How Great Presidents (and Learners) are Made

As we wrap things up before heading into Thanksgiving break (and then to the halfway mark for the year!), I want to leave you with something one of our wonderful Board members sent to me.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a historian and biographer who received her Ph.D from Harvard University and has written extensively on American presidents. Her book Team of Rivals was adapted into the film Lincoln by Steven Spielberg. She recently published Leadership in Turbulent Times. I am posting an interview she did with Ezra Klein recently where she talks about presidents like Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and Johnson. She was asked what it is that makes leaders able to do great things, and she said that the commonality between them all was that they all faced numerous crises in their lives. Facing down those crises is what gave them resilience. It reminds me of what I constantly tell my learners, that if something is easy, if something is not at least a little stressful, then it’s probably not going to help you at all.



Session 4 Week 1 & 2



Session 3 Week 4&5



Open for Business

Our third session is wrapping up, and the Eagles are using the Acton Children’s Business Fair for this session’s Exhibition of Learning. It’s hard to convey how elevated the material has been this session - high level economic principles, the ins and outs of running a business, the perfect amount of chocolate chips to put in a cookie…

I’m incredibly pleased with how engaged the Eagles have been with this material. Like I’ve said before, I had some trepidation at the beginning that the difficulty of this material would turn them off and they would give up immediately. It was unfounded, however, because they have persisted and have shown an appetite for stimulating lessons.

The last week or two of the session have seen a heightened level of stress though, because they are now learning the importance of time management, and the frenzy to get it done at the very end when time management fails. We often say in the Studio that “excellence starts with time management.” This stress has been good, because as we start the next quest, the memory of the stress of those last two weeks will be fresh and they will ask themselves what to do to avoid it (spoiler: use your Quest Time well!).

Since we also have a Studio of football hooligans, the Eagles have introduced a Yellow/Red Card system to maintain order. If the Yellow Card is raised, that means “Caution.” If then the Red Card gets raised, it’s a fine of one Eagle Buck from the community. However, after trying it a few times, the Eagles have decided that might be a little too much power for one Eagle to hold, so they are in the midst of discussing a responsible way to wield the Yellow/Red Card system. It is a potent reminder of our big question of the year - “Does Power Corrupt?”



Stress Response

I was watching an interview with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt the other night, and he was talking about the different reactions to stress. Take a wine glass for instance - if you break a wine glass, that is bad and nothing good comes out of the stress inflicted on the glass. And then take a shatter-proof cup - if you drop it, it doesn’t break, so nothing bad happens, but nothing good happens either.

However, some things need stress placed on them for an optimal response. The immune system, for example, needs exposure to know how to fight illness. Bones need weight on them and stress to grow stronger. A learner is much like this because without challenge, failure, and stress, they will be unable to process failure and hardship as they grow older.

Now there’s stress, and then there’s stress. Bullying, for instance, is something I feel compelled to prevent however I can. Conflict and arguments during a game or sports, however, I feel the need to let the learners work that out themselves. Navigating social conflict in a way that doesn’t end in tears is something that is born out of exposure to the stress of that conflict.

Another type of stress that I’m pleased to see strengthening their resolve is from our E-ship Quest. I was quite anxious as we began that the heady financial and economic principles that are a part of the quest would just be too much for them. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged they are by the material, and with how much gusto they tackle the work. I’m crazy excited to see their booths at the Acton Children’s Business Fair on November 9th.

We’ve also been hard at work on Writer’s Workshop where we are writing our memoirs! I’m currently trying to find a medium in which to publish them so they can regale you with their stories. As third and fourth grade brains just begin to move into abstract territory, they are starting to see how a prompt like “Write About a Time When Nothing Happened” is an avenue for them to find that Growth Mindset and look at life in a different way.

In closing, I will leave you with someone much smarter and more articulate than myself to elucidate my ramblings above.



Session 3 Week 11


Music Monday with Mrs. Melanie. Drums and practicing their puppet show.


Sandlot baseball at free time. Beckett can really put a curve on a whiffle ball.


Getting started on unit economics for the entrepreneur quest. Warren Buffett is all the rage with kids.


Couch Louis during PE. After balloons, it’s back to Crossfit with tractor tires.

