Diana Leddy, Vermont Writing Collaborative
Diana Leddy is a founding member of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, coauthor of Writing for Understanding and The Primary Coaching Guide, and the 2009 Vermont State Teacher of the Year.
Diana spoke to Emily Freitag and Christina Gonzalez about the power of clear expectations, collaboration, and shared knowledge in writing instruction.
Watch or read the full conversation below.
EF: Please share a story from your own journey as a learner and what that has taught you about learning.
DL: I’ll tell you the story that led me to become a teacher. When I was in high school, there came an opportunity to do some peer tutoring, which meant that I would get out of a class for a period. In my school, there was one classroom where any student who was experiencing serious difficulties with learning would spend their day away from everyone else. The idea of the program was to try and pair up high school students who were in the mainstream of the school with those who were in this segregated class. They paired me up with a boy who was my age named David who couldn’t read at all, not even on a first-grade level. My job was to do the best I could to help him to improve his reading. It was a very unstructured program, but I found it really fascinating. He was an interesting person, very different from myself, yet the same in many ways as well. To make a long story short, I literally, accidentally taught David how to read. To this day, I don’t really know how that happened, but it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life to watch a human being get the gift of being able to read.
Because of that, the special education teacher in our school came to me and explained that she was really struggling to serve all the students that they had put in her classroom and she needed some help. I agreed to volunteer and she made a deal with me that she was going to show me everything she knew about teaching and give me an opportunity to try to teach. That literally changed my life. By the time I was a senior, I was in that classroom 20 hours a week, including going with her on home visits for students who were physically unable to get to school and needed tutoring. Ever since then, I’ve been a teacher.
I learned a lot from that experience. First, that it’s really important to have high expectations. I didn’t know that David wasn’t expected to learn how to read. I just assumed he would be able to. By no means was that a magic wand, but I think those expectations gave David the confidence that he needed to try to engage in this learning where he had been previously unsuccessful, because it was pretty clear to him that I didn’t expect him to be unsuccessful. That’s something that I always take with me into the classroom.
The second thing I learned is a little more subtle, and that’s that learning is a social endeavor. Learning is very dependent on human relationships. This was a peer-to-peer tutoring relationship. David had good teachers, and that didn’t really do the trick. What really helped was that I was his age. We were interacting on a social level. The learning was meaningful and engaging and involved a human relationship.
The last thing that I carry with me to this day is that teaching and learning are magical. There’s nothing like the experience of being a part of helping somebody learn.
EF: Tutoring is something that’s getting a lot of attention right now, and it sounds like you learned to teach by tutoring. What lessons does that carry?
DL: I did assume that that one-on-one was a very important factor. When I became a teacher myself, I believed in an individualized classroom. I was teaching 28 students, and everybody had their own little contract. I desperately believed that understanding exactly what every student needed, and providing a very different program for every student, was how I was going to help kids to learn. In fact, I didn’t see those kinds of results, and I did see myself becoming exhausted. I didn’t understand that what my students were missing was active social learning in that kind of a program. When everyone is doing their own thing, you miss that opportunity to share knowledge, to share perspectives, to discuss—all of the things that I now believe are really crucial to my classroom. I did a complete 180 on that within about five years of teaching. I now have a philosophy and a strategy that is much more whole-group based. I teach to a full group, but think very carefully about the supports that I provide to individual students. So, I’m setting the same bar, we are all essentially doing the same work, but I’m supporting students in different ways so that they can reach those goals.
CG: What can you tell us about what works in the teaching of writing?
DK: I was in a small rural school where there were several teachers who cared very much about teaching writing. We all had diligently tried all of the methodologies that were out there at the time and had been very disappointed in the results. When I talked to these other teachers at my school, it turned out that all of us had that same kind of feeling that it wasn’t working. So, we decided to try something else. We designed a system where we could experiment with different things in writing and share what we were finding out with each other. We were in Vermont, and Vermont had seven different writing types at that time that we were supposed to teach. We had clear expectations about what was supposed to be in those pieces, but what we didn’t have was any way to get kids there. So, we took one writing type at a time, and everyone shared whatever they knew about that writing type, including what had worked and what we understood about expectations. We’d agree on a few things to try, and then come back after a month and share the student work and what we had noticed. We did this for almost two years.
Gradually, clear patterns started to emerge in all of our experiences. What we think works is a combination of several factors. Number one is to have really clear expectations for writing. You need to have an end in mind that you’re teaching toward, that is what you want students to do.
The next thing that we discovered really surprised us. It’s incredibly important to build a shared knowledge base in your classroom with a deep understanding of whatever students are writing about. When we started, we thought that we would do instruction in individual skills of craft. Writing did improve when we pinpointed those things to teach, but it never reached the level that we were hoping every student would be able to achieve to write clearly and effectively. At one point, we were looking at a bunch of papers that didn’t quite hit the mark. And somebody said, “This student is a really competent communicator and she’s doing everything we taught her how to do, but she’s just not saying very much. There’s not very much insight in this paper.” At that point, we realized that we need to make sure students have a deep understanding. That’s why the approach that we eventually wound up developing is called “Writing for Understanding.” The most important thing that we discovered was that when you write, you need to have something to say. Too often, we assign students to write about a topic without first building knowledge and understanding. It is our responsibility to ensure that all students have that crucial knowledge base before we ask them to write.
EF: Writing can be so many things to us. You can write to process something and you can write to produce new learning. You have to know about what you’re writing about, but then the act of writing about it changes how you understand it. Tell us more about how you understand the relationship between writing and understanding.
