We make and remake the road together

Linden Street, Allentown. The road between home and school. HYPE youth media program, 2016.

I am reading a “talking book”–it is a dialogue between  Paulo Freire and Myles Horton on their “formative years,” narrating their subjectivities and identities as educators, theorists, and social justice activists.  Each tells a story that invokes the importance of being located in place and time. Beneath a mango tree in Recife.  Beside a river in western Tennessee.  I read it and hope for a deeper understanding of the cultural historical settings shaping their identities and perspectives on education and social justice.  I also read it as a provocation to consider my own subjectivity and identity as an educator.  How do I locate myself in this conversation about theory, practical experience, education and social justice? How do I locate myself in relation to this “talking book”–in relation to others who are trying to connect their work in higher education with a better future? As our tweets under the hashtag #HortonFreire are interrupted by tweets reminding me this is a time of growing fascism and oppression, I get to thinking that the work of making the road is always incomplete.  It is making and remaking.  And sometimes it feels like the ground on which you might even begin to build a road has been ripped out from under you.

Wanderer, we have no road.

In 1999, I moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to help design and establish a technology program in a private bilingual elementary school.  I was eager to learn the school culture, collaborate with the teachers and have their voices guide the project.  I did not want to be another “technology missionary” imposing ideas on teachers who were the experts of their curriculum and school culture.  The work I was beginning was an outgrowth of my studies with Michael Cole at UC San Diego and UCLinks, and the proposal was to adapt the “Fifth Dimension” model to reflect school and community interests, especially those related to local culture, language, and educational concerns. I suggested this approach to the school’s director, as an alternative to outsourcing “informatica” to a British company that was aggressively marketing its curriculum to private schools in Brazil.  I argued that any tech project that excluded teachers from its planning and instruction would breed distrust, skepticism, undermine the integrity of the curriculum, and never be wholly embraced within the school culture.

It was easy for me to stand up and make a strong case against outsourcing the school’s tech curriculum to a global for-profit edtech company.  I’d been engaged in supporting and participating in community-driven technology-based learning projects and environments throughout undergraduate and graduate school.  What I was unable to see at the time, however, was how my own location as an outsider, speaking English as a first language, situated in structures of whiteness and class privilege, positioned me in equally problematic ways within the school.  While I was busy with a frenzy of questions about how to pack up a life and move from Berkeley to Brazil on short notice, what kinds of questions where teachers asking about me and my sudden appearance at the school? About the creation of a new administrative position, “Coordenadora de informática”?  About importing an educator from the US for that position? What kinds of questions, about equity and privilege, about language, culture, and power, came to mind for teachers when they learned the school would provide for the holder of this new position housing and a car, as well a salary paid in US dollars?

Trained in ethnographic methods of communication research, I was busy thinking about shaping a participatory process with the teachers and students, and learning as much as I could about the cultural context in which that process would be situated.  In this work, I held tight to my knowledge of Paulo Freire’s work and writing, and imagined this knowledge would be a resource in helping to construct collegial relationships with teachers.  I bought a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Portuguese, and was eager to discuss Freire’s ideas with my new colleagues.  It sat open on my desk, an invitation to conversation but also perhaps a kind of unknowingly arrogant shorthand to announce: “I’m informed! I’m trustworthy!”

I was so uninformed.  It turned out that, early on, teachers were more interested to talk with me about Vygotsky because they knew that I as was a student of Mike Cole, who in turn studied with Vygotsky’s student/colleague Alexander Luria.  They carried their own copies of texts by Vygotsky and Cole, in Portuguese. Many of my new colleagues studied with leading Brazilian scholars on Vygotsky and sociocultural theory at the University of Sao Paulo down the road.  In my eagerness to chat about Freire, I was missing opportunities to talk about the theoretical and practical issues that they were working with at the time.  It’s not that they didn’t care about or engage with Freire’s work–they did, and they had a lot to say about the influence of Vygotsky on his work–but that I was ignorant to act as if their basis in critical pedagogy began and ended with his work.  During my three years at the school, my colleagues taught me about the work of many critical pedagogues and theorists that I had not encountered in my studies.  I also imagined a shared interest in Freire provided a ready-made bridge across our differences.

Bridges, like roads need to be made.  Shared theoretical perspectives and grounding mattered to the work we would do together in the years ahead.  But my identity and positioning as the “technology expert from the University of California” located me within an ongoing struggle within the bilingual culture and curriculum of the school.  This was not self-styled–I recall very well the evening that I was introduced to parents at the school and felt bewildered by how much those credentials combined with my status as  “native English speaker” to confer authority and value in the competitive marketplace for bilingual education in Sao Paulo in the late 90s.  This was some of my early awakening around the nexus of language, culture, and power that teachers were navigating and that I would also learn to confront.   They worked tirelessly to ensure that the project-based Brazilian curriculum enacted in Portuguese during the morning informed and was pedagogically aligned with the English language curriculum taught in the afternoon.  This was critical, difficult work because the English language texts from US academic publishers inscribed within the curriculum a hegemonic worldview and dominant discourses that the Brazilian national curriculum explicitly confronted and challenged.  The politics of language and power played out in other ways.  Although I was quickly developing speaking proficiency in Portuguese, I was encouraged and expected to speak only in English (especially with the children who turned out to be my very best language teachers).

