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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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The Concentration in Human Services

Social pedagogy as a profession does not exist in the United States. However, the CHS in the Department of Sociology at SUNY New Paltz is inspired by European social pedagogy and was specifically modeled after Danish social pedagogy. Human services agency directors in the Hudson Valley in New York state were introduced to social pedagogy in the 1980s. With the goal of improving the quality of services and professionalizing the direct support staff, they initiated the CHS in 1992 (Jacobs, 1995; Lamanna, 1992). Although not a CSWE accredited social work program, the CHS shares many similarities with social work education. The CHS has a liberal arts foundation, and students obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology with required courses that correspond with courses required in Bachelor of Social Work programs. Many of the required readings come from social work literature, and since its inception, most of the faculty members have been social workers. The CHS can therefore serve as an inspiration for social work education, and it provides an excellent case study example in a text on holistic engagement.

In line with social pedagogical programs in Europe, the educational philosophy of the CHS is based on Paulo Freire's critical pedagogy and both inductive and deductive approaches are used as students explore their education and practices through several lenses, the most prominent of which is an international human rights lens. The CHS is a 60-credit program in the students' junior and senior years leading to a Sociology degree with a CHS. In addition to being provided with a solid sociological base, students are immersed in a comprehensive educational program with deliberately developed components both inside and outside the classroom setting. Some of the main deliberate components are a cohort format with consecutive course work, field education courses, and a focus on the Common Third via Arts and Recreation course requirements.

The first main feature is the cohort. After the introductory course, students enter the CHS cohort and stay together for three semesters while they take three consecutive human services theory and practice courses and three field education courses. Students are therefore in classes together nearly 6 hours a week. The human services theory and field classes are purposefully scheduled back-to- back, which allows for flexibility of time, including opportunity for co-teaching and extended time for field trips, guest speakers, or special projects. The cohort structure also provides a laboratory for group dynamics and practice. Rather than just reading about group dynamics and teamwork, students live it as they practice their human services skills.

Another example of using the cohort format as a laboratory is the student selected themes component. During the fall of their senior year, the students identify topics that they want to focus on in their capstone course. Although they, of course, have to compromise and cannot focus on endless topics, students consistently express that they appreciate that they get to choose their own topics. Before, during, and after the process of deciding—and when the capstone course is evaluated—discussions take place about how students really know how to identify what they need to know more about and also how to go about it. They are learning a format that they can bring with them into the field. This process is both explicit and implicit because it is brought to the forefront of the discussions that students can identify what they need to learn and now have experienced one way of going about obtaining knowledge and skills about topics that they identify as essential. They are not just receptacles of the knowledge that the faculty members decide they must have transmitted to them. A theme that now, based on student feedback, has been instituted originally came from a student selected theme process. Several years ago, a cohort of students decided that they wanted to “get their hands dirty” and they wanted to learn about program development and grant writing. The CHS students now work closely with nonprofit organizations and their grant writers writing real grants. Students express a deep sense of empowerment knowing that they are part of a student selected theme, they do the actual work, and, when grants are awarded, they see the real benefit to the service participants and organizations involved. And, of course, the students leave the CHS with skills that are quite impressive at the undergraduate level.

The second main feature in the CHS is the field education course. Students meet with the faculty, and together they decide which sites will provide the best learning opportunities. Students are not placed but, rather, are active participants in the decision-making process. When students are in their internships, they meet weekly with peers and faculty for group supervision and support. They have one-on-one supervision throughout the semester with the faculty, who also visit students at their site for a three-way meeting with the agency field supervisor. This format is deliberately developed to role model a participatory process in which supervision is a reciprocal process with students providing and receiving supervision from peers as well as having supervision meetings with both faculty and field supervisors. It is a democratic model and different from the hierarchical model that is common in some social work programs. In many social work programs, students are placed into the field education sites without significant input, and they are not part of a planned, ongoing support or supervision process with peers and faculty in the program. Peer support and supervision can seem coincidental as opposed to deliberately integrated into the curriculum.

