Category Archives: Journey maps

Session Six Focus: “Which questions motivate a hero?”

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For the next six weeks, we’ll be exploring the theme: “Which questions motivate a hero?”

Our adventure will have three main thrusts:

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1. Which questions will motivate YOU on your Hero’s Journey?

Here we’ll dig deeply into the three questions our Eagles will ask to measure if they are happy, satisfied and fulfilled:  Am I contributing something meaningful? Am I a good person? and Who do I love, and who loves me?

Eagles will work hard to identify their gifts; explore “flow” and investigate the  irresistible opportunities that will motivate them to brainstorm, select and acquire a world changing apprenticeship.

As part of this work, Eagles will learn to write compelling emails, make irresistible phone pitches and dazzle in face-to-face interviews on their way to finding apprenticeships for next session.

The final exhibit will be an electronic portfolio designed to secure an apprenticeship, which will include a two minute “Message to Garcia” video showing each Eagle promising to “get the job done” if given the chance.

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2. Which questions will motivate a FELLOW HERO?

The focus here is  becoming a world class conversationalist, so our Eagles will be able to walk into any gathering and strike up a conversation that will make the other person feel important.

Eagles will practice their new found techniques on Running Partners, incoming 2014-15 Eagles to Acton and students from other schools, until the art of conversation becomes second nature.

The final product here will be a short “Hero Story” about a new friend, that captures what makes that person a “genius on a hero’s journey.”

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3. Which questions will motivate a TRIBE OR NATION?

Oprah, Johnny Carson or William F. Buckley – who is the greatest interviewer of all time?  Our Eagles will compare and contrast world class interviewers, as they learn the art of asking penetrating questions on stage, on the radio or on television.

Near the end of the session, we’ll invite adult heroes to class (especially those who might sponsor an apprenticeship) and allow our Eagles to conduct interviews in front of a live audience.  The final product will be an edited transcript of the interview.

Executing an apprenticeship that may lead to a calling in life; learning to make excellent conversation, anytime, anywhere, with anyone; asking penetrating questions from a stage – all 21st Century Skills for our young heroes who plan to change the world.

Session Five: Creative Motivation and a Rube Goldberg Celebration


What inspired Einstein to imagine himself  straddling a beam of light?  Why did  Edison toil  night after night in his Menlo Park lab?  What led Ford to pay the highest wages in the land?

For the next five weeks our Eagles will dig deeply into what motivated the creative geniuses who changed the world through ideas, inventions and innovations.

Then on Thursday, March 27th, each Eagle will stand before an audience and deliver a four minute “Hero’s Journey” speech as a famous Creator, exploring this year’s Overarching Question: “What motivates a hero?”

Once the speeches are finished, guests will be able to roam the studio and investigate twenty four different Rube Goldberg devices, each handmade by an Eagle to honor the contributions of their Creator, and each with a thirty second video introduction.  (If you are interested in clearing your home of unused electricity and chemistry kits, just send them to the studio and we promise not to return them!)

Finally, after a suitable build up, the first Rube Goldberg contraption will be launched, leading to twenty four sequential celebrations of creation, as one Rube Goldberg device after another is triggered.

During the session we’ll continue to forge ahead on Khan and Learning Badges while engulfed in this frenzy of scientific and economic creation.  And in Civilization, Eagles will watch college level DVD lectures on the Science of Innovation, followed each week by student designed and led Socratic Discussions.

Stay tuned for a lot of creative grit and sweat these next five weeks!


Welcome to the Disruptive Matrix

Conventional wisdom suggests project based learning is the best way to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)  Acton Academy takes this one step further, adding narrative and gamification to projects to create Quests.

Despite these high sounding goals, our recent Rocket Quest was a flop.  The experiments, videos and equations seemed too structured – a series of old style science experiments disguised in Quest clothing.  Our Eagles weren’t fooled and weren’t interested.

In our quest to make science more interesting, we’d made the journey too complicated.  we’d forgotten that science is a curiosity powered, relentless pursuit of natural truths, no gimmicks required.

So we punted, “took the red pill” and posed two open ended challenges (the “red pill” is a Matrix allusion, for those of us old and lame enough to be Guides.)

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  1. Point the nozzle of a tennis ball machine straight up and fire.  Then predict where the ball will land if the machine is positioned at 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees from horizontal.  No equations, videos or intermediate exercises offered. No trial and error allowed.
  2. Shoot a pressurized water rocket – a two liter plastic bottle –  straight up.  Then predict where the rocket will land if launched  from 30 degrees, 45 degrees and 70 degrees. No trial and error allowed.

