School of the Woods: Turning My Classroom Inside Out

by Todd Walker

“In the school of the woods there is no graduation day.”

~Horace Kephart, The Book of Camping and Woodcraft, 1910


I deal with an inner struggle with every math lesson forced upon students.

They groan and ask, “When will we ever use algebra in real life?”

If I’m honest, my response is, “Never, unless you plan on teaching math one day.”

But that’s not entirely true. There’s that high-stakes test looming at the end of the year to determine who can regurgitate all the rote-learning jammed into a brain surging with teenage hormones. Forcing them to learn stuff they’re not interested in is as painful as pulling your own tooth with a rusty hobnail.

I can’t make them learn, but I can let them learn. In my experience, children who are allowed to follow their interests will learn across all academic disciplines enthusiastically.

We all learn the stuff we are interested in learning. I scraped by in all my college English classes with a solid C minus average. I hated writing and reading because it was forced upon me. Today is different. I taught myself to write (some may argue that point) because I have a real-world goal of sharing my journey to self-reliance and preparedness. Research and writing, unlike my college days, are now enjoyable as I purse my interests.

Here’s the thing…

Children (and adults) learn not by passively absorbing information but because something becomes interesting to them – or they watch and listen to others doing interesting stuff. Every school year my students discover my blog and YouTube channel. They get excited and want to start Doing the Stuff that I write about or demonstrate on video.

Children need space to learn naturally. Intuitively, they want to discover and develop intellectual skills – not become grand test-takers. Our rigid system of schooling promotes the latter. But awakenings happen. Moments like last Friday.

Friction Fire Friday

Capitalizing on my student’s interest in a few topics of self-reliance, and my love for the magic of friction fire, we left the classroom for a bow and drill fire demonstration. All sorts of science and math are involved in self-reliance. Heck, I’ve even witnessed students who are self-proclaimed book-haters open books on their own accord to learn about self-reliant skills. The possibilities are frightening.

School of the Woods: Turning My Classroom Inside Out ~

Loading the spindle

Opening my box of tinder material and other primitive fire making tools, the Science lesson began…

“How hot does your stove top need to get to boil water?” I asked. The boiling point of water is 212º F so it must be hotter than that, right? Agreement was reached. Your electric range top is powered by fire traveling through copper wires without burning your home to the ground. Fire has always been the center piece of homes since primitive times… and it was never as easy as we have it today.

By rubbing two sticks together, we will conduct enough heat to the charred dust for spontaneous combustion.

“How hot do you think we need get the wood dust?”

Answers ranged from 200 to 250, and biscuit-baking temperature. Your oven at home doesn’t even reach the temperature needed. Through friction, we can create enough heat to raise the wood temperature to between 700-800 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot!

I pointed out that the cedar spindle we used is similar to a wooden pencil and works in the same way. The eraser end creates more friction than the writing end. When rubbing out an error in an algebra equation, the eraser leaves tiny particles of dust which is flicked away by the writer’s pinky finger.

However, the dust from our fire spindle is precious char and must be collected. Ideally, you want the wood dust to be as fine as baby powder as it collects in the missing slice of pie cut from the hearth board. Finer dust has an increased surface area to volume ratio. More surface area equates to a lower temperature needed for combustion.

After dust collects in the missing pie slice, faster revolutions of the spindle and increased downward pressure will increase the heat to reach the critical temperature needed to cause the charred dust to spontaneously combust.

And the magic happens!

For those interested in learning the bow and drill fire method, reading this won’t achieve the desired results. This is simply book-learning. Don’t expect great results from articles and books and videos. It’s called Doing the Stuff for a reason.

Some suggested do’s and don’ts can be found in our step-by-step guide on bow and drill method. Hopefully, this will offer some things to avoid on your journey to friction fire success.

Back to the lesson…

Surface Area and Fire

Before spinning the spindle, I asked, “What are three things every fire needs to burn?” Three separate students who paid attention in Science class quickly gave the correct answers; heat, air, and fuel. Our heat source is friction. Air, often taken for granted, must be present. Fuel will be our char dust in the beginning.

Not wanting to disappoint the students with smoke only, I choose a proven bow drill set made of Eastern Red Cedar sap wood. Setting up the drill in my bow, I asked which end of the pencil-like spindle should contact the hearth board to create the most friction. “The eraser end,” they answered in unison. Right. The sharp, pointed end has less surface area which equals less friction. My kids are smart scientists!

The grinding begins, followed by smoke… and oohs and aahs… and cell phones clicking pics and videos to document this primitive magic.

School of the Woods: Turning My Classroom Inside Out ~


Midway through the process my bow string snaps. The bank line on my favorite bow had twirled one too many spindles. I thought of asking the students to donate a shoe lace. Knowing the affection and social status placed on shoes of middle schoolers, I declined. We had just enough cord to wrap around the bow handle and proceed with drilling.

A few determined moments of spinning brought the charred dust to ignition temperature. Smoke floated skyward signaling the birth of a baby fire egg.

Allowing time for the fire egg to mature and grow inside the dust pile, we formed a “bird’s nest” from a handful of roadside pine needles which had been crushed and mangled by vehicle tires to create lots of surface area in the tinder. This stuff is a free, ready-to-use fire resource my primitive technology mentor, Scott Jones, turned me onto.

Birthing the Fire Egg 

A smoldering pile of dust was cool and all but flames licking through my fingers was what the students came to see. We transferred the fragile egg from its welcome mat to the prepared nest of tinder, gently swaddled it, and breathed life into the egg until it hatched into hot flames.

