Tea with Freire

Ped FreedomPart Two

Good afternoon again, Mr Freire, and we were straight into codes. My pigeon story is a code but what theme was it exploring? What is a code for that matter, anyway? Is it anything with which a group can work creatively to solve a problem or clarify an issue? We were about to find out.

The group presented us with an example. This whole code was carried out and observed in silence. Camilla stood in the middle of the room. One by one, three people took it in turns to tie a rope around her middle. they then took up a position, standing in the room, holding the other end. I noticed she helped one of them tie it round. She smiled at the woman facing her but when she tried to move away, the woman wouldn’t let her move. She was held fast by the ropes. Her expression changes during this code – from mild curiosity, irritation, puzzlement to concern, bewilderment, anger and then apathy, as the juice drained from her eyes. Three people held her there, suspended, and would not let her go. Two of them were facilitators and one was a participant.

We spoke about it afterwards (processing) and were given three questions:

  • What did you observe?
  • How was she feeling?
  • What reasons were there for putting the ropes on her?

It is really important to process the code afterwards by discussing the questions with the group. Ann said that for her, it was something about saying no, about putting her head above the parapet. We had been present while the code was set up and had seen Camilla helping with putting the ropes on her. Without realising it, this then became part of the code, intentionally or not. An alternative would be to send the group out and set this up so that they can’t see it being done.  What difference would this make?

The participant holding the rope spoke of how uncomfortable it made her feel. John asked why they hadn’t let go of the ropes. Why didn’t they? ‘Let go of the rope’. This phrase reverberates around my mind with its sense of release and freedom and fear. It has an edge.

Who or what had this code been for? Jacqui told us it had been created for a group who were all experiencing stress in their jobs. It enabled them to look at what was causing it and so what they could do about it. To come up with the right code, she said, you have to listen deeply to the issues in the group or community and then present them back in a form or ‘code’ –  a drama, song, film or YouTube clip…a story even – which brings the issues to life, so they can be explored.

A woman passed by a house where several children were playing outside. They were skinny and scrawny and the woman said to the eldest girl, ‘Where are your parents?’ When she didn’t answer, she asked, ‘when was the last time you ate something?’ Still no reply, so she went inside the house and into the kitchen and saw a bowl of eggs on the table. ‘Do you like omelette?’, she asked them. ‘I know, I will cook you a nice, big omelette to fill your bellies? I am a very good cook.’ And she did. She placed the pieces of hot omelette on the plates for the children to eat and left. The children barely touched the food and let it go cold. When the parents returned home, they shouted and beat the eldest girl severely for not looking after the eggs properly. With nothing to take to market to sell, how would they live?

If I said that the theme of this story is intervention and of my pigeon story, blame, would that make sense to you? I’m wondering if, as a tutor, how you use themes or topics like these in your classes? What themes could you explore creatively with your students if you identified a code to explore a theme which was important to your students? It’s not easy but why would you want to do something that was easy? Jacqui said it took her a long time to feel confident about doing it. And she had more experienced facilitators working with her. It is risky. it is like handing over your power to the students. And it takes practice. But it may feel more real and important. Does that matter?

The facilitators then treated us to a variety of codes they had used with groups in different places. They showed us…

  • a story in five pictures, starting with a chick with its egg tooth, pecking out of the egg, looking round first one way, then another before retreating into its broken shell
  • a concentric circles exercise where postgraduate students in the inner circle voiced their feelings to their partner opposite them about aspects of their course. Then, they swopped over and repeated the exercise. From the processing, it turned out the students all felt there were too many shifting goalposts concerning their assessments and felt no-one was listening to them
  • a wonderful poem, Autobiography in 5 Short  Chapters by Portia Nelson…’I walk down the street/There is a deep hole in the sidewalk/I fall in… If you’ve not read this, seek it out. It says a lot about us and how we face up to change.
  • Jacqui told us about a community project she’d worked with where the original volunteers who had set up the project were falling out with the newer, paid staff whose job it was to manage the project. She talked about taking a staged process; firstly, of easing in and listening to everyone or at least giving them a chance to talk; then, of finding a space, one where there was a safe and shifting energy to begin to open up a dialogue. Over a couple of days, they observed that some were silent, some were whispering, others were shouting, and some talking. What themes did this generate and what code might they use to enable the people to explore it for themselves?

They started with a Four Ways framework, asking the same questions:

  • What do you do in the project?
  • What is the vision of the organisation?
  • How are you organised?
  • What are your relationships like here?

