What happens when kids get to make (almost) all the decisions at school?
Meet a teacher who knows
Since one purpose of our year away is to explore methods of learning, I thought it’d be useful to talk to educators who are experts in these methods.
Jana Pappas is the co-founder and director of Acton Academy Concord, a microschool of about 15 students, which Beanie attended this past year.
The Acton Academies—now all over the world—are based on the democratic school model: students (a.k.a. Eagles) lead their learning and are given a lot of freedom but also a lot of responsibility. Eagles discuss and vote at Town Halls on how they want their school run, and hold themselves and each other accountable for completing assignments.
When they tackle a project, such as setting up a business, they’re expected to do all the work and be responsible for the consequences.
At one point, Ms. Jana gave them the choice to either hire cleaners for their school or clean the schoolrooms themselves and use the funds for other resources; the students chose to do their own cleaning so they could buy beanbag chairs and other equipment.
Eagles are encouraged to find answers by looking them up or asking a peer. There are no teachers in the classroom, only Guides, and asking a Guide is a last resort. (At Acton Academy Concord, the Guides are Ms. Jana and Ms. Yang.) Eagles each have a peer ‘running partner,’ who checks in regularly to make sure they are on track with meeting learning goals, and helps problem-solve if they are not.
Though Beanie had gone through several years of student-led learning at a Montessori preschool, Acton gave her a whole other level of independence.
I was curious how a teacher from a traditional public school system came to change her thinking so radically that she’d start her own student-led microschool.
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Q: I remember you talking about your own experiences being a good student, following the rules and paying attention in class, and it seemed like you feel that didn’t serve your learning well in the long run.
A: I was a very good student. I was obedient. I followed the rules. I did what was expected to the very best of my ability. When I went into public education, I was able to reflect as an adult and as an educator on my experience. I saw myself in so many of my students: they appeared to be great students because of their behavior, because they just were taught how to sit quietly and do what they were supposed to do.
I saw a lack of learning though. There was not the stretch of imagination. There was not the getting to use their natural abilities to go as far as they could in certain areas.
And on the opposite end, so many were being left behind because of their different needs or different learning styles.
I started noticing that you're trying to teach to the average, but there is no average student here. So you're missing the mark on everyone, right? There is no average human being. I was becoming well aware that every lesson I was doing was maybe meeting the needs of 5 out of 20.
I was in the public classroom seven years. And I left the public classroom to raise our family, but also because I wasn't really getting to live the dream that I was hoping to as an educator—I was missing the mark all over the place and that did not feel good. It didn't feel right. And I didn't want to be a part of that.
Q: What led you to start your own Acton Academy after your public school teaching experiences?
A: Our son is profoundly dyslexic. We barely got through kindergarten and I knew something was going on in the schools—they weren't listening and that's a whole other story.
Our middle daughter wasn't allowed to go to the bathroom when she needed to go to the bathroom and had gotten a bladder infection. She was afraid to go to the bathroom…all of these worries and she's in third grade. Our oldest daughter was getting teased, and she's a science-minded artist but she wasn't getting to move ahead in science and math, where her mind and heart were, and the creative side of her wasn't getting fostered.
The following year I pulled them all out and we homeschooled for two full school years, then I started a tutoring business. Then a parent asked me, “Hey, would you want to open a school?”
It was always a dream of mine to have my own schoolhouse. I had always had this in my mind, walking up these little stairs into my own school.
I wanted a school where every student could work at their own level in all academic areas. And I didn't know if that existed yet, but I wanted to get all the best practices of everything I knew.
I found Acton and that's exactly how I perceive it: all the best practices from Montessori, from [Seth] Godin, and from all the educators that I respect and love. And the unschooling style—all the Eagles getting to work at their own pace and everything.
So I applied to become an Acton owner-founder, and I was denied because I wanted to serve dyslexics and different learning modalities. I wanted to use different teaching styles.
Little did I know there is no direct teaching at Acton Academy, and learning or language processing differences often need direct teaching in certain areas, especially for phonetics for a dyslexic brain. So I had to really think outside the box: how will these learners be served if I can't use what I know?
I did more studying and I found the Nessy program. It's an online independent program for dyslexics, and we tried it out at home and I saw a big growth in my son. I started using it with some students that I was working with; it's such a great program, I saw big growth in them too.
So I thought, ‘Okay, I'm going to reapply and I'm going to bring this into the mix.’ When I reapplied and shared what the plan was, we were accepted to open up our own Acton Academy.
Q: Since Acton attracts all kinds of learners, including neurodivergent learners, how do you teach to all of them? I know people are doing their own core skills [math, reading, grammar] on the computer, but there are still a lot of different types of learners you’re dealing with in Socratic discussion and group activities.
A: It hasn't been too difficult—no matter where you are cognitively, as long as you have some independence, you can speak up for yourself. You can set healthy boundaries and respect others’ boundaries. You can be here. You could grab any Eagle on any particular day and they are here in math, here in spelling, here in reading, here in writing—all of them are all over. Very few are at their typical grade level in more than two or three areas. So academically, yes, they can be all over the place.
When we have our Socratic discussions, some of them listen the whole time, depending on the topic, others get excited and participate depending on the topic. They have opportunities to lead the conundrums.
