Exploring the Foxfire method to learning.

One of my greatest inspirations in home “schooling” has been the Foxfire series and its engaging form of exploration. Started in 1966 by an incredible teacher named Eliot Wigginton (a.k.a. Wig), Foxfire is the name that an English class picked, in 1966, for a student-produced magazine they chose to create, containing stories and interviews gathered from elders in their rural Southern Appalachian community. The name comes from the bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests creating a blue-green glow that can be seen only in dark, starlit areas, away from artificial light.

In addition to a fostering a new learning relationship between teacher and student, Foxfire also generated a new type investigation known as “cultural journalism”. For Wig, cultural journalism allows students to become deeply involved in exploring, recording, transmitting, and teaching their own local histories in a manner that both respects and honors the varying underlying assumptions of the storytellers and interviewees. Wig believed cultural journalism would encourage a broader appreciation for cultural diversity and global differences because students would begin the practice of immersing themselves in other worldviews and learning from them.

Educational theorists from Reggio Emmilias to John Dewey have long touted the value of peer-to-peer teaching. The Foxfire school actually put this to practice by allowing “senior” Foxfire students to teach “junior” Foxfire students the various skills and emergent procedures in the production of the magazine. By encouraging the students to take ownership of the project pieces individually and the entire project as a group, Foxfire “taught” without “teaching down”.

Brooks Adams explains how he discovered he was “learning”:

“The basic idea behind the radio project is to have students do research and use the radio as the medium to reach the local audience with the final product. I didn’t realize it when Suzie and I were doing radio for Foxfire that first summer, but in doing that, everything had an educational goal: everything that I was learning, gaining, and practicing that summer, everything from having to do the research about the topics, and writing down and taking notes, and turning information into a script, and having to condense it into a spot that was short enough, using the right words in the right places.”

And Wig explains why we need to re-learn how to teach (though I must admit that Grandma Vicki already told me all of this in some form or another over the years):

“All the evidence is there now that the kind of democratic, collaborative problem-solving approach to the curriculum that led to the creation of Foxfire works- and works in just about any situation, rural to urban, and just about any course. And it works far better than the method so many of us are fond of which simply has the kids reading textbook chapters and answering the review questions at the end of each. But the eternal dilemma I am my staffers confront in every course is that teachers just don’t know how to do it. In many cases, that’s because they’ve never experienced this type of process themselves as students. They can’t imagine what it looks like, or what it feels like from the student’s point of view to be immersed in it.

They’re in just the same situation as the kids. The kids are intelligent, as are the teachers, but they don’t have much experience in creating a manuscript for a publisher. So you provide the structure by which that experience can happen. Then the kids build on that structure. Teachers often need the same kind of training situation. Once they’ve been through it themselves, they can transfer the skills acquired to a host of new situations, as can the kids.

But teachers often aren’t trained that way. They study philosophy in text/lecture courses- the worst form of instruction- and they study it before they have actually taught, so they have no experience base to which to relate the information. It’s just like the kids, again, who are made to study enormous amounts of material without having any personal experience to relate it to, so it all goes through their heads because they believe the information is useless stuff they’ll never want or need.”

Teachers like Carol Coe (see article) have applied the Foxfire model in areas as diverse as Seattle, in which her students envisioned and created their own magazine, Encore, to explore sociological issues in their community. Among the various projects which students around the country have imagined and conducted:

  • An environmental fair in which students wrote scripts and designed sets for puppet shows they videotaped themselves. They also created and displayed an ecology quilt, shoe-box dioramas and globes, and have each written books on endangered species.
  • A United Nations model for several high schools in which each participant represented a different country and had to research that country’s political position as it relates to the rest of the world.
  • A pen-pal video written, directed, and taped by students about their urban, racially diverse school for a class in a rural school in Massachusetts.
  • A detailed record of local weather patterns assisted by student-constructed rain gauges and weathervanes.
  • The Thinking Mother’s thoughtful post on how Foxfire can be applied.

You can visit the Foxfire Museum in Mountain City, Georgia and learn more about the rural Appalachian folkways and the Foxfire way of exploring, which emphasizes the importance of individual decision-making and reflection. Or you can begin brainstorming with your student/s or children right now.

Chasing butterflies in a Foxfire-inspired way:

  • A 16-page PDF booklet which explains Foxfire, its history, and its books.
  • How Foxfire’s core principles were influenced by John Dewey’s experiential education.
  • “Student-Centered Learning Communities: Teachers’ Perspectives”, an academic article by Ardeth Deay and Joy Faini Saab.
  • Rural Voices Radio celebrates rural focus areas with a combination of stories, poems, music, and local sounds and illustrates how place can provide powerful material for writing and learning.
  • Swan’s Island Memory Project was spurred by a tragic fire in which much of the Island’s recorded history burned to the ground. The Project aims to revive recollections of the small Maine Island through recorded histories and historical photographs.
  • The Museum of the Person is an institution designed by Karen Worcman to capture the oral histories of oft-unrecognized individuals – from the homeless to nursing home residents – and provide them a “place” to tell and store their life stories.
  • Faces of Fox Point uses storytelling, photo exhibits, and mapping exercises to understand and celebrate the community character of this historically rich Rhode Island neighborhood.
  • Mapping Main Street is a collaborative documentary project that compiles multimedia contributions recorded by volunteers on actual Main Streets throughout the United States in an effort to capture the unique and varied nature of each street.
  • Story Circles are modeled after traditional storytelling gatherings which allowed people in a town to come together to share experiences and stories. This process can help communities explore and identify unifying values, which can inform community planning processes.
  • The Center for the Study of History and Memory is an academic research center dedicated to using first-person narratives as methods of documenting 20th century history.
  • The Center for Digital Storytelling is an NGO dedicated to helping individuals (young and old, across the country) tell stories and listen to others.

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