The Stenhouse Blog

Wired to Be Inspired: Inviting Adolescents into the Conventions of Language

Posted by admin on Jan 6, 2021 11:30:33 AM

The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of Patterns of Power: Inviting Adolescent Writers into the Conventions of Language, Grades 6 - 8 by Jeff Anderson with Travis Leech and Melinda Clark.


Middle school students are wired to be inspired.

Though it’s not easy to tap into exactly what inspires them, it is easy to tap into what doesn’t: adolescent writers aren’t inspired by rules, no matter how we toil, sweat, and quiz to force their memorization. Yes, believe it or not, we’re still having that conversation, the one about how to approach teaching the conventions of language—grammar, editing, usage, capitalization, punctuation—or whatever you want to call the skills that fall under this umbrella.

In fact, well-meaning colleagues’ conversations about conventions can quickly collapse into consternation. Picture a weekly English department meeting. Everybody is circling their desks for collaboration. A deep sigh begins the meeting before the meeting. A veteran teacher announces, looking over half glasses, “If it’s the last thing I do, they’re not leaving my class until they know the parts of speech.” 

The gauntlet has been thrown down on the desks in front of us.

A newer teacher, leaning in, picks it up. “Why do they even need to know the parts of speech?”

“If my kids can’t define the parts of speech, how are they going to write complete sentences?” Gauntlet Thrower replies.

“Couldn’t you just as easily ask, ‘How will they know how to talk without knowing the parts of speech?’”

“Well, that’s different,” GT snaps back.

“How?” another teacher adds to the mix.

As the official meeting is called to order, the conversation ends. 

The teachers settle back into their camps, smugly self-satisfied, knowing they were right.

Let’s be honest: how often are the conventions of learning seen as an abstract list of do’s and don’ts, prescriptions, and warnings?

  • Write in complete sentences.
  • Avoid fragments.
  • Avoid run-on sentences.

Sure, some students can parrot this oft-repeated advice, but do they have any idea what the words mean? When Jeff taught middle school, many students would ask, “Does this have to be in complete sentences?”

“What’s a complete sentence?” Jeff would ask.

“Do we have to or not?” they’d snap.

“How will you know?” he would probe.

Eyes would roll. “Never mind.”

Jeff wanted to see where their understanding of complete sentences led. Students could sometimes spout terms, but they didn’t understand their purpose or how they could best use them in their writing. They wanted to avoid errors;  they wanted to avoid the rabid red (or green or metallic) pen. Did you really think changing the pen color or shimmer would help? As a result of this avoidance, adolescent writers come to believe complete sentences are the holy grail. But they only know the label; they don’t understand how sentences are tools for shaping meaning, for communication, for being understood.

Behind every convention is an effect, and each choice a writer makes has an effect. That’s author’s purpose and craft. The purpose is why, and the craft is how. (See Figure 0.1.) Students don’t often see grammar in terms of choices they craft to create, bending and blending for effect and meaning. Instead they glean that conventions are valued only if they’re “right.” Stagnant. All the pieces glued down. This fear of missing the mark causes adolescents to act as though avoiding error is their only goal. “Is this right? Did I do it the way you wanted? Is this how it’s supposed to look?” Not meaning. Not clarity of image. Not craft.

And that’s not power.

That’s dependence.

That’s a student saying, “I can’t. You can, so do it for me.” If we truly want to move our convention instruction from a right-and-wrong tango to conversations about meaning, purpose, and effect, we need to approach errors differently.

Fig 1 ImageFigure 0.1

What Do Adolescent Writers Need to Know About Conventions?

But what do adolescent writers truly need to know about the conventions of language to read and write? How do we teach them? Do these crucial communication skills require a right-or-wrong approach or one that focuses on meaning and effect? Correction or creation? Limitation or possibility? Memorization or inspiration? And what, pray tell, will inspire middle school students to write pages that spill over with enthusiasm, thought, and authenticity?

