Joanna Farmer

The WID Experience

In our busy careers, it is rare to have the opportunity to consider broad teaching issues, not in a one-day workshop, but in an ongoing dialogue with colleagues over an entire semester.  The Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program offered me such an opportunity.   I was particularly looking forward to working with Ian MacKenzie, who had asked me years ago to teach a workshop in English country dancing to his students studying English novels. Clearly, Ian has a long standing interest in an interdisciplinary approach to teaching.   Anne Thorpe, a Humanities/English teacher, enthusiastically co-led our group of seven teachers.  It was a uniquely productive and inspiring experience.




WID and the Physical Education Departmental Project

We are the first department to have four members participate in WID – Cindy, Anthony, Heather and me, which is not surprising, given our commitment to pedagogy, individual and collective.  Part of the WID mandate is to offer this cross disciplinary approach to as many Programs/Departments as possible and so my initial application in 2011 was turned down.  WID is now moving to the next level of engagement by asking departments with several former WID members to structure a departmental project.  My second application to WID was accepted on this basis.  I agreed to a slightly different set of conditions from my colleagues, extending my involvement over a year.  During the fall I would participate with a somewhat reduced writing obligation and during the winter, I would collaborate with my colleagues to disseminate our learning to the Department. There is a course release given to WID Writing Fellows, and I took mine in the semester following the Fellows seminar, to allow me time to then focus on a departmerntal WID project.  In retrospect, this release would have been better split between the two semesters – WID makes considerable demands on time for reading, writing and thinking, and during this past semester, I often felt like the snake that swallowed the elephant. This report is part of my WID commitment, as was our Dec. 14 2012 workshop, at which time we began a discussion on the nature of a Departmental project in coordination with our curriculum committee. Click on the document below to view the entire PE_WID project.

The WID Writing Fellows Process

The most stimulating part of WID is sharing ideas with colleagues from other disciplines.   WID self-selects for teachers open to exchanging ideas; there was not a grumpy or negative person in the group – well, perhaps me, halfway through.  Another benefit of an interdisciplinary group is that it is easier to be candid when you are the sole participant from a particular discipline.  We met biweekly and were expected to come prepared: for each session, we studied a chapter from John Bean’s text “Engaging Ideas”, and read one or two supporting articles, plus the commentary from each other’s blog.   The members took turns developing a framework for the blog.  During meetings, time was spent first discussing a topic, then we focused on how it could be applied to our course work.  This was often done in pairs. The basic WID approach to learning is to:


  • read it yourself (no lecture)
  • come to class prepared
  • write to develop your ideas
  • spend class time applying ideas in small groups


Although each WID member (“widster”!) follows the same process, we interpret and integrate the material slightly differently according to the members of our particular group, our teaching experience and the other resources we have access to.


Other Resources

Along with exchanging ideas with WID members, I had the advantage of sharing ideas with my partner, Gordon Hebert – an English teacher at Champlain College.   Through Gordon, I was introduced to additional resources:  Writing Across the Disciplines (WAC) booklets written in the 1990’s, and the pedagogical research of Diane Bateman and Susan Kerwin-Boudreau – Champlain teachers instrumental in the development of the Master Teachers Program (MTP) curriculum.  Through my former office mate, Doug, I also learned about Problem Based learning (PBL) – an approach embraced by several science teachers.  Many concepts such as scaffolding (designing assignments that logically progress from one to another), critical thinking through writing, group work, and problem solving are common to WAC, WID, PBL and MTP.  What they all have in common is a desire to increase students’ engagement in learning.


Defining Levels of Thinking

The notion of categorizing cognitive levels has been around since Maslow and the idea that there is a progression to thinking is widely accepted in education courses.  I find that Bateman’s hierarchy of levels is helpful to understanding critical thinking.  Simply put, Bateman’s levels progress from:


  • information – identification and categorization of facts and concepts
  • analysis – application of appropriate criteria to evaluate information
  • synthesis – draw conclusions from information and reconcile disparate facts
  • creativity – construction of an original fact or concept


When we teach exclusively through lecture, then evaluate learning through short answer tests, and accept data-dump research papers, we are measuring students’ ability to memorize and organize content – the first level of thinking.  If we want them to think critically and develop their ideas, then we need other teaching strategies.


The Stakes

It would be so much easier if I could just do an oral report to the Department; the writing process slows me down, makes me more careful about what I say, and makes me consider how other department members might respond to my ideas.  It makes me think. Similarly, when we ask students to put their ideas on paper, we develop their thinking abilities; and when we grade their writing, we are entering into a much higher level of engagement with them.  It is a huge responsibility, one we must do with sensitivity as they are vulnerable and easily offended.

