partnerships · peter h. johnson · writing workshop routines

Partnerships Can Provide Purpose and Power

The sun had become hot, and knowing that fish typically don’t bite much in the afternoon, my buddy Matt and I had decided to call it a day. Walking toward my Volkswagen with pole and tackle box, I suddenly heard my friend behind me.  “Wait, I think I’ve got a fish on!” I whipped my head around, only to see the tip of Matt’s pole bending toward the rushing water of the Clackamas River.  He must’ve taken one more cast! I thought.  Dropping my gear, I scampered back down the rocky embankment to the water’s edge.  “See if you can get it in the net!” called Matt.  Sure enough, the silvery flash of a freshwater Steelhead gleamed, and I resolved to land this slippery creature.  We could do this!  Working together, me with a small net and Matt with his physical strength, the two of us eventually commandeered and landed the largest salmon I had ever seen.  “Way to go, partner!”  I remember Matt shouting.

Let’s face it, it’s nearly always better to take on challenges or work on something when you’ve got a partner at your side.  This was true for those two young fishermen, and it is certainly true when it comes to the challenging work of writing.  This time of year, many writing workshop teachers are likely facilitating a partner formation process, one in which they hope to pair two writers together (or perhaps match up a few triads) as a structure that will not only foster independence, but will lead to a lasting relationship of trust and productivity.

As business writer Marcia Conner suggests, learning is a process that thrives in a social context. Workshop teaching, then, is about creating a culture of social learning, an environment in which discourse between members of a community is valued and viewed as an important part of each writer’s journey.

All writers seek feedback.  All writers write for an audience.  All writers question themselves– Does this sound right?  Should I leave that in? Is that interesting?  I’m not sure that’s the best way to say it, is it?  And for these reasons, writers long to bring their work to another person– another set of eyes, another pair of ears.  Hence, the writing partner in writing workshop.  When working well, partnerships can help grow the confidence of each writer in our classes by providing support, authentic peer feedback, and a sounding board for ideas.  In my mind, partnerships are essential.

Forming Partnerships

In August, TWT co-author Betsy Hubbard wrote a beautiful post on partnerships in the writing workshop.  In her post, Betsy suggests some possible ways to think about partnerships.  I would offer one additional way to consider setting them up :

Types of Partnerships

  • Friendships– Although the notion of putting two friends together in a writing partnership can strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned veteran, consider the fact that as humans, we typically like to talk about things with… well, our friends!  So perhaps although not all writers might be best suited with a friendship partner, it is important to remember that the purpose of a writing partner is to generate mutually beneficial exchanges about writing. And who better than with a friend?
  • Content-based- Many teachers wonder how often partnerships ought to change?  One possibility is to match partners up for one unit of study, creating for example, “Narrative Writing Partners,” “Informational Writing Partners,” “Journalism Partners,”etc.  This can have the added benefit of inserting novelty into your workshop, something the brain loves.  However, since writing partners are based on a trusting relationship that can take time to build, changing partners often across a year may not work for every community or all writers.
  • Leveled – One tried-and-true method of arranging partnerships is by level of writing skill.  Two writers with a similar skill set are more likely to operate within a common zone of proximal development, thereby making the exchange of ideas more useful and valuable.  I once made the mistake of pairing an extremely high-level writer with a much more struggling writer, and I found that neither was able to be helpful to the other.
  • Mentorship-  One other possibility is to arrange for some mentorships in the community.  These are special situations in which a teacher believes one student would benefit from being a mentor, while the other student would benefit from being mentored.  It is likely we can all remember situations in which it was helpful to have a mentor from whom we learned a great deal.  And, at the same time, there were likely also times when great benefit arose from spending some time and energy mentoring someone else. This arrangement can be mutually beneficial and teachers might consider it for special cases.

Fostering a Culture of Collaboration

Setting up partnerships is just the beginning, though.  Writers benefit from some early teaching and learning about how to function as a useful partner. My colleague Betsy writes about “deliberate practice” in her great post.  Another TWT colleague Kelsey Corter suggests teaching into different types of talk, which can be seen in her chart here:


In addition, I would add that one oft-overlooked aspect of teaching into writing partnerships is listening.  In his seminal book, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2012), Peter Johnston writes:

Perhaps it seems trivial to mention this, but in order to have dialogue, people have to listen to one another.  I mention this because really listening to a partner is less common than it might seem, and because there is listening and then there is listening. Listening because you are interested is quite different from listening as a matter of vigilance or responsibility.  The more children come to appreciate each other as interesting and as sources of learning, the less they need vigilant listening, which is exhausting rather than enlivening. (p. 100).

Johnston goes on to emphasize the importance of encouraging students to “bring their interests, experiences, and perspectives to their work.”  This will yield the desirable result of students having more to say and thus being more interesting to another.  As writing workshop teachers, we of course invite and welcome of all these things when it comes to learning to be a stronger writer.  We encourage students to write about their interests and experiences, and we value the perspectives students bring to their work.  But a little instruction on how to listen to one another, whether it be whole class or in small groups, can go a long way toward starting your culture of collaboration off on a positive footing.

I’ll never forget the pride I felt the day Matt and I brought home that slippery fish.  Although I may have made the landing of the fish sound simple in my anecdote, it was not.  It took time, patience, resolve, and ambition to finally successfully secure that salmon.  And for me, getting partnerships up and running has always felt a little like a slippery fish– it takes, well, time, patience, resolve, and ambition. But the effort is worth it.  Thinking about trying out partnerships this year?  Go for it!

More reading on partnerships in the writing workshop:

Three Things That Might Be Stressing Out Your Young Writers (And What You Can Do To Support Them) by Beth Moore

Setting Up Writing Partnerships by Melanie Meehan

Intentional Talk With Writing Partners by Betsy Hubbard

Moving from Partnerships to Peer Conferring by Stacey Shubitz

Creating Classroom Environments: Making Space for Partnerships by Anna Gratz Cockerille