Martine Wizman

1. Introduction: Writing in the Social Services Program

Teaching in the Social Service Department presents certain complexities: Social service students are expected to develop both academically and professionally (as future social work technicians). Students are asked to grow in and what is termed their ‘use of self ‘ as the primary ‘ instrument’ in social service work.  Computer programmers use computers as their primary ‘instrument’, social service workers use themselves.   For this reason there is a strong emphasis in our department to help student develop their professional/ personal selves.

One of the main reasons I applied for WID was to find ways in which to help students develop their use of self which includes mastering skills such as empathy, compassion, intuitive knowledge and assessments.  The transfer of knowledge to the ‘mind’ is our easiest challenge, but it takes some work to help students to move that knowledge down to the ‘heart’ level.

A secondary goal for my participation in WID was to learn how to engage my students in “complex thinking about significant problems” (as John Bean puts it in Engaging Ideas, our primary resource for the Writing Fellows).  These skills are imperative for students to develop given the field they will enter.


2. My Personal (Artistic) Trajectory: Experimenting with Creative and Alternative Modes of Writing

The following parts of my portfolio address my application of WID principles concepts and ideas in the classroom. I chose to implement these changes in to my first year students in the Social Problems 1 class. The purpose of the course is to introduce concepts of poverty, and social inequalities pertaining   to marginalized groups.  The course assignments have previously all centered on (cue the dramatic music!) the dreaded Term Paper.

Bean defines the need to make students writing assignments relevant by having them write to a real audience and for a real purpose.  This struck a chord with me:   I began to implement writing exercises to my students in this class respecting these    Beanologies ( why not invent a new word?).  Although using audience , purpose and  specific genres in designing writing assignments  seems like simple changes, the impact on my teaching was revolutionary.   In using these three constructs (audience, purpose and genre) I  saw students came closer to being prepared for the professional writing that comes with the profession.  This semester,  my students wrote for(real)class speakers, to their peers and to future( unknown) students in the program. I also had them write to themselves – a real audience if  there ever was one.  

Also, I strongly  adhere to the  use of  the arts in classroom teaching.  The impact of the arts to help students digest new knowledge is well documented.  I have used painting, music, drama, and fine art activities to reach students via their left brain activity.  My  “aha!” moment in WID came as I read Engaging Ideas. Although John Bean  addresses all manner of writing, it was the creative and alternative writing material that most excited me.  Incredibly I had never used creative writing as a serious art form in my array of artistic teaching methods. This seems all the more surprising in that I know the therapeutic and power of the written word in my personal life. I keep a daily journal as a means of self-growth and I am a singer-songwriter. How could I have not thought to apply this powerful medium (creative writing) to my classroom teaching?

Thus, I found myself incorporating all kinds of new writing activities into each class.  Here are a few:

  1. In developing my goal to have students develop their Use of Self: I had students write minute papers /free writes /reflection papers several times over the semester.  For example, after a class on racism the students wrote a reflection paper titled “My Own Prejudices.” This was incredibly effective in moving the concept of prejudice from an external source (others have it) to within each students own self examination (I have it).  Here are some excerpts from their work:

 –“I am envious of people who have things”

— “I am prejudiced against people who have had things handed to them when they do not work hard for them.”

 –“ I am prejudiced against Black men’

— ‘ I am prejudiced against Southerners, I know not all of them are bad but I cannot help judging them’

–I am prejudiced against the French from France the  English from England. 

— I am prejudice of people who are extremely religious.

–I am not comfortable with white Quebecers because many of them are not ready to welcome immigrants.

And ( my personal favorite):

–I hate hipsters

  2. I began to be more aware of designing writing exercises to help students think more critically about issues.  I developed a short writing assignment asking students to examine stereotypical statements about gender and argue about BOTH sides of the issue, with equal passion.


3.  On several occasions students wrote expressing the views of different actors in a drama — this in order to develop empathy.  In one example, after showing a film in class regarding a poor working family and their struggle against an unjust landlord and social system,  students to advocate for the rights of everyone in the movie. It was a stretch for students to write in the ‘voice’ of the unjust landlord or unsympathetic judge or to imagine themselves as  a single  parent with the whole world against her. This exercises sharpens the students’ sense of injustice and heightens empathy.

