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

4 thoughts on “A morning spent with Paulo Freire and friends

  1. Hi Spiritoso – makes me think of that song – ‘hi calypso’ – by John Denver! Yes I think my students want this. The exercise on powerlessness/power/identity, a kind of pastoral care begins to emerge when we do stuff like this. Also like the ‘bread’ activity. Don’t know Paulo Freire, but will do some research. And loved the Mandela story. Off to work with new ideas. Thank you Tina


  2. An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a coworker who was doing a little homework on this.

    And he actually bought me lunch due to the fact that I found it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!

    But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this subject
    here on your website.

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