Instead of hammering adolescents with which mistakes they should avoid, we argue for playing with the patterns of language that mold meaning and have powerful effects on readers, and for creating an environment in which writers study and appreciate the beauty and meaning of grammar and conventions rather than fear and avoid mistakes. Focusing on language’s power to inspire and affect us will generate writers who naturally come to know and use the patterns of the English language. Almost effortlessly, they’ll instinctively note that the most effective patterns are repeated more often because they get the job done.

Instead of rules, we call the conventions Patterns of Power because this term better represents them. To middle schoolers, rules require an absolute right or wrong. Like laws, rules are made with the expectation that they’ll be followed—or else. In contrast, patterns are created, noticed, and repeated because they happen naturally. Patterns show and rely on purpose for meaning and effect, rather than on an outside authority. Would you rather face down rules burdened with confusing exceptions or turn toward attractive, meaningful patterns that surround us and repeat often and communicate shared meaning?

In the Patterns of Power philosophy, adolescent writers explore the conventions as special-effects devices for the words and punctuation and usage they use to read and write. They experiment and grapple with the power of meaning that conventions create—moving, pausing, stopping, speaking, yelling, comparing, timing, identifying, emphasizing.

Conventions activate meaning, showing us how to read the text: words, punctuation, and syntax unfold before us, triggering meaning, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. These conventions live in the middle-grade and YA books sitting on students’ desks and are modeled in the overstuffed bookshelves in the corner. These patterns inhabit the words and punctuation that writers scratch down on paper, expressing meaning.

Worksheets and workbooks won’t inspire. Budding writers don’t need pages of fill-in-the-blank exercises that have been designed to cram language into a tight box devoid of voice and creativity. Instead, we’ll use messy, glorious writing and reading to discover our own voices. Designed for limitation, not possibility, worksheets avoid the gray areas of usage. They wield absolute right or wrong. On the other hand, when students write and read, they thrive through trial and error. Expression and meaning dance across the page as students talk about the patterns they see and then try them in their own compositions.

This hands-on, engaging type of instruction mirrors the latest neuroscience
on learning, which insists that we consider students’ emotional and cognitive
environment. French neurologist Stanislas Dehaene writes about this in How
We Learn (2020):

Negative emotions crush our brain’s learning potential, whereas providing the brain with a fear-free environment may reopen the gates of neuronal plasticity. There will be no progress in education without simultaneously considering the emotional and cognitive facets of our brain—in today’s cognitive neuroscience, both are considered key ingredients of the learning cocktail. (xxiii)

Why don’t we approach grammar with brain science? Dehaene outlines four pillars of learning that accelerate acquisition of any skill. What if we used these four pillars to teach grammar or conventions?

[A]ll learners benefit from focused attention, active engagement, error feedback, and a cycle of daily rehearsal and nightly consolidation—I call these factors the “four pillars” of learning, because . . . they lie at the foundation of the universal human learning algorithm present in all our brains, children and adults alike. (xxiii)

In conjunction with what we currently know about learning, we also have 
to consider what our standards are asking students to know about literacy.

The Author’s Purpose and Craft of Conventions

Standards ask adolescent writers and readers to look at writing and reading
through author’s purpose and craft. Take the purpose and craft of composing
complex sentences, for example. When most of us think of complex sentences, we may freeze, trying to recall rules and terms. Clauses. Dependent versus independent clauses. Or is it phrases? Predicates? The black hole of endless terminology sucks us into a vortex of abstraction, never to be heard from or listened to again.

What if, instead, we thought about conventions—even those as complex
as complex sentences—as author’s purpose and craft? What if we considered
complex sentences as a Patterns of Power that telegraphs meaning to our readers with purpose? And what if we increased students’ attention to the power of complex sentences, engaged them in talk about their effect, constantly filling their wells with what language can do rather than what it can’t? Over time, constant engagement with authentic texts naturally prunes misconceptions and refines understandings of how language works.

