Category Archives: Hero’s Journey

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.

“One of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”

Ideas have consequences.  Heroes armed with ideas change the world.

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Sugata Mitra changed education with his Hole-in-the-Wall Experiments: armed only with the internet and each other, some of the poorest children in the world bested students and teachers from elite private schools.

Last week Sugata Mitra visited Acton Academy to lead two of his SOLES (Self Organized Learning Environments.)   The Eagles loved their SOLES, though some wanted more “learn to do” action.

Afterwards, one of the youngest middle school Eagles led a powerful impromptu Socratic Discussion, with all the skills of an Oxford Don.

Sugata Mitra asked: “How long did she have to prepare?”

“No time at all,” came the reply. “It was spontaneous.”

“That’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”

Quite a compliment, because he has seen quite a lot.  What an honor to have Sugata Mitra spend time with all of us.

But I Want to Do Your Homework


It hurts to watch your child struggle, whether it is with a math problem, a poorly written story, or even worse, a social issue or that first crush.

So we offer a little assistance; perhaps even a tutor.  Before long, the parental ego kicks in.

Empathy is a skill we all need to model as parents; no child should feel alone or without emotional support.  So we need to acknowledge struggles and frustrations.

But in a world where the best tutors and teachers are only a click away, and with our Eagles surrounded by a caring culture of peer collaboration, direct help is no longer a necessity; perhaps even harmful for heroes in the long run.

So next time you are tempted to intervene, pull up Judith Newman’s New York Times piece But I Want to Do Your Homework.  If nothing else, you’ll have a good laugh.

The End of an Era; the Dawn of a New Adventure

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Significant passages deserve to be recognized and celebrated.  Ceremony and ritual are an important part of the human experience and a Hero’s Journey.

Four young heroes started in the Little Blue House at Acton five years ago.  Now they have earned to right to pass from the elementary studio to the middle school.   This brave group marks the last  who will remember the launch of Acton Academy and the bravery it took for Founding Families to start out on an uncharted journey.

We marked this passage with a weekend ranch trip; an evening ceremony by the fire; the creation of FAMP, a small tribe that will enter the middle school dedicated to changing it for the better with three objectives to by transferred by the actions of the tribe. (The meaning of FAMP and the three objectives will remain a secret within the tribe, which will be melted into the middle school tribe on December 1st.)

In the morning, we walked in silence before dawn to a hilltop with forty mile views.  In silence we watched the sun rise.  Each Eagle placed a special memento in an ancient rock pillar and marked the moment with a word dedicating themselves to the journey ahead: Try; Future; Responsibility; Diol (an imaginary word meant to distract you from your troubles.)

Heroes conquer mountains; then rest and recharge; then look for new challenges on the horizon.   The end of an era; the dawn of a new adventure.

Volunteering to Change the World

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“Would you like to watch a speech about changing the world, even if it means missing game time?”

Every Eagle in the studio replied “yes.”  All gathered to watch Navy Seal Commander William McRaven deliver the 2014 University of Texas Commencement speech.

Admiral McRaven stressed importance of showing up every day, working hard and never giving up.  The studio was completely silent as the Eagles soaked in the lessons.

Who suggested the speech?  A Guide?  A parent?  Another adult?

As you probably guessed, it was one of the middle school Eagles.  One Eagle made the suggestion; all agreed to give up free time to learn something important.

Changing the world indeed.

Apprenticeships Deliver

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Apprenticeships remain our most popular challenge.  Do they deliver valuable lessons?

One twelve year old Eagle observed after two weeks of full time work:

“Even if you love what you do and love the people you work with — which I did — working from 8 am to 5 pm every day is a long, long time. 

So you absolutely have to follow your passion or you will have an extremely boring life, where all you do is look at the clock all day.”

How many people fritter away their lives in a cubicle, waiting for the day to end?  That’s not going to be a problem for our Eagles, because they understand the importance of a calling.

An Apprenticeship Update

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Apprenticeships are in full swing.   Almost every Middle School Eagle has secured an apprenticeship or is well on the way to doing so.

What are our Eagles doing?

Helping save pets at an animal hospital; making sushi at a restaurant; decorating cakes at a bakery.  Going door to door for a political campaign and analyzing the results.  Working for a small business owner and for a clothing store that provides an outlet for the poorest villages in Africa.  Apprenticing for one of the top fashion designers in the world in Los Angeles.   And many more adventures.

What have the Eagles learned from their apprenticeship searches? Being brave enough to hit “send” on an email asking to be given a chance to prove yourself.  Negotiating for a role and fair pay.  Showing up the first day and not knowing anyone.  Scrubbing bathroom floors when necessary, and caring enough to do it right.  Realizing that working from 8 AM until 5 PM makes for a very long day, unless you are doing something you love.

All of these lessons are becoming part of the DNA of our Eagles, who long before college will  know the importance of work hard as part of delivering far value, in return for lessons that will move them along on a Hero’s Journey.

What will be the first question we’ll be asked when Acton Academy resumes in September?  This one: “When can we start working on our apprenticeships again?”


An Apprenticeship Celebration

Launching a new business; landing that special client or securing an apprenticeship – each of these is reason enough to celebrate with a friend.

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So on Friday the thirteen Acton Eagles who have secured an apprenticeship or started the negotiations for one took each other out for lunch to celebrate.

