Recently I wrote some essays on my beliefs in education. They span from my personal growth, to leadership, and then reflection. They are sitting within my computer waiting for the right place and time. One might say, hibernating. I have a parable-like story I’ve been working on for several months now as well as a realistic fiction story about my great grandmother. There are several story beginnings awaiting their middles and ends in the draft section of my personal blog. I have notebooks with recorded moments, poems, reading notes, and pops of ideas in lots of colors with occasional questions to ponder. These are all the bits and pieces of my own writing life.
My essays and stories were read by my husband, my parents, and a few close friends. This blog post was read by each of my co-author teammates here at TWT before it came to you today. All of these people, each one, brings perspective, a string of thoughts, and feedback that can range from specific to general. So why is this work important enough for extra eyes to see it? Because it allows the work to have a dry run with its audience.
As I look at my writing life, I realize this is why partnerships hold importance for me as a teacher of writers. My students choose what and when their work goes to an audience, and I listen, advise, and guide from the sidelines. Did my partnerships begin this way? NO. Trial and error played a big role, but I think what carried me to successful and purposeful partnerships has a lot to do with my belief in my students. My belief in their ability to do this work. Together we forged a path where partnerships were collaborative, flexible and most importantly impactful.
Why Partnerships? Why NOT?
Belief is quite possibly one of the most important tools we can carry with us as educators. The belief that the children we work with every day have the potential and ability to progress as learners. When we open up our beliefs to include students as teachers, we have then expanded the learning potentials of every student under our care. Just as I glean inspiration from the feedback and guidance of my peers, my students do the same. If something has held you back from starting or continuing partnerships, it’s time to unpack your hesitation. I think giving ourselves permission to take a break and try again is a valuable strategy and I am reminded of Aubri from my blog series preview post earlier today. Anticipate failure, respond to failure, and gain ground from failure.
The Basics to Beginning
You might be thinking, “But Betsy, I’ve tried partnerships. I can’t get them off the ground.” Maybe you find yourself saying things like, “There’s no way I can do that with this group, maybe next year.” To both of these I say, hear me out. Here are three steps to get you started on the right foot.
Step One: Assigned or student-choice partnerships?
For me, starting early with assigned partners can help eliminate some guesswork, shorten transition times, and support partnerships with some structure in the beginning. These beginning partnerships are often short-term and frequently flexible as we build a community at the beginning of the year. Your decision to assign or allow student choice, in the beginning, may be influenced by your students’ familiarity with purposeful partnership expectations. You may find that allowing choice from the beginning gives you the opportunity to determine what layers of guidance are needed as you build toward independent partnerships as an end goal.
When creating assignments, I have met them in many ways:
- Random partner assignment: I quickly partner students with each other.
- Triplets: Sets of three give each student an automatic backup partner. Lanny Ball, TWT co-author, suggests these groups of three, or “triads” for students who may benefit from hearing two spoken examples for English-Language Learners (ELL).
- Floaters: Having a few students who float where they are needed helps eliminate problem partnerships. I also like assigning my trickier students to this role, giving them opportunities to work with many different writers within the community.
- Partner Partners: Two sets of partners assigned to each other creates a small group of four and automatic backups in case of issues or the need for a bigger audience.
- Temporary Assignment: This allows for possible spontaneous shake-ups. I might take half the class and assign them to one another and allow the other half to choose their own, then change it up the next day or week.
Encouraging students to write you a note about the dynamics of the partnerships can also give you insight as to how to move forward. Are students feeling comfortable or uncomfortable? Are the partnerships helpful or harmful?
Step Two: Start Structured and Wean Away
Discussing the roles within partnerships is important. From kindergarten and up, young writers can take on these roles as listeners and talkers. You’ll find that once students have a good understanding of how partnerships work, flexibility within those partnerships will be a novelty. Writers might begin with the assigned partner followed by sharing with a partner of their choosing. Opening up the possibility of sharing with more than one partner gives a writer the opportunity to practice the roles related to partnerships more than once in a workshop cycle.
Step Three: Deliberate Practice
Once you have a starting point, do bursts of practice. Model with a student using your writing. You and the student partner can even rehearse a bit beforehand.
Chart as a class what was noticed about the partnership. You might make a template (see below) for students to fill in or do a co-created interactive writing chart.
Here is an example of what a student might record or how you might structure your co-created chart:
This chart is more detailed. As you work together and reflect as a group, you will likely take your basic “What is My Job?” chart and grow it to meet the needs of your students. I find collaborative conversations helps students frame what’s working and what is not with the idea that as a community we can adapt to the needs of the whole group. For more on expanding your intentions through writing partnerships, see Intentional Talk with Writing Partners.
After collaboratively observing and charting, let students try. Take the time to practice a little at a time. Reflect as a group about what worked really well and what students would like to get out of partnerships.
Ask questions like:
As you talk with each other about your shared purpose, if the conversation is not leaning toward growth, steer it there. You could offer follow-up questions:
- When we listen to our partners share their work, what could we take away to try in our own writing?
- What have you noticed in your partnerships and used later in your independent work?
- As writers, how does this benefit us after the partner time is over?
Plan together for hiccups and hurdles making it clear these will likely happen and that as a group you will work through it together.
Hurdles will tempt us to doubt the progress we’ve made. The shape of a solution is all in how we respond to the challenge. Typical mid-year hurdles might start with routines that worked, suddenly not working anymore. A writer who just can’t seem to work with anyone. The partnership that is more interested in taking apart their pens than workshopping their writing. The new student. Switching up partnerships. The impromptu principal walk-through and that little voice inside your head saying, “This isn’t going to look like I’m teaching anything.”
- The writer who is struggling? She’s your new writing partner. Rehearse with her for tomorrow’s lesson and maybe work in a little conversation about how things are going.
- The engineers? Ask them to write about the anatomy of a pen if it really is of interest. Really! I mean it.
- New student? He can join any partnership and observe for a few days.
- Partner switch up? New perspectives are good and may take time. Mixing up the partnerships can naturally change with your units or as social dynamics evolve.
- Your principal? Let her see how you value student collaboration. Encourage her to sit beside a partnership or two and listen in. Let her see you do the same.
Be optimistic! Don’t get distracted by what didn’t work. Analyze it, unpack it, assess what doesn’t need to be there and what is missing. When you’re ready, re-pack and set off on your journey again.
Don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishments along the way and remember that you are taking your students on this journey with you. Work together to make purposeful partnerships a reality and celebrate together when hurdles are jumped, and successes are achieved.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom . Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy to one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a copy of this book.)
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Here are some of my favorite posts on partnerships from some of the co-authors here at Two Writing Teachers.
Beth Moore has written several posts on partnerships. Here are a few of my favorites.
Melanie Meehan wrote a post titled, Setting Up Writing Partnerships.
Anna Gratz Cockerille also added to this conversation back in 2015 when she shared a post about Creating Classroom Environments: Making Space for Partnerships.
Daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, and writer.