The last main feature of the CHS is the Common Third. The Common Third is integrated into most components of the CHS, and students are introduced to the concept from the very beginning. Loris Malaguzzi's famous poem, “The Hundred Languages of Children,” is shared in the first class, pointing out that providing one kind of approach is “stealing the 99,” as the famous Italian pedagogue wrote. The prevailing focus on verbal therapies done in office settings as the main modality in social work education is severely limiting. The CHS attempts to balance the focus on verbal approaches with Common Third activities. For most of my career before entering academia, I worked with people who were either nonverbal (due to autism) or socially marginalized (due to addiction and mental health issues). For both groups, verbal approaches were problematic. For the latter group, I represented “the system”—a system that they believed had let them down. One man in the halfway house in which I worked refused to talk with me, so I joined him in the garden. After gardening side by side for a while, he began to share, and some of the best “verbal therapy sessions” I have ever been a part of occurred while literally resting my arms on a shovel. I needed alternative or holistic tools to reach most of the people I worked with and the Common Thirds, in this case gardening, became the vehicle to do so—to establish relationships. Verbal therapy in an office setting could not have accomplished such an outcome.

In order to provide students with knowledge and skills to plan and implement Common Third activities in their internships and later at their work sites, they are required to take two courses in Arts and Recreation. Being located within a traditional university system, the CHS does not have its own workshop rooms, studios, or auditorium as is seen in European programs, but students have access to related courses at the college. In addition to traditional college courses such as piano, photography, film making, ceramics, dance, or sculpture, the CHS, in collaboration with the School of Education, offers two Expressive Arts courses. These courses introduce students to a variety of expressive arts media, including Boal's (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed. Students do these arts, practice them, and bring them into the field to be implemented at their field sites. Students use music and tie-dye, sports, and games, and they also use daily activities as Common Thirds. For example, Adam did his internship at a residence for adult men with intellectual disabilities. Very quickly, he learned that several of the men were interested in fish and fish tanks. Rather than a one-shot Common Third, Adam chose to do his required Common Third as a process. He discussed what kinds of fish the men were interested in, explored them on the Internet, made a wish list, obtained funds, and then began buying what they needed to get their fish tank. At the end of the semester, the men had their tank and felt a tremendous sense of pride, and Adam had had endless opportunities to establish relationships and do counseling sessions—in the living room, around the dining room table, while in the car driving to the shop, while putting together the tank, and so on. Darlene did her internship at a daytime homeless shelter. The people at the shelter were some of the most marginalized people imaginable. One of her Common Thirds consequently focused on facilitating a sense of inclusion, intimacy, and feeling of self-worth. She set up a table with water, soap, lotion, and nail polish in the living room. When I visited, she was putting lotion of the hands of a homeless man. Behind him was a line of men and women waiting for their turn. Darlene and the man hardly spoke, but the intimacy and closeness were some of the most beautiful human services work I have ever seen. The man beamed when he was done, and Darlene had clearly made a special connection with him— one without judgment, one of compassion and of respect for him as a person. I cannot think of a better base from which to continue providing services.

In addition to the Common Thirds required in the field education internships, students also work in icebreaker groups in their first Human Services course. They implement these icebreakers for the purpose ofbonding as a group and also to develop a repertoire to be used in their practice. Social pedagogues are life space workers, much as the original settlement workers were in the United States (Reid, 1981; Smith, 2009a; Specht & Courtney, 1994; Toseland & Rivas, 1995). In the CHS, students are socialized to be life space workers as well. Students are expected to meet people where they are—figuratively and literally. Store (2013) notes that in order to implement Common Thirds, workers must move from the office to the playground, to the football field or to the computer, if that is where the service participants are. A Common Third is an activity that takes place between worker and participant, and it connects them. It is a consciously guided interaction, and it is planned, implemented, and evaluated by the human services generalist(s) in collaboration with the service participant(s). It is a “shoulder- to-shoulder” experience as opposed to a “face-to-face” experience. Both Hatton (2013) and Husen (1996) call the Common Third a subject-to-subject experience. Common Thirds must have a high communicative content; the activity has to promote and develop communicative competencies—for example, social relations, understanding, empathy, cooperation, and collaboration. When successful, the Common Third develops self-esteem, strengthens identity, and builds solidarity (Hatton, 2013; Madsen, 1993). CHS students and faculty discuss Common Thirds in classes and during individual supervision. In addition, students work closely with service participants and agency field supervisors to develop Common Thirds that accomplish the previously stated purposes.

