February 2014 Features

The Art of Social Work

GSSWSR alumnae teach children to grow and learn through poetry and dance.

By Nancy Schmucker

In a classroom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a group of preschoolers eagerly waves brightly colored scarves in an attempt to imitate the sweeping arc of a rainbow. “Rainbows form when rain and sun happen at the same time in the sky,” says their teacher. “Let’s stand up and practice gently falling like a raindrop.”

              Teresa Benzwie, M.S.S. ’94

Teresa Benzwie, M.S.S. ’94

These children are being guided by a team of Temple University dance majors who are using creative movement to teach everything from elementary science to colors and shapes. Off to the side, but not on the periphery, is Teresa Benzwie, M.S.S. ’94, the leader of this endeavor. Benzwie, who is 78 years old, believes that using creative movement in early childhood education is the key to unlocking a child’s emotional, intellectual, and artistic talents; in short, to help them find their place in the world.

Benzwie began developing her approach to teaching as a kindergarten teacher; she empathized with the frenetic energy of the five-year-olds in her charge. “I was a very hyperactive child myself and would always get in trouble at school,” she recalls. “I understood the energy level and loved the activity. Instead of punishing them for being active, you use that energy constructively so that they can learn.” So, Benzwie pushed all the desks aside and started incorporating dance into every lesson.

Flash-forward some 50 years, and Benzwie is instructing Temple dance students in the pedagogy of creative movement. She works directly with a local early childhood center to develop first-hand opportunities for lesson planning, team building, teaching, evaluation, and reflection. Benzwie’s students often go on to pursue master’s degrees in dance therapy, early child education and, more recently, social work—one recently applied to GSSWSR.

Benzwie couldn’t be more thrilled. “Philosophically, this [work] belongs to Bryn Mawr,” she says. “I used dance, not only to teach all areas of the curriculum, but to make [children] feel good about themselves, to get along with each other, and to celebrate and appreciate the differences in all of us. All these things are principals of social work.”

Trapeta B. Mayson, M.S.S. ’95 also advances the principles of social work through art—in her case, poetry. The award-winning poet and Liberian native is a member of the Greene Street Artists Cooperative in Philadelphia. Working with Philadelphia nonprofits, such as Art Sanctuary and Tree House Books, she conducts poetry workshops to help people of all ages find their voice, discover shared experiences, and overcome their differences.

Like Benzwie, Mayson says her social work education informs her workshops “one hundred percent,” from helping her establish the ground rules for mutual respect and being an engaged participant

Trapeta B. Mayson, M.S.S. ’95

Trapeta B. Mayson, M.S.S. ’95

to inspiring her overarching goals of celebrating individuality while connecting over shared experiences. She recalls one particularly challenging workshop where she unexpectedly had to work with more than thirty children who spoke English as a second language. Mayson did not know how she would communicate with the mostly Spanish-speaking class, but with the help of a few students who spoke a bit of English, she broke the ice by sharing her childhood experience as an immigrant. She then engaged the whole group with very simple writing exercises and wrapped up by asking each to read their work aloud. By the end, the group came together as a whole, despite the language barrier.

“I told them, you don’t make apology for your voice,” Mayson says. “I don’t focus on grammar or form or structure. All that can come later. Really, I just want them to feel comfortable with their voice and to be courageous in the expression of it.”

Mayson, who often leverages writing’s therapeutic properties to help students from challenged backgrounds, credits her social work education with bringing a larger purpose to her teaching.

“My education and training have shown me that children present with various behavioral issues for a lot of reasons, and it doesn’t always mean that these kids are ‘bad,’” she says. “As social workers, we know that every human being comes with a story.”

“There is a very natural connection between our profession and the arts”, says GSSWSR Dean Darlyne Bailey. “While best prepared through our class and field education, as social workers we know that our primary ‘tool’ is our self. We ‘use’ our self in all ways—mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually. Through this practice we are able to help others discover and appropriately use their voice, all critically important in our work with others.”