An added incentive is that the closer our Eagles predictions were to reality, the more Rocket Points they could can earn, which then could be used to buy larger Estes rockets for next week’s Rocket Olympics.

Most Eagles had to purchase rockets in advance, increasing pressure because they had to spend points before earning them; any deficit would have to be made up using Eagle Buckets, at an unfavorable exchange rate.

In attacking these problems, Eagles could:

  1. Use the equations of physics;
  2. Locate a projectile simulator on the internet or
  3. Pattern match parabolas.

The most dedicated teams could cross check answers from all three approaches.

Each Eagle group took a different path.  Three groups made predictions for the tennis ball machine that were remarkably close to reality; the last two closed the gap after a misfire or two.

After success with the tennis ball machine, the  water rocket  experiment should have been a breeze.  Simply apply the same equations and simulations a second time.  Lesson learned: math is a “force multiplier” because it allows you to learn something once, and apply it again and again.

Here’s where the real world intervened.   The water rocket predictions  were  50% longer than the real world tests at 45 degrees.  What had gone wrong? Guides were stumped.

The teams went back to their tracker programs, video tools that allow our young scientists to track the x-y position of a projectile at precise time intervals.  They soon discovered  that the rockets went up much faster than they came down, a discovery that made  the simple projectile formulas useless.

Lots of conjecture followed: Was it that the two liter bottles lost mass as they rose?  Did the rockets fall more slowly because they tumbled?  Eagles drew from their experiences in mini experiments, began re-watching videos and checking the assumptions in formulas.

The room was humming with hypotheses being born.  Formulas and simulators were tested with the new data.  One team re-fired the rocket without water, to see if losing water mass really was the problem.

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On an icy day when most schools had been dismissed for a snow day, our young scientists were out in the cold, firing rocket after rocket, trying desperately to squeeze in as many tests as possible.

This time the results fit with predictions!  Eureka!

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Our debrief centered on how good it felt for an experiment to succeed, and how dangerous this longing for validation was for real scientists.  As one Eagle put it: “To be true to a scientific calling, you have to care more about truth than yourself.”

So real science is about never forgetting to “take the red pill.”

Quite a lesson indeed.


Looking Back; Looking Forward

Last session seems so far ago.  Creating a Learning Community; researching Motivation Heroes; conducting a crisp debate; constructing a Personal Learning Plan for the year.

At times it felt like an all out sprint; at other times frustratingly slow.  Some days the community hummed with intensity; other days Lord of the Flies seemed just around the corner.  And yet, the Eagles owned it; all of it.

Perhaps it’s fitting we saw the movie Gravity the last day of the session, because looking back, it seemed an out-of-this-world experience.

Now it’s time for Session Two.  The overarching question remains the same: “What motivates a Hero?”  As a civilization, it seems we know so little about motivation, despite dozens of theories.

This session we tackle Entrepreneurship and Writing a Bestselling Book.

What motivates an entrepreneur to create and innovate? How do you motivate a team?  Is it really money that drives the world or the love of using your gifts?

Middle schoolers writing a bestselling book?  In nine weeks? Is that really possible?

Most people would say “no.”  What a ridiculous idea. But they haven’t met our Eagles.



Rapid Prototyping a New Scoreboard

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The pictures above may not look like much, but they represent a fascinating experiment.

One team of middle school Eagles is rapid prototyping a new scoreboard for the school – visual displays of SMART goals, Running Partner critiques and examples of work-in-progress for Math, Reading, Writing, MyHJ, Civilization and other projects.

Displaying information in a clean visual format that is easy to use is no simple task – just read Steve Job’s biography to see how hard Apple works on problems like this.

Yet our team of Eagles is working diligently to collect customer feedback, mock up prototypes and hold Socratic discussions to create increasingly powerful displays.

Rapid prototyping. Without doubt a 21st century skill.

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.

Motivating with Drafts on Display

Exhibitions naturally motivate, without the need for a grade.  A looming speech focuses the mind like a good hanging (with apologies to Samuel Johnson.)

But how do you motivate someone to do their “best work” on the first, second or third draft of a multi-week project, without having a teacher assign a grade?

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Here’s one way: Post a few examples of world class finished products (in this case, a travel itinerary and budget.)  Then ask students: “We are xx% finished with the time allotted for this project; are you xx% of the way to ‘the best work you can do’ at completion?”

Learning to communicate

How do you learn to write a powerful speech?  To use your ideas and words to change the world?

Many schools focus on grammar, making sure every apostrophe and comma is in the right place.  Certainly we want our Eagles to be able to write and speak in correct English, but we care even more ideas and having an original voice.

