The best kind of lemonade

Written by Rachel Benson, founder of Acton Academy Omaha, a learner-driven community built for the 21st Century where young heroes are inspired to find their calling that will change the world. Visit us at www.actonomaha.org.

What a difference a month can make.

Last month, we were enjoying time in the studio preparing for our upcoming Omaha Acton Children’s Business Fair. The heroes were thinking of their brand-new business ideas and getting them ready to try out at the fair. We even enjoyed our fun and energetic Launch Workshop with over 60 youth from around Omaha. Energy and inspiration swelled as in small groups youth ages 5-16 shared about their businesses, practiced their pitches, and played fun games to connect with each other. Fox42 News even came out to visit us. We were gearing up for our biggest fair yet – with 61 businesses and over 80 youth participating.

And then, like a giant wave, it all came crashing down.

Our fair would need to cancel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our school’s physical location would need to close to help everyone practice social distancing to “flatten the curve” of the disease spreading.

Lemons. Lots of lemons on our hands. Piles of lemons you try hard to hold without dropping. Lemons that sting the scratches on your fingers, pucker your lips and crinkle your face. Lemons that cause you to wish for your status-quo life again…

Or do you?

What if lemons were simply ingredients? Ingredients we didn’t necessarily pick out, but ingredients none the less. Lemons are powerful. Just as they change the structure of milk, turning it into buttermilk, so they fundamentally change our lives. The question becomes, will hide our lemons away until they rot and are thrown out, or will we use these ingredients to create a brand new recipe? A recipe you may have never invented in your former status-quo life?

Last week, in a seamless fashion, we took our entire Acton Omaha Spark Studio experience virtual. As an entrepreneurially-minded school, we pivoted quickly to meet the needs of our families. The virtual experience is one that we didn’t see the need to pursue before, and yet it’s now offered us some powerful discoveries.

#1. The experience for our heroes has been seamless – NO GAPS happening in their learning. And, the children LOVE IT.

#2. Our learners have the skills, motivation, community and structures STILL IN PLACE to continue their own learner-driven journeys at home, together with their studiomates.

#3. In this nation-wide season of isolation, boredom, waiting on school boards and scrambling for resources, it feels like we are living in a vibrant oasis. As one of our parents commented,

“I cannot believe how today went!!  The girls were engaged and busy the entire day!!  I’m blown away…  Well planned out.  Great job!  The girls loved it, and the structure was perfect.  We will make it through this!

And another…

“We are doing great and are super thankful for how quickly you have responded in this situation! Thank you!!”

When you’ve already turned learning upside down and created a structure that nurtures the child’s own ability to be curious and lead their own learning journeys, a crisis like this only showcases the beauty, adaptability and agility of our model.

And yet… one of the most powerful pieces of our learning design is still missing.

“Can we go back to the studio yet?” my 6 year old daughter asks me most every day.

She knows the difference between learning at home and learning in the midst of her vibrant community. Rubbing shoulders with her friends, navigating her way through many ups, downs and conflict resolutions inside. The challenges that etch character and empathy in her soul. As helpful as Zoom has been to give our heroes a taste of their community, it is truly pale in comparison. It will bridge the gap – and when this season is over, our heroes will be ecstatic to “go back to school” once again. To cross the threshold and enter their deeply-forged, tight-knit community of relationships.

My heart aches for families who feel stuck, for children who feel isolated, half-heartedly completing “homework” at home – when what will raise these these young world changers to life is for someone to believe in them; to set them free to discover their curiosity and love of learning in the context of a vibrant, innovative community. As the little kindling of their curiosity is fanned into flame, they are equipped with the foundational mindset, motivation and skills to venture forward and create their own futures.

And you know what? This curious, motivated, agile mindset is the same thing that allows adult creators, entrepreneurs and thought-leaders to step up and turn our current global load of lemons into the best kind of lemonade, a kind the world has never experienced before. I’m already beginning to taste it.

Hope amidst the chaos.

Let’s fan the flames of curiosity, creativity and courage in our children, so they are prepared to venture with us, too, down this uncertain path yet filled with hope.

——

How are you doing? In this whirlwind, do you feel like you are trying to cram twice as much into the same 24-hour days? I feel you. Our family has had our own journey to find peace and joy in this place. In fact, I wrote this next post just for you, including many helpful resources for learning at home! Let’s hit “refresh” together: Take a deep breath…

Take a deep breath… you are more equipped than you think

Written by Rachel Benson, founder of Acton Academy Omaha, a learner-driven community built for the 21st Century where young heroes are inspired to find their calling that will change the world. Visit us at www.actonomaha.org.

What were we doing just two weeks ago? Kissing our children as we sent them off to school. Sipping coffee as we worked in our quiet offices. Folding laundry with just one toddler underfoot. Gradually, then suddenly, we realized that life would begin to look much different for the near and distant future.

