to come to the conclusion that it was, surely, time for guides to get parental… we realized that we were suggesting that it’s time for guides to get parental. And the real intervention was Guides using each other as a checkpoint, to make sure that never happens.

Trust, trust, trust.

It will or it won’t be okay, but your best chance to make it work is to TRUST.

Motivating Voters

Motivation remains the hot topic at Acton Academy.

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We started the day discussing the Personal Learning Plan each Eagle will build for the year.  Is it more for Eagles, their parents, those who will hire them for apprenticeships or the world?

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Next came a posting of Evidence Tickets, deliverables from the Motivation Hero Debate project.  What motivated Eagles the most: a public display of work; force ranking from the top third to the bottom third or having your Running Partner sign off on the quality of your work?

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Finally, a discussion about the upcoming Council elections.  Since Eagles run the studio, Council members have a critical role.  Immediately after ten Eagles were nominated, campaign posters began to appear.

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The final question of the day: “What advice about motivating voters would you give to those who are running for Council?”  Suggestions ran from the Machiavellian to the mundane.

During Thursday afternoon’s campaign speeches, we’ll see how well the candidates listened.





Vigorous Beginnings

Yesterday, Coach Paul Carrozza inaugurated his 2-month Athletics Project with the MS Eagles.Image

Eagles listened thoughtfully and worked HARD.  Later, they ranked the experience on the Daily Fun/Important graph:

blue = Fun (1 low, 5 high). and yellow = Important (1 low, 5 high).  Clearly, fitness is important to this group.





Anaya would like to point out that taking a break to recover is important, too.

Another beginning: Computer Science Club.  After a rigorous school day, 12 Eagles, 3-8th grade, stayed late for an extra hour of collaborative coding, led by 8th grader Mason Dickerson.  They were probably ready to head home by the end of that, right?

In fact, the five-minute warning to save their work was met with groans and protests.  What motivates them to work so hard?  This is the question they’ll explore all year long.

“This is important.”

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During three hours of Core Skills you could have heard a pin drop.  The room was alive with energy – directed, serious, purposeful energy.

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Likewise the room was humming with intentionality during Project time, as Eagles worked individually and in squads on The Contract of Promises and Rules of Engagement that would govern our learning community.

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There was even time for a team building exercise and some reflective reading.

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When asked to rate the day, it wasn’t as “fun” as Tuesday and Wednesday, but the results were a solid “5” for importance.

When we asked “Why?,” the response was immediate and unanimous.

“This is the foundation for everything that follows.”

“This school matters.”

“This is the beginning of my Hero’s Journey, so I need to focus and work as hard as it takes.”

Our Eagles understand that what they do matters. A lot.  There’s no more important foundation for a learning community that will change the world.






Hearts and brains played pivitol roles in today’s events, literally and metaphorically.


The showdown between Hearts and Brains ended in a standoff: a Brain won first prize, but a team of several Hearts took second…. (royal flush?).

Both organs were put to good use in composing welcome emails to incoming students.  Below, a glimpse of the focus.  The excitement was palpable.


As always, the Middle School Eagles were fantastic hosts, and today’s guest felt the love from all of their beautiful hearts.


more than one way to be a hero


After 10+ months together, the Eagles are clear that gifts come in many shapes and sizes. For some, a two-mile jog is a walk in the park.  For others, exhausting- mentally or physically.  After their run this morning, the Eagles checked their heart rates, knowing they would compare them to their resting heart rates later in the day.

Making the choice to take good care of your body is part of being on a Hero’s Journey.  And making the choice to know how to save a life is another- not for everyone, perhaps, but for this group, absolutely.


Congratulations to all 11 Eagles who passed the American Heart Association CPR test (for a school that’s not really into tests, it’s been quite a month- but viva the tests that matter)!

Heroes don’t need to actually be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, but our community is fortunate to be fortified with the knowledge that these scholars/adventurers are acquiring along the way.  Effort, understanding, accomplishment.

Learning to know, learning to do, learning to be.  Even in July.

