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The Power of Promise

"I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man's word should be as good as his bond; that character - not wealth or power or position - is of supreme worth."

- J. D. Rockefeller

Several years ago, as a teacher in a traditional setting, I remember taking 20-30 minutes out of our first or second day of class to create “Classroom Rules” with my students. It was a meager attempt to create a sense of shared responsibility and ownership. Truthfully though, this was about all the time we spent on it; we hardly revisited those rules, and as a teacher, I always had the final say. When someone broke a rule, e.g. if a student disrupted the environment or behaved disrespectfully, they never turned to one another for a solution. They looked to me. It was my classroom. The teacher was responsible. The teacher was the final authority.

Enter The Humanist Academy, inspired by Acton, and you’ll see something entirely different: a revolutionary shift in the ownership, responsibility and agency.

Learners of all ages at THA spend their first several weeks (not minutes) of school meticulously, thoughtfully, and collaboratively creating a shared vision for their studio; they envision their own ideal learning environment and decide on a list of sacred promises, not rules, that are essential for them to uphold together in order to make their dream school a reality.

They research, discuss, explore, deliberate, experiment, and debate until their governing documents are just right. They think deeply about what it means to make a promise and uphold commitments to one another, how such an act brings out the true humanity within us, and how upholding promises requires sacrifice (e.g. MSLP Warriors watched this inspiring video about what happened to several signers of the Declaration of Independence).

Along the way, they discuss Socratic questions like:

  • Should we have a Studio Contract or a Covenant?

  • What promises worked well last year and what should we change?

  • Should the documents be long and detailed OR short and sweet?

  • Is it better to have rules to tell you not to do something, or principles that suggest you do the right thing?..

Alongside these discussions, they also actually test out proposed promises for that time period before voting them into the final draft.

At the end of all the deliberations, final revisions, and edits, a signing ceremony is held, where all the learners, one by one silently listen to the final list of promises and make their final decision about whether or not they want to commit to these promises and join the community, honoring and celebrating their promises.

These documents are so much more than words on a piece of paper, so much more than typical classroom rules… they are commitments; they are sacred promises; they are an example of our learners taking ownership and agency for their learning environment. The studio is so much more than a typical classroom, it's a sacred space, governed by the learners themselves, designed to propel their growth and fuel their Hero’s Journey. Watching them, throughout the year, come back again and again to this contract as their source of conflict resolution, standards, and reflection is truly amazing. It's a constant reminder that learners from a very young age can understand the power of commitment, promises, and high standards, if we give them the chance. It's proof that they can truly be in charge of their own learning.

I feel honored to be in a place where students don't turn to a teacher to look for a solution when things aren't right, to be in a place that is theirs, to be in a place where they are the ones responsible, to be in a place where their standards and their promises are the final authority. What an empowering way to start off each year!

“Acton Academy is on the leading edge of what it means to give students agency of their own learning…”

- Sal Khan (Founder of Khan Academy)

Check out their contracts below

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