Session 1 “Sneak Peek”

Session 1 is all about building the” team” at The Village School. Learning to live together is an essential skill and creating an environment where every learner feels like they belong and have something to contribute provides the foundation for meaningful learning. Each studio will focus on building the team through games, discussions, and projects designed to foster their individual and collective identities and will explore the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”

Spark Studio

Welcome to Spark Studio! Spark learners will spend this session learning the routines of the studio and building a community. Each week, learners will explore different areas of the studio, sing songs, and learn about each other.  We will introduce materials at a slow pace so learners can turn routines into habits that will make learning fun all year. Our returning learners will lead our community every step of the way.

Discovery Studio

Discovery will kick off the school year with lots of teamwork and collaboration! For our Build the Team Quest, we will work together to develop our promises to one another and learn how we can best take care of our physical space and each other. We will be getting creative and growing as a team through art projects, maker activities, and more! During Writer’s Workshop, learners will take on the role of journalists, getting to know each other through interviews and writing biographies to share the stories of the learners who make up Discovery Studio with the community. 

Adventure Studio

Welcome to the Building a Team Challenge! This session is all about building a team and mapping a path for individual and collective Adventures. Each week the group will spend time working through a series of Building Challenges, requiring each learner to discover their own unique strengths and imagine how they might add value to their team. Adventure learners will welcome adults who are teammates in their professional lives into the studio to learn about how they have successfully – or not successfully – built a team.  

Learners will also work towards building their own individual beliefs. They will explore what has built the beliefs of others including world-class athletes, famous authors, and their fellow Adventurers. After brainstorming and reflecting, learners will explore one true belief that is important to their character. 

The time spent this session building the team will serve the Adventure Studio well as they take on more responsibility and leadership roles throughout the school community. As the leaders of the school, their collaboration will serve as inspiration for what is possible in a community like ours at The Village School.

Big Feelings

It is the end of the session. A time where we celebrate big achievements like work ethic and dedication throughout a session.

It is also the time when session-long projects are due. Learners can work at their own pace for much of their learning but every session, we do a big project together (Quest) and explore a writing genre together (Writer’s Workshop/Communications). These projects are due each session to help learners stay on track and be ready to tackle something new with their full focus and attention next session!

That means that learners can feel anxious or overwhelmed if they fall behind. It is important to them to catch up and earn this badge because they care about their education. They take responsibility for it.

So the next time that they (and inevitably you) are sitting with big end of session feelings, I hope you remember these two things:

  1.  Your learner’s feelings translate to “I care deeply about my learning.” “I want to do well.”

2.  This experience is a catalyst for learners. Time and time again, we see that it motivates them to try something new in the next session. They are proud of themselves when they stay on track and become masters of their procrastination.

And always, the stakes are low. It won’t feel like that to your learner but they can always try again. It is far better for them to experience the effects of procrastination now than in college or working a real job. They learn from these experiences, try again, and find success. Then they are that much more prepared for the future!

What’s Changed?

Every year at this time, I marvel at the transformations of the young people in front of me. Yes, they are all a little bit taller, more physically adept and coordinated. But what I’m referring to is the transformation in how they see themselves- as learners, as readers, as mathematicians, as explorers, as friends- as leaders of their own learning.

I wonder- do they see themselves the way I do? Do they have a clear understanding of how much they’ve grown? Certainly, I could tell them but do they know?

So, over the course of the past several days, I asked them, “What’s changed for you this year?”

Using the sentence frame, “I used to ___________, and now I __________,” this is what they said: 

“I used to think I was bad at math but now I think I’m good at it.”

“I used to not be as interested in discussions but now I really like them- especially Civilization discussions.” 

“I used to think I was bad at reading but now I know I’m good at it.”

“I used to not like school. It was boring but now I love school.” 

“I used to rely on a teacher to learn but now I rely on myself.” 

“I used to not have as much freedom in what I could read but now I do and because of that reading is not a chore and is fun.”

