The Glow Of Foxfire Foxfire's Glow

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Rabun County, Ga.--An easy way to irritate Eliot Wigginton, founder of the Foxfire program that has engaged and inspired high-school students in this northeast Georgia county for 20 years, is to mention "Deliverance," a motion picture filmed more than a decade ago on and around Rabun County's notorious Chatooga River.

When the movie opened in 1972, some of Mr. Wigginton's students shared his outrage over its stereotyped depiction of Southern Appalachian people as uniformly ignorant, violent, and perverse. To channel their anger, he encouraged three of the students to undertake an oral-history research project, interviewing local residents about the movie's portrayal of mountain people, its effects on the county, and the very real dangers of the Chatooga.

The result of that three-month project was a magazine article--one of hundreds over the last 20 years that have captured the Appalachian way of life, its folklore, skills, and history for readers of Foxfire. The student-produced quarterly, first published here in 1966 with small community donations, remains the cornerstone of what is today a vast--and well-endowed--Foxfire educational program.

But the good-natured Mr. Wigginton displays a similar, if milder, irritation when discussion of Foxfire's goals and accomplishments strays too far from the fairly simple learning process that occurred during the writing of the "Deliverance" article.

He dislikes, for example, the "folklore empire" image contained in some articles written about Foxfire. To him, the term suggests that Foxfire has grown into a machine-like operation, motivated by profit, devoted to procuring, packaging, and selling other people's knowledge. As he will gently but firmly remind you, Foxfire is a nonprofit corporation that funnels all its revenue directly back into educational and community-development projects. Foxfire's teachers, who work in cooperation with the local high school, are paid no more than their state-employed counterparts.

Message to Teachers

During this 20th-anniversary year, Foxfire will abandon some old paths and start down some new ones, Mr. Wigginton says. The magazine will continue as always, but an important change in the enterprise will be the discontinuation of Doubleday Inc.'s Foxfire-series books, which have brought the program millions of dollars over the years. (The Foxfire Press, founded in 1982, will continue to publish books on Appalachian folklore and regional issues.)

Also, beginning this year, Foxfire will spend more time communicating its fundamental message to other teachers. That message, as the journal American Education once described it, is essentially the "bright idea of breathing life, substance, and joy into English classes, while at the same time preserving the unique culture of a particular group of American people."

"We've always tried to reach out to teachers," Mr. Wigginton says, "but now we want to be more systematic and efficient about sharing our strategies with teachers who approach us." He believes the Foxfire idea can work in any class, not just English, and not just with a magazine as the end product.

Consequently, the book Mr. Wigginton has written as part of Foxfire's 20th anniversary--Sometimes a Shining Moment--is aimed directly at classroom teachers. It gives a history of Foxfire, but in the context of a conversational, wide-ranging argument about what is wrong with American education and what teachers can do about it.

As part of this new effort, Mr. Wigginton will continue ongoing teacher-training projects. At North Georgia College in Dahlonega and Berea College in Kentucky, Mr. Wigginton has designed and taught courses in which practicing teachers devise new courses consistent with the Foxfire philosophy. During a yearlong follow-up to that work, he will try to assess how his "hands-on" teaching style works for other teachers in different disciplines.

But a corresponding question--a fundamental one not yet fully answered--is how well Foxfire itself has worked pedagogically. Few observers dispute its value. Foxfire, they say, has been a superb tool for interesting students in English composition, bolstering their sense of accomplishment, and instilling a sense of community spirit. But is it really a better way to teach English?

A new, well-informed opinion on that subject is expected this spring, when John L. Puckett, a doctoral candidate in education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completes his intensive study of Foxfire. For a year, Mr. Puckett immersed himself completely in the Foxfire program, interviewing some 400 current and former students, staff members, and community contacts along the way.

Foxfire's academic effectiveness will be one of the focal points of his study. At this stage, however, he declines to discuss his conclusions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wigginton proceeds with confidence and energy. His students, he notes, have consistently shown large gains when pre- and post-Foxfire test scores in grammar are compared. But more important to him, he says, is the testimony of hundreds of former Foxfire students who have told him, "It worked for me."

Dramatic Growth

Today's Foxfire operation bears little resemblance to the modest educational project Mr. Wigginton started in 1966. Initially a struggling student magazine supported by $440 in community donations, Foxfire has grown into a multi-faceted education foundation (The Foxfire Fund Inc.) with an annual operating budget of $450,000 and a $1.8-million endowment.

Foxfire has been able to win a few sizeable grants. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded it a $300,000 challenge grant in 1979, for example.

