When getting a writing workshop up and running, it seems there are a million things to do, and all of them seem crucial. There are the routines for getting students from their work spots into the meeting area and back again quickly. There are the tools – the notebooks, folders, and writing center materials. There are the charts that will support choice and independence right away.
Establishing writing partners often seems like something that can come later, when students are settled into a routine. Certainly, you could make the choice to wait to set up writing partners. But assigning students a partner right at the first writing workshop of the year sends a message that working with a partner is an integral part of writing, not an add-on. Additionally, it helps to encourage independence early on, because partners learn quickly to turn to each other rather than becoming stymied while waiting for a conference with a teacher.
This year, you might try setting up writing partnerships even before the students enter the room for the first time. If you are looping with your students, or you teach in a multi-age classroom to which many students are returning, you’ll have a great sense of who will work well together. If most or all of your students are new to you, consider asking the teacher(s) of the grade below to work with you to put partners together. If none of these are possible, it won’t be the end of the world to place partners together at random, and to change any that aren’t working as needed.
Some tips for establishing writing partners:
- Partners do not need to be ability-based. Pairing a stronger writer with a more reluctant writer provides the reluctant writer a good model, and provides the strong writer a chance to solidify skills and strategies by explaining them to someone.
- Consider personality. For example, confident, talkative students can draw out timid ones, provided the talkative students aren’t too dominating. Also, though there certainly is a time and a place for teaching students to work well with anyone, avoid placing students together whose personality conflicts will distract from the writing work.
- Form triads for ELLs or students far below level. Placing an English Language Learner with two proficient speakers of English gives the English Language Learner the opportunity to listen in for a model of partner talk.
Having a simple chart right posted on day one with the names of each partnership will emphasize that working with a writing partner is something that will begin right away.
Plan to add another chart at some point in the first week with some tips to aid partner work. For example:
Questions Writing Partners Can Ask Each Other
- What’s going really well for you in your writing?
- What isn’t going so well?
- What was the big work as a writer you are trying to do?
- How’s it going?
- Are there any tools you can use to help you, like mentor texts, the word wall, or any charts in the room?
- What new work are you trying?
- How are you getting better as a writer?
Meeting Area Spots
Plan to channel partners to sit next to each other in the meeting area right from the start. Assign each partnership a spot before the students arrive, and ensure that everyone will be sitting where they can see and hear you clearly. So that students can find their spots right away when you first ask them to join you in the meeting area, you might create simple name cards out of index cards or cardstock and place them on the spots where you’d like each student to sit.
To help get turning and talking going in your minilessons without a hitch, assign a Partner A and a Partner B in each partnership. You might write A or B on each student’s name card, or color code the cards so each student knows his or her role.
A Place to Meet
Partners don’t necessarily need to sit next to each other when they head off to write independently. But, they should have a sense that they can go to their partner for help as they are writing if needed. Imagine the independence students would feel if they knew they could enlist a partner for help as a first step rather than a teacher when stuck. And imagine how liberated you would feel if you didn’t have a line of stuck student writers forming behind you!
Depending on the space in your classroom, set up a corner where at least one partnership, if not several, can meet as needed during the writing workshop. Place it as far as possible from writers who might be disturbed by voices, and teach your writers to keep their talking as low as possible as they are conferring with each other. Be sure that any charts you have to support partner work are visible from this area.
You might want to set a time limit on partner conversations. Place a timer in the partner meeting area and ask them to set it for no more than about five minutes to ensure that partner conversations don’t take too much time away from writing.
Happy start to the school year! We look forward to your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions in the comments sections of our posts this week. And be sure to mark your calendar to join us on Monday, August 10th, at 8:30pm EDT as we meet on Twitter to chat about classroom environments. #TWTBlog. See you there!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).