It was a humble celebration.  One Eagle, on seeing the outdoor taco restaurant  El Chilito remarked: “It’s exactly like a food trailer; just no wheels.”  Spartan though it may be, the food at El Chilito was delicious and it was a beautiful day to hike to lunch.

More importantly, we toasted the bravery of thirteen young heroes, each of whom had written an irresistible email , launched it into cyberspace and received an affirmative response.   Knowing how to discover, pitch and land your next adventure is a 21st century skill worth celebrating.

The Importance of Process

We started this session’s Apprenticeship Search with the same plan as last year.  Introduce one Apprenticeship Challenge at a time, each with a note to read and a skill to practice to help Eagles find, pitch and land a world changing apprenticeship.

Almost immediately the plan began to unravel.  Veteran Eagles who had mastered the Apprenticeship Challenge last year, and who all year long had been cataloging apprenticeships that fit their gifts, flow experiences and opportunities, wanted to skip ahead and pitch for apprenticeships immediately.  Some were quite talented and offered well targeted and compelling pitches.

Unfortunately, this led to less experienced Eagles believing they too could launch an Apprenticeship pitch, without doing all the upfront work.  The Acton brand would be at risk if Eagles began pelting potential employers with poorly worded emails.

This led to a morning launch on the importance of process:

Would you build a bridge, “on the fly,” just winging it?  would you be willing to be the first person to drive across the bridge that had no blueprint?

Why do you need processes?   Is it to prove to others that you know what you are doing?      To have a record that you followed careful procedures, in case something goes terribly wrong?  As a beginner, to learn the steps?  As a master, to lay steppingstones to inspire and equip the next generation?

The Eagles weren’t buying it.  Many thought the Apprenticeship processes were stilted and unnatural.    Plus, a set of procedures for bridges made sense, because it was a matter of life and death; apprenticeships weren’t as important.  Even an attempt to paint apprenticeships as a bridge to anew life fell flat.

For some Eagles, moving forward without practice was almost certain to fail; but requiring Eagles to use a process just didn’t seem like the Acton way.  Yet there was great risk in a  laissez faire approach that could damage the community’s reputation.

Finally, a reasonable compromise emerged:

1.  Eagles could either opt completely in or completely out of the Apprenticeship Process.

2.  Any Eagle opting out would not be able to mention the Acton name in an email, phone call or in person pitch.

3.  If an Eagle elected to opt out of the Apprenticeship Process, he or she would need a parent’s approval.

Choice and consequences; freedom and responsibility.  Processes only when you think you need them.  The right to fail.  They’ll be some hard lessons from this, but the world hopefully will have fewer failed bridges in the long run.


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.)

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.

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.


Sir Isacc Newton, as seen through a Rube Goldberg Machine

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How can an Eagle capture the ideas of a Scientific Creator in a Rube Goldberg machine?

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Here’s a glimpse of one Eagle’s Scientific Hero, Isaac Newton.  If you look closely, you’ll see that each step demonstrates one of Newton’s  Three Laws of Motion, and ends with an apple dropping off the table.

Now imagine twenty four of these Rube Goldberg devices, lined up in a purposeful order, telling the story of Explorers of Ideas (like Newton), Inventors and Innovators; each triggering the next to begin.

A week from Thursday, we push the button and begin the journey.

What can I learn from Rube Goldberg?

Imagine this…. someone who knows nothing about Acton Academy wanders into the studio and notices all the students tinkering joyfully, building crazy-looking Rube  Goldberg-like contraptions.  The visitor is puzzled and possibly even indignant.   “Looks like playtime to me,” she thinks.  Aloud, she asks, “ Where is the value in this?  Shouldn’t you be learning something?  This is school, after all.”

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Guides try to come up with challenges that hit the sweet spot where rigor intersects joy.  The Rube Goldberg design-build project has many layers; “Games within games within games,” one Eagle noted.  Not all elements are immediately visible to a random visitor, but most are easily teased out by asking a few good questions.

So, where is the value?  According to the Eagles, the value lies in:

  •  hands-on experimentation
  • letting their imaginations freely flow
  • nudging their creativity from “bud to blossom” (thank you, Anaya)
  • answering an open-ended question
  • working without instruction
  • problem solving
  • incorporating evidence of their biographical research into their designs
  • having FUN

When Eagles begin designing their own Quests from scratch, chances are very good they will do an even better job of hitting the right balance. They already do the best job of answering visitors’ questions!

We should never take this for granted….

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Yesterday, with no outside prodding, Eagles assembled to elect a new Council.

Six candidates were nominated.  Six passionate speeches.  A close election with three winners.  A peaceful transition of power.

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Today, as the Council’s first difficult assignment, a heated debate about the qualifications needed to serve as a Clean Up Champion.  In other words, Eagles arguing for the right to work on behalf of the group.

Self governance.  No adult intervention.   We should never take this for granted, because it is a privilege to watch unfold.

Acton Eagles and Google

How do we prepare Acton Academy graduates to change the world?

That’s a question we’ve been pondering over Winter Break, in preparation for a Parent’s Meeting on Friday to discuss our plans for high school.

Is a prestigious college degree the answer?  Our Eagles will be armed to excel at the best colleges, and their portfolios may lift them above the teeming mass of commodity applicants, who clingto sterile GPA’s, test scores and class ranks.

But in world where too many college graduates are asking: “Would you like fries with that?,” a $300,000 diploma looks increasingly like a prestigious Ponzi scheme.