But the wellspring of the program's success always has been Foxfire magazine, which now has 3,300 subscribers in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Most of Foxfire's profits have come from publishing royalties--at times in excess of $100,000 every six months--on the best-selling Foxfire books, made up primarily of articles that first appeared in the magazine.

The original Foxfire Book, with its articles on "hog dressing," log-cabin building, planting by the signs, moonshining, "and other affairs of plain living," is one of the most successful books in Doubleday's history. It has sold more than 3 million copies since Doubleday released it in 1972. Foxfire 9, the last of the "numbered" series, will appear in 1986. To date, more than 7 million Foxfire books have been sold.

Since its founding three years ago, the Foxfire Press has published books on Appalachian cooking, traditional toys and games, and the late Aunt Arie Carpenter, the self-sufficient mountain woman who has been the most enduringly popular of the hundreds of characters who have enlivened Foxfire over the years. In the works are books on wine making, log-cabin building, and the photographs of R.A. Romanes, a Depression-era Appalachian photographer.

There is also a Foxfire Record Company, which produces albums and cassettes of traditional music.

The Foxfire Fund pays teachers' salaries and other costs for the various Foxfire classes offered at the consolidated Rabun County High School. Foxfire staff members teach a grammar and composition class called Foxfire I, the magazine class itself (Foxfire II), college English, Appalachian literature, several music and environmental-study classes, a radio class, and videotape and television classes that produce folklore documentaries and community-affairs programs for the local cable-television channel.

Foxfire has also experimented, with mixed results, with community-development projects designed to create new jobs in the tepid Rabun County economy. The Foxfire Fund supports college scholarships, a Foxfire internship program, and Foxfire's collection of Appalachian artifacts. There is even a Foxfire String Band--a first-rate student bluegrass group that has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry.

The headquarters for this "non-empire" is a 110-acre complex of reconstructed log buildings tucked away from tourists on the steep, foggy slope of Rabun County's Black Rock Mountain. Some two dozen buildings there house the Foxfire Fund's offices, a museum, and storage space.

Foxfire's Beginnings

For Mr. Wigginton, the growth of the Foxfire enterprise has been something he could hardly have imagined when he graduated from Cornell University with a master's degree in education in 1966. His goals then, he suggests, were idealistic but relatively modest.

In Sometimes a Shining Moment, he writes that his father, a professor at the University of Georgia, instilled in him a belief that educated people have a responsibility to contribute to society. Teaching seemed the best way to do that, he says, and working in Rabun County offered him the chance to return to the Georgia mountains he had enjoyed as a boy.

But the grind of teaching dampened his spirit somewhat. At the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a "semi-private" high school that then served local and boarding students, he taught all 9th- and 10th-grade English classes and one geography class--in all, 146 students.

Frustration over his inability to spur his students' interest in English was, as Mr. Wigginton tells it, the catalyst for Foxfire magazine. "The majority are ill-prepared and restless," he wrote a friend at the time. "When in school, they seem only to know how to sneer. ... The universal comment is, 'I don't care,' and they really don't seem to."

After trying several experiments with disappointing results--free-association themes, "teaching the poetry from Simon and Garfunkel; Cher; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and the Lovin' Spoonful"--Mr. Wigginton walked into class one day, sat on his desk, and said, "This isn't working. Why don't we try something else?"

That "something else" became Foxfire. Mr. Wigginton's students decided on the name, choosing foxfire, a fungus that produces a phosphorescent glow on rotting wood, over such possibilities as "Soul Plus." And from the outset, they shaped the magazine's content and took part in all the editorial and business aspects of its production.

This concept of total student involvement has remained central to Foxfire. Mr. Wigginton, for example, will not accept speaking engagements unless the organization agrees to pay the expenses for one or two Foxfire students to speak as well.

The magazine's first interview, with a retired Rabun County sheriff who told the story of a 1936 bank robbery in nearby Clayton, took place just before Christmas in 1966. Issue #1 appeared in early 1967.

Originally, Foxfire contained creative writing by students and professionals along with its regional material. But it quickly became clear that people preferred the folklore and interviews, and the magazine began to evolve into its present form.

Despite the fact that Foxfire received no financial support from the school, it managed somehow to survive the tenuous early years. Then, in the 1969-70 school year--what Mr. Wigginton calls "the watershed year"--several events helped determine its future. That year, Foxfire won its first major grant, "discovered" Aunt Arie, and signed a contract with Doubleday to produce the Foxfire Book.

The book, released in March 1972, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and soon made The New York Times paperback best seller list. Reviews and articles about it appeared in Life, Smithsonian, Publisher's Weekly, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlanta Constitution. Mr. Wigginton and two students went on the "Today" show. Foxfire became rich and famous overnight.

