Climbing the Mountains

“Everyone wants to live on the top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” – A. Rooney

Imagine this… you look out your window one morning and are surprised to see mysterious mountains in the distance. They are purple in the early light and shrouded in fog. Every now and then, you glimpse a summit shining in the sunlight. 

You are pulled to climb those mountains. There is something exciting about them. You know it will be challenging but that will be part of the journey. You are ready to run out the door on this new adventure. Today is the day!

Your hand is on the doorknob when you pause and think, “Should I start this new journey right now or should I put together supplies and tools that I might need for the climb ahead? Should I take this journey alone or should I invite friends to join me?”

This is the metaphor of the hero’s journey at The Village School. The distant mountains represent Discovery Studio. Spark Studio is all about preparing for the adventure.

Spark Journey Map

This week, Spark learners were introduced to their very own map. They are “packing their backpacks” with the tools needed for learning. The basics are the fundamentals of reading, writing, and math, but even more importantly, Spark learners will learn to be. They will “pack” focus for 30 minutes or more. They will “pack” problem-solving and self-advocacy. They will “pack” conflict resolution and respecting others’ space. They will be curious, supportive leaders ready for the climb ahead.

Spark learners get to add each tool and skill to their backpack. By the time they leave Spark, they will have a whole backpack full of skills that will help them successfully learn and climb the mountains in Discovery.

Discovery Journey Map

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Planning a trip, preparing for a climb, setting a big goal- the possibility of an adventure is exciting!

Setting off into the Unknown

“Guys, I didn’t think we could do it. But we did it!”

This quote was from a learner at the end of last session. Her team had been tasked with a big challenge to prepare for Exhibition. The team had 90 minutes to come up with a solution. And they did.

Anyone can take a test. You might not know the exact questions or if you will get a passing grade but anyone can sit and fill in bubbles. Task complete.

What if school was built around bigger goals? Goals where you don’t know if you could complete the task at hand. Think of the excitement. The leap into the unknown. The risk that sits on the top of your tongue as you consider the possibility of failure and then decide to go ahead and try anyway. 

In childhood, we set aspirational goals. I want to be a professional basketball player! I want to direct a movie someday! I will go to the moon! As adults, we forget how motivating these goals can be. A child has a slim chance of being a professional basketball player but that doesn’t mean that they won’t go out every day and shoot hoops. Our instinct is to tamp down on these impulses because we don’t want to set our children up for failure. It is scary to not see the path ahead. To not have a strategy ready to share or the right resource at hand. But what if children succeed precisely because they don’t know if they can do it and are motivated to try?

And even if they fail the task, what will they gain along the way?

The Moment of Doubt

The hero’s journey begins with hearing a call to action… and then refusing it.

We often see new learners in September struggling with their newfound independence. They haven’t yet grasped the magnitude of their freedom and responsibility, but slowly yet surely, things begin to change. Learners find focus and flow. Badges are earned and hope is renewed as a learner accepts the call.

Then January happens. A moment of crisis. Doubt creeps in. With many challenges overcome and yet many challenges still to come, a hero naturally questions the journey. Am I the right person to answer this call? Is it worth it?

I don’t think that we appreciate this moment enough.

A hero isn’t someone who blindly accepts the given path. A hero has real evidence that this journey is hard, and progress sometimes seems non-existent. Who better than a hero to doubt the road ahead?

In “Mastery: The Keys to Success”, George Leonard explains that on the path to mastery, there is a time period of incubation (the plateau). The plateau is a stage of development where intense growth is happening but no measurable progress is made.  Anyone who has a practice, whether an athlete or an artist, can relate to this stage- the frustrating period of practice where nothing seems to be changing until all of a sudden, there is a huge leap in growth. A period of great change where progress is exponential. It seems like, overnight, what was once a challenge has become a strength. Reading this book, I realized that the same thing happens in a hero’s journey.

