Frequently Asked Questions

Old habits die hard.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  The only person that likes change, is a wet baby.  There are millions of catchy phrase lines expressing the sentiment that change is hard.   I have pondered the question of whether transitioning into a different learning style was harder for a student or their parents.   My assessment is that in all likelihood it has been hardest for us parents.

In a society that touts the importance of good grades and excelling at school, it takes courage and deep faith in your child to join a learner driven community.  Believing that ultimately it is your child’s responsibility to learn is huge and can almost feel like walking off a cliff!   Parents feel pressure from society to encourage/cajole/will/force/bribe/ or otherwise discipline their student to succeed in school.   At the end of the day, our responsibility is to provide children with the opportunity to learn but what they do with that opportunity is up to them.   The beauty of Acton is that it creates a safe environment where children can learn how to problem solve, overcome fear of failure, and take responsibility for their education and behavior.

Navigating the Acton learning model with your child takes time and eagerness from all parties involved to be open minded.   I have bounced ideas off Jeff and Laura Sandefer for their advice and guidance as I navigate through this process.  Based on their feedback and my own experience over the past few months, I have prepared these Frequently Asked Questions.

Q  Help!  My student is stuck on a particular subject and is getting frustrated and wants to be “taught”.
Watching your child struggle with a subject can be painful (I know I am there).  Our knee jerk reaction is to “help” them overcome their objection.  However, often “help” can circumvent the learning process.  Part of the Acton philosophy is allowing children space to explore problem solving techniques.  When a child hits a brick wall, reactions can often be fear of failure, anxiety, blame someone else, ignore the issue, wallow in self-pity, get angry,  or they just want to quit.  None of these reactions are life giving or productive!  Allowing the student the opportunity to process those feelings and develop a plan to overcome the obstacle is a huge life lesson.   Learning to go around or through the brick wall is the goal of the Acton environment.   As a parent, you can encourage your student that they are not alone.  You can share with them a time where you struggled with something and how you either failed or overcame the obstacle.  You can ask them what resources or methods they have tried to solve the problem.

In the classroom, we have a board called the Collaboration Board with three columns;  Name, Area you are stuck in, and  column for fellow eagles to sign up to offer assistance.  During a certain time of the day, students can collaborate.  When students feel stuck, we encourage them to use the 3 B’s – Brain, Buddy, & Books.  After a student has exhausted the collaboration board and 3 B’s, they may brainstorm with the guide on other resources.

Q Help!  My student got a strike or an eagle dollar was taken away. What does that mean?
The overarching belief at Acton is that of a growth mindset.  We respect a student’s decision to comply with the student contract they signed or not.  Students are treated with deep respect and are always encouraged to consider the outcome of their choices.  Experiencing consequences of a negative choice is a wonderful opportunity for growth.  I encourage you to review a recent blog post that goes into a deeper discussion of the eagle dollar and strike process.  I would also encourage you to ask your student about the rules the classroom has voted on and what the consequences are of being in debt to the eagle buck bank.  As a parent it is easy to feel embarrassment or shame when your child makes a bad choice.  Please know that our school philosophy is always positive and eager to partner with parents.

  1. Help! What is a badge and how does that correlate to grades.
    Each student at Acton Academy has badge requirements for graduating from their current grade. Our goal is mastery so a badge is the equivalent of an A.  Until the student has demonstrated mastery, they do not receive the badge.  We want students to not just “slide by” but rather master the topic.   I encourage you to read this blog post that outlines this process further.

    Q. Help!  How do students learn science at Acton?
    “Repeating lame experiments and memorizing terms has little to do with real science.  I would stay as far away from traditional school Science as possible.” Jeff Sandefer    We study science through quests.  Currently the students are wrapping up the forensic science quest.  Later this year we will have a rocket quest as well as horticulture quest.  We encourage parents to read with their children if there is a specific area of science a child wishes to study.  Personal interest, tinkering on a project, or exploring a concept is what will lead a child to unique scientific experiences.   Students, once in the soaring freedom level, can add an independent study to their schedule which could focus on an area of interest.Q.  Help!  How do you regulate the class and create a quite learning environment?
    Quite simply the eagles regulate themselves.   When they grow weary of chaos, leaders rise up and learn to respectfully advocate for a quite learning space. Children use headphones as well as box dividers to help limit distractions as practical solutions.   “One of the benefits of the Acton experience is learning not only self-management and how not to distract others (which comes with time and dealing with Eagle buck infractions) BUT how to work with all distractions! I love to see a young learner just tune out the noise and get to work. We have discussions about the value of not being overly sensitive to noise – try to ignore others and focus on yourself. And we encourage Eagles to ask for Eagle bucks if someone is breaking the studio norms. This is all part of the learning journey and coercing them to be quiet is too shortsighted for us. It’s going to take patience but we trust they will work this out.” Laura Sandefer

