Reading The World

Freirean "liberatory education" promotes literacy, empowerment, and the chance to rehearse for social change

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 42
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

For too many people "the media" is simply not accessible. Because of poverty or a lack of educational opportunities, they cannot take part in the continuing global conversation that powerfully influences their circumstances. But there are people and programs addressing these issues, and a great many of them base their work on the methods of the noted Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. One such Freirean educator is Klaudia Rivera, a Nicaraguan now living in New York and teaching at the Barrio Popular Education Program – an adult literacy program serving Puerto Ricans and Hispanic immigrants. Her experience spans three nations and two continents, including study in Brazil and work on the literacy campaign in her own country.

Writer Ruth Pelz introduces us to the work of Paulo Freire (see sidebar following this article) and speaks with Klaudia Rivera about the innovative ways that theater and literacy training are being used to empower the poor.

Ruth: I understand you have a unique method of teaching your literacy students to read and understand the news. Can you describe it?

Klaudia: I select different articles about the same incident from different papers published the same week. Working together as a class, we read the articles and compare the facts that are presented. We also look closely at the facts that are omitted. The class examines the articles to discover how the truth is hidden in some cases, or presented in different ways. Then we develop a dramatic script from the written articles, and the students act out the situation presented in the articles. Sometimes, what we then see doesn’t look real, and we go back to the script to correct it.

Ruth: How is this experience different from simply reading the newspapers, or watching the news on TV?

Klaudia: Theater allows people to "read" at a different level – to go deep for information, facts, and contradictions, to compare different writers, identify the perspective of each and so discover the bias in the news.

The challenge of acting leads to discovery. Often, classes will find out there are major vacuums in the news story. When you simply read the articles, you can follow the main ideas and absorb them. But to act the story, you find you need more information. The class often finds they have to read several different versions of the story in order to develop their own opinions.

For example, we did a story about the killings of ten peasants in El Salvador last September. At first, the Salvadoran government claimed these people were killed by guerrillas. Later, too much information came out proving that they were killed by the military, and the government could no longer hold to this story. So they invented another explanation: that the peasants had been working with the guerrillas for a long time, and that order in the countryside had to be maintained. We gathered what information we could from these two reports and incorporated these facts into the script. But there were lots of holes. One, of course, was a third possible explanation – that the peasants were innocent victims of the government’s ongoing violence against its people.

We used our imagination to answer the questions that the articles never answered: Who killed the peasants, and why? Did someone tell the army that these people were helping the guerrillas? Who? What did they have to gain?

In the end, the class decided that regardless of whether they were guerrillas, or guerrilla supporters, or innocent victims, the army shouldn’t have acted as it did; the problem was more one of social justice than of who was to blame.

Ruth: So how does your play turn out?

Klaudia: One of the amazing things about our play is that the students left it open so that it could be changed. We wrote it just a month after the killings occurred, so the outcome was not yet known, and they wanted to be able to respond to what the truth would later seem to be – which was great!

Ruth: The open-ended nature of your script reminds me of the work of the Brazilian dramatist, Augusto Boal, with whom you recently studied in Brazil. In Boal’s book, Theater of the Oppressed, he describes using an investigative method similar to Paulo Freire’s: going into a community and interviewing people to learn about their language and the issues that are most important to them – and then using these as the basis for plays. Is this what you saw in Brazil?

Klaudia: Boal begins by getting people to tell about their lives, mostly through images. For example, he might ask a group to show him – through a physical image – how a problem feels. He also uses storytelling, getting people to tell their stories and trying to find one that represents the story of the community. It might be one person’s story, or it might be an invented one, put together with elements of many of the stories. This becomes the script. Then he goes about dramatizing it.

Ruth: How would a play be presented?

Klaudia: Boal has developed what he calls Forum Theater. It is a highly interactive form. The actors present a script with the help of a "joker," a kind of facilitator who is responsible for directing the dialogue between the audience and the play.

The play is short and is presented once in its entirety. It usually ends in defeat for the protagonist. The second time through it can be stopped at any point. The joker might ask the audience to identify the protagonist by asking, "Who is the oppressed person in this scene?" Any audience member can identify this character and then come up and replace him.

Ruth: As I understand it, audience members can suggest points where they believe a different response from the protagonist would have made the outcome very different.