How do we focus adolescents’ attention? We start with young adult or middle-grade literature or nonfiction text of high interest to students. We
want adolescents to connect to the text because, according to Dehaene (2020), brains will “select, amplify, and propagate” information they see as relevant. With relevance in mind, we also increase student attention and engagement by focusing on only a sentence or two at a time. This small bit of text makes the attainment of patterns manageable and safe, which increases students’ engagement in conversation about what they see and notice. Instead of receiving feedback about errors in their writing, they’re observing models and soaking in the Patterns of Power they can use.

As the open-ended conversation progresses through the invitation process,
learners are exposed to opportunities to see what conventions can do and,
more importantly, what conventions can do for them as writers and help them comprehend as readers.

How Adolescent Writers Often View the Conventions of Language

Not all adolescent writers experience the joy of language. They don’t see
grammar as an invitation to play with Patterns of Power to make their own kind of meaning. They don’t see language as a flexible tool for innovating or for bending what is, that there is indeed more than one way to say it, that there is more than one right answer. They can imprint their ever-present selves with their voice, their unique point of view, and their experiences. Some adolescents don’t understand that writers are innovators. Writers are the shapers of meaning. In The Runaway Species (2017), a book about creativity, David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt put it this way:

To appreciate the human requirement to innovate, look no further than the sculpting of hair on the heads around you. This same sort of reworking is seen across all the artifacts we create, from bicycles to stadiums. This all begs a question: why do hairstyles and bikes and stadiums keep changing? Why can’t we find the perfect solution and stick with it? The answer: innovation will never stop. It’s never about the right thing; it’s about the next thing.

Writing Is Innovation

Grammar isn’t some dead and buried part of writing, as some adolescent
writers might believe. Nor is it flying over us like some sort of police helicopter, pursuing writers for justice. Grammar is more like a lump of clay waiting to be shaped through purposeful manipulation and movement. The acts of tinkering and experimenting with our writing transform it. Brandt and Eagleman (2017) go on to define ways in which we innovate, which we see as a template for how writers use the power of grammar. According to Brandt and Eagleman, innovators build upon what exists now to shape what is next. What if we use some of what innovators do as a lens through which to look at language?

  • Bending
  • Breaking
  • Blending
  • Staying open to alternatives
  • Proliferating options
  • Tolerating risk

Consider using these six tenets of innovation to give students the creative
freedom to discover and come to know language. What would the effect on
young minds be if they viewed language as alive, shapeable, and worth engaging with? What if students were encouraged to play with sentences, words, and punctuation, tolerate risks, bend usage for their purposes, break rules for effect, or blend things in new ways to create meaning and deeper understanding? What if they viewed patterns as choices and didn’t glue down the pieces right away? What if they embraced process, time, and refinement?

Language languishes when approached with a right-or-wrong attitude.

But how often does well-meaning restrictive instruction crush innovation? Language languishes when approached with a right-or-wrong attitude. Students easily become risk averse. This fear-based right-or-wrong duality seeps into the classroom, permeating and hardening adolescents’ beliefs and self-talk: “There is only one choice—the right one—which I’ll never, ever get. Anything I come up with will be inept and incorrect.” To adolescents, the distinction between right and wrong is arbitrary. To them, language rules lack purpose. They’re just another set of because-I-said-so rules. In the world of right or wrong, adolescents will avoid being wrong at any cost, even if it requires them to shut down.

How Do We Move from Mistakes to Meaning-Making?

So what do we do when an adolescent writer inevitably makes a mistake? How can we deal with the error in a positive way that honors choice and meaning? Let’s step into a seventh-grade classroom for ways to nurture meaning-making rather than compliance. Jeff looks over Marco’s shoulder and notices he used a common sentence pattern that is often crafted incorrectly. Jeff kneels beside Marco and recognizes the adolescent writer’s risk. Marco is reaching into possibility and vulnerability, so Jeff responds strategically. Jeff knows his responses will affect Marco’s attitudes toward future risk taking and growth. Tolerating risk is required to reach beyond what is now to what is next.

Marco has written,

Although hamburgers are usualy for lunch or dinner. They can be great for breakfast.