  2. Help! I log into points tracker and see my student isn’t meeting deadlines?
    This is where parents become very tempted to cajole/will/force/bribe/ discipline or get tutors to force their student into compliance. Having the fortitude to ask questions and offer a listening ear will be a positive influence on your student.   Give them space to let the system work.  Parents intervening in an authoritarian way can cripple the learning process and power of the Acton model.
    Q.  Help! How does the 2-6 grade class work and is my older student being challenged?
    “Over time, the mixed age setting benefits all ages: maybe the oldest age group the most as they get to practice leadership, group management and end up gaining a level of empathy that is quite stunning to see. But it takes time. The trick with the quests is the variance of challenges and giving the older Eagles more responsibility over their teams. Their work should challenge them and the work of the youngest should challenge (but not overwhelm) them.”  Laura Sandefer
    I encourage you to read this article that outlines the many benefits of a multi aged classroom.Thank you for joining us on this journey!  As anticipated, it has not been easy.  When I step out of the day to day operations of the school to look at the big picture I am reminded of the magnitude of our mission.  Our mission is much bigger than helping a student learn math or writing.  Our mission is learn to learn, learn to do, and learn to be.  Essentially our mission is to help children become equipped for their hero’s journey.

Best Regards,

Anna Biad

Guardrails For Serious Fun – Guest Blog Post Laura Sandefer

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.

What We Wish Our Parents Knew About Badges – Guest Blog Post Laura Sandefer

The most powerful takeaways we offer at Acton Academy are self-management, self-governance, character, high-level communication skills, learning how to learn and opportunities to dive deeply into areas of your greatest passions and gifts.

Badges are a way to showcase this work. It is their most important function.

Thankfully, badges also allow us to translate these accomplishments into a traditional transcript so that our children can compete with their peers in “college prep” environments if they so choose.

This one-minute video captures what our Eagles wish we knew about badges.

Here is a parent’s “cheat sheet” to understand better the badge system and philosophy at Acton:

What is a badge?

A badge represents a long-term effort of learning focused on a particular discipline. Each badge involves a large quantity of work reviewed several times by several people. In traditional academic language, a badge equates to completing a course; however, only when excellence is achieved is the badge awarded.

How does a badge look on a transcript?

Here is a sample of our Transcript Acton.

Completion of a Badge = mastery = A. (High 360 scores would add a “+”.)

We are a competency-based learning environment. Mastery is the goal. Eagles work until they master  their learning goals. Then, they progress to the next level.  If a badge is not completed, the grade is “Incomplete.”

This is why that last sprint to compile their work after completing the requirements of a badge is so critical to the Eagles. It is the final step and is the proof of their hard work.

And this is where our parenting support comes in most fruitfully.

 The place where we can give the most encouragement to our children is in the compilation stage of the badge experience.

For example, when all the required work for a badge is done, the badge is not yet achieved. It must be compiled and submitted. Ask your Eagles about whether or not they’ve scheduled time to compile this work for badge approval; then check in on their progress; ask if they are excited about the work or worried they missed something. Finally, celebrate the hard work of compiling the badge.

Admissions officers may ask to see the work behind each letter grade. This is where Eagles will shine. (Personally, I hope Eagles will have the opportunity to show their full portfolios in an interview. Acton Eagles will knock the socks of savvy recruiters if they get the chance to sit down and talk with them. I’ve sat in on one of these interviews and it was pure bliss. By the end of the interview, they wanted to hire the Eagle for a teaching job rather than merely accept as a student.)

We have an entire collection of work from each Eagle for every badge achieved. This work is above and beyond what is required from traditional courses in middle schools and high schools across America. I am so impressed with the work the Eagles accomplish!

How do badges translate to traditional subject requirements?

Translating the work of a completed badge into traditional course content is necessary and is part of our curriculum planning.  For example, a traditional school’s “English 101” in high school equates at Acton to 6 genre pieces, 4 deep books and 1 No Red Ink badge. The Acton curriculum is easily mapped to the core requirements of high school graduates for acceptance to competitive colleges.

Unfortunately, the most important accomplishments at Acton such as Apprenticeships, Leadership, Project Management and Quest Creation don’t translate easily under traditional academic subjects like Math, Science, History and English.

I will leave you with the best explanation of Acton’s philosophy of learning and its impact on young people as described by one of our own, a Launchpad Eagle, who generously shared the following:

“What does it mean to pursue excellence? It’s something we discuss quite often at Acton, and is defined as ‘the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.’ Excellence is our goal here at Acton, our standard, and we are meeting it. No, we are not perfect, but we are special. We do great things. That much cannot be denied.

