An apology to all my readers for vanishing mid-week so abruptly. I spend several weeks working for the Boy Scouts of America every summer, at a summer camp. That work has led me to an interesting job. Two weekends a year, I act as the representative for the camp when an outside group rents the main field and camping areas for a “university of fire performance arts”. It’s called WildFire. This past weekend was my third time acting as their host at camp, and it’s a lot of fun.
Thanks to my association with the people at WildFire, I now know how to breathe and spin fire safely. Thanks to three rounds of practice and instruction, I now get compliments on my performances using this art.
I’m always struck by the ways in which the BSA and the WildFire folks are different, and similar. Superficially, the WildFire folks are freaks — they dress funny, they have all sorts of wild tattoos and piercings, and they play with fire. The Boy Scouts are superficially militaristic and (if you believe national-level BSA propaganda) hopelessly right-wing; they’re also freakishly safety-conscious and risk-averse.
That’s where the differences end, though. In truth, the WF folks are equally risk-averse; the whole weekend was devoted to making sure everyone graduated from the program with a ‘merit badge’ in fire-spinning safety, and a ‘merit badge’ in fire-spinning generally. The folks I talked to (and I talked to almost all of the almost-300 people at this event) were positive, open, and caring for one another, newcomers and veterans alike. BSA folks may not give you a hug every time they see you, but they do watch out for one another in the same ways.
The lessons for education, though, are pretty astounding. It took me about four hours of classtime to reach the point where I felt safe and prepared to light the Kevlar wicks on my firestaff, and about an additional hour-and-a-half of classtime to be willing to put fuel in my mouth and breathe fire. It took me another eight hours of classtime to put some polish on my performances, in the form of a few new tricks. Another two hours made me feel competent to act as a safety officer for other firespinners.
Do I still need practice time? Absolutely. Do I need to take this skill-set and work with it, play with it, practice it, and perform for others? Absolutely. Yet the notion that it takes our students years-and-years of daily practice before they will be ready to put on a show in any desired field is clearly ridiculous. This ‘fire school’ meets ten days out of the year and holds only five days of classes in those ten days. Yet the graduates leave with immediately applicable skills, a motivation to practice, and an intentional community that is happy to provide multiple avenues of feedback beyond usual student-teacher relationships.
In other words, the BSA and the WildFire crew are after the same thing: immediately useful education, a professional learning community, and good instruction with minimized risk. The BSA is over a hundred years old. WildFire is less than a decade old. They both ‘get it’.
Why don’t our schools?