Writing Partners: Authentic Purposes for Writing
Someone once told me: You can’t write well about something you don’t care about.
One day, I listened in on two first grade partners, Jennifer and Marco, sharing their pieces of writing. I stood ten steps away, just observing.
Jennifer had written a piece about her brother.
I watched as Marco and Jennifer scooted their seats so they could sit shoulder to shoulder, presumably to put one of their pieces of writing in the center to share. Though the two children sat next to each other, Jennifer’s writing was tucked neatly away, her folder halfway across the table. Marco’s writing was exploded all over the table in a messy heap. Marco leaned away from Jennifer and started adding to one of his sketches. Jennifer looked the other direction. I was beginning to think I should step over and do a little coaching.
But before I did, something amazing happened. Jennifer reached over and pulled out one of her poems from her folder and looked at Marco, waiting.
Marco saw her looking and stopped drawing. “What you got?” he said.
She pushed her paper over to Marco and read it to him in a small shaky voice.
Marco was astounded.
“You wrote that?” I watched on from a few steps back, waiting to see what would happen next.
Then Marco: “I hope your brother will share toys with you next time.”
Jennifer and Marco sat and looked at her poem a little longer. Just looking. With the poem in the middle. Marco studied the sad faces of the figures sketched below her writing, a frown on his own face. “You brother is mean. You should stand up for yourself.” Jennifer nodded.
With a little coaching, and a little practice, something very important started to happen with the writing partners that day. Jennifer heard from Marco she should stand up for herself. Another child overheard, and chimed in that his brother was mean to him, too. The children start talking to each other in new ways – they began to care about what the other person was writing, and not only that, they started to care more about the other person as a person.
When we teach writing workshop, we also teach students to care about the world around them. Developmentally speaking, this is a big deal for a lot of kids. Personally speaking, I don’t think I was ever given many opportunities to share my own writing with an audience of other kids–certainly not daily–and I can only imagine how it might have changed me as a student, and as a writer. I wrote for the teacher, and the teacher alone. If we were lucky, our final drafts went on display in the hallway, or were sent home for our families to see.
Kids take gigantic risks to write and then share true stories and ideas with other kids. When they have a consistent writing partner, they learn to think ahead about how their writing will sound to their partner. They can plan ways to make their work more interesting and easier to connect to. When they have the same partner consistently, they learn that person’s personality, and what kind of questions to ask, and reminders to give each other each day–not just feedback that comes after the fact. Each interaction is a continuation of a conversation, rather than starting all over from scratch.
Setting up successful writing partnerships is one of the most challenging parts about teaching writing workshop. Who is learning English? Who needs a model for positive behavior? Who is very very shy? Who tends to dominate the conversation? The list of considerations goes on. Who has learning disabilities? Who works well together? Who has similar interests?
It’s easy to forget how crucial partners are to very young children. When you are eight or nine years old, your entire social world can be disrupted, shattered, by a simple teacher decision. One day, you ask Alicia to turn and talk to Jeremy. On the playground that day Jeremy gets picked on for being partners with a girl. Another day, Melissa decides she just doesn’t want to be partners with Ali anymore, and Ali’s heart is broken.
Kids have a whole world of complex social interactions that we often forget about or aren’t even aware of in the haste of our everyday snap decisions.
This makes it all the more important that children have some amount of consistency, and plenty of guidance on how to be a supportive writing partner.
When we teach children to be writing partners, we teach them practical steps, such as how to sit “knee to knee and eye to eye,” so that they are looking at each other when they talk. We teach them to nod or otherwise show that they are listening. We teach them to ask questions. We teach them to sit shoulder to shoulder and put the story in the middle when they want to read it. We teach them to give friendly reminders to each other such as “Please don’t yell” or “We should stay at our writing spots.”
When we teach them to do all these things well, we are also teaching them to care about one another.
If that is not an authentic purpose for writing, then I don’t know what is.
- This giveaway is for one copy of Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing by Georgia Heard. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy of this book.
- For a chance to win one copy of Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, February 5th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Lisa Keeler will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Monday, February 6th.
- You may leave one comment on every post in our Authentic Purposes for Writing blog series, which runs January 30th – February 5th.
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