The art of “playing” and seeing the world like a child made me a better musician and better teacher.
Sharon Tenhundfeld Chmura-Moore
Director Acton Academy Oshkosh
We sat down with Sharon Tenhundfeld Chmura-Moore—musician, creative, performer, and school leader—to talk about her path into education and what led her to start Acton Academy Oshkosh.
Q: How did you go from being a professional violist to getting into K-12 education?
Sharon: Sometimes there are moments in life when you’re called to do something but you decide to take another path. Looking back, I have always been called to education, but I didn’t always know or believe it was my path.
I loved music as a kid because music was something I couldn’t understand—it was a puzzle of feelings; it was fun to explore. All my degrees are in music (viola) performance with additions of music education and business. I went to college in New England, but it wasn’t a typical college experience. It was a conservatory that focused only on music. It’s common for most performing musicians to also teach privately, and I started teaching early on while still in school.
I took music education as a minor with no intention of ever being a traditional teacher. I remember loving one class where we learned about a variety of teaching methods and philosophies of learning. We learned about Waldorf and after reading a chapter about the day in the life of a 2nd grader at a Waldorf school, I desperately wanted to redo 2nd grade.
I loved that learners fluidly sang songs and baked daily bread (we bake bread at Acton because of this inspiration). I was so into it that my professor told me, “You should really consider becoming a Waldorf teacher, you seem to love this!” I remember laughing and telling him, “No, I’m a performer. I just want to be this 2nd grader and do school again!”
Looking back, so many of my professors urged me into teaching and every time, despite the fact that I was so curious and excited about it, I kept on my path of being a performer. After graduate school, my career was to play viola with many orchestras and to play chamber music concerts. I had a greatly creative life and even played with rock bands and with the classical hero Yo-Yo Ma—highlights of my career!
My journey as a professional violist led me to find and know myself so that I could accept my calling later. Five years into my profession, I finally heard the call when I was working with a seven-year-old. I was tired and dragged my feet to teach a private lesson. But, after I taught, I realized I had more energy than when I started, teaching lit me up. That was the lightbulb moment that pushed me to go back to school to get my doctorate, where I gained schooling in business and was able to discover my research area of collaboration and creativity.
I later got a job teaching as a professor, and as I researched creativity more, I kept flowing into the general sector, not just focusing on musicians, and I kept getting inspired by kids. The art of “playing” and seeing the world like a child made me a better musician and better teacher. After having kids of my own, I truly believe that I’ve found my calling in K-12 education. My calling is to nurture a love for learning through wonder and creativity for children of all ages, including adults and their inner child.
…the puzzle of finding a shared language has always been thrilling to me. In order to know how I could work or essentially “talk” with another artist, we both had to observe and be open to experiment.
Sharon Tenhundfeld Chmura-Moore
Director Acton Academy Oshkosh
Question: What do you think made the transition to being an educator so doable?
Sharon: I’ve finally embraced that I am a tinkerer and an out-of-the-box thinker. In my classical music life, I’ve always loved the puzzle of finding three or more ways to interpret music or to explain a concept to a student. I’d change one thing, then another, always tinkering and experimenting with the goal of discovering ways for more understanding—for myself, my students, or my audience to have the lightbulb moment.
Being an educator is no different. Every learner has their own journey and enters each moment of learning with a unique experience. As an educator, I guide learners and their Guides to explore themselves and find endless access points for learning one idea.
In my silo of classical music, I’ve often felt like a tiger with rainbow stripes. A lot of my work as a violist has been exploring collaboration with visual artists, actors, dancers, and creatives of all types. This was pretty different from the work of most classical musicians, but the puzzle of finding a shared language has always been thrilling to me. In order to know how I could work or essentially “talk” with another artist, we both had to observe and be open to experiment. Crossing the threshold of our own vulnerability was essential to building a project together.
Education, just like music, is an outlet for lots of creativity and collaboration. It’s all about people and finding a shared language. My musical background has taught me how to bring a team together, and the best way I know how to do that is through support and play. Play, essentially having fun, births endless ideas and deeply connects people regardless of age, background, or perspective.
Whether you are 4, 40, or 90, it’s really special to have choice and ownership over your life, but before you can make choices, you have to find the right questions to ask.