Google’s chief hiring officer, Laszlo Bock, quoted in Thomas Friedman’s Sunday New York Times column, seems to agree: “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

For Bock, too many colleges “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s [just] an extended adolescence.” So the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time.”

A prestigious college degree?  Maybe it’s still a good bet, if you can afford it.   But our Eagles need a 21st century back up plan, perhaps working at a company like Google.

So what does Google care about?  Three key attributes, beyond technical skill:

  1. General cognitive ability. The ability to make decisions in real time, with disparate and often conflicting information.  This trait has no correlation to traditional test score IQ. Think of Socratic Discussions and Quests.
  2.  Emergent leadership skills: Emergent leaders are a far cry from being President of the Chess Club.  Emergent leaders assess opportunities, assign roles and lead when necessary, but who are just as willing to listen, ask questions and relinquish power to others.  Think of Eagles running their own learning communities.
  3. Humility and ownership. The humility to learn from failure; the humility to ask questions instead of trying to be “the smartest person in the room;” the courage to own your mistakes, to get up and dust yourself off, and try again and again.   A perfect description of the Hero’s Journey.

The least important trait for Google is “expertise.”   Too many experts cling to a false sense of certainty, rather than a willingness to take on the difficult, unstructured problems that lead to breakthroughs and sustained growth.

So are our Eagles impressed that they are qualified to work at Google?  Not hardly.  As one Eagle put it: “Work at Google?  I’m planning on launching the company that destroys Google.”

Sergey and Larry, look out.  Not so long ago, Bill Gates might have wanted to interview you for a job.

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!


Shhhh! Skunk Works Ahead

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See the photos above?  It’s a skunk works – an off limits lab – operating deep inside Acton Academy.

So what’s going on behind these walls?  Well, with a skunk works, so that’s supposed to be a secret.  But given that Acton is an open source lab, it probably wouldn’t hurt to tell you.

Inside these walls, three Acton Eagle middle schoolers are working on a Quest for the week of January 20th.  And at another undisclosed location, a second team of three Eagles is hard at work on the following week’s curriculum.  A third team will start soon.

Middle school Eagles creating curriculum?  It’s one thing to believe Eagles can govern their own studios; quite another to believe they can create their own Challenges and Quests. But we believe they can.

That’s why Eagle teams will be working for the next few weeks with world-class game designed Jesse Jacobson, creating curriculum together so Jesse can create a prototype of a curriculum creation game, to inspire and equip Guides and Eagles to create their own Quests.

Just think of the power of young heroes who can imagine an interesting problem, and then design a way to inspire others to learn the skills and frameworks needed to solve it.

Just remember.  It’s a secret.  So don’t tell anyone.

Celebrating Our Last Friday Adventure for the Year

How do you motivate a hero?  That remains our overarching question for the year.

Often the Hero’s Journey is seen as a solitary one, a series of challenges for the individual.  But in truth, it’s almost always taken in community, and serving others brings a sense of satisfaction and joy that prepares a hero to reach even loftier heights.

Today, in our final Friday Adventure for the session, we put entrepreneurship aside to celebrate by caroling in the neighborhood.

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From Acton Academy elementary, to the train station, to a hospice, to an art gallery to a local church, our Eagles delivered songs and holiday cheer to our neighbors.

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Revolt of the American Colonists has been suppressed. Long live King George!

What’s the difference between a revolution and a revolt?  Between Patriots and Rebels?  Whether you win or lose, for victors write the history.

Today, the revolt of the American Colonists failed.

We began the day reviewing other revolutionary heroes and revolutions:  Mahatma Gandhi; Martin Luther King; Kent State; the Fall of the Berlin Wall; Tienanmen Square.

It started to sink in that revolutions weren’t fun and games – not at all.  Real people, brave people, fought and died; sometimes it seemed for nothing at all.  Often they were students.

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Our Eagles grew increasingly uncomfortable as King George III’s edicts became more burdensome.    Even those loyal to the King grew disenchanted with his continually rising taxes and irksome demands.  Requiring Eagles to put their desks in rows was the last straw!

Given the real world consequences, Eagles learned that defying a Royal Edict would result in solitary confinement (behind a cardboard partition;) left only with a pen and a sheet of paper, like Reverend King and his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Any violation of the rules of solitary confinement would result in being sent home.

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Several Eagles eventually did draw the King’s wrath and enter solitary confinement.

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Finally the Continental Congress submitted its Declaration of Independence.

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After several passes the brave Rebels  mustered a two thirds majority who pledged pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.

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It was time to roll the die to see if the revolution had succeeded or failed.

The roll – a 4.  The revolution had failed.

A second roll, to determine the length of time the King’s war reparations would be endured by the Colonists.  A 6 – the maximum sentence of seven months.

The revolt had failed, put down by the Redcoats.

But the lessons endured.  Because no matter how brave the heroes, it’s not about winning or losing, but having the courage to give it your all, no matter what the outcome.



“Sire, the colonists are revolting.”

Today, the revolutionary plot thickened.

One by one, edicts restricting educational freedom arrived from King George III.

Edict One:  On hearing the Royal Buzzer, subjects must assemble within one minute.

Edict Two:   Before breaks in the schedule, line up in order of height and sing “God save the King.”

Edict Three:  One Khan Academy skill must be mastered per day – from home — or a tax of one Eagle Buck must be paid.

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Each Eagle did deep research on three eighteenth century American colonists: two Patriots and one Loyalist. Then choosing to stand in the shoes of one of these revolutionary leaders, wrote a petition to the King, asking for the edicts to stop.   Some letters were respectful; others threatening; all were critiqued by the group and the most historically accurate and powerful letters chosen to post.

