The helping field, I often tell my social work students, is a two-way street. While our goal is to help individuals, families, and groups, it is important to remember that the ones we help often help us. When we practice from a strengths perspective, we learn of our clients’ skills. We begin to appreciate and respect their personal talents and unique abilities. If we are willing to open our eyes, the people we help can teach us a thing or two about courage, perspective, and life itself.
For a number of years, I worked at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix, Arizona. One day, a pre-school teacher asked me to become part of her lesson plan. My poem, “Things a School Social Worker May See,” is an example of why social work is a two-way street.
Things a School Social Worker May See
Just outside Room 7, five small canes the color
of clouds hang neatly on a wall. Today, my day-
old beard becomes a lesson plan for the eyes
of tiny fingertips. As the teacher explains shaving,
kids without sight feel the foam, the soapy water,
my sandpapered face. The little girl with a creamy
mustache, discovers cinnamon spice cologne. All
hands but one reach up to rub my marbled cheeks.
One pair rolls a piece of Play Doh. The 5-year-old
tells me, “A licorice stick for my sister.” He weighs
the string in his palms, connects both ends and says,
“Now, it’s her necklace.” The teacher snaps photos
and later shows me hands gliding along my clean-
shaven face. In the background, I see a necklace
and its proud craftsman, the boy with 20-20 touch.
The other day, in class, we were discussing the topic of “self-talk.” When I asked for examples, one student replied, “It’s telling yourself you can’t do things, like passing my _______ course; I know I’m going to fail it.” Another student jumped in and said, “But it can be positive, too, like when I say to myself before a race, “I’ve got this; I may even win it.”
Self-talk is an inner voice that we all have, a kind of running monologue that plays a role in our daily performances whether it be shooting a three-pointer, researching Erikson’s stages of life, or simply vacuuming your living room rug. It’s all about attitude.
While most of the talk I hear with students during advising meetings is positive, there are moments when negativity seeps in. I’ll hear comments like, “I’m not smart enough.” Or, “Here we go again – another bad grade is coming.”
“Why?” I say. “Why aren’t you smart enough? Why will you get a bad grade?”
Often, I’ll get an honest reply. “I don’t like to study.” Or, “I’m afraid to tell the professor I don’t understand.”
That’s when I talk about changing habits like setting up a studying schedule or communicating with teachers. I tell students that to be successful, they have to try hard to replace the bad habits with good ones, to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For every past failure, there’s another chance to get it right.
It’s a lot like baseball when you’re standing on third base in a close game. You take your lead, you take a chance…
Here We Go Again
The next time you represent
the winning run at third
in a game racking up
ignore the voice within,
the one you know
as here we go again,
the one that likes
to reminisce with tales of fiasco-
like the time in grade school band
when you single-handedly
flubbed the grand finale
with a rowdy,
out-of-sync cymbal crash;
or the time in junior high
on Science Day
when you sparked
the sure-to-win experiment
into shocking plumes of smoke;
or the infamous senior class play
when you blurted out lines
from another show…
There’s chemistry in a message
once you find its rhythm,
once you feel its energy.
And for everything lost
in hasty crescendo,
there’s an understudy
waiting to be heard.
to its monologue
about here we go again
and the chance to get it right.
Take your lead
with an eye to the mound
because maybe you’ll break
with the pitch-
or maybe you have;
maybe you’re already home…
Kenney, R. (2019, January). Here we go again. Retrieved from
(scroll down to 1/13/19)
With the colder weather coming, I think of ice fishing.
For years, I lived in Massachusetts and used to go ice fishing on Cape Cod. There were so many lakes and ponds with cool names. There was one in Barnstable called Lake Wequaquet, just off of Shootingfly Hill. In the little town of Marstons Mills, there was Hamblin Pond and, in Mashpee, you’d find John’s Pond. While the name was nothing out of the ordinary, Hooppole Road leading to it was.
There were holes to be drilled in ice all over the Cape: Hawknest Pond in Harwich, Pilgrim Lake in Orleans, and Gull Pond in Wellfleet. And the very first time I saw a flag spring up to let me know of my catch (a perch) was on the thick ice at Schoolhouse Pond in Chatham.
So how does this all relate to teaching, you ask? A poem may help…
Ice Fishing in Room 103
It’s the flag
that springs up
when learning strikes
that makes me
want to teach
or, at least, salute.
Far-sighted lesson plans
sense and inquiry.
the flag doesn’t trip-
the lecture drifts
or the exercise
in deep-water paradigm.
