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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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OUR CLASSROOM EXPERIENCE

I (Juliana Svistova) was the instructor of a community and organizational theory undergraduate social work course during the fall semester of 2012. I invited Lara Bowen and Meera Bhat to be guest teachers in a class introducing community practice. Together we designed a lesson plan, “Critical Social Work and Its Global Origins and Practice: Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed.” This lesson plan targets the development and practice of critical thinking and diversity in practice as core Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) social work competencies. Specifically, it promotes critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, and the demonstration of effective and collaborative communication by students. The lesson plan outlines a multisensory teaching model whereby the students receive the content as well as get to implicate it for themselves directly. The class consists of two parts and usually takes approximately 3 hours.

The lesson plan provides an overview of the origins of critical social work and the approaches of Freire and Boal, incorporating classroom activities exemplifying their techniques. For instance, the students practice the SHOWED questioning technique, a mnemonic for the following: What do you See here? What is really Happening? How does this relate to Our lives? Why does this problem or strength exist? How can we become Empowered? What can we Do about it? (Wang, Morrel-Samuels, Hutchison, Bell, & Pestronk, 2004). The technique was applied to the images from the Hampton Institute (a historically black university founded to provide education to freed men and later Native Americans) to explore one's personal perceptions about diversity in relation to others. In addition, the students participate in a small group activity that demonstrates Boal's Image Theatre to depict and explore the power structure ofrelationships and provide an opportunity for reflection on the influence of personal bias in practice.

We began the class by introducing Paulo Freire and his pedagogic and activist work with illiterate peasants in Brazil. The key concepts that we discussed included the “culture of silence,” “critical consciousness,” the oppressed person as object acted upon, “banking education,” dialogic reflection, and praxis. We intended to provide language and a theoretical basis for our further whole- group discussion. We explained that the underlying principle of changing reality, according to Freire, lies in the ways we think and that no one can sit still once they face the challenge, understand it, and recognize the possibilities of response. To explain this process, the first author used an analogy of a fish breaking through the trapping, oppressive system of the fish tank (awareness), joining other small fish in a critical dialogue and further uniting forces to stand up against a big fish (social change). The key reading materials that will help students, as well as the reader of this text, in preparation for the class are those by Freire (1974, 2000).

Furthermore, we provided an example of images that Freire used to encourage social analyses. We used two images of hunters (taken from Freire, 2000, pp. 66, 68) that Freire used to frame and guide the deconstruction of nature and culture. Here, we explained that nature is out of the control of humans; culture, on the other hand, was constructed by people and therefore can be undone and recreated.

Furthermore, the SHOWED technique, a questioning strategy, is introduced. The students are further invited to practice the application of this technique of deconstruction. For this specific lesson plan, we used the images from the Hampton Institute by Benjamin Johnston (1966) depicting the transformation of Native Americans from arrival at the Hampton Institute to graduation. During the activity, the teacher took on a role of a facilitator of the discussion generated by the students. Students were invited to critically appraise the images and voluntarily share their thoughts and reactions with the rest of the group. The nature of the activity and the setup created a heated and emotional discussion, cultivated critical thinking, curiosity, and predictions; and promoted exploration of diversity issues. As a facilitator of the activity, I (JS) sought to create a safe environment, inclusive of all perspectives, and to foster reciprocal learning with an ultimate goal of consciousness-raising. I did not give out answers but, rather, probed for deeper inquiry and critical assessment of the visuals in connection to prior knowledge, backgrounds, and experiences of the learners. Lindsey (1995), Johnston (1966), and Armstrong and Ludlow (1874) can assist the reader in their preparation for this whole-group activity. This part of the class lasts approximately 1% hours.

After the break, we lectured on Augusto Boal as an activist in the 1960s and his role in starting an international movement that used conventions traditionally associated with theater in the service of social change. We reviewed the ways he transformed theater as a way to facilitate social action and provided definitions of Image Theatre, Newspaper Theatre, Invisible Theatre, Forum Theatre, and Legislative Theatre as outlined by Boal (1979). Then, we showed a clip of an interview from “Democracy Now!” of Boal describing an instance of Invisible Theatre about Brazilian social policy addressing hunger and starvation that was staged at a restaurant.

After providing the content, we transitioned by introducing how some of Boal's techniques can be used for holistic engagement in community practice. We demonstrated this by inviting the class to participate in Boal's preliminary stages oftransforming the spectator into the actor: knowing the body, making the body expressive, and using theater as a language to communicate (Boal, 1979). We began with some simple warm-ups to engage the students' physical body. Then, to engage their imagination and help them to express themselves through movement, we used the “what if” technique used to teach acting (Stanislavski, 1987): While the students moved around the room, we directed them by asking questions such as “How would you behave if you were late? Or, if you were expecting the one you love? Or, if you just got some great news? etc.”

After the warm-ups, we explained how to use Image Theatre (Boal, 1979) to communicate a story using the actors' bodies. We guided them to tell stories with themes that were relevant to the student social worker experience. We did this by dividing the class into small groups to share with each other about their experiences as interns in their field placements and the challenges that emerge in the process of developing a professional identity. Students first discussed the developmental tasks required to manage paradoxical feelings and experiences while transitioning from student to practitioner and the tension between competing aspects within the role of intern. They addressed questions that they had in common, such as the following: “What can I do when I observe people experiencing marginalization or bias?” Have I felt, seen, or heard bias or discrimination within the context of my internship or field placement?” “How do I cope with my role as learner in my placement?” and “How do I resolve feelings of having to prove competence but also cope with the vulnerability of not knowing?”

The groups were then instructed how to use their bodies to create Image Theatre (Boal, 1979) to represent an experience that they had shared in the small group discussion about their field placements. Image Theatre can be especially useful to highlight contradictory roles or expectations that students may be experiencing. It is a nonverbal way to communicate complexities of internal as well as external conflicts, influences, and power struggles in professional and personal relationships. Students use their bodies to create a sculpture that represents the power dynamics by using spacing and positioning to depict alliances or differences in relationships. The image they create can be representative in either a realistic or an abstract way, but it needs to tell a story. Each student participates in the story by posing in ways that symbolize different elements within the characters and/or in the themes of the story. The activity concluded with a large group discussion to reflect on the images portrayed and what they were communicating.

 
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