Clear is Kind

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.

I first heard this simple yet profound statement through reading Brene Brown’s work. Through her research, she found the single most detrimental factor to an organization’s culture is when group members are unclear with each other- characterized by avoiding tough conversations and giving honest feedback.

This year, our Heroes are exploring various ways they can use their voice. It is my greatest hope that they can use them clearly and kindly.

Of course, in a learner-driven community, opportunities to be clear about our feelings, our needs, and our desires abound. Every day conflicts can be resolved by using the “I” message: “I felt _______ when you _______. Can you please _______.” Ongoing issues or conflicts can be addressed through a conflict resolution process, town hall meeting, or by seeking council from a squad member. Full circle feedback allows learners a chance to give honest warm/cool feedback on their studio-mates.

These systems are part of our learning design because we believe deeply that clear is kind- always. This is the path of a hero.

The other “unclear” path when facing conflict is typically one of avoidance, passive-aggressiveness, manipulation, or despair. This is the path of a victim- or a villain.

Most of us have a “go-to” default method of dealing with conflict.

Mine is avoidance. If I ignore it, it will just go away. Over the years, I’ve put a strong effort into “overriding” this default method by trying to live by this belief that “clear is kind.” It’s a critical part of my own Hero’s Journey.

Recently, we had family in the area for a week, some of whom had traveled from Europe and I had not seen in several years. I was thrilled to spend time with them. We got together for dinner one of the first nights they were here and then- we didn’t hear from them the rest of the week. In viewing pictures of their adventures in and around D.C. on social media, I felt a small twinge. I made excuses- “They probably thought we were too busy” or “It’s not a big deal.” But, ultimately, I was hurt. When I received a message from them after their visit, I avoided replying. This is what has always come easiest to me. Avoidance is my default method of dealing with hurt or disappointment.

But then, I decided just to be clear. I sent them a message, my very own “I message” (they work for adults too) which opened the doors to a tough but necessary conversation. It feels good to choose this path.

Like exercising, it’s hard at first and takes time to build this muscle. But with practice, it gets easier over time. Before long, we’ve got a new default method, a new habit- one of welcoming tough conversations and giving honest, productive feedback to the various humans in our lives.

I hope this is the path I remember to take again and again. I still have a lot to unlearn.

But for our young heroes, they have the opportunity of building this muscle from the start. It is my hope they choose this path- so often that over time and after many “reps”, speaking clearly and kindly is just muscle memory.

What IS the Adventure?

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder and Head of School

“I love Acton Academy! I would say it’s an excellent choice for any families looking for an adventurous education.”

This was a comment made recently on our neighborhood list serve, in response to our upcoming Open House event. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Mostly, because I am always looking for ways to better explain to families what that adventure actually IS. Is it our cool, hands-on quests? Is it allowing children to learn at their own pace? Is it our approach of asking questions to guide and facilitate learning? Is it that we use a new language of “heroes” and “journeys” or mantras like “failure leads to success” or “every child is a genius” (both sincere and rooted in our deep beliefs about learning.)

I would say these elements definitely make us different from a traditional education, but I would argue this is not what makes an “Acton” education an adventure.

What makes our learner-driven community a true adventure is that we are offering what is called an “experiential education” for families. What does this mean?

As an Acton Academy, this means that learning is a series of authentic experiences and involves a constant process of learning through reflection on these experiences.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” – Aristotle

Doing what exactly? Well, everything.

From being given a budget for classroom resources like paper and pencils, planning and executing field trips and school events, to trying out different systems of self-governance and peer accountability, our learners are given opportunities to do it all. And because they are given opportunities to do it all, they are given opportunities to fail at doing it.

We don’t save our learners from the struggle. We welcome it- because we know this is where the real learning happens.

It is an adventure- filled with uncharted territories, muddy waters, surprising twists and turns, and immeasurable treasures to be found.

My list of treasures is ever growing but here are just a few of my own:

  • Seeing a young person discover his/her untapped strength and potential daily
  • Watching an eight year old facilitate a successful conflict resolution between two of her peers
  • Hearing a nine year old describe growth and progress as circular and constant
  • Being a part of a parent community that leads by hope and courage
  • Being a part of a school community where fun, laughter and joy abounds- that honors the delicate balance of taking itself seriously, but not too seriously.

These are the truest of treasures only to be found on this wild adventure we call school.

Three Things

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

It seems I’m just discovering what it means to be a parent. After many mistakes and still frequent missteps, I have come to realize my main job as a parent (beyond meeting my children’s basic needs) is to listen, share stories, and ask good questions.

