Back to Basics

mountainBack in 1966, a high school teacher named Eliot Wigginton conceived a project to get his students engaged in writing. The project took the form of a self-published magazine made up of interviews of family members and local citizens, with a focus on how living had changed in their lifetime. The environment also played a role—the school is located in southern Appalachia, an area rich in folklore, oral histories, handicrafts, and self-sufficiency skills. The students’ magazine featured interviews and first-person narratives that contained instructions on how to do things and wilderness survival skills as well as the history and experiences of local residents. It was named Foxfire, after the bio-luminescent fungus indigenous to northern Georgia.

appalachian waterfallThe Foxfire magazine is still being published today. In 1972, published anthologies of the magazine began reaching a worldwide audience.

Why is this of interest to parents today?

First, the Foxfire model teaches the value of experiential education. Experiential education is defined as “a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.”

Unlike traditional models that stress competitiveness and study in isolation, this model encourages group collaboration and keen observational and communicative work. Peer-to-peer interaction encourages each child to find their own unique voice. Continuous cycles of inquiry to refine the material and its understanding help students reach outside their own experiences and embrace those of others. This type of model is especially beneficial for kids who have learning challenges, processing issues, and/or low self-esteem.

Second, Foxfire teaches us that connecting those who have the most to learn (youth) with those who have the most to teach (people of advanced years) creates an alchemy that is, in a word, life-changing. Contrary to socio-economic norms, where the elderly are usually invisible, this project has reached across age disparity to create a profound sense of appreciation for the self-reliance and survival skills of our forebears. During the course of the Foxfire projects, students formed deeply personal relationships with their elders. One notable example was “Aunt Arie,” who “reached out to identify and love the young people who came into her home in a way that each one felt. And she loved older folks, too. She threw her arms into the air with enthusiasm when greeting a stranger. She explained, ‘Can’t do hardly anythin’ I used t’do. But I can still love.’” Can any one of us alive today truly say we can afford to refuse such ready love and nurturing?

appalachian treeThird, the Foxfire books remind all of us that the modern way of life is quite new on the world’s scene, and that familiarizing ourselves with the ‘old’ ways of living helps us understand that today’s successes and modern conveniences are built on the backs of those who survived to cause our birth. Their survival skills, tenacity, know-how, and humanity survived the test of time, generation after generation. Our world today, rife with planned obsolescence, has no such track record, and that should give us pause. True, we may not be able to think of an occasion where we need to know how to skin a bear, but other skills such as gardening by the seasons, soap making, basket weaving, beekeeping, and learning about edible wild plants are both interesting and enriching pursuits.

Is there an older person in your circle of acquaintance whom your child could interview, learn from, and make a meaningful connection with? I’d love to hear your experiences and share them with other readers to encourage this rich learning opportunity.