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Supporting Partnerships in Writing Workshop

It’s time for another teacher confession. When I first started teaching, I paired up my students to do peer editing before publishing their writing. It seemed like a great idea, and it is. Just not the way I did it. After pairing kids with their table partners, a less-than-ideal scene unfolded. One student was wielding their red pen like a weapon and marking up their partner’s paper with abandon, regardless of whether or not there were mistakes. Another student was yelling, “You need to spell better!” with the gentleness of a drill instructor. And more than one student was sitting back, looking around, wondering what to do, after they’d proclaimed, “Everything looks good.” Meanwhile, their partners’ papers were riddled with spelling errors, and there was nary a period in sight.

If this sounds familiar or you think your writing partnerships could be stronger, keep reading.

Here are some of the mistakes I made and some things to try instead.

Mistake #1: Pairing writers randomly

Instead of pairing students up with intention, I simply asked students to work with the person physically close to them. Clearly, that didn’t work because they couldn’t support each other effectively.

When it comes to setting up writing partnerships, there are several factors to consider: interests, goals, social relationships, and language, to name a few. You might have partners who are both avid fantasy writers or who get along really well. For emergent bilingual students, you’ll want to pair them with someone who can offer language support, if possible. Or create a triad so that the writer who needs it can listen to proficient partners. Triads are also helpful when you have students who are often absent or pulled out of the classroom and students who need extra social support. This way, no one is left out.

Unlike in reading, writing partners can be at different levels of development. What’s important is whether or not students can offer each other mutual support and feel safe with that partner. Sharing writing with others is an incredibly vulnerable act, so it’s important that partners trust one another. Also, writers all bring unique gifts to the table. Consider how you can pair students up so that their talents complement one another.

Mistake #2: Only setting up partners to be editors

My students were unsuccessful at peer editing because it was the only role I expected them to take on. If students haven’t established trust first, asking them to give each other feedback is most likely going straight to the brain as a threat. Teaching writers all the different ways partners can support each other will allow them to build positive relationships and generate trust.

Other roles partners can take on:

First, partners can be cheerleaders for each other. Teach kids to give and get feedback that’s specific and affirming. Clear feedback helps create a safe environment for sharing when things are challenging. It also allows writers to know the kinds of things they should keep doing. One way to do this is to show students how to use tools such as anchor charts and checklists to help them name specific things the writer is doing well. I also teach students to center the writer by taking “I” out of a compliment, the same way I do when conferring. To make it even more meaningful, I share the writer’s effect on me as a reader or why what they’re doing is important.

Here are some sentence frames I find helpful:

  • The way you… was so important because …
  • When you wrote… as a reader I …

Role partners can also be thought partners. Rather than waiting until the end of the writing process, partners can help each other by listening and growing ideas from the very beginning. For example, partners can help each other generate ideas for their writing pieces. They can also help each other determine which plan seems the best and then listen as their partners orally rehearse their writing. Of course, partners can also give each other feedback regarding revision and editing.

The kind of partner I often find myself needing is an accountability partner. After setting goals with writers, partners can share goals and make plans for keeping each other on track. Give students time to check in with each other regularly on how to reach their goals. Partners can encourage each other to keep at it and offer help when they can.

Mistake #3: Expecting partners to know how to interact

Just telling students to check each other’s work predictably ended in a fail on my part. Most students aren’t equipped to know what to do when asked to work with a partner. They need some explicit teaching or coaching and maybe some supportive tools along the way.

One way to teach students how to support each other is through a whole group minilesson. You follow the same structure as if you were teaching a writing strategy, only teaching a specific skill or strategy around partnerships.

A teaching point could sound like this, “Today, I want to teach you that partners help each with elaborating or saying more. One way they do this is to ask questions like who, what, where, when, why, or how. They do this so the writer will have ideas about what readers want to know more about and can add this to their writing.”

A micro-lesson (credit goes to K. Wedekind and C. Thompson for this idea) is similar to the mini-lesson, except, you guessed it, it’s shorter. You start with sharing the what and why of skill, then show how you do it. Kids then get an opportunity to practice it. After the opportunity to practice, you’ll do a reflection on how it went. This can occur during mid-workshop teaching or share time, right before partners are going to work together. While partners are working together, you can coach students on being more effective partners.

Another way you can support partner work is through partner conferences.

While partners are working together, you can confer with them around specific partnering skills. Just like in a “regular” writing conference, you can offer different levels of support — modeling what the skill looks like, showing an example, or reminding them of the skill. Coach them as they try it and then remind them when to use the skill.

After the nightmare scenario I described at the beginning of this article, it would’ve been easy for me to give up on partner work. But there are too many reasons why supporting partnerships is essential. Partners offer support that allows access for all learners and offers different perspectives that we wouldn’t get on our own. Partners also help students become more independent. The relationships built doing this work helps to create a positive environment for learning, something we all need.

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