Interview with Deborah Dean, author of What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practice

In this interview, Amber Jensen sits down to chat with her colleague, BYU English professor Deborah Dean, about the second edition of her book, What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practice, published in March 2021 by NCTE.

In the discussion, Dr. Dean shares the process of revising a full manuscript into a new version. She explains that her vision for the new edition was to shift its focus to contextualize the research, including updated qualitative research, on what works in writing instruction for teachers. As you read the text, you’ll notice teacher voices and exemplars of these practices in action because Debbie wants teachers to know that it’s up to them to implement “what works” in ways that match their teaching context and their students’ learning environment. You can watch the video or read the transcript of the interview below.

Even though this text works very much more like a conversation, I’m aware that these voices of all these people who’ve influenced me as a teacher and writer over the years are in my head and in my background and under my feet. I mean, they’re there, and so how to bring them in and still have this conversation with my readers—that’s the way I chose to manage it. – Deborah Dean

Amber: Hello! So we wanted to welcome Dr. Deborah Dean to our writer interview series for the Writers Who Care blog. So glad you could be here.  

Debbie: Thank you! Thank you for asking me. I appreciate it.  

Amber: I have the fortune of interviewing her in person, because we work together at Brigham Young University. So while some of the other interviews that you’ll see in this series are familiar Zoom calls, we are together in Debbie’s office, which is really great. Just as a little bit of background, I met Debbie when I was an undergraduate here at Brigham Young University and took a Teaching Writing class from her in—I think 2005. She came to BYU in 1999 and has been here ever since. Her research is in writing and grammar and pedagogy, and she draws heavily on her ten years of experience teaching junior high in Washington state before coming here to Utah. We’re here to talk about her book. Debbie’s been busy! Not only has she written several books, she’s also rewritten several books, and so today we’re here to talk about her latest book that just came out from NCTE: What Works in Writing Instruction. This is the second edition of a book that you’ve written, and here’s the original, but you can see…  

Debbie: This one’s much skinnier!  

Amber: The new one is skinnier; so tell us a little bit about the book.  

Debbie: Okay, I will. I’ll talk first about what I was thinking when I wrote this [the first edition]. So, in 2007, Graham and Perrin published the What Works research. Since Hillocks’ research in the 80s, it was the first meta-analysis of research in 25 years: what does research say works in the writing classroom? They came up with 11 practices that research proves work in the classroom, and I was fascinated by what they found, excited about what they found. You asked earlier about the connection to Writing Strategies. I learned as a teacher that my students didn’t always transfer from one writing experience to the next, and so I kind of stumbled upon writing strategies as a way to approach teaching. And that was the first book I wrote. When the Graham and Perrin report came out, writing strategies was in their list of 11, so I was very happy to see that my work was validated by all this research, but there was a lot of stuff in that 11 list that I had tried, and it didn’t always work as well as I thought.  

One time, I was presenting to a group of teachers and asked, you know, it was when the report was new, and I asked them, “What what would you expect to be on this  list?” And they said, they named some things, and then I showed them the list. And this one group just got up and started to walk out. And I was like, “What?”  

And they said, “Well, we do all those things and it doesn’t help our writers, so what does this research help me?”  And it made me think about it, because I kind of thought the same thing: writing process—what does that mean and how does it help writers? Does it just stretch out things or does it do something more significant to them and their development as writers? 

And so part of what led to this book was that I wanted to dive in. I looked up all the research they had used; I looked up their studies––what were they looking at?––and what I found was that with each one of the practices there were some principles that had to be applied, and, sometimes, I know from my own practice in the classroom that as a teacher, you don’t always get to those principles. For instance, one of the principles was time. For a lot of the research practices, you need time. Well, what does a teacher not have? Time. And so our circumstances in the context of what we do sometimes work against implementing the good practices. 

 So I thought it was important for me to kind of dig down in and find out why those things worked and what were the things that made them work? Why did research say it worked when sometimes I couldn’t make it work in my own classroom? So that’s what the first book was about: those principles that kind of underscored those 11 practices in the research. That’s where the first one came from.  

