Category Archives: Hero Story

“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.

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.

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.)

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.




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!

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.

Real heroes never give up

Yesterday, five Eagles failed to finish their My Hero’s Journey project on time, and thus suffered the consequences of their choices by missing the class celebration.  Some missed by a little; some by a lot.

This must have hurt, because failing publicly always hurts.  But at Acton Academy, not everyone wins every race  – just like in the real world, there are successes and failures.

Real heroes know it isn’t about winning or losing,  but about having the courage to fail, get up, dust yourself off and try again.

Winston Churchill knew this when he said during the depths of World War II:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Churchill fought depression all his life.  His political career seemed all but over when he was blamed for 44,000 British deaths at Gallipoli in World War I.

But by 1941, Churchill said at a Harrow graduation : “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

We want our Eagle to try mightily, and when they fail, to feel the sting of temporary defeat.  To know how hard it is to fall and get back up and try again.  Because it is through effort and failure and rebirth that character is formed.

At the entrance to the Acton MBA is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Our Acton Academy Eagles’ place will never be with those timid souls, because they are heroes who will change the world, even if it means knowing the bitter taste of an occasional defeat, and the courage it takes to get back up and try again.

Having Fun versus Working Hard

So how do you inspire Eagles take control of their own learning?  Not an easy question.

Here’s a start. Today’s launch featured three stories:

1. 18-year-old Stacey Ferreira saw a tweet from entrepreneur Richard Branson about a charity event he was sponsoring , flew halfway across the country to meet him and left with $400,000 in funding for her new website.

2.  Harvard Education professor Richard Elmore, who has observed over 2,000 classrooms, writes a blog post blasting traditional schools as “custodial institutions, designed to hold adolescents out of the labor force and to socialize them to adult control” adding that the “only other public institution in our society that works this way…is the prison system.”

3. A group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs announces a new school where “every child is a genius,” giving credit for its inspiration to Acton Academy.

Stacey Ferreira is a hero who shows what our Eagles can accomplish. Professor Elmore paints a dismal picture of the educational alternatives.  The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are proof that what our Eagles’ efforts matter in the world.

During the day, progress continues in Core Skills, including an early glimpse of math in spring, where Eagles will choose independent paths in either Geometry, Algebra or Trigonometry. We also debate a change in self-governance designed to simplify SMART goals.

One Eagle pays off the loan she took out to start the school store:

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In the afternoon, Eagles work hard on their Game Quest, some creating board games, others making electronic games, all knowing that next week’s public demonstration is fast approaching:

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Story lines and critical thinking are stressed below.

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Near the end of the afternoon, two Eagles demonstrate their game prototypes and receive formal critiques.

The end of the day discussion asks what advice our Eagles would offer to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.  Is “hard work” or “fun” more important for creating the right learning environment?  Which should be stressed first?  Should the approach in the elementary school be different than the middle school?

No two students can agree.  And that’s exactly the point.

Intuition, Martian colonies, and expensive scissors

What are the differences between logic, emotion and intuition? Can you imagine circumstances where you’d be wise to use one over the other to make the very best decision?
After pondering these questions in a Socratic discussion, Eagles dove into their core skills work, paying extra attention to their SMART goals tracking as they prepared their end-of-week wrap-ups. Jack won our Friday journal reflection contest, with his response to “What’s the hardest thing you did this week?” (finishing the production leg of The Bandit film; he was lauded by peers for his excellent word choice, details, and dash of humor).

