Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Life and Modernity in L'Ecole Moderne of Celestin Freinet

by Roberto Otero,
Coordinating Council, Left Green Network; Hato Rey, Puerto Rico


I remember my first teaching job. It started in August of 1981. A friend needed a substitute while he participated in a seminar in Cuba for a month. He asked me if I was willing to do it. With lots of apprehensions I accepted. I was in the second year of my master's program in Comparative Literature and I had already discovered that literary critics don't eat in Puerto Rico unless they teach.

But anyhow, teaching was a mysterious word for me at that time. The teacher had always been the "other," never myself. I had felt teachers as authority and control. And there I was, puzzled, while my friend showed me the "intricacies of teaching" — passing the list in the morning, establishing rules for behavior and limits in interpersonal relations, homework assignments, tests, grades and so on.

But how was I was going to actually teach 10th grade students without being authoritarian or pretending to know it all, and at the same time not losing my students in a huge disorder. That was what worried me the most.

My graduate advisor at that time gave me a book called Técnicas Freinet de la Escuela Moderna 1 to help me out with some teaching techniques that could be useful. I read it over and over. Reflecting for the first time on what teaching could be about, I became convinced that teaching is more than delivering knowledge; teaching is a cooperative endeavour of all people involved in that process.

I was extremely apprehensive of that classroom full of faces looking at me and expecting a daily performance in Social Studies and Spanish. I tried to remember how I was as a 10th grade student. It was hard. At that time I was totally uninterested in school and was on my way to dropping out of school.

I strongly remember that I was eager to live fully and unrestrained. Life was outside the walls of the school. But at the same time, paradoxically, life was within the school: in the talks I had with my friends in the hallways, during recess, daydreaming in the classroom, in the class' parties, in the after school activities, driving around with classmates, being with a loved one while waiting for the bus, etc. I could not remember how I learned academic subjects, because I didn't; they expelled me at the end of the year.

In that little book that my advisor gave me, Freinet acknowledged the way I felt during my High School years as a student and later as a drop-out:'s children do not react like the children of 20 or 10 years ago. School work does not interest them because it has no relation to their world. That's why they, unconsciously, only dedicate a small amount of their interest and their life to school work. They keep the rest of their energy and life to what they consider the real culture and the real happiness of living. 2

That was exactly what happened to me at school. School was not one of my interests because it had no real links to my life. Freinet's greatest impact on me lies in the connection of his views and my first experiences as a young adolescent desperately looking for "the real happiness of living."

Freinet writes like a teacher of great experience and talks as an extremely smart and intelligent "old" adolescent. He is a big and happy kid passionately running after a colorful butterfly. And an enraged kid when the headmaster stops him and sends him back inside the four walls of the classroom.

Freinet dedicated his life to research the causes of the abyss between life and school, and to develop ways to build up a bridge between them. Analyzing with critical eyes the very basic elements of schooling - rules, textbooks and teachers, he developed the concept he called "escolástica."

The main purpose of the "escolástica," according to Freinet, is to domesticate the children for the world and culture of the adults. In order to achieve this, life as seen and felt by children has to be isolated and kept outside the classroom because it harms the process of becoming a serious adult.

This was the first time I read something about the school's responsibility for the failure of its students. I always considered that the two times I failed in High School and my eventual dropping out of school, were my own fault. I never thought of the school's responsibility. Freinet gave me, not an excuse for my own acts, but an understanding I never thought of before.

From my first reading of Freinet as beginner teacher I learned two important things: that life should not be expelled from the classroom or any other place, and that one of the main purposes of the traditional schooling design is to domesticate children and to appease the forces of life that come with them.


Freinet did not learn this reading from a book. He learned it through experience. Wounded in a lung during World War I, he returned to his one room school in 1920. He could not be the regular authoritarian teacher required to yell above the noise level of his or her students in order to get, not gain, their attention. His lungs did not allow him to do that.

Necessity is at the origin of Freinet's research. His findings were not based on theoretical problems posed to him in academic offices of departments of education or universities with no ties to real schools. His findings and achievements were concretely related to real, practical problems, and to his passion to teach, which was similar in its intensity to the passions of his students.


One of the first things he started to do with his students was what the "Federación de Enseñanza" (Teaching Federation) used to call "clases-paseo" (learning-walk):

The learning-walk was the means of salvation for me. Instead of falling asleep facing a reading textbook, after the morning class we went outside to the fields that surrounds the village....We did not examine our surroundings; the flower or the insect, the stone or the river in a 'school' way. We felt it with our whole beings, not only in an concrete way but with our natural sensibility....

...Back in the classroom, we wrote a report of our 'stroll' on the stopped right on this first stage. Lacking new instruments and adequate techniques, I had no other resource to teach reading than a textbook. Consequently I had no other choice than to say: —Now, open your reading textbooks on page 3: La gula ...There was a total and unavoidable divorce between life and school. 3


To fight the boredom of the imposed printed text Freinet needed to develop a new strategy.

He thought that printing the text that they wrote collectively on the board after every learning-walk would create a substitute for the boring assigned textbook and generate interest in reading printed texts. He bought a small press and brought it into the classroom. His students became passionately involved in the composition and printing process as well as in the reading of their printed texts.

The small press allowed Freinet and his students to capture their own experiences in a printed text that would then be their "textbook." In this way, life, one of the great concerns of Freinet, found its place in the classroom in the enthusiasm of the children while they composed, printed, and read what they had lived and experienced. In that same way writing, composing, printing and reading became part of everybody's life.


The small press in the classroom generated the free text. Now the children started to bring their own free texts, written whenever and wherever they wanted, to the classroom to be printed.

A free text must be authentically free. Which is to say, that it must be written when one has something to say, when one experiments with the urge to express, by means of the pen or by drawing, something that is boiling deep within oneself.

