Informal Writing Assignment
John H. Pierpont
School of Social Work
The Social Work profession incorporates a broad range of diverse jobs including child protective services, substance abuse counseling, foster care placement and supervision, mental health case management, and individual, family, and group therapy, to list a few. Most students seeking social work degrees have an idea about the jobs they’d like to find after graduation, and many have a specific plan for the kind of work they’d like to do or the population with whom they want to work. However, most social workers do not remain in the same job for the course of their career and many find themselves in different jobs within only a few years of graduation. Therefore, it is necessary that social work education include not only specific information about interventions with specific population groups, community organization, social policies, etc; it is also crucial that social work educators challenge students to develop the ability to think critically so they may adapt and even lead in new and changing environments. To this end, the Council on Social Work Education, the accrediting body that establishes educational standards for college and university social work programs in the United States, has in recent years emphasized the importance of critical thinking in all accredited baccalaureate and graduate social work programs.
In my senior-level social policy course, I assign a semester-long formal research paper with revised drafts in order to facilitate students’ learning critical thinking skills. The formal research paper with revised drafts is “among our most powerful tools for teaching critical thought” (Bean, 2001, pg. 6). In this course, students need to acquire information about the array of public welfare programs available to social work clients. However, it is just as important that students acquire the ability to analyze similarities and differences between “public” and “corporate” welfare, and to judge whether a given social program is a good fit for the social problem it is intended to address. To accomplish this, students must identify and analyze a social problem, and they must then analyze the fit between that problem and a social program intended to ameliorate the problem. In this assignment, students learn to apply specific evaluative criteria to social problems, policies, and programs, and they also learn to assess the strengths and limitations of social policies and programs. Thus students learn about public welfare programs at the same time that they learn to think critically about the fit between social problems and the policies and programs intended to ameliorate social problems.
The semester-long research paper begins the first week of class with an “Informal Writing Assignment” which is completed in class. This early informal assignment has several benefits. First, much of the course focuses on the various aspects of the research paper, and the initial assignment prefigures it in a significant way, viz., students begin to think about the social policies and programs with which they will work as professional social workers as responses to particular social problems. Second, the informal writing may be useful in overcoming some of the alienation many students experience when writing a research paper (Bean, 2001). Students are asked to be stakeholders in the project when they select a problem which they think is very important. Once they have begun to write about a social problem they believe is important, they are more apt to take ownership in their writing and less likely to see the assignment as merely one of many educational obstacles to be overcome. According to Fishman,
...students write to find out what they care about...Without sufficient work at this first [personal] stage students run the risk of writing “uncommited” papers, papers they do not care enough about to do the necessary reworking and editing...Students are the silent ones in American education, yet students learn best when they have a personal stake in the classroom. (Abbott, Bartelt, Fishman, & Honda, 1992.)
Here it is important to note that many social work students choose to write about social problems they themselves have experienced, e.g., poverty, child abuse, depression, domestic violence, and others. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to be prepared to respond appropriately if a student’s writing about traumatic past experiences produces a traumatic experience in the classroom (McCammon, 1999.).
The third benefit of the informal writing assignment is that it appeals to students who don’t resonate to a formal, academic approach to writing. My teaching/assignment style tends toward a more traditional, step-by-step approach. However, many of my students do not have the kind of learning style that matches well with my teaching style, i.e., they may be more comfortable with more expressive writing rather than a formal academic style. There are also students who do not enjoy writing at all. Although the bulk of the research paper is to be a thoughtful, step-by-step analysis, this initial assignment encourages students with different styles to write in their own way about a social problem that they see as important. Students who do not enjoy writing may learn that writing about something with meaning to them can be both interesting and useful (Bean, 2001.)
Finally, the Informal Writing Assignment helps me identify students who need help with developing their writing skills. I often find students who have the foundation to write well but need to put more effort into learning to express themselves more clearly or more persuasively. Unfortunately, there are also sometimes students who lack some of the basic knowledge (e.g., grammar, punctuation) necessary for good writing. The initial assignment enables me to identify students in need of assistance early in the semester. I can then refer them to the University Writing Center for individualized attention to their particular writing deficit.
Social workers in the 21st Century are expected to bring to their work both a professional’s knowledge base and a professional’s ability to think through new and difficult situations. The formal research paper can be a powerful way of helping students improve their critical thinking skills. The Informal Writing Assignment, printed below, is a useful way of introducing students to the task.
The Writing Assignment
Identify a social problem pertaining to poverty, domestic violence, or bigotry that you think is a very important problem and tell why you think it is so important. Remember that “poverty”, “domestic violence”, and “bigotry” are umbrella terms for many more specific problems. Inadequate prenatal care; malnutrition among school-age children and the elderly; homelessness; lack of adequate shelter, clothing, and food, as well as many other problems are associated with poverty. Domestic violence includes child abuse and elder abuse, as well as woman- or wife-battering. Bigotry includes racism, sexism, bias based on age, class, sexual orientation, disability, and many other forms of prejudice. You may choose any social problem under the umbrella terms.
Toward the end of your comments, write a single paragraph discussing why you think this problem has not been addressed adequately, i.e., why it continues to be a social problem. Finally, make a suggestion or two as to what might be done to solve or ameliorate the problem and how this problem-solving process might begin.
Abbott, M., Bartelt, P., Fishman, S., & Honda, C. (1992). Interchange: A conversation among the disciplines. In A. Herrington and C. Omran (eds.), Writing, teaching, and learning in the disciplines. New York: Modern Lnaguage Association, quoted in J. Bean. (2001). Engaging Ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pubishers.
Bean, J. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
McCammon, S. L. (1995). Painful pedagogy: Teaching about trauma in academic and training settings. In B. Hudnall Stamm (Ed.). Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues fot clinicians, researchers, and educators (pp. 105-120). Lutherville, MD: Sidran.
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