Obstacles, failure, challenges- every hero will encounter them on this journey. These experiences aren’t avoidable. They are the essential ingredient to growth

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t doubt the journey. Isn’t it so very human to long for an easier way? Even when we know the truth deep down – the greater the challenge, the greater the growth.

No (home)work, Lots of Learning: An Evening in the Life of a TVS Parent

This week, we wanted to share a note from a current TVS parent, Dr. Elizabeth Dean. It highlights many Learn to Do skills that we hope our TVS Graduates acquire: set meaningful goals for themselves, practice growth mindset, etc. Elizabeth wrote her reflection at the end of December but it is relevant to the challenges faced at the end of any session. There will be struggles on the journey of a self-directed learner but hopefully, they are worthy ones!

Here is a peek into our house just last night through the often tricky transition from after school to evening to bedtime. 

It is the end of the session, so our Discovery Hero is busy clicking every last click on Journey Tracker to ensure she earns the badges she has been working towards. She is stressed and anxious by all that she hasn’t done. She vacillates between excitement because it is the end of the session and she can see what she has accomplished, and frustration because it is the end of the session and she can see all that she failed to accomplish. She begs to stay up late to do “just two more skills on Khan” and “I have to finish writing my personal mission statement” and “I really want to set my goals for Session 4 right now!” 

Meanwhile, in the other room, our Spark Hero is busy writing “notes of gratitude” to everyone she can think of, inspired by something that happened in her studio that day. She brought home a gratitude jar with slips of paper listing things she and her fellow learners were thankful for – she took this as a call to action and wanted to continue her exploration while showing off her newfound ability to sound out words and write sentences. She is determined to “write 100 notes tonight before bed.” 

As I shuffled from one room to another – reprimanding the dog who has also been busy eating a computer charger and ruining yet another ornament from the lower third of the Christmas tree – I think of how grateful I am for the “no homework” policy at The Village School. In the words of Ron Ritchhart, work is something you do for someone else and learning is what you do for yourself. My heroes are not working. My heroes are learning, and they are deep in it. 

I finally convinced one of them to get in the shower and start the transition to bed. We agreed to finish the 92 other gratitude notes tomorrow. At our house, our kids hold us captive while they are in the shower – does this happen to you? Is it just me? I know this won’t last forever, so I let it happen, and like so many aspects of parenthood, I am full of a combination of deep love and dread. When I’m held captive in the bathroom, it’s almost like the veil of the shower curtain creates a sense of intimacy. It is our family confessional where all thoughts are spilled. On this particular evening, unprompted, our Spark Hero decided to share her goals: “Mom, I’m going to finish the light blue handwriting book and then I am going to learn cursive. My goal is to do a few pages every day so I can do it all next session.” Desperately trying to remember the right kind of praise to say, I cringe and hold back the I’m proud of you and squeak out the Wow, I hear you making a challenging goal for yourself – it’s clumsy, but it’s okay. The veil of the shower curtain helps.

I ran back downstairs to check on the end-of-session-Discovery-Studio-marathon happening only to find my 8-year-old sifting through at least a dozen Chrome tabs open on her laptop. She is excited to see me because she wants to show me this new way of organizing her work that she has just discovered because of the “Learning to be Intentional” badge. I look. I listen. I bite my tongue to hold in the hurry up and please get to bed. I run back upstairs to check on the shower situation before there is no hot water left. 

On the other side of the shower curtain is a request to play the “It’s Not” game, one of her favorite thinking games she learned at school. The premise is to see everyday objects as new things, valuing creative and divergent thinking. “It’s not soap, it’s a magical potion that makes rainbows wherever you soap it,” comes the voice from the other side of the curtain. Before I can share,  I hear the other yelling my name from downstairs. 

Still lost in the tabs on her screen, she asks me if she can share her Passion Project speech with me right before she begins to rationalize why she needs to stay up even later examining the work of her peers and providing them feedback so they, too, can achieve a badge at the end of the week ceremony. It is shortly after this debate that she gets overwhelmed because she realizes she hasn’t completed all the tasks for her Math Adventure badge, and she begins to break down. 