The Common Third also has another dimension. Store (2013) and Husen (1996) discuss how Common Thirds can be used to give people a break from intervention, from the intensity of the “work” that continuously is taking place. Store expresses it as a deliberate focus on the object as something outside the subject—to give the therapeutic relation and work a rest. This is a powerful concept when social work practice in the United States is considered. Social workers practice in relatively short time intervals and with focused goals in mind. The interventions are therefore intense and direct, “face-to-face,” so to speak, as opposed to the “shoulder-to-shoulder” approach (Madsen, 1993). Service participants and social workers in the United States are often not given the option of a break, or a rest, as Store suggests is needed. The use of the Common Third can provide such a rest from human services work. An example that comes to mind is cooking a meal with a family and just being with the family without a formal intervention. Hatton (2013) and Smith (2009a) claim that the use of the Common Third provides opportunities to work holistically with children and adults, and Cameron (2004) specifically states that the Hand is “necessary as a medium to the development of the relationship between workers and young people as a means of encouraging small, achievable successes” (p. 146). The service participant might not be able to be reunited with his mother or control his anger right away as an immediate result of the intervention, but through a Common Third, something that is very concrete, he can experience a sense of success. The concept of the Common Third and the subject-to-subject relationship are reflected in the deliberate pedagogy employed in the CHS. For example, students and faculty participate in an initial ropes course or rock climbing field day. The purpose of this field day is to build cohesion in the newly formed cohort but also to get out of the classroom and experience each other in a different setting (Store, 2013). It is a powerful message when students see their professors struggle up a climbing wall or being petrified hanging from a tree during a high ropes course exercise. Students also get to experience a different side of each other. It is not unusual to see more quiet students literally speed up trees while outspoken students stand hesitantly on the ground watching. The purpose of employing Common Thirds also includes developing empathy. Professionals often expect service participants to leave their comfort zone. Professionals need to explore their own comfort zones as well. In the CHS, students and faculty create personal lifeline projects that they share with each other. The lifelines are very powerful, and students always come prepared to the class sharing how they were deeply impacted creating these lines. Many have also implemented lifelines at their field site.

Another kind ofCommon Third is the field trips that are part ofall human services theory and practice courses in the CHS. In addition to the explicit purpose of augmenting the topics covered in the course, the field trips also have implicit purposes. Store (2013) articulates it well by stating that trips provide an opportunity to get away from the everyday tasks and, as students and faculty experience in the CHS, provide the participants opportunities to get to know each other better and see different sides of each other. Riding in a vehicle provides an excellent opportunity to talk and share. Explicitly, it can also be a powerful learning experience. Sitting in the General Assembly at the United Nations knowing that the topic of women's rights was discussed there yesterday by nearly 200 country representatives is very different from reading about it for class. In addition, students have expressed that they truly “get” what the purposes ofhuman rights and the United Nations are because they were physically there. In other words, the explicit and implicit curriculum becomes uncovered when processing it with the students.

