Reflections – Focusing Close to Home


Carol A. Hand

As I drove the 20 miles on Saturday morning (September 10, 2016) to meet my class for the first time, I thought about the sense of wonder I had about the world around me when I was a child. Everything was a mystery. I loved to explore pond water under my microscope. I was fascinated by people from different cultures and eagerly sought to understand more about them by watching, asking questions, and reading any books I could find.

I would spend hours watching ants, butterflies, and all types of insects. My mother was upset by the “creepy crawlies” that I piled on the table. I watched them disappear over the edge and quickly gathered replacements. But she tolerated it. She knew that children are all born to be inquisitive. Tragically, our experiences in school often make learning a bore. We lose our sense of wonder as we memorize often indistinguishable facts and factoids.

I thought about lessons I learned about teaching long ago, described in an older post.


Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Sister Lorita, my undergraduate advisor from St. Xavier College for Women in Chicago, taught me more than botany. Through example, she taught me what it means to teach. Students made fun of her because of her weight and because of her enthusiasm for her subject, a subject they found boring. One day when we were meeting, Sister Lorita looked at me and said, “I know students laugh at me, but I don’t care if people make fun of me. It’s worth it to me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.”

The wonder of life.” Isn’t that the most important thing we can learn? Although I was a chemistry and biology major at the time, my life took a different path. Instead of science, I teach students how to work with people, although there are many times when I would rather be an ecologist.

When I first started teaching, I didn’t remember Sister Lorita’s lesson. I taught the same meaningless theories and content in the same boring ways as most of my previous teachers, yet I noticed there were differences. Unlike colleagues who told me they never admitted they didn’t have an answer to a student question, I was honest. While other faculty told me they made up an answer, I admitted it was a good question that I needed to research before giving an answer. I was encouraged by a friend, a linguist and Jewish scholar, who supported this approach. She told me that the Hebrew word for the verb “to teach” is an intensive form of the verb “to learn.” It is this chance to keep learning that makes my work so rewarding. The other difference I noted was my tendency to highlight student strengths and accomplishments, rather than merely point out errors in their work.

It took me years to recognize that these differences were truly significant. Like Sister Lorita, I became far less concerned about what others thought of me and more concerned with how what students learned in my class would affect their views of the people they were responsible for helping during their careers. Could they learn to see the wonder of possibilities in all people, regardless of their past and present circumstances? So I began experimenting with ways to consciously “walk the talk.”

I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).

blade of grass

Photo Credit:
3quarksdaily: Tuesday Poem


The last time I taught research (Summer 2014), I asked students to focus on a global issue – the impact of climate change on the lives of those who are most vulnerable. They are the populations social workers typically serve. This time, the focus is closer to home – healthy community. The reason is quite simple. Rebuilding or nurturing respectful, inclusive, empathetic relationships with our neighbors is something I believe we need to do in the divisive times now. It’s the only thing that will help us in an uncertain future. Even if our only motivation is self-interest, survival, it makes sense.

The challenge is how to create a context where students have an opportunity to explore what their views are about “healthy community,” and develop their own tentative solutions using the inquisitiveness that research skills offer. This is the task a colleague and I have been working on together. The question we asked was simple.

How can we interweave research with community practice (organizing) to increase the likelihood of constructive change efforts that are inclusive, egalitarian, and based on scientific community-based perspectives?

We designed two new shared assignments with this question in mind. Not only will this approach reduce student workloads by allowing them to do some of the same assignments for two classes, it will help students think about and explore healthy communities from different vantage points, hopefully demonstrating the importance of knowledge-guided transformative action.

I decided, with my colleague’s approval, to share our new assignments here.


Assignment 1: Orientation Reflection Paper: What Does a Healthy Community Look Like?

It is crucial to remember that effective social work is grounded within and intricate web of interdependent human relationships. One way of representing this is the person-in-environment or eco-systems model.

ecology of human development

Ecology of Human Development: Adapted from Bronfenbrenner (1979)

Conducting research studies in this context requires us to be mindful of the need to define complex issues in clear, concise, measurable ways. The purpose of this assignment is to begin that process by asking you to think critically about broad ideas and goals that require more precise language that clarifies our frame of reference.

In order to prepare to explore healthy communities in research and communities, there are some crucial questions we would like you to consider before we begin. Please write a one-to-three page paper that addresses each of the following requests or questions,

1. Briefly describe what a healthy community looks like from your perspective.

2. Operationalize each of the following terms (i.e., define each in observable, measureable, strength-based language):

a. Health
b. Community
c. Healthy community

3. When you think about where you live or work, what’s standing in the way of a healthy community as you defined it in your answer to question #1?

4. Where is a feasible place to focus in order to conduct a study of one aspect of healthy community? (narrow focus so it’s doable for study and intervention)

5. What are your initial thoughts about how you could use research as a tool to help build healthy (or healthier) communities?


Assignment 3: Exploring Positionality and Perspective Exercise

It is crucial to consider how our prior experiences have shaped who we are today and our perspectives about the world we live in. We need to understand how our perspective influences what we choose to look at, often without our conscious thought, and how we make sense of and interpret what we see.

Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent. (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)

The purpose of this assignment is to help you explore who you are and how you see the world.

1. Take a photograph that answers each of the following questions:

a. Who are you?
b. Where are you from?
c. What one image shows your feelings about the place you define as your community?
d. What image conveys the strengths of your community?
e. What image conveys a compelling issue or challenge affecting your community?
f. What image shows what you would like to see in your community in the future?