Just three things- I wish I had figured this out sooner.

Listen. Actively. Whole body, put down my phone, I see you and I care about what you have to say. Listen to the moments of joy, of celebration. Listen to the moments of struggle, of challenges.

Stories. I’m convinced that my boys listen to 50% of what I’m saying on the average day- Except when I’m sharing a story. Stories captivate. The best stories are those that involve struggle, disappointment, embarrassment- stories from childhood or stories from last week.

Questions. The quality of the questions matter. The best questions stem from a motive of genuine curiosity and have many possible answers. Here’s a question we’re asking in our home this week: If you had to choose between doing an easy thing or a hard thing, what would you choose? Why? (Another favorite: Is forgetting a choice?).

I can quickly recognize what I’ve strayed from doing these things. I feel less connected to my boys and less joyful. The world of lectures and demands can do this. So when I find myself there, I remind myself to slow down and take time to do these three important things.

How Do I Play This Game?

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

I’ve always liked playing games. Board games, word games, PE games. Video games- not as much, but I do still love a good game of Mario Kart. I love it for a variety of reasons but mostly because I find it fun, challenging, and deeply entertaining. I laugh just watching the little characters go all over the road, bumping into various obstacles, all the while trying to reach the finish line.

Just as there are many different reasons to play Mario Kart, there are many levels in the game design itself. There are different speeds, different races, and different treasures to collect along the way. Video game creators understand that there needs to be multiple access points for a wide range of individuals, based on their motivation for playing and their particular skill level- if they want their game to be user-friendly and enjoyable.

A new player may be driven by curiosity. What is this game and how do I interact with it? What happens when I press these buttons? What happens when I don’t press these buttons? What if I go in reverse? What’s around the next corner? Their goal may be to simply to learn how to drive.

A player with some experience may be driven to improve. How do I play this game well? How can I go faster? How can I get to more challenging courses? Their goal may be to win races, “leveling up” as they go.

A seasoned player may be to driven to excel. How do I master this game? How do I hone my skills and take advantage of everything this game has to offer? Where can I find the “bonus” treasure? Their goal is achieving excellence at the highest level of difficulty.

In many ways, our Learning Design at The Village School is similar, with many different levels to meet the needs of each unique learner in our community. There are different speeds (self-paced), different levels (badge levels/freedom levels), and different treasures to collect along the way (leadership badges, personal growth).

“The systems and processes we build allow a self-choreographed dance to play out for each person – between external and internal motivators, private and public competition, individual and group work, freedom and responsibility.” – Laura Sandefer

As parents, it’s important to see these systems and different levels of “playing the game” (and motivations for doing so) and trust that our learning design is built to support each child right where they are in their own journeys. It is all too tempting, particularly for the “Type-A’s” among us, to see all of the challenges on Journey Tracker and feel the need to push our child to check all of the boxes. It can be frustrating when you ask a question about something like “personal growth goals” and they don’t know how to answer. It can make us fearful. It can fill us with anxiety. It can make us wonder if we’re missing something- if they’re missing something.

I get it. Trust me, I do.

However, if they’re just learning how to drive, perhaps this is perfectly okay. After all, why should they be concerned with the “bonus” treasure if they need to simply keep their eyes on the road in front of them for the time being?

Because what we want for our young learners, more than anything, is to love learning- to find it fun, challenging, and deeply engaging. We want them to laugh while bumping into obstacles, to embrace challenges, to get back on the road when they go off course, and to “level up” when they decide they’re ready.

When Tough is Kind

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

Recently, I heard one of our new learners say to a peer, “You’re going to get in trouble!”

To which one of our returning learners said, “There’s no such thing as getting in trouble here. You make choices and there are consequences.”

I admit- the phrase “get in trouble” sounded strange as it hit my ears. It’s not in our vernacular at The Village School but it did serve as a throwback to my own childhood in which, “getting in trouble” meant we were unlucky enough to get caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing and were therefore handed some sort of illogical punishment by an clearly agitated adult.

Phew, I’m glad those days are over. I’m also so thankful that my own children are able to see the connection between their choices and the consequences that follow. They understand a consequence as the result of something a person does. It has been the single most transformative aspect of their experience in a school that uses natural and logical consequences to teach personal responsibility.

So what do we mean by natural and logical consequences?

Natural consequences are the inevitable result of a child’s own actions. For example, despite your urging him to put his lunch in his backpack, your eight-year old forgets his lunch and goes to school without it. The natural result is that he gets hungry. This result is a consequence of a choice your child made. It is his responsibility to put his lunch in his backpack.