Have you ever gone on a trip, trying so desperately to cram all of your normal toiletries into your carry-on bag? I know the feeling. When life changes so drastically, how can we expect to cram all that we are used to doing and MORE into the same 24 hours each day?

The truth is, we just can’t. Take a deep breath. Let’s renew our minds together.

This is a special time. Amidst all of the emails and expectations from your child’s school or maybe your own, I encourage you – let’s unpack our carry-on bags and reimagine what might actually fit in there for this season. You might be surprised.

If you’re anything like us, we lead a full life. At times, my husband and I have felt like ships passing in the night as we lead two full-time businesses plus other investments and leadership opportunities. Our children haven’t always gotten the best end of that stick – and our hearts have felt the impact. Family health has been our battle cry this year, and it’s been amazing to see our little family seedlings grow taller and stronger inside.

So what’s our focus during this family quarantine time? Spreading love to our children. Igniting their curiosity, cheering their bravery, giving time and support for their creativity. If you’re anything like us, chances are your children are thirsty for more these things – and for more of you.

After all, won’t a child armed with curiosity, creativity and courage, wrapped in the security of knowing they are loved, be able to learn all of the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in life?

Won’t they adopt an agile mindset, allowing them to persevere through difficulty with hope, creating their own paths and solutions?

As you sort through all of the thousands of resources out there for parents to use during this time, let’s stay focused on these core “subjects” that our culture rarely talks about. Let’s turn learning upside down. I’m confident you’ll find room for these in your carry-on bag!

Renew your mind and get ideas: As a parent myself, the richest resource I can offer to you is the short, inspirational story called Courage to Grow by Laura Sandefer. Inside it you will find inspiration for how to turn learning upside down for your children – even in your own home. In fact, the authors are giving the Kindle version away for a dollar this week to support families during this crisis.

Discover what makes them curious: Help your child find what they are curious to learn about in the world!  At home, we even like to snuggle up on the couch and explore the questions our kids have together on YouTube! Operation Ouch! is one of our favorites!

Discover a love of reading:  Children who love to read and learn will be equipped with the foundational mindset to search out all the rest they need to be successful. Help your child discover what books they love, and spend time each day enjoying them together! Kahn Academy Kids is a beautiful app that offers rich learning activities, in many subject areas, for FREE!

Unleash their creativity: Art 4 Kids Hub is a fun, self-directed way children can approach art and learning to draw!  Our learners love it.  It’s free if you view on YouTube or YouTube Kids.

Build every day:  Whether your child loves building with magnet tiles, legos, or other STEM materials, building is such a great way to promote an agile mindset, as it requires perseverance and creativity!

Play games every day:  Playing board games with a family member is very helpful for a child’s social development and will help them develop an agile, growth-based mindset.

Get active! Inside or outside, many fun options await! Cosmic Kids Yoga is a studio-favorite of ours!  She weaves stories and fun in with yoga.  This is also free if you view on YouTube.

Now, you see? Take a deep breath. You are more equipped than you think. So go! Get out there, snuggle up, and cultivate the beautiful little seedlings of greatness growing deep inside your child!

What a treasure, indeed!

~Rachel

A love that transforms

Her eyes welled up with tears. Bent over, she covered her face as her tears began to fall and let out her hurt in one big cry. At first, he defended himself. “But her picture is not very good. I didn’t want it,” he said with a cold, logical tone. Another hero piped up with passion in her voice, “But you’re not supposed to say anyone’s artwork is dumb on VALENTINES DAY! It’s supposed to be a day filled with LOVE!”

It was obvious this young hero was not aware of the effect his words had on his art-loving, gift-giving friend. Maybe this experience would turn into an empathy-building moment for him, I thought. I bent down and looked at him in the eyes. “When you said her picture was dumb, how did she feel?” I asked.

“Sad,” he mumbled, with a distant quality in his voice.

“How do you know?” I continued. “What does it look like she feels right now?” I hoped he would use some of the tools of identifying emotions we had been exploring during our morning circles.

“She’s crying,” he observed. “Oh… she’s sad.” he said with more awareness as it finally “clicked”.

“Yes,” I agreed. I went one step further. “How do you feel, knowing that what you said caused her to feel so sad?”

“Sad,” he said quickly, with tender authenticity. “Oh… I have a big-mistaked-feeling… I’m sorry.” Quickly he went over to his hurting friend. With love in his voice and eyes, he gently said her name and made his apology. She felt his love and chose to open herself to healing.

I felt proud of him. He showed great effort and openness to his friend’s feelings. Yet this isn’t how it’s always been. When he first came to us, he came with arms crossed, heart locked up, and a determined grimace on his face that showed his mistrust – at just 5 years old.