'Process' Vs. 'Product'

But fame has not changed the emphasis on "hands-on" learning at Foxfire. Students still research topics first-hand--usually by interviewing mountain people who know the subject--and work their material into usable articles. With this approach, says Mr. Wigginton, students have the chance not only to hone their composition skills on material that captivates them, but also to learn something about the region, their parents and grandparents, and themselves.

Every time a Foxfire student takes off with a tape recorder and camera, he says, there is the hope that this self-discovery through learning will occur. Their "contacts" show the students such lost arts as the making of traditional toys, lye soap, fiddles, springhouses, and "white-oak split" baskets, he says, and give them first-hand information for research on such issues as county land-use policies.

But the interviews also provide the students with insights into lives and experiences far removed from their own, touching on topics as diverse as cockfighting, mountain religion, blacksmithing, and working for the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

But although Mr. Wigginton says he loves the material students produce, he is more interested in the skills they develop while doing it--the ability to do research, to organize material, to write and polish an article, and to edit.

As he notes in Sometimes a Shining Moment, "You don't learn the basics by memorizing the basics, but by doing projects (or creating products) where the basics have to be utilized."

With fame, however, has come imitation. Since Foxfire's success, dozens of school districts have started their own Foxfire-like magazines, many of which still exist. A number of these second-generation publications, such as Salt in Kennebunk, Me., and Bronze Reminiscence in Atlanta, were helped through their formative years by generous shares of time and advice from the original's staff.

But Mr. Wigginton stresses that his message to teachers is not "produce your own Foxfire." Writing about teachers who "make him nervous'' in his new book, he describes one type as "the teacher who looks at Foxfire, decides to start a similar magazine, and then gets disappointed and discouraged ... because the end result is not a book from Doubleday and lots of money."

Such teachers, he says, are missing the point by confusing "process'' and "product."

The decision to produce a magazine--especially if a teacher makes it without consulting students--is not always the right one, Mr. Wign writes. To their dismay, he says, some teachers find that stu2p4dents have little interest in a magazine they see as "just another burden imposed from above."

"John Dewey is very clear about the teacher's role," he says, citing the educational theorist who has influenced him most. "The teacher is not somebody who has all the answers, and it is important that he and students brainstorm together about what they will do."

"A magazine is just one of hundreds of end products that are consistent with the philosophy," he concludes. In his book, he discusses other types of "end products" that could work in other subjects.

But Mr. Wigginton is aware that "direct-experience" teaching is not always possible or even desirable. He says he does not believe, for example, that dressing up like Indians and "pounding corn" is a good way to learn early American history. But for each subject, he says, there is a "middle ground," a teaching method that is more active than lecture and textbook. "That's the central idea of Foxfire."

But "active" teaching cannot occur, he adds, without well-trained and inventive teachers. In the central section of his book, Mr. Wigginton describes the characteristics and goals of good teachers and expounds on his belief that, "despite their nearly impossible job," teachers must take the lead in school reform.

Foxfire's originator says he has been "amazed" by what he has learned about teachers during his travels for speaking engagements over the past 20 years. In talks with hundreds of teachers, he says, he has found a pervasive reliance on textbooks, a "reluctance to experiment," and a widespread inability to see the connection between what happens in class and what happens in the remaining portions of a student's daily life.

One "veteran language-arts teacher," he writes, told him this: "My course doesn't really apply to the outside world."

He places some of the blame for teachers' reluctance to use creativity in learning on the rigid climate created by school-reform efforts that are driven by an obsession with test scores.

"The message teachers are getting is very clear," says Mr. Wigginton. "Keep the kids in rows, in seats, sitting down, mouths shut, with noses in workbooks and textbooks. Fine. But that turns teachers into robots. And that's why the best ones are leaving."

But he also blames teachers themselves for not dedicating themselves completely to teaching as a profession.

Mr. Wigginton's ideal teacher is one who is, among other things, strong enough in his academic discipline to dispense with the textbook and so well informed and broadly educated that he can link almost any classroom topic to events in the outside world.

The ideal teacher, he says, is also steeped in pedagogy and the philosophy of education. He studies with the continuous professional diliof doctors and other professionals. He is knowledgeable and mindful of adolescent behavior and community tradition. And, perhaps most important, he believes that students can handle responsibility and is anxious to let them try.

Mr. Wigginton worries, however, about how teachers will receive his book and its advice. His fear of being perceived as just another preacher of reform is only partly offset by the fact that his voice is that of an active classroom teacher.

"The message of this book is affirmative," he says. "It's one teacher suggesting to others what we can do together, not just another screaming tirade directed at teachers from above."

As a final thought he says, "I don't know whether all this will make any difference, but I hope it will. Our style of education is rooted in a real affection for kids."

Vol. 05, Issue 14

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