Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lessons Learned this Week

 The importance of unbounded enthusiasm.
The necessity for hope.

It matters where we place our priorities.

The truth is, these were not lessons I learned this week.  I've known this for a long time; it just seemed that events of this week were potent reminders.  In the midst of the death and destruction of the tornadoes in Mississippi and the south, the fires and drought in Texas (where my family and friends live), and the long, difficult days of the accreditation visit this week, there have been moments so beautiful and poignant that it has brought tears to my eyes.

The validation of all of our hard work on the MSW program--an incredibly positive and powerful exit interview citing multiple strengths and 0 concerns--yesterday morning began a work day that had dawned full of blue clear skies, sunshine, and birds singing--stark contrast to the black skies, winds and rain, and continuous sirens of Wednesday.  As I sat there, surrounded by my colleagues whom I have come to admire, respect, value, and love, there were moments when I was teary-eyed as I listened to the site team list the strengths of our program, and to know that I had been a part of helping to create that program. 

At 1, I went over to evaluate the first of the students who are doing the final project in class: facilitating a task group.  Even though I tell them that every group always is able to do it, they still worry, and are anxious.  When the group is complete, I move into their circle, ask them how they felt about it, their strengths and accomplishments, what they learned they will need in future groups, and then, I share my feedback of how I have seen the group.

I always tell them in this final project that I will pick their group, and I put the students I want in that group.  I don't tell them why, but I tell them they will be able to figure it out.  At the end of the group yesterday, one of the students shared her observation of who was in the group, and what she noticed, and asked if that was the reason.  She was right--and I reminded them not to share that insight with the other groups  yet to come, as it was important learning for the group to discover that on their own.

It is always one of those "Kodak moments" for me at that time.  As I listened to the members share their experience of the group, and see what they have learned and are able to do, and how excited they are about that realization, I feel so blessed to be a part of educating social workers.  I feel so hopeful about the future of this state as I see these students moving forward with their enthusiasm and energy and passion and commitment--and yes, their knowledge and skills and values.  I see how far they have come from the first time I taught them to now, whether it has been in several classes, or just this one.  I share the strengths I see in each of them, and acknowledge how much I learn from them, and how it affects my  professional and personal growth.  I always get teary-eyed at that point, as I realize how important they are to me and my work, my life, and my commitment to making a difference.  They keep me humble because the more I teach, the more I learn.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Wild Wednesday Ride

Wow, what a night and day.  I woke at 2:30 this morning with the thunderstorm, and shortly after, the power went off.  I was still awake at 6, due to thunderstorms and the extreme quiet that makes me hear every sound of Rex's toenails hitting the floor when he paces during a storm...the sound of every raindrop hitting the porch...the sound of every tree limb snapping.  Not to mention, it was hot as the power was off and the A/C and fans could not operate.

When the power is off, we have nothing, including water except for what is in the holding tank--maybe 5 gallons--that will come down due to gravity.  I took a cold Navy shower and was planning to head on in to work to dry my hair when the power came back on.  Just as I was headed out the door, I heard the sirens start to blare, and yep, tornado spotted and it was as dark as night in a nano-second.  I got the dogs and son into the hall to wait it out, thanking my husband for my iPhone so I still had contact.  He was at the time in the basement of his building.  Meanwhile, the water began to flood into the bottom floor of our house, and was pouring in faster than we could stop it with towels and blankets.  Gotta love living at the bottom of a hill in Mississippi.

Finally at 9:15, the tornado warning expired and the rain let up, so I headed to work.  Not only did I have class at 10, we had an all-day meeting with the accreditation folks.  I made it to campus and taught to the 5 of 15 students who made it to class.  We had just settled in at 11 for the accreditation marathon when the sirens started again...and never stopped until after 2 pm.  Needless to say, I had a raging headache long before then.

We continued on with the site visit; after all, there was nothing we could do anyway, and we were on the bottom floor interior room and as safe as possible under the circumstances.  Meanwhile, it was dark as night outside, and the tornado cell was moving over the homes of 5 of the 7 faculty present in the room.  It was a long, hard day, to put it mildly.  It was hard to focus, hard to think, and hard to stay calm in the midst of all the chaos.

