So it is back to school time for everyone, including us. It is a week into September as I am writing this and we've settled into our homeschooling routine once again. I keep having to run back to the library or look things up online, simple tasks that soon consume hours as I start looking into a subject a little deeper or come across a new idea to investigate. The "work" really never stops. My son masters one thing and is ready to move on to another, we come across an idea that leads to something new and interesting, one project segues into yet another, on and on like this. I never feel quite done with anything, and that is fine, really, because I never want to stop trying to be a better teacher for my son... I've said before that I feel like homeschooling is such a natural extension of being a parent for me... I was not complete the moment my son was born--we are both growing and changing together, and his existence in my life is both a touchstone and a springboard of experience.
I like reading about different teaching philosophies/strategies. Sometimes this is out of sheer frustration, like when I am trying to explain something to my son and he doesn't understand. I never think my son is incapable of understanding a concept, I know that it is just a matter of me finding the right way to approach a problem and a better way to present it. So sometimes I lay in bed at night thinking about it, I read up on it, I try to figure it out, and sometimes I am forced to drop it until I have the time and patience to come back to it. Sometimes he just figures it out on his own and I am off the hook.
The other reason I like reading up on the process and philosophies of education is because I am still pretty insecure at times. There is a certain amount of pressure in parenting, especially when you take on the task of being your child's sole educator. A little voice in my head tells me, "You are doing this all wrong--you are screwing up your kid's education! You are ruining his whole life!" Even though I see him learning and reaching goals, there are times I still feel like I am gambling--I won't really find out how well I did until he is all grown up and putting all this stuff into practice. So I read to give myself confidence: the more ways I have to do this, the more directions I have to approach this from, well, the more likely I will be to succeed--and the more likely he will be to succeed in the life he chooses to lead.
One subject I came across a year or two back in my reading, and keep returning to, is the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning. It is exactly what it says it is, an "approach" to education, a lot of ideas and not a curriculum. The amazing thing about Foxfire, though, is that the original idea had manifested in a lot of tangible ways--it has ceased to be just philosophy and has become a true working model for teaching and learning. Every time I come across something regarding Foxfire, I get excited about education--what it can really be--all over again.
The Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning started as an experimental education program in Appalachian Georgia in 1966 with the intention of teaching high school freshmen basic English skills. Students were given their objective and then were allowed to decide how they would approach the task. The students decided to produce a magazine that would document rural Appalachian life. And that is exactly what they did--through interviews with relatives, "old timers", and skilled craftspeople in the area, and by researching family and public records, they began producing a quarterly magazine called Foxfire that gained distribution all over the country.
The impact of the magazine is a truly amazing thing. Not only were kids learning things in a really engaging way through writing and researching (not to mention doing lay out and print orders and filling subscriptions), the content of the magazine contained even more lessons--farming, midwifery, cooking, and so on. And while these kids were setting about educating themselves in their community, they captured bits and pieces of oral history regarding a way of life that may have been lost after the old timers died.
The magazine still exists today, as it proved very successful in a few ways. Those kids did learn their basic English skills (plus so much more), and people everywhere loved the magazine. As it became obvious that it was a great teaching tool and a desirable product, Foxfire began branching out in several different areas. The magazine articles were compiled into books that now make up twenty volumes, plus other specialty books were compiled on a variety of different subjects. A non-profit umbrella organization called the Foxfire Fund was started, which promotes the magazine and books, created and operates a museum, and developed the original program developed into a method that teachers and schools could implement--the Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning. This includes teaching programs and materials that are now used in public and private schools all over the country.
Part of developing a way to express this approach to teaching and learning involved creating a basic set of guidelines on how to create an environment that promotes a learner driven education experience. The "Eleven Core Practices" were developed, and I keep returning to them because they really jive with the way I want to help my child learn, and each one of the practices really forces me to consider what I am doing as a teacher on a daily basis. Just to give an example, a few of the core practices include: (1) All the work teachers and students do together must flow from student desire, student concerns. (4) The work is characterized by student action, rather than passive receipt of processed knowledge. (6) Connections between the classroom work and surrounding communities and the real world are clear.
This is very similar to the philosophy of unschooling, so if you are looking for some sort of general guideline or inspiration to turn to when helping a child to unschool, the Foxfire approach would be very helpful. Some of the other core practices emphasize group work, which isn't really stressed in many texts I've read about unschooling, so it is possible that those parts can be disregarded or modified. I personally like Foxfire's emphasis on working with others and projects that reach out beyond the self, though, and I think it is a really essential aspect of it because even though a lot of work can be achieved independently, working with others adds a whole other dimension to learning--it creates an exchange that perpetuates learning. The Foxfire magazine wouldn't be what it is, or served the purpose that it has, if it weren't for the exchange between people. And that is really what I love most about Foxfire--how the line between student and teacher is intentionally blurred. Who is the teacher and who is the student? Is it the person who is describing how she taught herself to weave? Is it the kid writing an article about the person who taught herself to weave? Is it the person reading the article by the kid who interviewed the person who taught herself to weave? All I see is a circle, ongoing, where everyone is involved, learning in some way. This reminds me, too, of what I love most about the d.i.y. punk community. When I read zines by Chris Boarts, Matte Resist, and Kyle Bravo, I recognize that circle... people learning out of their own need and desire and connecting those needs and desires with their community. Personally, the most gratifying thing for me when writing for the public is when I get letters from people sharing their own experiences, recommending books and zines they think I would like, or telling me about their projects and ideas. I get a lot of information and inspiration when I put a little bit of myself out in the world.
I love when I feel this circular pattern when I am working with my kid. Even when I feel insecure about how well I am doing with him, or I get tired and overwhelmed with all the work there is to do.... when I stop and think about it, when I recognize myself as both student and teacher, when I realize he is pushing my mind and my heart and my energy in new areas just as much or more as I am for him, I feel revitalized and charged by the energy of our exchange. Even though I am definitely oriented toward helping him grow up into a satisfied and successful adult, I don't want everything we think and do to be about tomorrow. People stress the idea of getting an education in order to make a living, but I don't think you are really living unless you can make a meaningful and satisfying connection between yourself and the world around you... like a circuit, you've gotta spark the connection and keep the current flowing... and it will come back to you.
Of course, this is all just philosophy, this is just ideas about how to approach things, whether it is Foxfire or unschooling or my experience teaching my child. It is good to learn and think about ways to make these connections with the world, but it is better to just get out there and start doing it. I wanted to devote some space here to giving some practical ideas for people to try in order to make connections and increase learning rather than just spouting philosophy, but I am afraid there isn't the space this time around, so I will do that for my next column. I just want to reinforce the idea behind Foxfire and unschooling: Learning is not a passive activity. Life shouldn't be, either. Living and learning all the time, Candyce 1122 S. 20th St. Fort Smith, AR 72901 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (contact info from 2002, new info not available in 2011 - ed)
Note: The Foxfire books are pretty widely available; I've seen them in a few different libraries. They are really interesting reading and the contents of the volumes vary widely--from railroad lore to herbal remedies. You can get all the books, magazines, teacher's materials and handicrafts direct from Foxfire at their website: www.foxfire.org, or contact them for a brochure at: The Foxfire Fund, Inc. Post Office Box 541 Mountain City, GA 30562-0541