This past weekend, I graded fifty, two-page student reflections on stress – causes, symptoms and strategies.  They poured their hearts out.  The writing was very insightful and carefully written with few errors.  What we learn from Bean is that this informal, reflective writing helps to develop their academic writing.  If I had limited the stress topic to the in-class brainstorming work and graded their knowledge with a short answer test; their level of thinking would have been restricted to the first level of information. Writing leads them to the higher levels of analysis and synthesis.

When I compare the value of in-class to at-home writing, I am reminded of my own near drop out experience from my first semester at Western University.  By midterm, I was failing three subjects.  My high school English courses, which ranged from reciting poetry to grammar exercises, had not prepared me for writing essays.  I had never been asked to write down my ideas and thought that everyone else’s must be better – certainly the ones found in books, and so I submitted the classic cut and paste mess where I tried to link other people’s ideas and hoped that I had properly referenced them.  Thankfully, my English teacher gave us an in-class essay to write on Huckleberry Finn.  I passed, even did well on this, and confidence restored, decided to continue my studies.

At our November Pedagogical Day, Karen Ridd, the keynote speaker, spoke of her frustration and sadness when the majority of her native students dropped out mid-term when asked to hand in homework.  Funded at half the rate of other Canadian children, native students are at a considerable disadvantage when they enter college (Watts, 2012).  Karen’s proposed strategy is to include more short, in-class writing assignments to encourage students’ confidence in their ideas.  This past semester, I had a similar experience: my two native students both dropped out when I asked for homework.  Perhaps if I had restructured the homework assignment to one done in-class, they would still be with me.


 Key Discussions

At each meeting, Anne and Ian guided us through thought provoking discussions on fundamental questions.  How should we define good English writing?  Which is better – an essay that is grammatically perfect but has nothing to say; or an essay that expresses ideas but is grammatically weak?  What is the best approach to evaluate student writing?  Should we grade English Second Language students with the same rigor as other students?  Should we care about the effects of social media and technology on student writing?  These discussions followed readings and sharing ideas on the blog.  I leave WID with the following principles:

  • that in-class, informal writing is the best approach to develop student writing and critical thinking
  • that personal and creative writing strengthens academic writing
  • that grammar improves as students edit their own work to clarify ideas
  • that too much emphasis on content limits the time available to foster reflection and critical thinking
  • that careful assignment design pre-empts many problems such as plagiarism, and leads to a more straightforward evaluation

One theme that kept reappearing in various WID discussions was the problem of content overload.  We all agreed that students are overwhelmed with information both at school and at home.  With new technology providing easy access to information, there is a concern that students are losing their ability to focus.

Burnham (1994) has a unique approach to reinforcing reading by writing summary sentences. Following a lecture, or after a reading, Burnham’s suggests students write:

  • a summary sentence identifying the main idea
  • a sentence linking the main idea to another topic
  • a question that the reading raises
  • an analogy or limerick – something creative to own the idea

This process of reduction connects the reader to the essential ideas of the writer.   If you were to reduce each paragraph of this paper to a single sentence, you would be looking at the key points of my original outline.

Bean has a lot to say on evaluation.  I appreciate his Dr. Phil scripts of positive comments in chapter 16.  My favorite is: “Your ideas are worth more careful editing”.   In chapter 5 he presents an argument for not teaching/grading grammar (I am not sure if I fully agree with him), and in chapter 14, he presents many useful rubrics for grading.


Eureka Moments

Eureka moments occurred during discussions with Writing Fellows teachers in disciplines very different from mine.  For example:

 Lyane Henrichon                             French Department

Instead of students answering an attendance call with “present”, Lyane asks her students to respond to a simple question: eg. What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?  She changes the question each class.  This approach sets a friendly tone, develops trust and class spirit, and encourages the shy students to speak – for one brief moment, everyone’s answer is considered and has equal weight.  I now use this idea and have discovered an added benefit – students remain quiet when I take attendance.  I think of my high school French classes as endless, boring drills.   Lyane teaches with creativity; she asks her students to rap to homonyms. This relaxed atmosphere helps learning.