In spite of all the turmoil, my only damage was loss of shutters (which I was planning to remove anyway as soon as I had time), a few tree limbs, and Libby's kennel being a floating island of mud.  She had not wanted to go outside all day--who can blame her?

We have another marathon day tomorrow with the site visit--this time 9-4--but at least the sun is supposed to shine.  Here's hoping for a good night's sleep with no thunderstorms either!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

James Pirkle Blues Band

Randy and I actually went out Friday night...to dinner...and hear live music!  I can't remember the last time we have done anything remotely resembling a "date night."   Most of our weekends these days are spent trying to catch up on things around the house, or else vegging on the couch in front of the TV.  I've never been much of a TV watcher my whole life, but I have sure made up lost time in the last year or so.

My friend Jill called and said her husband's band was playing at The Shak, a fairly new barbeque restaurant in Oxford and invited us to meet her there. Jill's husband, Larry, is bass player for the band.   These guys have been playing together since they were in Tupelo High School.  She has invited us several times to hear them play, and we finally had the opportunity last night.

The bandstand is outside, and it was a beautiful evening here with perfect weather for being outside.  I had some mighty good ribs while the band was setting up.  They began the show at 7, and were still playing without having taken a break when we left at 8:40.

These guys were my kind of music--rock and roll type blues, with a little Mississippi Delta Blues tossed in occasionally for good measure.  They were very entertaining and these little snippets don't do them justice.  I worked hours to get two small videos to load, and then created a YouTube account--voila!  In 2 minutes, the video was loaded and on this page. I wish I'd known that sooner!

Watch for them--they'll be heading your way sooner or later.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In the Catbird Seat

It has been a busy and productive week around these parts.  I am watching the students start to wrap up all the semester tasks, and feeling good about where they are, or will be, in two more weeks when it is finished.  The Mississippi spring has roared in with its usual full force and we have been inundated with rain, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and chilly weather for the past week.  In spite of that, I donned my sweatshirt and scarf yesterday evening and sat outside for some bird watching.  It was the first time I had the opportunity this week, either because of working late or the rain.
Our final site visit for the masters program accreditation is next week, along with the last two visits to Riverside and the rest of the role plays for students practicing their interviewing skills.  I am all caught up on uploading their videos for them to watch and complete self-evaluations and plans for skill development.  I've been very pleased with how well they all have done--evidence of having had some good foundation skills in the first practice class.  (Way to go, Dr. Simmons!)  I am going to pilot a new way of teaching the research writing class this summer, and am all excited about that as well.  I love the support I have for trying new things in the department, as we continue to look for ways to better prepare students for practice.
I'm also completing the final stages of the class to South Africa.  Margie and I had a great workshop in Canton last week, with superb participants, most of whom were DHS workers.  It was a busy day, and we really enjoyed interacting with everyone and actually ran late in wrapping up the workshop.  We were raising money to help fund the students going to South Africa.  I fly out of Memphis on May 15 and am ready to start packing!
I also met with some colleagues yesterday in regard to our work on service learning/joint research in South Africa/Belize/Delta, and that was an inspiring time.  I love to conceptualize models and theories, so they ask me to work with them on developing the conceptual framework for our proposed work.  I had some thoughts last night and grabbed my pencil and pad and started sketching out circles and arrows and linking aspects based on what I know at this point.  
I'll be heading down to Mound Bayou in a couple of weeks to meet with the Mayor about our working with them on some of their community goals.  Mound Bayou has long been a community of interest to me, as I love their history of self-empowerment, and am excited to be traveling there and meeting with some people about how we might support their work and provide service learning opportunities for our students.  I'll be following up with a post on the community after that visit.  While it is one more thing on the plate before the end of the semester, it is one I am really looking forward to!
Yep, I'm just pretty contented right now, feeling like everything is just coming together.  My friend Pete called it "you're on a roll right now and just rolling right on to South Africa."  If I am in the catbird seat for a little while, I surely don't mind--it is the perfect way to end a year that has been incredible, and jump start the next semester and its projects.  Life is good, even when it's hard.

Monday, April 18, 2011

ShaZAMM, it's Monday already!