Farm on a cold morning.  You will never be short on radishes again.


Mr. Ryan avoiding manual labor, as usual.


Wednesday launch on “Grit.” What’s more valuable? Intelligence or grit? The ability to persevere in the face of hardship? To get back up when knocked down?


The Eagle Buck Council deliberating some serious jurisprudence.



1 Comment

Talent Decoded

I was struck by a passage I was recently reading in Courage to Grow, the book by Laura Sandefer chronicling her and her husband Jeff’s journey to the founding of the first Acton Academy. The passage goes as such:

“Witnessing the chaos is so difficult for me,” Jeff told me one night after a particularly trying day. “It’s just disheartening when the studio turns messy and mean. Some days I just want to give up.”

It was time to add more clarity and structure, some risks and rewards. Jeff designed and introduced a crude economic system based on poker chips. “I am always setting up games and inviting students to play,” he said. “If they don’t work, I design a new one.”

Jeff organized the Eagles into three-person squads. Each Eagle received three chips per week. Each infraction of studio rules that governed “listening” and “respect” triggered the loss of a chip. If everyone wasn’t in place for the opening discussion at 8:30 a.m. or the studio wasn’t pristine by the 3:00 p.m. closing, everyone lost a chip. If every member of a squad had a chip on Friday, the entire squad received a treat. Squad members could loan one another chips, but only if there were consequences in place for the loan.

The poker chip game translated into equipping Eagles to better understand and use the power of Eagle Bucks. They had never practiced how to use them, and like with any new system there was a learning curve. There were days when Eagle Bucks caused personal conflicts between students and there were days when they worked like a charm to keep the group working hard and holding boundaries. As time went on, they decided the system, even if flawed, was much better than needing to revert to having adults order them around.

I myself have had my share of frustrations and even doubts. Games that end in arguments… Eagle Buck requests for petty reasons… I know these learners can be kind and supportive, so what’s missing from the equation?

I think it has been the need to direct them towards the notion that we’re all in this together. That we both succeed and fail as a community. Prior to last week, for an example, we were conducting Studio Maintenance under the guise that if someone’s job isn’t complete, then the studio would just have to be dirty. Now we’re trying the tack that if someone’s job isn’t done, the community loses an Eagle Buck as a whole - a method implemented by Jeff Sandefer himself when the community was inclined towards chaos and lack of cooperation. If it is squeaky clean, then we all get a reward, perhaps extra free time.

Our wonderful Head of School, Malin, lent me a great book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. He spends a great amount of time describing how struggle and failure creates new neural pathways in children, increasing focus and perception. For this reason, Japanese schools design their curriculum so that every day is a struggle and a challenge. Contrary to that, American schools are designed to move the students along without resistance or stress.

We’re going to have to learn to not be afraid of struggle and stress. What we should be afraid of is taking the wrong lesson from struggle - that it is to be avoided. Instead, let us try to learn that struggle creates literal growth, while ease and comfort stand in the way of it.

1 Comment


Seeds of Potential

The end of our first session is the perfect time for us to begin visiting Serenbe Farms. Kaitlin, Matt, and Lance have been teaching the Eagles about planting seeds, and the what the right conditions have to be for those seeds to successfully grow. The soil has to be tilled and prepared, it has to be weeded continuously, it has to be given light and water, and they have to be patient for many weeks before it can be harvested.

Much like the radishes, the Eagles are beginning to plant their own seeds. The first six weeks were spent preparing the soil, and now they will be planting the seeds in the form of more difficult quests and writing. The core skills are getting more challenging, and the risk of community collapse is always present, meaning the Eagles have to be vigilant about using the systems in firm but kind ways. It will be weeks and months before they see the fruits of their efforts, but if they tend to the soil, they will grow.

The Eagles have made SO MUCH progress in finding their individual focus and flow. I’m so proud of each of them in finding what their distractions are and eliminating them. However, Acton Academy uses a huge amount of collaboration, and this has been a struggle zone for almost all of them. Understandably, how often are learners told “You have one hour to work with a partner to get this done. Now go get it done.” For the entirety of their educational lives, they have been given step-by-step instructions for every task, and made to work at desks quietly and without partners. Now they are given a task, told to work with members of their community to get it done, and to figure out how to get it done. This is daunting. And, of course, their first instinct is usually to chat, giggle, and not always use their time wisely. This means when the clock runs out, they have to take ownership of the product and how they used their time to create that product. This often leads to some tears - at first. But remember that Acton says “Fail early, fail often.” They will remember the frustration of having to own an unfinished product, and reflect on how they used their time. They will ask themselves if they tended to the soil, and gave their seeds water and sunlight. If they didn’t, they won’t have radishes. If they did, then we all get salads.

