Guardrails for Serious Fun

Our emphasis at the start of the school year is FUN. We believe learning is one of the most fun things in life and we want our environment to reflect this.

A close second to the fun is creating our boundary system. Boundaries ensure safety and security – intellectually, emotionally and physically. Without limits, freedom and fun become stressful chaos or worse, meaningless and wasteful.

At Acton Academy, our boundaries are not fuzzy. They outline how we treat each other, our environment and ourselves as travelers on Hero’s Journeys.

I am often asked, “How do you discipline students at Acton Academy?” I like to rephrase the question: “What happens when a student chooses not to respect the boundaries drawn by their fellow Eagles?”

Our answer is simple: We respect their choice.  

The Eagles spend a great deal of time exploring why their time at Acton is important. The “Why belong?” question is critical.  Next, the group debates and adopts community standards and consequences for not respecting them. These are our “rules of engagement.”  All of this takes days and a great deal of patience, but once the Eagles have spoken, the boundaries mean a great deal to everyone.

We use the words “choice” and “decision” daily at Acton. The Eagles know they choose their words and actions each moment of each day; and that these decisions determine their overall experience in school and, ultimately, in life.

In the elementary school, the consequence of choosing to cross over a boundary at Acton Academy is removal from the community in varying degrees. The choice to disrupt the group’s or an individual’s learning or safety begins with a brief separation within the studio; if the boundary is intentionally crossed again, the separation takes place in the conference room with a guide to discuss why the choice is being made; and finally, after three clear and intentional breaches of intentional disruption or harm, the parents are called to bring their Eagle home until he or she chooses to rejoin the community and commit to its covenants.

The middle school system of consequences includes losing privileges within the community and/or losing Eagle Bucks. When there is a clear intention to break with the contract, discussions begin between the student, guide and parents about the choice to stay within the community or to leave Acton Academy.

When a boundary is crossed, our words are simple: “We love you. You made the choice and you knew the consequence of your choice.  We are excited for you to choose to join the community again. And even if you choose to leave, we will continue to believe you will choose a Hero’s Journey.”

This week the students are negotiating these rules of engagement. We will post them in the elementary school weekly update and on the middle school blog when they are adopted.

We believe this is one of the most powerful processes within our community because it is based in respect, freedom of choice and the understanding that what each human chooses to do and say matters to the world. 

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Car Talk – Questions that Work

The drive home and the chat around the dinner table are precious moments in life. What can seem like routine daily life can be transformed into “aha” moments of learning about each other. It’s all in how we ask the questions. Below are just a few questions that help move us parents off the, “How was your day?” rock and into a more stream-of-consciousness flow of learning about each other:

  • On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being “worst day ever” and 10 being “most awesome day!”) how would you rate today at school?  What would have made it better? What would you have changed if you could?
  • When did you have the most energy today? During a group time or during individual work time?
  •  What was your high today? What was your low?
  •  Are you more comfortable asking another Eagle for help or a Guide for help when you need it?
  •  Did you serve as a Guide to someone else today?
  • What core skills work did you do today? Do you feel you did your best work?
  • Play the “Two truths and a Lie” game: Each person shares three things that they did today. Two statements are true and one is a lie. The others have to guess which is a lie.

Each question can be followed up with: “Tell me more!” or “Why do you think that?” Have fun and feel free to share questions that are your favorites for getting your Eagles to talk about their day.

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No Classrooms at Acton?

We began Acton Academy with seven students in a sweet, creaking, old house.  With ceremonial intention, we gave the students the task of naming the rooms in their new school. Soon we had the Artichoke Room, the Hand Room, the Red Room and the Leaf Room. Not a one chose to name a room the Classroom.

As we grew out of this first home, we decided to construct simple buildings to test our vision of the one-room schoolhouse. With the busy-ness of moving and growing, the word “classroom” slipped into our Acton-speak. We had neglected to pause and name our new space.