Sharon Tenhundfeld Chmura-Moore
Director Acton Academy Oshkosh
Q: How do all those pieces, who you are as a performer and as a learner, influence how you see the purpose of education?
Sharon: That’s a big question! My pieces of performer, learner, educator, creative, administrator, I don’t think of them as ever separate—they are all part of me. They are always influencing my work. I guess you could say I wear different hats but I like to think that I’m always still the same character and that my work is always fueled by one thing. At my core, I’m curious, and I think the key to education is curiosity. When you’re curious, you can certainly pursue things individually. But, there’s this power in schools that comes from being in community, from being collaborative. I think education is a beautiful opportunity to grow in a place where you couldn’t just grow by yourself. Education within a community can provide an access point to anything and a feeling of great connection.
At our school, it’s so important to be curious and to ask questions. We don’t tell learners what they need to do, or how they need to do it. That takes that opportunity away from them. Curiosity allows learners of any age to ask questions, critically think, and reflect. Whether you are 4, 40, or 90, it’s really special to have choice and ownership over your life, but before you can make choices, you have to find the right questions to ask.
Every question isn’t created equal; some questions are magical. Right now, I’m experimenting with how some questions empower. Whether a question is posed to a young learner, parent, Guide, or community member, how can a question excite and empower a person to invest in their community, in their educational ecosystem? Everyone is part of the ecosystem, but perhaps one magical question might give them access to feel like they belong.
Q: How did you get involved with Acton?
Sharon: A few years ago, I was a new parent with a 3-year-old daughter (I now have two kids, 7 and 3), and I was teaching music and business at my local university as my primary gig. A friend of mine who has a daughter the same age was looking at school options and wanted something different than what was available.
She found Acton online and was considering the big process of starting a school and thought I might be a great founding parent. She asked me to read a book about the story of Acton called Courage to Grow by Laura Sandefer, and honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a fast reader, and I read the book in two days. Everything in the book spoke to what I dreamed of for my daughter—a space that was creative, celebrated individuality, and cultivated teamwork. I was crying (I’m not one to cry easily) because the book shared stories of young kids having difficult conversations and experiential learning about discrimination and courage. This is what I wanted for my daughter. I texted my friend before I finished the book and told her: “I’m 100% in, I’m in love!”
A year later, my friend and I got to talking about when the school might start, and she surprised me by asking if I’d be willing to start it with her, not as a parent but as a leader. As a performer and professor, this wasn’t in my career plan. But, after researching everything I could find about Acton, I was inspired and started writing my own hero’s journey and the values I have for my life, which are core parts of the Acton journey for learners.
It was this one question from my friend that changed my career, changed my life, because I realized my priorities had shifted and I was being called for a new adventure.
And, from my own parallel professional experiences, I knew what it would take; I knew that I could really help create a learning environment not just for my own daughter but for my community. After almost two years in operation, even as a school that opened during the pandemic, I can say that I’m still all in, and I’m still having fun.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Acton model itself and what is unique about Acton Academy Oshkosh?
Sharon: I always explain the Acton model as having a foundation of Montessori principles, entrepreneurialism, and Socratic discussions. All are wrapped together with a hero’s journey dialogue, as we believe every child is a genius and is on a hero’s journey to change the world.
The big differences you’ll see at Acton is we don’t give grades, and we don’t have homework. Learning at Acton is self-paced and focuses on mastery of Math and Language core subjects. Plus, learning is applied and demonstrated by real-world projects (Quests) and portfolios, rather than tests.
To give an example, instead of reading about America’s history and taking a test, Acton learners go on a Quest through a simulated Ellis Island and learn what it takes to become a citizen of the United States over the course of 6 weeks. Through play-based learning and a series of challenges learners experience history, rather than read about it. At the end of the session, they display their knowledge through public exhibitions.
The learning environment at Acton is driven and governed by learners, while adults support the environment with questions and provide guardrails. Often when adults hear about kids running their school, they imagine a Lord of the Flies situation. And, yes, it can be a bit messy. But, when children have freedom and trust we’ve found that they take greater risks and responsibility for their learning, learning is deep, and learners love being at school. In fact, they plan sleepovers at school!
