The stories and identities of people who use social work services are often obscured by mass media stereotypes and labels – ‘failed asylum seekers’, ‘scroungers’, ‘troubled families’. The influence of managerialism compounds this problem, with space for thinking and feeling continually under pressure. This practice paper draws on ideas from social pedagogy to reflect on the benefits of a creative attempt to connect heads and hearts in the academy. Informed by an approach used with nursing students in Australia, social work undergraduates in London (England) were encouraged to engage with a range of creative media (newspapers, films, television, plays, social media) and journal about what they noticed. Drawing on narrative ideas, students reflected on portrayals of people that were ‘thin’ – labelling and oppressive – and ‘thick’ – revealing a richer picture of people’s lives, needs and capabilities. After putting together short stories or accounts of their own, based on their journaling, students were invited to share these in a type of ‘reflecting team’ with peers. This process invited students to develop critical and ethical perspectives through thinking about what had struck them, what they had understood differently about the service user groups, what resonated with them personally, and how this might affect their practice. This small example of creative practice is considered as part of a wider reflection on the value of a rich curriculum for social work education, holding out hope for humane practice in challenging times.