Education Commentary

Foxfire--At 25

By Junius Eddy — September 11, 1991 4 min read

Junius Eddy, an educational consultant based in Rhode Island, has been associated with Foxfire for most of its 25 years. This essay first appeared in the Providence Journal.

It is a teaching strategy grounded in the progressive tradition, owing much to John Dewey and his belief in the democratic classroom and experiential learning. Its crucible was a 9th-and-lOth-grade classroom where, in 1966, a young English-journalism teacher named Eliot Wigginton-fresh out of Cornell--was having trouble maintaining order in his classes. He was also wondering how to get his kids interested in learning English grammar in the first place.

He thought it might help to get them involved in working on a magazine--and what they finally came up with has made all the difference. It wasn’t the usual high school literary magazine, but a kind of “oral history” journal that would take his students well beyond the doors of their schoolhouse in search of materials to fill its pages.

Armed with notebooks, cameras, and tape recorders, they were soon busy researching and publishing accounts of what they discovered out there. The distinctive focus of their magazine was on the lives and times of their own mountain community, and especially on its older people. It was an effort that kept Eliot Wigginton’s kids so involved that maintaining order became a dead issue.

In the process, of course, they also began to learn some grammar. And Mr. Wigginton was learning some crucial things as well--about the art of teaching. He was learning, for example:

. That it helped tremendously when he was able to give up some of his own authority, to trust his kids more, and to let them share more of the responsibility for their own education;

. That it paid off handsomely when he involved them in decisions about the “hows” of their education--and that this worked best when they (and he) began designing, together, group projects to accomplish in the community some of his curriculum objectives.

Essentially, he was learning that John Dewey was right--experience is indeed a great teacher--and that the reasons his students got so hooked on their magazine project were simply that it engaged their interest profoundly, wasn’t just test-driven busywork but real work in the real world (read: active experiential learning).

Soon their focus broadened and the entire southern Appalachian region became their beat. In photographs and interviews, aspects of its almost-forgotten cultural heritage--the skills, wit, and wisdom of its people and “other affairs of plain living"--were being systematically preserved in this unpretentious student-edited school magazine. (They called it Foxfire, by the way, for a forest lichen that glows in the dark.)

In later years, as successive generations of Foxfire students also got interested in “learning grammar” this way, their quarterly journal flourished beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. In 1972, Doubleday began publishing selections from their journal in a series of books; nine have appeared to date. The first, titled The Fox fire Book, has long since passed 3 million copies. The books’ royalties have all been used by Foxfire to help sustain its work.

By the early 1970’s, as word of the idea got around, other schools across the nation began replicating this “cultural journalism” approach to teaching language arts. At its peak, students in over 150 high schools from Maine to Alaska (and others abroad) became involved in mining the rich indigenous culture of their localities and regions and reporting it in their own publications.

Potentially the most influential spin on the idea began in the mid-1980’s. Eliot Wigginton had for some time been distilling the concepts embodied in his magazine courses into their teaching and learning essentials, and in 1985 he wrote about them in a book for teachers he called Sometimes a Shining Moment. The book’s pervasive message is that these instructional practices have enormous regenerative value for teachers working in any schooling situation, not just for secondary-level language-arts teachers.

A burgeoning Foxfire Teacher Outreach Program, now five years old, substantiates this. Active networks of Foxfire-trained teachers are currently in operation in 10 regions around the United States, and elementary-school classroom teachers are usually the largest single membership category.

No one connected with Foxfire lays any heady claims for this idea as the way to teach. They view it as one of several emerging alternatives that teachers may wish to explore as ways of breathing new life into their classrooms.

At the same time, they’re beginning to seek productive alliances with other groups across the country that, in their own ways, are working to effect seminal educational change. With Ohio University’s Institute for Democracy in Education, for example, and with Theodore Sizer’s Coalition for Essential Schools at Brown University.

Eliot Wigginton, it should be noted, still works as a high-school teacher. He was Georgia’s Teacher of the Year in 1986 and received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989. Doubleday has just published a new book about his abiding notion for making education relevant to young people’s lives and interests. It’s called Foxfire: 25 Years, and--as with all the others--it’s been “edited by Eliot Wigginten and his students” at Rabun County High.

A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Foxfire--At 25