The pros and cons of adaptability

Standardized tests for highly unique individuals?  Hmm.  Data gathering is interesting, and Eagles, parents and guides share curiosity as to how the learning that happens at Acton translates when compared to schools that “teach to the test”.  The Eagles underwent zero prep for these tests, and are not used to working with a timer ticking down the seconds.  “Is the point to understand the material, or to check a box before the timer runs out?”  one Eagle wondered aloud.  The vibe in the learning studio Monday morning was icky with stress.Image

Tuesday morning was better.  A fun Othello craze swept the room during free time.  Venting during debriefing discussions seemed to help. One Eagle who’d been in tears on Monday wore a relaxed smile on Tuesday.


But adaptability can be bittersweet.  A Krishnamurti quote comes to mind: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  A bit dramatic for these circumstances perhaps, but the worst part of the testing process from a cultural standpoint has naught to do with the tests themselves and everything to do with the disintegration  of the disciplined independence the Eagles have so carefully cultivated over the course of the year.  Heroes in charge of their own destiny reverting to asking permission to use the restroom?  Alas.  But one morning of testing was all it took (and we’ve got three).  Fortunately, the days come fortified with afternoons as well- stay tuned for a more upbeat report on what’s been happening during the less robotic part of the week (hint:  speaking of independence…).

Math Challenge: Algebra, Geometry or Trig?

Today was the conclusion of the Math Challenge, with three Eagles pitching to convince their fellow travelers to take either Algebra, Geometry or Trig next.  (Thanks to Khan Academy, Eagles are free to pick and pursue an individual specialty in Math.)

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Each Eagle described the history of their math specialty, how it could be used in real life, the level of difficulty and the “math heroes” who invented and added to it.

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Following the presentation, a spirited Socratic discussion changed quite a few minds.

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Then the final vote: Algebra wins! (Though each Eagle will be allowed to pick his or her individual path.)

Who won?

Coach Carpenter made a special appearance in the Middle School Studio this afternoon.  And wearing a suit (not talking about the Speedo Laura gave him after the Olympics)!  The Eagles wondered: WHY?

“You just got back from a business trip?”

“You are heading to Ellie’s dance performance after this?”

Wrong, he informed them.  The suit is for YOU.

After a year of working with these amazing young people- driven and highly competitive, yet kind. Empathetic. Honest, and able to applaud the best in themselves, their team mates and their competitors.  After a year of this, Coach C came in with data both hard and soft, and certificates and medals for both.

Hard data:  School-wide push-up champ knocked out 70  in one minute, which, more importantly, was an improvement of mega-percents over her own previous record.   Similar stats for our 40-yd dash winner and our mile-run champ.

But the inarguable climax of the ceremony was when Coach invited the Good Sport winners of last semester to stand and deliver the trophies to the newest Good Sports.  How appropriate to have Eagles deliver the news, as they all voted on the issue with no input from any guides.

So who won?  Speculation crossed the room; names thrown out, it could have been anyone.  It could actually have been anyone.  They’re that good.

Congratulations to all the Eagles on their efforts, improvements, and sportsmanship this year- and congrats to Ana and Mason for being….drum roll…. Good Sports of the Semester!

And a HUGE thank you to Coach Carpenter for being a great role model, setting a high bar for the Eagles, and guiding them to value sportsmanship even more than winning… or at least act that way:).

Thanks to the Eagles’ fantastic sportsmanship, everybody won.

(Except the Spurs, unfortunately….)

Higher Math and Journalling

We launched this morning with a Sal Khan video on the beauty of Algebra, a first step in helping Eagles choose between Algebra, Geometry and Trigonometry as their next math challenge.

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The speed at which the group is mastering PreAlgebra is impressive.

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So is Khan Academy’s ability to track each Eagle’s progress, including each question, each answer and the time to complete each problem.

As the math becomes more difficult and increasingly conceptual, the Khan videos will become even more important.

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Later in the day, the Eagle run Journal Contest asked: What will you choose as your next math challenge?   Here’s what one Eagle wrote:

“No question; no doubt; no maybes:  Algebra.  Algebra is one of the most useful tools in the world because it covers so much.  Trig uses variables.  Geometry uses variables.  Algebra can write formulas to solve almost anything.

