Tag Archives: students

Starting in the Classroom: Blended Instruction for Policy Practice

I can definitively say, now, almost 4 years after the university started its experiment with instruction that is part traditional classroom format and part-online, that, for teaching social policy, I totally love it.

I promise it’s not because scheduling class around my practice and my kids’ schedules is easier when we meet only 7 times/semester, instead of every week.

The late nights on the discussion boards and trolling the Internet for new content that I want to introduce (and, still, sometimes, soothing students anxious about the long stretches we have between class periods) sort of make up for that.

No, what I like the best is how much more closely it parallels how social work practitioners engage with social policy, as compared to having access to an instructor like me for 3 hours every week.

Students learn to navigate policy information online, evaluating the respective biases of each perspective, just like they have to in practice.

They build communities of other social workers who can support them through the often isolating experiences of unraveling the layers of social injustice that constrain their effective work with clients. They pivot between untangling root causes and applying salve to the wounds of those injured by our society. They turn their attentions to the ways in which clients experience policy most–in the policies that agencies develop in order to operate within these external parameters.

They find ways to weave advocacy and investigation and constituent development into their direct practice, without overwhelming their days or (hopefully) antagonizing their practice organizations (too much).

And, I guess, that’s our hope for students in any social work policy class, but, again, year after year, my students have returned to tell me how much harder it all gets, when they graduate and no longer have the classroom experience to ‘root’ their social policy studies.

It’s one thing to stay grounded in a dual micro/macro practice approach when you have half a work day, every week, set aside for that express purpose.

It’s quite another when you’re literally on your own.

So, while I don’t consider my responsibility to my students any less in a blended course than one where I’m in front of them every week–quite the opposite–I know that they do experience me differently, and, so I leave a different impression on their social work identity.

It is my hope, and I think, it has been affirmed at least somewhat over these past few years of experimenting, that this instructional format equips my students to take on social policy in the arena where they’ll need to be effective, as policy practitioners.

In the ‘real world’, which is to say, increasingly in today’s context, online.

The best of both worlds, I hope.

Starting in the Classroom: Safe Spaces

One of the parts of my teaching that I take most seriously is my obligation to create a ‘safe space’ in which my students can grapple with their professional ethics and the conflicts between these ethical standards and students’ own personal values and beliefs.

This is true in most social work classes, I think, and there’s certainly a strong practice component of these concerns; students want to talk, for example, about what they’ll do if a client wants advice about getting an abortion, if they are opposed personally.

But there is an undeniable policy element here, too, as students grapple not just with how they feel about these ‘hot button’ issues, but how that needs to translate to their support or opposition for specific social policies, and, then, even for candidates.

As a professor, I struggle with the balance between making sure that students feel that they can authentically question the different venues through which to achieve given policy aims…and my desire to see the social work profession articulate a compelling, and even a commanding, commitment to policy ‘goods’, because that’s precisely what I believe our profession, and our social policy, needs.

And this means that, even within our classroom, different ethical principles can collide, particularly our desire to support the individual self-determination of all human beings (yes, including social work professionals) and our need to be a more effective voice for policies capable of delivering greater social justice, which demands a more unified front.

I don’t have the answers for this, but I hope that it’s a case of where being transparent and wrestling with these questions alongside my students gets us at least focused on the issue in a constructive way.

We have to come to terms, after all, with the messiness of trying to bring a diverse group of professionals to consensus on a variety of policy issues (and, surely, questions about taxation and criminal justice and foreign policy and public assistance are no less thorny than marriage equality or reproductive rights), but also with the real risk of our irrelevance if we conclude that we can’t deal with these divides and, so we must stay largely out of the political arena.

And that’s where I think my classroom comes in. I hope it can be a laboratory for democracy, a safe place to prepare ourselves for advocacy, which is inherently risky.

I hope that it can help my students to construct a mutual aid group, of sorts, as we navigate the policy arena together.

Because we can’t hide, within the four walls of our classrooms.

But hopefully we can sharpen our skills and focus on our values and gird ourselves for debate, here.

And then feel ready to engage. Where we need to be.

Together.

Review Week: So Rich, So Poor

When I see statistics like this one in So Rich, So Poor: In 2009, there were 2 million families in the United States with only SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamp) benefits as income (it’s an entitlement, not a block grant like TANF, so it has the ability to expand with need during times of recession), I think:

We are better than this.

Because we ARE.

Americans are, truly, a pretty generous group.

Americans gave $316.2-billion to charity last year, which represents 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the same as in 2011. There are reasons to be concerned about the lack of growth in giving, in light of more organizations evidencing more significant need, but, still, that’s no small exercise of altruistic expenditure.

And that contrasts, sharply, with our public policy infrastructure, where we do very little to help, in particular, those with incomes below 50% of the poverty line (even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, really only serves to bring these folks up to ‘regular’ poverty) and working families, who suffer acutely the decline in the value of the minimum wage.

While there is room for improvement in our efforts to make people aware of the realities of poverty, certainly–I’m intrigued by the idea of labels on products that describe the quality of the jobs that produced them, for example, for the most part, we just have to face this sharp divergence between how we give privately and what we’re willing to commit to publicly.

Indeed, even on the micro level, our narrative of the American Dream leads us to individual explanations for why people struggle, and, then, individual approaches for how to help.