The morning ended with a debate about whether or not humans should colonize Mars, a la Elon Musk’s long-term vision for SpaceX. Eagles implemented terrific discussion skills: “Building on what Mason said, …” “I STRONGLY disagree with Charlie…..”, “I agree with Jack, and I’d like to add….”. One usually vocal student stayed silent until the end: “At first I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but after listening to the points everyone’s been making, while I really see the value in what Charlie’s saying, I agree with Mason, because…”
It’s inspiring to observe these young men and women listening intently to one another, learning from their peers, and ultimately forming their own opinions.
While most of the Eagles played outdoors during free time, two – then three- then four as the desire to pitch in spread- stayed in to surprise their classmates with a pop-up dance and cupcake party, complete with streamers and helium balloons!
This session’ s theme of celebration seemed to have struck a chord. Special thanks to Ellie and Ana for their thoughtfulness.
After lunch, special guest filmmaker Brandon Dickerson joined us for an editing workshop- not a teacher lecturing to class about how to edit, but a professional bringing in his current project for a hands-on work session.  The Eagles prepared by reading over the bit of screenplay (Scene 41) that corresponded to the footage they were going to watch, and examining a set diagram to imagine how the actors would move through the scene.  After introducing his fancy new editing software while reminding us that all editing tools are basically “expensive scissors”,  Brandon screened his footage.  (Heated, of course) discussion ensued regarding which takes to use and how to cut them together to best tell the story.
Afterwards, during an abbreviated version of our usual Friday game time, a guide became so involved in an intense Boggle match that she forgot to keep an eye on the clock…. fortunately one of our student leaders realized it was five minutes past time to clean up for the weekend, and the Eagles worked together to get the job done.
Cooperation, respectful disagreement, spirited competition, and community celebration made for a fabulous Friday at Acton Academy!


Anxiety versus fear

How does a hero differentiate between healthy fear and anxiety?  That was the subject of today’s launch, and a continuation of our exploration of risk as we ask: “Does the past determine the future?”

We started with video from Gavin DeBecker, the world’s leading expert on predicting violent behavior; an adviser to Presidents and celebrities and author of The Gift of Fear, one of the best books I have ever read on any subject.  Here’s the link to the video:

The basic messages:

  • Trust your instincts.  If you sense danger, respect that warning.
  • Fear is in the moment; the prospect of serious and immediate harm.
  • Anxiety is worrying about the future; a waste of time and energy.

After listening to DeBecker, we role played various encounters with strangers.  Did it have an impact?  Just ask your Eagle about the risk versus reward of getting into a “soundproof metal cage” (an elevator) if your instincts suggest otherwise.  Or ask how you should handle an approaching stranger, if something doesn’t seem right.

Some schools build walls and create a virtual prison.  That’s unlikely to deter determined criminals, and just makes students feel like helpless victims.  Our goal is to empower courageous leaders to make difficult choices in the real world, and especially when the stakes are high.

Lots of hard work in Core Skills followed, then a Skype “hero call” with Scott Rogers (shown below), one of Hollywood’s most famous stunt men, to continue the theme of “risk versus reward” in the real world.

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The room was buzzing with energy in the afternoon, as Eagles worked on Gamestar Mechanics to design, build and play test their creations, in preparation for the Game Expo in less than three weeks.

Rumor has it that the Acton Elementary Eagles are confident that their games will triumph – a challenge not taken lightly by the Middle Schoolers, who have redoubled their efforts.

Curiosity and hospitality

How do you judge the health of a learning culture?  Two good measures might be curiosity and hospitality.

Our MS Eagles showed the first when recently sending a letter to the Elementary Eagles, asking various questions about why the ES learning culture works so well.  The ES Eagles today graciously responded with a long and thoughtful letter, complete with attachments.

Hospitality was showcased today when the Eagles greeted Mia, a recent applicant who was shadowing before joining us this summer.  Without any request from Guides, the MS’ers created a sign to welcome Mia, who as you see below, was well liked by all.

We are trying out a new trick in room design, cardboard “walls” that can be rearranged in moments to create semi-private focus space for one or two Eagles in core skills, and also provide more personal portfolio space.  Just one of many experiments as we continue to design the interior of the new campus.

Finally, today we introduced normal and lognormal-power curves, and how “discovered” probabilities from each could be used in two challenges involving oil exploration and “guessing the height of the next person who comes into the room.”   As you see below, lots of energy in the room.

Which challenge was investing and which was gambling? (The answer was deceptively complicated.)   Which of the five heroes: Gauss; Galton; Pareto; Bezos and Hastings, made the most fundamentally important discoveries?  Which ones used power curves and the internet to build large businesses?  Which one will have the biggest impact on the world?  Which one owns a spaceport?

All questions we will continue to explore and debate the rest of the week.

Football, film and gifts

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

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

Like playing sandlot football before school starts.

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

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

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

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

Integration and Accountability

Many people ask how we integrate the disparate parts of a day into a single narrative.

