We Make the Road by Walking: chapters 1-2

Welcome to our book club’s reading of We Make the Road by Walking.  In this post we can discuss the first two chapters, “Introduction” and “Formative Years”, along with the book’s front matter and anything else that pertains.

In this post I’ll offer a summary of the reading, followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

To read previous posts about this reading, including explanations of what we’re up to, click here.

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersI. Summary

The text is almost entirely a conversation between Horton and Freire, a spoken book (3).  In the brief opening chapter the offer some initial thoughts about the project, then get down to business.

“Formative Years” describes how these two great educators started on their respective paths.  Myles Horton relates growing up loving reading and being frustrated by school, struggling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, loving books then distancing himself from them, loving and learning from his wife, gradually developing a community-based school, then helping spin off Citizenship Schools.  He admits to frequent missteps and frustrations as his model of learning and social interaction unfolded.

Paulo Freire explores his early passion for, and practice of, teaching, along with his learning about sharp class differences (57-58).  This includes working within and being frustrated by the school system, but also rising in academia and attaining a government position.  Like Horton Freire speaks of loving and learning from his wife (62, 65, etc.).  He also touches on political struggles, the outcome of which – a coup in Brazil – forced him to leave his country.

Both men share their textual influences.  For Horton, it was the Bible, Percy Shelley (Prometheus Unbound (1820) in particular), and Karl Marx (34-5).  For Freire, Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth (1961)), Albert Memmi (The Colonizer and the Colonized), Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language (1934)), and Antonio Gramsci (36).

II. Reflections

Throughout the book is a frequent call to act, to get things going, which is definitely inspirational, at least to me.  It also feels like an opposition to planning ahead, a urge to spontaneity and figuring things out along the way.  For example, “[w]e cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating.” (56)  “[T]he way you really learn is to start something and learn as you go along.” (40) Speakers characterize the book itself this way, as unplanned and emergent.  I’m reminded of some schools of thought in design thinking and IT.

A key theme for Horton is understanding individual problems in their social and political setting, as with his childhood realization of his parents’ financial problems (17) or figuring out why his classmates hated reading (27).

“I was always getting into trouble for reading in school” (20) – me too!  (I wonder how many people working in education had this experience, and if we constitute a kind of rebellious strand within schooling)

This is a very anti-hierarchical discussion so far.  Freire assesses the progressive pedagogy he began with as “elitist and authoritarian” (63), before he unlearns that practice in favor of an anti-authoritarian approach.  Horton describes unlearning his academic approach of lecturing and presenting in favor of getting out of the way so learners can talk and learn (41).  His account of the Ozone meeting (48ff) reminds me of unconferences, THATCamps, and open space technology.

Reading this in 2016, I’m struck by the historicity of both educators’ early lives, especially Horton’s.  His account of active Community Party agitation in Appalachia (34) – ah, that was a different era.

It’s interesting to see differences between the two main authors/subjects.  Freire insists that teachers be paid well enough “to be respected… to teach seriously” (60), while Horton’s Citizenship School teachers were volunteers (75).  For Horton race is at least as much a concern as poverty, while Freire focuses more on class.

At the same time, there are so many similarities!  Both men are widowers, still grieving the loss of women they saw as more than equals.  Both wanted to teach literacy as liberation, and fought political battles to do so. Both love being surprised, even adopting a similar attitude of wanting to recover the curiosity of childhood. Both found learners motivated by social and political goals, especially obtaining the right to vote, then get more involved in politics. Both educators even look quite similar.

III. Discussion questions

Both educators/authors love spontaneity and tend to shun planning.  For example, Horton describes how important it was to not document the initial Citizenship School through a manual, but instead to simply record it in action for later inspiration.  A manual was a bad idea. (79)  Similarly Freire celebrates learning and teaching as creative acts in opposition to bureaucracy, best not scheduled, but realized through ruptures in routine.  “[O]ne of the most tragic illnesses of our time is the bureaucratization of the mind.” (37-38)  In an age of extensive testing and data gathering, do you agree?  How do we apply such an insight to (for example) government-run schools or faculty organized into unions?

Both educators emphasize the importance of enabling people to learn to disclose what they already know.  Horton: “[T]here’s knowledge there that they [meeting attendees] didn’t recognize” (49).  Freire: students “knew something before coming to the school, and it was important for me … to know what they knew” (61); “the people I was working with already had lots of knowledge” (65).  This recalls Plato’s idea of anamnesis, not to mention some principles of knowledge management.  If he’s right that this is a vital part of learning, how do we enable learners to speak their hitherto hidden knowledge?

So far Freire and Horton like an antiauthoritarian pedagogy (cf the former’s distinction between authority and authoritarianism, 61-2).  Freire sees some well-intentioned, non-fascist pedagogy as”elitist and authoritarian”.   Both like peer teaching (79). Do you find this critique and practice to be practical or even applicable in a time when faculty at all levels are under multiple threats, political, cultural, and financial?