You saw the video this morning. You heard what Sal said.  Isn’t it incredible how two completely different real world problems can be solved using the same equation?

Algebra can help us span the gaps in our understanding of the universe.  Math is the universal language and Algebra is its sub language and best friend.  I look forward to getting to know it better myself.”

Learning new math skills is important. Knowing why learning a math skill matters to your life is more important; and knowing that math can be beautiful, matters even more.

Why read?

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One of this session’s projects is: “How do I choose what to read next?”

Eagles were asked to select favorite subjects, genres, time periods and heroes that might assist in choosing a “next book,” as well as being introduced to ways to analyze titles, first sentences and table of contents as a guide to style and voice.

Then, silence.  Not much energy.  Little interest.

“Why go to so much trouble,” one Eagle asked, “when you simply can read what you enjoy?”

“What about when you need to learn to do something?”.

“Usually it’s easier to watch a You Tube or try a simulation,” came the reply.

Our Eagles read a lot.  Half the class are voracious readers; the other half just avid readers. So this seemingly lackadaisical approach was puzzling.

“What about the classics?,” a Guide pressed.

“We hate the classics. Those are books that teachers used to make us read, so no one likes them.”  Many heads nod in agreement.

“What about books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird or Frankenstein?”

“Those aren’t classics, those are books we enjoy because they help us on our Hero’s Journey.”

Enjoy.  A word like “flow.”  It doesn’t mean easy, it means to be delighted or pleased.  Like when you love to learn, even if learning is sometimes hard.

Starting the summer

Around June 1st, most schools begin to dismiss for the summer.  Not at Acton Academy, where we see the summer session as a time for individual learning projects, reflection on lessons learned during the last ten months and a time for celebration.

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The map above reflects our journey for the next six weeks.  Much of our energy will be focused on completing the Independent Learner and Running Partner badges and inspiring every Eagle to master Khan’s Arithmetic and Pre-Algebra before school starts again in September.

We’ll also have a “What do I read next?” project that explores how using Amazon, Shelfari and recommendations can help Eagles select and prioritize a powerful reading list.

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Eagles also are breaking into teams to tackle one of three mini-projects:

The Math Challenge – for Eagles who have completed pre-Algebra to explore the history, heroes and practical applications of one of the three following areas: Algebra; Geometry or Trigonometry.  The Eagles choosing this mini-project will pitch their specialty to the class, and the winner will be the person who convinces the most classmates to choose their particular area of study.

The Scoreboard Challenge – a rapid prototyping exercise to develop and test the displays and tracking tools we will use to set goals, provide inspiration, incite competition, determine priorities and ensure accountability for next year, when we’ll have 26 middle school Eagles.

The Portfolio Challenge – this group will be choosing formats, designing processes and curating blog posts – as well as crafting journal questions — that will allow each individual Eagle to reflect on all that he or she has learned and assemble a powerful online portfolio.

So while many students are at home watching television, our Eagles will be designing 21st century learning tools for next year’s class.

Speeches that change the world

Winston Churchill.

Martin Luther King.

Ronald Reagan.

At key turning points, great leaders use powerful words to change the world.

Yesterday, each MS Eagle gave an original ten minute speech, standing in the shoes of a great leader, at a particular place and time. Winston Churchill; George S Patton; Joan of Arc; Nat Turner; Sam Houston; Ethan Allen; Pocahontas; William B Travis; George Washington and others.

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Over a six week period, draft after draft of the speeches were written, focusing on Ideas; Organization; Sentence Fluency; Word Choice; Voice and Convention (grammar.)  Peer critiques were provided, but not one word of text was changed because of advice from an adult Guide.

Then time to verbally draft.  To listen for which words had impact, cadence and flow; to eliminate others.  To hone the delivery and solicit the advice of peers.  Could middle schoolers really teach each other how to give powerful speeches?

Yesterday, we found out the answer, in front of a roomful of parents, elementary school Eagles and other guests.  The results were stunning.  Truly stunning.  At times you felt that Churchill or Houston or Joan of Arc were in the room.  The words were beautiful.  So were the deliveries.