Group work is integral to the CHS. Initially, students are assigned groups that they have to stay in the first semester for the purpose of developing relationships and creating a comfort zone. As the educational process moves along, students get to choose their own groups and, interestingly, students have sometimes requested assignment of groups if they believed that the group dynamics warranted such directions. Such requests have been made when a cohort has had members who appeared to be marginalized and some students then ended up in the “leftover” group. Another example is to explicitly assign students to groups. One cohort recently had a group of students who remained very quiet despite my efforts to draw them out. Another group of students in the same cohort talked excessively, again without significant change in behavior despite my intervention. I then decided to assign the quiet students in one group and the talkative students in another during group work. Initially, I did not point it out, but when the quiet students began to talk in their group and the talkative students had to be quiet to let the others contribute, I pointed out the dynamics. The students, of course, had immediately caught on. The cohort is a laboratory, and both students and faculty can use it as illustrated here. The cohort members, including the two assigned faculty members, get to know each other well. Both faculty members teach theory courses and also teach and supervise students in the field education courses. Building close relationships while also maintaining professional boundaries are integral components of the CHS. At times, conflicts arise around relationships and boundaries, but these struggles are part of the living laboratory. The dialogue and processing are ongoing in the 2-year process and, as Cameron (2004) states, “a pedagogue is not expected to like everyone, however, a pedagogue has to be prepared and willing to ‘use the self to gain access to [the young person's] way of thinking and feeling' ” (p. 145). This is true in the CHS as well. The relationships between the students are significant. To follow the students from their initial meeting and first internship to a graduating cohort is powerful. They guide and encourage each other weekly as they struggle with dynamics at their internships, and they support each other when they are exhausted during their senior thesis process. This support is explicit in that it is part of the syllabus with classes set aside for peer feedback and guidance in the process. But it is also implicit in that students develop their own means of support. Since the advent of Facebook, cohorts have had a Facebook group where they share and support each other. The faculty is purposefully not part of the Facebook groups but does join when the cohort graduates. All cohorts have experienced loss when, for example, loved ones have passed away. And all cohorts have experienced special happy moments, such as when students have gotten married, had babies, traveled abroad, and have been offered jobs at their internship sites.

The students truly are able to use the cohort as a support or, if not experienced as a support due to problematic group dynamics, then at least as an example of how to deal with conflict. It is clear to both students and faculty that what develops is a synergy. This kind of synergy cannot be accomplished by simply implementing powerful exercises in discrete courses. It is a process that requires time and investment.

A final example of preparation for the future by means of exploring alternative and holistic approaches and systems is through the international focus in all the courses. The CHS in itself provides an international perspective due to being modeled after a Danish social pedagogical program. The structure of the CHS is distinct, and students repeatedly share how their peers in other programs are “envious because they don't get to go on field trips and rock climb” or establish the same kind of close connections to peers and faculty. Integrated in the CHS is also an ongoing introduction to human services models from different countries. Study abroad courses have been a part of the CHS since its inception; indeed, the program began due to a study trip to Denmark. International Social Welfare study trips take place every summer, rotating between Denmark, Italy, and South Africa. In previous years, faculty have also conducted trips to Germany and Spain. Not all students have the means or interest in participating, but the international influence is a constant presence. Three observations from the 2014 study trip to Denmark stand out. Students were amazed by the fact that the leisure center for young adults with disabilities has a massage therapist come to give massage to both services participants and staff as part of the self-care that is taken for granted in the agency. At a shelter for women sex workers, the students saw the massage room used to help the women connect with their bodies in a healthy way. Students also got to experience a drug consumption room and meet a man who had just injected drugs—in a safe, supportive, and respectful harm-reduction environment. Finally, every student made a note of how the 1- to 2-year-olds in the day-care center were given opportunity to be independent. They got up and down from the table themselves; poured their own drinks into regular glasses, not sippy cups; and went to the playground to choose their outdoor toys. The staff were present to support, but only if needed. The socialization to self-directedness begins early.

These study trips are intended to introduce students to different models—and to not take them for granted. The trips also function as learning tools and inspiration for the faculty. They provide, in very concrete ways, examples for faculty members to share in their teaching, but they also more subtly give faculty tools when they explore interventions with students in field education supervision—be it in class or individually. As a result of these study trips, faculty has the experiences to pose questions such as the following: What would it look like if everyone had access to universal health care, as in Denmark? How could you help facilitate prevention initiatives in a resource deprived community, as in South Africa's townships?

The CHS provides the students with opportunities to experiment with different solutions and do so as a group and as individuals. Students get to test hypotheses and are prepared to face a complex and yet unknown future in which they will be challenged to come up with new and innovative approaches to address a diversity of needs.

 
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