On April 19, 2008, Burning Man’s Communications Manager, Andie Grace, received the email below from Mark Hinkley, a Burning Man acquaintance. Mark is the former Regional Contact for San Diego; he also organized both the Xara theme camp at Burning Man, and then later, in 2003, a Southern California art/music/creativity and mythology festival called Xara Dulzara, which grew from 200 people to 1100 in 2006.
In the years since, Mark has remained on the Regional Contacts discussion list as an emeritus member, and has kept in touch with Andie Grace about his latest projects. From time to time, he’d send an email to fill us in on his latest ideas about Burning Man or Xara. This April 19 email was titled “A spring update from Mark.”
By sharing it with our readers (with Mark’s permission, of course) we hope to illuminate an incredible manifestation of the inspiration that Burning Man has brought to one man’s life and how it will, through his efforts, come to have an impact on the world beyond Black Rock City. Mark has taken his experience at Burning Man, his inspiration, and his lessons learned while organizing theme camps and community events, and combined it with his real-world vocations and avocations to create an entirely new and phenomenally exciting vision of the world as he believes it should be – a world that’s just a little bit more like Burning Man.
Good morning Andie,
How are you, and how is mothering? My take on parenthood is that it is like Burning Man. No matter what you have seen or heard or think you know, it is infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding that you could ever have imagined. I feel very warm and hopeful every time I think of you as a mom.
I am writing to fill you in on what is next for me and for Xara. You may remember that about a year ago I told you about an idea for putting on a Children’s Festival. You wrote that you were excited and you asked to be kept abreast of developments. But even as the parts and pieces of that project were beaming in to me, I was also getting a strong message that the Children’s Festival was not the real project, though it was related to it somehow.
Well, there is a Children’s Festival, but it only comes in at the end, and only in the context of the overall project, which I now recognize as the purpose and crowning achievement of my own life.
The Xara Learning Village – California Public Charter Schools.
…California public education for our children, applying methods and principles of Burning Man to the best practices of cognitive science and developmental and transpersonal psychology, as the future paradise of Xara builds itself in the children who will build that world.
The word education comes from the Latin, “educare,” meaning “to draw out.” It does not mean to “forge” or “fill.” I always like to start discussing education with that thought.
You may remember I have been on the local school board for the past 10 years, and I have the background, jargon-fluency, and contacts to make this happen. I was designing and producing outdoor art festivals for our district before I ever got to Burning Man, and the schools here in our little rodeo-town have been selected by the California State Department of Education as offering a “Model Arts Program.” As an attorney and board member I have credibility and respect in the education world, and I am working on this Charter School initiative with the best people (professionally and personally) in the field. I can defend the educational program to any educational audience in its own language, and grasp the integration of all the related theories. I’m still finessing the politics, but the point is that this is real and it is underway.
Project-based learning is a big thing in education. Lots of people talk about it, and a handful are doing it well. The idea is to construct meaning by learning content in the context of creating practical projects. The curriculum is integrated so students are learning all the subjects all the time, in such a way as to understand the relationship of the parts to the whole, and construct meaning holistically and organically. Service-learning is another rising tide in education, and so is the challenge of integrating values, ethics, morality, spirituality, and mystery without religious trappings.
The Xara twist is to structure education on a gift economy of playful service as a motive for all work. Student projects are created for presentation at various scheduled learning fairs and family festivals, with a goal of teaching subject matter to others. And like Burning Man, the projects must be engaging, interactive and fun for others to experience. Work is not done because it is assigned and owed, like a commercial transaction. It is done because everybody is working together to present something fun for others. Responsibility to self and others is internalized and aligned with one’s best nature. Servant-leadership is a big idea in management and business these days, and this takes the idea all the way to the roots, instilling its values in children as their first and core values. Belonging begets giving.
“The Xara First Families Festival” comes in as the year-end finale for the students and their families, and here we see BRC re-envisioned for children. It would be an outdoor weekend festival, and would invite the public to experience what the students have done, and also to play along with their own projects and entertainments. It would be a fundraiser for the schools, and provide a safe bridge for the general public to join what we have been doing in the desert without the barriers to participation that may exist for those who will never make that trip.
This idea is all fleshed out with layers and layers of detail, and I won’t regale you with the educational theory, but I think you could see how this would transform the education experience just as BRC has transformed the civic experience. Except, as public education, this is economically sustainable and can work all year round.
The Xara Learning Village will be a campus of four schools serving students Pre-K through 12th grade. The Xara Garden School covers Pre-K through 2nd grade, the Xara Terrace School covers 3rd-5th grade, followed by Xara Village Middle and Xara Village High Schools.