Beneath the surface error, an adolescent writer is moving toward correctness and complexity. His attempt at a complex sentence—starting with a subordinate clause (Although hamburgers are usually for lunch or dinner)—reaches toward more intricate sentence composing, which is in line with the way he speaks. Consider the fact that he intuitively broke his sentence into two parts. But instead of using a comma to set off the opening dependent clause, he used a period. An approximation. Think about how close he’s actually gotten to a complex sentence.

“Wow!” Jeff says. “I’m impressed, Marco.”

“Huh?” He looks up, confused. He doesn’t often hear praise for his writing.

“Read this aloud to me,” Jeff says, pointing to Marco’s paper.

After Marco sighs, he reads his sentences aloud, pausing after dinner.

“How did you know to pause after dinner?” Jeff asks.

“I can hear it.”

“And you used a period to show that pause to a reader like me.” Jeff smiles.

“That’s what writers do. They show their reader how to read their writing.” 
Marco’s ears redden. 

“Do you want to know a writer’s secret?” Jeff asks.

“I guess.” Marco sighs again.

“When you say, ‘Although hamburgers are usually for lunch or dinner . . .’” Jeff leans in, silent for several seconds, exaggerating his wait for the rest of the
sentence. “See how it doesn’t feel complete?”

Marco isn’t buying it yet.

“When writers start a sentence with the word although, they’re probably going to need a comma. So instead of a period, put a comma after dinner to
show that both of these things go together. What’s this period doing?”

“Saying the sentence is finished?” Marco squints.

“Yup, a period tells us a sentence is over.” Jeff smiles. “And a comma says
to pause: More is coming. It’s not over yet.”

Marco revises his period to a comma, but he leaves usually with only one
letter l instead of two. Jeff could correct him, but he resists the urge. Instead, he builds confidence and competence. We don’t drown a teen writer in a deluge of doubt and discouragement. We don’t want writers to think that sharing their writing means they should be ready for an attack at any moment. Sometimes, as writing teachers, our most important task is to let things go. The part of us that says, “But . . .” needs to step back and allow the writing and reading process to happen. Writers develop over time, not in an instant. Allow it to unfold. Writing is a process. One of the most crucial things we can do when teaching the Patterns of Power is refrain from compulsively addressing everything at once. We must make some space for imperfection. 

Marco won’t suddenly become an expert at crafting complex sentences
and eradicating fragments; however, his risk has been honored, and he’ll keep
reaching. When students stop reaching and risking, they stop growing. Period.

In the Patterns of Power lessons, we want middle school writers to stretch and to apply the conventions to their reading and writing. That is the point, after all, isn’t it? We steward adolescent writers in their lifelong journey toward meaning.

Teaching the old rule-based or traditional way is much more black and
white. Teaching the way we suggest is messy. It can be gray. In a Patterns of
Power classroom, scribbled wall charts display examples and capture learning for reference and application. Writers are engaged with meaning-making and interaction: talking and listening, and reading and writing, not filling in blanks. Not listening to a lecture, but doing the work of writers. Exploring and experimenting with the effects of author’s choices. Reflecting. Enjoying. Growing.

That’s why we wrote Patterns of Power. Here, we share easy-to-implement
solutions that systematically teach adolescent writers and readers what they
need to know. Our goal is to help you—and your learners—thrive in the twenty-first century. In Patterns of Power, you won’t find lists of rules to memorize or definitions to stiffly spout or worksheets to dutifully do. Instead, you’ll find pieces of curated authentic text, both fiction and nonfiction. You’ll use these small excerpts as your co-teacher to do the following:

  • engage learners
  • focus attention
  • demonstrate author’s purpose and craft
  • model skills
  • explore meaning and effect
As a class, we’ll read and explore small, bite-sized chunks of text. We’ll show

you how to lead open-ended conversations in which students drive the talk, the discovery, the learning. And we’ll explain how these very conversations are the tools essential to breaking through to your students and opening the floodgates of thinking, meaningful analysis, and creation. We can’t make middle schoolers write or read, but we can inspire them to do so.


Read the full intro