4. I strongly  adhere to the  use of  the arts in classroom teaching.  The impact of the arts to help students digest new knowledge is well documented.  I have used painting, music, drama, and fine art activities to reach students via their left brain activity.  Bean lists many ways of creative and alternative writing to help develop critical thinking skills.  I chose to develop an entire class on songwriting with the goals of increasing the empathy of my students with people living with social problems. (As I previously mentioned, I myself am a songwriter and it took WID to push me into using this powerful medium with my students ) I invited a blues singer songwriter to class. ( Rob Lutes) . I set the stage by organizing the classroom like a ‘coffeehouse’ ( dim lighting, desks in clusters with tablecloths and nibbles on the tables) He taught the students about the history of blues music, rooted in poverty. The class then corporately wrote a song about a social problem, which they chose.  Apart from being a wonderful collaborative effort (the class was electrifying!), this class really helped bring home to the students what it must be like for someone to live in prostitution .  For anyone interested, I have a full video of this class available.  Here are the lyrics the students came up with:

 STREET WALKER BLUES: Written by one group of first year Social Service students ( 2012)

I take off my pride, slip on my high-heeled shoes

I take off my pride, slip on my high-heeled shoes

I got nothing to hide, but them streetwalker blues


My old man left me, with a sweet baby to feed

My old man left me, with a sweet baby to feed

Now all I can do, is get down on my knees


A motel room -a john, some crack and jack

A motel room -a john, some crack and jack

Never my dream, to wind up on my back


Comin’ back home, wearing my midnight disguise

Comin’ back home, wearing my midnight disguise

Wipe off my tears, tell my sweet baby some more lies…


5.  Finally, in this Social Problems I course, students choose a social problem to research and write about.  In order to help them empathize with those living with these social problems, I asked them come to class one morning in the persona of the population they were researching. I walked in to find one of my students lying on the floor in front of my desk as a homeless person. Another had the bruised face of a battered woman. We spoke about stereotypes, stigma and resilience.  As our students will one day be social service workers, I had them write interview questions thinking about what they wanted to know about these disenfranchised groups.  They took turns interviewing  each other within their personas. Here is a comment  from  a student about the experience:

‘It gave me a reality check, because I am able to write about it, but what about the streetwalkers who have to live it day to day? How  are they able to cope day to day having to prostitute their bodies in order to survive? It just had me thinking that when you think your life is the worst, other people have it tentimes times worse than you’


 3. Formal Writing Tasks

The nemesis of our first year students  for this Social Problems I course is the Term Paper ( again, cue the dramatic music !).  In the past , I never gave a thought to adapting it , but spent a lot of time supporting and helping students get through it.  Since participating in WID,  I have applied the ‘ Small Variations in Assignment Design’ (Bean 92) for their major term paper.

TERM PAPER OPTIONS pdf – Martine Wizman

I asked students to peer edit their term papers this semester. Bean gives some attention to the value of peer editing — notwithstanding some critical thinking processes needed to evaluate others’ work. Many chose to do a  revision and gave positive comments about the process and results.  It seemed that when students knew their peers would be reading their work (a real ‘audience’) they cared more about the results. I also noted an overall improvement in the final products.

There is room for improvement, however, with students needing more preparation and instruction on how to peer edit effectively before the formal exercise.  In our WID group exchange this semester the suggestion came up to show students samples of old term papers that range from excellent all the way to poor quality. This gives them a framework to know what is expected of them and helps the ‘practice’ the skills of peer editing.

