This time has unsettled us. This time has unnerved us. This time has ripped away so much of what we once took for granted. But if history is to act as teacher in any way, it is only when we, as humans, band and work together toward a common purpose that we overcome adverse times such as these. In our blog series this week, the team at Two Writing Teachers hopes to support you in the common purpose of building community in your classrooms, however those classrooms may look this year. I believe one important building block of community is helping kids feel connected to other kids. Human beings are social creatures. One way to help them feel connected is through partnerships.
As humans, we tend to get better at something when we are striving alongside another person. Sometimes this person is a coach or mentor. But even more powerful can be the valuable presence of and ongoing input from another individual who is actively seeking to further the skill set you are working to further. In a writing workshop, partnerships are crucial for a variety of reasons. One important reason for establishing partnerships is, of course, to create an instructional support structure that serves to help kids become stronger writers. As Lucy Calkins, author and Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City, writes in A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop (2014), “[Partners] are two people who can work together to help each other raise the level of their writing” (p. 50).
But beyond the goal of raising the levels of writing, partners can play a key role in laying the foundation for a connected writing community. As we all know, this year will bring levels of uncertainty not previously experienced by any of us in our lifetimes. Will in-person instruction be possible? Sustainable? Will we all be relegated to remote instruction for another period of time in order to maintain safety of students and staff? Will some of us be teaching in some type of hybrid model? At the time of the writing of this post, these questions are weighing heavily on the minds of all stakeholders. But one thing remains certain: As educators, we will want our kids to feel connected to part of a community. And in a writing workshop, that means a community of writers. Just think about the power of having someone (or perhaps a couple of someones) in a community that is your person – your partner. Facilitating that sense of connection is our goal: Each writer feels seen, valued, and heard.
Forming and Supporting Partnerships During the Age of COVID-19
One of the important pillars of effective writing instruction is choice. We recognize choice as an important element to engagement with writing. We ask:
We know voice and choice matter not only for engagement, but for equity, as stated by Dr. Deirdra Preis from Northeastern University College for Professional Studies in a recent antiracist teach-in event. The same holds true for partnerships. We can ask:
Ask writers to consider what that might mean. Perhaps it could mean someone who would push them to get better? Perhaps it means someone who would be good at helping them with ideas? Perhaps it means a friend with whom they already feel comfortable working? Consider organizing opportunities early in the first unit for writers to “try out” different partners- at a six-foot distance or on Zoom. These brief interactions, either during active involvements or partner shares, can give writers a sense for how a partnership with this person might go.
Whatever way we choose to form partnerships, it is important that they are not just “assigned” without input from our writers. If our goal is to build community, then incorporating student voice must be a baked-in, integral part of the process — even if it means occasionally negotiating a partnership or triad for a student who may struggle with social interaction.
Once partnerships are formed, how, in this current state, might we support them? Without the certainty of in-class writing workshop, how will partners stay connected? This is a consideration worthy of thoughtful planning. A few ideas I am imagining could be useful:
- In-person/Socially distant – The Center for Disease Control recommends seating that is separated three to six feet apart and facing the same direction. During a minilesson (presumably not in a meeting area during COVID-19), partners turning and talking may need to turn the volume up on their voices. Perhaps teachers can assign A and B partnerships for this. If this seems undoable due to muffling caused by masks, consider using whiteboards (if feasible). Even gestures might be encouraged for partner communication.
- Google – Since sitting close together, nor exchanging papers will likely not be options this fall, consider providing some direct instruction (or guided practice) on how to use the comments feature in Google Docs. This useful function allows partnerships to share ideas without risking close proximity or human contact. Another handy Google feature worthy of consideration is Google Chat. As my TWT colleague Amy Ellerman pointed out recently, Google Chat is a way writers could stay connected, messaging back and forth– perhaps in whole group, small group, or between individuals. If kids need partners to cheer each other on, check in, or ask questions (not attached to a specific doc), this tool might prove helpful.
- Remote, synchronous/asynchronous – At all times, but especially during this time, it will be important to make a big deal about the value of a writing partner. We will really want writers connecting with their partners regularly, whether in-person or remotely. Two possible ideas to consider might be:
- Help writers set up time to connect: Partnerships may benefit from a concrete schedule, like the one here. Sometimes facilitating partner meetings with a schedule, especially when working in a remote or hybrid model, can help to build writerly relationships by making it more likely that partners can connect. Another useful tool many teachers have found success with is Flipgrid. This platform allows partner one to record short videotaped feedback, and partner two the flexibility to view it when they are able. A type of asynchronous back and forth like this sometimes works better for writers with busy or unpredictable household learning environments.