Our third group had to reschedule from our plans last week, due to tornado warnings and thunderstorms, so by the time we got there today, ShaZamm was ready to go.  We were joined by the first-year journalism student who read about our project on the service learning sight, had contacted me and met with me about volunteering for the program.  We welcomed her help, and her desire to be involved in this work over the course of the next few years of her education here.  In the midst of all the kids playing, this young man was serious about  mastering his math homework.
This group had wanted to leave something of themselves behind after our work was finished, and decided on a banner to remember us all.  Everyone placed his or her handprint and name on the banner, and we hung it on the wall afterward.
It reminded me of the Abilene Peace and Justice Center, and how Si Kahn was the first to place his handprint and signature on our wall.

These kids have an amazing ability to focus, no matter what is going on around them.  The social work students just jump right in, and make it work, no matter what is happening.  (And today, things were "happening" that don't usually happen when we are there!)
A little work, a little play, all make the world go around.
They love it when someone does something with them one-on-one.  After indoor activities, everyone went outside and played with bubbles, football, paddle ball, and some kind of mitt-ball catch, and they did not want to stop when it was way past our time to clean up and go home.
More games.
And, finally, I had to end with this picture.  I just thought it personified everything we are trying to do here: look at the smile on this boy's face as he finishes his work.  The students worked a lot, played a lot, and it was one more opportunity to be part of this community and these kids' lives.  I got to visit with a couple of parents, and see some of the "graduates" of the program from several years ago.  This group goes back next Monday, and I look forward to seeing what they have planned for then.

One last "shout out" for the evening: Stevie, we missed you and we love you.  

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Brown Eyed Ladies in Riverside

 A couple of weeks ago, the first group of students kicked off the spring Riverside activities.  Days have been incredibly full the past few weeks since then, and I am slow on the follow up, but these women deserve their time in the spotlight.  
What you see here is pretty much what I see three times a week in class--women who are embracing opportunities to be the difference they want to see in the world, to borrow from Gandhi's philosophy.  Can you imagine what it is like to stand before a class of students and see these faces--generally with these smiles on them--learning to be social workers?  
The work in Riverside is our "vehicle" to allow the students to practice working in a group, and learning group dynamics and stages of development.  It's also service to the community, so the process benefits us and them.  What never ceases to amaze me is that even though it is a vehicle for learning for the students, I always learn right along with them, and see new sides of them.  When I see a student who may be quiet and reserved in the classroom step up and out of that persona and engage with the children, it is always such a joy to me.  It is like a glimpse into the future and seeing a little bit along the continuum of development in each of us: life-long learning.
Along with nurturing the minds, hearts, and bodies of the children, these young women encouraged physical activity, sharing, and just pure play.  Although it is not a problem with these kids, childhood obesity is a major problem in Mississippi, and leads to a life of chronic illness for many of them.  
I was amazed a few years ago when we first introduced bowling with Perrier bottles how much the kids got into such a simple activity.  It's a good reminder that a little creativity can reap big benefits, and we don't always have to have fancy electronic gadgets.
The group combined art with reading.  It was a great way to engage the children in reading and language development, critical thinking, and because they were "playing" at the same time, it was more fun for them.
And, as always, a little homework help was appreciated by the kids who had work due.  Even though we are not there as much as we used to be, when the kids see us, they arrive with backpacks and homework folders in hand and take advantage of the chance for tutoring.  The truth is most of them don't need any help, but they enjoy the opportunity to interact one-on-one with someone who is focused on them for those minutes.

We'll be going back into the community during the next couple of weeks, and then this group of students will go into internship for the summer and the final aspect of their education process.  It's always good to send them out there, knowing the quality of work they can do, and that in a short while, they will be in agencies and communities, putting those skills to good use.  

Way to go, Brown Eyed Ladies!  It's been an honor.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Experience TEAM Amazing

The University has been using the concept Experience Amazing! in the past couple of years.  The idea is to showcase the incredible experiences and opportunities that students have as part of the university.  This year, we had three teams in the Practice with Groups class, and one team called themselves Team Amazing.  I don't know if they meant it to have anything to do with the theme of experience amazing, but I thought of the connection immediately.  There are 7 students in this group, and I had the pleasure of teaching 5 of them in the fall as well.  I have great admiration for these students, and the effort they put into this group project, as well as their performance in the class as a whole.