Then what happened was NCTE approached me, and they said, “Okay it’s been 10 years since the original”––actually over 10 years by the time they approached me since that original What Works report––“so, what’s changed? Let’s see what’s changed.” And one of the interesting things that I found that makes this book almost a completely different book is that in the first report, [Graham and Perrin] only looked at quantitative studies, only at certain kinds of studies that fit within this very narrow range of quantitative research. And even in that first report, at the end of the Writing Next report, that what they said was that if they had a chance to look at other kinds of studies, they felt like they could flesh out more, because they said, “We go into really effective teachers’ classrooms, and there’s a lot more going on there than the research in those 11 elements could identify.” And so, between 2007 and 2018 or 19 when I was asked to write the second edition, [Graham and Perrin] had looked at all those other kinds of research. So now we have single case study reports; we have qualitative work; we have all sorts of other kinds of studies that they have analyzed. And then they said, “Here, now, are some other things that we know actually help students develop as writers in the classroom.” So now it’s not just those 11, but it’s these other things that are found through other kinds of study. A lot of them are things that would be almost impossible to identify through quantitative research. 

Anyway, so that’s why the two books, and that’s why this one [the new edition] is really not even at all the same. So they’re actually pretty much two separate books.  A friend of mine who’s a teacher said this one [the first edition] is more like researchy; this one [the second edition] is more conversational; and partly because the nature of the research changed so much. So what I did was I took the old research and the new research, and I put them next to each other, and I started trying to find ways that they blended and fit and how they reinforced each other. So instead of the 11 practices, here I have five chapters in this book that look at the concepts and then the research principles that go underneath each one.   

Amber: So, as a writer, I think that revising can be really exciting, but sometimes it also just feels so frustrating and a little overwhelming too. So I love to see that this new book is shorter, and it’s kind of surprising, because you had more to add, more perspectives and 10 or 11 years more of wisdom and knowledge that you’ve accumulated. So how did you approach the revision of such a monumental task? It wasn’t just tweaking little paragraphs here and there; it was totally reconceptualizing the book. 

Debbie: It was! And at first, somebody said––I mean, the person I was working with in the editorial committee was like, “No, just take the new stuff, and add it on to each chapter.” But when I looked at that, I tried, and it didn’t make sense, especially given the more, I don’t know, emotional nature of some of the new findings, like about the teacher’s engagement and building community in the classroom and things about how you collaborate. I mean, although collaboration is in this, there’s more about collaboration as community building and, you know, that kind of thing in this [the second edition]. The first edition was pretty academic, because it was really looking at quantitative research, and what does it say, and what are the principles? This one, because the research that fed into it, although it built on this, this really looked more at the kind of things you can’t always touch or name, and so it really is more about who we are. And that was one of the things that I really liked about the new research is that they they kept saying the teacher’s the one that makes the difference, and they trusted, over and over again, they trusted in teachers’ professional judgment in the classroom. So it’s not this formula or that formula;  it’s like, “Here are some good tools. You find a way to mix those.” Like my cookies, you know. So you find a way to mix those in a way that makes something that works in this situation in your classroom with your students, and it’s not so formalized or formulaic. It’s really a lot more leaving you up to be the chef kind of thing. 

Amber: Totally, yeah! Both of us are teacher educators, and I think that’s a practice that we want our future teachers to embody—just knowing that it’s not just a plug-and-play kind of plan, but that all of these principles are stuff that they can identify and use and draw into their teaching, where it becomes most valuable. 

Debbie: Yeah, I think for our students, the trick is knowing when and how much of each piece to put in, whereas when you have some experience, you kind of have senses of that better. When you’re new, it’s overwhelming to think about all of the how-do-I-do-it at the same time, and I talk to them about layering and you know, you don’t do this and this. Sometimes those things blend together and layer. That’s something that comes a little bit with experience. It’s a lot about your sense of who you are and who these kids are and what the field is what you’re trying to accomplish, all mixed together. 

Amber: Yeah, one of the things I think is valuable, too, is that, whether you’re a new teacher whether you’re a more experienced teacher the idea that that you have a whole year to establish writing routines, to practice some of these strategies, to give students a lot of experience practicing, and to give yourself some experience practicing, too, as a teacher. It’s not just like a one and done, so I think this book is really valuable, both for new teachers and for experienced teachers. Who did you have in mind when you wrote it? 

