Social Dialogue Magazine
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Marleny M. Bonnycastle, Ph.D. University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA

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Tuula Heinonen, D.Phil. University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA

Bringing the Arts into Social Work Education in two Country Contexts

Rationale and Contexts

Our experiences of integrating arts-based methods in social work in Canadian and Nepali contexts has offered various challenges and insights that we describe. In Nepal, Marleny explains her work with groups of people who were affected by physical and social issues and Tuula describes in a Canadian context how students experienced and learned through experiential learning activities in which expressive arts were featured. Arts-based methods comprised the pedagogic strategies that involved the social work students in learning about social work values, ethics and concepts while employing critical thinking skills that could be applied in their future careers in the profession. Based on our experiences in Nepal and Canada, we have been able to locate a number of themes that became evident from our work. These are related to how the arts in social work education enables connections that cross borders, cultural contexts, populations and social work settings. Making use of the arts in social work education adds new perspectives and greater depth for both students and educators (Sinding & Barnes, 2015), enabling innovative pedagogical approaches to help students generate and apply creative capacities of their own through visual and other arts-based communication methods (Stevenson & Orr, 2013). Use of creative methods can promote and accommodate interventions for people who communicate best using methods other than talk.

Nepal Experience: Art workshop

Its main purpose was to increase participants’ capacities to provide post-earthquake responses and engage their earthquake-affected communities using community engagement approaches such as arts- based activities.

Marleny used a variety of arts-based methods to help participants in their current situation to deeply reflect on where they came from, to get to know one another, and take opportunities to explore their own self-awareness. She used Tymothy Pyrch’s “tree of life” metaphor in an individual and collective activity (2012, p. 106). This activity involves creating a visual conception of one’s life in the form of a tree that is used to help participants to connect with their natural environment (Linton, 2017). Creating the tree also helped participants to locate themselves within their own environments and build connections between their trees and their experiences of working with earthquake-affected people. Appreciative inquiry and strengths based approaches were used to ask questions while participants presented their ‘tree of life’ to the other participants. They spoke about their strengths and assets such as their families, their Nepali identity, their regional ethnic identity and/ or their feelings of being ‘a citizen of the world’, their career aspirations and goals as well as their current achievements in different areas of their life such as hobbies and raising children. Appreciative questions created the bridge between their tree of life and possible future roles in using art-based activities with children.

Arts-based content in the Canadian social work classroom Not much attention has been given to the inclusion of arts-based topics or methods such as drawing, painting, poetry, narrative, photography, drama and music. Certainly, this gap in social work education is not as pronounced currently, with a greater interest evident in integration of the arts into social work (e.g., Sinding & Barnes, 2015; Conrad & Sinner, 2015). In her own teaching and research experience, Tuula has observed that arts-based teaching methods contributed to her teaching and learning with both undergraduate and graduate social work students. It has been helpful to draw on her art therapy and art history education and on 25 years of social work teaching in Canada and abroad. Tuula have found that many social work students possess significant creative experience or capacity even if they have not had opportunities to make use of it in their studies. However, in social work there is much room for creativity, in both practice settings and in research projects. Providing opportunities for students to explore and apply arts-based methods offers innovative options for practice interventions and inquiry. Critical reflection can be encouraged during engagement in various art forms, such as mural creation or theatre. Through such creative expression in class activities deep insights and awareness of the power that can be harnessed through arts-based applications in many social work settings and fields, such as in prisons, hospitals, schools, children’s services, family therapy, can be realized. A variety of resources, tools and techniques can promote students’ learning about possibilities for practice and research. By learning about and experiencing arts-based methods students can appreciate and understand the ways that the arts can be used to heal and even transform lives. Different methods from the arts can benefit a range of people who receive services from social workers. For example, the use of movement in the promotion of wellness among women who have experienced forms of interpersonal violence can be very helpful, as could other expressive arts-based methods such as theatre, video-making, photography, painting or music. Through these methods, feelings of anger, hurt, frustration and joy can be expressed (Skudrzyk, Zera, McMahon, Schmidt, Boyne & Spannaus, 2009). Examples of Creative Methods Exercises In practice courses, undergraduate social work students participated in a classroom exercise in which they formed groups to develop and create a collage. They were asked to draw from their experience and knowledge of violation, fear, rage and oppression about a problem or issue that they thought needed attention. Deep discussion and interactive creative activity helped the group members learn about The use of the tree of life, Appreciative Inquiry and strengths approaches helped participants to cope with post-disaster climate feelings and trauma to become empowered and build hopes. Art activities allow people to express themselves freely and to look towards the future. Participants were able to use activities that focused on working with people impacted by the earthquake. They discussed the importance of focusing on the resilience of people and the collective knowledge of the community, rather than only on their vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

Arts-based content in the Canadian social work classroom

Not much attention has been given to the inclusion of arts-based topics or methods such as drawing, painting, poetry, narrative, photography, drama and music. Certainly, this gap in social work education is not as pronounced currently, with a greater interest evident in integration of the arts into social work (e.g., Sinding & Barnes, 2015; Conrad & Sinner, 2015). In her own teaching and research experience, Tuula has observed that arts-based teaching methods contributed to her teaching and learning with both undergraduate and graduate social work students. It has been helpful to draw on her art therapy and art history education and on 25 years of social work teaching in Canada and abroad.