I think–and this is by no means an entirely original thought–that our lack of faith in government, and our failure to be captivated by the power of the collective, are at the heart of this disconnect, fueled further by our discomfort with helping people we don’t know.

And social workers are not blameless in this separation of problem and solution, and the woeful inadequacy of the response that results.

When was the last time you heard a social worker express enthusiastic support for welfare?

Why do so many of my students–all of them absolutely committed to improving people’s lives, including reducing the poverty in which people struggle–distance themselves from macro approaches to bringing this relief?

It’s not about apathy. It’s no harder to speak out against SNAP cuts or call out Congress on tax cuts, really, than it is to find $50 in your budget to support a worthwhile organization.

It’s certainly no harder to sign a petition or even visit a legislator than it is to engage people in the tremendously difficult process of working with a broken system to navigate help they need.

Instead, it’s a lack of imagination, a failure of vision, a preference for familiar, localized channels instead of the unknowns of fundamental change.

But if we’re going to craft solutions scaled to confront the crisis of poverty–and we must–we’ve got to do that together, not one check at a time.

Pulling back the curtain–technology for budget knowledge

My 7-year-old son has been testing out these interactive federal budget games for me over the past few weeks, especially the Budget Hero, which is quite cool, really.

And I’m intrigued by the increasing availability, born of the attention and vigorous debate around the federal budget, of multimedia content with which to engage our thinking (including that of my students!) around budget decisions, like this video.

What I find encouraging about these kinds of tools is their ability to bridge a particular challenge–making the federal budget (in its massive scale and far-reaching scope) accessible to Americans, without simplifying it to the level of a household budget, which is inherently distorting and, I think, somewhat destructive.

To get off the sidelines and really engage with these essential budget questions, we need to increase our understanding about the trade-offs involved and find ways to wrap our collective heads around the tough sacrifices inherent in the process of resource allocation.

But we need to do it on real terms, not those that would pretend that the U.S. government should operate as a family would, or that the stakes are comparable.

While an online game–or a documentary–can’t approximate the experience of really holding the nation’s fiscal future in one’s hands, if Sam’s enthusiastic ‘refreshing’ of his game, to start over when he doesn’t like the way it ended up, is any indication, they may be helpful tools for bringing our knowledge up to a point where we’re able to have real conversations.

Have you discovered, and tried, any budget tools like these? Do you have any favorites? What functionality do you think would improve these experiences? What role can you imagine for this technology, in our national deliberation of the budget?

Review Week: Red Ink

It’s hard to imagine a time when there has been more attention paid to the federal budget than in the past several years.

When my students have to do a media analysis of coverage of the budget, it’s an embarrassment of riches these days.

But I find, for my students, that sometimes this familiarity can breed contempt.

When they learn that, in 2009, for the first time every dollar of revenue was committed for past promises–entitlements–it can be hard to message around why their advocacy is imperative.

When they question whether any crisis is sufficient to prompt leadership in today’s budget battles, I worry that they will cringe and turn away.

When I explain rules like Pay As You Go (PAYGO), I worry that, instead of committed to learning more about how to navigate the constraints in order to be effective advocates, they will toss up their hands in disgust.

In the fall semester, I teach a survey of social policy. For the most part, my energies are focused on helping students untangle what they thought they knew about the social policy landscape in which we live–and our clients struggle–and helping them articulate alternatives that could bring better outcomes.

And, now, in the spring, I teach advocacy practice.

For the first time, I’m finding it harder.

My students who are ‘coming of age’ (of any chronological age) in this particular climate are at risk, I fear, of tuning out, in a way that I couldn’t imagine just a few years ago.

It’s not that the policy climate is any more adverse than it was then; we cannot let ourselves be lulled into complacency by imagining that this is any worse than a time when ketchup was declared a vegetable for school lunches, or certainly when long lines formed for free meals.

It’s the process that concerns me, and my students’ difficulty in visioning a role for themselves within it.

Because their voices are needed, of course, now more than ever.

I consider it, then, one of my most sacred duties, to keep them from abandoning these fights.

What sustains you, as an advocate, and gives you enough hope to continue to engage? What should be my approach to cultivating that same engagement among my students?

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.

Inspiration for the Journey

On this last day of February, this is my last post (for now) about my plans for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

I’m ending the semester with a sort of ‘sending off’.

One of the hardest parts of advocacy practice–in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of many social work practitioners–is sustaining oneself for the journey.

It’s not just about preventing burnout, although that is, of course, important. It’s also about finding a sort of group of colleagues–a team–even when, in many organizations and fields of practice, there are relatively few social workers and/or relatively few practitioners engaged in advocacy practice in a concerted way.

It’s about finding sources of inspiration to give perspective during difficult fights. It requires the ability to center oneself on an animating vision–the world as it should be–without giving up in despair when we fall so short of that ideal. It requires taking care of oneself without retreating to the exclusively private sphere.

It is, of course, a very tall order for a 2.75-hour class period.

I’m going to show some film clips and share some poetry and have them do some journaling. We’re going to utilize some online forums to connect ourselves. I will, as I do every year, offer myself as a mentor and cheerleader.

There may be tears.

And, I’m hoping to crowd-source it a bit.

What sustains you?

What examples are inspiring to you? What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you stay connected with peers? How do you keep going during difficult times?

What advice would you offer to my students, as they begin their own advocacy careers?

What lights would you offer for their journey?