"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Real Empowerment

 Finally, a true use of the word empower: “Friere maintains that the goal of a literacy program is to help students become critically conscious of the connection between their own lives and the larger society and to empower them to use the literacy as a means of changing their own environment” (Fiore and Elsasser, p.87).

Although the Frierian model does take more time than a more traditional method of teaching (sometimes called the “banking” approach – teachers have knowledge and 'deposit' it in their students), I've seen it result in much 'deeper learning' in my own classroom and find it well worth the investment. When trying to get students to pass a high stakes standardized test such as the English Exam at the College of the Bahamas or the Standards of Learning (SOL – consider the many interpretations for this acronym...) test in Virginia, it can be hard to balance the need for real learning that can't be measured by an exam and the real need for students to pass the test in order to advance academically. However, if we raise our own consciousness, we might question whether these standardized tests are crafted intentionally to limit critical thinking, encourage rote memorization, and thwart students from asking critical questions, thereby making the populace easier to control... Thus all the more reason we should teach against the test. Whether you agree or not, I submit the following anecdote from my first semester in a public high school classroom illustrating my attempt to incorporate a Frierian pedagogical model.

My students were 90% African American/Black and attended a low-income school. 3/4 of the student body was on free/reduced lunch, my door didn't lock (yet we had frequent lockdowns), the heat/AC sometimes didn't worked, the lights would go out unexpectedly, the clocks would stop, bells would ring at the wrong time, student's weren't allowed to take books home, etc.
More than the actual (inadequate) conditions of the school, I was bothered by my students' complacency that this was 'OK.' I knew that they understood these conditions were not ubiquitous across all schools; many would complain after attending a sporting event at Deep Run or another west-end school that those looked like a “shopping mall” compared to ours. It occurred to me that the students were seeing our school as just “old” and they wanted a “new” school, but they lacked the historical perspective of why our school was in such bad shape.
So, I went to the school library, borrowed old yearbooks, and designed a lesson about white flight. At the outset, I asked the students to judge from the pictures which school the yearbook came from. I walked around the classroom showing pages from the 1960's; the students seemed not to notice the change in sartorial styles and agreed the yearbook came from a present-day west-end school because all the students were white. They were shocked to learn it was their own school's yearbook from many years ago. We then looked at sample yearbooks by the decades up unto the present. Once the students realized that our school was not just “old,” but suffered from the effects of white flight, they were outraged.
The next class, we read an article about Barbara Johns, the 16-year-old civil rights activist who led a walkout in Prince Edward County in 1951 to protest the unequal conditions of black and white schools (her case became part of Brown v. Board). I wanted students to see that people their age could make a difference. I was so proud of the lesson, I showed it to the principal. I'd love to report that all my students engaged in authentic, meaningful tasks like writing letters to the editor or to local public officials, but despite our robust class discussion, some students refused to write anything, others wrote only a few incomprehensible sentences, and a very small number wrote letters to the school newspaper (a much less grand scale than I had imagined).

It wasn't until later in the semester that I saw the lasting impact of the lesson. After a student was shanked (stabbed) and the offender was suspended for only 10 days, the students felt unsafe. Unbeknownst to me, they planned a walkout to protest the unsafe conditions and wrote a letter explaining what they were doing and why and passed it out during the protest. Well, the walkout turned into chaos as the peaceful, well behaved protesting students were joined by hordes of knuckleheads that just wanted to skip class. Also, the students did not understand that 10 days was the maximum time the principal could suspend the student without school board approval – so it was only one step in the process. However, despite all of this – including my getting called into the principal's office as I was assumed to be the instigator – I was very proud of my students for putting their learning into action.  


  1. Seth - this is soooo helpful--I think the more concrete stories we have, especially from people we know and rub shoulders with, the better equipped we will be to attempt to lift the veils of inequality from the eyes of those on the "receiving" end. Your vignette provides a clear example of the use of a "code" (their old yearbook). And it also raises ethical issues that cannot be ignores either.
    Thank you!

  2. Wow Seth, what an amazing story! Makes me think about my own students who are on the other end of the spectrum: wealthy, supported monetarily by government/kingdom (Saudi Arabia) for their education and for almost everything else. When asked what they would change about their country, there is silence and then a response of: "nothing". They seem very proud of their form of government and the way they live their life. Later, when the faculty discussed this, we commented on how appalled some Saudi students were to see how our U.S. president was so blatantly criticized on public media; that could never happen in their country. We assumed that because of the extreme censorship in their country, they were not open to truly sharing, freely, what they would change; and if they did have some ideas, could they even begin to formulate a process for change?

    1. Carol... would love to talk to you after class sometime! (coffee, tea, drinks – I'll buy). I don't have any experience with Saudis in terms of teaching, but regardless of backgrounds, I believe deeply in the spirit of people to seek understanding of their situation and create solutions to better it. Let's get together and chat if you're available :-)

  3. Seth, this really resonated with me: "However, if we raise our own consciousness, we might question whether these standardized tests are crafted intentionally to limit critical thinking, encourage rote memorization, and thwart students from asking critical questions, thereby making the populace easier to control..." I always assume I'm just being paranoid when I think they're out to get us in this way, so I'm glad to see I'm not alone in my fears! I worry about students who are raised on little more than rote memorization; I wonder about their ability to think critically about the world around them (specifically in regards to political matters)...

    Bravo for empowering your students! I am in agreement with your definition of empowerment being specifically about POWER. Even if you didn't get the desired results, it was a first attempt---I'm sure that the first attempts at civil disobedience for any group have probably not been effortless and flawless. First attempts are supposed to be messy and flawed---that's part of the learning process, right?

  4. Your story prompted me to think about how much I miss working with adult education students. As you noted the balance between genuine learning and standardization can be difficult, and I’ve seen many great teachers battle with what literacy approaches work best-contextualized, decontextualized, collaborative, etc.-for the students’ sake and under all the given constraints of “the system”. And then there are those who believe they are the sage on the stage, and would likely scoff at the Frierian approach to learning and literacy…

    I think it was Carol who mentioned that many of her students arrive with the notion that the teacher is the expert who will deliver the knowledge. I found this to be true for many of the adult education students, and it took time and a lot of prompting for them to realize they too hold valuable knowledge and could accept themselves simultaneously as learner and teacher (and also see me as both). We spent much of our time together debating topics from procon.org which drove their desire to think, write, and be heard. Learning into action is an incredible thing to experience. Great post.

  5. I love this story. This is a great story of empowerment. It actually show how knowledge is power. Had the students not known of the historical conditions or of the condition of other schools in the Richmond area they would not have known they were at a disadvantage. Once the children were aware they used their new knowledge as power to advocate change.

    Your blog shows how historical and contextual knowledge changed the version of the truth similar to our week 6 required reading.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.