2. Prepare a PowerPoint with a slide for each picture and one sentence or phrase that explains why you chose this photo or what it means to you. (Other audio/visual alternatives may be used.)

3. Present your PowerPoint to the class and describe what you learned from this exercise.

4. Be prepared to engage in dialogue with the class to further explore the significance of your perspectives.


During our first class on Saturday, my colleague and I learned that the first assignment and dialogue helped students overcome a little of the understandable fear and resistance they initially felt about research. The third assignment is actually one of the research methods used to involve community members as partners in exploring important issues – Photovoice.

“Using creative tools such as Photovoice can help changemakers understand the lived experiences of disadvantaged communities and give a voice to underprivileged individuals… Photovoice is a process in which people – usually those with limited power due to poverty, language barriers, race, class, ethnicity, gender, culture, or other circumstances – use video and/or photo images to capture aspects of their environment and experiences and share them with others. The pictures can then be used, usually with captions composed by the photographers, to bring the realities of the photographers’ lives home to the public and policy makers and to spur change.” (Community Tool Box, University of Kansas)

By the time I left the tribal and community college to drive home, I was excited about the opportunity to work with such a diverse and engaging group of young women. They were eager to learn how to use a range of new tools to develop skills and explore possibilities. New course development is a lot of work, and for most of the drive home, the list of things I still need to do ran through my mind.

It’s understandable why so many faculty stick to “the way things have always been done,” as I did when I first started teaching. The old banking model paradigm requires little creative thought. Students are kept busy writing research proposals, reading texts that emphasize methods rather than inclusive processes, and regurgitating facts on fill-in-the-blank tests. My colleague and I knew it would mean a lot of extra work when we decided to try something else.

Why not let students learn through doing? Why not expose them to a variety of methods, including those that emphasize community participation in defining issues, listing strengths and proposing solutions?


We need to begin where we are if we want things to change. Healthy relationships among all residents and between all residents and their built and natural environments will mean different things in each community. And it seems that authentic inclusive community engagement is an essential foundation to begin exploring how to do that in contextually and culturally appropriate ways.

My colleague and I are walking the talk as we roll out a new way of teaching for us. We hope it will allow students to envision new possibilities for themselves and their communities and are eager to see how this experiment evolves. We would love to hear your thoughts!

Works Cited:

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.

Crabtree, B. F. & Miller, W. L. (Eds.)(1999). Doing qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.



21 thoughts on “Reflections – Focusing Close to Home

    1. I agree! It’s so wonderful to know you’re setting new kindling down to reignite the inquisitiveness of students. So often they want to be told what to do, how to do it, and then practically have you do it for them. It’s time to get them back out there, hands full of dirt, holding up the creepy-crawlies before their eyes, and wondering.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. “I am consistently exploring ways to operationalize a liberatory praxis framework in my research and teaching. Liberatory praxis is based on a dialogic approach for raising awareness about the ways in which dominance is established and maintained. Praxis, the synthesis of theory and action, results in recognizing that both those who dominate and those who are dominated share in the perpetuation of oppressive institutions and paradigms (Freire, 2000).”
    ~ Carol, your work is interesting, challenging, and much needed in our times. I wish you and your colleague success in your latest endeavor.
    ~ As a former high school teacher and a person greatly influenced by passionate teachers in my youth, I know the transformative power of teachers who “walk the talk.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and kind words, Rosaliene. I value hearing about your experiences and insights as a teacher. Teachers can make a profound difference in students’ lives, as Sister Lorita did for me. How I wish a I had a teacher like you when I was in high school! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Why not let students learn through doing? Why not expose them to a variety of methods, including those that emphasize community participation in defining issues, listing strengths and proposing solutions?”

    If there is no ownership, by the student, of what he or she is learning, then the odds of that material be retained and applied successfully are slim. Imagination and creativity, as far as I am concerned, are vital to the process, whether it be teaching art or social work.

    And you and your co-instructor are pointing your students to gaining ownership.

    Like I said before, I had it so much easier than you, Carol, since music naturally revolves around individual and collective imagination and creativity. It is so much easier to lead a student to his or her ownership of what they have learned and applied, musically, than what you are teaching.

    If only there were more folks like you and your partner teaching at the collegiate level! Unfortunately, as you know, and have written about before, many college professors are not only incompetent as instructors, they don’t even seem to care.

    And I know this by experience, over and over again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your important insights, Dave.

      You discussion reminded me of a quote: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968.) I would change the last line, of course, but I suspect that the last phrase is a better descriptor of normalized education…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The assignment is far too advance for the K-12 students in the school district I work at. But they do teach this in a slightly elementary way at the STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math). There is Roots of Emphathy, Chef Programs, Arts and Music. The children’s work are fascinating when they are exhibited at the Ed Centre at work. I am not a teacher. That is an excellent assignment by the way. Would love to be your student.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow and wow again. I’d love to be in your classroom. I think your ideas are great and challenging not only to the students but to those of us who teach. I don’t teach any more, but I’m all for coming up with new ways to make the learning experience more meaningful and to show students how they can impact the world for good, good that is good for not just them, but for all of us. Love, N 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Natalie, and for sharing a teacher’s perspective. It is a gift to be able to help create an environment where students feel inspired to take risks and try new things.


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