I am so grateful for her sense of overwhelm. At the Village School, learners have the opportunity to be emotional and feel overwhelmed about work and learning that matters.  It probably took me about a year into my Village School experience to proudly admit that I really actually truly hope that she doesn’t get all the badges; I hope that she doesn’t complete all her goals; I hope that she feels regret about what she did not accomplish over the course of the session. I hope this because it will be an experience from which she will learn. I also realize that as a parent, I can only have these hopes because of the environment and culture at The Village School.  

I don’t have to imagine what this same evening would look like in my house if we attended a more traditional school because I work in one and have for the past 15 years. The overwhelm would be about completing worksheets or packets with fill-in-the-blank notes, preparing for a multiple-choice test, answering the questions at the end of the test book chapter, or completing a Pinterest-y activity to celebrate the 100th day of school. The overwhelm would be about compliance and completion with invisible strings of relevance to my learners’ lives and imaginations. The overwhelm would be caused by a fear of failure that defines self-worth. And most striking, the roles would be reversed: me begging my kids to think about school or complete the work assigned by their teachers instead of my kids begging me to stay up later to keep thinking about school and the learning they have chosen for themselves. 

The students I work with are focused on all work and no learning. This is not by choice, my students love to learn, they just see it as something they do “after my schoolwork is finished.” “School isn’t actually about learning anymore.” Students cram for tests only to forget the content days later – something they readily admit. These students feel the same emotions of anxiety and overwhelm that my Discovery Hero feels at the end of her session, the difference is in the life-worthiness of the work that created the emotions in the first place. Failure in a traditional school could have potentially harmful ramifications for learners, and also many times it is the parents who are held accountable and not the students themselves. In these schools – in my school – there is no game of “It’s not” – rather the game of school is always about selecting one right answer.  

So in the space between after-school pick-up and bedtime, there is so much to be grateful for as a TVS parent. There is struggle and it’s not always pretty, but I do know when there is a struggle, it is a worthy one. it. There is no homework or test for which to cram. There are, however, many tests of patience, character, perseverance, and so much learning.

Resourceful & Resilient in Action

A tale from this morning in Core Skills:

Two learners were struggling with factoring with the Distributive Property. When neither of them could figure it out, they sought other options. One looked for a helpful video on Khan; the other one decided to search on Google. Both came to the same video. They watched it together. Then the lightbulb moment, “Oh! It’s just another way to find the greatest common factor!” Problem solved. 

Two important highlights in this story. First, an adult (me) was standing behind them the entire time. Not once did they turn around to ask for help. They knew they could figure it out: I’d call that self-efficacy. Second, it took multiple tries. Neither learner found what they were looking for right away. They had to search for different topics and try alternative search terms. In a day and age where we are used to quick fixes, these learners were patient and flexible.

Now fast forward… imagine the future where these learners have had __ years of practice at finding their own helpful resources and solving their own problems. Imagine how prepared they will be! They will be ready to change the world.

Doesn’t it make your heart beat a little faster?

We hope all TVS learners graduate resourceful and resilient. That’s why we have Socratic Guides who guide and empower learners. That’s why our learners are on their own hero’s journey.

Profile of a Graduate: Letter from a Parent

Our High School is opening in Fall 2022 and with that exciting event on the horizon, we are looking forward to graduating our first TVS class in the upcoming years. This blog post continues our series on Profile of a Graduate. 

TVS families are passionate about our learning model and celebrate the joy they see each day. They see their learner master a new skill, passionately go above and beyond on a project, or effectively problem-solve with a fellow traveler. But even amidst the real results on daily basis, it is not uncommon for parents to wonder, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Our self-directed model is unique. It is vastly different from many of our own school experiences.  While that can be exhilarating to see all the positive change and growth in their learners, it can be hard to silence that small voice, “What happens if my child is missing out on something? What happens if they are unprepared for college or life beyond?”

This week, we want to share with you a letter from a parent of an Acton Academy junior who has been on this journey and reflects on what their learner took away from Acton.