But why? Each person on the Earth is special, but there’s something about Acton that causes every Eagle to strive for excellence. And that something is having equal standards for everyone.

In order to move up, every Eagle at Acton is expected to earn a certain amount of badges. Each student must receive a certain 360 score by their peers on kindness and tough-mindedness. Every person must earn a certain average of weekly points. At Acton, we don’t believe that everyone must do this at the same pace or level. We know that it will take a unique amount of time and growth for each person to be able to hit these standards. But we believe that every child is a genius, and fully capable of doing the work in order to earn more freedom. That’s what Acton is all about.

Some people believe that instead of requiring every Eagle to complete the same amount of work with the same level of quality, some Eagles should be allowed to do less work and lower-quality work. This is a mindset that tells these ‘lower Eagles,’ ‘You are incapable. You are lesser. You aren’t required to do this because we believe you can’t do it.’ According to this idea, whether an Eagle struggles with math, or has a lot going on outside of school, or says they are a ‘bad writer,’ or just doesn’t care, they shouldn’t have to do the work required of others. This is actually quite similar to the public school system, where you can go through middle school and high school turning in poor work or no work at all and still graduate.

But this is not how the real world works. If we want to be prepared for our true Hero’s Journeys, we cannot be accustomed to being pampered. In the real world, if you want to work for Google, you have to be good enough! You have to work incredibly hard to meet the standard! If you want to be a professional athlete, it doesn’t matter how hard the journey is, results are what matter. No one will ask how hard you tried to score a touchdown, they will ask if you scored the touchdown.”

Thank you, Eagles, for teaching us so much.

Confused About Strikes & Eagle Bucks Guest Blog Post by Laura Sandefer

There is a lot talk at our house lately about “strikes” and “Eagle Bucks.” As a parent, I become confused: I am uncomfortable, to say the least, when I hear my child has two strikes or owes Eagle Bucks.  Being asked to stay home or be removed from the community doesn’t seem right – especially when I’m paying to have my child in school. This feels like punishment and contrary to the method of Acton Academy.

Why would a school that is focused on individual genius and self-paced work lace it with a punitive system of behavior control?

Here is the answer of which I must remind myself:

The Eagles themselves created these systems of accountability.

The Eagles want a community that upholds high standards of work and integrity. They want strong guardrails that help keep everyone on the path of a Hero’s Journey. They want to govern their own community.

Our very own children are tougher than we are when it comes to holding boundaries. They have created systems – after much discussion and many meetings – that give them power to check each other and prod each other back onto a pathway that nurtures learning and growth.

Sometimes Eagle Bucks are taken too hastily or without all the information. Mistakes are made and need to be worked out. This is tough love and hurts to witness. I like happy stories. “I want carrots not sticks,” says I-the-mom.

I am reminded, then, that the Eagles have bunches of carrots in their daily life at Acton: free time, positives notes read about their actions at group times, solid check marks on their goals lists, choice in how to work, freedom at lunch, games, respect, leadership opportunities, running teams, quests, and town meetings to air grievances and solve their own problems.

When things don’t go well and the carrots aren’t enough?

The Eagles want the power to manage each other and guides who will help them through the process.  They are learning hard and important lessons about their own power and motivation. Yes, at times they like to test this feeling of power and at times conflicts arise. These missteps become hearty meat for group discussions based on ideas such as: What does it means to have freedom and real responsibilities? Is it harder to give out a consequence or to receive one? What if it’s your best friend who has crossed a line? What should we do if someone feels an Eagle Buck was taken unfairly? What does the word “appeal” mean? How should we process appeals? What motivates you more – earning an Eagle Buck or not getting one taken away?

It is a difficult experience when a negative consequence is delivered. I believe that is the point.

Our words when a student hurts another student, or breaks a promise are these: “We love you. We are excited for you to make the choice to get back on track. Fail cheaply and often for that is where learning happens. The main point of the Hero’s Journey is not that we will not fail. It is that we get back up when we do.”

It won’t be long before there driving, alcohol and dating are part of the scene of our children’s lives. This is when failing is not cheap. Now is the time for them to learn that every action they choose to make each day has a consequence. There is no “flying under the radar” at Acton. Each person matters deeply. Each person is known.

Our children are dealing with this reality together and safely with loving guides to follow. These are prime times to have meaningful family discussions around choices, consequences, freedom and responsibility.

An added layer to this topic that may not gain much airtime at home is that we are implementing meaningful conflict resolution practice at Acton this session.  Our children will be learning how to have difficult conversations without damaging a relationship. We will be role-playing, sharing stories and practicing in their real world studio settings what it means to be a true friend, holding each other accountable to being the very best humans we can be.

We welcome your input as parents and give you the weekly surveys for suggestions and comments. Thank you for honoring the Eagles as they explore with freedom the big questions of life together and as individuals.