Teachers on teaching: two very different views

Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience, By Eliot Wigginton. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday. 425 pp. $19.95, cloth. $10.95, paperback. Notes From a Schoolteacher, By James Herndon. New York: Simon & Schuster. 169 pp. $7.95, paperback.

In the past year, the general discontent with the condition of American schooling has not abated. Nor, despite funding cuts, have efforts at education reform.

There are many reasons for this: the baby boomlet; recent unsettling comparisons between United States and Japanese students; low levels of basic literacy - cultural and scientific - among US students; and, not least, the coming election. Already, presidential hopefuls are barking like seals about economic ``competitiveness'' and what they say is its primary cure - education reform.

But much discussion of public schools and education reform takes place in the abstract. There is too little ``inside'' understanding of the real problems and possibilities faced by teachers on the front lines. That's why well-written books by teachers are so helpful. And these two, by Eliot Wigginton and James Herndon (now in paperback), go to the heart of public discontent and school reform issues.

Both authors are superb teachers - wise and creative. Both have taught for more than 20 years. But their assessments of schooling today are quite different.

Herndon, who received critical acclaim in the 1960s for his witty, hopeful book on teaching, ``The Way It Spozed to Be,'' seems in recent years to be changing his tune. In ``Notes From a Schoolteacher,'' he writes: ``Nothing will, or can, be done about almost everything that really drives us crazy in our lives as teachers. No matter how we perceive the school, no matter what we think about how the education of junior high students should go, how to deal with the students who don't make it - we know that nothing real will ever be done to change or ameliorate these conditions. They are permanent.''

Wigginton, whose rural Georgia students publish the now-famous Foxfire magazine - retelling local oral history - says this in ``Sometimes a Shining Moment'': ``It is only rarely that I wonder why I am still teaching. I know why. I teach because it is something I do well; it is a craft ... there is room within its certain boundaries for infinite variety and flexibility of approach, and so if I become bored or my work becomes routine, I have no one to blame but myself.'' And again: ``Teaching is too vital an occupation to be left to the lazy or greedy or negative.'' Wigginton's book is tightly packed with 20 years of anecdotes, correspondence, and original teaching strategies based on his main ethic: question, ask, inquire, examine - think. The unfolding story of Wigginton's intelligent involvement with children and school (they actually build or restore many of their facilities) is an inspiration.

But the comparison between the two books cannot be reduced to a simple optimist vs. pessimist formula. One can argue that the problems Herndon describes in his personal narrative are more the norm. The Bay Area social-studies teacher has thrown himself against the relentless machinery of school systems his entire life. He has held the torch. But this book is really just a long sigh.

The problems schools face are not lack of materials or technology, Herndon finds. They are the painfully ordinary problems of humans working in organizations. It's a story of constant efforts to appease the principal's ego. Of teacher cynicism. Of small victories (a student who remembers who Agamemnon is). Of the clever debate between Herndon and students over water privileges after students shoved crayons into the water fountain. (``Everyone paid attention. It was Learning.'')

Ultimately, the public discontent with schools is not due to bad teachers (the way the press plays it, he says). It's the whole banana: ``crazy parents, society, dope, standardized testing, Sony Walkmans, ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, TV ... and Vietnam, to name a few.''

Wigginton, on the other hand, offers an idea of what can be done, given the right circumstances. And there is a kind of shining innocence about the north Georgia Rabun Gap hills and the way Wigginton's 1960s idealism blended with the folkways of that culture, and has been preserved. Unlike other success stories based on idealism, Wigginton did not get skewered by his own ego. He wants to make the world a better place, but he has a sense of ``Southern realism'' about human nature that keeps the experiment of Foxfire down to earth. Obstacles, school policies, local quirks - are merely something to get around, not dwell on.

His classroom has always been a laboratory (he includes a floor plan of furniture arrangements!). Wigginton experiments constantly, discussing with students ``what is working and what isn't''; he has formed a string band and a lecture series, as well as publishing the Foxfire magazine. There is enough practical ``teacherliness'' in this book to build a college course around. (More than 100 schools use ``Wig's'' methods.)

But as for discontent, school reform, and policy making: One has to first read and know Herndon to make the most of Wiggenton's shining example.

Robert Marquand is a staff education writer.

What fine teachers know and do

``Foxfire'' teacher Eliot Wigginton suggests that the following qualities - here distilled from his book ``Sometimes a Shining Notion'' - are shared by all excellent teachers:

Fine teachers see their subject matter as a whole. They know how learning takes place. They know their students and their environments. They are careful about the assumptions they make about students. They understand the critical role of self-esteem in successful learning. They are not afraid to be seen as fallible and human. They understand the nature of discipline and control. They help students analyze and react appropriately to the actions of other adults. They are constantly engaged in the process of professional growth. They know how to avoid ``teacher burnout.''

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