[ This letter has been edited to remove the learner’s name for privacy and is reproduced with permission of Acton Main. ]

As (our learner) ended his junior year and was free to speak to college rowing

coaches, or rather they were now free to contact him, so began the flurry of

activity that ushered in our college prep as parents.

We had wondered about this for some time, would he find the right

combination of education and sport?  Not many universities offer men’s

rowing as a competitive sport, it was both a blessing and curse as it

narrowed down his choices, but also stymied his options at the same time.

Rowing is such a part of who (our son) is.  In fact, I’m not even certain how

to frame one without the other.  From the age of 13, he’s been grinding year

round.  There’s no off-season, no quick rewards, there’s no championship

ring or prep rally.  There is, however, physical pain, blistered and torn

hands.  There are entire seasons, maybe even years, of disappointing finishes

and no medals.  There are missed camping trips and lock-ins, there is a lack

of camaraderie of shared sport amongst classmates, regrets sent to parties

, and connections not made.  Yet the pros of this high-performance sport must

somehow have a payout that keeps him on this path, but that is something for

him to speak to.

As summer Olympic development training ended, and connections were made and

zoom calls were scheduled with coaches dotting the East coast, (our learner) was

alive.  Truth be told, I’m not sure he thought he had the skill set needed

for rowing at the next level.  His eyes were bright, his voice exuberant.

Coaches were scheduling 20 introductory calls that were going well over into

60 and 90-minute calls. (Our son), the athlete, with his podium finishes and

erg times and noted improvement is what was getting him the calls, but

(our son), the Acton Eagle, the hero sharing his journey, the vulnerability,

his learning to be and to do was making them take note.

“I’ve never had a call go this quickly or enjoyable”

“Most kids your age aren’t this engaging”

“I can’t believe the depth of questions you had for me”

“I’ve never had an athlete do more thorough research on the team or me as a

coach”

“If you don’t feel like this school or program is the right fit for

you, I would be honored to put in a good word elsewhere for you based solely

on this conversation”

After his official visit to Hobart and William Smith Colleges, there

was no doubt he had found his home. The coaches called out his most valuable

trait.  “You are teachable and that is the most desirable thing we

could ask for in an athlete.” The Dean of Entrepreneurial Studies was shocked

that (our learner) had read some of his papers, he took the entirety of his

afternoon off just to give him a more in-depth tour. He was excited

about the school, the 9:1 student-professor ratio, the apprenticeship

programs they offer, the classes he participated in felt like “Acton in

college form,” he said.

Some of the most elite rowing programs in the nation asked him to apply.

With each offer, we looked at him and said, keep your options open.  When

Harvard and then Oxford sent requests, we looked at him again, and he was

flattered but unfazed and we knew that he had already found his next great

adventure and it was happening in upstate New York.

Our son was going to be himself no matter where he went to school, he had the

trajectory of a well-balanced student, but when he found Acton Academy there

was a magical combination of him as a learner with the power to chart his

own course.  He has held that power and control over his life and we have

rarely stepped in.  He has stumbled along his journey, he has succumbed to

self-pity and he has fallen, but he alone has recovered and plowed forward.

With that is so much growth and power and self-awareness and yet so much

empathy for those who weren’t capable of charting the same path.  I think he

wrote it best in one of his essays, “Acton has given me the world.”

It’s clear that the principles and compass of Acton have elevated him as a

self-driven athlete and student, but it’s also given us as parents a greater

understanding of our roles on this journey.  It’s given us the insight to

see failures as growth, it’s given us the permission to sit back rather than

step in, it’s given us the confidence to trust the journey and to trust our

children.  It’s given us endless debates about “what is a hero” and

discussion topics that pepper our daily lives.  It’s given us family mottos

and chants, and rules to live by.  In short, it’s changed who we are and how

we go about being, and it will continue to impact generations (let that sit

a minute) you have impacted GENERATIONS of our family, of countless

families because you bravely and tirelessly worked to make Acton Academy

what it is.  Thank you isn’t a grand enough term, but I’m not sure there is

one more fitting.