I became uncomfortable with this word. It didn’t describe aptly what was happening each day within the walls of Acton Academy. It was like calling our picnic blankets a cafeteria. It was just wasn’t right. 

The Acton spaces function more as studios than classrooms. Studios are homes to tinkerers, artists and innovators. They harbor hands-on experimentation, ongoing projects and creative messes. Studios reveal integrated layers of work and organized systems that inspire curiosity. Silence and noise each have their place in a studio. 

The Guides and the Eagles have embraced this vision of their new campus. On Tuesday, we will open Studio I and Studio II to 64 daring and talented Eagles who will take ownership of their spaces and of their learning.

Please pardon our mess.

Fun Acton Trivia: After naming the rooms that first year, the students were charged with choosing the school mascot. All family members got a vote. The list of choices they created included the Eagles, Owls, Aces, Sharks and Astronauts. The Eagle won in a very tight race. The Owl, a close sec 




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New Campus….CHECK!

It became real today.  Seeing the Eagles and their families breathing life into our new buildings proved to me what a place of learning should be.  It should make life flow out of people rather than push it back in; and it should tickle minds wide open rather than bind them narrowly.  The joy today was as real as the bricks and mortar. Thank you to the Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects and to American Contructors, Inc. for listening to our vision of learning space and making it come true.

Yes, the buildings matter and we love them; however, they are not the center of our thoughts. What we hope to be doing is creating a sense of place and ownership that will define the “we” of our identity so that the “I” of our identity is possible.  For it is within a safe and authentic community that the individual can grow and thrive, ultimately taking flight. The buildings won’t last. The souls of the people who have spent time there will.

We dedicate our new campus to the heroes who will arrive each weekday morning with curiosity, respect, imagination and courage. There will be good days and bad days. We’ll take them all to have the honor of being a part of these young people’s journeys.

To enjoy witnessing this daily journey please follow us on Instagram!  Photos from today are already loaded. We are actonacademyatx. You’ll find daily photos of the Eagles in action. These photos will tell a better story than my words ever could. Enjoy!

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Rumor Busting: What I overheard this summer…

Rumor: “Acton Academy does not believe its students should go to college.”

To quote someone near and dear to my heart, to this we say, “Poppycock!”

Acton Academy is not a college prep school; this is true. To the contrary, we are a “life prep school,” if I may coin a phrase.

We have no doubt many of our Eagles will choose college as one of the essential stations along the way in their hero’s journeys. And we have no doubt that others will find alternative routes to follow their callings – whether it’s starting a business right out of high school or going to flight school to become a pilot. The difference at Acton is that we embrace and celebrate all of these choices because we know our students will be decision-makers who weigh costs with benefits, and can readily focus on the big picture of their whole lives. 

I met a 17 year old this summer who is in the top of her class. I asked what her plans were after graduation. She said she has always dreamed of making people feel more beautiful. She plans to go to beauty school and someday open her own salon. She hopes to train others who will open other salons with her higher purpose in mind. When I said she reminded me of an Eagle, she cocked her head a bit. I wished her well and told her that I have no doubt she will change the world because wouldn’t the world be better if we all felt a little beautiful?

We fully trust in our Acton Academy Eagles to choose paths worthy of their precious footsteps and I look forward to the day I welcome top college recruiters along with angel investors to our campus. It will be here in a blink of an eye. 

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Science at Acton Academy by Jeff Sandefer

How do you teach science in the 21st century?  If you want to inspire young heroes to change the world through discoveries, inventions and innovations, our belief is that you don’t “teach” science at all.

Why not?  Because when you study the lives of world changing scientists, you realize that these heroes weren’t “taught” science in a traditional way.  Sterile historical experiments and textbooks do not provoke the imagination.  And the indoctrination of Scientism – that science is the ruling authority in the modern world and can explain the entire universe – discourages the irreverent curiosity and maverick spirit that lead to new breakthroughs.

