Cookies, crumbs, community

When I was in my PhD program, I had the opportunity to teach several courses at the UNC-Chapel Hill MSW program, as well as a course in their “triangle” MSW program (though they may call it something different now). One semester I was teaching a course that students typically dreaded (Research I) and I was talking with my dissertation advisor about it. Wise and wonderful in so many ways, she gave me great advice here as well, which was to find a way to build community in the classroom so that students had some connection with each other. I can’t remember what specific strategies I attempted, but her advice made a difference in the classroom each week, and I have since woven that idea of “building classroom community” into my overall pedagogy.

And yet….I think I have taken it for granted sometimes recently, especially post-2020, and have just assumed that of course I am building community. This week, in a class that only meets once a week, I had this sense of needing to do something intentionally for community connection. Because we only meet once a week, and because we have a lot of content to cover, I often feel pretty rushed in there. But this week I brought cookies and at the beginning of class I told them we were going to spend a few minutes just giving them time to connect with each other. I told them the only “rule” was that they had to get out of their seat for their visiting, and make an effort to talk to people that maybe they hadn’t connected with in awhile. I loved observing it (and being a part of some of their connections).

When I was ready for them I shared with them the Mary Oliver work “Don’t Hesitate”

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, be very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”

When all was said and done, this only took about 15 minutes out of class, + the cost of cookies. When class was over, several said some version of “thank you for today” on the way out. It was a good reminder for me that while much of the time we build community and make connections with people during our usual work and routines, but that sometimes we have to be really intentional about it. Community, like joy, is not made to be a crumb.

Grief and longing

Several years ago I saw a poster that said “To teach is to touch a life forever”. I like the sentiment and in general agree with it, but my experience of teaching in higher ed is that the students touch my life as much or more than I touch theirs. It is a gift that my work gives me and I feel like in general I do a good job of remembering this. But there are some days I remember this more sharply than others.

Yesterday I was on the receiving end of a call similar to one I made a few years ago. Then, I was program chair and was calling to tell our department faculty and staff that one of our students had been killed in the shooting at the Waffle House. Yesterday, I received a call from my program chair (who I am thankful to call a friend) that one of our former students had been killed in an accident related to the tornado that had passed through our area the day before. This student, Laurel, graduated with her BSW in May of 2022 and stayed at our university to study law. I had the privilege of teaching her in several classes throughout her BSW and I can say that her commitment to justice was unwavering. She was a pleasure to teach and to know, and the fact that I got to watch her knowledge and commitment deepen over 4 years is a privilege. She was a genuinely good human; full of spirit and laughter and life. Her last semester of undergrad she had a class in another department on a schedule that meant she was often in our suite during lunch time. There was one particular day of each week our schedules overlapped and she and I frequently shared food around the table in our suite. I loved hearing her plans for the future as she was nearing graduation.

As the parent of three daughters, what I have been thinking about all day today are all the times I heard her talk about her sister. With love, with joy, with pride. Laurel loved her little sister so very much.

I am at the stage of my parenting where my kids are getting older: two high schoolers and one middle schooler. We had some long planned college visits to make this weekend, and as I have been on a couple of different campuses today I have seen reminders of Laurel in many spaces and places, including that of my own children. Watching “my girls” together and thinking about how my oldest will be going to college soon is both exciting and fearful. Seeing their relationship together brings me joy; though not perfect, it is full of sisterly bonds that I (an only child) always craved growing up.

I know that I cannot feel the depths of the grief that her mother and sister and other family members are feeling. I can barely process it from my own perspective. I can only imagine the longing they are feeling.

I am faithful enough to believe that we will see her again. I am human enough to wish I could have lunch with her again in Inman 205.

I am thankful to have the gift of work that keeps me continually in the relationship of wonderful humans.

May she rest in peace and power and the feeling of being deeply loved.

