Strengthening Writing Partnerships, Part I

We knew it was a risk.  Entering my bedroom with my best friend Chris in tow, I heard my mom say, “Now, use your time wisely, you two.”  Knowing the big sophomore biology test was tomorrow, Chris and I looked at each other and giggled. Getting to study together on a weeknight was definitely a special occasion.  But it was already 7 p.m. “Well,” he said, “we better get to it.”  Sitting down at my small wooden desk, I opened up my binder and exhaled loudly through expanded cheeks.  Yes, I thought, it is going to be a challenge to learn all this biology stuff for the test.  But I am so glad, I thought to myself, I have my friend here to help me study.  “I’ll start on some note cards,” I said.  “Then we can quiz each other.”  Chris, now sitting on my bed with our giant yellow biology textbook, glanced over and gave me a thumbs-up.  We were off.

Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”  This was certainly the case with my biology exam study session.  Left to study on my own, my readiness would likely have been very different.  It might be said that leveraging the social dynamic of my friendship with Chris ultimately led to a successful academic endeavor.

In writing workshop, teachers work to establish, foster, and nurture a culture of social learning.  Although the act of writing is primarily a solitary act, writing workshop teachers understand and appreciate the value of collaboration between partners as a structure that holds great potential when it comes to lifting student skill levels in writing.  All of us who write can likely point to at least one person (maybe a few) we lean on when it comes to entertaining thoughts for writing, talking through drafts, or perhaps sussing out ideas.  In this way, another person provides a sounding board and creates a social opportunity for feedback, criticism, and notions of what improvement could look like or sound like.  So knowing this as adult writers, we work to facilitate these types of writing relationships in our classrooms (I wrote a post about this a few months ago).

The problem with partnerships, however, is that left to their own devices kids are not very good at being partners.  According to Dr. Mary Ehrenworth, Deputy Director for Middle School at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, partners can become much more effective if teachers begin to think about and implement a curriculum for partnerships.  Like most other endeavors, students can benefit greatly from some attention to and teaching around how to be better partners.

Why add such an extra challenge to our already-full to-do list in the teaching of writing? you may ask.  Ehrenworth asserts that strong, effective partnerships matter because, well, as adult writers can understand, it is hard to do high-level work if students don’t have useful partners.  The following are a few ways to begin thinking about and teaching in to writing partnerships:

  • Idea One: Study existing partnerships.  One way to begin is to be thinking about the partnerships you have helped establish in your classroom.  Are they working?  Are any of them not working?  In the Teachers College Writing Units of Study book entitled, A Guide to the Middle School Common Core Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2014), Lucy Calkins writes, “When particular partnerships work well, you’ll want to try to keep them in place over time.  It’s a great thing in life to find someone who can help you with your writing” (p. 50).  This last statement should not be minimized or overlooked; think of the person you trust!  It is no small thing.  That being stated, however, some partnerships are worth a second look and may need to be renegotiated after a unit of study ends.
  • Idea Two:  Teach a Process for Revising with a Partner.  Writing partners work together in various ways in our classrooms.  Oftentimes, we set our writers up to revise with a partner.  This can be helpful, as sometimes kids are able to provide each other with meaningful feedback.  However, I can remember many times when this was not the case in my classroom, and you can probably say the same.  Ehrenworth offers the following sequence to help support meaningful revision with a writing partner:
    • Step One:  Drafting time– working alone, students draft their ideas from start to finish, getting down as much writing as possible.
    • Step Two: Storytell– Without reading their drafts, each writer orally tells his or her partner the draft.  Teach kids to tell the story of the draft.
    • Step Three:  Positive feedback- After hearing the story of partner 1’s draft, partner 2 tries to capture what he or she loves about it.  Writers can use phrases like, “What I really love about that is . . .” or “One thing I think is so great about that draft is…” or “Another part I thought was really good was…” Oftentimes interchanges like this help to raise energy levels for writing, which can then translate into more motivation for revision.
    • Step Four:  Read the piece – Following an exchange of positive feedback, writers sit down to actually read the drafts their partners wrote.
    • Step Five:  Jot revision suggestions- Without talking with one another, partners spend some time jotting revision suggestions.
    • Step Six: Revise writing- After receiving suggestions from partners, writers spend time revising and perhaps redrafting. To make this step as useful as possible, partners can code where they made the partner-suggested changes using colored post-it notes.  Here is an example shared by Mary Ehrenworth:IMG_4073
    • Step Seven: A Serious Partner Talk– A final step is inviting writing partners to discuss this entire process of revision.  It is highly likely that talk will be much better, as writers will now have some time and energy invested into both partner interaction and a (hopefully) meaningful writing revision process.
  • Idea Three:  Teach Students How to Create Process Pages.  According to Ehrenworth, research has shown that listening, watching, and reading help to move information and learning into short-term memory.  On the other hand, drawing, talking, and thinking back over assist in getting information and learning into long-term memory.  Knowing that, consider inviting your writers to create “Process Pages.” Process pages are handmade visual reminders of an important process for learning.  In this case, imagine students have just completed the steps of the revising process I described above.  Teachers subsequently invite writers to think back over that process, ideally talking with a partner; then each writer brainstorms ways to create individual Process Pages to place in their writer’s notebooks.  Examples are here:

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Creating a process page like the ones above allows kids to think back over, talk, and draw something that can live in their writer’s notebooks.

Ehrenworth cautions that especially the first time, kids will take a long time creating Process Pages.  But the time is well-spent, as the result will be a tangible tool that supports both independence and an improved partnership.  And, as always, teachers want to be thinking more about a goal of approximation versus mastery here.

The bottom line is that as writing workshop teachers, we not only want writers to work effectively with their partners, but we also wish for them to want to become better partners.  Although I no longer remember what grade I earned on my big sophomore biology test (I am pretty sure I did okay!), I do remember the value of working and studying with a partner; and I carried that with me to college.  Let’s face it, although we may not know what future jobs our young writers may hold, we do know that an ability to collaborate effectively is not going away anytime soon.  So building in some speaking and listening instruction through a partner curriculum feels worthwhile.