Praxis Program Coordinator Nell Anderson; Nia Turner '05; and Aretha Swift, Norristown's Weed and Seed Revitalization Coordinator.
Political science major Nia Turner '05 wanted to investigate the role of citizen involvement in policymaking by developing a independent study and internship through Praxis, Bryn Mawr's experiential learning program. She had no fieldsite in mind, but Program Coordinator Nell Anderson saw a perfect match, with Aretha Swift of Norristown's Weed and Seed.
This community-based, multi-agency strategy "weeds out" crime in targeted neighborhoods and "seeds" them with social services and economic revitalization. Citizens themselves identify the community's most pressing needs and decide how best to meet them.
Anderson had first seen Swift, who is Weed and Seed revitalization coordinator, at a meeting in 2002 to discuss forming connections between Norristown and the College. (CPIA, Community Partners in Action, was officially announced this spring.) "Aretha stood up and said, 'I'm a one-woman office, and I would love to have a student intern to help me out,' " Anderson recalled. "When Nia came to me a year later, the opportunities for student learning with Aretha were evident from the relationship we had already developed. What stands out most about Aretha is her involvement at the grassroots and policy levels in the Norristown community. She is respected by individual residents and block captains as well as by agency and government representatives."
Turner is working with residents to explain in layman's terms how to apply for grants-communities are expected to tap into the public and private sectors for funding-and comparing their views about Weed and Seed with those of local officials. She is also conducting qualitative research on the collaboration of residents, clergy, law enforcement, and local government agencies and officials to improve the quality of life in Norristown. Turner, who is considering a joint Ph.D.-J.D. and a career in social policy and law, is being advised by Marissa Martino Golden '83, associate professor of political science.
Bryn Mawr's Praxis Program is characterized by genuine collaboration between students and members of a community in doing what is mutually beneficial, and by the constant movement between theoretical reflection and fieldwork.
"It is the integration of practice and theory that makes the Praxis experience profoundly academic," said Anderson. "In the classroom, Praxis faculty facilitate a dynamic process of reflection, incorporating lessons learned in the field with the curriculum. The development of ongoing partnerships with community organizations-such as social service agencies, government offices, schools, museums-has also been an important element of Praxis. Students work with our partners to address their needs in ways that not only benefit the organizations, but also allow students to integrate their coursework with the field experience. In addition, field supervisors frequently visit the classroom as guest presenters and co-teachers."
The three levels of Praxis courses offered (see below) require increasing amounts of fieldwork, but do not need to be taken successively: departmental courses (Level I), interdepartmental seminars (Level II), and independent study (Level III). Since the program began in 2001, Level I and II courses have been offered through growth and structure of cities, sociology, education, psychology, gender studies, English, arts, biology, and the College Seminar program. "We would love to see more faculty and more departments take advantage of the rich learning potential in combining classroom teaching with fieldwork," said Undergraduate Dean Karen M. Tidmarsh '71.
Praxis I, II, III|
Praxis I courses are offered within a department and use one fieldsite visit, of approximately three-four hours, per week to enrich the study and understanding of a single disciplinary topic.
A Praxis II interdepartmental seminar is a multidisciplinary course combining more substantial fieldwork with an academic focus on a central topic (geographic location, historical period, social issue, etc.) studied from several disciplinary perspectives. Some class sessions might include public presentations from visiting lecturers, including other Bryn Mawr faculty. Other class sessions are devoted to analysis of students' fieldwork experiences through the interpretive lens provided by the lectures and ongoing discussions. Students typically complete two fieldsite visits, of approximately two-three hours each, per week.
A Praxis III independent study places fieldwork at the center of a supervised learning experience. The fieldwork is supported by appropriate readings and regular meetings with a faculty supervisor. Students typically complete two fieldsite visits, of approximately four-five hours each, per week.
Program Coordinator Nell Anderson maintains data on sites and types of assignments available, serves as the official contact person for field supervisors, and does routine field checks on students at their sites. Faculty members retain ultimate responsibility and control over the components of a Praxis course that make it distinctly academic: reading and discussion, rigorous process and reflection, and formal presentation and evaluation of student progress.
Teaching and the test
A group of undergraduates placed at a Philadelphia area high school for Schools in American Cities, a Praxis I course taught this spring, initially wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of the America Counts tutoring program operated there by Bryn Mawr students. But the school had a more pressing need-prep classes in math for 11th graders taking the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) test in April. Bryn Mawr and Haverford students go to the site three days a week, teaching three classes each morning using a controversial scripted curriculum required by the city school district.
During a weekly planning session, Lecturer in Education Jody Cohen and her site supervisors discussed the tremendous energy students have invested in their project: "They want to know: 'What's our purpose, to increase the scores or make them feel better about taking the test?' 'Are we going to have an impact?'," Cohen said.