Campuses will be a showplace of green building, water/energy conservation/reclamation, and sustainable technologies, with indoor/outdoor classrooms, terraces, and hanging gardens. The culture will be built on a foundation of radical kindness and cooperation, encouraging risk and failure in emotional safety. The curriculum will structure around HEART/EARTH: Humanities, Engineering, Arts, Research and Technology
Students will learn Spanish and piano and yoga from the first day of Kindergarten. They will learn practical skills: from soldering to sewing, carpentry to cooking, automotive maintenance and laundry and circuit design and welding. They will develop the Burner’s DIY ethos and disdain for the “storebought.” A programmatic emphasis will promote careers in environmental technologies, resource management, sustainable development, and of course, the physical and digital arts. A deep understanding of history is developed to understand the evolution of social systems, technology and religious thought. All of this comes through educational methods and approaches that integrate and cultivate the whole person, rather than treating children as wiggly and unwilling little hard drives.
The charter consultant/kingmaker who is recruiting me to this project said that another project he worked on took the slogan, “A new school for a new century.” He said that school never lived up to its intentions, but the Xara schools really are new schools for a new millennium – for a new epoch. May it be so.
The idea is to open the first campus in San Diego in September 2009 as a proving ground and showcase, and then to open others around the country and the world. We would start with Kindergarten, and add a grade level each year thereafter, assuring a critical mass of desired culture and good modeling. The split of elementary school into the Garden and Terrace schools suits a developmental transition that children make at that age, and provides advantages in structuring the charters.
There is fertile ground for recruiting Xara’s students in the many progressive pre-schools operating today. All of them struggle with recommending an elementary school to their parents because, since State “reforms,” public schools live in a constant panic about test scores and standards.
Cooperation over competition is a core value, and the choice not to offer competitive athletics will further define the culture of the Xara Learning Village. My take is that our schools will produce good academics and good workers, certainly, but they will also produce good husbands and wives, good parents, good citizens, good sports, and good company. We’ll take your standardized test, and the children will enter the testing room singing. We’ll cover your standards, and we will also teach the things that matter. Our children will not just develop information or even understanding; they will develop wisdom.
But I see how this is a particularly ambitious and constructive example of our culture rooting beyond the desert to influence the world as a whole. For years now I have been asking, “What comes after the party?” More than that, I think we’re really on to something, and the work we will do will properly be a credit to the Burning Man Project, as Burners Without Borders and the Black Rock Arts Foundation have been.
For the next few years, work will all be here in San Diego getting our pilot operational. But at the point that we are ready to replicate success outside of our hometown, the publicity reach of Burning Man may aid in making contact with interested educators in other cities. That is presently neither here nor there, but if we can build the educational success story I anticipate, we may discover synergies that are good for all of us, and for all the world.
Pretty neat, huh? Xara Dulzura had Flipside as a model and inspiration when it started, but Burnerly public education is an original. Getting back to all the educational theory I left out of this letter, this idea synthesizes a lot of the best theories and approaches in a way that carries all of them to a full resolution. Honestly, I just keeping saying, “wow.”
And finally, as the work of the Xara muse, what more logical – albeit audacious – next step could there be? We have been playing “world” like BRC plays “city,” with the fanciful notion that a future paradise Xara is calling us, like a strange attractor, to bring that world into being. Educating the children to populate and build that world is the literal realization of our world-building game. The art and architecture of Xara will appear in its physical campuses, and this bigger-than-us meme/god which we all serve will find a new proving ground in the most important arena of all.
At the age of 52, I can look back at the checkered story of my life so far, and project fifteen or so years into the future and my retirement. For the first time, I have some inkling of what the whole grand story-arc of my life is going to be, and imagining that story as it will appear to me on my deathbed gives me a deep peace that it is a lifestory well-lived and well-told. How’s that for getting the cart ahead of the horse? But it is how this stuff comes through to me, and deep peace is very cool, wherever you can find it.
So there. Like I say, it’s just an update, but I am very excited, and somehow think you guys will be too. (Ed. note: We are.)
(Addendum: On July 10, 2008, the Lakeside Union School District Board of Trustees voted to approve a five year charter to the Xara Garden School to operate as a California public school under its proposed terms. The school will open in San Diego, California on September 14, 2009.)
Photo credits: Andy Kuepper, 2001; Anthony Peterson, 2005; Hoomojo, 2003. Courtesy of the photographers and Burning Man’s Image Gallery.