Playground Designers: Session 5 Week 3

What can you learn from a day at the park?

Today, the Heroes were researchers as they explored Chessie’s Big Backyard and Tuckahoe Park. Prior to travel, they planned out the day and designated timekeepers to keep track of the time. A shout-out to the diligence and punctuality of the timekeepers as they kept the group on track all day.

Upon arrival, the Heroes split into groups (each ES Hero paired with a Spark Hero) and started their 30 minutes of play time. At precisely 11:30, the Heroes independently collected their clipboards and started to surveyed park-goers. They asked adults and children how frequently they go to parks and whether they thought parks were important. It takes a lot of courage to reach out, and our Heroes took the plunge and displayed their politeness and maturity. There were several celebrations as groups reached their survey participation goals.

The second part of the day was spent at Tuckahoe Park. Heroes again surveyed park-goers and spent some time finding simple machines around the playground. They designed a new playground structure and compared the two playgrounds, all in preparation for creating their own playground element.

At the end of the day, it was a joyous time spent in the sunshine. There were academic challenges and important moments of growth. I saw a Hero reach out and play catch with a young child, gently leading him in play. Another Hero included a 3-year old on the merry-go-round, quickly switching from fast-paced spinning to a gentle turn to support the toddler. Heroes made decisions about what was safe and not- negotiating the play structures and figuring out the safe boundaries to the park as well (within eyesight of a guide).

Today made me think that first and foremost, our Heroes are learning how to think for themselves. I wasn’t asked to manage my time or make decisions about my day until high school, and it felt like responsibility hit me all at once. Imagine in 10 years, our Heroes will have made thousands of critical decisions and what capable individuals they will be.

Week Three Playground Research

After a challenging afternoon of communicating and working together to build a pulley system spark studio heroes were excited to begin free time on the playground when a disagreement arose. Two people were playing on the bus structure when another hero decided they would like to play there. “Well, we were here first and we prefer to play this game by ourselves”. This was met with “The spaces on our playground are for everyone, so I can play here too”. The lines had been drawn and no one wanted to budge or give up their stance. Heroes tried to negotiate saying “You can play on the bus tomorrow, we are here now” which was followed with the question “Why can’t you just use half of the bus?” Tensions began to grow as the deliberation continued without progress. In the past these moments had often led to pleas for guide intervention, heroes storming off in frustration or other emotional outbursts.

With a quick reminder from the guide, the timekeeper announced that there were now 10 minutes left of free time. “Ten minutes?! …Well half of that is 5! You all can play here for 5 minutes and then I will use the bus for 5 minutes.” “Deal! “The hero agreed and joyfully ran off. In this playground conflict the heroes stood up for what they felt was fair, they communicated clearly, they brainstormed multiple solutions and they ultimately used compromising tools they have been practicing to work through the dispute. This important social emotional work is constant in Spark Studio and will set our heroes up for success in the elementary studio and life beyond school.

Nesting heroes continue to complete computer work, predicting orbit patterns and mastering lessons on Khan Academy, Newsela and Lexia. The excitement over researching marine life and flags of South America continues to be an inspiration. The afternoons this week were filled with exploration of simple machines. The heroes were in their challenge zones, using recyclables to craft cars with working wheel and axle mechanisms. The week ended in a gorgeous day spent outdoors playing and researching playgrounds. Forts were built in the woods, teamwork utilized to push large swings, and our adventurous heroes climbed to the tops of structures. Heroes reflected on what was memorable about each park and why parks are important to a community. A hero even noted with empathy that if you didn’t have many toys a playground would be crucial for having fun! 

Coming Up With a Plan

This year, we’ve seen the motivation in the studio ebb and flow. This can happen for many reasons- a learning challenge doesn’t resonate, a hero falls victim to distraction, or feels overwhelmed by the mastery objectives left in their badge plan for the year.

Our guides serve to observe and shepherd this energy- by looking closely and figuring out how to increase the motivation in the studio as a whole or for an individual learner. This can involve tweaking the learning design in some way, uniting the group and moving them toward a common goal or, most often, holding up the mirror for a hero- asking them questions to help them identify where they’re stuck and empowering them to develop a plan to accomplish their goals.

As parents, we can do the same.