With this “against” mentality, he had entered our studio. From the beginning, I knew our quest would be to shower him with love, sifting through the resistance to find the little seedlings of tender curiosity and creativity growing inside – and pour on all of the fertilizer I could muster. Our older heroes joined me in this venture, creating fun ways to play with him during our gym times and outdoor times, and even inviting him to do works with them in the studio. At first, he could be found wandering around the studio during work time. Over time, he chose to read a book in the calming corner instead – and we praised him for his focus. After more time had passed, he began to be open to his first work he was truly curious about – his sound book.

This was not just any sound book – no. Knowing his fascination with super heroes and ninjas, I quickly adjusted it – calling it his very own “Ninja Sound Book.” We spent a little time together each day, practicing the sounds of the letters and thinking of characters that had particular sounds in their names. This entire process began to unlock in him the curiosity, creativity and courage that is inside. He has begun to identify himself as a part of our community, and is beginning to embrace our studio contract – our promised code of conduct to each other. Phrases such as “Your contract” and “I don’t care” are fading. In fact, the day before our Studio Exhibition this past week, he said something that surprised us all.

“Last exhibition, I was late because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be here. But this exhibition, I’m going to be on time. I’m not going to be late – I’m going to do my part,” he said with great boldness as we had gathered around to reflect after our studio maintenance jobs that morning. Sure enough, the next day’s exhibition came, and there he was, excited for the day and on time.

To go from a posture that is “against” the world to discovering what one is “for” – this is the transformation that unleashes the world changer inside. This is the power of empathy, acceptance and love within a community to awaken our authentic, creative selves and unlock our potential.

Creations, Challenges and Conflict, Oh My!

“Oh!” one hero gasped as he put his hands over his mouth, looking in awe at the structure he just built out of playdoh and pasta. “It stayed up!!” He squealed with joy, celebrating with his friend. “Miss Rachel, come see what I made!” invited another hero, as he tapped my arm and pointed to his magnet tile creations across the room. As I walk toward his little collection, I notice two other heroes hard at work washing, peeling and chopping carrots with a veggie chopper together, and later washing dishes. They are filled with joy and peace as they focus on their work to prepare an afternoon snack for the others. Still another is “scrape painting” and attaching the words for her studio exhibition invitation to share with her parents.

Children are genuines – with such a strong creative superpower. It brings me great joy to see them engaged in creating with their minds and their hands each day. For while they are creating a structure, a tower, or even beautiful little carrot coins, they are engaged in the work of creating themselves.

And yet, we know that the creative work isn’t without its difficulties. What happens when the tower falls? What happens when a hero struggles to figure out the challenge? What happens when one hero’s creativity collides with another’s? Downcast faces. Tears. Anger rising. Conflict. Victimhood. Resistance. Distraction. The desire to control comes knocking on their hearts.

Then like a life raft tossed to them, a choice is offered: Will they speak from anger or speak from their hearts? Will they speak blame or share their feelings with vulnerability? Will they hold onto anger or seek a solution? Failure and frustration has taught them to see the power of initiating a conflict resolution. They have experienced the help and comfort it offers first hand and are now quick to grab the peace flower and use this life raft on their own. This is deep learning. Interaction by interaction, day by day, peace is created out of anger. Trust is created out of hurt. Agility is being infused through the breakdown moments. Each hero’s courageous voice to ask for what they want and need is developing. Such a beautiful, powerful foundation for their lives.

Their openness and joy in this journey is inspirational!

Follow the child – pirate style

Give me back my bones!” our pirate-like voices rang out in unison as the heroes held their wiggly mini paper skeletons, limbs attached to the body with golden brads. It was the third time this week we had enjoyed the book in our afternoon story time. Some skeletons were acting out the story, while some were along for the ride. Inspiration and excitement filled our hearts.

Little did I know when the week began how much they would be interested in learning about their bones – how they look, where they are, even what their funny names are. When we opened up this book, questions and curiosity overflowed. An experience of discovery began as we reached out to find and touch our bones. We laughed together as the character exclaimed, “Where did I leave my phalanges?”

It was clear. We needed a skeleton craft – and fast. After a quick google search and a trip to the store, we had one the next day – a wiggly skeleton with golden brads. I couldn’t wait for the heroes to meet him!

Mr. Skeleton was introduced the next afternoon to a few excited heroes. As these few learned how to cut, hole-punch and attach the pieces together, inspiration spread like wildfire. Pretty soon, most of the heroes had made their very own skeleton, all on their own accord, while some enjoyed the experience through observation. During afternoon circle the next day, we had almost double the number of participants – including a whole host of skeletons, carefully arranged by their owners, so they could hear the story too. Some even took apart all of their skeleton’s pieces so they could attach them one by one, going along with the Give Me Back My Bones story.