 Cory Legassic                                   Humanities and Social Science

I am rethinking the idea of a one draft paper.  In my courses, students complete two 500 word reflections.   Cory states that writing is messy and that when we work on computers we see only a part of our work which hinders global revision; he has students submit the messy, first draft. This added step produces better writing: catches off-topic writing at an early stage; prevents last-minute work full of errors; reduces the incidence of copying and teaches the important lesson that writing is revision – no one gets it perfect on the first draft. I am not sure if I want to increase my correcting time by adding this step; however, I might ask students to attach an early draft or outline to their final one.  Another interesting teaching idea from Cory is to start and end each class with a question.

 Jean-Francois Briere                      Physics

Having scraped through high school physics, I have always considered this subject to be extremely difficult, one that requires intense lecturing.  A committed PBL teacher, Jean-Francois assures us that he does not lecture.    He demands that students read and understand the material on their own.  He teaches in the active learning classroom 3F. 37, designed for group learning, where students access resources on-line.   To simulate the real world of physics, he sometimes gives his students unsolvable problems missing some vital piece of information; this brings an element of fun to the classroom when students realize what’s missing.  Compared to his physics students, mine are quite spoon fed; perhaps not a good approach if the objective is to develop independent learners.

 Diane Shea                                      History

Diane has the difficult task of teaching Western Civilization.  Given the breadth of the subject matter and the different cultural perspectives on written history, this is the course that makes the definitive argument for critical thinking.  Clearly, it is more important for students to question facts than memorize them.

As a physical educator, I teach dance from a skill perspective, and yet it is difficult not to provide some historical framework, and just like Western Civilization, dance history is mired in difficult issues – poverty, racism, misogyny, and war.  Similarly, in my fitness courses, when I teach nutrition, controversial issues of food management, cruelty to animals, use of chemicals, etc. quickly become part of the discourse, and complex social issues are part of any discussion of lifestyle choices.  Skimming over these topics in a lecture is not satisfying for me or the students.  Perhaps I could design an assignment that would allow students to engage in these difficult topics in a more meaningful way.

Martine Wizman                               Social Service

Martine is a very creative person who writes songs in her spare time.  (At our last meeting, she composed and sang a song about our WID group that made for a special wrap-up). For each song, she carefully considers the style, audience, subject, and the purpose of the song which is the same process required in any writing task.  This exemplifies one of the central ideas I have learned from WID, that all informal writing – be it blogs, poems, or personal diaries – strengthens academic writing.

 Val Simmons                                                Photography

Val, a photographer, has recently moved from the professional to the academic milieu.  A committed learner, she was taking a MTP course along with WID. (Val is also a formidable Dragon Boat competitor).  Her discourse on how modern technology has changed the public’s perception of photography was very interesting.  With today’s digital technology, anyone can take a reasonably good photo.  Students entering the Photography Program at Dawson are often not aware of the considerable thinking process required of the professional photographer, who must consider the technical, artistic and visual literacy elements (purpose, audience, and format) of each photo. This information gap indicates a need for better communication with the public on the rigors of its profession.

Similarly, we could benefit from more writing to communicate the advances in physical education to a public who may still think of gym class as mindless play.  When the provincial government decided to drop physical education from the cegep curriculum, we could have used more letters to the editor, more position papers, more scholarly academic research to defend our profession.

Beyond teaching, writing is important to us as individuals. I think of our former colleague Tony Proudfoot who established his leadership through writing: he was on the provincial writing committee to develop our curriculum, wrote many reports at Dawson on various committees, wrote and selected the photographs for his book “First and Goal”, and received a writing award from the Gazette for his candid articles on his struggle with ALS.


Application of WID to My Teaching

I’ve introduced in-class writing on topics such as ethics, stress and nutrition.  Instead of starting the topic with an introductory lecture, students write a paragraph to relate the topic to their experience.  I then ask them to reduce their paragraph to a single sentence.  Students then share their sentence with the class and this leads into a general discussion. This approach engages all students and I find that the class settles down and is more focused afterwards.  I grade the writing on effort, usually giving everyone the same grade – 2 marks.  Also, I’ve found that having students write at the beginning of class helps reduce lateness.

Before WID, I didn’t consider the importance of audience in writing – all assignments were written to me, the teacher.  I made a change of audience on a dance assignment that worked well. After students viewed their mid-term dance performance, I had them write a dance critique as if they were a journalist writing to a general audience.  Students found it easier to write about themselves in the third person as “the dancer” and the writing was more meaningful.  I may try this approach with student self-grading of presentations.

