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?