Soon the class learned that they could pass an Educational Declaration of Independence by a two thirds vote.  But declaring such a revolution would lead to the rolling of a six sided die:  a roll of a 1 or 2 and the revolution would succeed and all educational freedoms would be restored; a more likely 3, 4, 5 or 6 and the revolution would fail.  If the revolution failed, a second die would determine whether a onerous set of penalties would be imposed by the King for as short as three weeks or as long as seven month.

The Eagles were in a bind; just like the American colonists of 1776.  Yet the edicts kept coming.

Edict Four required Eagles to remain silently seated at a their desks.

Edict Five asked Eagles to raise a hand to ask permission from a Guide for even the most trivial request.

Edict Six meant a one Eagle Buck tax on lunch.

The usually light atmosphere became oppressive.  The furious colonists began to fight amongst themselves, suggesting traitors in their midst (some did try to sell out to the King, asking for special treatment.)

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Some Eagles put on war paint to prepare their own Tea Party.

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Revolutionary committees formed and emotional speeches rang out.

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Eventually six delegates were elected to the Continental Congress;  some intent on war; others recommending careful negotiation.  All hid their identities when a representative of the King appeared, fearing retribution from the monarch.

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The day ended with no resolution and more edicts expected tomorrow – perhaps even a revolution and a fateful roll of the die – especially given this final silent Mocking-jay protest against tyranny (you have to have seen The Hunger Games to get this one!)


The British are coming! The British are coming!

A brief report from the American Revolutionary Front.

As if our Middle School Eagles didn’t have enough to do, today an edict arrived from a mysterious character named King George III, taking away some of the freedoms in the studio.

All Eagles are hard at work digging into early American history, researching the roles they might take as Patriots or Loyalists to address this threat.  There is talk of a Continental Congress to draft an educational Declaration of Independence.   Other Eagles seem to be currying favor with the King’s representatives.

Apparently King George III is making mischief in the Elementary studio as well.

Stay tuned for more news as it develops.  Until then, beware.  There are spies everywhere.


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!

War or Peace?

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Do not let the smiles fool you.

Consider Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.

Picture Khrushchev and Kennedy nose to nose over Cuba.

Imagine Serbs and Croats at a backyard gathering in 1990.

Pure power politics, as the duly elected members of the Middle School Council and Elementary School Council meet to discuss an agreement over joint usage of the play fields.

But consider this.  No adult was consulted.  The Council members contacted each other to set up the parley.  Then they peacefully negotiated a settlement to take back to their respective tribes for ratification.

Today the play fields; tomorrow the Middle East.

A Hero who disrupted the world of publishing

A real treat today.  Clint Greenleaf, an entrepreneur who disrupted the publishing industry by launching Greenleaf Publishing, shared his Hero Story.

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Here’s Clint’s tale: As a 22 year old accountant he was working sixteen hours a day, successful but not fulfilled.  Then Clint wrote a book about shining shoes; a simple, somewhat crude book, but to his surprise customers bought hundreds of copies each day.  This led to new editions.  Finally to launching a highly successful self-publishing company that changed the world.

The message to our Eagles?  You can do it.  It takes hard work and passion.  Start small. Fail early, cheaply and often.

A powerful message for young entrepreneurs, hard at work disrupting education at Acton Academy; hard at work this session, dedicated to writing and marketing a bestselling book.

Thirty minutes of one man’s generosity that may have launched several budding authors and publishers.  Not a bad morning’s work.

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.



Out of this world

Work hard; play hard. That was this session’s motto.

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Yesterday we worked hard, with the Hero’s Motivation Debate and Personal Learning Plan Exhibition.  Today, when the Eagles arrived we announced a surprise: We were all invited to ride the train downtown to see Gravity, a hauntingly beautiful new movie about space, with award winning cinematography.

A perfect prelude for Session 4, when we’d be studying the motivational effects of “feeling small” – standing on the edge of the universe as we build rockets, versus “feeling big” as we explore a microscopic world and perform chemistry experiments.

There was a twist with today’s trip, however.  The Eagles paid for the outing, popcorn,  lunch and drinks with the Eagle Bucks they’d accumulated during the semester.

A “well earned” celebration indeed.

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.


Influencing the world

“Oh great. No pressure. It’s just that the whole future of education depends on us.”

Yes, it reads as a little snarky; even a bit sarcastic. But the tone was much more accepting; more like the recognition of a serious truth.

We don’t talk about it much, but deep down our Eagles know they are leading an important experiment; a bold experiment that just might change the world.

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Pictured above is Paulette, a visitor from one of the most disruptive education companies in the world.  She came to Austin to see Acton Academy for herself.

Paulette watched the elementary and middle school Eagles in action: launches; Socratic discussions; preparing for this week’s exhibitions.  Then she convened a focus group.

One by one she heard strong statements about the importance of having the freedom to control your own education.  And then one that was heartbreaking, when Paulette asked about failure at Acton compared to other schools:

from an elementary school Eagle: “Failure at Acton is part of what we do: heroes fail early, cheaply and often.  At my old school, the three students who scored the lowest on a test had to go and sit in the bathroom, on the floor, and think about why they were failures.  The three students with the top scores got candy.”

Sometimes we forget the great wrongs done to little heroes by adults, and the grace with which they bear them.

