Measuring Growth

As a mastery-based school, our learners work hard each day to master the foundational skills of reading, writing, and math. But what about the non-academic skills? What about character growth? How do we measure meta-cognitive growth (or the ability to think about thinking)? What about social/emotional growth?

As we near the last session of our inaugural year together, I decided to find my own answers to these questions by asking our heroes directly.

What do you want your parents to know about your time spent at TVS?

“I want them to know that this is really hard and I’m doing my best.”

“I want them to know I am learning and I’ve gotten a lot better at figuring things out on my own.”

“It’s okay if we don’t enjoy everything we’re learning because it’s important to do it and feel the sense of accomplishment. We’ll be okay. We’ll be better than okay if we do something hard.”

“Sometimes I get mad but I’m learning how to work through things.”

“Sometimes I’ll get hurt, but I’ll be okay.”

“I am happy. We have freedom. I’m cared for here.”

What’s changed for you? (“I used to think/do _________but now I ___________.”)

“I used to think work was torture, but now I think of work as a challenge and a way to feel good about yourself. Laziness doesn’t feel good.”

“I used to think I wasn’t very good at learning, but now I know I am.”

“I used to think math was boring and I didn’t need it for life but now I’m in the middle because I’m getting better at it.”

“I used to be mad at everything. The rules were stupid at my old school and there was a lot of drama. I never wanted to go. I like coming to school now- except when I’m tired.”

“My view on things that are hard has changed. I think now the things you resist are often the things we need the most.”

“I used to think that I was just okay at things like math and spelling, but now I think I’m good at them. Also, I think I’m a more interesting person now.”

“I used to think I was clever, but now I know I am clever and smart.”

And, one of my personal favorites, (most of our heroes pack their own lunches each day…)

“I used to pack a small lunch but now I make sure to pack a big lunch.”

Sometimes, all it takes is a good question to measure growth.

When the Paradigm Shifts

How old were you when you realized that the adults in your life did not, in fact, have “it all figured out”?

My childhood experience went something like this: There were kids and there were adults. Adults had big, important things to do and it was best if us kids stayed out of their way so they could do all of the big, important, and mysterious adult “things”. These things required the cleverness, skill and seriousness that only an adult possessed. These adult “things” included cooking, shopping, planning trips, devising schedules, working, managing money, managing relationships- among other things. At home and at school, the adults made the rules and because adults had it all figured out, we (mostly) followed the rules without question.

And then, inevitably, this paradigm fails us. As we become more worldly, we realize the adults in our lives- the moms, the dads, the teachers, the administrators, the “bosses” and societal leaders are not the omnipotent beings we believed them to be. There is no race with a finish line and prize of “having it all figured out.” Those adults in our lives? They were just humans trying to figure it out as they went along.

I was far too old before I came to this understanding of adulthood. Regardless of your age, this initial paradigm shift is scary and confusing. It can lead us to question nearly all of our closely held assumptions. What does it mean to really “know” something? Who makes the rules? If adults are not as powerful as I thought, am I safe? If there is no such thing as the “all-knowing adult”, who is going to teach me “all the things”? If we are all just trying to figure this life thing out at the same time, are we doomed? How do I proceed now that the rules are blurred and the finish line no longer exists?

And then, bit by bit, we begin the arduous (and often painful) process of piecing together this new world we’ve now found ourselves in- often “unlearning” so much of what we pocketed as truth.

Step back a bit, and perhaps we can see the cultural and societal costs of this rebuilding process. (This is an interesting article on the topic).

Is it necessary? Or can we do better?

Imagine instead, a version of childhood that looks like this: Adults and children are each learners with different amounts and types of life experience. Both experiences are respected and important. Children work alongside adults, asking them questions related to the process of learning. These questions allow children to see that most of the things adults seem to be “mysteriously” good at, are from years of practice, determination, grit and failure. Starting from a young age, children learn the art of cooking, shopping, planning trips, devising schedules, working, managing money, managing relationships and, among many other things, they learn how capable they are. At home and at school, the adults make the “big” rules (safety, well-being, etc) yet engage the child in the very important process of creating the other rules. Each step along the way, the child is encouraged to look at all existing systems and “rules” from a place of curiosity.

Can you imagine this?