So how does one learn to write and speak in a way that changes the world?

First, we believe by seeking out,  experiencing and critiquing world class examples, in the case of a speech, The Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

That’s why we are drawing inspiration from Corbett Harrison, a teacher who has developed a terrific set of modular tools that students can use alone or with peers to polish their ideas and words.

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We’ll break down these critiques into six areas:

Idea – How original and powerful is the idea?

Structure/Organization – Are the ideas are sequenced and arranged in a way that is easy to follow?


  • Voice – Does the author’s style make you want to read more?
  • Sentence Fluency – Are there interesting sentences of different lengths?
  • Word choice – Are the words vivid and memorable?
  • Convention – Is the grammar correct?

Eagles will practice force ranking, discussing and providing evidence of these traits not only for Mentor Texts – great works that are provided or found, but also applying them in their own pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing – all with the goal of publishing a powerful piece or giving a world changing speech.

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In the revision stage, Eagles will learn to self critique, and solicit and deliver peer reviews and expert critiques.

Writing, speaking and communicating through the visual arts are all skills that are “learned by doing,” in deep relationship with others, while referencing great works of the past.

Note that this requires learners with the courage to think, draft, revise, edit and perform – but not a teacher, at least in the traditional sense.

The Speech Quest

At the end of this six week session, our Eagles will deliver a world changing speech: standing in the shoes of a historical figure, at a particular time, in a particular place.

Learning to move people, to call them to action, is an important skill for a hero.  But the Speech Quest is about more than writing, polishing and delivering a powerful speech.

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Eagles also will be required to use Expedia, Trip Advisor and other travel related sites to create an itinerary and budget for a multi-day trip to visit the city where their speech will be delivered, including touring historical sites, museums and other point of interest.

While planning the trip, Eagles will make a “bare bones,” “luxury” and “actual” budget, so they can learn to make the difficult trade offs in time, money, breadth, depth and comfort that traveling requires.

Also included in the Speech Quest is the requirement to create a Google Earth guided tour of the city, including street level views of the sites to be visited, including pictures, images and historical commentary (if you haven’t tried Google Earth – it’s an amazing tool.)

Even the introduction to these tools and the various adventures and expositions has raised important questions, like:

“Why do we travel?”

“Is it for new adventures and new experiences or to learn deeply about a culture?”

“Is it better to spend a little time in many places, staying in hotels, or to spend an entire week or month living with one local family?”

Learning to ask questions is as important as the final product.  So is making difficult tradeoffs between time, money and goals. So is learning new cutting edge tools.

All a part of becoming a hero in the 21st century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Only the Shadow knows

Today our Eagles explored their “Shadow,” the unclaimed part of the psyche that leads us to project our fears and worries on others.

Is there a politician you truly despise because he or she seems “dogmatic?”  Carl Jung would say this is a part of you disowned at an earlier age, more than likely because you were shamed when you exhibited a similar behavior.  (Shadows also show up as the dark or scary characters in your dreams.)

Shadow projections cause us to blame others.  Shadow projections are the root of scapegoating.  Shadow projections waste an incredible amount of energy that could be put to a more positive use.

The antidote to your shadow is to turn the negative into a positive – “dogmatic” becomes “principled” when the cause is just;  “laziness” becomes “rest” when used wisely; “silliness” becomes “fun” with a different perspective.

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Above Eagles trace their real shadows.  The interplay between symbols and ritual in the real world can help reveal new insights in the inner world.

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Here Eagles turn “dark” shadow images into their positive counterparts.

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Why does this matter?  Because our young Eagles are going to change the world.  Having the tools,  intentionality and courage to take an inner Hero’s Journey provides reserves of moral judgment and energy for the times our Eagles will need them the most.

Inner work and the dreams of heroes

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

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

All pressing questions for middle school students.

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

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

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

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

Let the dreams begin!

Mystery Solved; Suspect Arrested

So who had abducted Detective Anna?  The Acton campus was in an uproar, as Detectives-in-Training fanned out to collect evidence and interview suspects, using all of the tools and skills they had earned during the Detective Quest:

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  • Documenting the crime scene;
  • Fingerprint analysis
  • Footprint analysis
  • Handwriting analysis
  • Deductive ability
  • Decomposition
  • Life cycle of flies
  • Microbes
  • Tooth impressions
  • DNA and genetics; and
  • Facial reconstruction.

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Detective Anna’s first cousin “Dora” appeared to help as a lab assistant.

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Evidence was carefully analyzed and weighed.

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The prime suspect was relentlessly questioned until she finally broke down and confessed.