So what did Paulette think about Acton.  Her parting words: “Even after this short exposure I know I would have loved for my own children to have experienced the learning environment at Acton.”

The whole future of education depends on a determined band of Eagles?  Yes, it just might.  And that’s what gives us hope for the world.

Dad, can I go back to school? It’s boring at home.

Today an Eagle broke her collar bone.  It was a simple game of tag; then feet tangled, followed by an awkward fall and a cry of pain.

After an hour or so at the emergency room, it was time to go home.  Except the young Eagle asked: “Dad, can I go back to school?”

“Back to school,” the father replied, “but you need to go home and rest.”

“It’s boring at home.  And I don’t want to miss something important.”

So back to Acton it was.  Only this time, no tag.  At least for a few weeks.




Can We Try an Experiment?

Today an Eagle asked if he could try an experiment about motivation (Our overarching question for the year is: “What motivates a hero?”)

Our Eagle was was curious how caffeine and sugar affected motivation. So with the permission of parents, he wanted to offer each Eagle a six ounce cup of coffee at the start of the day.

In a blind test, some Eagles would get caffeinated coffee, others decaf.  Some Eagles would get natural sugar; others artificial sugar.  Eagles would be asked to track their motivation levels and accomplishments during the day.  The results would be discussed and published.

Suddenly the questions began.  About getting permission.  Setting up the trial.  Whether subjective or objective results would be more important to track.  Whether their was a large enough sample size.

A curious twelve year old.  Proposing a real experiment.  Debating the structure of the experiment and the questions that should be asked of classmates.

This is how real scientists are equipped and inspired.

today was only penultimate

…yet kind of hard to top.
This morning we decided to add an additional mile to the Official Summer Session Tues/Thurs 2-mile outing. An extra mile on the water, that is-  paddling around the mysterious island in the wide, easternmost part of Ladybird Lake.

photo-7IMG_0608photo-8Energized by their morning adventure, the Eagles set to making portfolio boards for themselves and their new Running Partners, to help insure that the new Studio will be a welcoming, joyful space to come together in again this September.


Then it was time for a final bit of reckoning- which Eagle had accrued, and maintained, the highest number of Eagle Bucks this school year?  The top three winners got to choose music for the party tomorrow, the flavor of cake we’ll enjoy (thank you, Ellie!) and one other surprise.


This penultimate day of the academic year day ended with a surprisingly rigorous (a guide was surprised, anyway) Socratic discussion about the Hero’s Journey and how best to introduce the concept in a meaningful way to our incoming Eagles in the fall.  This penultimate blog post will end with a less Socratic question: can you tell exactly who is tipping whom into the lake??


Proud Citizens!

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

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

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

Beautiful Souls

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After a hayride, Eagles gathered by fireside for s’mores and the first of two ceremonies to close out the year.

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Eagles had been asked earlier to draw avatars of themselves.  One by one, each Eagle placed his or her avatar in the fire, a act signifying that a mask prepared for the outside world was far less important than your true self.

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Just before dinner, each Eagle was asked to collect five objects that stood for a role that mattered to them: Son or Daughter; Brother or Sister; Dancer; Athlete; Actress; Friend.  They carried their sacred objects to the campfire.

Heroes often have to make difficult choices and tradeoffs.  This night, one by one, Eagles were asked to choose the least important role and throw it into the fire.  Then, the second most important role; then the third.  With each completion of the circle, the decision became more difficult, as roles like “Friend” or “Brother” that were precious, had to be given up.

The mood was somber; the decisions were being taken very seriously, by serious people, who understood that their lives would matter. Finally, it was down to two roles, one of which had to be thrown into the fire, before declaring the most important role you held in your hand.

Which role was left?  For two Eagles, it was “servant to God.”  For another: “Compassion.”  Still another: “A meaningful life as a hero.” We heard the pledge to be “a good fellow traveler” and another  to “make a real difference.”  Each Eagle held in his or her hand a role that meant the world to them.

The words were beautiful to hear.  Nothing you would ever expect from a group of young adults.  After it was over, both Guides were speechless, blessed to have been observers.

Later, one Guide turned to the other: “I have tried to convince myself that these are just ordinary young people – but after what I saw tonight, there’s no way I can still believe that.”

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Later that night there would be poker, wagering with points earned earlier in the day, learning more about probabilities and human nature.  Plus watching Jurassic Park and playing pranks late into the early morning hours.

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Then up at 6 AM for a silent sunrise reflection on a nearby mountaintop: the steep climb reminding each Eagle of how far he or she had come in the last year; the forty mile views a preview of how far each could go.

Each Eagle would leave his or her final symbol on the mountaintop, as a promise to themselves and their fellow travelers of what they would hold most dear.

Acton Academy is open to all students; Acton Academy accepts only gifted students; gifted students with beautiful souls.

How have I changed since the start of the school year?

As we near the end of the school year, it’s time for Eagles to begin to synthesize their “lessons learned.”

Here’s what one Eagle wrote in his journal today:

How have I changed since the start of the school year?

I have changed in so many ways:
I used to hate to read. Now I love to read. I learned how to enjoy it.
I learned to get a job. I learned that from my first apprenticeship.
I mastered seven years of math in twelve months.
I learned to make a great public speech.
I learned how to write a research article.
I learned how to write a mystery story.
Last, but not least, I learned that my fellow Eagles and I are on a Hero’s
Journey that will change the world.

If only everyone could change so much in a single year.