Pause in a Pandemic

We’re taking a break from our Profile of Graduate series. Stay tuned for another segment next week!

Let’s recognize where we are. We are in the midst of a life-changing event.

The past few months have felt like a reprieve. A cautious hope that life might return to a new normal. With surging cases over the last month, it feels like we are back to the beginning.

It is scary.

And yet, we are not back to the beginning. Scientists know more about this virus. There are better tools available to us: rapid tests and better masks. We have the experience of shifting the way we learn and work, i.e. everyone knows how to Zoom! We are, quite simply, better equipped. 

It is still scary.

In these times, I think of the story of Jessica Honegger (the author of Imperfect Courage). She founded the Noonday Collection, one of the world’s most successful fair-trade accessories brand. She also went through a complicated foreign adoption fraught with setbacks. Her advice? Whatever life throws at you, keep going. Even if you are scared.

Accept the fear. Successful people aren’t fearless; more often than not, they are the people who continue to move forward even (and perhaps especially) when they are scared.

There will be moments of fear on the journey of self-directed learning. Fear of failure. Fear of falling behind. Fear of missing out. In those moments, keep in mind the bigger picture. Is my child happy? Are they learning? Just about everything else can sort itself out.

“Perhaps the hero’s journey is not for a few brave people after all, but an invitation to me, to us all really, to rally our courage and go do the thing that we were meant to do.” – Jessica Honegger

Profile of a Graduate: 2 Key Ingredients for Flipped Writing

What is the profile of a TVS Graduate? Our High School will open next year and with it, our dream of graduating the first TVS learner is becoming a reality. It is a much-anticipated event that was hard to imagine 4 years ago when we started with just our 12 founding learners and their families. 

Our Profile of a Graduate outlines all the traits that make TVS learners uniquely ready for their next great adventure and to start changing the world on Day 1 post-graduation. They Learn to Know, Learn to Do, Learn to Be, and Learn to Live Together. This post begins a series on diving deep into each trait. First up, learn to do: communication!

Writing at TVS is upside down. We don’t start by writing and learning grammar. We start with a real need to communicate.

This need is infused in studio life. Problems are described on Town Hall slips. Gratitude is shared through thank you notes. Reflection is an essential part of Quest. Learners advertise their need or their willingness to help on the Help Board.

With a reason to communicate, many learners find a passion for writing.

These two learners are working on a series of stories together.
This learner has already written several chapter books at home.

It may take time to develop but we intentionally create a learning design for every learner to explore many types of communicating. Each new Writer’s Workshop or Communication Workshop introduces a real-world need (like pitching a studio field trip or writing a script for a play) and a new format, everything from poetry to 5-paragraph essays.

What about grammar? I know it can be hard to read misspelled words and entire pages lacking periods! When you need to communicate and have a passion for writing, grammar becomes a means to an end. Learners who are motivated to communicate well are motivated to learn spelling and grammar. Grammar does not make you a great communicator but helps you communicate greatly.

Need one more example? This is from a learner who received peer feedback on their writing, “Oh, I should go back and put in paragraphs. That would help you understand my ideas better.” No instruction needed.

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.

Servant Leadership in Action

The playground gate was broken. A result of two learners swinging on it. 

One learner peered at it closely. He pulled it up and pushed it down. Nothing was working. Another learner joined him. Neither of them knew who had broken the gate but it didn’t seem to matter.

The second learner examined the problem and decided that they needed a toolkit. She declared that at the next opportunity, she would bring the toolkit and fix the gate.

That is just what she did! She unscrewed some bolts, took the gate entirely off of its hinges, and reattached it. A fellow traveler helped and together, they fixed the gate. It took up their entire free time.

This is what we mean by character-based education. Our goal is to empower learners with the right mindset to find the necessary tools and solve their own problems. This 8-year-old learner saw a need in the world and did something about it. I’d call that servant leadership!