On November 28, Burning Man Rangers Keeper and her partner Crow sat proudly among the audience at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in President’s Park, Washington D.C.
Nestled among the tree branches were ornaments that Keeper’s Gerlach K-12 students hand-painted after they were chosen to represent Nevada in this annual tradition. The ornaments highlighted a range of animals, industries, and elements of Nevada, including our very own Black Rock City.
“People don’t necessarily always see us because we’re a tiny little rural place that’s isolated from the rest of our district,” Keeper says. “So I think that there’s a lot of pride around being chosen to do this. It feels like it has put us on the map.”
To create the ornaments, the whole 35-student school worked on the project. First, the students brainstormed ideas during their class periods on social emotional learning and leadership. Then the staff helped the students develop the ideas and found ways for the youngest students and special-needs students to help.
“We found ways for everybody to participate, and the students helped each other out,” Keeper says. “It’s a really collaborative, artistic workspace, and that was pretty cool.”
More importantly, the ornaments highlighted K-12’s evolution from a small-town school facing closure to a dynamic, participatory learning space — and Keeper’s role in creating this change.
Tough Times in Gerlach
According to Keeper, US Gypsum shut down its Empire gypsum mine and plant in 2011, closing the company-owned town, decimating the student population of the nearby Gerlach school, and threatening the existence of Gerlach itself.
“About 90 percent of the students who attended the school came from Empire,” Keeper says. “We were left with kind of a mess in figuring out what to do. We just felt really strongly that, ‘We can’t let the school district close the school. That’s going to be the death of the town. We’ve got to find a way to keep the school open’.”
Keeper, along with the school’s principal and office manager, lobbied the Washoe County School District to keep the school open, and later that year the school reopened its doors to just eight students, two staff and one teacher, Keeper.
“Over the next five years, we fluctuated between eight and 16 students. We also had a couple of pretty impacted special-needs students. We had to figure out a whole new world of how to educate kids with real special needs in this one-room-schoolhouse type of environment,” Keeper says of some of her initial challenges.
But the early years were full of possibilities too, and a field trip to the Black Rock Desert heralded the educational changes that would come. After learning that the children had never been to the playa — a quarter mile from the school — Keeper took them on a walking field trip from the school out to the dust.
“We collected some driftwood sticks. We measured them, made bar graphs and line graphs out of them, compared them and did all kinds of little hands-on activities with kids, and it really got me thinking,” she says.
Creating Change in the Classroom
Keeper has since combined her passion for social justice education with her love for Burning Man and her experience as a Black Rock Ranger to create a school dedicated to taking students beyond the traditional classroom.
“I try to take our students outside of the brick-and-mortar typical classroom setting as much as possible. If the point of school is to prepare kids for the world outside, we want them to have a wealth of experiences,” she says.
To do this, Keeper reaches out constantly to people coming through town who might have something awesome to share with the kids; takes students on trips to science museums, galleries and performances in Reno; and helps build a range of partnerships within her community and beyond, including Burning Man.
“There’s Rocketeers that come out here in September, so we made a partnership with them some years back. Now they bring out model rockets for our kids to build and we spend a couple days building rockets with them. We launched them in our football field and then we drive out into the playa where they do their big rocket launches,” she says.
“The team that broke the land speed record out here 30 years ago had a reunion here last year. So we did a little engineering project where we built race carts to see how fast we could get them to go, and then they came and did a lecture about building their race cars.”
Keeper says donations from ice sales in Black Rock City and Recycle Camp help the school run these projects.
With the help of Burning Man co-founder Crimson Rose, a couple of ceramic art teachers from Artemisia Tridentata are also helping the students to build their own art installation at the school.
And, of course, the playa continues to play a role in the student’s experiential learning, with organized field trips to Black Rock City every year while the city is still under construction.
It also continues to inform Keeper’s approach to teaching and creating community. She needs to wear many hats at the school — general teacher, special education teacher, dean, and administrator — and Rangering has rounded out her diverse skill set.
Discovering her Ranger Tribe
Keeper first became a Black Rock Ranger in 2002, a year after her first “jaw-dropping, eye-opening” experience at the Burning Man event in Black Rock City.
A bumpy first year Rangering led her to step back in 2003 until she met and fell in love with Crow. He had been Rangering since 1998, and was living out at Burning Man’s Nevada ranch property, where he was a Ranger throughout the wintertime. Crow encouraged her to step back into the fold and to share her ideas for training.
“I’ve been doing it every year since then and have gotten more and more involved in our department’s leadership. The first big thing that I worked on was the Ranger training. I created a leadership team with another Ranger who had instructional design experience, and we decided to call ourselves the training academy,” she says.
“We put a lot of time into talking to people, trying to make the Department’s inner workings a little more transparent. Our goal was to make Ranger trainings interactive, engaging and full of valuable content.”
The training academy continued to grow and its offerings improved over time, according to Keeper. The academy now trains about 1,000 Ranger candidates a year.
Developing her Passion for Education
Meanwhile, her other home life was drawing her deeper into education. In 2001, Keeper left her job as a union organizer in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles to stay with her mother, who was dying of cancer. Her mother had been a kindergarten teacher for 30 years and was now a vice principal.
“My way of spending time with her when I was down there was that I would go to work with her every day and volunteer in one of her friend’s classrooms in the school where she was the vice principal,” Keeper says.
After her mother died, Keeper went back to SF and her union job, but decided shortly afterwards to move back to LA to stay close to her family. She lived there for two years and during that time met Crow who joined her in LA too.
She was accepted into UCLA’s teachers education program, which focused on social justice education, and worked in the inner city Rampart District known as as Pico Union after completing the program.
“It was really a tough neighborhood but it felt really meaningful to be able to work with that population,” she says.
Keeper and Crow then moved to Santa Cruz, where she worked with migrant families and their kids. But with Crow putting most of his energy into Rangering year-round and both of them passionate about playa, they decided to find somewhere closer to ‘home.’
“Everything pointed towards Gerlach as a good place to establish a home base,” she says.
There’s no Place Like Home
In 2008, they moved to Gerlach, where Crow took a position with AmeriCorps and worked with Friends of the Black Rock/High Rock as their first Volunteer Coordinator. Keeper started teaching at the then 100-student school.
“To us it felt like something we were going to do for a year or two as an adventure, almost like doing the Peace Corps, but inside the United States,” she says.
“We were excited to build a home base to give back to a place where we spent a lot of time. Also, we thought that the Rangers could use an Outpost as an in-between place from the city to the desert. It has turned into a place where people come to stay for short or long periods of time and collect themselves.”
Ten years later, their grand adventure continues and so do the experiments at the school, including trailing a four-day school week.
“The school means a lot to me. I don’t think we would still be living here if it weren’t for the school and the ability to affect change in a place where it feels like it’s a symbiotic relationship,” Keeper says.
“I thought about wanting to be a teacher because I wanted to be able to make a difference. That’s why a lot of people go into education. I think that’s why a lot of people go to Burning Man, too, honestly. The worlds overlap in that way. I wanted to serve others, do it in a positive way, and use what we have to make a difference in the world.”
(Top photo provided Keeper)