Summer: Intentional Celebration

At Acton Academy, we see the summer session as six weeks of intentional celebration.

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Yesterday, three middle schoolers were awarded Independent Learner badges in a school wide ceremony, symbolizing that they had completed all of the challenges necessary to become an Independent Learner.  An elementary Eagle received his Independent Learner binder during the ceremony, signifying that he had completed all of the math, reading, writing and critical thinking prerequisites needed to start work on his Independent Learner challenges.

The Independent Learner; Running Partner; Socratic Guide; Project Leader and even more senior learning badges present challenges that Eagles need to master to run their own companies and not-for-profits.  Each badge earned is a big event at Acton, and worthy of a celebration.

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Intentional celebration can be just pure fun too, especially since Eagles are still learning  long after most traditional schools have dismissed for the summer.

Today was “Crazy Hair” day, with the middle schoolers inviting the elementary Eagles over to serve them a surprise Ice Cream sundae party.

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Learning can be fun and hard at the same time.  It also can be intentional and celebrated — just like a Hero’s Journey.

From Tweety Bird to Road Runner

How does it feel to choose your own educational challenges, including to accept the challenge of a real world apprenticeship?

Here’s a quote from this week’s Journal Contest, from an Eagle who last year attended an excellent suburban school:

“Public school and Acton are complete opposites. Now I don’t have to wait for my friends in Math. Now when they are falling behind, I can keep going.  Here at Acton, I can run freely because I’m not in a cage like Tweety Bird anymore. Now I feel like a Road Runner, running as fast as I want and stopping at any point.”

Here’s the same Eagle discussing “lessons learned” at his real world apprenticeship:

“The most important lesson I learned from my apprenticeship was to be patient and loyal, because when my golf teacher said: ‘I need you to do an inventory of our clubs,” I was about to say ‘I quit, because this is the most boring thing ever.’ But I told myself I needed to stay loyal and do it.

So I did it and the next time I had my apprenticeship I got to do a lesson on the course with my teacher and teach someone.

This will help me on my Hero’s Journey because now I know there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Syllabi versus Quests

A battle is raging over the Common Core curriculum, a nationwide effort to deliver a standardized syllabus to every teacher in America.

Yesterday, I asked our middle school Eagles how soon they would be comfortable designing their own Learning Quests, the series of real world challenges, set in a compelling narrative, that Acton Eagles use to acquire world skills and “learn to be” lessons.

“Probably a year and a half,” replied one, “I need to see a few more examples.”

“More like a year,” answered another, “if we made it a priority.”

“We could do it now,” chirped a third, “it just wouldn’t be our best work.”

Government committees, decreeing standardized lessons, designed to allow teachers in a classroom to deliver facts, at a cost of over $10,000 per student per year.

Aspiring heroes, creating their own personalized quests, full of real world challenges, guiding each other and preparing for paying apprenticeships, at a cost of $1500 per student per year.

Care to wager which approach creates more 21st century leaders?

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.

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.

de Tocqueville and Civil Society

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A visitor who wants to import the magic of Acton Academy to his school, circled the Eagles to ask the secrets to a strong culture.

Their answers:

1. Strong covenants between students.

2. Eagle Bucks and accountability.

3. A Town Council and Council Meetings that made Eagles, and not adults, responsible for creating and enforcing laws.

4. A belief that “we are all in this together, and not separate tribes like the Stanford Prison experiment.”

5.  Socratic discussions where we hold each other accountable for respecting and upholding the discussion process.

6.  Daily, weekly and session long SMART goals, where we have the freedom and responsibility for our own learning.

7.   Running Partners who are assigned, so you learn to get along with people who are different than you.

8   Faith that we really are heroes, who are going to change the world.

Not only do the Eagles know what makes a strong culture, soon they will be able to build their own, in companies, not-for-profits and community groups.  Exactly the kind of everyday heroes that Alexis-de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America.

An Acton Academy Riddle

In the last few months, we’ve heard from a dozen or more entrepreneurs and educators who want to open an Acton Academy.

This fall we’ll host a contest/tournament to select between five and ten education-entrepreneurs to open an Acton Academies (or a generic version that doesn’t use the Acton name.)

If you are interested, here’s a riddle that captures the spirit of what we’ll be trying to do.

How can both the following statements be true?

1.  Acton Academy is open to all students; and

2. Acton Academy only serves gifted students.

If the answer to the riddle is obvious, you’d make a great Acton parent, Eagle or education-entrepreneur.

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”.

The Messiness of Trial and Error Learning, Self Government, and Spontaneous Order

The Acton Academy curriculum would be so much simpler if the adults would just take charge of the teaching: lessons could be planned and delivered; classrooms would be free from disruptions and students could move forward in a lockstep curriculum.

The Acton Academy studio would be much neater if adults were in control: food could be prohibited; janitors could be hired and free time would be quieter and less raucous.

Parents would be much easier to manage in a more well ordered school too, especially if we didn’t consider having families of lifelong learners so important or would stop conducting those pesky weekly surveys of customer satisfaction.

Trial and error learning, self government and spontaneous order are just so messy.  Especially when we are trying to craft a model for 21st century learning.

Those of us who guide in the school make mistakes. Early on, we made it clear that standardized testing wasn’t important – building a curriculum and school around standardized testing stifled curiosity and ingenuity; being “smart” was better than the alternative, but not nearly as important as having character and perseverance.

