Foxfire Concept Glows and Grows

After 25 years, the student-directed education idea continues to spark teaching and learning

`EMPOWERING kids is scary at first.... I didn't think they could handle choices - but they proved me wrong," says Sandy Jones, a resource teacher in Rockdale, Ga., a community east of Atlanta. Ms. Jones is part of the rapidly growing Foxfire Teacher Network, and her students are involved in a project sponsored in part through the Foxfire Fund. As the mountain-based program celebrates its silver anniversary, Foxfire has become a nationwide model of a student-centered, hands-on approach for Jones and more than a thousand teachers across the country.

Jones, who has more than 15 years teaching experience and considered herself to be a traditional teacher, recently adopted the Foxfire approach to use with elementary students who have learning disabilities and behavior disorders. They develop a variety of skills by stocking and managing a school store and keeping a loose-leaf ledger. "Working in the store really builds their self-esteem," Jones says, "and helps them develop life skills they'll need in the real world."

But she quickly points out that the Foxfire concept and student-centered approach works with students at any academic level at any age.

As proof of Foxfire's universal application, founder Eliot Wigginton and his staff now teach a Foxfire graduate course at 14 sites from Maine to Washington. They have already trained more than 1,500 teachers from kindergarten to grade 12, and they will train close to 700 more this year.

The thin, lanky Mr. Wigginton, better known as "Wig" to his students and colleagues, did not "set out to make Foxfire a big thing or create a nationwide model," in the early years. When he graduated from Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., in 1966, he found a teaching job in north Georgia simply because he wanted to live in the mountains. Once he got in the classroom, though, he soon realized that his students disliked - even hated - English and composition.

After one of his students set his lectern afire during class, he decided to throw out the text and do something different. He knew he had to get his students motivated and interested in learning if he wanted to get and keep their attention.

Speaking from one of the log cabins that now make up the 110-acre Foxfire Center here, Wigginton recalls the problems he experienced as a first-year English teacher. "I didn't have any sense of mission or long-term goal. I just wanted to finish up the year with some honor. After we had a long series of discussions on what writing is for and brainstormed ... the kids decided to start a magazine."

The small magazine the students named Foxfire gained almost overnight recognition. It attracted readers from all 50 states, and many teachers tried publishing similar magazines. In 1972 the best selections from the quarterly, featuring "affairs of plain living," were published in a book titled "Foxfire." The plain beige book became volume No. 1 in a series of nine student publications focusing on cultural journalism. The first Foxfire book is now in its 47th printing. Twenty-five years later, about 8 million copies have been sold. The 10th Foxfire book is scheduled to come out this spring.

Many educators hail Wigginton for his significant and lasting contribution to teaching. Dr. Joe McDonald, a senior researcher with the Coalition for Essential Schools based at Brown University in Providence, R.I., says, "The Foxfire books have become kind of a 25-year archive of what it means to do good work in the classroom and community."

Wigginton sees Foxfire as a complement to the current education reform movement in the United States, but he does not see himself as a reformer. Though the philosophy is still evolving, it is centered on the universal student question - "Why are you making us sit here and do this?"

All good teachers grapple with that question. But a subtle yet extremely important difference in the Foxfire response is the focus on the creation of real products in the community and the element of choice students have in their selection of projects. Wigginton explains, "Projects generate so many problems for the kids.... The critical thing is taking a project through a design process so the audience/community will value it."

Ann Liberman, director of the Center for School Reform at Columbia University in New York City, notes that "Foxfire gives students a problem in a way that's natural and exciting to the students, and then the teacher has to see what students need to do their best work.... Teachers become facilitators rather than purveyors of knowledge."

In the past several years, teachers have worked with students on a variety of projects to meet state objectives. A group of elementary students concerned about a child who had been abducted and killed in north Georgia wrote a booklet on child safety. Another group of elementary students in a predominantly black school in Atlanta designed a billboard urging students to stay in school.

Kindergartners in Washington State made a video about the fears children face when they first start school. High school students on an Idaho Indian reservation designed a calendar highlighting the legends and historical sites of the area. And high school students in New York State organized and financed a corporation that sold discount coupons for local businesses and services.

Staff members note that it takes most teachers, even those who are experienced, two or three years to become comfortable with the method.

But some teachers say that becoming a Foxfire teacher is a lifelong process, since Foxfire focuses on collaborative learning. Heather Biola, a middle-school teacher in the metropolitan Atlanta area, says, "There's a certain element of risk involved - you have to be willing to give up control and help students engage in their own learning."

Wigginton agrees. "We know it works, but it's hard. It's not clean - it's an open-ended, ambiguous process," he says. "All of the students are no longer on the same page and the question of [classroom] management becomes a different issue."

The core practices that evolved out of the early publication efforts provide a guide for instruction, but the approach lends itself to a lot of different styles and personalities. Teachers are not expected to teach one way. Hilton Smith, one of the Foxfire staff, explains: "It's not a formula. Individual teachers figure out how to 'Foxfire' their own classes, according to their own talents and concerns and their kids' abilities."

After the publication of his autobiography, "Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience," Wigginton was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Bingham Foundation to institute a more organized effort to help teachers improve the quality of learning in their classrooms. In 1986, he realized a longstanding goal when he began teaching a series of graduate-level courses for practicing teachers through local colleges and universities in the Southeast.

Rather than following the traditional lecture/textbook approach, Wigginton and the staff members who teach the course model the Foxfire approach. Teachers are taken through the same sequence of activities that students follow in selecting and designing their projects.

"The course is more than just a couple of workshops," Wigginton says. "It has the very real possibility of having an impact on the conversation about public schools and what we could be doing with our kids if we're a little more thoughtful." The summer course attracts a variety of teachers working at different levels and in different areas.

WHILE the heart of Foxfire will remain in north Georgia, in 1987 a network was set up to provide continuing guidance and support for those teachers who take the course and try the approach with their classes. Six of the 10 network centers are in Southeast states close to Georgia. The others are in Washington, Idaho, upstate New York, and Maine.

Mr. Smith, the overall coordinator for the network, explains: "Just offering a staff development course really doesn't change how teachers teach - there has to be some kind of follow-up that includes peer support. Teachers can't be left out there naked."

The handful of Foxfire staff members believe that interest in the approach and the network should come from teachers at the classroom level.

With a note of pride, Wigginton says, "The network is the only thing going on in the reform movement [in education] that's run exclusively by teachers [rather than administrators or college professors] - it's the only thing out there that I know of that's really ours."

This year, Wigginton and the Foxfire staff have a series of handbooks coming out that illustrate how the approach can be integrated into a traditional curriculum. Next year, courses will be offered at 27 sites across the country. And the Foxfire staff will focus on evaluation of student's work and develop another graduate-level teacher-education course.

Wigginton also hopes to expand the work of the network with practicing teachers to help create an alternative to traditional teacher-education programs. "We want to take a hard look at how pre-service people learn to teach.... We have no interest in creating a chicken franchise or marketing a series on 'how to teach seminars.' We do, though, want to add something of substance to the dialogue."

For more information, write: Foxfire Teacher Outreach, P.O. Box B, Rabun Gap, GA 30568.{et

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