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Photo: Radio TV Suisse/ The Literacy Project.
This is the poster for A is for Angicos, a documentary about an inspired literacy innovator in Brazil.

I was listening to the radio show the World the other day and was impressed by the story of the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Most remarkable — and practical — was the way he approached the problem of adult illiteracy. Respectfully.

Carol Hills produced the report.

Some 60 years ago, Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire had a bold idea: teach 300 people in a poor, remote town in Brazil to read in just 40 hours of classes.

“His literacy experiment was not only successful — it was hugely influential around the world.

“Freire is best known for his groundbreaking book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first written in Portuguese in 1968. The book was later translated into multiple languages. …

“Freire, who died in 1997, was one of the founders of critical pedagogy, a movement that promotes the ’emancipation’ of students in the classroom and emphasizes the political nature of education. This year marks his centenary. 

“Now, a new documentary looks back at the pioneering work of Freire called A is for Angicos, made by Catherine Murphy.

“The 26-minute documentary tracks Freire’s early literacy experiments in the town of Angicos, in northeastern Brazil, where Freire worked with college-aged volunteers to mobilize illiterate villagers to learn to read and write and apply that knowledge to heighten their political consciousness. …

“Murphy joined the World‘s host Marco Werman to talk about the making of her film and Freire’s profound influence in the fields of education and social justice around the globe.

“How did Paulo Freire go about his work in that first experiment in northeast Brazil? This was the early 60s, right? 

“Yes. Paulo Freire mobilized a group of college students to be sort of co-creators with him of a technique to teach literacy in 40 hours to illiterate, mostly rural adults. And they went about designing a vocabulary system together with the people they would teach and choosing what they called ‘generative words,’ which were words in common usage in that region and held night classes to use these words to spark deeper discussion about the state of their lives and the world. …

“How different was that approach from previous approaches to literacy in Brazil?

“Well, they emphatically rejected earlier adult literacy materials that used children’s books, a children’s vocabulary. They created a methodology that used words that were in common usage, a common vocabulary that was co-created with the students and that honored their knowledge and wisdom. They had words like tijolo [‘brick’]​​​​ or ladrillo [’tile’], which are construction materials, but they also used words like povo and voto, which means ‘people’ and ‘vote.’ So, they were raising issues with people about: ‘Can you vote?’ ‘Do you have an identification card?’ … And really connecting them to these sort of larger questions about their lives and sort of social justice issues and trying to involve them in becoming protagonists in their own lives and in the world around them.

“At one point in your documentary, Catherine, we hear Paulo Freire himself talk about how he thinks of education and literacy, giving people power as change agents. … What is the essence of his philosophy, Catherine? 

“Freire talks about education as a tool for transformation. He rejects what he calls the ‘banking system’ of education, which is that you’re basically just depositing information in a person. He promotes what he calls learning to read the word and the world and to create what he also calls critical consciousness and to bring people into being change agents and agents for positive transformation in the world around them. 

“In 1964, a year after the literacy experiment in Angicos. The military came to power in Brazil and it came down hard on Paulo Freire and his methods. What happened? 

“The experience in Angicos was in full course that had the potential to become a national program. [The] coup happened on April 1, and Paulo Freire was taken prisoner the very next day, he was arrested in his home on April 2, 1964, went to jail for about 70 days and was then sent into exile and lived for many years in exile before returning to Brazil.

“He became a global figure, of course, in terms of empowerment education and published many, many books, including his most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. But the fact that he was on that early, early list of the first people that they arrested is not a coincidence. At one of the previous graduations of the newly literate adults, there were some military figures present that were involved in the coup that would then happen. And seeing this, you know, upsetting of the traditional then sort of largely feudal system in Brazil in which landless peasants were learning how to read and write, registering to vote and taking an active role in changing the world around them, well, that was exactly what the coup was trying to prevent.”

I found the whole broadcast interesting. You can read more at the World, here, or listen to the program itself.

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