Here are further changes I plan to make regarding formal writing exercises:

  • I will begin to focus on a revision orientation vs. an editing orientation when designing and correcting student work. I will teach students to see through ‘revision colored glasses’. This material in Bean really helped me correct an over-emphasis on editing, to the benefit of a greater appreciation of content. To respond to the student’s ideas and challenge them to think critically also helps them care about the manner in which they are writing. They are simply more invested in the work, and the number of grammatical errors decrease as well (a win –win).
  • I have started a ‘minimal error’ strategy (Bean 83) when correcting student’s assignment. This puts the onus on the students to edit and correct their  own errors (for example this semester, instead of correcting multiple grammar and spelling errors, (time consuming!) I put a small ‘x’ next to the line containing the error.  It gives the student the active role in correction and revision.


4. Evaluation Rubrics

In the past I have made simple breakdowns of marks for rubrics and have found them to be very helpful in marking.  I found the examples in Bean too wordy and somewhat confusing to give my students, so I have streamlined an existing analytic task-specific rubric and have included more marks for content and student opinion/ argument.  I like the structure a rubric gives me when correcting and it also gives the students an idea of what to expect from me as a teacher. (Thanks to an alumni Widster Ben Lander for allowing me the adapted use of his rubric).


 5. In Conclusion: A Few Words and a Fable

In closing, I would add that it takes energy and effort to leave old constructs and ideas about writing in the classroom and implement new, more effective uses of writing. I found the support of the small group of colleagues and the leadership of the WID staff imperative to my growth and development in this area this year.

The fable that follows was written to give readers a sense of what the WID experience was like for me this semester: It was a communal, creative, and energizing experience. I have new ways of developing curriculum design and of challenging my students. Writing has become a new, exciting art from through which I can reach my students on both head and heart levels.


Once upon a time in the land of WID, there lived a little jade-colored frog princess.

She was fine and sleek with a rotund belly and jolly eyes. She would often swim in the pond all by herself, biding her time by swimming and singing nocturnal tunes. Did I mention she would sleep by day and swim by night?

 One day, a wonderful thought entered her mind: I wonder if my little tunes would sound better with other frogs croaking along?  Where could I find other musical frogs, which swim at night and sing by day?  Thus began her search: She swam to the north side of the pond, stretching her slimy little arms to feel for other frogs in the water. No frogs there. She dove deep into the fresh pond water kicking her strong frog legs for all she was worth.  As she reached the eastern side of the pond she felt her heart beat fast in anticipation of finding her future friends there.  However all she heard was the lapping of the water against the shore and the whistling of the wind in the trees. Feeling despondent she stopped to think more clearly.  Perhaps, if I put on my froggie goggles my bulging frog eyes could spot some friends! Out of her pocket (yes, Virginia, frogs DO have side pockets) came her cool red horn rimmed goggles. As soon as she slid them on her nose, her vision cleared and spotted a small group of tadpoles skimming the water on the eastern tip of the pond.  As she swam closer she also spied a large bullfrog wearing an ultra sleek black vest and a pretty she frog with fancy designs on her back.

  There were 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—five tadpoles and two cool frogs.  Each tadpole seemed a little different from the other. One had a camera, one had ballet slippers on, one had a microscope and one made noises in a foreign language. One had a thick book in her hand and the last one had a top hat that made him seem like a tall tadpole.  She wondered if they were friendly and if they would want to sing with her. They all seemed like such a happy frogs!

 Once she reached them, they all turned to her and sang in unison: “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” And then, “O we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.” She recognized the tunes and quickly replied, “Oh you beautiful dolls, you great big beautiful dolls!”  They quickly surrounded her in their warm, froggie way, and then began humming quietly.

  And so they sang! They taught her all kinds of new music.  There were happy toe tapping tunes, quiet soulful Gospel songs.  She learned ragtime riffs and gut wrenching blues ballads. They even sang the well known classics, sounding so harmonious with everyone singing them together.  Oh the fun they had!  She could not believe how quickly she learned while singing with this band of merry frogs.  When frogs from the other corners of the pond heard the beautiful multiple harmonies, they joined in, swelling their numbers to more than 100!!

 Alas, this joyful community lasted only for a season. In the end, they had to say goodbye to each other, as frogs often do — for the winter was coming. They promised each other that each spring they would meet, in the same corner of the pond, and in this way, their music lived on forever.

                                                                                            — Martine Wizman

Last Modified: December 2, 2013