Growing up this way, children are shaped by a much different worldview. Early on, they recognize themselves as co-creators of knowledge and the adult-child relationship is based on respect, empathy and trust. They understand themselves to be leaders not followers, creators not consumers, and powerful agents of change.

This is why there are no “all knowing” adults at The Village School. It is why we have Guides and not teachers. It is why we have heroes instead of students and children. It is why we are all (adults included) learners on a journey.

We can imagine the paradigm shift described above because this is the very worldview etched in every part of learning design and community culture at TVS.

Step back a bit, and perhaps we can see the endless possibilities of building such a world. (Not to mention the relief, that now, as adults, we can graciously admit, that we most certainly do not “have it all figured out.”)

Clean and Simple

“You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

As we know, life is far from clean and simple. Our modern world inundates us with mixed messages and overwhelming noise. Without clear thinking, our children are vulnerable to so much.

Our learners cultivate critical thinking skills in daily Socratic discussions and they practice making good decisions by actually having the freedom to make many of the decisions that shape their day. You can’t become a critical thinker without having ample time to think and reflect. You can’t become a good decision maker without actually being able to decide things.

It seems silly to spell out. However, most institutions don’t give our children the freedom or opportunity to make many decisions themselves.

At The Village School, our young learners have been testing out their freedom and decision making abilities for the past seven months. Through trial and error, constant feedback, and daily practice, they have been working hard to make their thinking “clean and simple.”

Has it worked? Can we see tangible evidence of clear thinking?

A recent experience in our own home gave me an answer to this wondering. After a particular challenging day, I flopped down on the couch next to our nine year old and asked, “What do you do when you realize you made a mistake and aren’t particularly proud of yourself?”

Our son sat up tall, looked at me and spoke as if he had been simply waiting around for me to ask this exact question.

“First, I would apologize if I need to- like if I was unkind or overreacted to something.

Second, I would remind myself that everyone makes mistakes. People are way harder on themselves than other people are on them. Just because I’m mad at myself doesn’t mean everyone else is mad at me. They’re probably not even thinking about me.

Third, I would get quiet and still until I felt calm.

Fourth, I reflect on what I could do differently next time so I don’t feel like this. I probably let the wrong part of my brain tell me what to do. This side shouts, “Do this! It’s the way you’ve always done it. It’s the quickest and easiest way.” The other side whispers, “Slow down, pay attention. You can try a different way.” You have to stop long enough to listen to the voice that whispers.

Lastly, I would make myself do something I really like even if I don’t feel like it. Just doing it can fix a bad mood.”

Clean and simple- the type of thinking that will move mountains.

Is Struggle a Good Thing?

Our children deserve honest struggle which builds deep, strong roots.” – Laura Sandefer

Is struggle a good thing?

It certainly doesn’t feel good. Watching our children struggle is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. It makes my skin itch and my heart beat a little faster. It is the epitome of discomfort. In no way, shape or form does it come naturally to me.

Embracing struggle is part of the journey at The Village School. It’s in our ethos. We allow our learners to struggle because they deserve it.

They deserve the experience of losing a game, navigating tricky relationships, missing a deadline, and feeling uncomfortable, unprepared, or unsure at times.

As an educator, and especially as a mother, being a witness to a child in the midst of struggle is heart-wrenching. It’s in our DNA as humans to try and avoid pain after all.

But, without it- there is no transformation. Without honest struggle, we take away the opportunity for our children to build deep, strong roots.

So, is struggle a good thing? Yes, it is- even though it doesn’t feel good.

Because the other side of struggle- that place where we stand after losing, failing, procrastinating, forgiving, apologizing, accepting, etc.- this is the place our children must be allowed to get to, again and again, if we really want to see them soar.

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.

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)

How Much Screen Time?

How much screen time do learners have at The Village School? This is a question I am often asked by prospective parents.

I get it. As parents who value time outside, physical activity, and face-to-face interactions, our family has always been largely “low tech”, perhaps even “screen averse” relative to the role screens/technology plays in the lives of many modern families. For us, it has always had more to do with whatever valuable activity was being replaced by “screen time”, than the idea that time interacting with technology was inherently bad. So it might seem strange that I am now the director of a school in which technology is a significant part of its learning design. Let me explain. Actually, let Laura Sandefer, Acton Academy Founder explain.