Winners, losers, and nuances

I was in the car a good bit this weekend, shuttling kids from various points to other various points. I was in my husband’s car, which meant I could actually use the radio. (My car radio has been broken for….awhile.) As a result of this car change, I got to listen to the TED Radio hour. I heard two pieces that were especially good: Susan Cain: The glorious complexity of being human and Hrishikesh Hirway: Finding balance through deconstructing music The first one was about the challenge of binary thinking about people, like “introverts and extroverts”, “winners and losers”, “happy people and sad people”, and that while we do have tendencies/orientations toward certain ways of being, the fact is that we are wonderfully complicated and we contain multitudes. The second piece featured the host and producer of the podcast Song Exploder (which sounds cool too), but in the interview Hirway talked about his dreams as a musician in the context of his success with the podcast interviewing other (more famous) musicians. He had the ultimate realization that his music was important because it was important to him, even if it didn’t serve the world in some greater way. It was his work interviewing other musicians who helped him understand this, because he heard them reveal their own insecurities about their work and what it might mean, or not, to others.

These two pieces together made me think of my own life, the way I see myself, the way others see me, and the art I want to be a part of (writing). It made me think of my students, who want to do the right things in the world and in their work. This desire to do right is harder than it feels like it should be sometimes, as we know we work in an imperfect world where there are sometimes unintended consequences of actions that we take with “right” reasoning.

It made me think of, among these other things, the death this week of Queen Elizabeth. The monarchy is something I don’t really understand and have never really followed. The Twitter threads, since her passing, seem to paint her as either an overwhelming winner (determined, gracious, focused on integrity, full of wit, etc) or an oppressive loser (which I know is a weird way to phrase it) where she was at best a passive symbol of colonial history and at worst, an active participant in political and social violence.

This idea of nuance and of each human containing multitudes applies to all of us, including royalty I guess. It is hard (for me at least) to know how to hold the tension point when the stage that a person occupies is so big. Teaching that, and discussing that with students, is so much harder than talking about principles of systems theory, and social welfare policy.

Poet Lesle Honore says it so much better than I can (taken from her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/leslehonorepoetry/) on September 8:

May our memory and nostalgia

Never cloud the truth

May we hold in tension

Our entertainment

Our fascination

Our indoctrinated fairy tale culture

With the legacy

Of colonization

Imperialism

The transatlantic slave trade

The sun that never set

On oppression

May we separate the crown

And the woman

And as we bury an era

May we never bury

History

Truth

Freedoms and reparations yet to be received

God Save The Queen

The policy class challenge + The 1619 Project

I love teaching policy. I have taught it at the BSW level for close to 20 years, whether the foundation class (an overview of key social welfare policies) or the policy practice class. The one I have taught most frequently is the former, which includes a fair amount of history (to set the stage for the policies we have now) as well as a staggering amount of content in order to give a general “big picture” look at key policy issues. I love teaching it, but most students come into the semester not knowing what to expect of it, or even (as they admit later) dreading it. In every cohort there are a couple of students who come in with a mindset of loving policy, but they are in the minority to their peers.

Knowing I have an uphill climb to get students interested and engaged in policy is one part of the challenge. The other challenge I have faced consistently is the choice of a text. I have never found any text that I felt covered all that needed to be covered, was worth the price point for students, was organized in a way that made sense, and was updated frequently enough. Every year this has been a frustration point for me as the textbook selector and teacher, and for students as the readers/learners.

For this year, I have decided to use a non-traditional text and supplement with a number of article readings. Most weeks find us reading a chapter or two from The 1619 Project along with peer reviewed articles on everything from TANF, the Every Student Succeeds Act, The Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act, and more….aligned with whatever is our major content focus for the week.

We are in week 3 of the semester, and I am loving our class discussions so far. They are intense, and highly participatory with almost 100% “out loud” student participation. From The 1619 Project they have read the Preface, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 13. From these sections alone we have had rich discussion on all the things we didn’t learn in our K-12 education, history and current issues of women’s rights, and the role of churches in social issues. Students have come with passion, with other suggested readings, with questions about what they can do to make a difference in everything from “book bans” in certain states to healthcare access, and with the stated desire to learn more. My class is a MWF class and by Friday at the end of class I was exhausted with trying to pay attention to all the nuance of the responses.

