Reflecting on the Foxfire Approach; an Interview with Eliot Wigginton

Article excerpt

During a June 1991 visit to Northern Illinois University, the originator of the Foxfire language arts programs talked to Mr. Knapp about instructions that leaves students feeling that they have done "a damn good piece of work."

Hoping to encourage greater student involvement, Eliot Wigginton had his high school English class generate a list of project options and choose one to pursue. The students elected to produce a magazine titled Foxfire. It contained an assortment of student writing, mostly about the life and ways of the local people in Rabun County, Georgia. Armed with tape recorders and notebooks, teams of students conducted interviews with the people in their community. The students asked them about making soap or wagon wheels, finding medicinal plants, building log cabins, and anything else they wanted to share about their lifestyles. Later these transcribed interviews and articles were developed into the Foxfire Book, which was published in 1972. After 48 printings, more than five million copies have been sold. Eight other books followed over the years, and the series became a national best seller.

Wigginton's publications also include Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience (Doubleday, 1985) and Foxfire: 25 Years (Doubleday, 1991). In addition to sharing his approach and experiences through these books, Wigginton has established Foxfire Teacher Networks throughout the U.S.*

Wigginton has frequently been recognized for his achievements as an educator. Among the awards he has received are the John D. Rockefeller III Youth Award (1973), Georgia's Teacher of the Year award (1986), a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1989), and the Taft Campus Award at Northern Illinois University (1991).

A virtual folk hero, Wigginton stunned the education community last fall when he agreed to plead guilty to a charge of child molestation. (See this month's editorial on page 745.)

During his June 1991 visit to Northern Illinois University to deliver a lecture, Wigginton was interviewed by Clifford Knapp, a professor of outdoor teacher education.

Knapp: How would you describe your teaching methods if you were asked to express them in simplified form?

Wigginton: Students and teachers collaborate on important and intriguing issues using certain experiential methods to address and assess them. That's about as far as I can boil it down without losing the integrity. The one potential hassle of using this formula is the narrow band called curriculum. The difficult questions are, What's in the curriculum? Who decides what ought to be in it? To what extent do the teacher and students have any negotiating room? In most situations teachers don't have much choice in selecting curriculum. They only have choice as to the methods they use.

Knapp: In situations in which the teacher has more choice, how much should student interest drive the content of the curriculum?

Wigginton: Given a situation in which content and skills are dictated, then the issue of student choice relates to what a teacher does within those restrictions. If a teacher has all the things the kids are supposed to learn already arranged on a spectrum, then, ideally, student interest would be the entry point - the place along that spectrum where the worm enters the nut, the place where the kids get in and then branch sideways in all directions. In this situation, one has to question whether or not things need to be taught in a specific sequence. Usually they don't, and student interest can give you the starting point. Often, if you have to start teaching at the beginning of a prescribed sequence, student interest disappears before you take the first step.

If it's possible to enter into the sequence with an interesting topic - such as women's rights, when studying American history - then the teacher can enter there and range back and forth across the curricular spectrum. John Dewey said, and I believe, that everything proceeds from student interest. …