Regular readers know about our ongoing work in Riverside, and it's that time of semester again when we are doing interventions with the children in this community.  Although it is a different group of students each semester, the children look forward to our returning, and within a few minutes after we start setting up, we have a roomful of excited boys and girls ready to experience whatever the students have planned.  Team Amazing began the intervention like all good social workers do: engaging the client system: establishing rapport and beginning the relationship.
Our primary goal has been to establish an atmosphere where children receive positive support and encouragement, encourage an appreciation for learning, and enhance the developmental tasks children need to master in each stage of life.  Team Amazing was amazing in the data collection and assessment steps of the planning stages.  They sought out empirical research articles, researched what other kinds of after-school programs are doing to promote self-esteem and positive self-images, and strengthen the ability of children to be successful in schools that may not--for a variety of reasons--always meet their needs. 
Tutoring and help with homework has always been a part of the project.  In Team Amazing's assessment, they recognized and discussed the importance of being aware of individual needs, and the fact that children develop at different stages even when they are in the same age group.  They planned ways to respond to those needs without singling out children, and seamlessly integrated the children into activities that encouraged interpersonal interaction with others as well as one-on-one time with the tutor.
One of the reasons we became involved in Riverside in the beginning was the awareness that both African American and white children in the public schools here start out performing at the same academic levels, but the longer the child is in school, the greater the academic performance gaps.  There are two primary explanations for this gap in the professional education literature; one is that it is "cultural" and that African American parents don't value education for their children, or encourage it, that the children themselves do not see it as relevant, and that there are familial reasons for this gap in performance.  The other explanation is the gap is due to structural issues; the schools, communities, and the dominant culture do not address or value the academic and social needs of African American children.  Our experience at Riverside has generally been what you see in the photograph above:  the children get very exciting about learning and participating in educational activities.  They want to be successful.  The parents in this community have regularly supported their children's attendance at our program, and often join us to participate in the activities.

There is ample evidence in Mississippi that the structural explanation is very real.  The Mississippi Education Working Group, a part of Southern Echo, has been very involved in addressing the structural concerns.  While I know that the structural explanation is very relevant and explains much--and I reject out of hand that the majority of African American parents and children are at fault in this academic gap, I also know that in the limited time we have in the community that we cannot address the structural issues.  So, we do what is also important: provide support and encouragement and try to enhance the coping capacity of individuals, families, and communities--one of the goals of social work.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Important Things

It's that time of the semester when things get pretty overwhelming--for the students and for me.  In addition to the usual crunch of teaching, assignments, community service, research, that is part of the routine, I have been busy with helping get ready for our final site visit on the masters program, along with co-presenting a series of workshops.  I'm exhausted, and today, headed over to Tupelo for a day working on our curriculum grant.  It was all I could do to convince myself to get out of bed this morning and gear up.  From now until May, it will just be put one foot in front of the other and do the next thing due, and there is a whole lot of stuff due!

One of the things I try to do when I start feeling the stress of overload is to think about things that are important and remind myself why I do what I do.  Riverside is one of those things that adds stress and workload.  The first group of students from this semester's class went to the community a couple of weeks ago.
Like always, they were excited we were back for a few weeks.

This group wanted to provide a healthy and nutritious snack.  Will kids eat fresh raw vegetables?  Yep, they sure will.  Little baby cheesecake filled cupcakes were passed out after veggie snacks.  Then, they came back and asked for more veggies.

Two really great outcomes for me:
1.  One of the kids asked one of my students:  "Are you in class right now?"  We are not in class, but this is part of our class.  He replied, "Wow, I think I am going to like college a lot!"  

Bingo!  This is what we want:  loving education, loving learning, and putting it in one's path.

2.  One of my students said at the end of our time: "I wish we could do this every day!"

Bingo!  This is what we want: loving service learning, loving community practice, and realizing how much prevention and early intervention can contribute to healthy communities.

I must have the greatest job in the world.