Freire speaks of education having a direction, or “directiveness” (63-4).  Does that mean curriculum, or something else?

There’s a strongly anti-school current in the book so far.  I’ve already mentioned the educators’ critique of institutions and bureaucracy. Freire and Horton even call some of their projects by names that aren’t academic: Circle of Culture (84); “it wasn’t a literacy class.  It was a community organization.” (72)  How can today’s educators, very immersed in school structures and bureaucracies, apply what this book teaches?  Can they?  Or should they blow things up?

I’m not sure of the role gender plays in this book so far.  In terms of systems of oppression sexism hasn’t made much of an appearance.  Several women have been mentioned and highly valued.  Is gender a blind spot for these men, or should we expect more discussion of it later on?

I’m still trying to understand Freire’s practice of teaching “codifications” (86-7).  It sounds like it starts with word structure, then expands to something like Raymond Williams‘ Keywords (1976).  Can anyone help me with this?

IV. And over to you

What have I missed?  Are these notes helpful  What do you think?

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24 Responses to We Make the Road by Walking: chapters 1-2

  1. Romy says:

    Lots of thoughts, but jumping in on the “directiveness” piece as a start:

    I think they get into this more in later chapters (this is a re-read for me), but I interpret “directiveness” as having a vision — of the world they want to see, of whom they’d like to see the students become, a sense of where the road might ideally lead. Given who they are, I imagine this as a dialectical, non-authoritarian, non-prescriptivist process between the insights from students’ experience and the teacher’s guided questions. As I write this, I sound wishy-washy to myself, not somehow practical enough … except I think that this is where trusting some of the interplay between having a loose structure (a gathering place, some instructional guideposts) and the ability to weave together spontaneous contributions can come in. (Much like in the best unconference type settings, no?) Horton has talked about how it’s possible to get all of one’s ideas across just by asking questions, which helps people grow while not becoming dependent on the teacher for insights.

    That said, an age-old practical question: what happens when the primary exposure to date of those in the room has been to non-dialogical, prescriptivist, “banking education”? How to cultivate non-authoritarianism without an ungrounded freefall for students who are not as experienced or comfortable with dialogical methods? What’s the right scaffolding there, the right balance of directiveness and sponteneity? How does this balance shift (or does it?) when what is being taught is highly skill based?

    I have some “answers” to this, mainly from my time working with incarcerated women, but am curious about others’ insights.

    • Good points, Romy.
      Thank you for the first answer, which helps me out (first time with this book).

      To your age-old practical question, you describe what I explored in my teaching practice every week.
      One tactic was to openly assign bits of the class to student control.

  2. I would have liked to have heard the two wives in on this discussion!

    In my experience, teaching is a soul connection. Through sincerity, humanity, respect, and humor, the teacher makes a heart and mind tie to the other person. This can be online, too. Learning takes place in the flow back and forth along that line. The more attention the student pays, the more vivid the learning. “Educo,” “to draw forth” works dynamically on both sides.

    A teacher who understands this can move like a ninja inside any bureaucracy or form. Nothing else is really needed, although many external things and conditions can assist this relationship to flourish.

    These men experience that but want to take time to break out the kinds of factors different kinds of learners bring to the core relationship, which can be useful and interesting.

    I, too, got flak for reading ahead in both Jules Verne and Shakespeare–can you imagine? What were those “teachers” thinking??

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    My only memory of second grade is getting into trouble for reading in class. I had finished my work and was told to sit quietly instead of reading!
    I’m waiting for my library copy to arrive so I can join the discussion.

    When I replied to Bryan’s email I got this:
    We ran into a problem with your recent comment reply by email. Specifically, we weren’t able to find your comment in the email.
    We’ll do our best to get this fixed up. In the meantime, you may want to comment directly on the post:”

    Anyone else have this error?

  4. Hi – Really liked Freire’s description of “reading reality through the camera” (p 88) as an example of codification. He goes on to describe codification as a way language is used to represent reality. It reminded me of Bakhtin’s polyphony and heteroglossia…that its when we use language to talk about an idea with others, we are forming our understanding as the pluralism of the thoughts we share and insights gained. Looking at Thesaurus.com, the word codify can mean to summarize, catalogue, or catalogue. Is it this one thing, or is it that thing, but not the other thing? Whereas codification takes on a more institutional perspective. Its noun categories from Thesaurus.com are arrangement, assortment, echelon, ordination. Codification sounds like it is something that gets done to something else, rather than the actual doing of codifying. The citizenship schools and circles of culture were helping the marginalized to literally find their voices to participate in their own governing.

    When we use language to help clarify our own understanding, this is part of the process of social learning, is it not? Myles describes on page 53 that he was looking for a process of how to relate to adults in a literacy program, and I see that as being connected to how they’re both emphasizing social learning, whether through language (see Paulo’s description 60-61) and Myles’ realization to “let the situation develop” (p 53). As a faculty in an undergrad education, I wonder how this relates in my courses and in information literacy programs. Is there time for allowing a process to emerge or for students’ own language to be the vehicle for learning? My answer is no, not in my current situation. But I’m open and hopeful that someone may sense differently!