Offered through the education program, Schools in American Cities also meets a requirement for cities and sociology majors. "The course is designed for students to investigate the issues, challenges and possibilities of urban schooling," Cohen said.
"In the first section of the course, we address sociopolitical, cultural, economic and legal dimensions of contemporary urban life and schooling. The second part focuses on what's going on inside schools, including the perspectives of inner-city students and teachers, theories of curriculum and pedagogy in urban settings, and contested terrains such as language and literacy. In the final stretch, we examine current efforts to restructure urban schools and districts. Throughout we look at cities across the country in terms of culture, demographics and schooling. Since we are located right outside Philadelphia, the course uses the city as an illustrative 'case'; we pay particular attention to current events in the city's reform effort."
The 26 students in the course are divided among several high and middle schools and are doing different research projects.
Cohen's site supervisors are Praxis intern and Field Placement Coordinator Page Buck; Meredith Mollitt, an AmeriCorps*VISTA member serving this year at Bryn Mawr's Community Service Office as coordinator of its tutoring programs; and Haverford student Elena Darling-Hammond.
In addition to writing papers for their courses, Praxis students keep field logs in which they describe what they observe, and their thoughts and feelings about site experiences. They build on these to reach informed opinions, including knowledge acquired and reasoned conclusions developed through class discussion and readings. In Cohen's course, students from different school placements break into smaller groups to read one another's field notes, pointing out emphases, biases, and omissions, and discuss next steps for research. The course is writing intensive; the final field portfolio includes a 10-page research paper. An analytical paper, a critical review, and a presentation on an investigation of a city are also required.
Cutting up the cake
Some of the students taking Education 220: Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science Education (Praxis II), say they feel "jealous" of the new hands-on, inquiry-based approaches they've been observing at their sites, according to Professor of Mathematics Victor Donnay, who is teaching the course with Deborah Pomeroy, associate professor of education at Arcadia University. "They wish they'd been able to have so much fun learning math and science when they were kids."
Now at the Harvard School of Public Health as a Fogarty Fellow in the biostatistics department, Kele Phiri '03 held several internships while at Bryn Mawr in order to learn about the many aspects of HIV/AIDS. Her Praxis III placement was with Philadelphia FIGHT at the Jonathan Lax Center, where she observed consultations of a nurse practitioner with HIV/AIDS patients. Phiri also read literature on biological aspects of the disease and medication, but discovered that patients display unique reactions to medications that are not always documented.
At Harvard, Phiri's schedule is divided between biostatistics courses and research in the Center for Biostatistics in HIV/AIDS Research (CBAR). "Last semester I focused on data analysis of the association of genotype (the genetic constitution of an organism) and mother to child transmission of HIV in Malawi and South Africa Cohorts." she said. "This semester I will be analyzing data to compare differences and similarities in delivery processes and growth characteristics of babies born to HIV positive women (who are on anti-retroviral therapy) compared to babies born to HIV negative mothers in a Botswana Cohort. Since the study objectives of my research have both the biological and analytic focus, the work I did with Jonathan Lax through the Praxis III program, together with my math major, have equipped me with the right analytical and medical tools for a career in public health."
Students are placed with local teachers who are implementing new curricula or teaching strategies in either science or math. In a weekly colloquium, professional educators describe their experiences in educational change and related issues. For example, lecturers at two colloquia in February described the transformation of theory into practice for K-12 math and science at the elementary and secondary levels and in higher education.
In the United States, the "layer cake" approach is traditional in secondary math and science education, following sequences of the life sciences, earth science, chemistry, and physics; or algebra I, geometry, algebra II/trigonometry, and precalculus. Other countries use the integrated, spiraling approaches found in the new curricula, where each area of the traditional sequence is studied at a higher level every year. Jean Wallace, director of education for Delaware Valley Earth Force described curricula that go further by integrating all subjects, not just math and science, through environmental studies and student service learning.
Donnay said that some of the students in the course plan to teach math or science at the pre-college level or want to explore that possibility. "Others expect to go on to teach at the college level and would like to learn about new teaching methods to be better prepared," he said.
"Because the course is being taught jointly in graduate education for Arcadia, there are 10 Arcadia graduate students, nearly all of whom are practicing teachers. The undergraduates and graduate students attend the lectures together, then they usually have separate reflection sections. One time out of three, the reflection sessions are combined. It is very valuable for our undergraduates to learn the perspective of practicing teachers and hear the real world challenges they are facing."
Written work for the course begins with students describing two very different learning experiences of their own and infering what each says about the teacher's theory of practice. (Whose knowledge and experience counts? How do children learn best? What counts as knowledge and evidence of it?)