Yet we wanted to make sure students weren’t too far behind in the basics, so we tested how Eagles were doing in reading, writing and math.  The results were astounding, so suddenly we began touting the rapid advances in learning that we could easily measure, forgetting the far more important “messy” lessons that were being earned and learned.

At one point, a third or so of our older elementary students had maxed out the SAT10 test, so it was inevitable that the rapid advancement in grade levels would slow, as many Eagles approached the limits of the tests, some focused more on one subject than another and others went through natural changes in development and cognitive growth.

Yet now we had to explain to a few anxious parents that even the brightest and most motivated Eagles can’t advance multiple grade levels every year, not if you want the far more important and messy lessons of self government, learning how to learn and apprenticeships to take hold.

Yes, real learning is messy.  So are genuine learning communities.  So are parents and lifelong learners like us trying to find our way.

Yet we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Your Hero’s Journey

Every Eagle at Acton knows that he or she is on a Hero’s Journey that will change the world, in a profound way.

We learn the most as Guides, when we ask important questions.  Today we asked which experiences in the last seven months havebeen the most valuable for each Eagle’s individual Hero’s Journey.

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The results surprised us:

  • First Place:  My Apprenticeship
  • Second Place: Setting and Achieving My Own Goals
  • Third Place: Exhibiting My Work in Published Exhibitions.

The lessons for us:

  1. The real world is far more important than any classroom.
  2. “Learn to Do” and “Learn to Be” trump “Learn to Know” in the 21st century; and
  3. Incentives matter but grades do not.

Be Amazed

We expect far too little of our young people. Really.  Even when we know they are geniuses-in-the-making.

Our Middle School Eagles just published a Mystery Anthology, and presented two copies to the Elementary Eagles, who have been competing to see who can devour it first.  Today we received this email from on of the ES students:

Hi Ms.Abigail,

I have a blog called Read This! and I recently reviewed your                                 storybook   on there. I am sending you the link so if you would like to read it you can. The link is



This afternoon, we found out a Middle School Eagle will have an editorial published in the Austin paper next week, as a result of her apprenticeship.

Finally, and most powerfully, today we asked our MS Eagles to “stand in the box” as they read the rough draft of their hero speeches.  We even invited in a flock of Elementary Eagles as an audience, to increase the pressure.

Frankly, I didn’t expect much. It was a first draft of a difficult speech, performed by two of our more reserved Eagles, who had struggled with the assignment.  The goal simply was to get them in front of an audience.

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Then the first Eagle began to read, and we were all mesmerized by her words.  And the the second Eagle delivered a powerful plea to save his homeland from invaders.  In both cases, I promise you that anyone within earshot would have answered the calls.

Later, as I was describing the impact of the performances, one of my high powered MBA’s said: “It’s so good that you are teaching them such a critical life skill.”

But you see, we didn’t teach them anything.  Each Eagle knew all along how to write and deliver a moving speech, in an original voice.

An eight year old with a blog, writing book reviews.

A twelve year old publishing an editorial in a major metropolitan newspaper.

Two moving speeches – each from a first draft.

Today, as most days, I didn’t teach at all. I learned something new.

Be amazed.

The Alchemists

Being on a Hero’s Journey is not easy at any age.  Heroes face challenges, they fail and get up again, they take risks, they show vulnerability.  And they use their natural gifts and the tools they’ve developed along the way to guide themselves forward.

Changing the world is hard work, as is writing a speech that you’ll soon deliver in public.  Planning a trip for the first time can be a tremendous challenge, but even if you’ve done it before, troubleshooting all the potential pitfalls and organizing myriad details is hard work.  And can be extremely…. stressful.

Some say young people should be protected from stress; others say they should “learn to deal with it”.  Maybe there’s some truth in both approaches, but the Eagles have found a third way.  Drawing upon the work they did finding and understanding their own “shadow selves”, and then finding the gold in those shadows, Eagles are teaching themselves and each other to find the gold in the stress and transform those negative feelings into tools they can use to increase their focus and commitment to the tasks at hand.   Alchemize stress into productivity, using their gifts and the tools they’ve aquired along their journey so far? If anyone can do it, it’s the Eagles.  Foremost among those tools:  friendship.


Why do we care so much about the education of children?

Why do adults care so much about the education of children?

  • Do we want to build a better society?
  • Or are we more interested in showcasing our children or disciples, to make ourselves look better?
  • Or perhaps we seek to relive our own childhoods, to right old wrongs.

None of these are legitimate reasons.  Children are not raw material for social architects or props for a “parent of the year” contest or tools for middle aged psychodramas. Children are precious beings, each a genius, with an individual hero’s journey.

It is surprisingly easy to forget this, but children can sense when the motives of a teacher, coach or parent shift, and they move from being curious and joyful in learning to suspicious and guarded.

Better to leave them to explore on their own than to try and mold them for the wrong reasons.

Welcome back – at least to a few

Today was our first day back from a two week Spring Break, at least for a few Eagles.

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As you’ll see from the photo above, we had quite a few “no shows” this morning. Sleeping in? Spring Fever?  A flu epidemic?

Not hardly.

You see, many of our Eagles are working at their apprenticeships.  For some, what was meant to be a four day experiment has turned into a two week (or longer) assignment.

One Eagle emailed last night about her apprenticeship:

“I’m glad to say that  things have been great!  I’m learning about all of the positions and roles in the communication department, sitting in on meetings and learning SO much.  Everybody here is so kind and it’s inspiring how they’re doing something meaningful.