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A grateful Detective Anna was rescued, and the Eagles shared their top “lessons learned” about the scientific method and forensic analysis:

  • You have to get it exactly right, because an innocent person might go to jail if you make a mistake;
  • This means that details matter; and
  • What you do impacts others; so
  • You most go slow, and work hard to uncover evidence and clues far beyond what’s given; and
  • Be careful to cross check your team’s work for accuracy.

A pretty good checklist for any scientific project that’s going to change to world.

What’s the Connection?

Shift gears overmuch?  Your transmission will suffer.

So what’s the connection between a rotten banana and correct usage of the past progressive*?  What about a link between precise language, kindness, and a rather annoying buzzer?
Scattered and smothered are fine at the Waffle House but less than optimal for the pursuit of excellence.  At Acton, we strive toward holistic cohesion in our curriculum, though juggling many tasks is a real-world skill that also comes into play in our classroom.  Ironically from a guide’s standpoint, the task juggling unfolds quite naturally, while the cohesion requires a bit more forethought.
To connect the above dots: Eagles are working as Detectives-in-Training, learning valuable science as they pursue the skills they’ll need to not only solve crimes but also make a persuasive case against a suspect before a jury.  At the same time, they are creating their own mystery crime stories, using logic, artistry and their fabulous imaginations to pursue excellence as writers.  (* and brushing up on their grammar along the way- though a quick survey of adults on campus suggests that while it’s incredibly important to be able to use tenses effectively, no one actually cares what the tenses are called).

Underlying the “Learning to Know” and the vital “Learning to Do” is the even more essential “Learning to Be”, and a focus on character building and discussion skills permeates every “know/do” quest.  In today’s launch, we went over the new student-generated community standards and honor code with a careful focus on defining any potentially vague terms.  Terms like “scapegoat”, “cheat” and “bully” were hashed out to a unanimous understanding by the community.  Students circled the discussion back to the positive by brainstorming what steps to take to prevent negative situations from beginning/escalating.  At the end of the day, we introduced a new reward for our daily Kindness Hero, challenging all to channel their detective skills toward looking for evidence of kindness in their peers.
Throughout all of this, Eagles passed around a buzzer, to hold themselves accountable for accidental use of the verbotten “um”s and “like”s.  Hooray for excellence in discussion skills, but here’s one vote for Buzzer-Free Fridays starting, um, now.

“Dr. Watson, I presume?”

Our Detective Quest entered a new phase today.

Eagles added handwriting analysis and lie detection to their list of investigative tools.

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And began to piece together all the clues, and to narrow in on a prime suspect.

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Discussing and voting on the most important piece of advice offered by Sherlock Holmes.

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Earlier Eagles met in small groups to critique the first drafts of their mystery stories, the best of these to be published in a collection at the end of the session.

Learning to do, in real world projects, where the end result matters.

How do people learn?

How do people learn?  An important question, and a reminder that “teaching” and “learning” are only loosely connected.

The article below summarizes some of the most recent discoveries about how people learn:

Here’s what we’ve found at Acton Academy:

1.  Deep learning requires context.  This means having a clear visual  “journey map” and milestones ON THE WALL  that our Eagles can track. (“You are here; Here’s where we have been; Here’s where we are going and WHY it matters”); plus a diagnostic Framework (“Below are some questions you can ask to decide what to do next.”)

2.  Every launch must put students “in the shoes of a protagonist” facing a decision that will matter in their lives, and somehow will shape their identity and determine their destiny.  Otherwise, who cares?

3.  Our primary job is to set the rules and incentives so as to shape the learning environment.  Then let the students learn through “learning to do.”  Experiential learning is best; Socratic discussion next best.  Experts/lectures are allowed, but Eagles can access this information on their own.

If we deliver:

1.  End goals that add richness to our Eagle’s Hero’s Journeys;

2.  Maps and milestones.

3. Frameworks; and

4.  Enticing rules and incentives;

then great learning happens.

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Here’s a photo of this morning’s launch. Below an example of a Mind Map for the upcoming Apprenticeships – Eagles learning to create their own visuals.

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Of course, the ultimate goal is to equip students to create learning journeys, frameworks and incentive systems for themselves and others,  so the “learning to learn” becomes a deeply imbedded habit, and one that spreads exponentially.

Learn Math; Forget Math; Learn Math Again

Learn math; forget math; learn math again.

Most of us learned math in school for a test; forgot the math; and learned it again when we had to use it in the real world.

Our first efforts weren’t wasted.  Modern neuroscience suggests our early work was  laying down pathways that made math easier to learn the second time.

