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 The Praxis Group

 The Praxis Group – Informal Discussions Foster Dramatic Change 

By Mary Hannah Henderson

Praxis Group is an informal association of people involved in various ways with community based or experiential teaching of social justice topics. The group originated in 2002 with members from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Harvard University, who came together to discuss related issues that arose in teaching community organizing at Harvard and the Citizen Scholars Program (CSP) at UMass, Amherst. Two-hour meetings soon became all-morning workshops, and the group branched out to include participants from universities, colleges, and community organizations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. We meet twice a semester for morning workshops, with a group that ranges from 5-15 at any given meeting. Those who participate include professors, administrators, graduate students, undergraduate students, community organizers, and several people who cross those categories.

The above data do not begin to evoke the richness of our discussions. Each meeting provides us with an opportunity to learn from and support one another. Story telling, a central component of all our workshops, gives us an entry into each others’ learning, teaching, and living. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this association, and the reason for its longevity, is that it provides an arena in which critical analysis, life experience, and humor are combined to integrate the too-often atomized professional and personal roles we each play in our work. Our story telling focuses on current, recent, or on-going work, usually but certainly not exclusively in the classroom or doing administration. Often, we choose two or three stories that have similar issues to explore further: What was at stake, here? What worked or didn’t work? How could we have done things differently? Discussions range from philosophical to nuts-and-bolts; several of us have left with new assignments or bibliographic resources, and we almost always come back to questions of values, faith, and development.

In the second part of the workshop, we focus about half of the time on an issue designated ahead of time, sometimes with a reading we have all come prepared to discuss. Designated topics have included project or practice focused learning, the role of spirituality in our work, evaluating student work, recruiting diverse students, service vs. action, and institutional change within the academy. Almost without exception, the stories we begin with, the readings we’ve prepared, and the topical discussion mesh together for a deep analysis with immediate application. On those meetings where we have not designated a topic in advance, we continue our analysis of issues raised by the story telling in the first half. These often include the dilemmas about how to manage the disparate time frames and schedules of community organizations and academies, how to meet students where they are while also pushing them to learn and understand in new ways, how to provide an experience that is both educational for students and useful for the community organizations in which they are placed, and how to integrate cognitive and affective learning and living, both for our students and in our own lives.