Debbie: I was thinking of experienced teachers more. I think about strategic writing more for new teachers, because I think it gets a basic principle down. But I was thinking more of experienced teachers with this one, just because it throws out all the ingredients and then says, “Now make your recipe. Figure out what you need to do for you and your students.” And I think that’s something that’s difficult, maybe, in the first couple of years of teaching. But I don’t think it’s something they shouldn’t know. You should know about choice, you should know about yourself as a writer, and you should know about all of the things that you bring and what the students bring. You know, all of those things are important to know about, but I think you can implement it better after you’ve had some of the basics. 

Amber: Just some grounding, yes. One of the things—and Debbie’s going to share a passage later from the book—but I just wanted to highlight one thing that I love about this book. This is an example of a window into a classroom, and I just love that, because it draws on Debbie’s experience but also on other writers and other writing teachers’ experiences in ways that give you a snapshot of how it works in practice. And that’s one thing that—especially for books written for teachers, sometimes they can feel really out of touch, and that’s where drawing on these really concrete classroom examples is a really important strength of this book. 

Debbie: I think I drove the editors crazy, because I kept saying, “No, no, this has to be on a page,” and “it has to be by this,” and, “it can’t be over here; it can’t be there.” While I was doing the research, I kept seeing teachers all over the country implementing these great practices in their classrooms, and so I kept thinking, “The researchers are right. Teachers know this stuff; they’re doing this kind of thing.” But if I don’t have that yet in my repertoire, what exactly might it look like? And so I might not do exactly what they do, but the way somebody else does it can give me an insight into how I might want to do it. It’s like looking through the window in the classroom saying, “Great idea, now I can tweak it this way and go do my thing.” I just have to say that, by looking those up, I was so impressed. When I see what teachers are doing across the country, I know there are lots of good teachers out there. They’re having such good practices, and it just makes me proud to be part of this group of people, writing teachers, because there’s so many of them doing such great things. 

Amber: And there’s so many ways—our blog is one space where teachers are sharing good practices, but what I love about your book is that it really does weave in so many different kinds of teachers’ experiences. And I’m curious—some of these are your own; some of them look like they’re from published articles. How did you collect these windows into a classroom? 

Debbie: Well, some are from articles, because I read journals. And, of course, some are from my own teaching experiences. I follow blogs, so a lot of our vlogs, including this vlog—I think I have a couple that I’ve taken from them. And so I think part of what enriches my experience as a writing teacher is to be part of those communities, part of the readership of a journal and part of the readership of these different blogs and series and other webinars and other kinds of things that I can access. I think that makes me a better writing teacher, because I’m part of those communities in one way or another. I can always just be saying, “Oh, this is an idea that will be perfect for my situation or my classroom.” It’s kind of like collecting mentor texts. You never stop; you’re just always like, “Oh this would work for me,” or “This would be helpful.”

Amber: And once you have that idea or that principle in your mind, then you start to recognize it as you see it in practice. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a really good example of collaboration, and that’s a really good example of fostering identity.” The other thing—and as you look at this book, Debbie said that she drove her editors crazy, but I doubt you did; she’s so great to work with—but all of the pages—it’s not just pros; there’s so many different models and examples, but the other one I wanted to ask you about—in addition to the window into the classroom, you also have these little sections called research toolbox. So talk to us about that part of your chapters. 

Debbie: This was kind of a revision choice as well. When I realized that the tone of this book was going to be very different, very conversational, I still wanted readers to get a chance to know the voices that informed me and my development as a writing teacher. And as someone who’s sharing these ideas, I wanted them to hear those voices, too, but the voice of the text itself didn’t lend itself to bringing those voices actually into the text. So I put them in the boxes on the side, so you can hear those other voices and know these are people who influenced me. They have key points, and their names are there, and the resources that they’ve written in are there, so that you can move outside of the book to those voices that I think are influential in informing this text. Even though this text works very much more like a conversation, I’m aware that these voices of all these people who’ve influenced me as a teacher and writer over the years are in my head and in my background and under my feet. I mean, they’re there, and so how to bring them in and still have this conversation with my readers—that’s the way I chose to manage it. And I really feel like I tried to choose gems in those places, because I couldn’t put so many boxes everywhere that the page would be too broken up. so I felt like I chose key places that I hope will inspire readers to say, “Oh, this is an interesting idea. I’m going to follow it and take that path outside of the book to those sources. 