Tuula have found that many social work students possess significant creative experience or capacity even if they have not had opportunities to make use of it in their studies. However, in social work there is much room for creativity, in both practice settings and in research projects. Providing opportunities for students to explore and apply arts-based methods offers innovative options for practice interventions and inquiry. Critical reflection can be encouraged during engagement in various art forms, such as mural creation or theatre. Through such creative expression in class activities deep insights and awareness of the power that can be harnessed through arts-based applications in many social work settings and fields, such as in prisons, hospitals, schools, children’s services, family therapy, can be realized. A variety of resources, tools and techniques can promote students’ learning about possibilities for practice and research. By learning about and experiencing arts-based methods students can appreciate and understand the ways that the arts can be used to heal and even transform lives. Different methods from the arts can benefit a range of people who receive services from social workers. For example, the use of movement in the promotion of wellness among women who have experienced forms of interpersonal violence can be very helpful, as could other expressive arts-based methods such as theatre, video-making, photography, painting or music. Through these methods, feelings of anger, hurt, frustration and joy can be expressed (Skudrzyk, Zera, McMahon, Schmidt, Boyne & Spannaus, 2009).

Examples of Creative Methods Exercises

In practice courses, undergraduate social work students participated in a classroom exercise in which they formed groups to develop and create a collage. They were asked to draw from their experience and knowledge of violation, fear, rage and oppression about a problem or issue that they thought needed attention. Deep discussion and interactive creative activity helped the group members learn about themselves as individuals and about other group members in relation to their views on the issues they had selected to represent in their collage. Through the collage process, together they developed strategies that could be used to change the situation for those affected. Once their collages were completed, some groups chose to act out them out, sharing their ideas through poetry, movement or theatre in powerful and poignant performances.

Classroom exercises like these constitute powerful learning experiences that are not easily forgotten by students who take part. They invoke deep emotion ‘from the gut’ and active participation, leading to enduring knowledge from experiences that can empower not only those who present the collages, but also those who observe. Many students commented that the collage exercise was one of the most meaningful learning experiences they had participated in during their social work programs. The class exercise described above provided expressive learning opportunities for the social work students and generated significant discussions and insights for applications to practice in a wide variety of populations and settings. Although not meant to substitute for training in expressive arts therapies, students were able to appreciate the power in arts-based methods and to consider their own relationship to such methods in the future.

Arts-based methods can be useful in qualitative research project, adding additional depth and insights to the research process and results. In social work inquiry, such creative methods primarily involve photography (e.g., Bonnycastle & Bonnycastle, 2015; Heinonen & Cheung, 2008), although stories, poetry, visual arts, and theatre may also be applied. In one social work research course, students created individual collages using a range of different materials on letter-sized card stock. They chose photos from magazines and added strokes of pastel to complete a project of interest to the students. The finished college art pieces were then drawn upon as a source for a written description about what their collage art work meant to them. Then, they searched for the most powerful or meaningful words in the description that they thought formed the essence of their collages. The words they selected were used to compose short poetic texts. This exercise was an adaptation of a process described by Butler-Kisber (2010), and could be of potential use in one of their research projects.

This exercise was inspired by ‘found poetry’ (Butler-Kisber, 2010), which in one variation, can involve selection of text for poetic writing to enhance the strength of research outcomes. The combined use of collage and poetry led to new ways of seeing data and researcher process, where intense critical reflection took place. Arts-based methods in inquiry offer innovative paths for social work, whether related to creative research processes or impacts at individual and collective levels.

Thematic Insights and summary

Throughout our experiences in using arts in the classroom and research, we have identified a variety of themes including significance and intensity of expression, experience and learning, experiencing power, reflection and insight and learning through reflexivity.

The two projects described in this article depict experiential activities in different country-specific situations and cultural contexts. A common thread that weaves through the arts-based projects is the focus on coping, healing and strength in the human spirit to survive and thrive despite challenges, stresses and worries of what is to come. From this work, we learned more about the capacity to build community and share learning with those who understand and support one another through lived experiences they know well.

References

Bonnycastle, M. M., & Bonnycastle, C. R. (2015). Photographs generate knowledge: Reflections on experiential learning in/outside the social work classroom. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 233-2015.
Butler-Kisber, L. (2010). Qualitative inquiry: Thematic, narrative and arts- informed perspectives. London: Sage.
Conrad, C., & Sinner, A. (Eds.). (2015). Creating together: Participatory, community-based and collaborative arts practices and scholarship across Canada. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Heinonen, T. & Cheung, M. (2008) Views from the village: Photonovella with women in Rural China. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 6(4), pp. 35-52. Located on line at: ejournals.library.ualberta.ca
Linton, J. (2017). A natural response to a natural disaster: The art of crisis in Nepal. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 30(1), 31-40.
Pyrch, T. (2012). Breaking free: A facilitator’s guide to participatory action research practice. Calgary, Canada: Timothy Pyrch Publishing.
Skudrzyk, B., Zera, D. A., McMahon, G., Schmidt, R., Boyne, J., & Spannaus, R. L. (2009). Learning to relate: Interweaving creative approaches in group counseling with adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 4(3), 249-261.
Sinding, C., & Barnes, H. (2015). Introduction. In C. Sinding & H. Barnes (Eds.), Social work artful: Beyond borders and boundaries. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Stevenson, M., & Orr, K. (2013). Art therapy: stimulating non-verbal communication. Nursing & Residential Care, 15(6), 443-445.