Eliot Wigginton, editor of eight Foxfire books about Georgia history that were based on interviews by his high school students, commended students at Upper Marlboro's Queen Anne School last week for doing what he believes in: Getting out of the classroom to talk to oldtimers to gain an understanding of the past. It is something that should be done in every history class, he said.
Earlier this year, Queen Anne's journalism students produced a book about life in their area called "Prince George's Bounty." Wigginton was attending a three-day seminar that helped celebrate the book, which was compiled much like the Foxfire series.
Wigginton said he introduced the method of oral history-gathering to his students 15 years ago at his school in Rabun Gap, Ga. Older residents were "a great resource for helping students relate to the past," he said.
The first Foxfire book, was written in 1972 by students who took their tape recorders to Georgia outposts in search of people who could talk about the state's past. The seven subsequent books in the series have continued in that vein.
Although Queen Anne school officials approve of the approach and plan to incorporate it into the school's senior history program, the journalism teacher who edited "Bounty," Robert Weller, was dismissed three weeks ago.
Headmaster Thomas Southard cited disagreements he and Weller had over items that appeared in last spring's school yearbook and how much freedom students should have in their writing. Weller said he believes students should not have to submit to too much censorship.
Jill Doherty, a Queen Anne senior, said Wigginton's approach to local history "makes sense because students want to understand history, but they just don't know how. The stuff in textbooks sometimes just doesn't mean anything."
Albert Vanthournout, a history teacher at Queen Anne, said, "one of the most difficult questions a student can ask is, 'Why are we studying this?' Somehow you have to make this subject relevant."
Vanthournout said that emphasis on gathering information about localities would also help preserve stories that help people understand how their county has been shaped.
"Prince George's County in the years I've been here has changed so much, and I think through urban development there's a lot that will be lost," he said. "We need somehow to make those experiences a permanent part of our culture."