“This book is an invitation to anyone who desires to move young writers beyond right and wrong and into an open world of taking risks, experimenting, and creating meaning with the patterns of power.”
“Every sentence holds a truth about writing, if only we pay attention.”
-Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca
My feelings for conventions are….complicated. As a teacher and a lover of reading and writing, I know the importance of conventions when I read and write, but I’ve believed for a long time they shouldn’t be the sole focus of what we teach young writers. I bristled at the idea that a teacher would read a writer’s work and only zero in on the missing or incorrect conventions. “It’s the meaning that counts,” I smugly thought to myself. I imagined that writers would learn conventions through reading avidly and it would all come together without tons of explicit instruction. But the reality would always come crashing back when my third graders consistently failed to capitalize “I” or the beginning of sentences and when punctuation marks were nary to be found.
What’s a teacher to do when she doesn’t believe in assigning worksheets to correct errors in capitalization, spelling and punctuation? What’s a teacher to do when she thinks grammar rules in isolation are dull and forgettable…but kids are not writing grammatically correct sentences?
I’ll tell you what a teacher is to do- BUY Patterns of POWER: Inviting (Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, Grades 1-5 (Or win it in our Giveaway….see details below!) This book, written by Jeff Anderson with Whitney La Rocca is a MUST READ for educators who want to connect the dots for readers and writers when it comes to conventions. The focus is on learning conventions in order to make your writing more powerful.
So often, we give students editing checklists to use when they are getting ready to publish a piece. I’ve had students check off every item on the editing checklist, only to look at their work and see that there are still words without capitals, still punctuation missing, still sentences that do not make sense. We can make certain conventions “non-negotiable” and create charts saying they must begin each sentence with a capital, but many students will still not include these features in their writing. This leads to frustration for all of us- teacher and student- and a feeling of helplessness as to how to get student writers to pay attention to using correct conventions.
According to Anderson and La Rocca, “Editing practice comes only after editing instruction, not before or instead of it… To get to the point where students can fluently edit their own writing, students need to slow down and pay close attention. In fact, they need to gaze at sentences as intensely as a dog stares at a squirrel. But rather than paying attention to errors or fixing mistakes, young writers hone in on how writers’ moves activate meaning. They slow down and observe the special-effects devices writers use in literature. They investigate the way conventions breathe life into sentences. We link them to author’s purpose and craft, inviting students to talk about what they see and wonder about in an author’s sentences” (13).
Teachers, don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the book. Nearing 450 pages, this text can seem daunting, but so much of this book is amazingly thoughtful, creative, immediately helpful and useful lessons to address all your grammar and convention needs! The book begins with an introduction of how reading and writing meet (Spoiler Alert- Conventions!) and then Part 1 begins with a chapter on planning. What are the specific conventions you are required to teach at your grade level? What are you noticing in your students’ writing? Next, connect the convention you want/need to teach to the author’s purpose- why do writers use this particular convention? The next step is to create a focus phrase, which is kid-friendly language that states a clearly defined goal.
Once you have your focus phrase, you “curate a small bit of writing that demonstrates the convention’s power and purpose by searching your read-aloud, favorite mentor texts, or texts that are popular with students” (23). Students study the writing and are “invited to notice” different parts and features of the sentence. Through the exploration, you help students discover the convention you want to teach and name the focus phrase. The next step is to invite students to compare and contrast the sentence you shared on the first day with a sentence you write that mirrors the convention you wish to highlight. Each day after, students have the opportunity to imitate the sentence as a group, imitate independently, celebrate their learning, apply it and learn to edit the sentence. All of this is explained thoroughly and beautifully in the first section of the book, using the focus phrase “Writers capitalize names” as an example. A sentence from Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson is used to model all the steps in the process. The lessons are planned for about ten minutes a day, which is a realistic and reasonable chunk of time for grades 1-5.
Part 2 is where your heart might start to beat a little faster, as mine did, when you see all the lessons set out for you! The lessons are organized into “The Power of Sentences”, which includes a section on capital letters, nouns, verbs, subject-verb agreement and punctuation; “The Power of Pairs”, including lessons on apostrophes, pronouns, and punctuation that comes in pairs like quotation marks; “The Power of Details”, which features adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and more; and “The Power of Combining” which focuses on conjunctions, compound sentences, the serial comma and complex sentences. Even the titles of the lessons are fun and clever (Example- a lesson on comparing using -er or more is entitled “It Takes Two- Time to Compare”).
As this post goes live, many of you are at the start of summer vacation. Here on Long Island, in New York, we are still in the thick of it, with a last day of school on June 22nd. At a time when thoughts turn to sandy beaches and alarm clock-less days, it takes a very special professional book to make me wish (at least a little) that it was September and I could start implementing all these fabulous, fun and important lessons now! Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language is a book that will make you glad to be a teacher, working with young writers to help them explore, wonder, and apply the conventions they learn. It’s a book that I believe will transform how teachers and students look at conventions. I highly recommend this book for a school-wide book study or a grade level exploration for educators, coaches, directors and principals.
Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca write, “Before you think grammar is about the labels, about right and wrong, about memorization of definitions, or sentence diagramming, look up. Look up to where writing thrives. Writing thrives in exploration of thought and experimentation of effect. Writing moves. Writing holds detail, telling us what thoughts go with others and what thoughts need to be contrasted. Writing is about voices and music. Writing is about words of meaning strung together in ways that show their relationship with each other…The conventions of language do all these things” (428).
What puzzles or excites you about teaching conventions to your students? How might this book change the way you look at the power of conventions?
- This giveaway is for a copy of Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, Grades 1-5. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, Grades 1-5, please leave a comment by Wednesday, June 13th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 15th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Stenhouse Publishers will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – PATTERNS OF POWER. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.