I love vocabulary.  That’s not particularly odd for an English teacher, although I am occasionally “razzed” about it during faculty meetings by a certain Middle School administrator.  I also love to read.  Again, not particularly odd for a teacher; however, recently in my reading I rediscovered the word “praxis.”  This is what I call a “level 2” word in class—a word that I’d seen before but didn’t know what it meant.

I assumed it was simply an invented name for an excruciating set of tests, the Praxis I and Praxis II exams that all aspiring educators must take before becoming teachers.  But I had no idea that there was an actual meaning to the word until I came across it over spring break while reading Further Along the Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.

According to Dictionary.com, “praxis” is a noun that means “practice, as distinguished from theory; application or use, as of knowledge or skills; convention, habit, or custom; a set of examples for practice.”  After reading further in the book, I discovered that I like Peck’s definition even more: “Praxis refers to the integration of your practice with your belief system.”

Lightbulb!

It dawned on me that we must incorporate or meld what we believe into our culture—be it our own personal culture of one, our culture of family, or our culture of community—and then, and here’s the kicker, act on it.  As I reread Peck’s definition, it became clear that we don’t always meet this mark—the desire to incorporate what we believe with our actions—and that can be problematic.

Coincidentally, some of the texts that we use in my middle school English classes are great for studying this concept from the safe vantage point of a reader.  My 7th graders have read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and are currently studying To Kill a Mockingbird. I love teaching these texts because students must come face-to-face with injustices, indignities, and prejudices: in essence, our inhumanity toward each other.

One of the most difficult concepts for students to understand when they read these books is the depth of cruelty and hatred that human beings can heap on others.  Transitioning fluidly into discussions of bullying, the topic is naturally uncomfortable for students.  Students find it hard to grasp that the prejudices revealed in these novels were the commonly held beliefs of the time and of the geographical location (the racially charged South in the 1930s), that the characters were acting on those erroneous beliefs, and that the beliefs had to change in order for there to be any lasting change in behavior.

This by no means excuses the conduct in the context of the novel or of history, but understanding that dichotomy is crucial to understanding unhealthy social systems that keep others down, whether in the South of the past or in the middle school hallways of the present.  The result is that students actively question the actions and beliefs of others, and hopefully challenge their own preconceived ideas as well.

Stay tuned next week for part two!