You Are Here

Recently, I had a conversation with a gentleman who knew very little about our school. In seeking to understand more about our program, he asked me a series of questions. He was a very nice man, but rather than bring us closer together, each exchange seemed to make the connection even fuzzier- as if I was standing in front of a map at the precise spot where it says “You are here” and this person can not seem to find their way to the same spot. The service is bad. The connection was never good. We may meet at the same spot eventually, but certainly not today.

“Do they play in this fenced playground area?”

Me: “Yes, but also in the large field over there and in the woods over here.”

“They climb trees?”

Me: “Oh, yes!”

“What if they fall?

Me: “They do.”

“There are no whistles or bells? How do they know when it’s time to come in or move to the next thing?”

Me: “They tell each other. They know the schedule.”

“What if they just decide to stay outside and play football all day?”

Me: “That would be interesting if they made that choice.”

Of course, I followed up by explaining this would be an “unsafe choice” and violation of our school’s Honor Code. Our learners know this because they helped create the rules and attached consequences for abusing any of their freedoms. Aside from this, I state, “Learning is fun here. They want to come inside. They want to work.”

While I want to keep talking about the freedoms and responsibilities of our learners, and how children want to learn, I can tell this is just causing the connection to get fuzzier.

So, I give up on that and share the responsibilities of our team, the adults- to ensure a safe learning environment for the young people in our care.

Satisfied, this nice gentleman and I bring our conversation to a pleasant end, no closer to each other than when we began. I find that quiet resolve inside to accept this fact.

This man is doing the best he can with what he knows. In our conversation, he asks a series of “What if” questions that contain assumptions that children are incapable, fragile, irresponsible, manipulative, and disengaged. Of course, somewhere in our conversation he reveals to me how much he hated school. No surprise there. When he thinks about school, his imagination can go no further than his own experience. This saddens me. He is there.

And we- well, we are not there, thankfully.

We are here. In a place where children are capable, strong, responsible, compassionate, and filled with wonder. In a place where asking “What if…” is focused on all of the magical possibilities and untapped potential in each of us. In a place where children are free to spread their wings and fly.

I remember this, and just like that- my heart is filled with joy.

Am I Doing This Right?

There’s no standard handbook for parenting. Out in the universe of parenting self-help books, there exists a million different opinions, methodologies, and philosophies of how we should be doing this parenting thing. The pressure is real because the stakes are so high. Is there anything we care about more than the healthy growth and development of our children?

The majority of us tend to parent the way we were raised- the way our parents parented us. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, this is what we know and what we know is always easier. It’s the path of least resistance.

This fact alone is what makes a Village School parent a hero. We are choosing to quiet these handed-down, reflexive parenting methodologies, in order to nurture and grow a confident, resilient, responsible, kind, and empowered child- one who’s ready to use his or her unique skill set and passions to thrive in the new world we now live in.

Counter-intuitive and frequently uncomfortable, this is really hard work. This new territory of parenting self-directed learners can often leave us wondering, “Am I doing this thing right?”

The truth is- there’s no right or wrong way. The beauty of being a TVS parent is you get to choose what feels right to you, based on your values and your relationship with your child. Your role in your child’s school experience depends on what’s important to you.

With that said, some of our founding families who are thriving in our community do have some advice. They say, regardless of whether you are checking in with your child daily, weekly, or once per session at the exhibitions of learning- the most important thing is engaging in the process of letting go, of shifting your mindset and prioritizing your relationship with your child, paying close attention to who they’re becoming- over what they’re producing. Remember: Our goal is to nurture life-long learners with strong character, not carry them through mindless “grade-level curriculum” so they can do well on a test. We mean it when we say learning to learn, learning to do and learning to be are far more important than learning to know. This whole-child approach is what we’re all about.

Parents who are thriving in our community are committed to a regular practice of:

1) letting go: trusting their child and trusting the process, being willing to be surprised, respecting their child’s path and understanding that it may be different from their own, being patient, letting go of immediate gratification, letting go of solving their child’s problems or removing obstacles 

2) meaningfully engaging with my child: being present, listening and having conversations with their child, seeking to understand by asking questions, being curious, accepting and affirming ther child’s thoughts and feelings without judgement, giving growth mindset praise

3) meaningfully engaging with the community: attending parent coffees and exhibitions, getting to know others, giving and receiving honest, thoughtful feedback, assuming the best of others, sharing vs. comparing, modeling respect, honesty and kindness, being open-minded and supportive

4) being self-directed learners/problem-solvers: finding own solutions rather than expecting the school to provide them, actively seeking out answers to questions, taking responsibility for learning, looking for creative solutions to potential “trade-offs” of a micro-school environment

5) embracing failure and experience as the best teachers: embracing the messiness of experiential learning, expecting failure and stumbles, being willing to reflect on experiences regularly as opportunities for growth

6) embracing accountability: having clear and consistent boundaries at home, holding their child accountable using natural and logical consequences, supporting systems of accountability at school or encouraging their child to use their voice if a system or rule seems unfair.

