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Sometimes a shining moment: the foxfire experience.

Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience.

Eliot Wigginton.Anchor Press/Doubleday, $19.95.

I kept telling myself thatWigginton must be on the side of the angels: he dislikes standardized tests and textbooks and the whole malarkey of master teachers. So how come I can't like him more?

Roughly a third of Sometimes aShining Moment focuses on how Wigginton started Foxfire, an alternative school, and how the widely-read books on local crafts and lore were "put together by high school students, the majority of whom had hated English.' As an English teacher myself, I applaud the accomplishment. But Wigginton is long on self-congratulation and short on both practical and inspirational insights for teachers who are not, like him, freed from the rules and rituals of public school teaching.

Wigginton calls himself a publicschool teacher but the astounding financial success of the Foxfire books enabled him to set up a corporation which now hires him to teach the Foxfire course. In no way do I begrudge him his comfortable position: he earned it, starting out with just a tape recorder, a dream, and faith in kids. But I do begrudge him his arrogance, his barely tempered sneering that if other teachers cared about doing the job right, they'd do it his way.

Wigginton pats himself on theback for returning student themes, rigorously corrected, the next day. Most public school English teachers have a student load upwards of 125 students. Wigginton has 24. He points with pride to the beautiful Appalachian artifacts that decorate his classroom, artifacts he uses to motivate students. Most high school teachers share space with other teachers, often teaching in two or three different rooms during the day. Their classroom supplies and motivating devices are pretty much limited to what they can carry on their backs.

Wigginton, prone to absolutes,announces that his classroom rules are so natural and so obviously right that he never has to enforce them. I believe him. When your rule is that you won't "allow students to throw $250 cameras out the classroom window at passing delivery trucks,' then chances are pretty good that you won't have too much trouble enforcing it.

Wigginton's solution for problemstudents chills me to the bone. He pronounces, "Students who obviously do not belong in [the school] setting because they are determined to be antisocial and destructive, and are beyond self-discipline and the capacity to reason, must be swiftly and surgically removed to another type of educational environment, not coddled or fretted over. Removed Period. None of us can afford to have our attention and our energy completely dominated by some . . . jerk with the I.Q. of a cantaloupe.'

The get-tough principles EducationSecretary William Bennett so admires sound like creampuffs in comparison with Wigginton. But if the human cost of producing a fine product like Foxfire comes at the cost of eliminating the "cantaloupes,' then I say the cost is too great. We teachers may fall far short of our goals much of the time, but we must never give up on the attempt to educate in and for a democracy. After all, if we don't fret over the antisocial, destructive, undisciplined kids, then who will? Certainly there have been tired moments when I'd agree with Wigginton--get rid of this trouble-maker and let me do my job in peace. But then I'd remind myself that I might be this 14-year-old's last chance. I was his English teacher, and along with spelling and reading, I had to teach him how to survive. It's too damn easy for teachers and principals to wash their hands of the cantaloupes, to get them officially declared incorrigible or loony or learning disabled.

The same Wigginton who daredto be creative and innovative, the teacher who 20 years ago scorned petty rules, now has a system for correcting student themes. He meticulously labels each error, subtracting 15 points for every sentence fragment or comma splice, three points for each misused apostrophe, and so on. He proudly attests that this careful system successfully eliminates "alot' from student writing.

It's good to be rigorous aboutgrammar and punctuation, but using Wigginton's system in English class limits one's self--and one's students--to trivialities. Tell a student you're going to penalize him 15 points, or whatever, for every misspelled word, and pretty soon he'll only use simple words he's sure of spelling correctly.

Wigginton gives us too manyempty platitudes, too many dusty lesson plans and checklists. I remain convinced that he has done great things with his students, has encouraged them to stretch and grow. Unfortunately, my conviction rests on past faith rather than on any new revelation in this book.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Washington Monthly Company
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Copyright 1986, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ohanian, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1986
Words:770
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