As always, I encourage all of you to consistently ask your learners what their strengths are, what their struggles are, what time did they use wisely and what time did they use poorly. They are all highly intelligent and highly self-aware, and continually surprise me with their insight. They will use that insight to fly higher and higher this year, even through the occasional stormy weather.



Exhibition of Yearning

So we’re at the official end of our first six-week session, culminating in our first Exhibition of Learning. These exhibitions are a regular showcase of our progress in the studio, and the Quests and skills we have focused on. The Exhibitions are completely learner-planned and learner-run. A guide’s influence is minimal, and I’m extremely proud of what the Eagles put together.

Though energy levels were through the roof and excitement spills over, I was so happy to see that through the giggles and nerves was a planned, structured presentation of our system’s and skills. The signing of our final community-created Contract gives us a fair, compassionate system to guide our conduct going forward, and a code they can use to govern themselves.

At the exhibition, I saw leaders stepping up and learners taking responsibility. You’ll probably notice that we don’t shush children, we don’t remind them of what their responsibilities are, and we don’t control their decisions.

Acton doesn’t just allow for failure, it necessitates it. In these first six weeks, we’ve had failures, which means we’ve learned. The difference is so vast between week one and week six that I have to step back just to see it all. And the difference between our first Exhibition and our last will be something I can’t wait to see.

Now that we have our permanent Contract of Promises, you can ask your learners how they affect the community. How does your learner internalize them and execute them. The process through which these Eagles will embody these Promises and systems is in motion now, and if you look close, the progress presents itself. As always, I strongly encourage you to look again at the parents’ Hero’s Journey available on the Google Drive for parents, and to continue to engage your Eagle and ask them about their goals and feelings about progress in the studio.


1 Comment

Eagle Buck Requests Will Continue Until Morale Improves

We’re near the end of our Tribe Building Quest, on the cusp of bigger challenges and ambitions. If I’ve learned anything from this first Quest of the first year of Acton Academy, it would probably be to never underestimate a learner’s appetite for challenge and ambition. The deliberate pace of this first quest resulted in fun and high morale a week or two ago, but restlessness and frustration as we come to the end. I suspect it’s because they’ve been given this accountability system (the Eagle Bucks) which they are still trying to figure out how to use with intentionality. However, it’s set up this way because they will remember these frustrations when higher stakes are introduced, as they are about to be. Our Eagle Buck Store will be up and running soon, and they will see what the result of the hard work they’ve put into their Core Skills can get them. And if they plateau with their EB earnings, it will affect their movement in the Freedom Levels, where you gain or lose responsibilities and privileges. When these elements are in play, the Eagles will know the importance of maintaining the integrity of the EB system. That importance became considerably more apparent this week during a difficult but vital episode.

The EB system consists of an Eagle Buck Council of three learners elected by the community. It is their job to meet during free time on Fridays to make decisions about the legitimacy of each Eagle Buck request and act accordingly. It is a big, challenging responsibility, as you have to be the embodiment of justice for the community. As it were, the community felt that the Council had a tendency to play a bit of favorites and to not use their time wisely, which affects the rest of the community’s free time. This is natural, and something any learner would probably do when being the first to carry such a responsibility. So when the community decided to impeach the Council and elect a new one, it was a tough experience for everyone, but it was a vital learning moment where everyone saw just how great the weight of being on the Council is, and it will largely dictate the behavior of the new Council moving forward. Additionally, the community sees that when we break the Promises, there are more EB requests, therefore less free time because the Council has to use it to conduct Council business. They also see how when EB requests are used for petty reasons, it creates more work and less free time, and shows the importance of justice and reason when using the system.