That’s when I reach
for the tackle box,
the one scratched
in reality bites.
You can make cases
for tables and tenets
and textbook theories
it’s the hook of practicality
that keeps me from saying
you should have seen
that got away.
Kenney, R. (2019, January). Ice fishing in room 103. Retrieved from
(scroll down to 1/13/19)
Every so often, students visit with me to tell me they are struggling with a course or courses. “Everything’s getting me down,” they’ll say. “I just don’t know what to do.” What do I tell them?
Take a hike!
Of course, that’s not the first thing I tell them.
We obviously discuss the reasons for their concerns and develop strategies to get back on track. Usually it’s about ways to improve organizational and time management skills. Pointing out key resources such as services provided by the CSC Office of Academic Success and Project Strive are also helpful.
One of the things I always emphasize, however, is to find time to switch gears by doing something therapeutic, something the student likes. It can be anything from going for a jog, riding a bike, or lifting weights. And, it doesn’t have to be physical. Take a break and play a game of chess or listen to your favorite songs.
My personal favorite is hiking. With so many hills here on the south side of campus, hiking is a natural. Look for the hills to help. They happen to be some of the best therapists around…
The hills are therapists,
self-disclosing gently-used trails
to those banking low on esteem.
Climbing, we share aisles of alliance
with milkweed or coneflower;
and the sandy blowouts
Nebraskans know so well.
We can actually feel
the hills in our shoes-
empathy in extra-wide.
They have a knack
what little strength is left,
helping us to see such triumphs
as grasshoppers vaulting
a bee hive box, tumbleweed
catching a crosswind, fleabane
purpling a rock face.
Up here, we grow handsomely
rich; overly paid in full
Kenney, R. (2017, July). Treatment. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/exc_0717.shtml
dvs. (Photographer). (2017, October 12). Ridges in Chadron State Park [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/46207792@N00/37743290551
“Words are like stars,” my sixth-grade teacher, Miss Madden, would tell us, “and you should always reach for them.” She believed that words led to ideas that often led to questions. She’d lower her voice to almost a whisper and follow with, “It’s the answers to these questions that lead to new ways of thinking and that’s something for which you should strive.” And wouldn’t you know, she made ‘strive’ a look-up word almost every week until everyone had made it their own.
While teaching at Chadron State College for the past six years, the words I’ve been reaching for have led me to deeper contemplation of such topics as teaching, learning, and social work. I’ve been asking questions… lots of them. They clock in during my lesson plan prep time. “How will I teach this?” Then, “Why should I teach it this way?” The questions pop up in the classroom. I’ll ask a student, “How did you learn that?” To another, “How do you know you’ve learned it?” In my social work classes, I ask about the challenges of diversity, fairness, and social justice.
My work in words is an examination of the answers to these questions, heartfelt reflections that often result in poems, essays, and memoirs. Words lead to writing- my way of learning, my way of thinking in fresh perspective. Inspiring my students to think in new ways is what I strive for, a lofty endeavor sparked by a sixth-grade teacher who believed in stars and the glitter of words…
In teaching my introductory courses to social work, I devote time to the topic of establishing rapport with clients. This is the engagement phase of the case management process. It is a critically important part of the therapist/client relationship. This is the phase where the social worker, hopefully, develops an open communication channel with his/her client. The goal is to create a safe and trusting atmosphere for the client in which she/he feels free to express her/himself.
Not all clients, however, are willing to participate in the engagement phase. Some individuals are reluctant to discuss sensitive issues or concerns with “strangers.” Some need space; some need time.
That’s when I share some of my experiences with my classes about working with such clients. As a hospice social worker in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I once visited with a patient who would not speak with me for the first twenty minutes of the home visit. Although I followed all the techniques I had learned in my social work classes, nothing worked – until I noticed a picture on the wall. It was a photograph of the client playing his trombone with a group of other musicians in the 1940s. Once I inquired about it, my patient was only too glad to remember the happy moments of his time with the band and his beloved trombone.
I tell my students to be persistent but respectful – to look for ways to engage, to develop rapport.
Hospice 101: Rapport
When the textbook guidelines fall short and Mrs. Lopez
who is dying at home does not respond to warm smiles
or active listening eyes, you could leave-
or you could ask about the picture on the wall,
the woman in pirouette poetry,
the elegant ballerina.
When Mr. Krakowski tells you he doesn’t have
anything else to say, you could leave-
or you could savor his craft of intricacy,
the exquisitely carved wood of the wine rack
he stares at in awe as if seeing it for the first time.