Recently, it became clear that my nine year old was struggling. He was doing little work in the studio and his attitude was verging on apathetic. It was clear he was stuck. So, one evening I sat down to talk with him. After asking a few questions that were met with short and uninformative answers, I asked simply, “What’s bothering you?”

He looked at me for a moment and then said, “I don’t think I’m going to finish all my badges by the end of the year.”

Here it was. He was feeling the weight and responsibility of truly being responsible for his own learning. While our model of self-paced learning is designed to empower, it can be hard when you aren’t feeling particularly powerful.

So what do we do in this situation? As parents, we too can hold up the mirror for our children. In asking the right questions, we can help them get “unstuck”.

Here is a helpful process- one that we used just this week in our own home.

Ask the question, “What is priority for you?”

  • being patient with myself
  • allowing myself time to grow
  • planning out my time 

This question helps reinforce the flexibility of our self-paced learning design and remind your child that their individual priorities matter- and can be different from someone else. In our case, our son was crystal-clear on his priority of planning out his time. Finishing his badges by the end of school year was important to him.

The next series of questions were as followed.

“Would you like me to help you plan out your time?” (Yes.)

“Would you like to set aside time today or tomorrow to meet?” (Tomorrow.)

The next day we sat down and he showed me around the online dashboard that tracks his progress. I was sure to offer a lot of growth mindset praise on all that he has accomplished since September and together, we hashed out a plan to complete his goal (not mine) of completing his Level 3 badges by July. I did not touch his computer but I did offer to act as scribe. What resulted was a practical path forward- big goals broken down into bite-size chunks, and an obvious sense of relief and renewed sense of purpose for our son.

By listening closely when our children seem to be weathering an “emotional storm”, reaffirming our belief in them, and offering (rather than imposing) our support, we can show them, again and again, just how powerful they are.

Exploring Physics in Spark Studio Week 2


After a fascinating trip to Austin, filled with connection and inquiry with fellow guides across the world, this week began with new ideas and excitement for learning that is driven by heroes.

How can young heroes begin to have a basic concept of how physics works unless they have a chance to explore and experiment with it freely? Our playground design quest continues to be built on the foundation of knowledge developed from these playful experiences. Heroes made inclined planes out of cardboard, wood, and even our whiteboards as they tested for distance and speed of toys cars. Our math provocation table challenged heroes to create a maze and then figure out how they could move the marble through it and many were quick to see how the use of an inclined plane aided this process. Heroes spent an afternoon honing fine motor skills and working hard to drive screws into wooden planks. The final simple machine we explored this week was the wedge and by using wedge shaped tools, heroes carved designs into bars of soap and enjoyed the sensory experience of a studio that smelled particularly fresh.

After intentional goal setting and focused work each morning, heroes prepared for a field trip to The Building Museum. We discussed what goes into planning and designing a city. The topic of empathy was brought up in discussions of who gets to decide what structures go where and how these decisions might impact residents differently. Heroes carefully considered the feelings of fellow citizens in the city they were creating. The trip culminated in an amazing show of teamwork and perseverance as heroes worked diligently to build a 7 foot arch out of foam blocks in the lobby of the museum. The building process was exciting and filled with ideas of structure and physics, but I will let the heroes tell you all the details of that endeavor.

Heroes Lead- Session 5: Week 2

What is a student-driven learning environment? At TVS, we believe that Heroes should be the driving force behind their education. The guide’s role is to provide an environment: arc of inspiration, empowerment, and accountability, but Heroes make the crucial choices.

So what would happen if the Heroes were left alone for the day? We have a recent example of the Heroes doing just that. (Of course, there were adults supervising just in case! We thank our studio volunteers gratefully for their time.)

Monday morning began with a launch and a fast-paced discussion, which two Heroes devised surrounding an ethical question. Then the Heroes sorted themselves into Super Squads to set SMART goals and coached one another. Then Core Skills commenced: Heroes learning math, reading, spelling, and grammar by teaching themselves. Independently, they transitioned at 11 a.m. and went to a Hero-led P.E. class. They practiced gymnastics and soccer skills. The Heroes enjoyed lunch and free time (an important part of the day) and then two Heroes led a 45-minute Socratic Discussion about Ancient Rome, our Civilization challenge for this week. Following that, another Hero took over and supervised DEAR (drop everything and read) by providing book suggestions and inspiring “What if…?” questions. As a group, they cleaned up their studio and celebrated a Hero birthday at close. An independent, Hero-run day.