Amber: And one thing I think is really strong about giving these little snapshots of research for practicing teachers is the chance that they have them to—like you said—go outside of the book and understand more deeply. But even if they don’t, just having a sense that there is research based behind these ideas, so that when it comes time to advocate for a particular practice that you’d like to see in your school or maybe in a PLC meeting with other teachers who maybe have different ideas, there is a research basis. And what you’re providing for teachers is access into those conversations without the legwork of digging it all up and finding it and knowing who to cite and where these conversations are happening. So I’m hopeful that teachers who have this book will see those research toolboxes not just as part of a text to skip over but also something that they can draw on when they need support to say, “These are research-based practices; here are some of the experts, and this is what they say.” 

Debbie: I hope that’s what readers see, because that was my intention. It’s a way to go outside and get more and get deep into something.

Amber: That’s really powerful. So you’ve written many books, and i’m just curious—I know that it’s a journey along every book that you write, and I remember hearing from you about different deadlines that you’re meeting along the way. I’m curious if there’s anything you feel like you discovered about yourself as a writer through the process and the journey of this. 

Debbie: I actually write about one of them in this book! I was teaching at the time, and I was just—you know how writing projects can be sometimes. You have this stuff that has to be done, and I’m very good, usually. I know when my firm deadlines are, and I set interim deadlines for myself and have all these things. And I was just having the worst time getting going. It was—I can remember—it was this snowy outside day, and I was home, and I thought, “Oh good, I can stay home; it’s a snowy day.” I had the fireplace on; I had the windows open, so I could see the snow falling.  I got myself a drink, coke and hot chocolate both, so there you go. I figured that out, but I was sitting there. And I’d sit, and then I’d think, “Okay, no, I need to make some soup.” So I get up and make soup, and then I’d come back and I’d sit. And I’d be like, “No, I need to make bread to go with the soup.” So I was just doing that for the whole morning, and finally I thought, “Okay, this friend told me about a show, and so maybe i’ll just watch one episode of this show to kind of get myself into the frame of writing.” Well, what ended up happening was that I binge-watched the whole day. So here’s this day set aside for writing, and I did nothing. 

I came to class on Monday, and we were talking about the students who were working on their research, their inquiry papers, for 423. One of the students was talking about, “Well, what if you get to this place where you just can’t do anything?” And so I’m just rattling off, “Okay, when you’re blocked, what are some drafting strategies you need to do? Do you know enough about your subject? And I’m asking these questions that are the ones I would always ask my students, and all of a sudden, it hit me. And just right in front of them, I just stopped, because I thought, “This is me. And none of those things worked for me, because I knew my subject, I had set aside the time, I had done all the legwork, I had done everything that I tell them keeps a person usually from being able to write, and I still couldn’t write.” And so I stopped, and I said, “Okay, I have to confess that there are other things.” I told them this story about this day on the weekend that I had set aside for writing and had perfect conditions and everything there and still couldn’t make myself write. And I said, “So I guess I’m going to have to say that these are starting places, but then at some point you know you just have to.” I said, “I’m afraid I’m a bad example, but at some point you just have to make yourself do it.” 

And they just sat there and then one student raised his hand, and he said, “I can’t tell you how good this makes me feel,” you know, to see that someone with experience as a writer still struggles with those things. It really kind of humbled me a little bit to think that, you know, you think you have answers, and those answers work like 95 of the time. But in writing this book, I realized that no matter what all the answers are, sometimes the writing is just hard and it’s just make yourself do it, which is what I did that day after I taught the class. I just sat down there to make myself. Here’s the motivation you needed. That was one thing that I did learn about myself, because although writing has its hard parts and its easy parts, I’ve never had such a such a difficult time getting going as I did in that one day. 

Amber: Interesting. Well, we’re glad you pushed through. Would you be willing to read an excerpt of the book?

Debbie: Yes, okay. there were two that I was thinking about. One is that I think the the title of the book is a little bit like a question. It’s written as a statement, but I see it more as a question that has kind of influenced me my whole life as a teacher, because when I first started teaching, I felt like I’d been very well prepared to teach literature and I had not been well prepared to teach writing. And so my question was always “What works in writing instruction?” When I was reading all this research and I was thinking about what I was reading, I had this passage in the book on the newer research that’s come out since the 2007 report. I noticed an interesting thread of caveats that there is no guarantee that these practices will work in every classroom. Isn’t this research about practices that have been studied and found to improve writing? Instead, the researchers seem to be acknowledging that there is no way to know which practices need to be emphasized for the particular students we teach. Teachers need to make adaptations for their individual situations. 