Who was I, showing up in a private school in Sao Paulo with a dozen blue Apple iMacs, and with what kinds of intentions towards constructing new “progressive” learning arrangements around this technology?  What ideological interests did that technology express and represent? If pedagogy is understood as a struggle over cultural meanings, what about my own location in an exploitative capitalist global division of labor?

These are questions that loom for me now in rereading Horton and Freire, and making some sense of the meanings that emerge as I join fellow wanderers through this text.

What has been increasingly lost in the North American and Western appropriation of Freire’s work is the profound and radical nature of its theory and practice as an anti-colonial and postcolonial discourse.” –Henry Giroux, “Paulo Freire and the Politics of Postcolonialism,”

As a graduate student reading Horton and Freire, on my sunny Southern California campus, I wanted to find in that text resources for hope, for strategies and methods aimed at making a difference in the afterschool educational settings where I was doing research. I read Freire at an epistemological distance that privilege affords–in a way that left intact my taken-for-granted assumptions about how and where learning takes place. It was the mid-1990s, and the UC Regents sent shockwaves through the state when they voted to eliminate affirmative action in university admissions.  Based on his work with an afterschool project called the Fifth Dimension in San Diego, Cole and colleague Charles Underwood at the UC Office of the President, had the idea that universities and communities across the state might partner to create technology-based afterschool programs as an alternative way to build pathways (make roads) to higher education for underrepresented minority youth.  All of us involved, undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, wanted to make a difference.  Looking back on this work, now in relation to my current teaching in the privileged environment of a private residential liberal arts college, I recognize more fully the ways that in designing the Fifth Dimension, Cole was also aiming to disrupt the alienated college education of students like myself in communication, education, psychology, and other social science disciplines.  This was a first invitation to experience education as border crossing, and our weekly fieldnotes meant to create space for our critical engagement with the politics and of leaving the comforts of campus for community sites  to connect our learning with theory-driven activities organized for young people afterschool, to unsettle our worldview and values.

Today, I teach undergraduates the theory and practice of documentary research.  I collaborate with colleagues and community partners to design learning activities that engage students in many kinds of border crossings.  A central problem in documentary work is how is it possible to ethically represent and do justice to the lives of people whose stories are different from your own?  What borders of experience, understanding, language, as well as literal borders, must be crossed? This is another space of learning where the work of Freire and Horton joins up for me.  Documentary storytellers were among those missionaries, outside “do-gooders” and other troubling figures Horton describes as “all coming down to save the people of Appalachia.”  When Horton says, “I resented the exploitation of people by somebody, particularly from the outside, who came in with an idea they thought was good for people, ” I am reminded of documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Barrett, and her film Stranger with a Camera.  The film, about the murder of Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O’Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky, (and Barrett’s larger body of work with Appalshop), grows out of the resentment she felt as a young girl, towards storytellers who used cameras like weapons, shooting images that contributed to a national imaginary of Appalachia as a deeply othered place.

There is another conversation I’m reading alongside the dialogue between Horton and Freire.  It is bell hooks’ playful conversation between herself as Gloria Watkins and her writing voice, bell hooks, in chapter 4 of Teaching to Transgress.  She is writing about her friendship with Freire and how deeply his work is felt through her own.

Often when university professors and students read Freire, they approach his work from a voyeuristic standpoint, where as they read they see two locations in the work, the subject position of Freire the educator (whom they are often more interested in than the ideas or subjects he speaks about) and the oppressed/ marginalized groups he speaks about. In relation to these two subject positions, they position themselves as observers, as outsiders
(p. 46).

I am thinking about next semester, and students reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed in a Youth Media course that is a partnership with a 9th grade high school teacher and her class in Allentown.  I feel compelled to revisit how I teach this work given the current historical moment of escalating fascism and oppression in the US.  How do we enact a pedagogy that invites students –specifically, students in a predominantly white institution–to read critically, dialogically? To unsettle reading as a voyeur and question the borders that have shaped and constrained their identities and possibilities as readers and learners?  I am thinking too, of Henry Giroux’s engagement with Freire’s work, as a challenge to become a border crosser:

I want to argue that Paulo Freire’s work must be read as a postcolonial text and that North Americans, in particular, must engage in a radical form of border crossing in order to reconstruct Freire’s work in the specificity of its historical and political construction. Specifically, this means making problematic a politics of location situated in the privilege and power of the West and how engaging the question of the ideological weight of such a position constructs one’s specific reading of Freire’s work. At the same time, becoming a border crosser engaged in a productive dialogue with others means producing a space in which those dominant social relations, ideologies, and practices that erase the specificity of the voice of the other must be challenged and overcome. –Henry Giroux, “Paulo Freire and the Politics of Postcolonialism”

As you walk you make the road,
and to look back is to see that never
can we pass this way again.

The last time I looked this closely at my experiences in teaching and learning in Brazil was also a provocation from Bryan Alexander.  It was in a multimodal story workshop at nearby Lafayette College, somewhere around 2003 or 2004.  If I can locate that multimodal text, I will share it here.  But I am appreciative of the invitation to read with you, to reread, with less certainty, more openness, more dialogically, and within a community of border crossers, who are doing so much to try to redefine relationships of teaching and learning and technology.

And to make the reading more fully “a loving event.”