By the following day, these skeletons were now taking on identities of their own – some with hats, others with swords or even a peg leg. They were accompanying some heroes on their work-time adventures, or resting next to them at DEAR time. I chuckled as I observed the creative additions to our studio life.

During DEAR time this day, one hero in particular was wandering; like a stalled car on the highway without gas to propel him forward. This hero is fascinatingly creative. He loves to create stories of being a ninja with special powers. He has found his place with the other heroes through the imaginative “Superhero Family” play happening outside most days. As he wandered around, I saw in his eyes a sense of not being sure – was he ready to ease into peaceful exploration and creativity, or would he fight the structure for attention?

Right away I grabbed the book I knew he would love – Give Me Back My Bones. “Look what I found for you! Would you like this book? Can I help you get your mat out?”

Like a car filled with gas, a big smile spread across his face, we got his mat ready together, and he snuggled down to read his newly favorite book.

Sometimes all we need is a little inspiration – a whisper that reminds us what we love and an invitation to focus on that.

It is a joy to witness the growing curiosity and creativity of this band of heroes – and follow behind to nurture and water and bring to life the beauty that is inside.

A breakdown leading to breakthrough

“This is so hard.” His shoulders slumped, feeling the weight. He stopped building, scooted over and began playing with the tiles instead. He looked up with tears in his eyes and emotion in his throat. “We’re never going to win the challenge,” he said with genuine vulnerability.

Most days, this hero is upbeat and positive. He is a kind friend, optimistic; always ready to forgive. In the midst of our third round of bridge-building challenges this week, as each one increased in difficulty, he felt overwhelmed. His team had scattered, and he didn’t know what to do.

“Do you feel like you are in your comfort zone, challenge zone or panic zone?” I asked. I had an idea of what he might say.

“Panic zone!” he said, emotion coming up and out of his throat.

“What could we do to help it be less in your panic zone?” I asked. “Sometimes when I’m in my panic zone, what helps me is to just take one step at a time. What’s one thing you could do?”

Looking around the room, it was clear that our game was breaking down. Heroes felt overwhelmed. And yet, as a guide and gamemaker, I knew this was a necessary place for them to be. Over the past few bridge challenges, they had been able to use the same, comfortable model over and over again, since the challenge was small. They needed an opportunity to stretch and discover a new model. The best way? Give them a challenge SO BIG that their current model wouldn’t work anymore – which is exactly what had happened. (Business owners, can you relate?) I knew I needed to raise the energy in the room again, to help them sense some momentum to keep going.

I immediately reached in my pocket, took out my phone, and pretended to make a phone call. It was to ‘Bud the Bear’. This bridge building challenge was unique – it was issued as our friend – Bud the Bear – had reached out to our studio for help. He had been traveling in Colorado and discovered the road in front of him had collapsed. He would be stuck until he knew how to build a bridge for himself. He knew our heroes could help by building models of a bridge and sharing ideas with him.

“What’s that you say, Bud?” I spoke into my phone.

“Really!” I exclaimed. “So you’re telling me that the opening isn’t quite as wide as you thought? As long as the bridge extends for 14 inches that will work?”

“Ok. I’ll tell them. We have some good ideas coming your way, I just know!”

“Thanks, Bud. Talk soon!” I hung up the phone.

Energy immediately picked up as the challenge went from “panic zone” back to “challenge zone”. As the heroes persevered through their feelings of panic and overwhelm, they felt empowered and excited – and even discovered a new model – like using magnet tiles to create a triangle base instead of a square base, which conserved their limited supply and gave them enough tiles to reach the required distance of 14 inches. At the end, we called Bud the Bear again to celebrate!

Breakdown, when approached with a growth mindset, creativity and perseverance – leads to breakthrough.

What a valuable lesson for our heroes – and such a powerful reminder for me!

What a game can teach us about leadership

“But it’s my game!” exclaimed one hero, a six-year-old whose turn it was to be in charge of creating and leading the game for our daily “Move-It” time. The other heroes squirmed with a pained look on their faces, hoping she would listen to their feedback and tweek the rules as they had suggested.

The stillness held the tension of differing opinions. How would we continue on without everyone being on the same page and excited for the game? If she stuck her ground, the game may fall apart as a result of disinterested heroes. If she gave in out of compulsion, she may harbor resentment.

I broke the tension with a question. “What does it mean to be a leader?” I asked. “Is it so you can have your way, or is it so you can think of a game that everyone will enjoy?”

So often leadership in our world is viewed as an opportunity to control; to get our way; to have power. And yet, as our heroes discovered, a leader without a community of people bought into the vision isn’t a leader at all. Leadership is influence. Leadership happens as other’s needs are considered and cared for with a heart of service.

A lightbulb went off in our young game leader’s awareness that day. She chose to listen to her peer’s feedback. She allowed her peers to help her co-create the game – and as a result, everyone LOVED it!

Such a beautiful lesson in real-world leadership!