“I used to not have a lot of say in what I wanted to learn about and now I do and because of that I have learned a lot more- like history, life skills, and communicating well through writing.”

“I used to be afraid of asking questions but now I am not and I love asking questions and finding the answers myself.” 

“I used to ask only questions to grown-ups but now I ask my peers questions to help me learn.” 

“I used to be really shy around older people but now I have a lot more confidence to talk to people of all ages.” 

“I used to think that quest was hard and in my panic zone and now I think it’s in my challenge zone.” 

“I used to not be as encouraged to speak in front of people but now I am more comfortable.”

“I used to try and dress a certain way and now I wear what I want.”

“I used to think making forts was hard but now I know I can do it.” 

“I used to be scared to share what I believed or how I felt but now I am comfortable sharing what I believe is right or wrong and how I feel about things.”

“I used to not care about a lot of things but now I care about so many things.”

They know it’s not a test and there are no right or wrong answers. And so they share these things with me thoughtfully as they are skilled at reflecting on their learning by this point in the year.

They smile as they share, many of them reaffirming their words after speaking them. “Yes, that’s what’s changed for me,” and I smile back in gratitude for this gift.

Setting Boundaries

Earlier this school year, our eleven year old would come home every day and tell us he had so much school work to do. He’d eat a snack, do his chores and settle in with his lab top, notebook and pen. He’d work for hours, unless his self-assigned homework was cut short by sports practice or other family events. As I prepped dinner, I had come to expect the cheery “ping” in the background as he practiced and mastered math problems on Khan Academy, followed by an enthusiastic, “YES!” when he got a problem right. Often, I’d see him collaborating with peers via Google Chat or Video, reviewing each other’s work or working on challenges together. From my vantage point, he was definitely taking responsibility for his education.

At first I was impressed- my middle schooler is choosing to learn and do school work with zero prompting from me? Isn’t this every parent’s dream? Until one day, I realized we had a problem. His school work was cutting into our family time. Walks with the dog, family dinners, and leisure and play time with friends and neighbors were met with resistance or outbursts of overwhelm. Day to day, our family schedule was not reflecting our values of rest, fun, and connection and our son’s life seemed significantly out of balance. It was time to redraw the boundaries so we were making time for the things that were really important to us as a family.

So I set a limit on “home” work. He could do no more than one hour of work and all devices were powered down by 8:00pm. When I heard “but I won’t be able to get everything done!”, I was prepared.

“Hmm, tell me about that. Tell me about your school day and how you’re using your time,” I said.

We sat down and looked at Journey Tracker together. He walked me through his day. We clicked on the challenges, looking at the requirements and expectations together. We explored how much time different things were taking and after we did this, his panic subsided, and he said, “I guess I do have enough time to complete my work at school. I just need to use it better.”

After that, things changed. Knowing that he had a limit on the amount of time he could work at home, he started using his time more efficiently at school. Some things got done and some things did not. This is still the case. But he knows what the boundaries are and can make his choices inside those parameters.

In many ways, our son is stumbling his way towards prioritizing the things most important to him- not unlike the way many of us do as adults. There’s always more to do. There are a million different ways to fill a day. But how to fill it in a way that reflects your values? It’s a process and we’re learning together.

From my perspective, I see him learning all of the things I want him to- learning to learn, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.

What if…?

Taking the leap to self-directed learning is far less “direct” than many of us think. For most of us, at some point in our journeys, especially if we are new to this model, we’ll find ourselves asking a series of “What if” questions.

What if my child fails?

What if my child doesn’t learn this way?

What if they fall behind?

What if my child needs a teacher?

These questions can plague us with uncertainty. They can make us doubt ourselves and our decision to choose something different for our children. They can make us wonder if we’re really cut out for blazing new trails.

So what do we do when we find ourselves in a loop of “What-ifs”? While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I can share what works for me in this situation.

