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!

Your FAQ Answered

A commonly asked question: “What can I do to help my learner at home?”

It isn’t easy being the parent of a self-directed learner. You feel the ups and downs while trying to step back. It can be challenging! So today, I have 2 concrete strategies to try at home, and even better, we’re keeping it simple.

Scenario 1

Your learner comes home upset or frustrated. What do you do in the moment? Step 1– validate his/her emotions. “That must be frustrating!” or “I can see why you would feel angry. I would feel that way too!” More often than not, that is all you need to do. Stop here!

If your learner is ready to problem solve, you can restate the problem and ask if she/he would like help solving it. If (and only if) your learner says, “Yes!” then you’re onto brainstorming. Help your learner generate potential solutions.

Tip- a favorite strategy is to start the brainstorming session with a ridiculous solution. You couldn’t focus today because it was too loud? We could buy you a silent bubble and you could roll around in it all day! No? Okay, what do you think would be a better idea?

Scenario 2

Scenario 2 is any other day when your learner comes home happy and energized from a day at school. (We hope it happens a lot!) On those days, your love and unconditional support are enough. Often learners just need someone to be there to share the joys and challenges.

If you still want to offer additional support, simply ask- how could I better support you? You’d be surprised what the learners say! Sometimes, they will have a specific strategy, and sometimes, they just want you to keep doing what you’re doing! They appreciate the love and support that you are already giving them every day.

And we do too! On this mission to reimagine education, we appreciate every step of success or challenge. We are grateful to you, our trailblazing parent community, for partnering with us on this fantastic journey.

Great Mistakes

This year, Spark Studio has been exploring the concept of Great Mistakes. These are regular old mistakes—a scraped knee, a broken toy—made “great” by identifying something learned from them.

I first heard about Great Mistakes last year in the Discovery Studio. During a launch, the guide asked if anyone had made any Great Mistakes that week. Without hesitation, each elementary-aged learner gave an example of a failure they had experienced that week and what it had taught them for the future. It was obvious that they had been thinking about these all week and were eager to share them. 

I knew we had to bring the idea to Spark. At TVS, we spend a lot of time prompting learners to try new things, do challenging work, and step outside their comfort zones. Those things require them to shed their fear of making a misstep. Not an easy thing to do! But what better way to reframe their thinking than by celebrating those mistakes?

How to do this? We began with a launch in Session 1 that introduced the concept. At the end, each Spark learner reflected on one misstep they had made and what lesson they could take away. They were surprisingly forthcoming and reflective. A short puppet show next modeled the best way to turn those snafus into Great Mistakes. We also read books–“The Book of Mistakes,” by Corinna Luyken and “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg, about the merits of embracing mistakes and turning them into something you may not have thought of otherwise.

Reading “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg

Bit by bit, we began to overhear pieces of conversations from Spark learners. “Hey, you just made a Great Mistake!” one learner told another on the playground. Parents also started saying that their learners had explained the term at home. 

Trial and error during outdoor play

The adults in the studio also started modeling the approach. For example, I started highlighting my mistakes instead of downplaying them. “Oh look, I made a mistake! Do you know that grown-ups make mistakes, too? I’m going to make it a great one: next time, I will proofread that chart before I print it. Thanks for catching that.” 

Tough as it seemed at first, this practice was kind of liberating for me as a guide. I didn’t have to be perfect in the studio, and I started celebrating my own gaffes. Imagine that! But more importantly, the children loved it. They’d smile when I owned up to an oversight and quietly cheered me on when I proposed a solution for the future. Could it be that they were relieved to see adults make mistakes? Might they infer that it’s OK for them to make mistakes, too?

I came across another suggestion in a course I’m taking on the book “Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom,” by Jane Nelsen and Chip DeLorenzo. It has to do with our reactions to our children’s mistakes. If we validate their emotions around the mistake and let them come up with a solution, they feel empowered rather than ashamed. Our response might sound something like this: “I’m so sorry. You must be feeling really sad about what happened. I’ve made so many mistakes that I can really understand. How did it happen? I know you well enough to know that you can learn something really good from this. How do you think you could fix this?”

As they say in the Discovery Studio, heroes are not people who never make mistakes. (They actually make a lot.) Heroes are just people who accept responsibility and learn from them. When learners embrace that idea and lose their fear of failure, they can go farther than they ever thought possible!

When they’re not afraid to make mistakes, children are more willing to just try!

Core Skills and Morning Work

What does a typical morning at The Village School look like? While each studio is different, heroes in Spark, Discovery, and Adventure all begin the morning with a launch and socratic discussion in their studio. Spark heroes then transition into their Morning Work time and Discovery and Adventure studios spend the morning working on Core Skills.

Morning Work in Spark

After the morning circle, Spark heroes spread throughout the Spark Studio and Spark Lab for Morning Work. During this time, learners master early reading, writing, and math skills through both guided and independent activities. Learners can choose to work with the materials or activities they have had already had a lesson on or ask a guide for a lesson on a new material. They are encouraged to find work that is challenging for them and can ask guides to give them one-on-one lessons on new material or as an extension with already familiar materials. Some days most heroes work independently and other days are full of collaboration, but each day Spark heroes can be found working with materials that have either a math, reading, writing, practical life, sensorial, or cultural focus.

At the beginning of Session 2, Spark heroes began using their work plans, a tool that helps them track their work each day, set goals, and work on materials in math, reading/writing, sensorial, practical life, and cultural areas. The other day one of Spark’s youngest learners approached me, enthusiastically holding up her work plan to say that she was “so proud” of herself for working on all five areas that morning. 

