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New Courses Keep Curriculum “on the Cutting Edge”

  • A returning soldier adjusting to life shows signs of posttraumatic stress
  • A laid-off autoworker faces losing her home to foreclosure
  • A teenage boy ponders how to “come out” to his conservative parents

The kinds of clients and crises that social workers might encounter in the work world are now part of the classroom experience through Developing Practice Skills through Role-Play and Client Simulation. Professor Rich Tolman and Lecturer Scott Weissman launched the new 3-credit course in which social work students portray authentic characters who use the diverse services that social workers provide.

“We have always known simulations and role-play are effective teaching tools,” Tolman says. “But in the past, we’ve focused almost exclusively on the practitioner’s behavior. This is the first time we’ve emphasized what can be learned by reflecting on the client perspective.”

Students “become” the character they choose for the entire semester and research what it is like to be—for example—someone who is homeless, mentally ill, or a victim of domestic violence.

They interact with the instructors and with the class as a whole, responding to questions ranging from “what do you eat for breakfast?” to “who is your family of origin?” “How did you get into these circumstances?” says Weissman, a psychotherapist whose background combines social work and theater arts.

The course draws upon acting technique, psychodrama, and social theater approaches like Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed.

“Unlike working with real clients, the simulations present no privacy restrictions,” Tolman points out. “We can videotape the performances and use them as a basis of thoughtful reflection and group discussion. We are hoping some of our alumni might participate in the paired simulations, playing the experienced practitioner role.” 

Other faculty members have expressed interest in having the students visit some of their own classes as simulated clients, he added. Plans are underway to collaborate with Associate Professor Joseph Himle’s Interpersonal Practice with Adults class. This collaboration will give students experience with the evidencebased models that Himle emphasizes. Most of the students will portray clients with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse disorders for these simulations.

“By deeply exploring the characters they create, students will also gain insight into their own beliefs and motivations. It’s an amazingly rich learning experience.” 

Cross-University Collaboration 

The simulation course is one of a number of innovations designed to “keep the curriculum on the cutting edge, giving social workers the tools they need as they move beyond the classroom,” according to Associate Professor Mary Ruffolo.

“The term that’s emerged is ‘adaptive expertise’—the skill of knowing how to act in a specific moment in time, whether you are working with a client, an organization, or a community.” 

Associate Professor Michael Spencer, who succeeded Ruffolo as associate dean of educational programs in January, explains, “We’re trying to prepare students with this integrative knowledge that incorporates skills, theory, and research. Social workers are looking for very specific models of practice that they feel confident in applying in a practice setting.”

To this end, the faculty has developed a number of 15-hour, one-credit mini-courses in an intense, condensed format on very specialized topics. 

One is Comparative Social Policy Seminar: Examining Social Welfare Policy in the U.S. and Singapore, in which masters-level students in the two countries compared national policies on such issues as health care, family violence, and juvenile justice. 

“They were able to do this through new technology such as virtual meetings, video conferencing, and chat rooms,” says Ruffolo, who created the course with Professor Emerita Rosemary Sarri and Irene Ng (’04, PhD ’06), a former U-M doctoral student and currently an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore. 

“What is really exciting is that the students became so invested that they set up extra meetings, working around the 12-hour time differences,” Ruffolo relates. “The two groups shared and compared the U.S. and Singapore perspectives, culminating in joint presentations on their findings. They gained a greater appreciation of the way different cultures respond to human needs. For example, we learned about Singapore’s health care system, which was timely since America is going through its struggles with health care reform. 

“They really got to know one another as people, as social workers in two different countries,” Ruffolo concluded. “It was a very positive experience for all of us.”

“One of the School’s priorities is to take on a more global perspective,” notes Spencer. “This crossuniversity collaboration also fits with our emphasis on issues related to diversity and culturally appropriate practices, as well as social justice.” 

New Academic Minor  

Recognizing that many U-M undergraduate students are committed to social justice and civic engagement, the School has collaborated to create a new multidisciplinary academic minor in Community Action and Social Change (CASC). 

“This is a major initiative, formed in collaboration with the College of LS&A and several programs and departments, and funded by the Provost’s Office,” Ruffolo notes. “It’s a departure for us, since we’ve been mostly focused on graduate education.”

“U-M students have a strong tradition of community service. The new minor is geared toward students who are interested in social justice issues and concerned about improving the communities they are connected to,” explains Katie Richards-Schuster, director of the CASC minor. “Many students interested in the minor are engaged in community work already and see the minor as a way to capture their commitment and interest through their academic work.”

A new 3-credit course, Theories and Practices for Community Action and Social Change, serves as the core foundation of the new academic minor. It is being taught by an interdisciplinary team of Dean Laura Lein, Project Community director Joseph Galura, course consultant Adrienne Dessel, and Richards-Schuster.

“The course prepares students to be informed and active participants in the process of community building and change. It draws on multidisciplinary frameworks to learn about community action and social change. In the course we are utilizing innovative approaches to learning, including experiential exercises, in-depth discussions, multi-media technology, community guest speakers, and skill-building activities,” Richards-Schuster says. 

“One of the benefits of a multidisciplinary minor is that it brings together students from different academic backgrounds to think about how best to approach the needs and issues facing society. To date, the minor has attracted interest from students from across the university—from the areas of psychology, sociology, and political science to theater, engineering, kinesiology, organizational studies, business, public policy, and more. The wide-reaching interest suggests the importance of a minor that supports the ability for students to understand frameworks and develop strategies and tools for addressing the social needs of society. Although many of the students are interested in social work as a future career path, many others have interest in using their skills to promote community change whether it be through business, medicine, or policy.” 

“Tip of the Iceberg”

“In social work education, we are addressing many levels of interest,” Ruffolo points out. “The clinicians want to know, how do I engage more successfully with a diverse group of consumers? how do I best intervene in a school or a health care setting, and what are the best interventions out there? 

“A second group is interested in management and organizational change. They are seeking the best practices in supervisory skills, program development, fundraising for nonprofits. 

“A third set of students is interested in policy development, so they have to learn how to convey information to constituents and move legislation forward. A fourth group is focused on community action: how do you build up strengths within communities? how do you get members to engage in a particular change effort? 

“In other professions you can say, ‘This is what a teacher does; this is what a therapist does.’ Social work is so much broader,” she continues. “Students as well as professionals are coming to the School to enhance their skills in one or more of these areas. The client simulations course, to use one example, is helpful not just to the clinicians but also to those in organizational development and community change.” 

“Evidence-based courses incorporate the best we’ve learned from research, address the preferences and perspective of the consumer, and build on the clinician’s expertise. The mini-course format allows us to bring people in to teach to their strengths. The student response has been very positive. It works.”

The field of social work is changing, influenced by technology and a current economy that is producing new client populations, Spencer notes. “We, as a faculty, have been engaged in strategic thinking about our whole curriculum, thinking outside of the box (that box being the 3-credit, 3-hour once-a-week course). 

“We will continue to brainstorm around what is core, what do social workers need to know at the clinical but also the macro and research level. It’s all woven into our idea of strategic thinking, focus on faculty strengths, innovative courses.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he concludes. “It’s also the beginning of discovering what the rest of the iceberg looks like.”

—Pat Materka, a former U-M staff member, is a freelance writer who owns and operates the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast.

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