A full-fledged campfire wasn’t permitted. To build a sustainable fire, read our tutorials on Bombproof Fire Craft.

Doing the Stuff in Context

The bow and drill is the easiest of friction fire methods to learn since it maximizes your muscle power through leverage and mechanical advantage. On the second demonstration that day, we had enough time for one student to give it a whirl.

One male students knew all about this wilderness survival stuff from watching, in his words, “all the survival shows.” He knew the facts. He even told the class that we could carry the fire by placing it in dried elephant dung. Sadly, we were fresh out of elephant poop that day. His statement, true where elephants roam, highlights the importance of practicing wilderness skills in your wilderness (urban or rural) by actually Doing the Stuff.

As Steve Watts once said…

“… if it’s not in context, it’s just arts and crafts.”

Naturally, I asked our “survival expert” to try the bow and drill technique. He declined. Why? He knew all the facts but maybe he was afraid of failing in front of his friends. Whatever his reason, none of us can learn a new skill without learning to fail forward.

One of our female basketball players volunteered to try. She was very coachable and demonstrated good technique. For these two reasons, this young lady will probably be the first of my students to birth an ember by rubbing sticks together. We even had our resource officer watch and want to give primitive fire a spin.

Turning Class Inside Out

Not ever child may show interest in making fire from scratch. But I’ll bet they’ll stand in amazement watching the smoke and flames created by rubbing sticks together. This may be the hook needed to get them out of doors and into nature.

Every child needs to curiously explore his or her interest in our natural world. There’s more to this stuff than just building self-reliance skills. Their overall health and wholeness as a human being is the top benefit. Now, get outside and go wild!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at the Doing the Stuff Network.

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Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has chanced. I do not permit the reposting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.

Categories: Bushcraft, Doing the Stuff, Lost Skills, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Education, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “School of the Woods: Turning My Classroom Inside Out

  1. craig

    algebra always looks irrelevant, doesn’t it?

    let me tell you a story…

    layoffs were looming on the horizon. there were opportunities for movement up and down the wage scale but nothing laterally.

    because most men wouldn’t consider a demotion they opted for promotion. there was a caveat…a series of pass/fail courses had to be mastered before a job was tendered. no time limit but you had to pass or join the ranks of the underemployed.

    the first class entailed a great deal of theory. and an obscene amount of…algebra. approximately 160 hours of basic to mid-level algebra. calculators were allowed and a few brilliant oldsters even brought slide rules.

    about thirty percent of each group failed but the scary part was easily ten percent went home when they saw it was algebra.

    in the twenty years I stayed in that job the only time I used algebra again was while training for radio equipment maintenance. I had to be fluent in binary, octal and hex but not algebra.

    back then it was the difference between 9-10000 a year versus fifty thousand. using algebra i calculated that having rudimentary algebraic skills were worth the effort.

    when folks consider the shtf scenarios they don’t seem to realize that reading, writing and arithmetic are valuable skills as well. if for no other use than calculating wind drift of a bullet with a ballistic coefficient of 504 at 400 yards with an initial velocity of 2740fps in a 90 degree 10mph crosswind.

    one last bit…learning by rote seems uninspiring but in a crunch you know 7×8=56 and you don’t have to think about it.

    I do agree with you that applying concepts to functions that students care about makes things easier for everyone. but sometimes students just have to man up and do the work.

    btw..C’s or not you write just fine.


    • Thanks, Craig! You may or may not be surprised at the fact that so many middle school students don’t know their math facts. By fourth grade, our entire class had to stand in from of class and recite the times tables (1-12). That never skill never left me and has always been a useful skill set whether teaching school or not.

      I actually do use algebra in the real world, not just my classroom. Math is everywhere and no less in nature for sure. You, my friend, have real-world experience which I wish you could share with my students one day. I’m always open to guest teachers!

      Thanks again!
      ~ Todd


      • craig

        hell…I couldn’t convince my own boys at that age.

        now both are managing people and at least half of the conversations we have are about nonexistent spelling, grammar and math skills. oh and penmanship…apparently there is no palmer method taught now.

        I retired in my late forties and was at the tail end of a group of people exposed to the old way of doing things…almost no power tools, paper and pencil, trucks with manual gearboxes and wooden ladders. it sucked to be a lazy, zit-faced teenager but you learned to suck it up, hold your own and tamp down any sensitivities that precluded a twice daily visit to the coffee shop.

        in the nineties we started getting newbies that could run a computer and could argue for hours about the superiority of one component over another but didn’t know how to use a screwdriver except to turn a screw…absolutely no adaptability. a lot of our job titles straddled the physical and mental…one trick ponies were useless.

        we used multiple software platforms for our equipment and you would see these poor people freeze at the idea of zeros and ones used by first gen equipment or vendor-specific coding from device to device

        these kids came to us from tech schools and the service with such a truncated perception of possibilities. however the bright side was when you got a farm kid who understood the necessity of making do. that flexibility of thought and action was an absolute delight to behold.

        enough of my rant…there is a real possibility of inspiring a positive and adaptable way of thinking and doing with your method of teaching.

        good luck to you!


  2. James Cockerham

    When I was at good ole Nashville Tech in ’77 the math class and electronics lab were tied together so closely that when we missed math one morning because of ice and snow, we had to spend the first fifteen minutes of lab discussing the j operator. Believe me, no one in our math class ever asked, “But when will I . . . ?”


  3. Pingback: Primitive vs. Modern: The Importance of Keeping Skills in Context | Survival Sherpa

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