While I know there will be points at which people will question what they read, will experience resistance, will have some cognitive dissonance (which has already happened) and more, I think the value of this book in getting them to read and think critically about ways history shapes our current policy landscape is invaluable. I will try to remember to do a summary at the end of the semester of highs and lows of using this book, but feel free to reach out with questions, a syllabus copy, etc. I shape it every year and know it isn’t perfect, but I love teaching the topic and love to talk with other policy teachers.

Laying a foundation for community in a class with (emotionally) tough content

I am teaching a child welfare class for the first time since spring of 2020, which as we know is a semester that went upside down and sidewise due to the onset of COVID. And, we haven’t had a truly “regular” semester since then. Even in the summer I feel like there has been a heaviness in faculty and staff and students I have talked to about the fall. So, when I was renewing my syllabus for this semester, I wanted to be intentional about using some “check ins” in each class, that would both be relevant to the class content and also helpful in building community. As we get into other topics, these check ins will be central in making sure people are experiencing community and safety in the context of learning about child welfare issues, including childhood trauma.

The course outline for the class includes some really emotionally heavy content, as you would expect. We talk in depth about abuse and neglect and other experiences of childhood trauma. We talk about disproportionality in child welfare and we talk about burnout. (We also talk about well being and strengths and resilience and positive things too, but the hard “stuff” can take a toll regardless.) I build the semester so that we have a few sessions of less intensive topics before we get into the content that can be more distressing and so that we can have some different types of discussions as we are getting to know each other.

On the first day we used a “mood board” which was voluntary, but all of the students (25 of them) participated. They could choose how they felt about the first day of the semester, and for many of them—my 9 am class— this was their first class of the semester. Their choices were “Great!”, “Fine-ish”, “Meh”, “Don’t want to talk about it” and “Don’t know yet”. We had 1 “meh”, 7 for “Fine-ish” and 17 who were manifesting “Great!” We talked a little bit about the value of helping children identify their feelings about something, and the value for us as adults in doing it too. It was a good lead in to the discussion about the concepts of safety, permanency and wellbeing in child welfare and the related concepts of safety and trust and relationship we want to build in our learning community.

We also shared a book, movie or TV character that we found comfort or strength or inspiration in as a child. I loved their answers: everything from Violet and Sunny Baudelaire (sisters who were strong!) in the Lemony Snicket series, to the Penderwick sisters (they look out for each other), to Clifford the Big Red Dog (just because), Luna Lovegood (its okay to be weird), and more.

Here’s a good list of questions you can use for check-ins for yourself and your adult learners. https://myquestionlife.com/check-in-questions/

And again, I always tell my students that they don’t have to do the check in and also I always respond to the question myself, since I am not going to ask them to share something I am not willing to share.

I also plan to use some music on occasion. Here’s a piece I used last week and it was a fun way to kick off a class, and then we had a brief discussion about the lyrics they remember from this song in childhood versus this updated version.

Hopefully by the time we hit the harder topics of discussion (after a couple more sessions) we will know each other’s names and have a sense of community in the classroom.

Being kinder to yourself: Strategies for self-compassionate talk.

In the swirl of prepping syllabi and other things to get ready for the semester, I am feeling exhausted and scattered. Trying to remember that I don’t have to do everything (or even anything) perfectly. This piece from the Harvard Business Review was very helpful, which I found surprising because I don’t think of the HBR as speaking to the soul of a social worker, but there you have it. I love these specific strategies for self compassionate talk, and I plan to share them with students. And maybe post them all around my office and living room for my own benefit! https://hbr.org/2021/01/be-kinder-to-yourself

(I am also going to strive to remember moments of peace, like working puzzles at the farm and seeing some livestock casually strolling around. )

Blank space

We listen to a lot of Taylor Swift in my house, as I am the parent of three “Swifties”. Some of the lyrics get into my head whether I want them to or not (though I am a moderate Swiftie myself). “Blank Space” is one of those songs I like even though I am sure I am not the target audience for it, but her blank space is different than the one I have been experiencing this summer.