The facilitators came up with the idea of a drama, based on two characters – one a laid back guy, representing the original founders and the other a slick professional-type. Both are caricatures but, strangely, it worked for this group and enabled them to see themselves as they were presenting and find a way forward out of their difficulties.

Jacqui emphasised the importance of listening for both what was being said and what was not. There are multiple languages being spoken all at once, not only head language but also heart and even hand languages. Out of this process comes a number of generative themes, which are important to the group. Choose a theme to work with and come up with a code to test it. Don’t overcomplicate it by trying to cover more than one theme. Best keep it simple and don’t mix up codes. Sometimes, you may find you have picked a  wrong’un. Put it down to experience and try another.

Finally, the group may come up with an action or actions to help take the matter forward. Is this beginning to sound like what the WEA is aiming for in its Community Engagement strand? I hope so. Equally, can you begin to see possibilities of using these methods and tools in the other strands as well? What are they? Are you doing this already? If so, tell me, what you are doing or trying? Let’s share…

Next, we were asked to discuss a problem affecting us or people we knew and put into small groups. From the problems posed, each group had to choose one of them to work on. We had:

  • a group of people attending classes at an adult education centre, aged 18-50+, mixed gender, including travellers, who felt they were always being blamed when something went wrong at the centre.
  • A community group which presented a ‘culture of silence’.
  • A group of students whose individual final results partly depended on a group project; this led to some students doing most of the work while others did very little or nothing at all, yet all got the same grading.

Jacqui reminded us about listening to the group before choosing a (generative) theme. Keep it simple was the mantra and deal with one theme at a time. How might you present it as a code to start work with the group?

And there she left us, as I must leave you for now because it is getting near dinner time and my belly is calling me. We will be back after supper with our codes and they’re all different. I wonder what you think we chose. What theme and code would you choose?


The Paulo Freire Reader
Continuum International Publishing Group, Limited, 1998 – Education – 291 pages.
With Pedagogy of the Oppressed (more than 600,000 copies sold), Paulo Freire established his place in the universal history of education. Since the appearance of that book, Continuum has published six other volumes by the famed Brazilian educator. Freire’s untimely death in 1997 leaves these writings to carry on his revolutionary message: one of hope, one of the heart. The Paulo Freire Reader includes the best of the best. It draws from Pedagogy of Hope, Pedagogy of the City, Pedagogy of the Heart, Learning to Question, and Pedagogy in Process, in addition to other writings that appear for the first time.
More information about Freire, creative facilitation and Partners Organisation, Dublin can be found at http://www.trainingfortransformation.ie/index.php/aboutus/organisation

el veinte dos de mayo

el veinte dos de mayo,

my own Bloom’s day.

Noting two birthdays

celebrated today

by the return of a son,

the most precious gift of all.

The Pigeon Story

I hate pigeons. Nothing would ever make me say, ‘That’s a nice pigeon. I’ll invite them round to my house.’ And this is despite the fact that my cousin, Billy, has been a champion of England pigeon flyer and trips to my aunty Maggie’s outside loo meant passing by the pigeon loft, both ways. ‘Don’t coo at me, pigeon. I don’t like you. You’re noisy. You’re smelly and you shit over everything. I just don’t want you near me. Any of you. Get it? OK. Get going, move it. I don’t care where you go but get going. Move it.Get out of here.

Once I spent weeks aiming fallen crab apples at a pigeon’s nest over the front door. When apples stopped working, I got out my son’s water blaster canon, double-barrelled, and let them have it, both barrels. It felt good. Anything which stopped me sleeping had to go. Move them on. Get rid. Get them out. According to my wife, the neighbours told her I put on quite a show. ‘Don’t mess with me, pigeon, or you’re dead.’ (I didn’t actually kill one).

Time passes and we come to a morning in April this year. I looked out the window of my upstairs living room. Were those twigs in the gutter below? No, they couldn’t be. How did they get there? Next appeared two pigeons, very attentive to one another’s needs. I opened the window and closed it again quickly. They flapped and loped and flew off. I hoped that would be enough.

They came back. I wondered about poking them with a mop but, strictly speaking, they were my landlord’s problem, not mine. Maybe, a quick text could get me a pigeon task force? While I was thinking about this, the next time I looked out the window, the female – I’m assuming it was the female – was sitting on the nest, ringed by little, white feathers. And white feathers mean angels. Oh, no, the pigeons were protected by angels and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. Strangely, somewhere in me felt good about this.