Our goal is to equip and inspire our Acton Eagles to be brave scientific paradigm busters, puzzler creators and data gathers, even if they never choose science as a calling.  We invite them to deeply study the lives of paradigm busters like Galileo and Einstein, citizen-scientists like Benjamin Franklin and tireless trial and error scientific entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison or the pioneers at Bell Labs. 

In the curriculum, we continually refer to Thomas Khun’s Theory of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm shifts in the past and the brave heroes who led them, emphasizing how today’s accepted truths may be overthrown by future mavericks.

In real world projects our Eagles face the tensions between competing paradigms and heroes, learning to be skeptics who seek to disprove theories, gaining a practical understanding in hands-on challenges of topics like electricity, chemistry, genetics, biology, physics and cosmology, to name a few.

We want our Eagles to experience firsthand the ego clashes, catfights, accidents, missteps and reversals that made science, by standing in the shoes of Newton or Galileo or Einstein.  To see how scientific advances begin as stories, created in the minds of heroes, influenced by emotions and political intrigue, leading to theories, experiments, inventions  and eventually world changing innovations, all subject to later being overturned by new discoveries or innovations created in a competitive marketplace.

We long for our Eagles to be deeply curious and awed by the mysteries of the natural world and to focus more on provocative questions than answers.  That’s why we’ll often revisit the debate between Francis Bacon and Adam Smith.

Is Bacon correct that discovery leads to invention to innovation in an orderly process, and that government support of institutionalized science is the key to progress?

Or is Adam Smith correct that tinkering with real world problems, adding investment to old science in pursuit of practical trial and error experiments, in places like Edison’s Menlo Park lab and Bell Laboratories, creates the wealth that allows us to invest in basic science?

Teach science as a dry series of facts and an arrogant institutional worldview?  Never.  Expose Eagles to the rich history of scientific creative destruction, debating hard questions in the shoes of real world heroes?  Absolutely.  Equip them with the courage to ask difficult questions and seek their own truth, with the practical skills to design and launch trial and error experiments and the humility to admit when they are wrong?

 Now that would be a real scientific advance, wouldn’t it?

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The Five Most Important Words at Acton Academy

“Every child is a genius.”

Without a doubt, each child is capable of a Hero’s Journey. Each child has a unique and valuable spirit. Each child has gifts to be nurtured and honed.

What each child does matters. This is why we insist on excellence and ask, “Is that the best you can do?” instead of stamping a grade on their work and being done with it.

But it’s not only the children who have this genius within. Each parent and each guide does, too.

Have you embraced your own Journey lately? Have you listened to that quiet voice within yearning for new adventure, new growth?

Remember that the best parent is a happy human – learning, growing, curious about the world and life.

Feel free to look in the mirror today and say, “There is genius within me.” And remember that what you do with this truth matters.

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Do you trust the children?

This is the essential question Acton Academy presents to the world. Without trusting the children, our school is simply another classroom experiment.

Our choice to build Acton Academy on the foundation of the Socratic method is a simple yet profound statement of trusting the children.

We trust they can make excellent decisions. We trust they have genius within.  We trust in their desire to learn, work hard and achieve excellence. We trust they will seek help from mentors and guides when necessary. We trust they will teach each other. We trust in their ideas and opinions. We trust in their joy. We trust in their honesty.

This trust is the glue that holds our entire program together.  It is more important than great books, Khan Academy, well-designed projects or a new campus. It is transformational and lasts a lifetime.

By trusting our students, we empower them to think deeply and ultimately trust themselves. With the knowledge that they are trusted human beings, they will in turn grow to embrace the world and trust that it is a good place even though bad things happen and people make mistakes. This is the foundation of resilience and meaningful living.

Why is this easy for me as “head of school” but as “mom” I find it most challenging? Do I really trust my own children like I say I do? Why do I want to jump in when one of them is struggling in a friendship? Why don’t I simply trust them to work it out? Why do I want to direct what they choose for after school activities? Why do I give mini-lectures when they are stuck on a math skill rather than ask questions about their process and let them struggle to figure it out?