I have not been able to write, and haven’t really wanted to write. I have wanted to want to write, but that is about as close as it gets. Part of not wanting to write has been time, but the big part of not wanting to write has been about feeling like it doesn’t matter what is said. I don’t mean this piteously, like, “no one listens to my words, poor me” but rather I feel like I don’t see much evidence in the current world that people are swayed into thinking or acting differently about something because of someone’s written words.

The closer we get to the start of the semester (hello, next week!) I have felt the pull to organize my thoughts into writing more, which seems promising for my teaching if nothing else. I have been developing syllabi and am excited about some of the readings and discussions we will be having. I am hoping to approach my classes with more curiosity and creativity this semester, leaning into that with the comfort of the fact that I have a million semesters (maybe a few less) of solid foundational teaching to support some curiosity and creativity.

At the end of the spring 2022 semester, our seniors gave each faculty a book. They did a great job matching books to people, and the picture below is the one I was lovingly gifted. Love the Fur You’re In: Monster Wit and Wisdom from Sesame Street is going to be a guiding force for this semester, I can feel it.

Here’s to embracing the blank spaces as periods of rest….as something that comes “before”, and as something yet to be determined. Pressing on in the creation of the beloved community!

Teach me, but stay close by

I was giving a presentation today, on the second of two “dead days”, which is the space in between the end of the semester and the beginning of exam period. I have been running non-stop for the past few days especially, with all good things but also just too many things. A running joke during the meeting as we changed speakers was the tech trouble; we were always having the same trouble and the assistant kept coming up from the back of the room to come to our aid. It had happened to the two speakers before me, and as he was making his second trip to the podium during my presentation I said “can you teach me?” (he showed me quickly what I was doing wrong) and then as he walked away I said “but also can you stay close by?”

And I realized this is a metaphor for a lot: parenting, teaching, some of the community work I am doing. And I named that out loud, in the moment.

Tomorrow is the last day I will see “my” seniors in the collective sense. We have an exam period (we will be doing presentations) and then we will be doing celebrations: pizza, ice cream, pictures, and more. It is a tradition in our department that we have a senior send off right after the Capstone exam session, where all the faculty and our staff come and join. The next time we see them in a big group is on graduation day.

This group has had a twisty journey. They had a “normal” freshman year, their sophomore spring semester was interrupted by COVID, junior year was spent very hybrid for some and fully online for others; senior year has been a little more normal, but since it was mostly masked and with a couple of short periods online, even it has not been ideal for them.

I love these people. Obviously there are some I know better than others, but individually and collectively they have so much strength. I am excited to see what they bring to the future, the good work they will do in the world, and the ways they will live into their calling.

At the end of our presentations and before pizza (a critical moment, ha ha), I will be sharing this poem with them: Everything is Waiting For You (by David Whyte). https://onbeing.org/poetry/everything-is-waiting-for-you/

And I will remind them that while I won’t be their teacher anymore, I will always be close by.

My Grandmother’s Hands

Each spring I teach a capstone course for social work seniors, and there is a good bit of flexibility in terms of what I assign to read and what we discuss. This spring, my students and I have been reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. We just finished it two weeks ago and I have already given my copy of the book to a former student who dropped by last week; I was sad to let it go but it was more important to me that she reads it, based on a conversation we were having about her work and life. I plan to pick up another copy this summer in order to read it and practice some of the exercises more intentionally.

I assigned three discussion leaders each week, and most weeks we read three chapters. Students were so engaged with this book. They said frequently that every person should read this book, or at least every social worker or every student in a capstone class across campus. One of my colleagues, who teaches a seminar class that corresponds with students’ field placements, said that students often related the book content to their class and their processing of field. That is the biggest “win” for me, that students could immediately apply it to their work/field placement life and that it was challenging them to think about racism and racialized trauma on a near daily basis.