Students also write a paper describing the learning environments of their field placements; analyze the meaning of PSSA scores for their schools and districts; and interview teachers about their reasons for initiating reform, and the tensions and support around its implementation. The final paper synthesizes the student's Praxis experience, using detailed descriptions of evidence to present a case study of pedagogical change.
The course is supported by a grant Bryn Mawr has received as part of its participation in the Math Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia (MSPGP); a regional consortium of 46 school districts and 13 colleges and universities whose goal is to improve math and science eduation in grades 6-12 . The Partnership received a five-year, $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in October 2004.
Jump to the other side
Another Praxis II course, Arts Teaching in Educational and Community Settings, is being taught for the second time by Madeline Cantor, associate director of the dance program.
"The course is intended for students with substantial experience in either dance, visual arts, theater or music," Cantor said. "They choose a placement where they can initially observe and assist an arts educator and then move into a teaching role."
"I gave them an overview of how arts education has changed since 1837, when music education entered the schools," Cantor said. (Reading for the course include writings by John Dewey and Maxine Greene.) "There is no one theory that drives arts education; there are many, and I want them to understand where what they're observing and doing fits into the big picture.
"We've talked about national standards for arts education, we've talked about constructing a lesson plan, and I've showed videos of master arts teachers at work," she said.
Twice during the semester students teach a short class to the group, using two very different approaches, the essentialist and the instrumental, sometimes called the contextualist approach. "In the first, they're teaching in the materials of the art form-music through music, visual arts through the actual medium," Cantor said. "The second uses the art form to teach ideas outside the form. The students critique one another's presentations, and I am careful to include practical advice in my evaluation-about their delivery and pacing and questioning techniques, and how to figure out how to guide students to the discovery of arts concepts."
One objective of the course is that students develop a personal approach to arts teaching. "This is not a course about teaching arts processes for the purpose of pre-professional training," Cantor said, "but for engagement with art as an activity for life.
"Many of the students talk about having been saved by art, not as an escape but as a way of understanding and framing their worlds. That's the essence of this Praxis experience."
By chance, all of the students in this year's course chose placements in schools, public and parochial, elementary and high school.
"Arts education in schools is a very different enterprise than in community settings, so I find it useful that the students are in parallel situations," Cantor said.To give the students a window on community artmaking, she is also taking the class to the Barnes Foundation, on a tour of Philadelphia murals, and to the Village of Arts and Humanities.
"I've been very lucky in having site supervisors who see these placements as a service to the future," she said. "They understand that you can only learn how to do this by doing it, and they give our students the time and space to try.
"Bryn Mawr students are very respectful of teacherly authority. In this class, they need to jump to the other side-move from passive observer into a teaching role. It's a lot to ask, but they seem to be up to it!"
Bridging the gap
Over pizza and salad in early March at the new Cambrian Row home of the Praxis and Community Service offices, eight of the 13 upperclasswomen doing Praxis III projects talked about their progress. Nell Anderson asked each to think about how, as a result of reflecting on her experiences, her focus had changed and her learning circles broadened since first visiting the site.
Gentrification and redevelopment|
For her Praxis III project, Laura Smoot, a Haverford senior majoring at Bryn Mawr in Growth and Structure of Cities, is interning with the Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative (SEPC) to support community programs for youth in South Philadelphia. She is also working with Asian-American organizers of the Seventh Street Roundtable, an SEPC member, to support its anti-gentrification campaign. Her project includes research and writing reports on the Mayor's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) and relevant meetings and legislation at City Council sessions.
"I see this Praxis internship as a chance to put into action some of the theory and knowledge I gained from the thesis I wrote last fall on the history of gentrification, redevelopment, and community change in an area of West Philadelphia," Smoot said. I took a course on the history and theory of community organizing during my junior year, I knew that I wanted to do community organizing after graduation, and this internship also gives me a great opportunity to begin working on those skills now."
Click here for information about the Praxis III project of Claire Smiga '04.
Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology major Pamela Shwartz '05 said that on her first visit to the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, she was introduced "to every single person at the museum. I chitchatted with them about sheep, knitting, and underwater archaeology, something I'm interested in doing.
"Since then, I've been getting all kinds of ideas about careers other than in higher education. I've also been discovering the interconnectedness of the museum world and the importance of knowing what's going on the public school system and in local politics," said Shwartz, who is developing an exhibit on types (and stereotypes) of pirates across time and around the world.
"Before starting my placement,I thought I would go to my field supervisor's office, and she would give me work to do," said Nia Turner. "It turns out that I've been learning the most from going to meetings with her." Some of those are in Harrisburg and Lancaster; the two discuss what happened during the long drives back to Bryn Mawr. Turner recalled a change for her at a meeting in Harrisburg to review guidelines for the position papers submitted by agencies within Weed and Seed sites to issue monies. "As I was reading along, I noticed places where they could give some examples for the average reader," she said. "People new to the program may not be familiar with the terminology it uses. So I spoke up, and I felt I was not an outsider, not there just to observe, but could contribute to the process."