Klaudia: Yes, but there are limitations. They cannot change the character of the person, only the situation. Say there’s a situation about racism. You have a person who’s a victim. The person replacing him must still be black or Hispanic, or whatever; the only difference will be the way he deals with the oppressor. The main thing is that the audience members are all potential actors – they are active generators of the action.

Ruth: What is the goal of this type of theater?

Klaudia: The goal is for people to be able to see reality as an unfinished process that they can help shape. The theater format offers them a chance to rehearse for social change.

Another advantage of theater – this is my opinion and not necessarily Boal’s – is that it is close enough to people that you can put your life into it but far enough away that it is not threatening. It offers this critical opportunity to practice. For example, in a play about a tenant and landlord, you will be able to see your own problems in your housing, but you will also see the landlord as a symbol of a larger social problem. In this way, Boal would say, the theater is a tool for revolution and social change.

Of course it can also be a tool for domestication. This is true of upper class theater, where the audience just receives the content. They are empty vessels being filled rather than participants in their own dramas.

Ruth: This sounds very much like Paulo Freire’s distinction between what he calls liberatory education – in which students and teacher are learning from each other, through dialogue – and the traditional approaches to literacy that just give information to students.

Klaudia: A lot of Boal’s work is similar to Freire’s, and they have worked together over the years, so that it’s hard sometimes to say who influenced whom. Both believe that human beings are unfinished, that we’re in the process of becoming more human. They also share the belief that the only way to shift the relations of power in society is through dialogue. It is through dialogue that you bring about conscientization and humanization, that you make people able to be active participants in the making of their history.

Ruth: How do you incorporate these principles into your own work?

Klaudia: My own strength is in literacy. Traditionally, people in literacy classes have been reading work by and about other people. But it is easier for them to read their own stories.

Through theater, you can do this. The students can develop scripts that they can read. They can also read the scripts and stories of others, and this takes away the individualization of oppression. It helps them get beyond the belief that "Because I’m stupid, I can’t learn," or "Because I’m not a good worker, I lost my job." With this kind of theater experience, people can see, "That’s my issue. That’s what’s happening to me!" and discover that the problem is a social issue, not a personal one. And when people see problems in a collective way, they are more able to take collective action to solve them.

Ruth: So in your mind, literacy goes beyond simply being able to read the news?

Klaudia: I don’t define reading as simply decoding written characters; it also includes, as Freire says, reading the world. Some of my students could read a little bit; they might read the articles aloud to the others. Sometimes we take turns, and sometimes I read along with the class.

But decoding is not the only thing. Some good "readers" (I would call them good "decoders") just take in what they read as it is, without questioning it or comparing it to their experiences. If that’s all you do, you don’t get to the deeper level that Freire calls conscientization. As he says, the most important thing is to have a critical mind.

Ruth: Somehow I can’t believe this is what Barbara Bush has in mind as she promotes literacy in this country.

Klaudia: In the United States, the approaches to adult education are very divergent. Some of us are very involved in political work for social action, while others are oriented entirely toward skills development to help people get jobs.

Ruth: What can adult education programs here learn from those in developing countries?

Klaudia: The work in developing countries is tremendously innovative and creative. Of course, it has to be adapted to our context. As Freire has said, you can’t just import his methods; you must recreate them. It would be the same if you tried to adapt our work in New York to Washington State.

In the U.S., there is no context for a literacy campaign such as the one in Nicaragua or Cuba. In these countries, after their revolutions, there was great hope for social change. The people were building a new life. In that context, there is tremendous enthusiasm for literacy in the Freirean sense of not just teaching decoding but sharing the important sense that we are creators of our history.

In classes in the U.S., I can’t leave students with the illusion that when they learn to read, their lives will change, because that is just not the social reality. They will still have problems getting jobs and housing and health care.

Ruth: Do you ever get discouraged? I think of what you have just said about your students in the barrios of New York and also about the Nicaraguan literacy campaign, in which you participated. The hope there was so high in 1980; the accomplishments of the campaign were tremendous. But now after almost ten years of U.S. efforts to destroy the positive results of the revolution, what is left?

Klaudia: The truth is, the Nicaraguan example was too good to be tolerated by your country. I feel a great sense of loss, but no, I am not discouraged.