  1. Take inventory. What’s at the root of my anxiety? What else is happening in my life that’s making me reach for greater control in other areas? In what ways is this more about me than my child?
  2. Check my beliefs. What do I really believe is true about how children learn? How much of the way I’m feeling has to do with the ways in which I’ve been conditioned?
  3. Entertain the answers. It’s not surprising that one of the best ways to eliminate or lessen our anxiety across all areas of life is to actually travel down the road of answering your “what if” questions. More often than not, the actual answer is far less scary than the one we’ve imagined in our head.

Let’s give this last one a try.

What if my child fails or falls behind?

Possible answer: He will. He will get distracted and not do the work to earn the badge. He will fall “behind” on his badge plan. He will need to work harder to complete it “on time” or he will need to take additional time to reach his goal. I’m feeling anxious about this because somewhere along the line I adopted the belief that being behind or taking more time to do something is “bad”. I could only earn the approval of others by staying on track, taking little time, and being efficient. But, I believe that children learn best through trial and error and with time to reflect on their experiences. He is learning, every step of the way, even if I can’t see it yet. After many “at-bats”, he will learn. I’m forgetting that learning objectives and associated timelines are just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. More important than earning any particular badge, he will have a deep understanding of how his actions, habits, and mindset are tied to outcomes.

What if my child doesn’t learn this way?

Possible answer: What do I mean by “this” way? It’s true, my child is unique and learns differently than others. I’m feeling anxious about this because it seems like others “get it” and my child doesn’t. Also, my child’s sibling is very motivated and self-directed. I’m struggling because I was conditioned to believe there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way of doing things in school. I was identified as a good student only if I did things the “right” way (the same way as everyone else). But, I believe that each child has a jagged learning profile. My child gets to use trial and error in a self-directed learning environment to figure out how he/she learns best.

What if my child needs a teacher?

Possible answer: She will. He does. We all benefit from teachers when we’re motivated to learn. I’m feeling anxious because my child doesn’t seem to be making progress in _____ (reading, math, etc) and I think it’s because he/she doesn’t have a teacher explaining it to him/her. I’m struggling because I was conditioned to believe that learning happens within the context of schooling (a classroom, a teacher, lessons). But, I believe that my child is a natural learner and optimal learning occurs when my child can choose the person they want to learn from. My child can find a “teacher” in their peers, a book, a virtual instructor, and can access a trusted adult (a guide) to point them in the right direction or problem-solve when they get stuck. Like all things (with or without a traditional teacher) some things will be harder to learn than others. More important than acquiring any particular content knowledge, my child will have the life-long skill of learning whatever he/she wants, whenever he/she wants.

Generally, if I start asking these types of questions and then take inventory of what’s going on in my life, I find that some area feels really hard at the moment and I just want the learning/school stuff to be easy- as if the universe owes it to me to provide this divine balance. But, when I take a moment to check in with my beliefs, about what I know about children and how they learn, I can let those “what if” questions fade into the background, brushing them off as simple ghosts from the past, visiting not because something’s wrong, but because old habits and ways of thinking linger way past their expiration date.

It brings another question to mind. What if our children can learn better habits and ways of thinking?

New trails, here I come.

Challenging the Common Narrative

The world is full of narratives, especially those of middle schoolers. If you pay attention, you can see a master narrative running throughout, made evident by the systems, structures, and social norms in place. In looking at these pieces and parts, simply asking why can lead you to the master narrative at play.

Take the grading system for example. Why give grades? Because young people can’t be trusted to measure and reflect on their own progress. Why do parent-teacher conferences without the student present? Because young people are not capable of sharing and reflecting on their own learning. Why change the rules, provide the extension, make multiple allowances? Because young people are fragile and can’t handle missing deadlines or making mistakes.

So much of what we do at The Village School is construct a counter-narrative- a narrative entrenched in our beliefs about children and adolescents. In our community, young people are trustworthy, capable, strong and resilient. They want to learn, they want to improve, and they want to do excellent and purposeful work. In turn, our systems, processes, and language at TVS reflect these beliefs.

