by Constantin Foteinas
Attention! All historical elements are DEFINITELY INACCURATE! This is why they are true!
I have gone back many times. I recall again and again details. I do not know anymore what is true and what is only mine. I return to that time out of joy - profound joy. Images, discussions, situations come back to my mind. When I am in Montreal and I have the chance, I return to Saint - Denis street and visit the pizzeria where we had sat. I remember our small table. It is the last from left at the end of the pavement. It is a round table.
There were three of us. Me, Bernard - an old student of mine, actually a colleague at the Faculty - and Juan - an instructor in Venezuela, who was doing his Master diploma with me. We ordered a big pizza. As we were waiting while drinking coca-cola, I took out my fountain pen, as usual, and was scribbling on the paper table cloth I had before me on the table. We were seeking the new theme for our research. The discussion had become animated and I was writing in capital letters the words: CAFÉ-ECOLE.
I do not know if I had written them myself or they were written by themselves. But, I know that when we saw it, all three fell into silence. Maybe seconds or maybe longer time had passed. When we came around, we felt that something important had happened. My friend Bernard, whom I loved very much, took my paper table cloth and asked that we three sign it. He then folded it and gave it to me. Our pizza came, we ate speaking as nothing had happened, but we felt that something had changed at that moment. This paper table cloth exists among the archives of the Café Ecole (Coffee-School) laboratories.
I want to tell you about this birth. But I do not know what is true and what is fabricated. Whenever I recount them to myself or to people close to me, what I say is only my private logic. Was what I said as I described it or did I construct the facts afterwards? Or is it that I constructed those facts - the first ones - with the help of my private logic which explains why they seem so much like it? Does it really matter?
Juan finished his Masters and in a few months he left for Venezuela, after having given us a solemn promise of eternal faith and collaboration. He left. Leaving no traces behind. He never wrote a letter. He was lost. I remember him very vividly and with a lot of affection. And I am sure that he remembers us, too. He was very tender and he used to sing sad songs, playing his guitar, the South American song "Guantanamera". It is not possible that he was not overwhelmed by that moment the three of us shared. It was his doing, also.
Bernard was a real brother. We were very close during the first years of the Café-Ecole. We were together in our joy and in our fears. Soon after, more people joined our team: René, Manon, Giselle. But, Bernard was something special. He was a French teacher, an older immigrant than me, with a lot of talents and a beautiful way of thinking. And most of all, he was in my heart.
That day, the day the three of us went to have a pizza on Saint - Denis Street, was a spring day of May. And it was in the year 1978. It was a very hot day in Montreal. We had worked at the Faculty without taking a breath, from morning till 3am. Together with the rest of the research team, we were finishing the report and gathering all the papers - documents, tables - of a research that had lasted for eight whole years. Our subject was the "Open Systems in Education" and it was based on a model that I was using since 1965, when I was teaching at the University of Paris. This model, known as the "Fotinas model", had started to interest the world of science, internationally, before I got to Canada, in 1969.
André Morin, a fine colleague at the University of Montreal and also a researcher himself, had proposed to me that we start a research on my model and establish a research laboratory concerning the Open Systems. This adventure lasted from 197Ο till 1978. Our conclusions were published and now we were coming to the end. André had decided to start a new research project on "Popular Higher Education" and I had started to be fascinated by "Facilitation", as a pedagogical function. I decided to work on it. Do you know why?
Even an open educational system, such as my own model, which aimed to propose a democratic organization and function of teaching and learning, could not manage to transform a real lesson to a democratic experience, a democratic pedagogical act. Which means that the difference, between the democracy assured by the system and the democracy experienced during the pedagogical act, was quite big. The fact that the democracy realized in an open pedagogical system is considerably bigger than the one realized in the closed - traditional system was not enough for me and I could not rest.
The question that rose from my depth and began to preoccupy me, had to do with the first difference, the one between the open system and the pedagogical act itself, as much as it concerned the degree of democracy. And this degree was big for me.
The answer had already started to rise along with the question. This is what always happens, when the question is of essence. And it says: "No matter how much democracy a pedagogical system provides, proposes and assures, the degree of the democracy experienced, realized, during the pedagogical act, depends primarily on the ability of people (students-teachers) to reform it and to invest it in teaching and learning". In other words, people could not live democratically, even when the system allowed it.
