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As a writer and a professor of writing, I have become increasingly interested in narrative as a means towards both self-knowledge and social awareness. I strive to see the connections in narrative that link individuals to the larger whole of society. I see such connections occur in my writing classrooms, where students workshop narratives and other forms of papers and discuss writing in small groups. Collaborating together on a group project helps individuals learn more about themselves, and about the people with whom they work. Psychologist Jerome Bruner (1986) claims that people can use words to change their lives. The education scholar Paulo Freire (1970), who died in May of 1997, takes a similar view but turns it into an active, politicized approach to narrative. Freire links change or action with narrative in this way:
Human existence cannot be silent nor can it be nourished by false words,
but only by true words, with which men [sic] transform the world. To exist,
humanly, is to name the world, to change it... men [sic] are not built in
silence, but in the word, in work, in action-reflection (p. 76).
Freire's words have inspired many educators throughout the world, and many college writing teachers have adapted Freire's ideas into their courses. Holzman (1988), Catano (1990), Ferry (1997), and Giroux (1981, 1988) are just a few composition and education theorists who have used Freire's critical theory to develop curriculum and to test their own related theories.
Freire's work helps explain my attraction to writing as both a tool for individual expression and as a way to link my personal beliefs with my scholarly interests. Like Bruner and Freire, I also believe in the use of words to become more aware of oneself and the world. As a writing professor, frequently I observe students, who, writing about their lives, in the process see things in a fresh light. As a journal writer since childhood, I have experienced the power of writing to not only illuminate problems and issues, but also to help solve problems. Such problem-solving takes many forms. Through reminiscence, a writer may gain a new respect for him/herself. In writing about a problem, a writer may try out or rehearse different scenarios. And the act of writing itself may serve as a cathartic release. Through writing, one may rebuild what is shattered or simply "air" a wound. I contend that in this sense writing can be healing--to those who are receptive to the metaphor of life as a story that the "author" may revise. Writing professor Gabriele Rico (1994) also shares this view of the potential of writing:
I wanted people who do not ordinarily write to discover writing as a
tool, enabling them to move from passive suffering to active participation
in healing-the word "heal" from the Old English hal clearly showing the
connection to a process of whole-making (p. 200).
"Whole-making" may not be a standard goal in a school curriculum, but many teachers of writing have found that "healing happens." I value this outcome although I adhere to more conventional academic practices in my college writing classroom.
In the summer of 1992, I ventured outside of academia when I facilitated a writing group for senior citizens at the Jewish Community Center in a college town in Michigan. I designed a curriculum with a Freirean agenda that I believed would lead to "critical consciousness" and "empowerment." In this article, I explain the pros and cons of taking a Freirean approach with older adults and show why Freire may be more applicable in the school classroom than the senior center.
In the 1960s, Paulo Freire (1970) worked with peasants in Brazil to help them to learn to read and write, and, in effect, to enact social and political change in their lives. Freire believed that becoming literate helped individuals
come to a new awareness of selfhood and begin to look critically at the
social situation in which they found themselves, [and these individuals]
often take the initiative in acting to transform the society that has
denied them this opportunity of participation (From Forward of Pedagogy
of the Oppressed, p. 9). …