Logical consequences happen as a result of a child’s action, but are imposed by the designated adult. For example, your child runs with a large stick in her hand at recess after she was told it was an unsafe choice. The logical consequence for the adult to impose is to not allow her to use sticks at recess or restrict her play space to the playground (rather than the natural spaces) for the rest of the week. Logical consequences are most useful when a child’s action could result in harm to the child or others. Logical consequences are reasonable and related to the problem.

Natural and logical consequences result from choices children make about their behavior. In effect, they choose the consequence they experience.

Often times, the consequence which naturally or logically follows our child’s behavior is unpleasant. By allowing our children to experience the pleasant or unpleasant consequence of their behavior, we help them learn what happens because of the behavior choices they made. Ultimately, we are helping them become responsible human beings.

Here are some tips for allowing natural and logical consequences to work their magic:

  1. Think ahead and come up with prepared responses to common “pain points” (the repeated behaviors that are the most common areas of struggle in your family) and make sure everyone in the family is on the same page.
  2. Stay calm. State your prepared response or say, “I have to think on this and will discuss this with you when I’ve had time to think this through.”
  3. Allow your child to experience the consequences. Do not step in and “save” them.
  4. Stay consistent. Often, it takes many experiences of “feeling” the consequences before you see a shift in behavior and decision making.

Allowing natural and logical consequences to shape our children is hard. It’s the tough-minded part of the job- no doubt, but it’s also the most important part of raising responsible and resilient humans. I remind myself of this every time I am tempted to step in and save my boys from experiencing the consequences of their choices and, even then, I still fall short some days (I call this the “knowing-doing” gap).

However, this is what I know for sure: A child learning and growing within the framework of choices and consequences at school and at home will flourish.

Sometimes tough is kind.

Exhibition Week

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

It’s exhibition week at The Village School and the last week of our first session of the school year. I don’t need to look at the calendar to know it’s exhibition week. I just need to spend a few minutes in the studios to know. The energy is distinctly different- tense even at times, as learners feel the pressure of preparing an event to show their families what they’ve learned this session.

Some heroes get to work. With the deadline approaching, they know it’s time to put their head down, work hard, and put forth their best effort to see the remaining challenges through to completion. In true hero fashion, they know they are responsible for their successes and failures leading up to exhibition.

Some learners choose the paths of avoidance, distraction and/or victim-hood. This can sound like:

“My computer’s not working! I can’t do this.”

“I don’t know what to do. No one told me.”

“My work disappeared! Where did it go!?”

and look like learners:

-walking around the studio, distracting others

-doing nothing

-being extra silly, loud, or unfocused

Is this normal? Yes. We’ve all responded this way in the face of challenges at some point in our lives. Is it what we want for our child? No, of course not. We all want our children to face hard work and challenge with the character of a hero, by putting forth their best effort and taking responsibility for their learning. However, this doesn’t always happen- even though we know that they are more than capable.

As parents, it’s important to come to these exhibitions with a sense of curiosity. In what small ways am I seeing my child take responsibility for their learning? What language are they using? What are they excited about? What are they “owning”? Where might they be passing blame? Listen. Be curious. Be ready to give positive, growth-mindset feedback where due (warm-heartedness) and/or allow your child to feel the discomfort of experiencing an exhibition in which their work is being showcased and they don’t have much to show (tough-mindedness).

Mission-Driven

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

Our Mission at The Village School is to guide each child to discover the world around them and the talents within them so that they can find a calling and change the world.

We believe strongly in this mission for two reasons:

  1. We know that having a calling in life (a purpose larger than oneself) leads to a life rich with meaning.
  2. We believe that the world needs to change. Whether it’s more love, more peace, more freedom, more beauty- we believe that each of us has a role in making the world a better place.

This mission is big. So where do we start? In our Spark Studio, we start with kindness, empathy, and learning how to use our words to solve problems. In our Elementary Studio, we start with the same but add in a culture of respect, freedom, and- the most important thread of all- responsibility. We know that before we can ask our learners to be responsible for changing the world, they must first be responsible for themselves.

Starting in our Elementary Studios, our heroes are responsible for:

  • Their work: Setting goals, finding focus, minimizing distractions
  • Their time: Knowing what time it is, being on time, managing their time
  • Their choices: Owning choices, being honest, not placing blame or making excuses

Seeing a young person take responsibility for themselves in ways big and small is the first step of a long and fruitful journey of self-directed learning. It’s also a critical step in a Hero’s Journey.

As Parents, we can help by consistently framing our child’s experiences as a series of choices. Here are some examples:

Hero: “I met all of my goals this week!” You: “What choices did you make to reach your goals?” (Practiced daily, sat at my desk, etc.)