In my renewed understanding of the importance of the sentence as a complete thought, I intend to rework certain assignments to reduce sentence fragment answers.  When I accept single word answers on an assignment such as the SMART goal, I am forced to complete the student’s thought – do the thinking they were asked to do.   I also intend to replace instructions on assignments with “name” or “list” to “describe” and “explain”.  (I sure hope I finally get my assignments right before I retire!)

In addition, I have developed a rubric from Bean to grade writing.  I am not sure if I will use it in a detailed way or just include it in the back of the manuals so that students know what I am looking for when I put a global grade on a paper.  I am certainly a more confident grader after my WID experience.   I also intend to add a few blank sheets of paper in the back of my manuals to facilitate writing.


 WID and the Physical Education Curriculum

Our Department is a leader in active, engaged learning. Applying WID concepts to the theory portion of our classes would be a further step in this direction.

The 103 course is an excellent example of the WID approach – each assignment scaffolds into the next guiding students through the design, management and critical evaluation of their personal activity program.  Students are actively involved at every step and submit regular written reports analyzing their progress.  Some of us go beyond synthesis to creativity when we ask students to incorporate photos and art work in their portfolio.

The 102 course also actively engages students as they write their own goals and evaluate their skill development on regular performance drills.  Since our classes usually include students with a wide range of skill levels, this individual approach works very well.  We integrate digital technology into the class room which allows students to view their performance, frame by frame, for analysis.

The 101 course, with its broad health and fitness information, presents more of a challenge for integrating WID. I find that lecturing is an efficient method of covering material, and yet, how do I know anyone’s listening?  I know that when I lower the lights to lecture with an overhead, some students nap or check their email.   My office mate, Mark, asks his students to become experts on a health topic and then create a brochure to hand out to other students during a carnival where students teach each other.  This approach demands a higher level of engagement than staring at an overhead. I expect that one of the outcomes of our workshop will be to inspire each other to try new teaching strategies.

Referring to the levels of thinking, it is interesting to note how they mirror our curriculum.  The 101 course is clearly about health information, the 102 course about movement and skill analysis and the 103 course requires synthesis to integrate learning into a personal activity program.    We use creativity, the highest level of thinking, throughout our curriculum – in the 101 course when we ask students to design their own workouts, in the 102 course when they create a learning drill, game or dance, and certainly in the 103 course when they create an active living portfolio.

I also thought it was remarkable that Bloom’s taxonomy, a well-known theoretical model for knowledge, reflects our curriculum (Krathwohl, 2002). Bloom’s taxonomy categorizes knowledge in levels of increasing complexity:

  • factual and conceptual knowledge
  • procedural – how to do something and use criteria for skill development
  • metacognitive or self-knowledge of one’s own cognitive processes

Although I have just a cursory understanding of these levels, I was struck by how well both the knowledge and thinking levels, appear to fit the progression of our courses.  I came across these learning models in my supplementary reading; the discussions at WID were oriented to practical teaching concerns.


Closing Thoughts

 Now that I am an advocate for writing in sentences, I wouldn’t mind spending a few minutes of class time to teach sentence structure, but I have difficulty myself using a semicolon and feel I lack the expertise.  I could also use guidance in defining levels of error – particularly for our large population of ESL students.  For example, I learned that the articles “a” and “the” are not part of many Asian languages, and arguably should be considered low-level errors.  This small bit of information has whetted my appetite to learn more.

Next year, the negotiating process will start again to define our working conditions in the collective agreement.  The present PQ government is proposing several significant changes in education.  Perhaps now is the time for us to advocate for a reduced number of students, given the increased grading time required by an active learning approach and greater attention to writing.  We teach almost twice as many students as our CORE colleagues in English, Humanities and French.

Finally, if I were to sum up my WID experience in a single statement, I would say that now I feel my teaching is based on a more solid pedagogical framework.

Works cited

  • Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas – 2nd ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011.
  • Berhman, Ed.  “Writing in the Physical Education Class.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; Oct. 2004; 75:8.  22-32.
  • Burnham, Christopher.  “Journals”, Writing Across the Curriculum. Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice Hall, 1994.
  • Kerwin-Boudreau, s. The Professional Development of College Teachers. Queenston:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.
  • Krathwohl, D.R.  A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy:  An overview.  Theory into Practice, 41(4), 212-218.
  • Watt, Bob.  “Rights in a History of Wrongs:  What does a just future look like for indigenous peoples?”  The 2012 Vancouver Human Rights Lecture, CBC/Ideas, Nov. 9.

Image credit: Forest Trail, Jon Sullivan

Last Modified: September 19, 2013