Learning to write…..lessons from Muhr

My grandmother Sara Camilla Collins Emerick (we called her Muhr) was an English teacher turned real estate entrepreneur.  She was classy and elegant.   The thing I remember most about Muhr is that she never complained.  She lived through the great depression, cancer, death of loved ones, and the difficulties of aging.  She faced hard times with courage and determination.   I smile when I recall how she could quote Shakespeare’s Beowulf  in her late 90’s.   Her love of writing and appreciation for great literature inspires me.  My daughter Sara is named after my grandmother.

As part of our homeschool curriculum, we went to Muhr’s house for English classes.  I still remember diagramming sentences with her.  She frequently explained the difference between lie, lay, laid, and lain.  Muhr loved writing!  She published a few different books including her largest book, Legacy of Sacrifice, which chronicled her life.   Reading this book stirs up raw emotions of joy and deep sadness.  I am reminded that words can pass on for generations.  When you look at great literary works from the Bible to modern day classics, I am reminded that words have power to transform the world.

One of my deepest desires for our students is that they possess the skills and confidence to share their ideas in writing.  Having the ability to articulate their point can help them on their Hero’s Journey.  Writing well can open doors that would otherwise have been shut.  Our children can change the world through the written word.  Whether our students write an epic novel, grant, thesis paper, children’s book, resume, letter, business advertisement, or speech I want them to write with confidence.

This past semester I struggled with the writing process at Acton.  I learned to write by having my mom and grandmother red line every single paper I wrote.  The Acton philosophy of peer reviews and learning by practice versus teacher led lecture and grammar lessons was a huge adjustment for me!   I was very much used to having someone critique my work as a student and get input from a teacher on grammar and composition.   Giving the children space to enjoy the creative process such as font selection, layout, inserting photos, and writing unique stories was a good start.   However, I felt like some structure was missing.  This next semester we will outline in a more detailed manor how many points/eagle dollars will be awarded per each writing project.  We will outline what font size and story length is required to obtain maximum points.  We will further outline presentation requirements (you must run spellcheck prior to submitting, you can’t copy someone else’s work on line and submit as a report, and Wikipedia isn’t necessarily a valid source). 🙂  Our new process will still be very much student led; however, we will outline the rules of engagement prior to issuing the assignment.  Jeff Sandefer told me during training that for Socratic teaching to work, the students must have rules of engagement so they know the parameters they must work within.  I feel we could have done a better job with this aspect of the writing projects.

Over the break, I spent a lot of time researching different writing programs.  I wanted to keep within the Acton model of learn by doing and student led but still give students a framework and skill set to jump from.   I learned about Institute for Excellence in Writing after reading several great reviews about this program.   We purchased the program for our 2-6 grade students.  Our guides will use modeling and group discussions to create an environment where growth in writing will occur.  We will address grammar issues through their Fix It class.  I believe this program provides valuable tools for students without becoming a teacher led class.  I encourage you to watch this video to learn more about IEW.   For students who struggle with writing, I feel this program will give them step by step processes to get their ideas down on paper.

Reading good literature compliments learning to write beautifully!   Our reading badges will require students to read from a list of classic books that are grade/skill appropriate.  Students will journal about what they read.

Words have power!   Check out this list of famous speeches and how they changed the world!

Best Regards,




Should a student struggling with math get a tutor?

Last night was long and exhausting.  It was the kind of night that is followed by a morning where you wake up and just aren’t quite ready to tackle the day.  It has been a two cup of coffee kind of morning….  You might ask what caused such a long night and rough morning.  It is none other than Khan Academy.

My kids are not huge math fans (we will see about the little ones).  In fact, I would argue that hate is a more appropriate term.   I have heard arguments such as, “mom I will just use my calculator so I don’t need to know math.”  One of my children was having a Khan Academy anxiety attack last night.  Knowing that school was starting is what I think brought these worries to mind.   I reminded this child, that when we used other math programs there was still a lot of complaining, whining, and frustration.  I argued that maybe it wasn’t Khan Academy.   Knowing my child, I recognize that if something doesn’t come easily then quitting and blaming are the natural defenses.   This child asked me for help to explain a particular math concept.  I had a mental deliberation, “do I help my child figure out this problem or do I encourage them to figure it out.”  I chose the hardest answer and said, “Honey I know you can figure this out.”  This brought the anger and tears.    I have learned as a mom that sometimes it’s best to walk away from the situation and since it was 10 pm that is exactly what I did.

When I was getting ready to tuck my weary self into bed, I found a note on my bed.  “Mom I am afraid that I won’t get it right.  I am afraid I won’t move up with my friends.”  This explained everything!  The fear of not measuring up and failing was at the root of the anxiety and melt down.  I totally get these emotions as I think every human alive wrestles with these fears of failure and lack of self-worth.   We are always tempted to compare ourselves and our abilities to that of others.  We struggle to stay focused on our own journey because fear rips at our courage and we derail if we feel we aren’t measuring up.  As parents we are tempted to compare our children’s abilities and then take action if we feel they don’t quite hit the bench mark.  We often judge our own self-worth based on how well our children perform.