Sometimes they may prefer to write or type their opinions. You know, there's just a variety of ways to communicate and to participate. And it is working.
Q: What has surprised you about guiding the Eagles?
A: Coming from a public system, coming from an older-school type of parenting, even I've had to detox from feeling the need to be in control and to set my own expectations and trying to fit my own children, or even sometimes the Eagles, into a particular path.
I've been surprised at how successful they’ve been, how much the Eagles have progressed with zero effort from me. They just do it.
Systems are helpful. Systems were created because of the Eagles noticing [of their running partners], “Hey there, you haven't done any math.” Okay, well, what do you feel like needs to happen then?
Q: Are those systems your own or for all Actons?
A: Some are just because of their needs here individually. We have systems that have been created just for our studio because I've come up with some of the rules of engagement for different things. Several of the Freedom Level* details are very individualized for our studio, but the Freedom Level and Eagle Bucks* and Journey Tracker* systems are pretty much universal at almost every Acton.
*Freedom Levels and Eagle Bucks are reward incentives for Eagles to achieve learning goals. Journey Tracker is the online platform that tracks learning progress.
Q: As a Guide, where's the balance between letting children figure things out and have their own privacy, versus overseeing what they’re doing and how they’re progressing?
A: We see most things. There's no way we see it all—have things fallen through the cracks? Maybe, but eventually they'll hit a point where they'll have to circle back or they’ll need to show their work for one of their tests or they'll need to be able to complete something on paper for a game that we're playing, and we’ll know.
There are checks and balances all over the place. And so far, I haven't seen where there's been a failure that hasn't had a lesson or some sort of circling back to make up for that.
They are responsible for holding each other accountable in regards to their Freedom Levels. And if there was nothing being done, no progress being made, no challenges and badges being completed, the Eagle would be at Base Camp Level One. And if you're at Level One for more than two weeks in a row, you get a reset. So there is a system such that there's always progress being made. You can only go one week basically doing nothing.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing teachers today?
A: The expectation to meet a list of standards among 32 students or more. That these teachers are expected to stick to a schedule, teach every standard and for all of their students to test well—that's a lot of pressure.
That's stressful for an educator. That's stressful for families. That’s stressful on students, thinking that they're either dumb and they can't do it, there's something wrong with them, or they’re bored and just trying to be good. Or they start acting out because they're bored, they're getting in trouble, so they think they're bad.
I think that as an educator who cares, looking at what is happening and then trying to do what you're expected to do—it's an impossible feat.
Q: Are there ways that we can get the public system to be closer to what you envision, or is that just impossible?
A: We are focused on Acton Academy and what we can offer as a private entity, so I don't do a ton of thinking about modifying the public system. It has to be modified eventually, but I think it's going to have to completely fail before public funds—before adults in politics—really want to put money, effort, time into it.
I feel torn about this—I love all these alternative models, but we need to make the public system better because not every child can go to an alternative school.
Yeah, it’s somewhat elitist, especially in the Bay Area. Well, so for the 2023-24 school year, we'll be offering a scholarship to a family. I'm saving a little each month for it.
And when we're able to move into a bigger space and really grow, it will only take two new families paying the the full tuition to help fund half the tuition of one other. So financially we'll be able to do it, once we are able to grow and move into a bigger space. I want to be able to do that.
Q: Do you have a lot of freedom to change the way you run your Acton or is it pretty standardized?
A: Yes, we do. The only requirements that I feel could you get kicked out of the network is if you didn't do “learner-led.” That is a must, learner-led, almost to the point of unschooling, where adults really are not supposed to even interact.
You know, Maria Montessori had a huge sign in her studio that said, “adults do not talk to learners.” I may not have that quote exactly right, but—you are not allowed to talk to or interact with the learner. And that's Montessori. I would like to go more in that direction…to have a really smooth, healthy, efficient learning studio with an adult completely not interacting.
Q: If running an Acton wasn’t an option, what else would you do?
A: I'd write a book about what I've seen in education and what opportunities young humans have that are available at their fingertips. There's nothing they can't know in 10 minutes.
There's nothing that they can't go learn, and getting to see that is really inspiring. And I would love for more people to understand. It's really not that hard to provide those opportunities for your children, and even unschooling is not an exclusive world. You can do it on a very low budget, and with the way parents can work now, you can work from home or you can travel and work and expose your children to so many things.
I feel like that's the ultimate education.
Pretty Good Things
The Self-Driven Child
This book is recommended by many educators and worldschoolers. The authors believe children need more control of their own lives, and the lack of control among today’s kids is causing anxiety and depression, and an inability to develop healthy self-motivation. Over the past 10-15 years, the situation has gotten worse for our kids because of cultural changes such as overscheduling, resulting in less independent free play time, and less sleep.
Scientific American had a Q-and-A with authors William Stixrud and Ned Johnson about their book, and the interview gives a good overview of what “The Self-Driven Child” is about.
I rarely watch network television shows anymore, but this is an exception. With it being a popular mainstream show, Abbott Elementary might be on your viewing list already—but if you haven’t checked it out, I recommend it for heartwarming (but not treacly) laughs.
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