Empowering Writing Partnerships in Writing Workshop by Kimberly Fox
Ahh, what could have been. When I think back on my years as a classroom teacher, I am often filled with a longing for all the ways partnerships might have gone had I known then what I know now. Sure, we had partnerships. We had charts showing who was partners with whom, where they’d meet. And these partnerships did meet to work on their writing, though often only at the end of the unit when kids worked to revise, edit, and ready their writing for publication. In retrospect, writing partners meeting only at this point in the writing process was like planning a whole party and only asking for help the night before! Now, working with teachers and students who are not my own as a consultant, I truly see the power of this time. Writers who meet with partners regularly are able to benefit from peer collaboration across the writing process, from idea generating to publishing! I see now how important these relationships can be and how our classrom systems can work to empower our writers and our workshop community as a whole.
In classrooms where writing partners meet regularly, these relationships create a space where students feel supported in taking risks in their writing, trying new strategies, and they are accustomed to feedback on their writing. Writers build trust in knowing they will meet with their partners today or later this week, across a unit and in every unit throughout the year. This time to reflect, read, talk, and plan. This time is viewed by students and teachers alike as sacred and instructional, as valuable as independent writing time!
This time in the year, a few months into the school year with a few months still to go before summer break, is the perfect time to reflect on partnerships in your own classroom. What systems are working and what areas of your workshop could be revised? What are your students ready to do now that they weren’t ready to do in the fall? How can we share with students what they can do to be more supportive and purposeful in their partnerships in these last few months together?
These reflections are a wonderful way to start. Below, I have shared a few tips for breathing new life into our classroom’s writing partnerships:
Choose wisely. Who will best work with whom? The answer is rarely simple. The strongest partnerships are not necessarily the ones where kids are matched perfectly with kids who need exactly the same skill, who have similar personalities, or even work easily together all the time. Partnerships almost never jump off the page of a class list as if to say, “Yes! This will be perfect!” Consider your own adult partnerships, from a work partner to a spouse, and you’ll probably see that the partnerships that have the most tenacity are often those in which partners have different strengths. Perhaps one of you has big, messy ambitions, while the other is a level-headed linear thinker able to bring these ideas into reality. Just me? You get the idea. In writing partnerships, you might consider pairing a student who is very verbal but benefits from guidance in using phonics tools and strategies to get their ideas down on the page with a writer who is proficient in this area and is ready to try more elaboration strategies to make their writing more dynamic. It is important for us as teachers to keep in mind that partnerships, including how and for what purpose they are created, are not the same across your classroom. You might have two students working together on a similar goal because they are able to share charts and strategies or perhaps you pair two kids together with complementary goals. Some partnerships might stay together for months or you might switch other partnerships at the start of a new unit. As with our adult partnerships, there is no magic formula and instead requires keen observation and purposeful decision-making on our part as well as time and effort on theirs.
Meet regularly. In my classroom, partners met sporadically and as previously mentioned, rarely until much later in the unit. On the other hand, reading partners met daily. I’m sure you can guess which part of the day felt more productive for my students and myself. Meeting regularly builds consistency and helps kids come to expect and even plan and prepare for time with their peers to talk about their writing. Partner work might come at different times throughout the workshop depending on the skill students are working to practice. Beyond the minilesson, partners may meet before they write independently to plan or practice rehearsing their pieces orally. This is a great way to support language development and help kids really hear their writing out loud, with an audience. Then, after a few minutes with a partner, they can get into their independent writing to try what was discussed in the partnership. Other days, kids may work with partners to reread and revise. To best support writers with this work, you might have writers meet at the end of the workshop, before the share, to talk and plan for tomorrow’s workshop. Or you could have partnerships meet in the middle of independent work time, revise with a partner for a few minutes, then get back into their independent writing a bit before joining the class for the share. Planning for what partners will do together AND for when they will meet is a great way to bring purpose into these sessions and get kids practicing what we teach! Plan for partnerships to meet a few days a week, if not daily. If changing the time in the workshop feels too massive right now, simply have them meet to reread their pieces and talk through next steps a few times a week! Over time, you might work to vary your workshop structures and allow for different ways it can go.
Teach into partnerships. We know that from lining up for dismissal to choosing books to read, kids thrive when they know what is expected of them with clear, consistent feedback from us. Partnerships are no different. They tend to go better, and feel smoother and more productive, when kids know how they’ll go. Teaching into partnerships requires planning for what to expect and how we will share these expectations. We might use a chart, like the one I have shared below, and above all, we’ll want to plan opportunities to practice (often!) this work with feedback from us and from their peers.
Small group work is one of my favorite places to teach into partner talk and habits. Imagine you want to bring a group together to work on revising using a favorite mentor text. Partnerships are a great way to build purpose into this important work. You might start the group saying, “Let’s read part of this text and ask, how did the author…” Kids would generate ideas and noticings, then work to try some of these strategies to their own writing. As kids work, you could coach partners to ask questions, rehearse part of their piece out loud, to give compliments, and next steps. Then they switch! A group like this helps writers see the value of having their writing heard by an audience, and you are close by to support language work, respectful communication, and of course, writing!
Expect messiness. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, know that partnerships, from writing partners to marriages, take time and effort to reach their true potential. If partners have been meeting inconsistently or if they have felt loud and unproductive, start small. Meet for a few, as in two, minutes a few days a week. Coach using a visual and compliment moments of kindness, purpose, and joy. Study partnerships in your classroom or even bring in videos of partnerships working well. Name and invite students to name partner behaviors we can all use. But most importantly, as with all that is worth our time and energy in our classroom practices, partner work is messy, uneven, and varies across a unit, across a year, and dramatically changes after lunch. Consider the benefits: a classroom community of empathetic, reflective writers who value each other’s thoughts and opinions as much as they value yours. Sounds pretty good, right? Keep at it!