On Monday, our team traveled to Austin for the Acton Owner’s Conference. We came with questions and left with more questions (of course) but also reflections, new ideas, and a toy figurine of a tiger. Jeff Sandefer shared this anecdote, “A scientist once studied tigers. He knew everything there was to know about tigers. Until the day that he saw a tiger in the wild. Its beauty and grace astounded him, and he exclaimed, ‘All this time I have been studying tigers in captivity. This wild tiger has shown me that I know nothing about tigers.'”

Big Questions: Week 1 Session 5

Big questions abound this session. Are humans wired for empathy? Why are parks and playgrounds important to communities? Of course, the best parts of these questions are not the answers but the process it takes to discover an answer. We were also excited to welcome a new Hero, whose hard work in the Spark Studio has graduated her to the Elementary Studio.

The Heroes were excited to launch the Physics Playground Quest. This Quest covers an introduction to physics deeply rooted in a real problem, “Why are parks and playgrounds important to communities?” The Heroes will design and build a scale model of a new playground element that includes at least 2 simple machines. Along the way, they’ll develop critical thinking skills as they tackle work, force, mechanical advantage, and much more!

This session, the Writer’s Workshop is expanding beyond the traditional writing medium as the Heroes dive into podcasting. Their challenge is to share a story about their local community. Empathy (the character trait of this session) is ingrained into this workshop. Heroes will need to think about all angles of their topics: how do they feel? How do others feel? Can you change feelings? The Workshop incorporates technical aspects of podcasting and emphasizes an important writing trait: voice. This week, we talked about how voice is not just your actual speaking voice, but the unique way that you craft sentences and ideas.

In lieu of drama, Civilization begins anew this session. We are poised at the downfall of the Greeks and the rise of the Romans. The Heroes are particularly excited about the transformation of Greek Gods to Roman Gods. Each week, the Heroes will discuss Socratically and have the opportunity to complete a bonus challenge to earn their Civilization Badge.

We will keep you updated as the Heroes progress through challenges and find success this Session. The Heroes are also looking forward to 3 field trips this session, and we appreciate all the parent volunteers for field trips or studio visits! A note for next week’s field trip- please bring in recyclable materials for the Building Museum field trip by following the guidelines below:

  • Paper towel rolls, cereal boxes, and egg cartons are great
  • Please don’t bring any juice or water bottles, glass or metal containers
  • No containers that have held milk or nuts

Thank you and looking forward to Session 5!

First week of session 5 in Spark Studio

Welcome to Session 5! We excitedly welcomed back a hero who had been away and reconnected with our contract. A town meeting brought up problems that were important to heroes such as whether math, writing and reading goals should be set in a particular order and how to be sure heroes are giving concise responses during launches. Our young learners express their feelings and give supporting evidence about what solutions will work best in our community. Work time is, as always, a busy hub of curiosity. We have heroes conquering new math topics, carefully writing stories that are meaningful to them and poring over books, excited to recall plot points and how they might add to the story. They research natural findings and perform science experiments using studio plants and materials.  

Heroes discuss empathy with confidence and they come up with new ways to understand fellow travelers. We will start to discuss the larger communities we are part of and what empathy looks like on a grander scale. Spark studio heroes have made visits to the office where a mindfulness station has been set up. This is a space to name emotions and use tools to self- regulate until a hero is calm again and can rejoin fellow travelers.

Session 5 Quest work is under way as heroes practice acting out and identifying different types of force and motion.  This led to an exploration of magnetic force and we spent an afternoon determining whether magnets work in water, what materials in our studio were magnetic, and which part of a magnet housed its poles. We began discussing simple machines focusing on inclined planes first. Heroes got firsthand experience on our playground’s slide!

For next week’s Building Museum field trip we are collecting some items, if you can, please bring in recyclables by following the guidelines below:

  • Paper towel rolls, cereal boxes, and egg cartons are great
  • Please don’t bring any juice or water bottles, glass or metal containers
  • No containers that have held milk or nuts

Measuring What Matters

One of the many things that drew me to Acton Academy’s learning model was the emphasis on authentic assessments through public exhibitions of learning. After spending several years as an educator in the public school system, I was looking for a learning community that measured what matters, not what was easy to measure.