Here’s an example:

We launched our morning huddle with a video clip of Susan Boyle, the surprising singer who bravely overwhelmed skeptics with her powerful voice on the 2009 version of Britain’s.  The point?  That following your dream requires perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

Each Eagle then contributed an “imagine this” scenario, playing the part of the hero in his or her special moment (like winning the Super Bowl or debuting on Broadway.)

Next we focused on SMART goals for the morning in Core Skills; listened to Ms. Samantha’s “trial and error” hero story; finished self portraits in Art and continued with the Game Lab 3D work on probabilities and decision trees.

Ms. Samantha’s Hero Story.

At the final huddle, all this was wrapped into a discussion about using probabilities and decision trees, the need to adjust (but not abandon) our dreams as life happens – for example, a severe knee injury might require you to become an NFL team owner instead of an NFL quarterback  — and how our work with SMART goals in Core Skills not only imbed perseverance as a habit, but provides basic skills to fall back on when life throws us a curve.

All of this served  as a reminder that our Eagles need to be weighing what type of Apprenticeship they want to test in the spring.

Above, the decision tree used at day;s end that links an Eagles gifts, joy and opportunities to his or her dreams for tomorrow, providing a visual map of how life can force us to adapt.

Finally, we are adding even more accountability and consequences to the mix, so be prepared to hear some squawks.

Above – a more obvious signalling device to help students understand which “discussion mode is in effect: “red” is full focus; “yellow” collaboration; “green” free time.

The first five weeks we focused on building the community – making it a gathering no one ever wants to miss.  Then we added SMART and Excellence goals to encourage the habit of hard work.  Soon the few students who are still struggling with committing completely to day to day work will find themselves increasingly removed — literally hell for middle schoolers – until they find the focus needed to excel.

Because at Acton Academy, we are very serious about the learning covenants that our Eagles and Guides signed.

Relaunching the learning community

Monday was a difficult day in many ways; it seemed many of the new learning habits had worn off after a week off.  Not surprising, since new habits take more than a few weeks to deeply imbed.

Our response: simplify; provide perspective; appeal to heroes; reinforce shared accountability.

First, to simplify.  Some Eagles were overwhelmed by five or more types of assignments they had to juggle – an issue that would vex many adults.

So we regrouped deliverables under three headings: Core Skills; Projects and Quests; and MyHJ and the new Learning Badges.

Next, provide perspective.  That meant a new map, a wall display we could use to track progress, as we addressed four defining questions: Who am I?; What promises must be made and kept?; Who is walking with me?; and Why am I here?

We’ll use this display to mark our journey, moving from experiences designed to track: “Who am I?” –  and exploring individual Gifts; Joy & Flow and Opportunities – and Core Skill practice to identify which Apprenticeship will be right for each Eagle in the spring.

 Appeal to Heroes:  we started the morning with a video on Richard Branson and a quote from Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Did our Eagles aspire to lives in a cubicle?

Or taking on life as an adventure, like Richard Branson?

Branson started the first of his 400 companies at 16.  We went around the room, and asked each Eagle how many years between their current age and 16, and what would be the most important this week to get them back on the right path?

Finally, accountability.  We put renewed emphasis on tracking SMART goals, and the responsibility of Running Partners to hold each other accountable.

Before long, the learning community was humming with energy again.

Pitching your film idea

Core Skills time featured lots of work on Khan Academy, as well as the Eagles  pitching their script ideas to the class. Later in the day, the Eagles voted to turn Charlie, James and Mason’s scripts into real films over the next few months

Later in the afternoon, Ms Anna continued to work with the Pope, Galileo’s team and our panel of judges to prepare for Friday’s trial, and Jasper’s dad David Herman came to give his Hero’s story about working in Hollywood, as well as sharing some tips on acting and directing.

We also implemented Pace’s idea of signalling what mode the class was in: Red for discussion time, with all Rules of Engagement in force; Yellow for collaborative time when students can mill around freely, as long as no one who is focused on work is being disturbed; and Green for free time.  Interestingly, we calculated that in the average day Eagles spend 1-1.5 hours in Red (discussion) mode; 1.5 hours in Green (free) mode (including the 30 minutes before class officially starts); and 4-4.5 hours in Yellow (collaborative) mode.

Spending 5.5 to 6 hours intensely “on task” every day is the reason we can pack so much discovery and learning into a single day.