This year, I’ve seen the power of this counter-narrative in Adventure Studio. Within the walls of our school building, our middle schoolers are trusted with more freedom and responsibility than most young people their age. It goes without saying, they respond to this trust and respect by actually being trustworthy and responsible. Why? Because they are capable and they want to be trusted. In an environment such as ours, they can shed the narrow constraints of the outside world and step into a far more productive narrative about who they are and what they have to offer.

But like all things that challenge the status quo, this is not always easy- particularly when engaging with the real world.

On a recent trip to the bookstore, one of our middle schoolers was looking for a “definitive biography” of at least 400 pages to fulfill her Civilization requirement this session. After finding a book that she felt was in her challenge zone, the employee at the checkout counter engaged her in a long line of questions laced with skepticism:

“How old are you? Did you look at the young adult section? Why do you have to read 400 pages? Are you sure you can handle this?” and my personal favorite, “Is your teacher just trying to inflict some cruel and unusual punishment on you?”

I watched as she navigated this line of questioning that was so different from the types of questions she encounters in the studio. And, on the way back to campus, she shared some of her own questions that had formed as a result of the interaction.

“Why did my age matter? I read adult-level books. I know what is appropriate for me. I know my mom would agree. Why did they think I didn’t want to read a long book? I love long books. Why did they assume I wouldn’t choose to read a book like this unless someone was making me?”

She was baffled, understandably so. The bookstore employee’s behavior fit with the master narrative but not our narrative at TVS.

Similarly, our Middle Schoolers faced this challenge when attempting to secure apprenticeships. It was not easy. Many potential employers who showed interest in hosting an apprenticeship at first, became less decisive and certain about having a young person spend time learning and helping their organization. It seemed the master narrative loomed large, threatening their success in landing their first apprenticeships.

But, after several weeks of hard work, persuasive and impressive emails and pitches, dead ends and promising new opportunities, our founding middle schoolers secured their apprenticeships, showing the real world just how capable they really are.

One Adventure Learner apprentices in Spark Studio

Again and again, our learners at TVS will be given opportunities to challenge the status quo. They’ll no doubt face struggle and skepticism. But, along the way, they’ll be part of a movement that actually changes the common narrative, one that offers a more complete and accurate reflection of what young people are capable of.

The Circle of Control

As a learner-driven community, we talk a lot about what we can control and what we can’t.

By the time a learner reaches Adventure Studio, they understand that they are in the driver’s seat of their education, meaning they have a lot more control over their learning than the average young person their age. Understanding badge requirements, doing excellent work, meeting deadlines, having the right attitude, being a good friend, resolving conflicts- they understand that succeeding in these areas is within their control.

Guides do help by asking, “What tools do these young people need to be successful?” The answers determine the launches, stories, experiences and challenges for the year- planned out by session, weeks, and sometime days- leaving room for the spontaneous needs of a learning, growing, changing, group of learners. The learning design is within the guide’s circle of control- as is their personal attitude, effort, actions, and words, all of which is intentionally modeled each day. The guide’s job is to inspire, equip and connect young people to the tools available to them so that they are empowered to take control over their learning.

Within this learning design, there are two very important tools that help a learner really understand what they have control over: Experience and reflection. This is the super-power duo of all tools available to our learners at The Village School. This is where the deepest learning happens and how the most growth occurs.

This session provided many experiences for our Adventure learners to reflect on what is within their circle of control.

From failing to earn a badge to a hosting a semi-chaotic Field Day, their reflections helped them connect their actions to the outcomes, providing vital experiences and life lessons that will be applied the next time they submit badge work or plan a Field Day.

Of course, of equal importance is learning what is outside their circle of control. Experience teaches them this too. They learn that people’s actions, other people’s words, the weather, external circumstances, world events (such as a global pandemic), and so on- are out of their control.

From not getting replies to emails about potential apprenticeships to the internet going out on the day you need to submit your work, they learned that things happen- life doesn’t always go as planned no matter how much we prepare or put all of our “ducks in a row”. In these situations, all you can control is how you respond.

Distinguishing between the two is critical, for it shows our learners where to focus their energy.

