Eliot Wigginton may know more about teaching than anyone else in the world today. I mean doing the thing brilliantly and thinking it through to theory -- something few of the world's great education reformers in the past have pulled off. This book could help change our understanding of school as significantly as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" helped change our understanding of the environment.
In 1966 Wigginton began his teaching career in a high school at Rabun Gap, Ga., with students ridiculously inept and bored out of their minds -- a standard school condition that we try to forget. He thought he should quit the job but decided to give it one last shot. In effect, he said, "Kids, let's list on the board some projects we might do that would mean something to us in this damn-fool English class." One was to put out a magazine. The students chose that option, went to work interviewing old people in the region about how they had done things before technology arrived, and named the publication Foxfire, after a fungus that glows in local coves.
In 1972 Wigginton and his students put together a book from Foxfire articles, and a few years later they were collecting six-month royalty checks from Doubleday that ran as high as $100,000. The time had been ripe.
Over the ensuing years Wigginton has realized that what happens in his classroom demonstrates and defines learning in any subject, at any level of education -- first grade through graduate school. In his new book he has extrapolated its principles from those experiences. For example, he says that fine teachers "know how learning takes place, know their students and their environments, understand the role of self-esteem in learning, aren't afraid to be seen as fallible and human, understand the nature of discipline and control, help students analyze and react appropriately to the actions of adults." And then he goes on with astounding honesty to show how frustrating, agonizing and joyful being such a teacher is. He knows it's exhausting, a profession seemingly designed for burnout.
Wigginton's story of how he and his students tried to protect ancient Aunt Arie from mistreatment by a New York television crew shows that when given responsibility, high-school kids can respect their fellow beings as the school handbook says they should. He tells of a teacher being suspended for using Machiavelli's "The Prince" in class, and then says that reformers who "purposely try to make the system look impotent and stupid to make a point . . . must expect the confrontation and accept the consequences. The system doesn't intend to be whipped by a teacher; it can't afford to be. And though we may win at the end through litigation or publicity or compromise, we ultimately lose, I think, because we virtually destroy our ability to work creatively and somewhat harmoniously within that system for the benefit of our students."
Throughout the book Wigginton is saying that we have constructed a myth about school. We imply that school is a land of promise, he says, but offer young people hell and its punishments as the way to it. From the first day, we label them sinners for their errors. We test them hourly, and then headline their failing scores in the newspapers.
Wigginton knows that most teachers fit into the system that supports the myth. He comes right up to saying that the Foxfire way can't be carried on in a society that continues to give one high school teacher 140 students to look after every day. But he doesn't issue an ultimatum.