The first group of students sits in a circle, pinkies intertwined, still as statues.
Soon, under the watchful eye of Laurie Melnik-Allen, executive director of the Arts-Based Collaborative at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, it’s a second group’s turn.
One student sits on the ground. One kneels. The others stand. All hold hands. All are still.
Other groups follow. All striking different sculpture-like poses.
These aren’t theater majors. They’re social work students in “Pre-Field I,” a first-semester project developed by Allen and Mary Andrews, a lecturer and a clinical instructor in the UTC social work program.
“As social workers, we must be able to develop our interpersonal skills in order to develop relationships quickly and effectively with our clients, and one of the main skills of being able to develop a relationship with clients is trust,” said Andrews, a licensed clinical social worker in Tennessee and Georgia.
“Trust is the foundation of other interpersonal skills. You can have great communication. You can be empathetic. You can be very well-versed in theory. But if a person doesn’t trust you, then the relationship isn’t going to move the helping process forward.”
Several years ago, Andrews attended a workshop listening to Allen speak about collaborative education. Allen talked about a class where she used applied theater with medical interns to help them process emotions experienced during challenging patient encounters. Watching the theater instructor in action was a light bulb moment for Andrews.
“I thought, ‘How can I use that in my class?’” Andrews recalled. “I’m always looking for unique and engaging opportunities to help the students get a deeper grasp of concepts and be able to apply them. It’s critical. You have to be able to apply them to social work practice, not just understand them.
“So I went up and spoke to her and asked if she would like to collaborate and come and do the applied theater in my class. She loved the idea.”
From that interaction, “Still Images of Trust” was born, an idea in which the students would create still images showing trust.
“Trust is not something you can touch. It’s something you feel emotionally. But you can’t physically feel it, and technically you can’t see it, but the still images help you,” Andrews said.
Andrews divided her class into groups. Students were given several days to decide how they would demonstrate trust as a still image. The groups’ images were then shown in class with Allen present “to help unpack the images and explore more in the concept, meaning, value and application of trust to helping relationships,” Andrews said.
“The term that Laurie used was to ‘contextualize’ it so you can use another sense to see trust. So her discussion began with the students, ‘I see. Therefore I think.’ And since you see this interpersonal skill visually, it can help you think more deeply about the interpersonal skill.”
During the classroom exercise, Allen brought the groups to the front of the room to show the still images they created. The rest of the students were asked to walk around “the still images” to capture them from different angles, similar to circling a statue in a park.
For example, with the first group sitting in a circle on the floor, Allen asked the other future social workers for their observations.
“Because I see they’re holding hands, I feel like they’re connected, like they trust each other with a connection,” one student said.
“Because I see them holding pinkies, it makes me think of a pinkie promise,” said a second student. “When you pinkie promise someone, you are trusting them with a secret or you wouldn’t have made that pinkie promise. At least for me, you wouldn’t do that unless you trust them to follow through.”
Other than introducing Allen, Andrews was quiet until the end of class, observing her students participating in the applied theater exercise. She deemed it a successful experience.
“I was able to watch the students grasp a deeper meaning of trust, act out trust for their group experience and others, grasp the concept and verbalize what they see and how it makes them think more deeply,” Andrews said. “Every year that we do this, the students have a unique and creative way of expressing trust.”