This note really gave me pause and made me evaluate how I am parenting my children.  Do they know that it’s ok to fail and start over?  Do they know that they need to only focus on their journey and not compare themselves to others in a negative way?  Do they know that I love them regardless of their successes or failures?

I grew up in a home where I was always striving to perform, achieve, and succeed not so much out of personal desire but to please my parents and earn their affection.   This environment molded me into a people pleasing perfectionist.   Struggling to not create this same scenario with my kids, I ponder how to encourage my kids to do their best without them feeling my love is conditioned on their success.   Does it really help or hinder my child when I step in and “help” them with their difficulties?  As parents, we all want our children to be successful.  How can we help them on their journey in a way that will offer lifelong benefit?

I emailed Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of Acton Academy, a few weeks ago posing the question, “If a student is struggling with math, do you suggest they get a tutor.”  His response was simply that having a student work with a tutor is a crutch and doesn’t let the student experience the growth that comes from working hard to figure something out.

One of the fundamental concepts of Acton is that students learn by figuring things out on their own.  Becoming creative and using available resources to solve difficult problems is how children will develop truly valuable skills.  Creating an environment where students are pushed past their comfort zone to use hard work, perseverance, and sheer grit will prepare them for life’s challenges when the stakes are much higher than Khan Academy.

During 2017, we will continue to use Khan Academy as our foundational math program.  If you have not done so, I encourage you to read Salman Khan’s book on education and math in particular.  His program requires 100% mastery of a concept before moving on which forces students to not just scrape by with a 70%.    I have heard the complaint of my child, and maybe your child as well, that math can be boring.   To spice math up a bit we are adding a new component to our math program.  To earn a grade math badge, the appropriate level in Khan must be finished as well as completing an applied math project.  The applied math project will be at grade/skill level and will require the student to use math to complete a real world project (must include display board, write up, and actual project).

Do we trust our children?  Are we willing to let them struggle in the short term to allow them the opportunity to deepen their resolve and broaden their problem solving abilities?  “Embracing rigor is part of saying ‘yes’ to a Hero’s Journey. Deep learning brings a special sense of joy, but the mastery required for a Hero’s Journey goes even further, requiring commitment, discipline and hard work towards a worthy goal.”  Jeff & Laura Sandefer

Khan Academy here we come! I am excited to launch into the 2017 school semester.

Happy New Year!



Semester “Report Cards” Shouldn’t Cause Fear!

It is so hard to believe we are wrapping up our first semester! I have learned a great deal in my brief stent as a school administrator. What strikes me as the biggest lesson learned is that children are more capable than we think if given the opportunity! I have seen growth not only in my children but also in our entire student body. There were times at the beginning of the year that I wondered “what have I gotten myself into”. Now that we are in a great rhythm and I have a working knowledge of the Acton systems, I believe I have found my calling. I must admit that I am madly, deeply, and extatically in love with my job.

This week we will begin our parent conferences. I wanted to set the stage for what parents can expect from the conference. Acton is unlike traditional schools where parents and students might tend to cringe when it came time to discuss the report card. We feel the end of a semester should be a time of celebration, reflection, and goal setting. We do not believe any child should be evaluated based on test scores alone but rather by the character they exhibit and progress they made as an individual. I have gotten a lot of insight from the Acton owners forum and directly from Jeff and Laura Sandafer regarding parent conferences. Based on all the wonderful feedback we have gotten; our parent conferences have developed into the following.

Parents of students in the K-1 class will be given an Accomplishments and Growth Goals report.  This customized report outlines what skills the student has mastered and what concepts are still being worked on. Each Guide will comment on the student’s character qualities exhibited including leadership, being a good friend, being respectful, etc. This time of reflection will also include any areas the Guides feel the student needs to specifically focus their attention on.

Parents of students in the 2-6 grade class will have the opportunity to meet with their student and myself to share their portfolio and online work with you. As parents, it is important to continue the work of the guide at home by serving as a running partner rather than an authoritarian. The power of the self-paced and student lead learning environment lies in the parent’s ability to trust their child and let the system work (boy this can be hard)! Encouraging or otherwise dictating that children meet deadlines or do their work at home takes away an amazing learning opportunity. There is great opportunity to learn from failing, receiving a strike, or losing an eagle dollar. “Failure is an event, not a person” Zig Ziglar. Viewing failure as something to be avoided at all cost vs. a teacher can lead to missed lessons for our children to learn perseverance, problem solving, and above all build good character.