Hero: “I didn’t get anything done. Everyone kept distracting me.” You: “What choices did you have? What choices could you make to find more focus?” (Move to another place in the room, wear headphones, tell the person to stop the distracting behavior, etc.)

Hero: “I was late to afternoon discussion because _________.” You: “What choices could you have made to be on time? Moving forward, what choices could you make to make sure you are on time?” (Wear a watch, bring a timer, check the schedule, etc.)

We know these heroes are destined to change the world, even if they don’t know it yet. However, every time I see a learner take responsibility for their work, their time, or their individual choices, I know we are one step closer to our mission.

Crossing the Threshold

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

On Thursday, we celebrated the beginning of a brand new school year at The Village School. No, it was not our first day of school- it was our second annual launch party, in which families and heroes are invited to tour the studios, meet their Guides, and connect with other families over lunch. In addition, this event serves as an opportunity to announce our overarching question of the year and our seven planned quests (projects) heroes will participate in.

There is one other reason we hold this event each year. It is to explicitly bring attention to the beginning of a new adventure. We call this the “call to adventure”, as we recognize that each family joining us each year has answered this call by choosing an Acton Academy education.

We mark the event symbolically, with a short ceremony, in which our heroes are asked if they accept the call to embark on a Hero’s Journey and then are invited to “cross the threshold” before entering the school. The act of jumping (or stepping) over some type of physical threshold symbolizes the start of something new and serves as the milestone marking the first step of their journeys at The Village school.

This year, the enthusiasm was palatable, and after a loud and resounding “YES!” from most of our heroes, they jumped over a bright green ribbon and swiftly made their way towards their designated studio.

And yet, as expected, not all of our Heroes strode forward with excitement and confidence. For some, particularly our youngest learners, an extended hand of an older Hero or a parent was the reassurance needed to cross the threshold. For a few others, they chose to hang back, entering the building when the crowd had cleared while proceeding with evident caution.

Change is hard. While many individuals embrace change with open arms, it is far more common to resist or avoid change. At some point this year, even our most confident heroes will choose resistance or avoidance when faced with something new or hard. This is part of the journey.

As parents, it’s important to know this is completely normal. Whether it’s the start of a new school year, a new learning challenge, or a new sports team, our children will display the very natural human tendency to resist the change.

When this happens, our job is simple: Validate, Support, Empower.

  1. Validate and normalize: “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or scared of trying something new.”
  2. Support and share: “I am here for you. Can I tell you about a time I felt the same way?”
  3. Empower: Express your belief in them and their ability to handle change- over and over. “You are going to do great! I can’t wait to hear all about your day.”

Before you know it- the storm will have passed and a new and changed hero stands before you, all the more confident in their ability to handle the next and inevitable challenge that comes their way. And when they are cautiously standing in front of the next threshold, you now have a story of triumph to pull from your back pocket to remind your hero in the making just how capable they really are.

Fighting Dragons: A Hero Reflects

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

One of our five core beliefs at The Village School is our belief in the importance of a closely connected community of lifelong learners.

Because of this, our model supports a learning community as small as 10 and as large as 150-which, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, asserts that humans cannot comfortably maintain stable social relationships with more than 150 people. Beyond this, there have been numerous studies that have shown the importance of close and trusting relationships for positive learning outcomes and overall well-being.

There are other magic ingredients too- multi-age environments, peer-to-peer learning, a trusted guide, and a framework for making sense of the inevitable challenges and struggles we all face. Size is important, but it’s only one small part of what makes our learning model work. True community in an Acton Academy, is formed with these key ingredients. With them, deep friendships can be forged, challenges can be embraced, and dragons can by fought and beaten.

Recently, we held our first annual “Celebration of Heroes”, in which a few of our Elementary Learners gave speeches highlighting their experiences from the year and various lessons learned. From these speeches, one theme emerged- community, connection, and friendship. Of all the things they had learned and mastered- from creating a business, planting a garden, designing a playground, to writing a pitch or a fictional story, it seemed the most important thing they had learned was that true learning and transformation is found in relationship with others- in a “closely connected community of lifelong learners.”

Below, is an excerpt from a speech given by one of our Level 5 learners.

Before I came here I went to a public school, where I wasn’t the most loud outgoing person. I didn’t talk much, and I never really talked to anyone out of my friend group or spoke up when I had an issue. I know for a fact I definitely wouldn’t be giving a speech like this this, not because I had nothing to say, but because I didn’t have the courage to say it. And I know everyone, has definitely felt that way before. So as you could imagine, coming to a totally new school was nerve wracking, but now I can say with certainty that I don’t regret coming here one bit. 