Our Acton Academy Oshkosh is unique because we weave the arts into our everyday. I, along with our founder, are musicians and are passionate that the arts provide deep pathways for learning. At Acton Oshkosh, we regularly integrate music, visual art, and drama. Plus, learners are rather skilled yogis!
We’re only in our second year of operation with learners ages 4-10, but have plans to grow organically through 12th grade. As learners age into middle and high school, they will get to explore their passions more deeply in apprenticeships. We already partner with heroes in our community, but we imagine apprenticeships to deepen a more open-walled approach to learning. We know Acton isn’t for everyone, but it’s very important to our Acton that we are accessible to families. We offer financial aid to any family that desires an Acton education for their child.
At Acton, it isn’t the test scores that matter or who wins the science fair, it’s learning how you learn, what you can do with knowledge, and who you want to be in the world.
Sharon Tenhundfeld Chmura-Moore
Acton Academy Oshkosh
Q: How do you engage families in this new approach?
Sharon: There are things about the Acton model that can be challenging for parents, challenging because the model is nontraditional. For all of our parents, that means it’s different than how they themselves were educated. Parents naturally have dreams for who their child might become. And, at Acton, it isn’t the test scores that matter or who wins the science fair, it’s learning how you learn, what you can do with knowledge, and who you want to be in the world.
The hardest part of my job (and the most rewarding) is guiding a parent to embrace the unknown, to embrace their child as the driver of their own future, and to trust their child fully. This is hard, even for me as a parent. As a society, it’s ingrained in us to push ourselves and kids to achieve, but as Acton parents, it’s when we step back that we make way for kids to change the world.
Kids will learn how they want to change the world (their world, your world, and possibly the world of one other person) by making mistakes, by learning that failure and discovery is the pathway to success. For adults, this is super hard but necessary. The question I often ask both learners and their parents is: “Would you rather your child experience failure now or failure later when they are an adult and the stakes are higher?” Our families choose to face the challenge now.
Q: How are you thinking about the development of learner-centered educators?
Sharon: Our educators are called Guides; they aren’t typical teachers, and in fact, many of them don’t have traditional education backgrounds. What is special about our educators is they are committed game makers and 95% of the time speak in only Socratic questions. Asking only questions takes a lot longer—it’s much easier to just tell a learner what to do—but questions beg learners to discover, reflect, and tinker towards finding answers for themselves. We’ve found that when Guides ask Socratic questions learners are more empowered to be drivers of their education. Adults hold guardrails with support and safety.
The process of growing as a Guide is identical to the process for learners. Guides model life-long learning; they model failure, reflection, and perseverance as they too are on their hero’s journey. I’d say the main skill that Guides develop is having a sense of when to step back and when to get involved.
This past year, we partnered with our local university and their College of Education. We had education majors come in from the university for practicums, and in the beginning, they were so hungry, these college students were so eager to tell kids what to do. They are always so shocked when I say, “No, don’t tell anybody what to do. Just sit back and simply observe. Can you play? Can you tinker? Can you explore what learners are doing? Can you put your five-year-old lenses on?” At the end of their time at our school, many have shared: “I didn’t realize how much fun I could have at school, I don’t want to leave.” “Kids are learning so much, but it doesn’t feel like work.”
For me, I know that it’s rare for these university students to find jobs at an Acton or a learner-centered environment, but that’s actually more exciting to me. As a partner, I’m super excited to expose these future educators to a different way of school because my hope is that wherever they land, they’ll take a little Acton with them. They’ll play more, create games, ask questions, and allow learners to try, fail, and get back in the game.
Q: What question do you wish you were asked more often about your work at Acton Academy Oshkosh?
Sharon: I’d love to be asked “What’s next?” Our school is great, but I’m really interested in how our small piece of education fits into the whole. We have built a beautiful school for ages 4-10, but in our view, this is just the beginning.
We are very interested in exploring how the Acton model can be scalable and accessible to more learners. We’re dreaming of how our little school can have a greater impact on first, our immediate community through more hero partnerships, then programming in our city and perhaps the state of Wisconsin, and ultimately how we can help bring a learner-centered education full of wonder to more children and families. We know this is possible and are so thankful for the beautiful work of Education Reimagined and all the learner-centered educators across the nation. We’re gearing up for Operation Wonder!