I followed the progress of the birds over the next couple of weeks. The hen fattened. I saw the male returning with twigs he picked up off the pavement, dropping them by the nest for the female to place. I started looking out for them, wondering how they were. You know how you never see a baby pigeon. Have you ever seen one? Do you even know its name? Precisely, because there’s no such thing or so I’ve always thought. Even the children are born rotten.

One day, I opened my curtains and the nest was empty, save for a small, white egg. Very pretty. Pure white, about the size of a dessert spoon. I know, how does a pigeon grow out of that? Easy, it pecks through the pointy end with its beak. The mum returned to sit on the nest and my curiosity was piqued. I started stealing glances, standing sideways behind the centre post of the window, so as not to disturb her. Had the chick hatched yet? Was there any sign?

One ordinary day in April, the bird sat on the nest. It shifted slightly and I saw. I saw a scrawny, olive chick with no feathers, big eyes and a long, black beak. Mum was keeping it warm and it disappeared underneath her. I felt happy. New life, even if it was a pigeon.

I never saw the chick again, although I looked every day. It may have been under the bird. Then, there was a second egg, left alone on the nest. The day after, it was gone. So were the birds. They’ve not come back to the nest, beautifully made of sticks, their home. Funny thing is, I miss them and I hope they’re ok, wherever they are. I hope the little chick is growing and I worry about what happened to that second egg. I miss ‘em.

A morning spent with Paulo Freire and friends

Part One – Nice to meet you, Mr Freire   Ped Oppressed

The taxi stopped outside number 24. ‘Are you sure this is it? It says here there are two number 24s.’ I checked with the driver. ‘We want the one in Ranelagh.’ (pronounced with guttural gh). ‘Then this’s it. That’s Leeson Park at the end of the road. There was no sign that 24 Northbrook Road was the base of Partners Organisation, Dublin as I made hesitant steps up to the front door of the big terraced house. I was just about to ring the bell and thinking of what would I say when the door opened and Jacqui greeted me with a big, friendly grin. Come in, welcome, put your coat in there and pick up a picture!

We gathered in the large front room of the house, about 20 of us, including 4 facilitators, Jacqui, whom I’d met before when she’d delivered creative facilitation training in Liverpool, Frank, Maureen and Camilla. Each of us gave our names and explained why we’d chosen our pictures. I upturned a photo of a large stone house shaped like an upturned hull of a ship in a field covered by snow. Here’s the reflection, I said, pointing to the upside down house. I’d like to know where the house has disappeared to. We were off and, at the end of the second day, I discovered there were three psychotherapists in the group. Help was at hand!

Frank led us through the next activity, introducing the theory behind the Freire’s writings. Using the floor as a model, he described the four elements of Freire’s approach – theory, methods/skills, reflection and self/style. I felt reassured somehow. I’d also covered this in the creative facilitation training and anything I learned today would be reinforced, I hoped.

Now, you might think not an awful lot was happening so far. But I’d been meeted and greeted, told where to put my bag and coat, had a chance to go the loo, been offered a cup of tea (declined), picked a photo, mingled, sat in a circle, shared something about me and got to know the others in the room a bit better and started to learn names. And this is how it is…questions for me were how does this affect me as an individual and how might the WEA tutors and staff make this work in its own context?

Suddenly, there were statements about Freire on the walls about the room, ranging from ‘Freire speaks my mind’ to ‘I know very little, if anything, about him and I’m just a bit curious’. You were given time to pick one and stand by it. The one I picked was ‘There is something about Freire that appeals to what I value in life’, only to discover I was standing next to three other people I’d never met before and we started talking. And we started listening…

“The director of British Petroleum (BP) was visiting Mandela to discuss the opening ceremony of the event BP was sponsoring. It was a blisteringly hot day, as the car pulled up outside the house. The director was quite nervous when he arrived at Nelson Mandela’s house. He’d never met him before. All he needed was to do was to sort out the cutting of the ribbon and Mandela had invited him for breakfast to do it.

The front door was opened by Nelson Mandela himself. ‘Come in, come in…’ and as the director started to pass through the doorway, Mandela said, ‘What about your friend?’ ‘My friend? Who?’ The director looked puzzled. ‘You mean my driver? Oh, he’ll wait in the car.’ ‘No, bring him in. He’s hungry too.’

The director went back to the car and spoke to the driver. They both joined Mandela at his table for breakfast. He asked them both about their families and they concluded their business about the opening ceremony.

