Almost 40 years ago in a high school classroom in northern Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains, an English teacher faced his apathetic students and threw away the textbook. Faced with a mounting collection of water pistols and paper airplanes that are the hallmark of bored teenagers—and after his lectern was ignited by a miscreant—he challenged his class to get involved with their world and learn by doing. He asked them to produce a magazine.
The Vietnam-era students actually found themselves curious about the old-fashioned ways of life that their parents and grandparents knew—customs such as planting crops according to the stages of the moon. So the ninth- and 10th-graders set to work interviewing their families about the traditions that were disappearing in their Georgia towns of Rabun Gap, Tiger, and Mountain City. They wrote articles, took photographs, and named the project Foxfire, for a moss that grows in shaded mountain coves and glows in the dark.
The Foxfire Magazine spread like ground cover. The first issue in 1966 was so popular that word-of-mouth created the need for an unexpected second press run, with subscription sales paying for production. In time, articles about people such as 90-year-old “Aunt” Arie Carpenter and her views on gardening, cooking, and life were compiled into a series of 11 Foxfire books first published by Doubleday in 1972. The series, with added cookbooks and an anniversary issue, continues to sell today, as do the magazines.
More importantly, the style of learning that developed out of that teacher’s simple idea has grown into a program called The Foxfire Method, practiced in schools in northern Georgia and far beyond. The method, explains Margie Bennett, Foxfire’s director of educational programs, is learner centered—students having a voice in how they learn, “what’s got to be taught anyway.” She emphasizes that Foxfire’s focus on experiential learning draws on 1930s educator John Dewey’s belief that education is tied to experience. The Foxfire Method’s 11 core practices uphold teamwork, self-reflection, and the crucial relationship between classroom and community.
Awareness of Foxfire’s approach has spread nationwide through educational conferences, college-level teacher courses, and the students themselves, many of whom have become educators.
Lynn Bernhardt took photographs and did magazine layouts as a student at Foxfire’s original home, the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, in 1977. Now a teacher in Hercules, Calif., Bernhardt says, “I do a lot of hands-on, experiential learning.”
Last year, her sixth- and seventh-grade students surveyed the reptile and insect population of local land slated for development, a project that gave them, “an opportunity to (create) real information.” The local soil conservation service, she says, was interested in her students’ findings on how development affects animal life.
Foxfire practices also are used by teachers in schools in Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and New York.
Today’s Foxfire Magazine, published twice yearly, consists of 80 glossy pages produced by the students at Rabun County High School in Tiger (pop. 316). The focus still centers on the history, crafts, and personalities of southern Appalachia, with student articles on subjects such as oral histories of the county’s African-American community, step-by-step explanations of making traditional pottery, and ancestors’ memories of returning to the rural county after serving in World War II. The magazine survives on subscriptions, as well as funding by patrons from as far away as Montana. They’re also for sale in northern Georgia bookstores.
Foxfire’s small office in Mountain City (pop. 829) sits between a state highway and the foot of Black Rock Mountain, just a few minutes from the North Carolina state line. While it “used to be hard to get here,” urbanization has helped keep the project fresh, Bennett says. “The people you’re talking to have been more places and done more things.”
Adjoining the office is Foxfire’s student-built museum, a cabin filled with artifacts such as a rope bed, toys, tools, and a re-assembled grist mill. Nearby, the Foxfire Center includes 25 historic log homes, a chapel, and a smokehouse, some structures saved from demolition and moved to the site as a student project. Director of Heritage Programs Robert Murray, who runs the museum, says Foxfire has helped connect students with their own culture and changed the way they see their world. “They (look at) life through a different generation’s eyes.”