I thought about my own children. I wanted them to be more than active participants in their learning- I wanted them to be owners of their learning. I saw this in my oldest son’s “Reggio-inspired” PreK class, but I hadn’t seen it upon his entry into Kindergarten and the following Primary years spent in our neighborhood public school.

In observing my own children and the countless others I’ve guided over the years, one of the things I know for sure is children want deep, meaningful work and they want to have something to show for it. Something that they can point to and say, “I did that!”

Have you ever heard a child excitedly point to a test or grade on a report card and say, “I did that!”? Probably not- because they have no intrinsic reason to care.

Public exhibitions of learning provide a chance for a young person to show the world what they can do. It is the culminating event of a long-term project, providing real-world situations and real-time feedback. It is the opportunity for a learner to stand back with a sense of satisfaction and say, “I did that.”

An integral part of our learning design at The Village School, are our Exhibitions of Learning which take place at the end of each session (every five to six weeks). These are our tests- real-world assessments for the Heroes to prove what they have accomplished. These events are designed and executed by our learners themselves with parents and guests invited to attend. In addition to showing what they’ve learned, these exhibitions are designed to serve as incentives for the Heroes over the course of a session. Nothing like a deadline and an audience to get people cranking on their work.

This week, we ended our first session as a community with our first Exhibition of Learning. Heroes showcased their new roles as self-directed learners by walking parents through a typical day at school, explaining the various online software programs for Core Skills, presenting their finished book of poems, summarizing their Civilization and Art challenges, and explaining the intentional, thoughtful process of creating their community contract.

These young people had learned so much over the past five weeks and I was thrilled that they would have the opportunity to show all of their hard work to their families. I had so many ideas of how it should go, what it should look like, what they should say- AND, I wasn’t allowed to share ANY of them.

As a learner-driven community, our heroes do it all. They plan, delegate, make the programs and run the exhibition, entirely themselves. While I am well-versed in the value of this experience for our learners, this was HARD. While I know the process of learning is far more important than the finished product, I found myself fighting my impulses to control the outcome in efforts to alleviate my discomfort in being faced with the unknown.

What would it look like? What would our families think? What if they failed?

As I stepped back and watched the exhibition planning from the sidelines, I found comfort in this passage I had read by Laura Sandefer, Director of Acton Austin.

“There is a caveat I give parents about these exhibitions: be prepared to see failure and struggle. These are not pristine, tightly managed school performances. Our exhibitions are meant to display the grueling process of learning rather than a polished end product. In addition to letting the Eagles shine, they also let them experience the real-world consequence of not giving one’s best to a project if that’s the case. (The latter may be the most important learning of all.)”

So on exhibition day, I found myself among the parents, with my “mom hat” securely in place. I stood back and watched heroes run the show. With humor and grace, with lost scripts and nervous energy, they hosted a truly authentic exhibition of learning. I received one question, which I deflected back to our heroes. They executed each part with a pride and joy that could only be derived from their ownership over the entire experience. As I watched these young heroes leap off the stage following an enthusiastic rendition of The Greatest Showman’s “Come Alive”, I sat with the quiet understanding of all that I had learned from these young people over these past several weeks, a newfound appreciation of the element of surprise, and a sense of gratitude to be a part of a community that would remain committed to measuring what matters.

(Repost from October 6, 2018)

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yesterday, we hosted our first Children’s Business Fair, a one-day market for children, ages 6-14, to showcase their very own business. In our own learning community, this was the final exhibition of learning after a four-week Entrepreneurship Quest, where our young learners dreamed up, planned, and created their own businesses to share with the world- and hopefully, make some profit to boot. All session, the heroes eagerly anticipated the day of the fair, where they would have the chance to showcase all of their hard work.

As a school that emphasizes personal agency and autonomy, we stressed the importance of allowing each hero to make decisions about their business, and to do as much of the work on their own as possible. As parents and guides, we watched from the sidelines, supporting by listening and asking good questions to help shape their ideas. Often times, this meant having front row seats to the various struggles our young learners encountered- from creating their first business plans, calculating variable costs, hashing out a marketing plan and pitch to potential customers, to managing the ins and outs of a month-long project with a looming deadline. Wanting everyone to succeed, we resisted the urge to step in and provide easy answers. We reminded ourselves of the learning born from struggle. We tried to remain Socratic, even when the math was REALLY hard. We provided a lot of encouragement, growth mindset praise and inspiring stories of perseverance and grit to get over some of their hurdles.