As we near the end of the school year, our guides also spend focused time reflecting on the experiences of the year, of the outcomes we see from the environment and opportunities we’ve provided. Without a doubt, one of the greatest outcomes for our Middle School learners is their ability to focus their energy on the things that matter. As far as life skills go, they are 1,000 steps ahead of many adults!

Indeed, Adventure learners are savvy travelers now on this journey of self-directed learning- and their adventures have only just begun!

The Apprenticeship Hunt

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our founding Middle School learners are trying to do just that this session by finding and securing their first 40-hour apprenticeships.

First step: Who am I? What are my strengths? What are my interests/passions? What am I doing when I find myself in flow?

Through discussion, peer feedback, and self-reflection, Adventure learners identified their individual top character traits of insight, leadership, and creativity and narrowed down their many interests to history, event planning, radiology, alternative medicine, and education- among many other things.

Next step: Identify three possible apprenticeships: one “safe”, one “reach”, and one “dream” apprenticeship. Do your research.


Subsequent steps: Draft a compelling email to secure a five minute phone call for each potential apprenticeship. Write, get feedback, revise and practice your phone pitches. Complete the same process for your in-person pitches. Make the pitch. Work out the details. Land the apprenticeship(s).

Sounds easy, right?

Well, sure- except doing something, anything, the first time is never easy. Things will certainly not go exactly as planned.

But this is real world learning at its best- learning that involves a worthy challenge, a strong why, and an outcome that feels fairly high-stakes. Inevitably, mistakes will be made, their skills and confidence will be tested, and our young learners will face disappointment.

Truthfully, we are COUNTING on these experiences. It wouldn’t be REAL world learning without them.

Of course, it always helps to hear the stories of others, complete with their own struggles and successes to better equip, inspire and connect our learners to the challenges they face. We were thrilled to welcome Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer, to campus this week and hear his own personal story to entrepreneurship and founding of Acton Academy.

Learners enjoyed a special visit and Hero Talk from Acton Founder, Jeff Sandefer

Where will they land next session? What new experiences will they be having in their first apprenticeships?

This is still unknown. What we do know, is that they will have grown through the very act of doing, falling, and getting back up again.

Find a calling. Change the world.

Our Adventure learners are doing just that.

Playing the Infinite Game

Most of us have only ever experienced school in finite terms, with learning measured in seat time, grades and tests over a predictable timeline. It’s finite because there is a clear beginning, middle and end, from the first day of school in the fall to the last day of school in early summer. With a child’s formal entry into conventional schooling starting in kindergarten and culminating at high school graduation, 13 years later. Each year, a child gets new grades, takes new tests, and moves up to a new grade level. It’s easy to deliver, easy to measure, and easy to control. 

This timeline, and all of the traditions and rites of passage along the way, have provided a common rhythm by which most families and students have come to count on. For many people, the comfort of this familiar routine, can be alluring enough to ignore the essential opportunities our children are missing while living inside these rhythms and traditions. Instead, we play the game. We don’t even stop to consider if winning this particular game actually means anything. It’s amazing what we’ll trade for certainty. 

We play a different game at The Village School. It’s the long game, a game that some might even describe as the “infinite game”, since the type of people our children become and the unique contributions they will make to the world around them, will hopefully far outlive even their own footprints on this earth. 

Our community exists because we believe children deserve outcomes of personal agency, independence, resilience, creativity, curiosity, and integrity as a result of their education and we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. 

Zooming in, we are a buzzing micro-school, where children get to work at their own pace and do really cool hand-on projects, earning badges along the way to demonstrate mastery of certain skills and subjects. Zooming out, we are part of a growing collective of people that believe a flourishing child is the greatest hope for a flourishing world. 