Our experiences at Acton Academy are crystal clear on one count: there’s no more need for traditional math teachers.  With game based adaptive programs like Khan Academy; Dreambox; ST Math and Manga High, students can learn math on their own and teach it to each other much more efficiently and effectively than with a traditional math teacher. Plus, Eagles can move at their own pace and have a lot more fun.

Perhaps even more importantly, a 70% score isn’t “passing;” in fact, even a 90% score won’t do.  You have to work on a math subject until you master it, before moving on.

But let’s not kid ourselves,  In time, this mastery will fade unless the skill is used repeatedly in the real world, in a way that matters.  Only those neurological pathways will remain, waiting to be reactivated.

At Acton Academy, we try to put math skills to use as soon as possible.  Today, Eagles worked to gather measurements from shoe impressions from a crime scene; sample the heights and shoe sizes of classmates; and use probabilities and ratios to predict the height of a possible suspect in the Detective Quest. In doing so, they had to create their own approaches and formulas – some admittedly a little complex and convoluted, but in the end all coming to the same answer.

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Will our Eagles forget this math too? Surely.  But they are less likely to forget the logic, reasoning and teamwork that was required to use the math to solve a real world problem.

This means our Eagles will want to learn more and more math and to put it to use, every repetition preparing another neural pathway, until the habits of math and science are deeply imbedded.

Back in the Flow

The first day back from break almost always is a challenge.  The second day, better.

We opened with a clip from Whodunnit – a wonderful test of our Eagle’s observational powers.  Attention to detail matters. It matters for a writer who uses crisp details to hook you into a story; it matters to a cook who needs “everything in its place;” it matters to a detective at a crime scene.

We also are tightening the focus on goals – long term goals for the session; weekly SMART goals; daily goal check ins with Running Partners.

After setting ambitious goals for all three, Eagles were back at work in Khan for math; were introduced to our new Mystery Writing challenge by Ms Abigail; and continued on their Detective Quest with hands on work collecting fingerprints and documenting a crime scene.

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In Pursuit of Excellence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No guarantees, but a good start.

Enlightened trial and error

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


Inspiration, learning and storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s a sample of dragons in the making.


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

Perspective, Energy and Rhythms

The first task in any new school is establishing a healthy learning culture:  this requires paying attention to perspective, energy and rhythms.

Perspective means giving Eagles a map showing where we are heading as a group, and how it connects to their personal journey.  The map should display the final goals; important  mileposts and include the most important questions we will ask.  A map helps us to pause occasionally; mark where we are in the journey; reflect on where we have been and foreshadow where we are going next.

Included with this map should be an easy to read list of projects and mini-projects for the session and a weekly schedule to shows at a glance when we will be in Core Skills; Art; PE; History or Project time.

The more uncertainty you can remove by providing a road map and schedule, the more energy that goes into discovery and deep learning.

Monitoring energy is important too.  We want the class humming with excitement.  We want our Eagles engaged, in flow, laser focused, losing themselves in the learning. But such engagement can only be sustained for so long before you need a break.  And points of reflection are needed to synthesize ideas and let important lessons soak in.

That’s why we carefully think about the flow of energy during a six week session, and include exhibitions to add excitement, as well as times of reflection to recharge.  We take a similar approach to energy management when designing the weekly  and daily schedules and when planning Socratic Discussions.

One student even came up with an idea we adopted: color coding the peaks and valleys in energy.  A “red” rectangle posted on the wall mans we are fully focused in Socratic mode – it’s like the “red light” in recording studios  – in our case signaling that serious learning is taking place. Discussion “rules of engagement” are in force, so no squirming in your seat; no getting up for the bathroom or a snack.

The “yellow” sign means collaborative rules are in effect: Eagles can move around or talk quietly with others, as long as they aren’t disturbing anyone else.  A “green” sign means free time.

Intense, high energy “red” periods can only be maintained for brief periods, usually no more than fifteen to twenty minutes; “yellow” collaborative time for an hour to two hours, particularly if individuals are shifting between projects and skills;  “green” periods need to be no longer than fifteen minutes, but are critical to blowing off excess energy or mentally recharging.

Within discussions, forcing students to take a stand and defend it raises classroom energy.  So does asking concrete A/B choice questions.  So does asking for specific examples and evidence to back up a point or conclusion.  Conceptual questions drain energy.  Conceptual questions may be needed for synthesis or deep learning, but must be used judiciously:  like a pilot, a Socratic Guide only has so much energy to burn before the conversation stalls.

Perspective, energy and rhythms – if we manage these well, deep learning is sure to follow.