Children in the 2-6 grade class are writing parents a letter outlining what they have learned and what their goals for 2017 are. Igniting the students internal drive to be successful and self-motivated is one of the goals of our program. At the conference parents might also have questions on freedom levels, eagle dollars, and progress of their student in an individual subject. We feel it is important that the student take responsibility for answering these questions. After students, have shown their work and answered any questions you might have, they are free to go back to class. We will save a few minutes at the end of the meeting for any administrative questions you might have. Our goal is to keep the meeting within the 30-40-minute time frame.

Right now, I hear the kids happy sounds here at school.   #feelingblessed.

Is a little suffering good for kids?

Is a little suffering good for kids?

My childhood was not one of ease. My parents had all of us kids work! As a youngster, I mowed lawns, cleaned houses, swept job sites, cooked dinner, pulled dandelion weeds, babysat, and often did my own laundry. My parents were big believers in teaching us to work and manage our small earnings. I will never forget my first checking account. My dad taught me how to balance my check register and how to budget my money. I was responsible for buying my own clothes and toiletries. I will never forget bouncing a check as a teen – totally humiliating! My dad helped pay the debt and lovingly taught me a huge lesson – I have never bounced another check in my life! As a teen, I felt the pressure and saw the stress my parents went through as small business owners. Money was often tight and clients consumed my dad’s free time. Our home life was far from utopic and my parents eventually divorced. That said, they gave us the gift of a little “suffering”. The biggest thing I learned from my parents was to work hard, have faith, and use my talents and strengths to problem solve.  Learning to problem solve and work hard creates resilience which is a fundamental skill needed to lead a fulfilling life.

Now as a mom, I have recently realized that I am missing the boat with my own kids when it comes to the idea of suffering. Our kids don’t mow our lawn, I do their laundry, and especially around Christmas they get what they want under the tree (within reason). I often go to great lengths to create utopia for them.  Wanting to avoid some of the hurtful things of my childhood has in some regards made me feel pressure to make my kids life perfect. At night its easier for me to do the dinner dishes than listen to them complain about helping!  Our culture of “give me more” is robbing children of one of life’s most beautiful lessons – suffering can be good. When we pad our children’s lives so much they don’t learn that choices have consequences.  When everything is easy, we cripple them as the real world isn’t easy. When we step in and solve their problems for them, they miss the life-giving lesson of conflict resolution.  What is tragic is that we often do this under the banner of loving our children.  I am learning that sometimes tough love is far more beneficial than creating a life of ease for my kids.

One of the beautiful things about Acton is that children are given the opportunity to experience real world consequences.   If you don’t do your work, you don’t earn eagle dollars. If you choose to violate the school rules, a fellow student can ask for an eagle dollar to be taken away or you might be asked to leave the program. If you choose to not do your work, you don’t earn a badge. The goal of an Acton education is to provide a safe environment for children to learn that there are consequences to their choices.  Students learn without a parent or teacher brow beating them into submission. If a student wants to achieve and progress it is up to them to make it happen. Do we want our children to do well in school out of fear of our negative opinion or failing a class? Or do we want our children to succeed in school because they are passionate about their work and they want to succeed? I really want the later for my kids – I want them to make good choices because their internal compass is leading them in that direction not because I am standing over their shoulder willing them to comply.

One of my children REALLY wanted something in the eagle buck store. Said child came home crying because they really wanted this item. They thought I was unfair and mean because I wouldn’t 1) lower the price 2) give them money 3) make it easier to earn the eagle dollars. I stuck to my guns and low and behold my child figured it out. They wrote a list of what they had to accomplish to earn the money to fund their purchase. This was not an easy process as I heard complaining and whining for days after school.  My child learned an amazing lesson!  The same is true with conflict resolution at school. Instead of stepping in as adults, we let the children solve their problems. I have seen students who started at the school lacking these skills now able to state their opinion calmly and respectfully. Students who had a hard time accepting responsibility for their behavior and chose to lie, get physical, or get angry are learning that this is not a good coping skill. Children who otherwise wouldn’t have typically stood up for themselves are learning that their voice matters and that they can respectfully help fellow eagles comply with school rules.

As we approach the end of 2016, I want to reevaluate adding a little “suffering” into my kids’ lives. There is no reason for me to stay up till 10 pm doing laundry when I have able bodied helpers. We will launch a Money Quest in 2017 where children can explore the history of money, banking, the stock market, and money management. This will tie into the Children’s Business Market we are launching in April 2017.

Parenting is tough and not for the faint of heart! Here are a few resources I found helpful.  If you have any useful parenting tools, please share them with me!  I am far from a perfect parent and I consider myself a fellow traveler bumbling along trying to raise good kids that become great adults.  This Christmas, there will be less under our tree and more community service.

Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement

How to Teach Your Child Empathy

Discipline Without Distress

10 Ways To Teach Your Child A Good Work Ethic