Little did we know, one of our biggest obstacles would occur on the day of the Business Fair when we woke up to bitter temperatures and 30 mph wind gusts- less than ideal conditions for open tables of merchandise and ample foot traffic. A few flying canopies resulted in an immediate break down of the tents and banners. Sign-in sheets, brochures, and any other items vulnerable to the long and frequent wind gusts were tucked away.

Of course, for any passionate and dedicated entrepreneur, the show must go on. This is “where the road meets the rubber,” as they say- and so, our heroes set up their tables, our wonderful parent volunteers jumped in to help, and our mentor judges visited each young entrepreneur, giving individual praise and feedback. Customers came and sales were made. The hot chocolate booth, run by our youngest heroes, was a huge success. Our budding entrepreneurs enthusiastically supported each other, finding the most joy in visiting their friends and seeing the products of weeks of dreaming, planning and collaboration.

We all may have wanted clear skies and pleasantly crisp fall weather- perfect for strolling and window shopping. We wanted the tents and displays and visual appeal to look as we had intended. We likely wanted our young learners to see the fruits of their efforts through some hard-earned profits. Naturally, we wanted their risks to pay off and their landings to be soft.

Yet, this isn’t really the way the world works and our heroes learned perhaps one of the most important lessons in business and in life- that things don’t always go the way you want. There will always be things, like the weather, that you can’t control. Ultimately, what we really want for our young learners is an entrepreneurial mindset: resilience, adaptability, and grit- character traits born from struggle, from unplanned events and bumpy landings.

These are the skills they will need to launch into the world as successful adults. These are the skills our heroes displayed in spades yesterday, adding a new story of perseverance and grit to our own growing collection as a community.

In reflecting on yesterday’s events, I can’t help but glean some wisdom from The Rolling Stones. As they say, “You can’t always get what you want- But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

(Repost from November 11, 2018)

What’s Your Curriculum?

One of the many benefits of being a part of a global network of schools is getting to see how other Acton owners are communicating the “why” behind our learning design and educational philosophy. While each affiliate school has their own “flavor” based on the community they serve, our mission is the same- to guide each child who enters our doors to find a calling and change the world.

If you are like me, you may want this lofty statement broken down a bit further, or have questions about how this translates to the day in and day out of a typical school day. In other words, if you are well-versed in the vernacular of traditional education, like the vast majority of us, you are likely wondering, “What’s our curriculum at Acton?”

This is a question I get often and am always happy to share our self-paced learning design, our integrative projects, our writing process and civilization studies. In describing our “curriculum” for our youngest learners, I will share our belief in embodied learning through Montessori materials, hands-on projects and daily outdoor explorations- with ample opportunity for play.

I am aware that my enthusiasm for what takes place inside (and outside) the studio walls each day does not always lend itself to being succinct.

Recently, a network colleague (with the gift of being clear and concise), shared his answer to the commonly asked question. He says, “What’s our curriculum? Self-awareness and self-confidence. Always.” (Thank you Matt Beaudreau!)

It’s true. While our heroes are always learning about the world around them, the most important learning they are doing is about themselves.

Confidence in our abilities allows us to try new things, overcome challenges, and learn at exponential rates. Essentially, it allows us to operate in the “challenge zone” where optimal learning outcomes emerge. Self-awareness allows us to acknowledge our own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, reflecting on how we can improve and use our gifts to hone in on a particular passion that can serve the world in some way.

If we look at our own lives and trajectory, it is likely we can all point to times when our own personal supply of confidence and self-awareness has had a profound impact on our learning and overall well-being.

At Acton, we believe every single child has a gift to offer the world. Discovering these gifts takes practice, reflection, feedback, and guidance as we provide the experiences and environment for our learners to interact with the world around them in meaningful ways. Our “curriculum” includes all of these things and more, as finding a calling is a messy process- one that would simply not be possible without deeply and truly knowing ourselves.

In the spirit of self-awareness, I will lean on the words of another with the gift of succinctness to sum it up- “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” – Aristotle

(Repost from December 1, 2018)