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Then time for a celebration.  A well earned celebration.

Our Eagles now know that when called on to give a world changing speech, they can deliver.  Quite a skill to have in your quiver.  Even more amazing that you and your friends taught each other how to do it.

Does not compute. Not!

“Raise your hand if you’ve done any programing before” ( a smatter) “Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Java Script” (a few)  “Raise your hand if you have no idea what I’m talking about” (several) :”That’s okay! We’re here to learn together.”Image

And Mason then led the wonderful group of 12 mixed-age Eagles, 3rd-7th grade, girls and boys, through a Socratic introduction to Comp Sci, taking well into account that some of the youngest had accrued more expertise than some of the oldest, but staying true to the Acton belief that every child is a genius that can change the world.

The joy the Eagles find in collaboration and the depth of learning that enables are humbling.

The future they will invent, rather than accept, will be a (perhaps complicated for those of us over 30) joy to behold.


The Acton Olympics

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Spring was in the air (and at 90 degrees, even a little summer) as we held the annual Acton Olympics today.

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Elementary and Middle School Eagles competed to see who was “most improved” in push-ups, the 40 yard dash, the mile run and other events.

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Perhaps the most impressive display came in “the plank,” where Eagles had to hold a fixed plank position for as long as possible.  Six Eagles broke the old school record of fifteen minutes, with the winner “planking” for more than 26 minutes.

If this doesn’t sound difficult, take out a stopwatch, assume the plank position, and see how long you can last (our Guides have a hard time making it past a two minutes.)

The joy of competition; personal improvement — and most of all – mental toughness.  All important if you want to thrive and prosper in the 21st century.

Spare time for learning

Eagles are hard at work on speeches, budgets, itineraries and Google Earth tours – not to mention working on Core Skills.  Still, with today’s game based adaptive learning programs, there’s always time for more learning.

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Take, for example, the  student generated computer science craze that is spreading like a virus at Acton Academy.  Eagles are staying inside during their free time to teach themselves to write code.

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We’ll soon begin to experiment with an after-school Computer Science Khan Club, to see how we can help build on this enthusiasm.

Our Eagle’s interest meshes well with an earth shattering announcement (at least for higher education) that Georgia Tech will be expanding its Masters in Computer Science program from 300 to 10,000 students over the next thirty six months, as it slashes tuition 80% (to less than $7,000 for the entire degree.)

If you are a parent, student or taxpayer, these opening shots in a higher education price war, almost surely to be joined soon by Stanford and MIT, are a reason for celebration.  If you are a traditional university president, yesterday was a bad omen, of worse days to come.

Our Eagles are unlikely to care, since many will be taking these same courses not at Georgia Tech, MIT or Stanford, but while they are in Acton Academy high school, between breaks in their apprenticeships.

Please let me know if your Eagle would like to stay late next Wednesday.  Snacks/ supervised free time 3:15-3:30, pick-up 4:30 sharp.

“Blood, toil, tears and sweat”


A young Winston Churchill prepares to address Londoners during the Battle of Britain, 1941.  Nothing quite concentrates the mind like a good hanging, unless it’s a fast approaching speech deadline.

The Acton Academy classroom is humming with intentionality.  Energy is high.  Deadlines are looming.  There’s a hint of anxiety in the air – each and every speech must change the world by moving people to action. A high hurdle indeed.

A pause at the end of a busy day and a Guide’s question:

“What will be more important for your long term Hero’s Journey:

  • Setting and reaching milestones and long range goals?
  • Planning a trip to anywhere in the world?; or
  • Delivering a a speech that moves people to action?”

Some of the answers:

“I’ll use goal setting more frequently, and it will be an important skill for my Hero’s Journey.”

“Yes, and being able to plan a trip will come in handy, if I have to travel for my calling.”

“But the technology for trip planning will keep getting better; someday machines may be able to do it.  A machine will never be able to give a speech that moves people to action.”