The child will write his spontaneous text on one of the corners of the table at night. On top of his knees while he listens to his grandmother... or on top of his backpack just before entering class, or also in a natural way during the free work hours that are reserved for that purpose in our distribution of time. 4

First the children read their free texts to the rest of the class then they voted to choose the ones that would be printed that day. Before the chosen ones were printed, they were discussed and checked by the class as whole. Nevertheless, the author remained the sole owner of his or her text, and he or she decided what editing the text would finally get.

With the free texts the school published a newspaper and what came to be called "el libro de la vida;" the book of life, is the collection of all the published free texts.


To motivate the free texts of his students Freinet established the inter-school correspondence. The published free texts of Freinet's school started to go to a friend's school near the sea, and vice versa.

...from that moment on we began to live the life of our comrades from Tregunc. We followed them with our thoughts when they went hunting moles or fishing. Now that the sea had come close to us, we trembled with them on stormy days. We told them how we picked the orange's flowers, and the olives. We told them about the carnival festivities, and the manufacturing of perfumes. In this way all of our Provenza was moved to Trégunc. 5

The inter-school correspondence motivated the students because it gave them a broader audience. With the correspondence they also studied the geography, the economy, the climate, and the culture of their new friends. The enchantment of living what they were writing, writing what they were living, and anxiously waiting for the living writings of their friends from the sea kept the children from boredom and began to close the abyss between life and learning.

That bridge between life and learning extended beyond the classroom. Among other techniques that Freinet developed, there was the school cooperative which involved parents and other people from the community. With the cooperative they established a small and modest publishing company. But not only that, Freinet and the people who followed him started to reflect about their own problems and began to organize themselves to try to solve them.

He also created the "La Coopérative de l'enseignement lai‹c" (C.E.L.) which was, and still is, the clearing house for the teachers who wanted to practice his pedagogy. The Freinet pedagogy also became widely known thanks to teachers' unions. Through them many of Freinet's ideas, writings and successes spread out, and other teachers began to implement the pedagogy of work.

In 1981 I could not implement Freinet's pedagogy because of my inexperience, because I did not fully understand it, and because I only spent two months teaching at that school. Since then Celestin Freinet — his books and the books about him or his pedagogy — has been one of my major intellectual interests. Through the years I have been able to partially implement some of his pedagogy. I have also had the necessary reflection to pose it some questions.


Freinet calls his school "The Modern School." To modernize means, for Freinet, to bridge the gap between Life and School. Modernization without Life is only escolastica , just a meaningless theoretical discourse. In order to modernize school he develops the techniques mentioned in the first part of this paper, that allowed Life to bloom in the classroom. He advocates techniques that do not arise from theoretical discussions in distant offices, but from experience itself.

In the same way he organized his narrative of the development of his pedagogy. In his narrative he did not sit on a rock to search for new ways of teaching, and then when found, discourse about education. On the contrary, what he wants us to see and acknowledge is how, in order to surpass his respiratory handicap, he needed to develop other ways of teaching, how, from the need to gain the attention of his students he resorted to the "clases-paseo," how from the need to share this experience, the small press and the school's newspaper came to be, and how from the need to further motivate the students, the inter-school correspondence was established.

For Freinet, needs originate and organize experience. And the way we experience is through work, work that allows us to research and construct reality, and that ultimately becomes knowledge. That is why he calls his "work" alternatively either the Modern School or the pedagogy of work. His concept developed clear similarities with the traditional socialist definition of work (i.e., the dignity of man comes from his capacity to work, the world has been constructed by the labor of the workers not by the whip of the masters, homo faber instead of homo sapiens as the definition of human).

If I had to organize people's school today, I would sustain it on the principle that it is work, with all its current complexity and all its socially organized aspects, that conditions the life of men, that originates and orients their thoughts, that justifies their individual and social behaviors; work the essential motor, basic element of progress and dignity, symbol of peace and fraternity. 6

Freinet's strong empiricism is not founded in a lifeless rationalism, but in the repressed forces he recognizes as Life. The emancipatory purpose of experience and work is to liberate these forces. Once Life is liberated in the classroom, the students, the teacher, and the community, society at large will be liberated. That is why, although most of his reflection and achievements are within the field of education, his work necessarily goes beyond the classroom.

...except in some rare exceptions, the School is never at the vanguard of social progress. It might be it in theory — which is never sufficient — but its blooming is in practice so directly conditioned by the family, the social and the political medium, in such a way that it has never been seen to be unfastened by an hypothetical autonomous liberation.

On the contrary, the School always follows social conquests with a regrettable delay. We can reduce this delay and we would have achieved an appreciable victory.

...When the people accede to power, it will have its school and its pedagogy. Its ascension has already begun. We should not wait any longer to adapt our education to the world that is about to be borne. 7

To modernize becomes not only the brilliant and free resurgence of Life in the classroom, but in society as well. It really means revolution, the radical transformation of reality. Although the Modern School would only be fully modern when the transformation had been achieved, Freinet believed that people needed to wait no more. That people should start to modernize education right away because the radical transformation of society had already began. That Life, through the work of the People, had begun to be liberated.


1. Celestin Freinet, 1969, Técnicas Freinet de la Escuela Moderna (Freinet's Technics of the Modern School) (S.A., Mexico: Siglo XXI editores).

2. Freinet, op cit, p. 3.

3. Freinet, op cit, p. 14.

4. Celestin Freinet, 1984, El Texto Libre (Barcelona: Editorial Laid), p. 16.

5. Freinet, op cit, p. 18

6. Celestin Freinet, 1979, Por Una Escuela del Pueblo (Barcelona: Editorial Laia), p. 7.

7. Ibid, pp. 29-30.

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