Even though some Nicaraguans may have lost some of the literacy skills they gained – especially in the remote areas where the fighting has been worst and the teachers had to leave – the empowerment they gained is irreversible. The revolution is irreversible. The campaign will be with everyone always – even those who went to Miami. We did much more than anyone would have thought possible, and under the worst conditions. I still get excited when I read about the story of the people. For the kids who went to the mountains, it was an incredible experience to see the other side of Nicaragua. That can never be taken away.

Ruth: In one of his dialogues, Freire states that "transformation has to be accomplished by those who dream about the reinvention of society." In your experience, has theater been successful in helping people imagine a new social order?

Klaudia: That is the whole advantage of theater – being able not only to imagine a new reality but to rhearse it, to play out your visions and evaluate them.

Ruth: What is this dream of a reinvented society? What does it look like?

Klaudia: It is an order where things will be more equal and more just. And, as we learn through the experience of liberatory education, that can only be accomplished by working with the people, not at them or for them; it is something we must accomplish together.

Freire’s Revolution

by Ruth Pelz

Twenty-five years ago educator Paulo Freire was jailed and exiled from his native Brazil for teaching methods considered subversive by that nation’s new military dictatorship. Now Freire (pronounced "fray-EE-ray") is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in adult education worldwide. During the last quarter century he helped develop literacy programs in Chile, Guinea Bissau, Nicaragua, and several other nations; taught briefly at Harvard University; and served as consultant for the Department of Education of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Invited back to Brazil after the country’s return to democracy in 1980, he is now director of education in Sao Paulo, its largest city.

Freire’s work has been translated into many languages (his best known book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was first published in English in 1970) and has been adapted to a wide variety of contexts, both in and out of the classroom. The heart of the "metodo Paulo Freire" is dialogue; teacher and students must be equally involved in a process of investigating the problems of the world together.

When a Freirean team of educators enters a community, they begin by identifying key social issues and the emotion-laden words that call these issues to mind. Those "generative" words then form the basis of the first literacy lessons. In one current program in urban Brazil, for example, the selected word was "mud." Makeshift housing had been constructed on steep hillsides, and with no streets or stairways, people were literally slipping and sliding through life. In learning to read the letters that form the Portugese word for mud (and rhyming words), students began not only the decoding of written language but an active investigation into their lives.

The next steps involve assembling drawings, posters, or color slides that illustrate the selected situations (e.g. muddy hillsides) and preparing an agenda for the program and appropriate teaching materials (e.g. cards showing the phonemic families of words suggested by the generative words). Then, "the team of educators is ready to re-present to the people their own thematics … which have come from the people [and] return to them – not as contents to be deposited but as problems to be solved" (Freire).

The goal of the discussions which ensue is not simply to teach students to read – although Freire’s highly motivating methods prove extraordinarily successful in this task – but also to achieve what he calls "conscientization." This term, which some English speakers translate as "consciousness raising," refers to the students’ development of a critical understanding of society and an awareness of their ability to change it. Freire is candid about the methods’ revolutionary implications:

… the domination by an elite, the exploitation of people by a minority, requires the ruling groups precisely to deny that they are doing it…. They are required to hide it from the people who are dominated…. Education … is really a process of knowing reality, how reality is made. The more you understand the mechanisms of economic oppression and exploitation, the more you … illuminate, the more you put light on some obscurity necessary for domination.

In traditional classroom settings, the political dimension is often avoided; many educators who call themselves "Freirean" really are not. True "liberatory education" has been most successfully carried out in societies engaged in a revolutionary process of recreating social structures. One of these, certainly, was Nicaragua. With Freire as consultant, the Sandinistas planned a national literacy campaign as one of their first priorities after coming to power in 1979. The goal was to train those over 12 with at least a full primary education as teachers, fan them out across the country, and teach everyone over 10 years of age (with no previous schooling) to read. These new teachers, largely urban and middle class, would in turn learn from their students about the lives of the nation’s destitute majority. At the time, illiteracy rates in the countryside were over 80% – but by the campaign’s end, that figure had been reduced to 12% nationwide.

Freirean methods are very influential in Latin America and are used in many U.S. literacy programs. But Klaudia Rivera’s work shows that liberatory education, too, can make the sometimes difficult transition from the so-called developing world to our own.

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