Where will tomorrow’s Churchill’s, JFK’s and Martin Luther Kings come from?  Tune in next week for an answer, as a flock of aspiring heroes prepare to give their first world changing speeches.

Intentional Water Fights

Lots of serious intentionality today.  During Core Skills, you could feel the brainwaves in the air, made even more serious by complete silence.  Eagle Heroes at work.

During PE and lunch, a high energy water fight broke out and continued full force. The far ranging water war became the subject of an Elementary School Town Hall meeting, with younger Eagles split between censuring and joining in the fun.

As Project Time kicked off at 12:30 PM, many Eagles dripping wet.  But wet or not, the mood changed back to serious learning.  After all, deadlines loomed next week for Hero Speeches, travel budgets, itineraries and Google Earth tours of far off lands.  The deep concentration continued until 2:45 PM, broken only by a brief Charlie Break at 2 PM.

When asked about the day’s blog theme, one Eagle suggested “Intentional Water Fights” and heads nodded all around.

Work hard. Play hard. Work hard again.  Not a bad motto for becoming a hero who changes the world.

Blacking Out

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Khan Academy and the various other game based adaptive math programs make teaching math an anachronism.  Our Eagles have proven they can learn math, even though we no longer teach it.

Two of our Eagles have “blacked out” all of the Khan skills in mathematics and pre-algrebra.  That’s seven years of math mastered in less than nine months.

Several more Eagles will finish all of the pre-algebra skills in the next few weeks, and every middle school Eagle will reach the same lofty goal by the end of the summer term.  All of despite the fact we haven’t taught a minute of math in the studio.

Eagles learn at a rapid clip; Eagles lead each other through Socratic questioning; adults stay out of the way.  There’s an avalanche headed towards your favorite school system, and it will be a lot more fun to be surfing it than being swept away.

Eagles Taking Control

Yesterday, we had some important visitors who wanted to see Acton Academy in Action (we now average three to five visiting groups each week.)

After the morning launch, one of our Eagles asked for a moment to propose changes in the way Running Partners collaborate during Silent Core Skills time.  Here’s a report from an observer on what happened next:

“An Eagle stepped up to facilitate. He grabbed a white board and refocused the group by reintroducing the topic- Collaboration Requests. He asked for suggestions, listened intently, and wrote them down. When more than one person began talking, he reminded them of the Socratic Rules of Engagement.  After a few minutes of discussion, he read the list of suggestions and took a vote.  He kept the discussion on topic and was mindful of time. The class came to a unanimous decision in seven minutes.”

A group of middle school students.  Recognizing a need to make changes in the way they govern the classroom.  Taking control; mindfully discussing; coming to a conclusion and implementing the changes in seven minutes.

Without any help from an adult.

Road Work


The road gets slippery, and people stumble.  How do you get back on track?  If you, like the Acton Academy Middle Schoolers, are committed to independent learning and being on a Hero’s Journey, you might refer back to the standards that you have set, dig into the specifics of how those standards look and feel in action, and recommit with deeper intentionality.

The Eagles believe that striving towards excellence is an important part of what defines their community.  But what are the signs of that?  And how does it feel- what are the symptoms?

Respect topped their list of characteristics that distinguish them from any other group.  Nice word, but what does that look like?  How does it feel?

After brainstorming specifics, they discussed how to bring these back into the classroom to return the bar to where they prefer it (quite high).  So, how’d they do?  The group ranked itself at a (low) 3 on a scale of 1-10 coming into the morning.  By closing, they’d climbed to an 8-9, and left the classroom with enthusiasm about striving for a 10 tomorrow.

ImageEveryone has off days, and no road is always smooth.  The Eagles are learning how to attend to the rough spots, then get right back to the business of their Hero’s Journey.   Maybe, some days, that IS the business of their Hero’s Journey.

And speaking of Excellence…. Congratulations to Claire, who became our first Eagle to nail her Khan goal (2.5 weeks ahead of schedule!).  She’s looking forward to taking a break from all that math… so she can move on to a couple of weeks of intense computer science.  No wonder Hayes commented, “I felt really respected when Claire took the time to help me on math”.

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!