Category Archives: Launches

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!


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.



Decisions, Decisions, Decisions….

Work hard. Play hard. What comes next?

Decisions. Or better put, decision strategies.

Having a toolkit of decision strategies – different recipes for solving unstructured problems in different ways — is similar to a carpenter having a hammer, a screwdriver and a saw.

If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. If you have different decision making tools, it increases your chances of solving a difficult problem.  And it widens your perspective, so you see more of the world that’s in front of you.


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Seeing how many “big rocks,” ping pong balls, sand and water you can fit into a container delivers lessons about limits, time, scheduling and the need to decide whether a problem is urgent, important or neither.

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Playing a game where you have a limited time to scoop up low and high dollar poker chips from piles located around the room gives you a visceral sense of the 80/20 Pareto rule, and the need for busy entrepreneurs to “focus and shift.”

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A challenge that simulates defusing a bomb teaches that some tasks must be done exactly right, requiring an entirely different approach to these types of problems.

Core skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. Fundamental.  That’s why Eagles spent three hours this morning in Core Skills “flow.”  But in the 21st Century, having a toolkit of decision making skills is every bit as important as mastering Core Skills for heroes who expect to change the world.

Our first battle cry for 2013-14: “Work hard, play hard.”

Battle cries for each session at Acton Academy are important.  We post them on the front door and refer to them often.  Today the Eagles chose our first battle cry: “Work hard, play hard” in a close vote (“Soar” and “Dream ” were popular too.)

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We started today with an evolutionary game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, where winners progress from eggs to chickens to dinosaurs to (finally) kings and queens, acting out each part with wild gestures and animal noises.

Why such a silly game?  Because it’s OK to be yourself at Acton, and sometimes that means acting with great abandon, even if it risks looking silly.

If Eagles are having fun and know it’s OK to be themselves, they’ll do anything to remain at Acton.  Even work harder at learning than they’ve ever worked before.

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Next Eagles worked in teams to build the tallest, most profitable and most beautiful Lego tower (reportedly the most popular experience at Harvard Business School orientation.)

Why such a challenge?  To learn that teamwork matters.  And to experience making difficult cost-benefit decisions under time pressure.  Because someday, our Eagles will have to make these decisions when real lives are on the line.

Finally, we introduced Running Partners to affirm and hold each Eagle accountable during Core Skills work in journalling, choosing favorite books and which books to read next and bearing down on math with Khan Academy. Because hard work matters too.

As we learn to work in Running Partner pairs of 2 to 3; Squads of 3 to 4; Discussion Pods of 8; Teams of 12 and a Tribe of 24 Eagles, important and complex 21st century collaboration skills are being absorbed, as if they were a natural part of life.

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Having fun is job #1.  Working hard follows.  So does having a Running Partner who cares enough to hold you accountable and affirm you, through those inevitable dips and struggles.  All basic building blocks for a healthy learning community.

Still lots to do, but a great start for our 2013-14 Eagle adventure.

Ready for Liftoff

Today was the launch of the new Acton Academy campus, complete with 25 middle school Eagles (of course, counting Ellie, who is on an around-the-world adventure, and will be joining us by Skype.)

So what did we accomplish today?

  • An icebreaking exercise where Eagles quizzed each other, one-on-one about  personal Portfolios and asked their favorite “What motivates a Hero?” question (our overarching question for the year.)
  • A “comfort zone/challenge zone/panic zone” hands-on experience.
  • A  competitive egg tossing contest, complete with complex cost-benefit calculations.

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What, no reading, writing or arithmetic?  Well, as a matter of fact, we did work in some Core Skills practice, including starting to re-evaluate Khan Academy’s new dashboard and some journal writing and “reading aloud” to group members (a brave task for some who had never before read their inner thoughts aloud.)

Plus, we practiced launches and Socratic discussions in groups of 24, 12 and 8, just to test the dynamics.

And finally, Eagles self organized for their first (messy) clean up, since they’ll be responsible for most janitorial services (including scrubbing toilets.)

Lots of work for a first day, but our goal these first few weeks is laser focused: To make Acton Academy so much fun that no one ever wants to leave, while setting sky high standards for being a member of the the learning community.

Because once you get this magic right, the rest is easy.



Closing Out With a Celebration

On Thursday and Friday, we symbolically closed out the year as we started, with a ranch trip.

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The first activities were three real world math experiments, designed by Eagles to introduce trigonometry, algebra and geometry.

For trigonometry, teams competed to solve a surveying problem that required calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle, in order to earn the right to solve a trigonometry puzzle, which revealed the first clues of an algebra puzzle, that involved creating a human Cartesian grid to unearth buried treasure.

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Next came a geometry challenge that led new meaning to the term Pi – as contestants had to find the real life area of an apple pie with one slice removed.

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Did the math challenges go smoothly?  No.

One of the challenges fell apart when a mistake was discovered and the instructions turned out to be confusing.  A shouting match broke out between frustrated Eagles, leading to tears.

A disaster?  Not at all.  Everyone quickly made up and all was forgiven.  But what wasn’t forgotten was the importance of prototyping field experiments before introducing them into the wild.

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Next came competing on an obstacle course designed with input from the Navy Seals.

Two rules: “no person left behind” and “no one can re-enter the course after finishing.”

These rules put Eagles under stress, because after most had crossed the finish line, one Eagle sat down, “paralyzed” (following secret instructions from the Gamemakers.)