Political science major Anjali Shenoy '04 is interning with Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Gina Smith in the sexual offense unit. Shenoy works with Smith to prepare files for trial, speaks with witnesses, does legal research, sits in on trials, and helps with witness selection. Her research project is to evaluate the effectiveness of Megan's Law, enacted in 1996.
"Beginning data may be returning this year on the policy's effect for communities where sex offenders have relocated," Shenoy said.
"I hope to expand my view about the social implications of sex offense laws. For example, does putting the burden on members of the community to avoid the possibility of being victimized place the problem with the community or with the offender?"
Shenoy told the group she was trying to sort out the pull between the need for analysis and strong emotions, both observed and felt. "At one point, I was so absorbed in watching the faces of the jury and defendants as the verdict was handed down, I didn't realize how much I was thinking until I wrote out my journal entries," she recalled.
Philosophy major Molly Ribble '05 also reflected on the differences in what can be learned from quantitative evidence and from talking to people themselves. Ribble's project, with Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County, is to research county records for condemned properties in Norristown's Weed and Seed target area that Habitat could acquire and renovate. She has also developed survey questions about the possible repair of houses where people are still living that will be presented at a community meeting.
"This project comes with a lot of ethical questions," Ribble said. "Is it better to stabilize neighborhoods by fixing abandoned buildings or help many more people directly by doing partial rehabilitation? Habitat believes that giving people a decent, affordable house also provides them with a foundation for fixing other problems. But is this a definition of a good life that does not allow for diversity?"
Her site supervisor, Habitat Director the Rev. Brenda Egolf-Fox, has an undergraduate degree in religion and philosophy and has served as pastor of three churches in Illinois and Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. "I have enjoyed the conversations Molly and I get into about the ethical issues," she said. Ribble is also writing a paper about connections between the academic aspects and day-to-day uses of ethics for faculty advisor Christine Koggel, associate professor of philosophy.
"Molly has an interesting task ahead of her in attempting to bridge the gap between theory and practice," Koggel said. "In a community of other associations in Norristown, Habitat is helping to address issues of poverty and quality of life more generally by providing people with affordable housing. Molly is exploring the differences between the policies being investigated and implemented in this community and, more generally, the philosophical literature on poverty and inequalities in wealth. How well do philosophical conceptions of poverty match what is going on in this community with respect to Habitat's mission of improving people's lives? What sorts of theories underlie our understandings of poverty and what it is to live in poverty in this country?"
Sociology major Lindsay Marie Hills '04 said she felt that she had "bridged a gap. ... All of a sudden I have begun to see how the theory I learned in class explains what's happening on our campus." Hills, who is working with Bryn Mawr's Director of Institutional Research Elena Bernal and Provost Ralph Kuncl, is analyzing a survey data set for student learning and development outcomes, such as the relationship between students' leadership activities and self-reported intellectual and personal growth.
Hills said that through her readings, "I'm realizing not only what I already know, but that others have had the same thoughts." She gave the example of a distinction, first made in the late 1950s by Alvin Goulder, between two organizational identities, " and "cosmopolitans." In campus communities, cosmopolitans focus their energy on disciplinary affiliation and research, locals on teaching, student contact and committee work. "Both are vital in maintaining institutional stability," she observed.
Hills has been an active leader in student government (she is outgoing SGA president) and on the Customs Committee, the orientation program for first-year students. She has grown increasingly drawn to courses that allow her to look at the complex relationships between organisms as well as between organisms and larger systems. For a course last year, she used simulated computer models to create a virtual college campus in which to investigate issues of race relations in housing preferences.
Political science major Paula Arboleda '05 is also doing her fieldwork on campus, identifying ways to give technical, intellectual and emotional support to student activists as well as to reach out to students who would like to be more involved in service and activism. Her first step was to develop a survey designed to gauge students' attitudes, interests and needs.
Arboleda is working closely with Debra Rubin and Ellie Esmond in the Community Service Office. Her Praxis activities are directly connected to the strategic planning efforts of the CSO and Praxis Program. The results of the survey will guide future programming in service and activism.
Support mechanisms for students might include workshops on topics such as grass roots organizing, consensus building and facilitation; resource readings; and spaces and regular meeting times for reflection.
"How do we get academic institutions to recognize that experiential and community-based learning programs are academically sound and important in shaping and changing what students perceive as education?" Arboleda asked. "How can academic institutions support initiatives to forge better relationships with communities and make sense of the challenges that surround us?"
One of the goals of Challenging Women: Investing in the Future of Bryn Mawr is to create new opportunities to integrate liberal arts education and real world problems. For more information about Praxis, please contact Program Coordinator Nell Anderson.
Return to Summer 2004 highlights