Category Archives: Reading

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.


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.


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.


When the middle school started in September, a surprisingly large number of Eagles  hated to read – particularly books that were forced on them by adults.

A love of reading had never been sparked, or even worse, had been extinguished.

Early in the fall, we encouraged each Eagle to read something, even a comic book, about a subject they were passionate about.  For the boys, that often meant Lone Survivor or other books about war.

This week, as part of updating portfolios, we asked Eagles for a list of books they have read since January 1st.

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The answer: 80 books. That’s an average of one book, every two weeks, for each Eagle.

Sure, some Eagles are more voracious readers than others.  But each and every Eagle can now be seen sitting on the floor or lounging on a beanbag chair, with a favorite book in hand.

A love of reading; a thirst for curiosity.  Perhaps the most important discover a young hero can make.

The inspiration that comes from guiding others

The word “inspire” means to “to breathe life into.”

Our Middle School Eagles are full of life already, but have been even more inspired lately by earning the chance to guide Acton Elementary School Eagles in Math and Reading.

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It’s important to note the word “guide” versus “teach.”  We believe the deepest and most powerful learning comes from having a Socratic Guide as your partner, rather than suffering a lecturing adult teacher posing as an expert.

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Our MS Eagles earn the right to guide an elementary school Eagle by completing a Learning Badge challenge.  Each Learning Badge challenge earns the right to 30 minutes of guiding time, which comes with a learning covenant and feedback on the Guide’s performance.  Complete a dozen or challenges and you earn a Learning Badge.

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Our MS Eagles consider it a privilege worth working hard to earn, and are lining up to do so.

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All Eagles will move from the Independent Learner badge to Running Partner to Socratic Guide to Project Guide to Curriculum Creator, until by high school each Eagle is capable of running a school (or company or non-profit) on their own.

Think of it.  An army of bright young people guiding each other, delivering “learn to do” and “learn to be” skills and lessons better, faster and far less expensive than adults.

You might even call it a revolutionary idea.

Our best ideas come from Eagles

Flow, the feeling of being “in the zone” while working, is a powerful force at Acton Academy.  When an Eagle is in flow in completing a Khan math exercise; reading a book or writing a speech, learning happens at an extraordinary pace.

Collaboration is an important part of Acton Academy too.  Sometimes you need a friend to explain a difficult concept, or even more importantly, to ask the right question.  Almost all of the real learning at Acton is student to student, not Guide to student.

But collaboration can interrupt flow.  And too many interruptions can ruin a two hour block of Core Skills time.

So what to do?

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Our Eagles came up with this solution – a Collaboration Request board.  Now if you need to ask someone to collaborate, you post a request rather than interrupting.   When your potential collaborator takes a break, he or she can check the board and rendezvous at a set time.  Plus, we have a record of the peer to peer learning.

Collaboration happens. Flow is protected.  Our best ideas come from Eagles.  Every time. If we just ask.


Today we returned from break.  Only eleven weeks until summer session.  Time to put the finishing touches on our learning culture before we let new Eagles into our tribe.

The focus word for this week: Intentionality.

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Acting with intention. Being purposeful. Tapping into your passions. That’s what heroes do.

So time to eliminate the trivial; to minimize the unimportant. Time to put all of our energy into learning. Time for a new definition of work times, based on a survey late last session, asking Eagles how we could reduce distractions.

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So we created new definitions of the our Work Blocks.  All Core Skills time is now silent.  We added No Tech Core Skills time, where all computers are closed and Eagles simply read, write and ponder.  

No interruptions are allowed – if an Eagle needs to collaborate, he or she posts to a Collaboration Request board.  An added benefit – we now have a record of who is helping whom and why.

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We also rearranged the desks in the classroom. All of this was based on recommendations submitted by Eagles.

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Core skills time was incredibly focused and purposeful today.  Deep concentration on “blacking out” Khan skills; serious writing; deep reading.  Not a sound in the classroom.

In the afternoon, the launch of an exciting new project.  But more on that tomorrow.

Closing the loops; looking forward to the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Luddites to Las Vegas

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

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


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



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

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

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

Football, film and gifts

Reading, writing and arithmetic – critical, fundamental skills, and our Eagles continue to progress faster than most middle schoolers – and thanks to Khan Academy and Shelfari, we have proof of their efforts.

But there’s much more to life, and thus should be much more to learning than the basics.

Like playing sandlot football before school starts.

Or in our morning discussion, exploring the right way to hold a film crew huddle, so you don’t waste your time in meaningless meetings (something I wish I’d learned a long time ago.)

Or as a task preparing Eagles for finding the right spring apprenticeship, having our My Hero’s Guide Mr. Temp inspire them with his drumming gifts as he asks: Are you born with powerful gifts or do you have to develop them?

Or having Allan Staker give his Hero’s story about the entrepreneurial ups and downs of starting a video-game company, a twisting tale about the risks and rewards of believing in yourself.

Yes, there’s far, far more to learning in the 21st century than simply the basics.

dragons and an election

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


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

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

What’s your paradigm?

After a morning of core skills and reading, writing and math – and PE –  today in project time we introduced our first scientific challenge.

Unlike many schools, which focus on the scientific method itself as the glue for a disparate smorgasbord of scientific topis, and often veer dangerously close to Scientism (science explains everything), we’re going to take a more Socratic, skeptical – and, well – scientific view of science as a whole, and expand from scientific discovery alone, to include invention and innovation.

That means using Thomas Kuhn’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions – or paradigm shifts – as our jumping off place.  So today we introduced a series of challenges about paradigms and watched videos on the topic and discussed the following questions:

1. What is more important in science – the scientific method itself or paradigm shifts?

2. Who accomplishes more: paradigm busters; those who pose and ponder puzzles; or those who do the hard work of collecting data?

3.  What matters more: discovery, invention or innovation?

Eagles then chose from a list of scientific heroes and paradigms the one person and period they wanted to research and soon were hard at work.  We’ll get to see their work in  an end of session public demonstration.

Above – students signing up for their scientific heroes and paradigms.

Next week – the ranch trip, where we will apply math and the scientific method in the real world.

Below: Eagles at the new Acton Bistro.

Heroic Committments

This was an important day for our Acton Eagles.  We continued to work on journaling (today on the question of how “learning styles” and “love languages” affect Heroes’  Journeys and leadership styles); Khan Academy and “reading your favorite book,” as well as leadership challenges during project time (“untie the knot” and “comfort, challenge and panic zones”.)

Much more importantly, today each Acton Eagle signed the Contract of Promises; Rules of Engagement; Governance Framework and They Say-We Say rubric – making a deeply personal commitment to each of his or her peers.  Before doing so, each student reflected on how the Founding Fathers were really just ordinary people, with extraordinary courage, much like themselves.  We also discussed the bravery of the men and women of the Alamo, accepting Colonel Travis’ challenge and crossing the line he had drawn in the sand.  Then, one-by-one, and in complete silence, each Eagle came forward and signed the documents.

Note that these founding documents are the student’s creation.  In less than two weeks, our Eagles have proposed and debated principles, drafted and wordsmithed and finalized a series of promises and pledges that will govern their own learning.  Quite extraordinary for any group, of any age.

We still have many trials and challenges ahead: electing leaders for their skills and judgment rather than popularity; our Guides staying in Socratic mode; developing and reinforcing the habit of committing to learning goals and following through, especially when learning becomes difficult.  But the foundation has been laid – by the students themselves.