Does Freire Work?

January 7, 2010

All dressed up in popular-educator gear, and an evaluation workshop to help run

Happy New Year! I´m sorry for my long absence. I´m back in Guatemala after a very white Christmas, involving lots of Elizabeth Gaskell, Pembroke Welsh Corgis, and overeating of various white-people-Christmas foods. It was blissful to reconnect with my cultural heritage and all, but I feel – oddly enough- content to be back in Guatemala, where everything is both infinitely more difficult and much more interesting.

For my first blog entry of the year, I need to go back to the old. Specifically the beginning of December, when I traveled to the coastal city of San Jose for P´s evaluation workshop with the facilitators who led the literacy groups in each community. San Jose is a grungy beach town where workers from Guatemala City go to drink on the weekends, but we stayed in a decent hotel with a pool and palm trees adn went to see the sun set over the town´s black sand beach before we left. It was the first time most of the women had seen the sea, and it was so much fun to see them shriek with fear and joy as they entered the waves.

Discussing, documenting

Creatively presenting

The purpose of the workshop was to complete a preliminary evaluation of the first phase of the program, recording the facilitators impressions and reflections and beginning to plan for 2010. (Full evaluations of student progress were planned for last week.) An important component of this process was a discussion of the usefulness of the methodology applied in the communities. One of P´s long term goals for the project is to develop their own curriculum, but for the time being they are using a literacy guide provided by CONALFA, the government adult literacy initiative.  CONALFA´s curriculum is structured around a series of nine generative words, all of which relate to indigenous culture, gender equality, and Guatemalan politics. The first is “hal,” the Qeqchi  (an important Mayan dialect )  word for “corn cob.” After the first lesson, the generative words are presented in both the indigenous language and Spanish. They include “weaving,” “farming,” “youth,” “motherhood,” “full moon,” “marriage,” “defending our indigenous rights,” and  “now, we live in peace.” Each lesson begins with a discussion of the generative word or theme, during which the women complete drawings that express their understanding of the ideas presented.

After the facilitator has led the group through a series of discussion questions related to the theme, she presents the indigneous word again, along with a poster showing the syllables that comprise the word. A new poster is then presented, showing the syllable “families” related to the word. For example, the word “kemb´il,” or weaving in Qeqchi, can be broken down into kem -b´il.  “Kem” belongs to the syllable “family” “kam, kem, kim, kom, kum,” while “b´il” belongs to the syllable family “b´al, b´el, b´il, b´ol, b´ul.” Letters are removed, the new sounds are reversed, and once the word has been stretched, broken and remade every which way the process is repeated with the Spanish translation of the word. At the end of each lesson the participants use the syllables, written on individual cards, to form new words and, eventually, sentences.

Sound familiar? With the exception of the edition of Mayan words, this curriculum is almost an exact transcription of Freire´s methodology. The fact that this method is being propagated by one of the least social democratic states in the world says something about the continuing relevance of Freire´s ideas in Latin America.

The facilitators constructed month-by-month histories of the literacy groups.

However, the facilitators identified several external factors that make it difficult to implement this methodology with indigenous women. Extreme poverty is extraordinarily high in the communities where P works, and most women must migrate to coffee plantations or urban areas to work during the year, making it impossible for them to attend some or all of the classes. In some communities, the program coincides with the harvest. Most of the women are mothers or grandmothers and couldn´t find alternate child care for their children or grandchildren. If they brought babies or young children to class, they were distracted and couldn´t devote their full attention to the work. Some husbands and fathers withdrew permission for the women to attend the classes after the first few weeks, and the women simply stopped coming.

But there are also indications that the methodology may not meet the needs of indigenous women who have had no formal schooling. Although facilitators conducted a series of workshops on the alphabet and writing names before beginning the CONALFA curriculum, even the most basic skills -like holding a pencil- proved difficult for older women. Even drawing was hard. This is particularly surprising, since Freire presents drawing as a technique that can be used with illiterate workers either to express ideas or as a “codification” of ideas that can be “read” to develop visual literacy skills. Developing the motor skills necessary to write is a more difficult process: when I worked in Kindergarten and First Grade classes, we spent a lot of time tracing letters in pencil, coloring them with markers, and even writing them in shaving cream spread on the desks (an excellent way to clean dirty surfaces.) But I would have thought that women who have the fine motor skills used in weaving or sewing wouldn´t have difficulty learning to use a pencil.

Me, preparing to present an activity at the workshop

Explaing said activity, in Spanish. I was visualizing/scripting my heart out.

But there also appears to be a deeper, structural problem with the methodology, which assumes that all indigenous women can understand and speak Spanish in addition to their indigenous language. This simply isn´t true. In some areas of the country indigenous languages have begun to die out, and in others Spanish is the dominant language. But in the isolated, impoverished communities where P works, few women or men have ever attended school, and indigenous dialects remain the first and only language for the majority. The methodology doesn´t teach Spanish, and so is useless to any woman who has little knowledge of the language.

The facilitators, getting reading to present their ideas about the strenghts and weaknesses of the project

I also wonder if Freire´s reliance on the syllable is a problem. From what I can tell, syllables are a western way of breaking down words: indigenous languages combine distinct guttural sounds with subject pronoun and verb roots to create meaning. If the method doesn´t correspond to the structure of indigenous languages, then it is far too hard for students to understand.

So does Freire´s methodology  work? Not really, it would seem. Can it be changed to meet the needs of indigenous women? I´m starting to dream up a research project that would ask just that. I´ll keep you posted.

"When the women began, it was hard for them to hold the pencil ... but they still want to learn." Please note that I am responsible for the terrible handwriting above the card: the facilitators write more neatly than I do.

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