Below is a small sampling of some of the quotes or questions that were submitted by students on the week they were discussion leaders. Their questions and observations were so sincere and thought provoking. Even though it was a hard topic to discuss, spending time with the students in this discussion was a gift each week for me, to have the space to unpack it. (I was reading it for the first time along with them.)

What is an area of your life that you have become more aware of since reading this book? For me, I have become more in tune with the feelings I get in my body and the immediate thoughts that come with that – I give myself freedom to feel those feelings and then find the logic in them if any logic is present.

How can we, as helping professionals, hold empathy and accountability simultaneously?

What are your thoughts on this? (Note: referring to a section on page 205). I think we as a majority white group in this room need to be able to have an open conversation about this. About trauma, about whiteness not being something we chose, but the construct of whiteness being something we can change… An awareness needs to be more present and talked about.

On page 258, he talks about the importance of history. He says, “History lives in and through our bodies right now, and in every movement.” He also says that there are many white Americans who say things like, “Let’s focus on the here and now—or, better yet, on the future.” I think this is pretty evident in the ongoing debates (especially in the south) over critical race theory. I also think it’s super ironic that a lot of people who are so strongly opposed to the teaching of ALL of history, not just the whitewashed version of it are also the same kind of people who are “heritage, not hate” types. I don’t really have a direct question, but I’m curious what people think about the importance of history, and not just teaching it, but how we can use it to inform our present and future?

I will definitely use this book again, and have recommended it to several people both in the field of social work and outside of it. For me personally, on the first read through, the biggest thing that stuck with me and has shaped me already is the concept of “dirty pain” and “clean pain”. That has been useful as I have been thinking and praying my way through a particular situation. On my second read through, as I mentioned above, I want to be more intentional about some of the body practices as I think about healing personally and being part of collective healing as an activist. Lest you think you aren’t an activist, check out this one last quote, highlighted as a favorite by a student: “At its best, activism is a form of healing. Activism is not just about what we do; it is also about who we are and how we show up in the world. It is about learning and expressing regard, compassion, and love—for ourselves and for our fellow human beings” (p.244).

Loaves and Fishes

A few weeks ago, on a sunny day, I put my students in pairs and told them to go for a 15 minute walk and check in on each other, and to specifically ask “What are the words you need to hear right now?” When they got back from their (much appreciated) walks, I asked them if anyone wanted to share what they had said they needed to hear. The answers were not that surprising, because we are all sharing space in the same bonkers world, but the honesty with which some of them answer always takes me by surprise. I heard things like “I wish someone would tell me the world doesn’t have to sit on my shoulders” and “I wish someone would tell me it is okay not to have things figured out” and “I wish someone would tell me anything, that they would just be there for me”.

I thought then of the poem “Loaves and Fishes” by David Whyte. It goes like this:

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

People are hungry for good words, for people who will speak life around them and to them and into them.

I came into my office today in between classes and saw some cards left by students in honor of social work month. It was the highlight of my workday (and maybe my whole day, minus seeing my kids), to feel seen and appreciated and loved.

In terms of what it would take to build the Beloved Community, Dr. King wrote about agape love. He described it as “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative” (from The King Center https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/) He went on to say that agape love didn’t discriminate between unworthy and worthy people, and made no distinction between a friend and an enemy. Finally, he said, this kind of agape love is the foundation for community.

This is what I want to have flow out of me when there are stressful meetings at work. This is what I want to flow out of me when the food server gets my order wrong. This is what I want to flow out of me when students ask the question I. Have. Just. Answered.

This is what I want to flow out of me when it seems easier to keep the mask on, either literally or figuratively.

I want agape love to flow out of me and I want to speak words of light and truth. And, like the parable, I hope that though my words are simple “loaves and fishes”, that they have a reach beyond what I can imagine or plan.