When Dr. O., the botanist, tells you not today,
that she’d rather rest her eyes, you could leave-
or you could describe her garden’s purple majesty,
its royal scent, its noble medicine.
Kenney, R. (2016). Hospice 101: rapport. In National Poetry Contest for Social Workers (p. 56). Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
Breathing life into concepts is the hallmark of effective teaching. With nearly thirty years of direct practice in the field of social work, I work hard in the classroom to illustrate ideas with compelling stories and real-life examples. My job is to capture my students’ attention. If I don’t, concepts become unanswered essay questions or, worse, rote textbook definition recitals.
A few semesters ago, I was explaining the term, macro practice, in one of my classes. “When we change the environment so that it works for the individual,” I told the students, “we are using the macro approach.” The yawns and glazed-over eyes were signals for something more so I took them back to an old, dirt road in rural Oklahoma where I spent a week knocking on doors asking residents to sign a petition so that my client, a dying hospice patient, could get meals delivered from an agency that told him he was ineligible due to delivery geographics.
We talked about advocacy and tenacity and a few unfriendly dogs on porches. We talked about policy and stamina and standing up to just-the-way-it-is mentality. We talked about injustice and anger and action plans. We talked about focus and pluck and the power of a pair of dusty shoes. We talked about change and choice and what it really means to social work.
Breathing life into concepts goes a long way. Passion means engagement which often leads to effective teaching.
The following blog post is an article that is reprinted from Faculty Focus, an online journal that focuses on higher education teaching strategies. View the initial publication of the article printed on March 15, 2018.
“I’m afraid I’ll be the only one to think my thoughts, that no one else will see it the way I do. I don’t want to be wrong.”
That was the response by a student to a comment I made asking him to consider participating more in class discussions. The conversation took place one day after class toward the end of the 2017 spring semester when he asked me to sign an academic progress report. A good student, he submitted quality papers on a timely basis. Yet, while he paid attention to my lectures and everyone’s remarks in class, he rarely spoke.
I told him how much I enjoyed reading his assignments, that they were creative and insightful. Although he seemed to appreciate the feedback, he said, “Still… it’s what the others might think.”
His words inspired me to develop, “Another Way to Say It, Another Way to See It.” The program is an opportunity for quieter students to express their thoughts and ideas with writing contributions. I define quiet students as those who do not speak in class or who speak seldom and, when they do, they do so with great difficulty due to anxiety and/or lack of confidence.
I implemented the program during the fall 2017 semester in my face-to-face Introduction to Social Work class. Here are excerpts from the letter I posted online for students to read:
“Have you ever been reluctant to share your thoughts in class? Are there times you wished you had weighed in on a class conversation but, for some reason, did not?
‘Freshman Year’ can be a little overwhelming and I know that some of you may experience anxiety when it comes to speaking in class. That’s why I’ve created this optional forum, a temporary way for you to ‘say it’ in writing until you develop enough confidence to ‘say it’ in class.
Please know I want to hear your thoughts, especially the ones you feel are unique. Don’t worry about being “wrong” or what others think. Share your insights. You may very well be onto something that no one else sees.
And… what could be better than that?”
After discussing what I had posted online, I asked the students to submit a two-paragraph reaction to the idea. Here are some of their comments:
“I have social anxiety and every time I talk in front of a group of people, my face gets red and I start to stutter. I think this program will help me to begin feeling more comfortable expressing my ideas to the rest of the class.”
“Typically, in school, I’ve always been the kid who mumbles the right answer under her breath and waits for someone else to say it out loud. I’m not very confident in classroom settings. Having an outlet to type my thoughts rather than attempting to speak them in a jumbled mess is something I appreciate.”
“I am shy to ask questions, sometimes, because it could be embarrassing. It’s a very judgmental world and this is a good way to help those less confident feel better about expressing themselves.”
At the end of the Fall 2017 semester, there were forty-three comments posted in the forums tool. Nine of twenty-seven students contributed to the forum. Here are excerpts from posts after a class discussion about living conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, approximately fifty miles from Chadron State College:
“I am filled with such heartbreak anytime I go to the reservation. I am obviously white but have never had thoughts of being better.”
“I understand how you feel concerning ‘the rez.’ It causes an aching heart to drive through it, to see hopelessness on the faces of those who survive the place.”
“What we don’t realize is that these conditions are in our own backyard.”