It was time to go. The pair returned to the car and the director took his seat in the back. The driver, instead of getting in, stayed put, kneeling down in the dust in front of the director. He started to apologise and thanked him for letting him come in and meet Mandela. ‘Stop it. It was Mandela you have to thank, not me.  Come on, let’s go.’

(with thanks to Brendan for sharing this story. It’s from a book of stories about Nelson Mandela called Lessons for Madiba, the name South Africans know Mandela by, I learned).

We then moved into an individual activity, called Wordspiders, where we were given a word- in this case, bread – and had to write down the first six words which came to mind. Don’t think, write, we were urged. Then, see how many other people in the room have come up with the same words. We repeated this with two more words, power and Freire. There was a tremendous energy in the room and much laughter. Could this be learning..? What was I learning? It wasn’t going to help me pass an exam. It couldn’t, could it? Of could it? We don’t do many exams anyway. I am sure OFSTED would love this activity.

Frank then treated us to ‘Paulo Freire in 15 minutes’, an ironic title in that he has spent many years involved in this work all over Ireland and the world. It was very simple. He laid two ropes out as axes on the floor of the room. At the ends of one axis, he placed the words ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’. On the other, he placed ‘comfortable with..’ and ‘uncomfortable with..’ He invited us to place ourselves on the axis, according to how we felt about our power. After a little discussion to test exactly what standing where meant, Frank showed us where Freire would stand, indicating a position which was both powerful and uncomfortable with. The oppressed would be powerless and comfortable with, he said. He then invited us to take our positions before asking a few of us to explain why we’d chosen to stand where we were.

This led into some very interesting discussions about power and identity. For Freire, it seems, power is straightforward. You either have it or you don’t. He didn’t think as is more commonly held nowadays that different groups in society can each hold a portion of their own power, without taking it from anybody else.

Were you powerful in your own identity or in the systems running the country or both or neither? Depending on your view, you might stand in different places if you answered the question in a personal capacity or as part of a system.

It was lovely being in Ireland. I struggled to put this into words at the time, trying not to cause any offence by my Englishness; my baggage quickly let go of. I found something liberating here. I was feeding off the environment and couldn’t quite get what it was. We spoke the same language yet the cultural values were similar but not the same. Our communities faced the same issues – high unemployment and what to do about it. Make people go on training courses for their benefits seemed one answer. Did I hear something about the influence of the catholic church in another’s comment? Someone else worked for the HSE, the health service as it turned out, not the Health and Safety Executive. I knew I was visiting a different place and enjoyed being able to observe and take part in the discussions around really serious issues in a playful manner – if that makes any sense? Enjoyed is the wrong word…I ‘grew’ is better.

As it happens, I’m reading James Joyce’s Ulysses at the moment (60 pages to go) and I love where the words come from, especially spoken in a Dublin accent. ‘Ah, Dublin people speak too fast,’ said Camilla. Coming from Liverpool, I managed ok to keep up, I’m pleased to say. One of the highlights was catching Frank and Joan exchanging lines of poetry about a wayward cat in Gaelic in the hallway on Wednesday lunchtime.

So, where am I heading with this? There is plenty more. We’ve barely got to lunchtime on the first day but I’m going to take a breather now before getting onto ‘codes’.

There are quite a lot of us in the WEA interested in these creative methods. They enable us to examine and explore in more depth the issues which relate to ordinary people and everyday lives. I’d be really interested to hear back from you about what you think about all of this. Could these methods work in your class or centre? Or do you feel it is not relevant to what your students want? If so, I wonder why? That’s interesting too. And how do you know? Have you asked them?

Meet me for tea later.


The Paulo Freire Reader
Continuum International Publishing Group, Limited, 1998 – Education – 291 pages
With Pedagogy of the Oppressed (more than 600,000 copies sold), Paulo Freire established his place in the universal history of education. Since the appearance of that book, Continuum has published six other volumes by the famed Brazilian educator. Freire’s untimely death in 1997 leaves these writings to carry on his revolutionary message: one of hope, one of the heart. The Paulo Freire Reader includes the best of the best. It draws from Pedagogy of Hope, Pedagogy of the City, Pedagogy of the Heart, Learning to Question, and Pedagogy in Process, in addition to other writings that appear for the first time.

More information about Freire, creative facilitation and Partners Organisation, Dublin can be found at http://www.trainingfortransformation.ie/index.php/aboutus/organisation


My mum is alive,

warm and breathing.

She smiles and looks at me,

sometimes blankly.

I find her eyes.

We hold that look for time.

We smile.

She’s gone for tea,

frail looking, thin, arm in arm with the carer.

Gone round the corner.