So, when you find yourself wondering, “Am I doing this thing right?”, try a quick self-assessment using two follow-up questions: 1) Am I practicing the things above? and 2) Am I willing to try again when I fail?

If you’re answer is yes, then please self-affirm your heroic efforts: Yes- 100%, you are doing this thing right. Then, by all means, look up- there’s a whole group of us cheering you on.

The road to mastery is long but the rewards are worth the effort.

Solving Difficult Problems

At The Village School, we promise seven key things to our families. One of these is our promise to guide each of our learners to discover his or her most precious gifts so they can use them to solve difficult problems.

What kind of problems are we talking about? Do we mean problems related to the core academic areas? Are we talking about complex multi-step word problems or mastering that spelling list, reading drawer, or newest civilization challenge?

Actually, no. While these core skills are an important part of our learning design, they are tools that allow our learners to begin the work of solving difficult real-world problems.

As parents, we can sometimes lose sight of the real-world problems in our midst.

Recently, my oldest son was working on mastering the concept of rounding on Khan Academy. He was struggling while working on it at home and asked me for some help. Rather than sit with him for a few minutes or ask questions about what he’d tried so far, I jumped in to show him a rounding “trick” that could help him solve his problem. Happy with this new-found method of rounding numbers, he went along his merry way working through the remaining challenges on Khan. Problem solved.

Or not.

The very next day, as he was working through similar problems, he threw up his hands in frustration and yelled from the other room, “Mom, I forgot what you showed me! Ugh, can you come show me again?”

At that moment, I was reminded of something I already knew- quick, academic progress that feels good in the moment is not the same as deep, mastery based learning. I had lost sight of the actual problem.

For my son, he was facing the problem of how to use his time when didn’t understand something. Should he invest the time to deeply learn this particular math concept, watch the videos, do the practice problems, ask one of his peers for help or look for a shortcut- saving time but sacrificing understanding?

By stepping in the way I did, I had removed the difficult real-world problem that my son would face again and again throughout his life. The problem of time- how should we use it?

The slow, cumulative process of mastery based learning takes time. But we know, at The Village School and throughout the Acton network that it is this process that allows our heroes to learn to learn, learn to do, and learn to be- which is far more important than simply learning to know.

Knowing this, I always find it remarkable that our learners, on average, score one to three grade levels above their same aged peers on standardized tests. The truth of this fun fact is staring us right in the face: a child who knows how to learn can learn anything.

While academic progress is important, this is not the work of solving difficult problems.

While we celebrate a learner mastering his or her grade level in math or reading, what we are really celebrating is how this learner faced and solved the difficult problem of time to meet his or her goals.

Using your voice, solving a conflict, meeting a deadline, becoming a leader of yourself and your learning- this is the work. If our children learn how to do these things now, in a community that mirrors the real-world as much as possible, then they will be poised to solve the world’s most difficult problems when they encounter them.

Next time my son is struggling and looking for a “quick fix” as a way to solve his immediate problem, I’ll try my best to remember this.

Taking Inventory

“I can’t pinpoint the moment it happened because, after all, erosion is so much harder to recognize than earthquake damage.” – Kevin Salwen

Disengaged, distracted by our various technological devices, “busy” with our own work, agendas, extracurricular activities, constantly enticed by a consumer agenda of “more”- it is dangerously easy for modern life to cause our family relationships to erode. 

So how do we recognize erosion before we’re faced with earthquake damage? The start of a new year is a great time to take a family “inventory”. This inventory involves stepping off the treadmill long enough to reflect and answer a simple question: How are we doing?

Recently, when Christian and I asked this question, it became clear that we were not doing great. Distracted, disengaged, and entrenched in various rationalizations of “busy”, we were far from describing our family life as thriving. As our boys developed new interests and greater independence, and we allowed our own work demands to take over, it began to feel like we were on a path that we had not intended to take- one that prioritized productivity over connection. The hardest part of this realization is that we were the problem. As parents, we set the tone, and we were not setting a good one. Ouch. 