But, even when embracing an entirely new belief system of how young people learn and find success in the world, old habits are hard to break. Even when we consciously commit to the long game, we lose our infinite mindset and start looking for that predictable beginning, middle and end of our child’s school year. Without grades, tests, and report cards, we latch on to what’s easiest to measure and control- their progress on Khan, the number of research papers they’ve completed, their mastery of the reading and/or spelling drawers all contained within the confines of their badge plan. We start the year zoomed out, with a clear-eyed vision of why we’re here and what our hopes are for our children. Then, come spring, I find so many of us zoomed in on the badges our children have yet to finish, the skills they’ve yet to master. Somehow, our hopes for our children have been dimmed by our fears.

What if they don’t finish? 

How will they feel if they “fall behind”?

Will they always be behind? 

Will they feel bad about themselves if they don’t complete their goals for the year? 

Will they be okay? 

Self-paced and project-based learning seems cool when my boys are doing the work, but it feels incredibly uncomfortable when they’re not. It seems ideal when I think about the fact that they have nothing holding them back; they could fly ahead, mastering Algebra 1 long before their same aged peers and less ideal when they are working on math a grade level “below” these same peers. It is exciting when I see them shouldering the responsibility for their learning, submitting their session-long projects by the time it’s due and disappointing when I don’t. 

But, when I zoom out enough, I realize that it’s not about how fast or slow they go, or how many badges they earn, or how comfortable I am- it’s that they recognize their own sense of agency in the process. An unchecked box on their badge plan is just a signpost telling them where to go next. 

Admittedly, I think we need to get better about the narrative surrounding badge plans- so in the studios our learners see them simply as trail markers, not a measure of their worth. And so as parents, we see them as the tool they are meant to be- a tool, while imperfect, that’s far better than empty letter grades, that help our children develop those “long game” outcomes of independence, perseverance, self-awareness, and resilience.

The good news- it does get easier each year. I’m still learning- still constantly trying to shake old habits, especially at this time of the year. But I can see the fruits of this journey so clearly. A child who’s “behind”, hunkers down and completes their Level 4 and 5 badges in one school year. A child who has yet to show an interest in reading, comes in one day excited to master the colored reading drawers and surround themselves with books from the studio library. Within a month or two, they are reading independently. A child who is emotionally distraught that they have not completed their goals as planned, recognizes that they just need to read the signposts more clearly, and then does so, one day a time until they reach their goals. 

Will they be okay? 

They will be better than okay- as long as we’re willing to play the long, messy, hard game to see it happen. As long as we’re willing to trade the certainty of the “finite game” for something better. 

Can You Help Me?

We talk a lot about independence at The Village School. Every step in a learner’s journey in our community is meant to build independence and autonomy. By Middle School, our learners flex these muscles daily, exemplifying what it means to be a self-directed learner.

Interestingly, one of the most important things they discover, is that one of the most important parts of being a self-directed, independent learner is knowing when and how to ask for help.

“I’m not feeling confident in math right now and I’d like help.”

“I’m falling behind and feeling anxious about it. Can you help me set my goals?”

“I revised and edited my final book review. I’d like one more set of eyes on it. Can you review it with me?”

Our Quests are collaborative in nature and are designed to be completed in teams. Failing to ask for help will make it nearly impossible to complete the challenges. Everyone needs to contribute. Each person needs to be comfortable giving and receiving help.

During this session’s Rocket Quest, our Adventure learners have had to lean on each other to succeed in completing each week’s design challenge. While each week has presented a new challenge- from designing and launching a rocket to creating a battery and lighting system for a space station, the one constant component has been one simple but critical question: Can you help me?

Adventure learners work together to make their own homemade battery out of a lemon

The ability to identify and articulate a need and reach out is a critical part of being a self-directed learner. Asking for help is a strength and an important life skill. After some practice, we realize how much more we can accomplish when we work together.

As we select certain “heroes” and role models to discuss in the studios and in society at large, I’m increasingly suspicious of the stories that leave out or downplay the relationships in that person’s life. I wish more of these stories amplified those moments in which the person said, “I need help”, and showed us what happened next- that magical interplay of human relationships, of giving and receiving, of that person reaching their full potential and accomplishing their dreams because of, not in spite of, their ability to ask for help.