These frustrations and temporary setbacks are not meant for shaming and highlighting failure (although we always try to keep in mind the powerful learning tool that failure can be), but to foster independence and decision-making with integrity. We’ve seen huge progress in so many areas from so many Eagles, and now we have so many big Quests ahead of us. They will have a foundation for using the systems to help them be productive and independent. They have seen the systems succeed as well as fail, and their Hero’s Journey moves into the next phase.

1 Comment


The Student is now the Master

There are several reasons I am called a “guide” versus a “teacher.” One reason is because Guides should only ask questions and Learners should discover answers independently. Because of this, the Learners are going to be more like teachers with you, the parent, and you will be more like a student.

By that, I mean the Eagles should be coming home and explaining things like the Journey Tracker (their online tool for setting and tracking goals) and the Core Skills software. As you know, 3rd and 4th grade Eagles use Khan Academy and Aleks Quicktables for math, and Lexia, Spelling City, and Typing Club for other skills. Our 2nd graders use Dreambox for math, Click n’ Kids for reading and spelling, and handwriting worksheets. Eagles should be teaching you how these programs work. They may seem esoteric and incomprehensible at first (trust me, each one has exasperated me at some point!) but even our youngest Eagles have almost got the hang of everything, and so will you! Here are some questions you could ask your Eagles:

  • How do you set goals for yourself in the Journey Tracker?

  • What’s a realistic but tough goal for Khan Academy?

  • What’s a challenge book for you? Is the book your reading truly a Challenge Book? (Challenge books are "Badge Books" that they need to read to get their Reading Badge. It should fall within their "Challenge Zone" meaning it should be tough, time-consuming, and something they wouldn't normally seek out. We can touch more on that later).

  • How many points do you get for XYZ? How many for ABC? How much more do you need to earn for this badge?

These questions will force the Eagles to find seek out the answers, which they will remember much more readily than just being told. They have already figured out that with their freedom, they can choose to earn points in the programs that are easier for them. But soon, they will run out of points that are available in those programs, and will need to turn their focus to their struggle areas in order to keep earning points. This is when they will need support at home in the form of Socratic questions that reinforce tough, ambitious, but attainable goals.

What’s most important, however, is that they continue to teach you about their work and tracking goals. This is far and away the most effective means for them to become comfortable with the programs, and will help you become more comfortable with the progress and having meaningful Socratic discussions about their work.



Failure is an Option

At least once a day, I feel like I’m dying inside. Usually, this comes when Ms. Malin, our amazing Head of School, reminds me that her and I have an agreement that there is no place for her and I to fuss and chide about broken promises. Every impulse tells me to be the policeman, but that would undermine the entire Acton system.

In Acton Academy, we have several systems of accountability. We have the Studio Contract, which I have written about. There is a contract of promises Eagles make to each other (do not distract, speak with kindness and encouragement, etc.), a Socratic Rules of Engagement for our Discussions, and our Guardrails (my own rules for safety. They are set in stone). Breaking these means learners can ask for Eagle Bucks. Eagle Bucks are hard to earn, easy to lose, and are achieved by earning points in their Core Skill systems. Earning Eagle Bucks means the ability to buy prizes from the Eagle Buck Store, while losing them means lower freedom levels, strikes for finishing in a deficit, and eventually weightier consequences for continual failure to progress.

I am now repeating myself, because I know I’ve talked about all this before. My point is, none of this will work unless there is miserable failure, which is what these first weeks is about. Ms. Malin also struggles seeing this, but we remind each other that failure is where the learning happens. We are gritting our teeth as we watch them struggle, but struggle creates tough-mindedness. And tough-mindedness and warm-heartedness are the two qualities with which Eagles will evaluate each other. Tough but kind. This is the aim at Acton, and it only comes at the end of failure.

A note from Mrs. Malin

  • reward effort
  • fail early fail cheaply
  • embrace failure as an opportunity

A talk on failure from a successful business person



The Eagle Screams (Payday)

On Wednesday, we introduced the single biggest accountability system in an Acton Studio - the Eagle Buck system. And they were ready for it. After 8 days, the Eagles were tired of noise and arguing and distractions. It was surprising frustrated with how hard it was to fight the impulse to try to impose order. The system requires a period of chaos for it to work, and I had to let it play out.