Value of the Project
Each of the quiet students who contributed to the forum eventually spoke in class and, each time they did, they did so with growing confidence. One student spoke for the first time in Week Ten and several times thereafter.
In a general class discussion about the value of the project, several quiet, forum-contributing students stated that they found it useful and would like to continue writing (and speaking) in the spring semester. Of the quiet students who did not contribute to the forum, several said they would consider trying it in the spring. Their reasons for not posting ranged from being “too busy” to “not knowing what to write.”
Encouraged by the students’ responses to the project, I plan to offer the program again in the spring 2018 semester. For those students who responded with “too busy,” I will continue to plug the program in class, using the opportunity to discuss effective ways of managing one’s time.
I will also offer specific examples of the types of posts they can write in hopes of motivating those who responded with “not knowing what to write.”
As one student said, “The forum allows you to get your side of the topic out there. And that can be helpful for everyone.”
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a former student who had taken my FYI course, Matters of Opinion. She said,
“I finally learned those terms you taught us in class. You know– the ones like breadth, depth, and fairness. I think I knew them fairly well in school because I had memorized them and I aced all my quizzes and exams. Not until I began using them as a paralegal did they finally kick in.”
The terms she was referring to are a few of the Universal Intellectual Standards from Linda Elder and Richard Paul’s book, “Critical Thinking – Concepts and Tools” (Elder and Paul, 2009). Her encouraging words are ones all teachers like to hear. I have to admit, though, that I sometimes wonder if what I’m teaching is getting through and, if so, at what point does it “finally kick in”?
I’m thinking one of these days I will develop a bumper sticker:
How Do You Know When?
Until I do, here’s a revision of a poem, originally entitled “Learnspotting” (Kenney, 2016), that offers a possible explanation to the question:
Learning: Near Sightings and Speakings
It’s an adjustment
That cannot be hurried
Or double-blinked into view.
It’s the blurred lens
In need of fine-tune focus,
Perhaps the deft turn
Of safecracking fingertips.
You can eavesdrop on learning…
It’s the muffled call,
The half-heard cry across the field
That whisks your ear
And tilts your head
You can pinpoint learning…
It takes touch, attention,
And unflinching poise
But mostly insight
You may never see
Or hear it.
Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2009). Critical Thinking – Concepts & Tools. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.
Kenney, R. (2016). Learnspotting. In J. Ferrari (Ed.), Third Wednesday (p. 78). Ann Arbor, MI: Gravity Presses.
Developing teacher presence is something I continually work on. Not the kind, mind you, I remember in high school where the nuns expected us to jump out of our chairs with a “Sister, Yes Sister!” whenever they asked us a question. And certainly not the kind my speech professor modeled when he taught a class or two from the rooftop of the communications building while we, below, wondered just how sure-footed he really was.
Instead, I work on things like making connections with my students. Do I know a little bit about each one so that they genuinely believe that I care about their learning? Do I know their stories? Is my voice tone such that they hear passion and not pressure? Do I have apt examples and anecdotes that back up the sometimes recondite theories and concepts?
I think we owe it to our students to strive to improve our teaching presence. And yet, I’ve come to realize that try as I may in this noble endeavor, there are those moments I lose a few students to side-conversations and cell phone sneak-peeks. That’s when I remember the beloved nuns and eccentric orators. It might also be why I wrote this poem, “Sting” (Kenney, 2016):
With my lecture on the brink of defeat
to side conversations and roaming
cell phone eyes, I asked if anyone
had trouble paying attention
to the newly introduced idea
when the quietest student of all
raised her hand and said it was the wasp
skimming the ceiling that had hers-
and every head looked up in time
to see the yellow-black glider,
its long legs dangling
like landing gear
looking for a runway.
For a second, it hovered over the middle row
as if pondering descent onto a mound
of chow mein- then quickly crossed
the room in one face-felt swoop-
the face belonging to Kicks
who removed his cap in reprisal
when the gentle voice opined
and suggested we keep in check
any weapons that whack or smack-
for venom’s fresh spill, she warned,
meant havoc and hate and harshness of hive.
She whispered why it wasn’t worth the risk
and explained how one of her friends
got stung in the mouth-
the horror of tongue-swell,
the panic of purple.
And so we sat
for what seemed a semester
with sealed lips and trailing eyes-
a kind of rattled serenity
I never thought possible, thanks
to a lesson in presence, one may I learn to land.
Kenney, R. (2016). Sting. The National Education Association Journal, 32 (1), 63-64.