As an undergraduate, I received a scholarship from ArtsBridge America, a program that places liberal arts students in public school classrooms to create innovative learning experiences bridging core curriculum with the arts. Drawing on my training as a musician, I set out to create sensory connections across art forms, and in any given class you could find students acting out Da Vinci’s Last Supper or improvising a dance invocation of Rothko’s minimalist paintings. Since ArtsBridge, I have continued to develop my teaching philosophy through several pathways, including teaching courses at the UW-Madison School of Social Work (Fall 2016, Summer 2018, Summer 2019; and Fall 2019 as a TA); coaching afterschool service providers, focused on fostering racial equity in their programs (2011); and training hundreds of volunteers and service providers working with East African refugees (2008-2010).
Though my classrooms today do not look much like my ArtsBridge class, I remain focused on creating multiple points of engagement. My teaching philosophy is motivated by a deep commitment to helping develop future social workers who are excellent both in their practice and in their critical thinking. Drawing from my professional experience in international development, I feel keenly how good intentions can go awry, not only failing to realize a goal but even causing harm. People who select into this field know they are embarking on a journey that will be challenging and undercompensated. I have seen for myself and my students that the social work classroom—with its commitments to social justice, to seeing person-in-environment, and to meeting people where they are—can powerfully equip students to be more reflective and more effective. At its best, social work education is transformative.
“The level in which we are forced to think critically about such important issues is fantastic! Great job facilitating discussion!”
Meeting students where they are
In practice, I create engagement using two strategies. First, I recognize and respect the abilities of students. By meeting students where they are, I invite them into a relationship of trust. If students know that I am responsive to their needs (e.g., as an undergraduate, versus MSW, versus PhD), they are more willing to engage out of their comfort zone. When I was a master’s student, I appreciated faculty who demonstrated they understood I was keeping up with coursework, field placement, and family—and paying for my degree! They treated my cohort of graduate students as adult-learners, recognizing we were not walking into our first day of class as blank slates. To effectively teach adult learners is to honor what students walk in with. As an instructor, I have subject-matter knowledge many students will not have, but some will have more knowledge than me—even in a BSW class. My goal is to facilitate a journey together, making connections to knowledge already in the room and engaging discussion.
As an example, I taught Basic Statistics for Social Workers class in the part-time MSW programs—students working full-time, in addition to their coursework and field placement. I asked students to reflect on important processes in their interest area that are systematically undercounted, where we have insufficient data to advocate for needed policy change. I wanted to motivate why studying data collection and analysis could lead to some of the changes they know firsthand are needed. Slowly, around the room, stories began unfolding of profound, unseen need. Needs that I had never encountered, either in my professional work or through my years of coursework and research—needs that require firsthand experience, working day-in and day-out in the community. By honoring the experience of my students, I created moments when all the problem sets felt practical, rather than abstract or like busy-work. This applicability was resonant throughout my course evaluations, with comments like “[Melody] gave me a clear understanding of the subject—the why I’m taking the course.”
“[she] gave me a clear understanding of the subject—the why I’m taking the course.”
In addition to thinking carefully about engaging with my students on what they already know, I am also committed to creating classrooms that are informed by anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices. As I describe in the diversity statement that accompanies this teaching statement, my strategies include recognizing that students come into the classroom with different assumptions about how much class-time they are entitled to take. I am careful and explicit in mixing activities that allow people to share out just as they want, with more structured opportunities for quieter voices to be heard—whether through small group sharing, written reflections, or carefully crafting discussion assignments to ensure maximal participation. I commit to learning students’ names and pronouns—even in classes with more than 50 participants, through the strategic use of name-cards and reflection activities or surveys. I am especially sensitive to activities that can isolate already-marginalized students—for instance, I have facilitated “privilege walk”-like activities (i.e., inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s privilege knapsack) that are framed through solidarity, voluntary self-sharing, and personal reflection, so no one student is visually identified (and, at worst, stigmatized) as the “most oppressed.”
Creative activities, diversified readings
My second strategy for creating engagement is making space for people with very different needs, styles of participation and learning preferences. I use my class-time for multiple modalities of engagement, and I draw on my training as a performer to get students moving—both physically and intellectually. For instance, in a class where we examined debates in the field of social work (e.g., Specht and Courtney’s book Unfaithful angels: How social work has abandoned its mission), students presented each side of an argument to a “jury” of fellow classmates. In my statistics course, I look for hands-on, practical activities to illustrate all key concepts, including flipping coins, rolling dice, grouping “data” (like rocks, candy, and magazine clippings), and using M&Ms to visually represent variance.
Outside of class time, I look for diverse reading material. For instance, in my general MSW introduction class, we spent one class reflect on our own identity, and our place in the field of social work. For this, I found a swath of reflections written by practicing social workers from wildly different backgrounds, and allowed students to focus on the readings that resonated most with their experience. In every class, I introduced readings by talking about the identity of the author—making explicit the situated-ness of the authors, that no piece is written with omnisciently, with all the “right” answers. In my statistics classes, I reviewed a stack of textbooks to find one clearly written, that thoughtfully reflected the application of statistics in a diverse society. I supplemented the textbook with a selection of podcasts and chapters from recent pop-science books, to bring to life the concepts and ideas we were working out in class with pocket calculators and plenty of erasers.
“Melody LOVED teaching. She was always energetic and excited.”
As a living document, my teaching philosophy reflects my own growth as a teacher, as a facilitator of social workers’ journeys. To that end, I continually seek opportunities to learn—through colleagues, professional development, and from my students. I led a group of fellow PhD students in designing our own seminar on how to incorporate social justice in teaching research methods. This year, I was selected to participate in the Discussion Project, an evidence-based curriculum on facilitating meaningful discussions in large and small classrooms. One of the most important affirmations of my philosophy is hearing from students that they are comfortable being vulnerable with me and know they will be heard—as one final evaluation characterized me, I am “super receptive to feedback.”
“Melody is a super talented instructor. She does a great job getting students to think bigger picture and more broadly about social work issues. Her class was probably the most interesting, engaging, and informed of all our first semester courses.”