In fact, tomorrow I will be working so I won’t be able to come to school.  Hopefully, for the rest of the week I’ll be able to come for at least part of the school day.”

Later I heard from her mother that this Eagle hated to miss the first day back, but “had a 2 PM meeting that was too important to miss.”

Eleven years old, and already too busy changing the world to rush back to school.

Don’t worry. She’s several years ahead of grade level, so this industrious Eagle — working on the side — is still likely to finish her high school academic requirements while she is still in middle school.

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.

History, and the stories that bind us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Active Imagination and the Hero’s Journey

As part of the Forensic Psychology Quest, Eagles today experimented with Active Imagination, a challenging technique invented by Carl Jung.

Building on their work in dream analysis and word association, Eagles learned to “daydream” in an intentional way to invite and record conversations with different archetypal characters inside them, revealing inner thoughts and conflicts and clarifying real world struggles.

While Active Imagination at first sounds somewhat “far out,” it was Jung who championed the idea of an inner Hero’s Journey as an important part of fully lived life, and many people have found the technique brings great clarity to important life decisions.

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Theory aside, the Eagles were fascinated with Active Imagination, not only taking quickly to the technique, but begging for more time to continue the conversations with the characters who emerged from their unconscious.  Several learned extremely powerful lessons about themselves.
photo (241) photo (242)Add the Active Imagination challenge to a day where Eagles listened to and analyzed a Winston Churchill speech, and several guided younger Eagles in the Elementary School as part of their Learning Badge project, and it was quite an important day for our young leaders who someday will change the world.

Apprenticeships: Ready for Lift Off

We launched this morning by listening to Ronald Reagan’s Challenger speech and comparing it to Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address.

The goal is to have Eagles luxuriate in great speeches – soaking in the most powerful words, phrases and symbols as they listen and observe more intentionally.

Next session each Eagle each will choose a historical figure and write and deliver a speech as that character, at an important time and place.

This morning Eagles rehearsed and polished their final Apprenticeship pitches – determined to secure each a real world apprenticeship by April.

  • How do you grab someone’s attention early in an email, call or in person meeting, long enough to ask an important question?
  • How do you explain a complex idea like an apprenticeship, in just a few words?
  • How do you ask for the job; clearly, directly in a way that’s difficult to refuse?

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Bravely, our Eagles explored these questions and prepared for the “Big Ask” next week.

Then, in the afternoon, ink blot tests and more Jungian dream analysis, the beginning of understanding the power of that FDR and Reagan’s symbols – and especially the Hero’s Journey — are deep inside each one of us.

Celebrating with Peter Pan

A Hero Talk by award winning architect Tom Hatch (who is designing the new Acton Academy campus). Core Skills in the morning.  Then distilling six weeks of work in personal Portfolios; preparing for our next five week sprint.  Cleaning until the classroom was in pristine condition.

Then it was time for a surprise outing, earned by the Eagles by scoring thousands of Eagle Buck points during the session: Peter Pan Miniature Golf and snow cones on a beautiful spring day.

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A special group of young heroes.  Destined to change the world.

Making Waffles, Planning Parties and Standardized Tests

Today the Middle School Eagles had a self organized Waffle Party – each bringing recipes, supplies and equipment.

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Yes, we had Core Skills today. Yes, we practiced how to pitch for an apprenticeship. Yes, we reviewed “lessons learned” from the Detective Quest.

We even had an inspiring Hero Talk from our Acton Academy Guatemala Guide Daniel, who challenged our Eagles to concert their dreams into reality – today!

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Life is short.  Our Eagles worked hard these last six weeks. So as we near the end of this six week “sprint,” celebrating achievements — and learning about cooking waffles and party planning — is well within the Acton curriculum.  Even if it never shows up on a standardized test.

Keep Away Today; College Tomorrow

Today our Eagles took advantage of a beautiful spring day for a spirited game of keep away.

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“Keep away today; college tomorrow?”  You might take that as a philosophical observation about the ephemeral nature of childhood.  True, but not the whole truth.

Our Eagles are so far ahead academically that many soon will be taking college courses in high school (Maria Teresa at Acton Academy Guatemala, age 14, already is taking Harvard, Stanford quality level from Coursera, Udacity and EdX.)

Yesterday, a major accreditor announced that five MOOC’s (massive open online courses) may know be taken for college credit (note – most MOOC’s are free!)

The courses:

  • “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” and “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach,” from Duke University.
  •  “Pre-Calculus” and “Algebra,” from the University of California at Irvine; and
  •  “Calculus: Single-Variable,” from the University of Pennsylvania.

Expect hundreds more such courses, from elite universities, to follow soon.

Our Eagles will be well qualified for a four year, on campus experience at an Ivy League university; many of our families may choose to invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars required for such an enriching experience.

But the whole concept of a college education is changing so rapidly that the brightest and most motivated students may soon be able to gain all of the academic value from a college experience for pennies on the dollar.

If this comes to pass, our Eagles will be at the front of the line.

The Courage to be Vulnerable and Grateful

Yesterday, as a continuation of our discussions about sarcasm and passive-aggressive behavior, we asked our Middle School Eagles to share their greatest fears.

The remarkable outcome?  Each shared a deep, serious, personal fear; fears that all humans share, but few ever voice.

Then, one by one, each Eagle expressed gratitude to a classmate who had inspired or helped them.  Face to face; eye to eye.

It was remarkable to witness.  A real honor.

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.