Would the Eagles listen to an adult and refuse to re-eneter the course or go to help their fallen comrade?  Of course, most disobeyed the authority figure and rushed to help their fallen Eagle, the same Eagle who had bungled leading the math challenge, carrying him to victory.

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Next it was time for swimming and watermelon eating by the river.

After swimming, time to gather five special objects, eat hamburgers and hot dogs and tour the ranch on a hayride looking for wildebeests, buffalo, elk, deer and other wildlife.

In the next post, our final ceremonies.

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.

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.

Imagine this…

Imagine this….

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We often appeal a lot to imagination at Acton Academy.

We ask Eagles to imagine that they are:

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

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

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.

Writing their own stories, in every way…

Do what you say you’ll do, or follow your conscience?  Do you have the courage to be honest about your choices?  In this morning’s huddle, Eagles discussed adding a West Point-style honor code to their governance documents.  At issue in particular is internet use during free time.  While exploring the repercussions of offering our bodies junk or nourishment, and to what degree the level of tidiness reflects the learning space as a “landfill” or a Studio of Excellence, this age group is facing decisions re drawing boundaries for their interaction with the Web.  Student-generated guidelines will be introduced tomorrow after a town hall-style debate, and the decision is firmly the students’ to make.  Guides and parents stand together watching this important process, reinforcing the message that this is serious, the community is involved, and we absolutely trust you to argue with each other until you create an agreement that’s right for you.

Today saw the launch of Thursday morning Writers’ Workshops.  First project, tying in with the afternoon hands-on Detective Science quest: write a great detective mystery.  Eagles brainstormed about elements crucial to a great crime story, listened together to a classic Sherlock Holmes short, then revised their megalist to create their own rubric of excellence in crime/mystery fiction.  Agreeing that a detective (whether casual or pro) is a crucial character, they used StoryMatic to jump start ideas for character generation.  Until they didn’t.  Whoops- a Guide set a guideline without thinking it through all the way to make sure there’s an ultimate WHY.  Naturally many students rebelled; they can smell bogus a mile away.  In this case, the students were set free to use StoryMatic, or not.  Ask your Eagle which they chose.  The MS’ers take this seriously at least in part because they know that what they do matters, and that they, as brave and thoughtful adventurers, are creating a path for others to follow.

New path in PE: after an invigorating awards ceremony with certificates for Olympic Champions (whoever exceeded their previous best by largest percentage increase) and trophies for Best Sportsmanship (congratulations Ellie and Pace!), down to the field for….. Wiffle Ball!

Ms. Anna and Ms. Terri challenged the D.I.T.s (that’s Detectives in Training) to learn the science behind fingerprinting and analyzing data from footprints left at a crime scene.   Also a great lesson in following directions, as it turned out, and in cleaning as you go.
Tomorrow, a look at goal tracking for the week, a Town Hall meeting, the journal reflection contest, history in the yurt and a more meaningful version of (offline) Game Time.

Don’t Mess with Acton

We’ve been struggling with afternoon clean-ups.  The Tragedy of the Commons.  Our promises as Guides means we don’t want to intervene from above.

All of this raises an interesting question. What works best for motivating a team – the carrot or the stick?  Or something else?

Yesterday, we opened class with the “something else:” Showing a series of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” commercials.

In the 1980’s, Texas faced a crisis: its roads and beaches were littered with garbage.  Large fines hadn’t helped. Neither had encouraging better behavior.  But as our Eagles quickly realized, the “Don’t Mess With Texas” commercials appealed to Texas pride; Texans are different; we love Texas; therefore, we have too much pride to litter.

Our Eagles decided to appoint a committee to draft their own series of commercials to encourage Eagles to do a better job of cleaning up.  Here are their first drafts:

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Learning math; writing; science and other subjects is relatively easy.  Properly motivated, Eagles love to learn.  Learning how to motivate yourself and others?  That’s a subject that takes a lifetime to master.

But our Eagles are off to a good start.

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.

What would you do?

Morning launch is an important time at Acton Academy.

The AA campus opens at 8 AM; the launch of the day begins at 8:30 AM sharp.  Many Eagles arrive at 8 AM and play hard on the play field, but everyone is seated and ready for group no later than 8:29.

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Launches are “brief huddles” – no more than fifteen minutes total —  that set the tone of the day.  Just a few sentences to connect to the last few days; a brief glimpse of one of the maps on the wall to locate “where we are” (the Hero’s Journey; our current Quest or the trajectory of a major project) ; and then a foreshadowing of the immediate challenges ahead.

Almost always the launch is framed in terms of a question; often connecting to the “overarching question” for the year, which for this year is: “Does the Past Determine the Future?”  Sometimes we show a brief video clip; other times we feature a governance question or behavior that’s challenging our community norms; more recently we’ve been focused on difficult ethical dilemmas.

For example, this week we explored the difficult question of how you would decide who lives and who dies, if faced with the choice of a speeding train that you could direct down one track or another.  Either way, someone will be killed, but by changing the scenarios, we explored the value of individual human life and how it differs for each Eagle.

What does this accomplish?  First, a focus on the difficult decisions our young Eagles will face as leaders.  Second, it sharpens their ability to reason and persuade, as we work hard to hone their Socratic process and rhetorical skills.  Often the discussion leader will pause to point out a Socratic technique that Eagles may want to use when they (soon) begin to lead discussions on their own.

Framing the day; putting the week, month and next six week sprint in perspective; reinforcing group learning norms; honing thinking skills; setting the tone for the day.

Quite an important fifteen minutes.