An example of a Spark work plan

Core Skills in Discovery

After the morning launch in Discovery, the heroes have time to meet with their squads to check in with each other, ask questions, share, and set individual goals. They then transition into Core Skills time, spreading throughout the Discovery Library and Discovery Lab, where they work independently on building strong foundations in math, reading, and writing. Discovery heroes are learning how to manage their time and prioritize their work. Some learners create daily checklists for themselves, many set SMART goals on Journey Tracker, and others are still working to find a system that works for them. 

The morning schedule on Wednesday

Recently, Discovery heroes were given the opportunity to write their weekly goals on the whiteboard and many showed excitement to do so. Others chose not to. Guides hold guide meetings during Core Skills, where learners can raise concerns or talk about areas they are succeeding and/or struggling, and guides can hold up the mirror, saying things like “I’ve heard you say you want to work on _____, but I’ve seen you _____.” Or “I notice you’ve been setting daily SMART goals in math, but not in reading. What’s stopping you from setting reading goals?” Between squad meetings, guide meetings, setting SMART goals, and sharing weekly goals, Discovery heroes are given the opportunity to problem solve and to find a system that works for them so they are able to continue to challenge themselves during Core Skills time and explore their emerging passions and interests.

Core Skills in Adventure

Core Skills time in Adventure is similar to Core Skills in Discovery. Heroes work on math, reading, writing, Quest, or Civilization. Adventure heroes spend 45 minutes on math and 45 minutes on reading each day so that they are able to complete their Core Skills badges by the end of the year. Every other day they spend 30 minutes researching for Civilization to prepare themselves for their Civilization discussion. Adventure heroes generally use Fridays to catch up or make progress on Character or Skills badges. They are learning how to prioritize their work and are continuing to challenge themselves, explore their interests, and make progress on their long-term goals.

Building a Stronger and Positive Spark Community

“On our own we’re special, and we can chase our dream. But when we join up, hand in hand, Together we’re a team.”

“You can do this!”

“You only have 2 things left.”

“I’m just glad that you’re okay.”

As we dive into another week of Session 2, learners have been discussing and exploring ways to come together as a community. Learners are supporting each other, finding a sense of belonging, and understanding their role in the Spark community. Spark learners are slowly feeling more connected and working together in harmony.

Learners are working together as a team to support each other. Support comes in many forms and may look different on a daily basis in the studio. It may come as an observation where an encouraging word is overheard during work time and can be seen when a 2nd-year learner is helping a 1st-year learner spell words for their unique picture in their writing journal. Their desire to help echoes from the table. These experiences are challenging learners to solicit their peers for positive feedback which leads to bonding and building friendships.

Many bonding moments have occurred between learners writing a story and sharing it on Show and Share day. The excitement exudes from their faces as they proudly stand before the community reading to the other learners and their guides what they have worked so diligently on. Laughter and expressions of joy conclude after many of the presentations.

Sharing their unique and well thought out stories provides a sense of identity and belonging. In the studio, ideas come alive on paper and personalities not yet seen shine through. This excitement continues outdoors as it leads to building walls with bricks and pieces of wood and making healing potions, machines, and cupcakes. This has led to learners enthusiastically addressing any problems that may arise and solving them collectively.

As learners find their sense of identity and role in Spark, they are in agreement that together, they all have their own visions and self-confidence while recognizing that they are individually different but can help each other in many ways.

In the words of Helen Keller ” “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much”.

Self-Directed Music?

Does your child love music? Probably. But how can there be a self-directed music class? This is a question I’ve asked myself since joining the Village School. My college degree is in music education, but I don’t think a single class of my Bachelor’s degree talked about how a learner-led music classroom could function.

Let’s take a look at traditional modes of music education: band, choir, orchestra, and general music classes. All of these have either a conductor/director or a music teacher who leads the class. The musicians follow directions and sing or play their instruments in accordance with prescribed methods. While there can be moments of self-direction, as a whole, the model is very teacher-centric.

So far, my approach to teaching music at the Village School has been one of experimentation. I’ve never seen a learner-led music class. I’ve done lots of research, and only one book even exists on the topic, written in the past three years, and originally in Finnish (luckily I found an English translation). So what have the learners done?

Spark learners during freeze dance!

The Spark studio learners have music twice a week, and we have a few main activities. One of the learners’ favorite activities is “Draw What You Hear.” I’ll play a piece of music that’s around 5 minutes long, and the learners have a blank piece of paper and crayons. Their only direction is to draw what they hear. They’ve drawn along to a Copland ballet, to Latin jazz, and to a Trinidadian steelband. Oftentimes, the learners get to explore with instruments as well. They’ve written songs together and played lots of games with their drums, castanets, shakers, xylophones, and a myriad of other instruments. We always end with freeze dance, where the learners get to dance however they want to a song, but they have to freeze whenever the music stops! Our first session was all music from North America, and this session, all of our music is from Asia. Each session, the music will all be from a new continent!

Discovery and Adventure studios have music together on Fridays. This is where I’ve been most hands off. Their goal in session one was to write a song. I provided a few online resources that they could use if they wanted, and wrote a very general framework for how most songs are written. With that, some formed groups, others went at it alone, and across three or four music classes, I got to watch people experiment at the piano, create beats online, bring in instruments from home and form bands, and write some exquisite lyrics, all without my help or direction.

Adventure learners dressing up and bringing in instruments

At the Village School, we want to do music differently. We want learners to explore and discover their musical interests and to harness their creative power. So far, I’ve seen lots of creative power, lots of discovery, and lots of exploration. As the year goes on, who knows what they’ll come up with?