In some ways, these comments seem frustrating. I want to know what works; I want a definitive answer. What I eventually learned to see, though, was the confidence that these researchers are placing in teachers. Repeatedly, they urge teachers to consider and adapt the practices they have found to have benefit. They acknowledge that the practices don’t come with guarantees, but implementing the practices can improve what we do, maybe not all at once, but eventually. 

Amber: It just really draws out that notion of teacher agency that, really, teachers are empowered and should feel empowered to understand the full range and then draw out what what makes sense. 

Debbie: I should say one other thing about this book that’s kind of an embarrassing thing, but kind of a fun thing, and that is one other thing I learned about myself. At the beginning of every chapter, I have these sketch notes, and I don’t know if anybody out here does sketch notes, but I had been learning about it. That was actually one of the organizational strategies I used for this book, because there were so many threads coming from so many places. I had never used that before. So I’m not an artist by any means; that’s very embarrassing that they’re in there, but I felt like I needed to share that that was an organizational strategy I used, So anyway, that’s another thing. 

Amber: And you’re giving us a glimpse into your own process, which is one of the things I’ve always loved most about Dr. Dean—just her ability to bring herself into the conversation. She’s not the kind of person who will stand on a pedestal and wag her finger telling you what to do, but she is living it and modeling it. And that comes across really strongly in her book as she draws on her own experiences and, like she said, shares her sketch notes. She’s doing the thing and also being really transparent about the process of the thing, which I think is really powerful and makes it—while there’s still a lot to learn, it makes it less intimidating, because you know that we’re all just on this journey together. 

Debbie: We are just learning, and people have great ideas. So I try them out, and sometimes they work better than other times; that’s the nature of teaching and I think that’s an important part of being a writing teacher. 

Amber: So I want to ask you one question as we close. Obviously the people who read this blog and, we hope, who write for this blog are teachers and professors and parents who care about writing instruction. So I’m just wondering if you have any words of wisdom or motivation for people who are interested in sharing their practice and stepping into the space of writing for a blog and making their practice or even their questions public. Is there any advice or any wisdom that you’d like to share with potential viewers of our interview here today? 

Debbie: I would say, I think, that probably the things that have led to the most growth for me as a teacher and as a writer and as a parent and grandparent of writers is to take the risk. By putting my ideas in front of other people, I grew the most. I think I developed my ideas better; I think I learned more; I also think I learned that you don’t have to have it all figured out before you do that. I think you share an idea and then you learn to share another idea, and I think that going public is really important. 

One of the things that matters is that teachers of writing write. And what does that mean? I talk about it some in the book. It doesn’t mean that you write a book; that’s not necessarily what it means to be a writer. Although one time, I had a t-shirt on at Costco, and it said “I’m a writer. What’s your superpower?” A man stopped me, and he goes, “What do you write?” I said, “Oh, I write things for teachers.” And he looked scornful, and he said, “That’s not what writers do.” And I said, “What?”

He said, “Writers write novels and poetry.” And I thought, “Oh my goodness, that’s such a narrow view. I think writers write letters, and writers write blog posts, and writers write whatever will help them to grow and develop. And I think that the thing that makes me happiest is when I see children and parents and teachers who are willing to take up the pen, metaphorically speaking, and go public with their writing. I think you’ll be better at everything you do, because I think writing pushes us to be better at everything we do. I think that would be right for the blogs. When they ask you or if you want to volunteer, I’d say go for it, because it will surprise you what it does. 

Amber: One of our goals, in addition to sharing really great resources that we hope you can use in your classroom or for your own professional development, is just to pull back the curtain on what you might see this book. And you might think, “Wow, Dr. Debra Dean, she knows so many things, and she’s an expert.” And she is! But what we wanted to do in these interviews is pull back the curtain on the process, and she’s so generously shared so much of her own process and that it’s not a straight line. It’s jaggedy, and it goes up and down, and there’s challenges that all of us face and reasons that we feel a little intimidated or a little embarrassed. But as we do that, we grow and we learn things about ourselves. So thank you so much for your time! 

Debbie: Thank you! Thanks for asking me. Sorry, my husband called. [in reference to a ringtone offscreen] 

Amber: See? Writers are real people, too. What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practice.


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