One of my favorite quotes is “Fairy tales are more than true: Not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”  I have faced some dragons, and I know there will be more to come. So the thing is, how can we prepare for these dragons? The answer is simple- you can’t. Even if it was possible to prepare for everything you wouldn’t want to. Without the dragons, you wouldn’t learn. 

So what’s the next best thing you can do? Make true friends. A true friend will help you through your hard times, and congratulate you on your good. In coming to The Village School, I’ve made many of these true friends, and I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it weren’t for them. Sure, I didn’t talk for the whole first week at school, but these friends showed me that there was no reason for that. I was so afraid of being judged, I didn’t even see how nice they were and didn’t give it a shot at first. But guess what happened when I did? I found the courage to face this dragon and I learned that you should spend less of your life worrying and more of it going for it. I know it may seem like the end of the world at the time, but when you get through it, you can look back at the view and see what it really was all for. Because after all it’s not as hard as you think, especially when you have friends with you on the journey.

Changing the Context

By Lauren Quinn, Co-Founder & Head of School

“Who we are at any one time depends mostly on the context we find ourselves.” -Ellen Langer

Context is defined as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists.” This idea of context and identity has always fascinated me, but never more than this year as we began the adventure of changing the context of school for a small group of 5-10 year olds.

My guiding question: What happens when we change the context of learning? If the conditions (the rules, the environment, the narratives, the roles of individuals) change- what then happens to the individual learner?

Of course, our team was equipped with the stories of those who went before us, from founders Jeff and Laura Sandefer, who pioneered the very first Acton Academy a decade ago, to our network colleagues who had launched their schools in the years prior.

We were confident in what what we were offering families. Even on the challenging days- and there have been many, we have never doubted that the learning environment, context, or “interrelated conditions” of which our young heroes find themselves in every day, is one designed for human flourishing.

As our inaugural school year comes to a close, we have many stories of our own now- stories of young humans flourishing. I’ve been incredibly privileged to witness the remarkable things that happen when we throw out the traditional, compliance-based model of education and introduce a learner-driven model designed to empower. Below is a story of one remarkable young learner in our community.

One of our 8 year old heroes entered the school year with three tumultuous years of traditional school and all of the typical behaviors of what one might call a twice exceptional child- impulsive, emotionally explosive, hyperactive, and highly distracted- all typical of a learner diagnosed with ADHD and, at the same time, highly gifted (by academic standards). He expressed not feeling like he “fit” anywhere and that no one understood him. He hated school and had developed a general distrust of teachers/educators.

His parents had tried medication, at the pediatricians recommendation, for a brief time but had stopped when they saw a concerning shift in mood. In the first month of school, he earned three strikes for his impulsive behavior and had to stay home for a day. In the second month of school, he exhibited greater self control and was far less argumentative with his fellow heroes. As part of our learning design, he was provided both warm and cool feedback from his peers at the end of each session. Though hard at first, he took this constructive feedback to heart and began to thrive in a system of peer accountability, choice and freedom. His parents let us know, at the advice of another Acton parent, they also started him on daily magnesium and zinc supplement.

By the fourth month of the school year, the changes in this hero were remarkable. His general demeanor had changed. He appeared visibly happy, with a peace about him. In this new learning environment, he was free to walk in circles while thinking or walk outside the studio doors and run a few laps before coming back to his work, refreshed. He was able to climb trees and dig in the dirt and just BE. We watched as he was able to focus for longer and longer periods of time- largely in part because he was finally able to work in his individual “challenge zone” and on things that interested him.

Ultimately, what we witnessed, was a young person- free from the constraints of an adult trying to manage him, control him, or even tirelessly engage him with what they deemed as important- who was now empowered. No longer a passive recipient of his “schooling” experience, he was honored as a co-creator, a maker, a hero by his own right. It was as if an enormous burden had been lifted.

He sensed the shift and was grateful for it. Halfway through the school year, he wrote our Elementary Guide a heartfelt letter, thanking her for “showing up each day and guiding him on his hero’s journey.” His parents said, not only did he write this at home unprompted, but in years past he had expressed anger and even tears when asked to write his teacher a thank you note. This to me is a stellar example of what happens in an environment of mutual respect.

Now, at the tail end of the school year, this young learner is hardly recognizable from the child we knew in September. He exhibits a pride in himself, in his abilities, and our school- even more so perhaps, because of where he’s been and what he’s overcome to get here.

The verdict is out- the shift in context is everything.