And, consequently, I came up with the first series of questions of my next research. "Who is the democratic teacher - student? Which are the basic democratic skills and how can we develop them?" Café - Ecole began its birth.
I invited the colleagues and the students who were doing post graduate studies and proposed that those who wished, could work with me on my research. So, a team was created. And the project started to take form in our minds from the beginning of our conversations. But, something was missing. Something that was troubling me. Something essential. And it was clarified in my mind that afternoon when we went for a pizza with Bernard and Juan. It became clear to me when I drew the words CAFÉ-ECOLE on my paper tablecloth. And this is what I saw!
A research on democracy in the class and the training of the teachers, who would establish it, could not be done with the help of an experimental quantitative methodology, since such a methodology is authoritative by its nature. It is incompatible. Neither can the teachers' training, in democratic pedagogy, take place with the help of an authoritative didactic, such as the one that is still prevailing at schools. This again is incompatible. The words CAFÉ-ECOLE, Coffee - School, stated the free didactic and the phenomenological qualitative research method that we were going to follow. It was only then that I was reassured.
Thus we named CAFÉ-ECOLE the research laboratory that we founded that very same year (1978), as well as the educational method that we were going to use. The word Ecole (School) reminded us of the framework and the goals that we had given to the whole project and the word Café reminded us of the freedom, the democratic way in which everything had to be done. And I liked this "provocative" name. In a scientific field, where everything has to be named with resonant, official words, we were not using "serious terms". Was I not right in being very happy?
We separated for the summer with the decision that each one of us would think and prepare some texts concerning the research and the method. As from September we would take up systematic work again. The conversations that I personally had, in Athens, with Maria, whom I believe to be a very experienced pedagogue of a great value, helped me clear things even more, inside me. So, when I went back to Montreal I was completely ready.
In September 1978, I announced by a document, the Faculty of Educational Sciences, our intention to establish a new laboratory, a new programme and, also, a new method concerning the teachers' training. We even dared to announce the first public demonstration for the very same academic year. Our courage was great - and so was our craziness.
I can still see, before me, around our conversation table, Bernard first, Manon and René, who were students at the time, who had done their Masters with me and were heading for their Ph.D., my colleague Gabriel Laroque, who was a close friend of mine, a beautiful scientist, an ex - dean and the founder of our Faculty, and some other younger students. A lot of colleagues would occasionally join the team and participate in our conversations. A dynamic field started to develop around us. It was the same kind of dynamic field that I met before in my life, every time I proposed daring projects: a lot of interest and encouragement, but also fear for the new. The more the project advanced, the more people around us grew scarce.
By the end of January 1979 we were all ready for the first public demonstration. In one of my documents, addressed to the Faculty's administration, I presented the results of our experiments on our method and I asked for the means (class space, collaborators and a budget) to carry out our plans. During the demonstration we would present a didactic cycle of the method in the form of an intensive seminar which would last for a weekend. It would be attended by volunteer professors and students. The results would decide on the quality of our work.
It was then that I also wrote the first official text of Café-Ecole, its Manifest, which was titled: "Café-Ecole: For a systemic liberation of the act of learning". I dare say that it was a beautiful, strong text, which was reflecting the faith and the love shared by that first working group. The form of the text in its first edition, can be found in the laboratory archives, in Montreal.
At that time I read an original and nice small book, designed and written by Jonas Friedman. It had a green cover and it was titled: "How to live among others, without becoming master or slave". It was, of course, talking about communication. I proposed it as The Green Book of Café-Ecole. We usually call "White Book", the first description of a project proposed for a discussion. And we call "Green Book" (or any other "color" book), the final form of this project. The "Green Book" - Friedman's writing - followed us for years to all our public demonstrations. We always had an exhibition corner and, among all the other pedagogical objects, this one always had the first place.
In the beginning of February, I was invited by the dean of the Faculty, who wanted to remind me how much I was loved and appreciated. But, as regards the public demonstration of our new experiment, he said that we had to wait for a while, for...financial reasons.Just as long as the funds could be found. He asked me, discreetly, why did I ask for an empty classroom with cushions so that we could sit down, why I wanted a coffee percolator, refreshments, fruits and donuts within the same classroom, what was the purpose of the presence of a sound system and loudspeakers and what would I do with special lighting effects. I answered all the questions. He seemed to understand, but...I should wait a little...it was a question of funds! He was sorry he said that the faculty was the reason for the delay of our plans.