But, with newfound clarity, we can begin again. We can choose to do less and listen more. We can build rhythms of restoration and connection into our family lives and choose to take the hard but more rewarding path of living more intentionally among the people we are entrusted to and who have been entrusted to us. Whether it’s a New Year or a new week, we can all do this.

Even better news- we don’t have to do it alone. Here are some great resources, along with one inspirational story, to help your family thrive this year, and beyond: 

How Your Family Can Live a Richer Story in 2020: Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller
The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family by Patrick Lencioni
Rhythms of Renewal by Rebekah Lyons
The Power of Half by Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen

Learning to Learn

“The focus on Acton is on skill-building, not meeting academic standards.” -Jeff Sandefer

The first year or two for a learner at The Village School involve a Hero learning how to learn.  This starts with learning how to do something as simple as staying focused for 10 minutes on a task, or setting smart goals consistently, or learning how to navigate the systems in an Acton studio.  If they learn these skills, then they can learn anything they set their mind to.

As a community in our second year, I can say this is where most of our learners still fall- they are still learning how to learn. It’s important not to miss this part. This is the foundation that will allow them to thrive in the new world we now live in.

These are the things our heroes are learning in their first two years:

  • Developing a growth mindset/ Hero Mindset (vs Victim mindset)
  • Learning how to respond to failure/mistakes 
  • Learning to take responsibility for their choices 
  • Learning to give and receive feedback from peers
  • Learning how to hold their peers accountable
  • Learning how to participating in discussions productively
  • Learning to work well with peers on group learning activities 
  • Learning to regulate emotions
  • Learning to advocate for themselves and others
  • Learning to set goals for a day, then a week, then a session
  • Learning to organize their belongings and their work
  • Learning to track their work accurately
  • Learning which systems to use when
  • Learning to operate a laptop
  • Learning to navigate their learning without direct instruction from a teacher

These are the skills of a life-long learner. They don’t develop overnight- nothing important really does.

From “I’m Great” to “We’re Great”

According to research, every truly great organization exhibits a range of “We’re great” language and behavior. The same is true of championship winning teams and powerful social movements. “I’m great” thinking might allow for a top producer or a star player, but it will not create the impact of a group of people who understand that their collective efforts are far more powerful than anything they can do alone.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s not a bad thing to have a healthy dose of self-esteem and a set of skills that allow us to reach our goals. It’s just not where we want to stay- at least, not if we want to do something truly great.

Reaching this next level of success requires a noble mission, a common identity, and shared values. Harry Potter, Hermione, and Ron were on a mission to save the world from Voldemort. They were wizards/witches who valued friendship, courage, and love. The 1980 U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Team was on a mission to defeat Russia. They were American athletes who valued hard work, humility, and innovation. (Put the movie “Miracle” on your family movie night agenda if you haven’t already done so.) Our learners at The Village School are on a mission to discover their gifts and talents so they can use them to change the world. They are heroes who value honesty, passion, and grit.

None of these are solitary adventures. If we want to change the world- in whatever form, we need others on the journey. The “others” in our midst reinforce the shared mission, identity and values that allow us to harness the power of a “We’re great” culture.

As parents, we can do a variety of things to help our children move from “I’m great” to “We’re great” thinking.

  1. Give yourself an honest self-assessment. Does your language include “I” more often than “we”? Do you talk about others strengths in relation to your own? (For example, our boys have a very good understanding of how our strengths as parents are different and how they compliment each other and make our family unit stronger).
  2. Encourage your child to form relationships with other children that have overlapping interests and could result in a common goal. Partnerships are good- Triads are better. (Common goals could include building a fort, making a song, or forming a “club”).
  3. Speak often about your own personal role models, highlighting the specific language and behavior that you admire.
  4. When your child complains about the behavior of others, reiterate your belief that we all have something to contribute. Re-frame the conversation by asking what their peer’s strengths or interests are and encourage your child to invite this peer to contribute in some way. (For example, “I noticed you have really nice handwriting, would you like to write the title on the poster?”)
  5. Tell, read, or watch stories that focus on people making the transition from “I’m great” to “We’re great” thinking and behavior. Reflect on them together. (Do you remember the moment you realized you couldn’t do it all on your own? Tell THAT story.)
  6. Give growth mindset praise every time you see your child working collaboratively and help him/her notice what he/she was able to able to accomplish by working as a team.

Yes, we want our young learners to be confident, capable and self-directed. But more importantly, we want them to learn that the highest level of success is discovered as a team.

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.