- When planning for synchronous meetings with small groups, schedule some time with partnerships – especially early on. Let writers know you will be inquiring:
- What ways are you working together?
- In what ways has your partner been helpful to you?
By checking in, we can build in a quiet and supportive expectation that partnerships are happening. We can also help to trouble-shoot or answer questions if partners are perhaps experiencing difficulty or need temporary teacher support.
Partnerships: Phases of Community-Building
Many of you reading this post have likely made writing partnerships a regular part of your writing workshop in the past. But if you are like me, you have sometimes felt that much of the potential for meaningful interaction around writing has remained unfulfilled. In other words, kids just aren’t great at being writing partners. One possible way to address this challenge is through a little focused teaching on partnership work itself. The following is one possible sequence of phases for teaching into partnerships for building community. I am imagining each phase could be perhaps a week, perhaps longer, depending on your students.
- Phase One: Acknowledgement – One of my great mentors once taught me, “If you want to light someone up, acknowledge them.” In my own life, I have found this to be true nearly 100% of the time. Want to make a student smile and feel good about their work? Acknowledge them. Want to diffuse and connect to an upset parent? Acknowledge them. In her book, The Power of Acknowledgement, Judith Umlas writes (2006), “Truthful, heartfelt and deserved acknowledgement always makes a difference, sometimes a profound one, in a person’s life and work” (cited here). We can teach writers simple ways to acknowledge each other for efforts in their writing. This simple but powerful move of acknowledgement can not only bring attention to the good work each writer is doing, but it can help build connections between partners, thereby strengthening a writing community. Take, for example, a compliment-only conference structure (that could be explicitly taught):
- “I noticed . . . “
- “That’s important because . . .”
- “So anytime you . . .”
An illustration of this conference might sound like, “Alex, I noticed you started your story with action. That’s important because it really brings a reader into your story! So anytime you’re writing a story, you should do this because it really works well!” Formulaic? Yes. But it is a place to begin, and with practice, writers will become more skilled, more elaborate, and hopefully more authentic.
- Phase Two: Listening An important part of truly feeling part of a community is to feel like you are being listened to regularly. Unfortunately, listening is not something humans do well naturally. There are many reasons for this, but we can improve with a little training. Now that partnerships know what it means to acknowledge another writer (for something written), consider devoting some teaching to the aural skill of listening. Three tips taken from a 1957 Harvard Business Review article might help:
- Be aware of how our minds take regular sidetracks – since humans think faster than they speak, our minds tend to take quick journeys to do other things while someone is talking to us. This can take away from comprehending what your partner is telling you.
- To cope with natural mental sidetracks, work on periodically summarizing what your partner is talking about by saying, “Okay, so what you are saying is . . . Is that right?” Partners can help each other by taking a line of discourse from the following chart or bookmark:
Ultimately, a powerful partner listens not because they are required to do so, but because they are genuinely interested. As Peter Johnston writes in his book Opening Minds (2012),
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).
- Phase Three: Feedback – Once writers have had some practice acknowledging and truly listening to their partner, they may be ready to provide some useful feedback. With relationships now somewhat established, partners can begin to play an important role in providing a safe audience from which to elicit reactions, comments, or ideas. Response from others is essential when kids are learning to write, and partners can play an important role in that regard. But again, as stated earlier, most kids are not naturally good at providing useful feedback to another writer. Therefore, partners will need tools, such as student-facing checklists, mentor texts, and exemplars (I wrote a post about partnerships and tools last year), as well as explicit instruction on how to use those tools. In the age of COVID-19, I plan to offer a few ways I imagine we might incorporate tools as part of our curriculum for partnerships in some future posts.
Partners can play an important role in establishing community. They can provide a way to establish community inside a writing workshop in the ways discussed here; but partners can also be a way to connect outside the writing workshop. Last spring, some kids started spontaneously inviting each other to remain online after meetings or instruction. Some chose to “eat lunch together” on Zoom. Without the freedom to get to know one another after school in each other’s homes or play together in parks or on teams, kids may have a difficult time creating bonds with new classmates. Partnerships may also serve to create possibility in this way as well.
* Thank you to Larkin Meehan for the featured image artwork in this week’s posts.
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- This giveaway is for a copy of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. Please note: You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of this book.
- For a chance to win this copy of En Comunidad, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 10th.Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
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