I see now that it really is essential to endure this trial by fire, because by Wednesday, the Eagles were begging for the ability to police themselves. After explaining how the Bucks are earned (meeting SMART Goals in their core skills), how they are lost (being requested by other Eagles when they break their Promises to each other), and how disputes are mediated (by the Eagle Buck Council that we elected that same day), I was ready to watch the Eagles immediately start bickering and demanding money from each other in countless tit-for-tat squabbles. What happened, however, was that they were incredibly shy and reserved about asking for Eagle Bucks from each other. They noticed promises being broken, but felt unsure about their power to self-regulate. Only two Bucks were requested the first day, but I have a feeling things are about to get really real.

That being said, they are certainly tired of Mr. Ryan walking around constantly reminding them of the Promises, as is Mr. Ryan. They seem to feel the gravity of the Eagle Buck System, and have surprised themselves with how strong their desire for order is. There has been a marked shift in the air, and it’s not because someone microwaved fish again.



Storm before the calm

August 20 2018

It’s very, very hard to sit in chaos. The first week has proven this is true for child and adult alike. If there is not something substantive to engage the Eagles, the volume goes up. Messes are made. Communication breaks down. By about Wednesday and Thursday, a few Eagles had some seriously distressed looks on their faces. I asked them why.


“It’s SO loud.”
“I can’t read without someone bothering me.”

“I’m trying to say something but people keep yelling over me.”

This is the way it has to be though. I have to remind myself that. Our systems of accountability will begin to be introduced this week, and the Eagles need to have the chaos fresh in their memories so they understand the effectiveness of them. We signed a temporary contract of promises to each other (no distracting, speaking kindly, etc.) but they have wondered aloud what to do when no one is keeping them. They remind each other, but that lasts about 30 seconds before the chaos starts again. This is where the accountability comes in.


Systems like our Eagle Bucks, Strike System and Points give the Eagles a tangible means with which they can keep each other accountable. Town Hall meetings and a Town Council will let them discuss new ways to let the community stay productive.


For now, chaos still rears its head time to time. But the Acton rubber is about to hit the studio road, and the interesting part begins.



Promises, promises...


We’ve had three days of school so far, and each day has been vastly different than the last.

At the end of the first day I felt like, frankly, a train had run over me. There was chaos, confusion, a few tears, lots of nerves… and that was just on my part. Some of our older Eagles coming from Montessori had very clear looks on their face – the loudness and the chaos was not sitting well with them. This was how I discovered the power of my own silence.

During a particularly rambunctious few minutes, I gave up trying to establish order and stopped talking. I was silent for a very long two minutes. Soon, though, glimpses of self-policing began to appear. The older Eagles in the community started trying to impose order themselves. It got quieter, and then quieter. The learners sat down. They formed their own circle. It looked something like order. I asked them, “Does this noise stress you out? Does it stress you out when you have a thought or question, and someone else interrupts you and talks over you?” This is how we led into our Provisional Contract.

The contract is a series of promises the Eagles make to each other. We establish a temporary one based on what the Eagles think is our most immediate need to create a functional community, and we tweak it over the coming weeks for a final document. At the end of the creation of our provisional contract, we had a signing ceremony where the Eagles made a vocal promise to the community and signed the document while I rather dramatically rang the bell after each one. But the drama of it seemed to have a profound effect on them.

Our morning circles are becoming quieter as the Eagles listen to each other. They are sharing their thoughts with each other more, instead of just responding to my prompts. They are starting to answer each other’s questions instead of looking to me. Most remarkably, without my really telling them so, they are sharing their problems in calm, productive ways instead of accusations and fussing.

I thought my introduction of the Studio Maintenance system (our way of keeping our space clean and organized) would be particularly difficult. And there was some definite arguing with the “Champion” of each area of the studio that needed to be cleaned. But when I informed each Champion that it was their responsibility that the rest of the Eagles do their jobs thoroughly, they set to seeing it through without any pettiness or abuse of power. I am excited to see that play out in the coming weeks as each Eagle gets a chance to be their Area Champion, and they will remember what helped them or hindered them in getting their task done. They promised to speak to each other with kindness and encouragement, and they seem to be keeping that promise pretty well.

Next – resource management. Because ink cartridges are expensive.