    Finally, thank you, Bryan, for making this book and this discussion available. I’m currently working on digitizing some correspondence between our college president and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so it was especially cool to be able to associate the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Highlander and Andrew Young. Somehow everything seems predestined when intersections between what I’m doing and new interests coincide.

    • Nancy, thank you for the kind words and for this rich comment.

      The video story was fascinating. Is Freire talking about mediation when he says codificatiion?

      PS: good luck on that digitization project.

  5. Hi Bryan

    This is the email that didn’t go through. Still waiting for my library to contact me.

    Peace & Resistance

    Mark Corbett Wilson

    “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” ~ Eric Hoffer

  6. Pingback: Blog post: My notes from Chapters 1/2 of We Make the Road by Walking for @bryanalexander's book club.

  7. Aloha everyone: I am behind the game, but did want to jump in somewhere, and in some shape or form. I read the Introduction and was struck by the parallels between literacy in the early half of the twentieth century and what I call information literacy (or even critical thinking) in the early twenty-first century. I would like to suggest this is the “new literacy.” It is no longer enough to be able to simply read a text, but to be able to interpret it: where does it come from, is it real, what does it mean, who wrote this, why would one write it, what is the agenda behind this, and so on and so forth… On a different note, on page xxxi the editor sees theses two, Horton and Freire “…linking participatory education to liberation and social change.” I presented on a panel on technology and the composition classroom and how I use Instagram. All four of use came from similar, teaching schools, and we were asked if we would teach the same pedagogy were we teaching to a different kind of student. “Participatory education” resonates with me. I stop short here, but am eager to continue forth.

    • Welcome aboard, Brooke.

      Fascinating idea about those different historical moments of literacy. Agreed.

      Can you say more about how you use Instagram for social change?

      • unibcarlson says:

        Aloha Bryan. I am sorry I missed this; starting just before final exams, and the Christmas holiday left little time to engage. I use Instagram and Twitter in the classroom to open students to a larger world of engagement. From the outset, I encourage students to follow each other in the app, and I ask students to use a class hashtag so that we can always find each other. So our class as a community has moved outside of the classroom and into a space without borders. Instagram is a visual space, so I am often asking students to offer material there in a way that pushes them to think critically through the visual. Some of the prompts I ask include things like, Instagram your claim (to a paper); Instagram something American; or even Instagram an argument about your body, race and nation in seven images. Again, I apologize for the delay. Happy New Year!

      • Excellent practice, unibcarlson . Have you written this up elsewhere?

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  11. Joe Murphy says:

    The thing I keep thinking about most from this chapter has been the relationship between beauty and utility, and the way that both men described a growth process where this was not a tradeoff, but a mutually reinforcing process. It seems implied that the development of critical consciousness (“reading the world”) goes hand-in-hand with the development of taste. If they go together, doesn’t that necessarily attack the “two cultures” divide? It’s not only the “toolbox” approach that a poem might provide inspiration for a work problem (Horton, 33) or that scientists ought to have the skills to communicate the beauty of their findings (Freire, 32), but I think they hint at a faith that these different ways of apprehending a single reality ought to inform each other. (At least, they do in their intellectual lives

    It seems to me that this is a level of nuance I haven’t seen in a lot of our current debates about STE(A)M education. (Maybe the debate isn’t ready for nuance yet, at least in the more popular venues where I read it.)

  12. Ellsbeth says:

    As I read this book, I see a lot of parallels with my past job as a high school instructional coach. I was trained in the perspective that coaches are not there to tell teachers how to improve practice, but instead someone who can work “shoulder to shoulder” with teachers, to assist in problem solving issues the teachers often identify on their own. Two quotes from our reading resonated with me and helped me to make connections with what I feel is the role of instructional coaches in education. (I apologize for forgetting to write the page numbers in my notes.)

    “We don’t go into anybody’s community or organization as an expert, but we will come in and try to help you with your problem.”

    “One of the tasks of the educator is also to provoke the discovering of need for knowing and never to impose the knowledge whose need was not yet perceived.”

    I believe instructional coaching is done well when the coach is a partner, not an “authoritarian expert.” It is also important to work with teachers in a way that acknowledges and activates their own expertise. I can think of plenty of administrative initiatives where teachers were told to use one instructional strategy or another, and it didn’t take (people used it for a little while and quit, modified the strategy, or didn’t use it at all). I think this is in part because these teachers were not involved in the decision making process. The attempt to improve instruction (with the implicit accusation that teachers were doing things incorrectly) attempted to “impose” knowledge and practice. Alternatively, I’ve seen pretty good results where teachers came to the conclusion on their own or in groups about strategies they wanted to try. Perhaps this is one reason why bureaucratic education reform is so complicated. Grass roots education reform seems to be more effective than top down. Can you imagine the response to government initiated Citizenship Schools?

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