An interview with Tom Ciancone about Literacy in Brazil
When Tom Ciancone told people he was going to Brazil to visit
his friend Sydney Pratt, everybody jumped on the band wagon.
Tom is a Toronto-area adult numeracy instructor. He is currently
serving as Treasurer for CUPE Local 4400, which represents instructors
at the Toronto District School Board.
CUPE National and CUPE Local 4400 asked
attend the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre to
network with other unions. The CUPE National
Literacy project coordinator asked him to find out
about workplace literacy programs in Brazil. And we
asked him to look for Paulo Freire, one of the world’s
most famous adult educators.
At the World Social Forum,
Tom attended sessions that
dealt with the relationship of
labour unions to social
movements. He met with the
municipal officials responsible
for community involvement in
the Participatory Budget of the
City of Porto Alegre. He was
part of the World Choral
Forum, a 300-member choir
that sang songs from Brazil and
around the world.
Tom also visited the city of
Recife in the north eastern state
of Pernambuco. Recife is the
birthplace of Paulo Freire.
While in Recife, Tom met
with two unions
representing workers in
public schools and
universities and visited
He also met with
João Francisco de
Souza, a professor at
the Universade Federal
de Pernambuco. de
Souza has just written an analysis of the work of Paulo Freire called
Atualidade de Paulo Freire: contribuição ao debate sobre
a educacão na diversidade cultural.
Free public education is not accessible to all
students in Brazil. There is an ongoing national
campaign for the right of education. Currently, only
85% of children attend elementary school and 65%
attend secondary school. The proportion able to
attend university is even lower.
Tracey Mollins spoke to Tom in March
When I was getting ready for this
conversation I was worried because I
thought, “What do I really know about
Freire?” I did some reading and I realized
that much of my practice is guided by the
principles he wrote about – they are part
of me somehow. In terms of your practice,
do you think that Freire is incorporated
into the work that you do?
Into my theory. I can’t say that in practice
I do it. I mean, it is part of my formation.
Sydney actually worked with Freire in
Brazil. When I first started working in
adult education, I worked on a project
with Sydney. I have never read much
Freire – I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed but
not much else – but the whole project was
based on Freirian principles and I was
lucky enough to work with people who
used Freirian principles so my introduction
to adult education was Freirian.
What about in Brazil? Did you find
him? Did you see his ideas about
literacy practice in action there? Are
they still relevant?
Unfortunately, I was in Brazil in their
summer and the education centres were
not running classes so I didn’t see
students at work. I met with some adult
educators and popular educators who
spoke about their approach to working
with groups and that they always start
with that group’s reality and the issues
that are important to that group. There
are many aspects to Freirian philosophy,
but one clearly is that you start with
your own reality.
Where I really saw Freire in action was
in Nicaragua during the time of the
Sandinista government. The materials
were very rudimentary and the
curriculum was clearly based on Freire.
The topics were always very, very close
to their own reality. They were coffee
farmers. Each lesson followed the same
steps: observe your reality, discuss your
reality, read about it, analyse it and
finally, transform it. These steps were
part of every single lesson and they
always ended with transform your
reality – they didn’t stop with just read
or write about it – the last part of every
lesson was always action. I have never
seen it so clear cut.
In Nicaragua, were the teachers trained in
this approach, or was it a coincidence
that they were using a liberatory
approach because they were taking part
in a revolution?
No, I think that people who understood
Freire trained them. The Sandinistas
brought Freire and Freirian educators in
and were well aware of what kind of
education they were practising.
So, do you think that if the Brazilian
government ever had the resources to
fund literacy programs, they would use a
skills-based, outcomes-based model such
as the one used here in Ontario, or do you think that they would gravitate to a
Freirian model? Do you think that he is
internalized there the way he is
In places like Nicaragua and Brazil, they
are starting from such a different level.
They are almost starting from scratch in a
way. We’re in a different space -- one
where we have to satisfy government. If
our education was totally learner-centred
and we were only answerable to the
learners, then I think we would follow
Freirian principles. But we have to satisfy
government regulations… and also satisfy
our students’ expectations, because often
they themselves want something far more
related to the state school system. I think
that in places like the parts of Brazil
where the poor people are starting
without a state structure or an
educational system that imposes
restrictions on what they have to do [they
are more able to take a Freirian approach].
I mean, in my own experience teaching numeracy in the old days, what the students loved was that
we were totally
flexible in our approach and what they
learned. They liked it that we did not
have to follow a set curriculum and
they were amazed that they could come
to school and actually have this kind of
After this part of our conversation, we looked at a
box of materials given to Tom by a Brazilian adult
educator. Freire was everywhere!
Most of the materials were from Porto Alegre.
It was first city where the Partido dos Trabahadores (Worker’s
Party) formed a municipal government and the first
city to use a participatory budget process. The Partido
dos Trabahadores now also forms the federal
government in Brazil. The slogan used by the Partido
dos Trabahadores in Porto Alegre is cidade educadora,
which translates as “the educational city”. As we
looked through the brochures and flyers explaining
their policies and programs, we saw Freire quoted
again and again.
As Tom says, “In Canada and Brazil, we have
common struggles and challenges. The only difference,
perhaps, is that in Pernambuco they are seeking to
build and strengthen their public services, while in
Ontario we are struggling to retain them.”