Psychologists document that children who are not trusted at home grow up with a sense of worthlessness and become critical, inflexible adults. This is serious business. This has lifelong implications.

I desire at home what I give at school. I want to change. I want to trust my children more. I want to let go of the false security of micromanaging. How can I do this?

I think back to learning to scuba dive this year with Sam, my 10 year old son. The idea of being underwater for long periods of time went against everything that felt natural and good to me. But I learned, step by step, to breathe and descend and never stop breathing. (Thanks to Sam who calmly coached me and literally held my hand until slowly letting it go when he knew I was okay.)

The discovery of joy in this new underwater world freed me. I trusted Sam so fully in those moments.

I can take his guiding lead and follow those same steps on solid ground. I’ve held their beautiful hands for a long time now. I can practice letting them go. I know they are okay. I will celebrate them taking charge of their own lives. From the small details like making their own lunches (I know; it’s about time!) and doing their own laundry to the bigger issues of solving sibling battles or failing to achieve a goal, I will breathe deeply rather than intervene. I will dive down into good questions rather than give them answers. (Jeff is going to hold me accountable to this.) I will work to demonstrate my authentic trust in them and their decisions. They will hear me say often, “I trust you.”

They are free, then, to change the world.

Suggested reading: Nurture Shock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

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On Choosing Chromebooks

Parents often ask why we do not have MacBooks for our students to use for their online learning at school. “Cost” has always been the simple answer.

In the Acton way, though, we are constantly seeking the best practices and tools for learning and are ready to pounce when more efficient and effective resources and ideas arise.

Inspired by Russ and Dani taking Acton Academy on the road successfully with Chromebooks in hand, we decided to look into these devices as an option for our school. I think Russ did a cartwheel of joy when I told him we were pursuing this idea.

Thanks to Ms. Samantha’s tireless research and testing, we are following the Foltz-Smith lead and transitioning to Chromebooks. The middle school students will work with Mac Stations in addition to Chromebooks for their creative project work and online portfolio designing.

I think you’ll enjoy this description of why this transition makes sense:




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Dreaming up the Perfect Socratic Guide

Let’s say you are to dream up a list of qualifications for people you would choose to guide your children to discover their greatest gifts and master 21st century skills. 

Wouldn’t you dream big?  Wouldn’t you come up with a crazy list requiring those people to be:

  • Passionate about children and lifelong learning;
  • Off the charts smart, deeply curious and always learning;
  • Entrepreneurial – innovative, proactive, a problem-solver, self-managed, courageous, wise in risk taking and decision-making;
  • Visionary and forward thinking yet solidly grounded in the real world;
  • Healthy and happy – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically;
  • Independent and hard working;
  • Collaborative and generous with ideas;
  • Creative and free thinking while deeply responsible and dependable;
  • Humble – no need to be the center of the learning for that is for the children;
  • Comfortable with change and new ideas;
  • And, of course, kind and compassionate?

This is an extraordinary list of qualifications. Can you hold a human up to such expectations? And this list doesn’t even include the essential skills and knowledge required to write and deliver world-class curriculum, guide discussions, manage technology, communicate effectively and organize and analyze data. 

Would you dare to dream this big?  I believe we parents would give the same answer: Yes!

This truly is our pie-in-the-sky list we use in hiring guides.  And, Yes! We fulfilled it in the rare group of humans who have guided the Acton Eagles with such a high degree of excellence this year:

 Kaylie, Anna, Samantha, Terri, Abigail, Jeff and Jeff.  

Brian Holtz, our new middle school apprentice guide, also fulfills our vision of a dream guide and is waiting in the wings to join the team in August.

While sharing these traits, each of our Socratic Guides has his or her own unique genius and masterfully makes an imprint on daily life at Acton Academy.

As we close this academic year, I celebrate the gift of our guides and thank them, from the depths of my heart, for their work each day. I wish them rest and renewal even while we work together toward the next chapter in the story of Acton Academy. 



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