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Dr. Lesly Wade-Woolley

[Lesly Wade-Woolley photo]

Faculty of Education

Cross-appointed to Department of Psychology

Lesly Wade-Woolley is a professor who also happens to love the art of quilting. And like the beautiful handiwork she creates, she stitches together her classes meticulously and with deep enjoyment. She developed both passions early in life, and eventually became a prolific quilter and accomplished professor.

"I was good in school and an early reader. We didn't have a TV until I was nine, so I read a lot. I still remember listening to old colour-coded records called Listen and Learn with Phonics. It's interesting that I later became a researcher in reading with an interest in the cognitive development of reading. It seems that no one really remembers the process of learning to read but just incidents related to it. That process is effortful and takes a long time. It is a mysterious, remarkable thing that changes our cognitive systems."

Growing up in Knoxsville, Tennessee, Wade-Woolley had a memorable teacher in Grade 5. "She was charismatic and inspired loyalty in a strange way like the fictional Miss Jean Brodie. At Christmas all the classes painted murals at the back of their classrooms, so she put paper over our classroom door so no one could see the mural we were working on. For three weeks you had to give a secret knock just to come in. She was very strict, but still, everyone wanted to get in to see what we were doing."

"On the other hand, when she was away, we rather terrorized the substitute teachers. She developed an 'us against the rest of the school' image within the class. So she was probably not a good colleague, but she was creative, demanded lots of research and had high standards and expectations."

But despite being a good student who was comfortable in school, Wade-Woolley didn't set out to become a teacher. "I really enjoyed grammar and languages came easily to me, so I studied French at the University of Tennessee. But it wasn't exactly what I wanted, so I switched to Spanish and also took Italian, Russian and Arabic. Then one day during my undergrad, I took a course in Linguistics."

Moments of clarity...

"I must say, there have only been two times in my life when the light bulb went on, and this was one. I finally discovered that linguistics was the study of language with a capital 'L' and was exactly what I had been looking for – not just one particular language, but an examination of how language works and how it changes across time. I really liked it."

Wade-Woolley packed her boxes and headed to McGill University, where she fell in love with linguistics and also the man who became her husband! After almost finishing her master's in linguistics, she took a short break and thought about becoming a chef in Toronto. "I had a crisis of faith, and because I was a great cook, I decided to enroll in a culinary course. But I missed the university and the discussions about ideas, so I eventually finished my master's and then got my PhD in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto."

It was during this time, that her second light bulb moment occurred! "I took a course in Reading and Language Comprehension. This was the first time I really thought about studying reading, even though I loved to read. My path was illuminated! I began to study reading and have been doing that ever since."

I still work very hard to find authentic ways to engage students in the issues.

After a post-doc at UBC, Wade-Woolley nervously entered into the world of teaching at Queen's in 1998. "Those first months were a blur, and I felt I struggled. I was teaching in the area of cognitive studies; things to do with educational psychology. The thing I feared most actually happened when I was teaching Equity and Exceptionality to a class of 40 undergrads. I was talking to a racially diverse class about how the language we use can mean things to different groups and can hurt feelings. A mentor had helped me prepare all sorts of activities for the class do after my lecture. But when it came time to start them, a young woman suggested that they 'got it' without having to do such 'lame' activities."

"I almost panicked. I thought the wheels were falling off! Then a young African-American man spoke up and said, 'Language is powerful. My friends and I call each other the 'n' word, but no one else can!' The blood was pounding in my ears! But then, suddenly, an amazing thing happened. All the hands shot up!! And in that moment, I learned that I didn't have to control and manage everything in the class. Long afterwards, all the students remembered that particular class because they had participated fully in discussing an issue that has no real answer. It was a great learning experience for them."

From then on Wade-Woolley brought in thoughtful questions to kick-start those kinds of fully-engaged discussions. That spontaneous moment changed how she taught. "I learned to trust the experience more. I realized how important it is that we engage with the issues and not the activities. I still work very hard to find authentic ways to engage students in the issues."

She now teaches both undergrad and grad classes, with a mixture of both young and mature students, and many arrive with preconceived ideas on how people learn or structure new knowledge. To combat those old notions and illustrate new ones, Wade-Woolley continually references research studies. "It's important to see what the research says. I always try to bring it into the classroom and look for studies that demonstrate what we are looking at. In education we are now trying to have, as medicine does, an evidence-based practice. We make decisions based on that evidence."

She also enjoys graduate supervision. "I feel that my job is to graduate my PhD students with a whole variety of skills from how to teach, to how to supervise, and write grants. Just being able to do a thesis and write dissertations is not enough in today's world. I try to help them come up with Plan A, B and C for their career and give them experiences that further develop their teaching abilities and so make them more marketable."

The process has been a great experience for grad student Lindsay Heggie. She says, "It didn't take long for Prof Wade-Woolley to become one of my favourite professors.... She always chooses great papers for us to read and discuss in class, and excels at leading student discussion and exploration of a topic. She's got high expectations of us, and always does everything she can to help us get there."

And perhaps the reason for such praise, is that Wade-Woolley still holds her passions close –  "I still like the study of reading. Every day I get up and still like it. That is true love."

Profile by Patricia Henderson