I still remember the words flowing outside my lips with a mild stability and profound respect. I said: "The Faculty has stood by me so much for everything I have been doing for ten years now, so the only thing I can say is "thank you". However, do not be sorry, because finally will not delay our plans. The demonstration will take place this winter. The reason I came was only to see if we were going to do it with the Faculty or on our own. Afterwards, we will have plenty of time to resume our discussions about what is going to happen later on. But, if it cannot happen this time, it does not matter. We will have so many opportunities to be together.
It must have been the end of February when I called Jean Garneau, my close friend and my collaborator, since the first years of my work at the University, who was internationally known as a scientific photographer and worked with me in film making. As a matter of fact, we had won together - and also along with Jarmine Torossian, who was doing the montage - the first prize in educational movie at the festival of Toronto (Don't ask me which year this happened, as I do not remember!!). But, now I had called him and Bernard for another purpose. They both had a great knowledge of architecture, since they had built their homes themselves. I led them to the first floor of a beautiful three storey house that I had bought a few years ago. I was using this place as my private office. The house was big, the rooms were large and had high ceilings, the windows were big, the kitchen was huge.
My friends could not understand what was that I wanted. I took them to a pair of big rooms which were separated by a medial wall and I announced to them: "This is where the Café-Ecole experiment is going to take place. I ask you: Can we pull down the mid wall, without the house falling down? And, furthermore, can we enlarge the passage to the kitchen any more?" "It can be done", they answered in a very natural way.
It was the beginning of March. Jean arrived at 9:00 o'clock in the morning with his two daughters, who were 15 and 13 years old. Bernard arrived too, with his wife, Giselle, and their young son, Vladimir. He had brought with him a big bag full of tools. We were drinking coffee, when somebody, from the shop next door, came and delivered three rafters and other materials.
We started pulling down the wall at 11 o'clock. I was pulling down a wall for the first time in my life. Very often, after all these years, I sit down in this very same room recalling that day. Since then, the house has been restored. The architects had proposed to rebuild the wall and I refused politely. "No, no...it is a personal, a sentimental matter".
I remember that we were all white from the plaster - white hair, white faces, white eyelids, white beards (all three of us had a beard at the time). The girls were in the same bad shape. We were all laughing so much that we almost fainted and continued pulling down the wall without stopping.
But, the great truth came out of the little Vladimir's mouth. He was working with us and he was in the same bad shape too, despite the fact that he was only three years old, but, every now and then he would come, holding the hammer in his hand, he looked at us from near and burst into laughter. Later, he made a color drawing, which pictured that particular day. We framed it and it remained for a few years in my office. It can be now found in our archives in Montreal, together with the pictures we took of all the phases of the wall coming down. First the picture of the entire wall. Then the first hits and at some moment the first hole!! We took a picture of that first hole, half a meter large. Whenever I thing of it, I cry. It was done! It was done!!
From then onwards...there are a lot of things to remember...the cushions that we fabricated, the covers that Giselle had sewed, using old cloths, the earthen ware cups that Manon brought, the coffee percolator, for fifty persons, brought by René, the ashtrays we made ourselves, the decoration, the clipboards that we hang on the walls, which gave instructions for the experiences and their analysis, the texts that were typed and photocopied, the invitations, the announcements at the University. Oh, how beautiful, how sweet life is! Its sweetness fills my mouth !!
What else can I say? I have before me that invitation. It says: "First Canadian experiment of Café-Ecole. Subject, facilitation or a different way of learning. Duration, three Saturdays: 24th of March, 31st of March, 7th of April. Place, Café-Ecole, 367, Edouard Charles street, Montréal". And the invitation message - which became a classic since then -: "You are welcome for a coffee. You can participate or just attend. We will play and chat. We will experience and think together. And possibly we will discover together something for us, for others, for life, for education".
And at the end of the page, there was the date: March 1979. Café-Ecole was born now. On those Saturdays, the Café- École sounded its first voices or, better still, its first laughter.Because it was joy and laughter.
In that same year, in June, during the Conference of the Pedagogical Service Conference of the University, where 1.500 professors and 45.000 students discuss and demonstrate all the important achievements of the year from the educational point of view, we were officially invited in a very honorable position together with all that we needed for our performance. In the course of the three day Conference, the work team performed 110 private logics to people who were interested.
The wall had fallen.
That wall, unfortunately, we could not put in safe keeping at the archives in Montreal.