Setting Up Writing Partners for Success
We’ve all been there. Reading your own writing to somebody else can be scary. Even when I am teaching adults in writing institutes and graduate courses I often have to say, “Please don’t cover up your writing and just summarize it; actually read your writing to your partner.” Even then, there are always a few participants who are determined not to let anybody see what they wrote.
So if adults are nervous to share their work, you can just imagine how little kids feel!
In the classroom, kids benefit greatly from having a consistent partner that they can always sit next to, turn to when they have a question, or need an idea. But… that all goes out the window if kids are uncomfortable sharing their writing, the way we adults feel sometimes.
Here are some tips for setting up partnerships for success from the start:
1. Make it your number one priority that every student is partnered with someone he/she can benefit from in some way. Period. No exceptions.
2. This means you might need to make some triads. I know, I know… two is usually preferable…because often there’s the “odd-man-out” phenomenon with three young people. BUT in some cases three is probably better. Here are a few examples:
* A student who is brand-new to English, a Stage 1 English Language Learner, who is in the preproduction (“silent”) stage can benefit from having two proficient speakers to partner with. Your student who is learning English gets to hear language modeled in a back and forth conversation, and your English speakers can be taught different strategies for including your English Language Learner, like asking yes or no questions (much easier to respond to than open ended) or pointing to the pictures in their own work to provide support for meaning, or by using gestures or drama.
* A student with behavioral issues, or a student who is a “challenging” partner for others to be with might be better supported in a group of three. Whether they have a tendency toward explosive behavior, or are prone to giving the silent treatment–these students might benefit from having two partners who model what a productive, supportive partnership looks like. You can teach the two more proficient partners different strategies and routines for helping their third partner learn to be a better participant over time.
* Any student who is often absent or pulled from the classroom during writing time might be partnered in a triad, so that the two other partners always have someone consistent to work with.
3. CONSISTENCY is key. Think about how nervous you feel sometimes about sharing your writing–especially if it is somebody you don’t know very well. Keeping students with the same partner for a period of time helps them develop a working relationship and some trust so that they can think less about “who is this person” and more about “how can I improve my writing.” With older kids, ask them to write you a short anonymous note letting you know who they might like to be writing partners with and why. Likewise, ask them to let you know who they might not want to be writing partners with–and why. You’ll be amazed at the insider information you’re able to collect! (Example: One of my fifth graders let me know that she could not be partners with John, because they “just broke up” and in her words, that would be “AWK-WARD.” Got it. They really don’t need to be writing partners.)
4. Try to take into account personalities, interests, and writing style. Think about the bigger picture. It’s not necessary that writing partners be on the same “level”–but they can benefit from studying each others’ work and habits in many ways. A student who works very, very slowly and carefully (a little too carefully…) might benefit from partnering with a student who drafts quickly and freely, without worry. Flipside: a student who writes super-fast but is perhaps a bit sloppy, not putting forth her best work might benefit from working with somebody who tends to write in a methodical, strategic way, using all that you’ve taught and reminding his partner to do the same.
4. During your writing conferences, confer with partners too! Teach the partners one thing to do at a time. Build up a list of things they know how to do together bit-by-bit. With younger kids, you might start by simply teaching them how to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with just one piece of writing in the middle. (I always encourage both writers to physically touch the page, so that they are both focused on that piece of work). They can learn to take turns reading. Teach them to read clearly and expressively and ask each other to speak up or reread when necessary. Then you might move on to teaching them how to give explicit compliments or suggestions, or you might teach particular questions to ask each other, such as “What are you really trying to show?” or “What’s the most important part of your story?” Eventually all the partnerships will have a whole repertoire of things they can choose to do together, rather than waiting to be told what to do. This helps them to do much higher level thinking as partners than simply following directions.
My last piece of advice is to find a writing partner (or partners) for yourself. Whether it’s somebody to share lesson plans with, or start a blog with, put yourself in those shoes. Do what you are asking your kids to do. Share your work with somebody. You won’t regret it! Writing together is always a great way to grow as a writer–and as a teacher.
Happy writing everybody!