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‘Another way of knowing’

Social work class uses art to reflect professional encounters

Teaching and Learning

By Laura Woodford

What does a hot air balloon or an onion have to do with social work?

Quite a lot apparently, according to students in Dr. Kathleen Sitter’s Social Work Knowledge and Skills for Integration of Theory and Practice class.

During the only course the third-year bachelor of social work students take while in their practicum placement (i.e. interactions with service users, individuals, families, interdisciplinary teams), they were assigned to submit a two-dimensional creative work, collage or model, with an accompanying title, brief caption and a research paper.

The creative piece was to be a visualization of their reflection on a professional encounter they experienced within the first few weeks of their placements. They were tasked with thinking about how that encounter might reflect significant power differences, where the subject matter is an area of concern or focus for themselves and the other person or people.

View the students’ creations below.

1/ Coping with oppression: burdened by the weight of life, by Jessica Ricketts

Jessica Ricketts: "Hot air balloons represent freedom: the ability to escape and appreciate your surroundings. While some people are privileged enough to always have access to this view, many people are also held down and unable to experience it. The heavy rocks with negative written words that are placed in the balloon's basket represent how we are often held down by the weight of the world, with many barriers capable of holding somebody back from experiencing the positive in life."

Photo: Chris Hammond

2/ Wearing my Identity, by Emily Power

Emily Power: "This piece represents an encounter I had with a client during our first meeting. The client looked me up and down and told me that my coat looked expensive. I felt critically aware in that moment, of the way I project my identity without realizing it, in day-to-day life."

Photo: Chris Hammond

3/ Layers of Complexities within Mental Healthcare Settings, by Angelina Putt

Angelina Putt: "The onion represents layers of power differentials and hierarchies surrounding mental health and in health-care settings. Not only do these hierarchies affect those living with mental illnesses, they also affect social workers and impact how we practise within these settings."

Photo: Chris Hammond

4/ Loss, by Carly Hutchings

Carly Hutchings: "The left side of the quilt symbolizes the happy times in a child’s life; when their family and the people they love surround them. The right side of the quilt symbolizes loss; I chose dark colours as this represents sadness. The center of the quilt represents my emotions, such as sadness, anger, and guilt, during the times I had worked with children who were removed from their families."

Photo: Chris Hammond

5/ Power and Use of Self: Mixed Emotions and Thoughts in Multidisciplinary Work, by Christine Van Kooten

Christine Van Kooten: "This art piece depicts a multidisciplinary team meeting regarding a conflict of the team members with a client’s psychiatrist. The colours and words represent the mix of negative and positive thoughts and feelings among the team, including myself. The size difference among the people indicates the power differential regarding who holds the most power for impacting the client. The two people who are outside of the group were not present at the meeting – the psychiatrist, who holds the most power, and the client, who holds the least power (besides me) to influence the decision."

Photo: Chris Hammond

6/ Paper to Person, by Chelsea Skanes

Chelsea Skanes: "This piece reflects the feeling of disconnect I had between a newly admitted resident to a long-term care facility and what I had read about them in their admission assessment. It was very difficult for me to reconcile the simple statements on paper with the complex person with whom I was working. This project helped me to think more thoroughly about the situation, consider how the biases of both myself and the assessor could influence practice with the residents, and aided in my unpacking of preconceived notions."

Photo: Chris Hammond

7/ Piecing things together, by Nicole Boggan

Nicole Boggan: "The interactive art piece consists of various referral forms from different agencies mounted in the form of a puzzle. However, several pieces of the puzzle are missing, which represent the gaps in services for youth in the St. John's area. The viewer is invited to attempt to put the puzzle together, taking on the role of the social worker who must make choices and work with inadequacies to connect service users with resources."

Photo: Chris Hammond

Dr. Sitter, assistant professor at the School of Social Work, says the exercise was an opportunity for students to actively engage through a lived experience of learning.

“The purpose of this assignment was for students to develop an awareness of their response in practice situations, to stimulate critical reflexivity and reflect on power relations with professional encounters,” she said. “It was also a way to expose students to various practicums.”

Linking theory and practice

Dr. Sitter worked with Joyce Fewer, teaching consultant at the School of Social Work, to produce a rubric for the assignment.

“This assignment was a wonderful example of linking theory and practice,” said Ms. Fewer. “It was an opportunity for students to depict another way of knowing and representing while demonstrating skills in reflection for social work practice.”

Once crafted, the students presented their creations, and the thinking behind it, to the rest of the class. They then engaged in an exploratory discussion about the pieces and resulting topics.

“The arts have a way to access spaces that academic papers can’t.” — Dr. Kathleen Sitter

Dr. Sitter says it was a safe way for students to explore issues they encountered while in the field, via the arts.

“Social change and raising awareness—we have to do that in a way that speaks to many people, that is accessible. The arts have played a huge role in social justice and in many movements. The arts have a way to access spaces that academic papers can’t.”

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