“The vision of students glued to the screen hour after hour is what many people have when they hear “online learning.” The reality at Acton Academy shatters this image and sets us apart from schools that use technology as a band-aid on a traditional school paradigm that simply doesn’t work. We live in an unprecedented time in history. Technology propels us into new ways to do school and think about our world. At our little school, we grasp this opportunity and use the gift of technology to help us deliver individualized core skill curriculum; experience the extraordinary beauty and wonder of the world through sites like Google Earth; Skype with new friends around the globe; and grapple with stunning ideas shared via TED talks and other online resources. Our students apply this new knowledge and ideas in solving the meaningful life problems presented in our project work.”

The amount of time our students spend in front of the computer screen is approximately 20% of their weekly time at school. This time includes word processing, using foreign language programs like Duolingo, learning Math on adaptive programs like Khan Academy, and researching and watching videos of heroes’ stories during project time. The other 80% of their time is spent reading books, writing and editing, working individually and in groups to solve problems in project time, engaging with the class in Socratic discussions, playing games on the field, stretching and working out during P.E., creating art, listening to stories or presentations by special guests, writing and editing work, socializing, and meeting with guides to discuss goals.

In other words, we embrace technology at The Village School because, used thoughtfully and intentionally, technology unleashes learning, creating a more personalized and learner-driven pathway for our students. It’s a tool- and when used well, it can replace the boring lectures and one-sized fits all curriculum so common in traditional classrooms. Technology is not an all or nothing phenomenon. We can and should discriminate the good from the bad. As families, we absolutely should have clear boundaries and our own rules surrounding technology use at home that reflect our own set of values. We can embrace the use of technology as a learning tool and be opposed to its use as a passive form of entertainment. We can and should find our own “comfort point” on the use of screens in our lives and in our children’s lives. As schools, we should do the same.

At The Village School, we value time outside, physical activity, and face-to-face interactions, AND we value the use of technology to equip, inspire, and connect us to the world around us. For parents who are truly interested in the role of technology in self-directed learning, these are some of the questions I would be asking:

What things do your students DO with technology?

How much time are students spending “sitting and listening”?

How does technology personalize the learning experience for my child?

How can technology inspire my child to find what they are passionate about?

How is technology connecting them to others in meaningful ways?

At The Village School, we offer a unique style of “blended schooling” which is rich in relationships, movement, and real-world application of learning.

This is our “comfort point”.

(Repost from February 6, 2019)

What Makes Us Different?

Recently, we asked our Elementary Heroes a question. “What makes us different?”

Their answers shared some common themes emphasizing our studio contract, peer accountability, no tests, learning at your own pace, and projects/quest time. A central theme emerged from all of their insights. What was it? Here are some of the things they shared:

“We have more free time. We can eat lunch wherever we want.”

“We don’t have tests. We have exhibitions of learning.”

“Our studio contract. We created it.”

"We get to use our imagination a lot to create things.”

“We have guides, not teachers.”

"We teach ourselves."

"We get to learn what we want."

"We set our own goals."

"Field trips. We have so many field trips!"

"Our afternoon quests. We have new projects every session."

"We have time to work on the things we are really passionate about."

"Town Hall Meeting. We solve our own problems and come up with ideas to make our school better."

Central to all of their comments is the concept of Freedom. Freedom to make choices, Freedom to create their own rules, Freedom to learn at their own pace, Freedom to explore the world beyond the studio walls, Freedom to pursue their passions, Freedom to DO real things and see the fruits of their efforts.

Indeed, our heroes have a lot of freedom- paired with a lot of responsibility, and they own it. Most of the time. This is their Hero’s Journey. It is a sight to behold.

Freedom is central to our learning design at The Village School. In the months before opening, I would often point to this when asked, “What makes you different?”

But at the heart of our design and approach to learning- our projects, community meetings, discussions, personal goal setting, exhibitions of learning, Socratic guiding, etc. is the difference it makes in the lives of our young learners.

What makes us different?

Our Heroes. With the freedom to be themselves, to chart their own course, to have choice, voice, and a deep sense of agency each and every day, they are empowered to be their best selves and to make a difference in the world around them. They become the heroes in their own stories (and in mine)- and this is what truly makes us different.