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First Praxis Visit

igavigan's picture

Last week I had my first praxis placement at a public middle school in Philadelphia. My role is to participate in a weekly enrichment session for around a dozen students from fifth through eighth grade classes. I basically received the program/role from another Haverford student who has been developing and growing it over the past two years. Their focus has been, roughly, on discussing issues like civics and politics while working on building argumentation skills. My working goal for the semester in general is to work with this group of students who have already spent a lot of time learning about "leadership" and politics to think about how to build power and organize toward something as a group.

Originally, I was supposed to come and observe the class while another person led them in some kind of lesson/activity. It turned out that the person who was supposed to come couldn't make it and five minutes to ten I was told I'd be leading the class. "Oy," I thought to myself. I didn't have a lesson plan or any plan really. I had been excited to observe the students and the adult in the room to get a sense of how they functioned together, what the group dynamics were like, what kinds of things they were interested in. But I had to improvise--and it ended up being fine.

Students started trickling in around ten and I made smalltalk with the first few--sharing information about names, interests, where we were from, etc. Eventually, about half the group arrived (no more could it make for the day) and we sat down around a table. They all knew each other, even though they came from three or four different classrooms, so I knew there was some existing rapport among them all. I opened the conversation by asking us all to think about something "pressing"--after all, they spend most of their enrichment time talking about politics and "issues" and they were expecting to keep doing that. We began with snow/ice and thinking about the ways it impacts different people's lives, school closings, school success, etc. We picked up on the topic of school and success and then shifted to thinking about safety, walking home from school. Eventually, somehow the students brought the conversation to guns and violence, articulating different ways of responding to the "issue" of violence that they identified first with walking home from school. Broadly, I'd say the conversation focused on issues of money, social power, and the state (violence).

I was a bit surprised that the students more or less jumped in--they were responsive to and comfortable with one another. In the course of the conversation I tried to position myself as a facilitator as opposed to a participant. In an attempt to build on the work they'd been doing with previous enrichment teachers, I tried to use my voice to provoke the group to reflect on the ways their stories, and the issues they described and responded to, were also arguments. We began working on distinguishing and clarifying different "positions" on each question.

The first placement was quite a moment for me. It's been a while since I was among mostly children/early adolescents and I was reminded of how bright and wise they can be. Part of their intelligence involves a propensity (for some, at least) to take up a lot of space in the classroom. One challenge will be managing the group in such a way that people a) feel they have space to participate fully and b) don't talk over one another. Another challenge is building the energetic and capacious conversations I now know we will have into a coherent and generative process. It would be fantastic if that level of conversation sustains itself across enrichment sessions and builds on the students' deep awareness of the subject matter toward some kind of sense of community knowledge and how that group knowledge could be intentionally used.