Leaving Independence: Making a Documentary About True Education
As Adventists, we’re generally known for two things: health and education. Health is usually the focus, with education trailing somewhere behind in terms of assigned importance. Discussions about education tend to go on in meetings behind closed doors, and the questions are always the same: Are we investing in our youth as we should be? Are we shaping the minds of our up-and-coming leaders as God intended us to, or are we simply running them through a predictable knowledge mill? What about building character? What would be the greatest lessons the Master Teacher would want us to learn and to teach our children?
Little Light Studios set out to shed some light on the topic of education in its documentary Leaving Independence. We followed Dave Vixie, a unique Adventist educator who has been making a huge impact on his middle schoolers in Northern California.He has been recognized by the National Teachers Association for his extraordinary teaching style and has won numerous national awards, including Best Middle School Teacher and Teacher of the Year.
My brother and I had a particular interest in this project because Dave was our eighth grade teacher at Paradise Seventh-Day Adventist School 20 years ago. It was amazing to return to the school and see how his teaching methods have grown into what they are today. Many of his methods are the same, with added detail and sophistication.
It was during his own seventh grade year that Dave made the decision to become a teacher—because he “simply wanted to help young people.” At the time, Dave’s vision of what it meant to teach was very traditional. As a result of several key moments in his growing-up years, however, he adopted some unorthodox methods of teaching.
What do I mean by unorthodox? Well, traditional education tends to program students with predictable, testable knowledge. Students memorize information, reproduce it on tests, and then move on. Do they really learn and understand the subject matter? Have they become solid, innovative, independent thinkers, enabled to critically and logically navigate through life’s mental and spiritual complexities, or are they mere reflectors of other men’s and women’s thoughts?
Dave wanted to move past this conventional way of educating. He has a deep desire to give his students more than head knowledge. He wants them to gain experience in making hard decisions and in learning from the process. One of the key ways he does this is by implementing simulation into his curriculum— not just pretending, but full immersion into historical context by recreating places, times, and lifestyles. The rows of desks go away (temporarily) and are replaced with time period structures, wagons, maps, animals, and clothing. Do the students still learn their Bible, math, science, and English? Of course! But they learn those subjects in the context of their historical roots. It goes way beyond a few paragraphs in a textbook and a letter grade. Dave guides students on a journey in learning to think and to recognize the connections between decisions and consequences.
The climax of Dave’s approach occurs when he takes his eight grade students each year on a real-life historical wagon migration from the East to the West via the Oregon and California Trails. They travel in authentic covered wagons, dressing up in 19th century clothing and retracing the footsteps of America’s ancestors in an attempt to bring to life the history of that great migration. Along the way, Dave shares with his students the parallels between the wagon train experience and their personal journey to the Promised Land.
“There is much to learn from our past,” says Dave. Much like the schools of the prophets, he integrates history into all his subjects, teaching straight from the Bible and weaving its wisdom like a golden thread throughout every lesson.
We had originally set out to make a 90-minute documentary about Dave’s unique teaching methods, but the project took on a life of its own as we captured one teaching moment after another along the way. The wagon train we followed consisted of three mule teams and a horse team, each pulling covered wagons.
At one point in the journey, we needed to ascend over a steep, rocky part of the trail. The mules went right up the narrow trail without hesitation, but the horse team stopped part way up. It was a dangerous position to be in, because the wagon could easily have pulled the horse team backwards down the hill and over the edge of a steep embankment. All of the students were ordered to give “all hands on deck” and to help with the predicament.
The girls responded quickly, jumping into action, while the boys sat on the side of the hill in lazy observation. Despite Dave’s orders to help in the dangerous situation, the boys remained unmoved while the girls unhitched a mule team and used it to tow the horse wagon. The mules worked hard to pull the horses and the horse wagon the rest of the way up the trail.
When everyone had safely reached the crest of the hill, Dave gathered the students for a debriefing on what had just happened. The problem had been caused when the horses didn’t want to pull their weight and decided to stop on the trail, making the mules do all the work. It paralleled what had happened with the boys and the girls. When the situation became difficult, the boys gave up like the horses had, but the girls pulled through like the mules. It was a lesson that would have been impossible to stage superficially while capturing such a unique and powerful teaching moment. We were thrilled to capture this one-of-a-kind moment on camera.
Dave uses the wagon trip experience to create an environment where young people are given reins to make their own decisions as they embark upon a great adventure. A young teen coming into his or her eighth grade year is entering a monumental stage of life as the cords of parental control begin to loosen and a life journey of real world decision-making begins. By the end of the trip, Dave has given the students almost complete control over the wagon train. They decide when and how far they will travel each day, what methods they will use to navigate difficult situations, and who will be their leader.
At one point on the trail, there was a difference of opinion on which trail they should take. The girls wanted to take a trail that led to an old abandoned post office along the way, but the boys wanted to push on and get to the end as quickly as possible. There was almost a split in the group until the girls convinced the boys that “life is not just about getting to the destination,” but rather about experiencing the journey. This set the stage for another great teaching moment about the parallels between just doing what it takes to get to heaven or living life well along the way.
What we captured while filming this wagon trip experience far exceeded our expectations. It became immediately clear that we weren’t just filming wagons rolling across a desert trail, but the reality of individual experiences, decisions, and consequences. There was a lot of joy, laughter, tears, fear, and overcoming, which was precisely the experience of the early pioneers of the Adventist Church. Watching the teenagers navigate their way across the desert, over mountains, and through deep valleys reminded us that no matter what time of earth’s history we are born into, we all experience similar struggles, failures, triumphs, and joys. The lessons learned along the way are not just for middle schoolers, but for all of us. There is much to learn from how people in the past made decisions, progressed, survived, and thrived.
The Bible is full of examples of true education—of how Gideon learned to lead an army and how David learned to be a king. Of how people learned to lead and follow, work together, and navigate through difficult situations. All of the important things, including character development, are taught in the Bible, that great guidebook of life.