DL: Writing can be a tremendous way of making sense of the knowledge that you take in. It’s one of the most powerful tools that we have in our classroom. When you write, you need to bring together knowledge and information and synthesize it in a way that makes sense and creates understanding. Before writing, you want to make sure that students have a lot of knowledge and that they have a lot of time to process that knowledge. The opportunity to have oral discourse is crucial in taking raw knowledge and turning it into understanding. And then when you go and you try to structure that knowledge in a way that’s going to be clear to somebody else, you reach an even deeper level of understanding. The power in the writing is not only in the act of communicating, but in the act of structuring and synthesizing information, the act of making meaning, in order to communicate it.
EF: To summarize what you’ve found works: We need a clear vision of what the writing needs to look like, and students need to have a lot of knowledge.
DL: One more thing that we think is really important is direct instruction. As a school system, our obligation is to make sure that every single child can clearly and effectively communicate their thinking in writing. That is something that we can and need to teach. We need direct instruction that takes into account what your students need as a class, puts support under those students who need them, and provides room to stretch for those students who need that. Basically, we decide the key concepts of craft that our class needs, and we make sure that we intentionally teach them.
EF: I’d love to hear a little bit more about what you’ve learned needs to be taught in that direct instruction. I’m thinking about things like the five-paragraph essay, different persuasive techniques, and sentence-level instruction around writing.
DL: It is a huge question, but I’ll summarize some important points. It’s certainly important to provide instruction both on a sentence-level and on the level of larger composition. What’s important is the way that you view that instruction. People tend to learn new things concretely. So, teaching something concrete such as the five-paragraph essay can be a really important entryway into helping students understand concepts of writing. The problem comes when the structure becomes an end in and of itself, instead of a tool that helps students concretely understand more generalizable concepts.
For example, we use something called “the painted essay” which is similar to a five-paragraph essay. The difference is that we use it to teach basic concepts of expository writing. We use it so that students understand that when you are writing to explain or to persuade, you need to provide an introduction and make sure that your audience has the context they need. You need to state a focus, it needs to be really clear what you’re trying to communicate. You need to support that focus with facts and evidence in a way that makes it clear to the reader how what you’ve chosen supports your focus, and then you need to conclude by summarizing. Those concepts are taught at a very young age by introducing a concrete structure. But, unless students are able to flex that basic structure because they understand the concepts behind it within a couple of years of instruction, then my teaching has failed. Using structures both at the sentence level and the composition level as a teaching tool for introducing concepts of craft is crucially important. Introducing structures as a formula can be extremely destructive.
CG: I’m thinking about moving forward after the pandemic. When we think about our teachers teaching our priority students who are often performing at lower levels than other students—our students of color, our students who are learning English, our students who are coming from poverty—where do we tell these teachers to start with these students in their writing instruction?
DL: You need to start with the expectation that they will get to where you need them to be. In other words, start with a grade-level expectation for writing. That expectation needs to be accompanied by formal and informal assessments for a real understanding of where each student is and what they need. The easiest way for me to describe how this works in a classroom it is that I teach in multi-grade situations in rural schools. When I teach grades 3, 4, and 5, we all do the same assignment, we all have the same task to complete, we all participate in the same lessons. But, the support that students get is very different. What I expect from my third graders is a third-grade essay, and I expect a more complex essay from my fourth graders, and an even more complex essay from my fifth graders. You need to create tasks that have that stretch room in them so that students can approach them from where they are, but so that students know where they can eventually get to. Both of those things need to be inherent in your assignment and in your instruction.
EF: What do you see people try in the writing space that we know doesn’t work and we can rule out at this point?
DL: Well, I speak from personal experience. As I said, I found it doesn’t work to approach writing at the back end, to put the bulk of your instruction into revising. Kids need to talk to and learn from each other. For example, I had been teaching grades 3, 4, and 5 together for years, and then our enrollment was too big and they took away my fifth grade. One of the things that I noticed pretty quickly was that I was doing a lot more talking in front of the room than I used to. What I came to realize is that I was counting on those fifth graders to provide examples of that level of thinking that would be just a little higher than my fourth grade, and that I was noticing that missing in my classroom and struggling to jump in and try and provide it. It’s not the same when an adult provides it. It’s important to provide opportunities for students to collaborate and share ideas. If we don’t have a wide variety of different kinds of thinkers in our classroom interacting with each other all the time, teaching writing is not going to work.
EF: There are different ways to break down English language arts or literacy— there are foundational skills, reading comprehension, speaking and listening, researching. Where does writing instruction fit in?
DL: It has to be integrated. Writing has to be meaningful and it has to be knowledge-based. It naturally combines with science or social studies. It naturally combines with reading. You can get a lot of information by reading, you need to speak and you need to listen, in order to process your thinking. Writing is both a way of processing thinking and also sharing thinking. All of my writing tasks are integrated. Not only across the language arts, but also most often with science and social studies.
EF: Across these conversations, there’s a theme around things that we try to treat things as discrete when they all must live together.
DL: I’ve led a lot of workshops where I’ll have teachers backward design a writing task from a content question that they have. When we start, they always say, ” I’m going to list out the standards that I’m going to hit.” And I say, “No, don’t do that.” And they get very worried about not covering the standards. After they do the writing task, I have them sit down and list the standards that they’re addressing, not just touching on, but solidly addressing at their grade levels. They are always amazed at how long that list is. The simple act of needing to produce a writing piece can push us to pull together all that we know about reading, writing, listening, speaking, and content.