All morning I watch the clock. With two children underfoot and a sink of dirty dishes, I watch it tick closer to 2:00. I play magician with my son and rehearse some ideas for our meeting. In a moment of quiet, I jot down a few thoughts I want to share. I double check my pencil case for sufficient pens and highlighters. I number page 109 in my notebook and write 3/31 Book Meeting across the top of the gridded page. At 1:50, I give goodbye kisses and head to Starbucks to meet my writing partner. I see Rebekah’s head through the frosted windows, already jotting in her notebook, and as I enter the cafe, music swirling around me, I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not alone in this writing thing.
Many of us have brought writing partnerships into our classrooms with some success. But what would it take for our students to feel this same kind of excitement towards their writing partners? When partnerships aren’t working, they feel like a burden rather than a support system–just another box to check off in the writing process.
So how can we create writing partnerships that feel like a privilege rather than a chore? Partnerships that increase enthusiasm around writing and talking rather than stymie it? In today’s post I offer several considerations for establishing and maintaining writing partnerships in your writing classroom during any point in the year.
What is a writing partnership?
Simply put, a writing partnership is a relationship between two writers who support one another in their writing work. Writing partnerships exist in the real world and therefore are worth time and space in our classrooms. Even colleges are using writing partnerships to move their writers forward.
To assign or not to assign?
In my classroom, I try to mimic real world writing standards as much as I can. In the real world, writing partners find each other. And so I think there is a lot to be said about allowing your students to form their own partnerships with some guidance. Chemistry is important. Sharing writing is an act of vulnerability, and all writers deserve to feel supported and comfortable in this space.
One way to help writing partners find one another is through a speed dating activity. Many of us have used speed dating to help our students find their next book; it can also be used to help students interview one another for potential writing partnerships.
Speed Dating Writing Partnership Activity
- Before the speed dating activity, your writers should engage in a little bit of self-study. What things do I like to write? What pieces have I written in the past that I love, and why? What pieces have been difficult for me? How do I feel about feedback? Would I rather someone just listen to me, or do I really want them to dig into my writing? Would I prefer to use my partner on final drafts, or do I imagine him/her there throughout the process? How would I describe my writing process to someone? What do I want in a partner? What do I NOT want? These questions are the equivalent of the where-did-you-grow-up questions that potential romantic partners ask on the first date. Running through a list of basic inquiries helps people get a sense of their general compatibility and allows them to imagine a future relationship together.
- Set up your room speed-dating style by creating one or more long rows with desks facing one another. Ask students to bring the following: their answers to the questions above, their writing territories list, a piece of writing they are working on, and a sticky note.
- Students will sit across from one another for a few minutes and take turns sharing about themselves as writers. If you are doing this activity at the beginning of the year, give students name tags to wear (heck, if you are doing this activity in the middle of the year, give students name tags. It always shocks and saddens me to learn that students’ don’t know each other’s names). I use an old desk bell to signal when they should stand and rotate to sit in front of the next writer. I tell them to jot the names of any writers that intrigue them on their sticky note — people they felt a connection to and could imagine working with on their writing.
- Create partnerships as best you can by reviewing the sticky notes, using your own observations about how students work together, and knowing that partnerships are fluid and can be changed if needed. Nothing is permanent.
- Writing partners should stick together long enough to deepen and grow in their relationships and in their writing. You might consider switching it up every quarter, or every couple of writing projects. Students may have 2-4 writing partners in a school year.
Making Time for Partnerships
The first mistake many of us make in establishing partnerships is to schedule partner time during writing time. When we add partnerships into the structure of our classrooms, something has to give. You can’t add something new without taking something else away. However, I’m going to encourage you never to substitute writing time with anything else: it’s the most sacred and essential activity in your classroom. Instead, find other pockets of time. If you using a writing workshop model, and begin your classroom with notebook time, consider substituting notebook time twice a week with writing partnerships. Launching the class period with partnerships helps students set a writing intention for the day and also stirs up the creative energy in the room. Students can always share about what they wrote the day before during writing time. When we replace writing time with partnerships, students often struggle to find something to talk about.
It’s important to keep meetings regular, and to let students know when they are happening. Consider posting a schedule at the beginning of the week so students can prepare.
Frontloading Writing Partnership Skills
The week before you launch writing partnerships, consider teaching a mini unit of writing partnership etiquette and protocols. Dedicate several of your mini lessons to addressing the following with your students:
- What is a writing partnership? Why do real writers engage in them?
- How often will we meet? Can we meet more?
- What happens during a meeting?
- What should I do if I feel nervous or don’t have anything to say?
- What can I expect from my writing partner?
- Am I going to have to do anything after the meeting (such as share notes with the teacher)?
- What if I don’t like my writing partner?
- How should I give feedback to my partner?
- How do I ask for feedback?
- What should I do if my partner and I need help?
All of these questions can be simple mini-lessons that take a few minutes at a time. Whenever possible, model what you’re teaching with a fellow teacher or another student in your class. Share different protocols for giving feedback so students can try on different ways to respond to one another. The blog Two Writing Teachers has a wonderful series about partnerships that may help you in planning your minilessons.
Supporting Partnerships Throughout the Year
While some partnerships may miraculously take off, other students will need a lot of support in this area. Here are a few ways to extend support to partners:
- Very basic notes: Have students submit the most basic of notes following each partnership meeting. Do not waste their time with detailed partnership reports: these worksheets can become a crutch, with students spending more time filling out the sheet than actually talking to one another. I encourage students to take notes in their notebooks like they do in conferences with me. Then, they can snap a picture of their notes and upload it to their Google folder. No extra work for them, and I can spot-check their partnership “minutes” whenever I need to. If your students need more structure than a blank notebook page, consider giving them a half sheet of paper with no more than two questions on it: How did it go today? Where do you need more support?
- Weekly share: Invite writing partners to share about their experiences. Perhaps once every other week, you might have volunteer partners meet under the document camera: have them come up to the front of the classroom, take turns putting their notebooks under the camera, and have their meeting at the front of the room. Student listeners can take notes on their dynamic and talking points, and share back what they noticed and learned during the session.
- New tools: Give students other tools to connect outside of the classroom. One of my favorite writing partnership tools is Voxer, a (free!) walkie-talkie app that allows users to talk and listen in real time, or whenever is convenient for them. Rebekah and I recently decided to stop using our Messages app to communicate: everything book and writing related goes into Voxer. We use it to set up our writing partnership meetings, as well as share insights and questions we have about the work we’re doing.
Users can record under-5-minute voice messages or send typed messages. They can also send pictures (writers can share pages from their notebooks with one another!). Writers CAN invite you to be a part of their Voxer conversation, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to go crazy. Instead, you can ask writers to submit a few screenshots of their Voxer communication as evidence they are engaging with the tool.
It behooves me to say in this post that in order to establish and support effective, meaningful, healthy writing partnerships, you should be in one yourself. In the same way that keeping a writer’s notebook and writing alongside our students elevates and authenticates our teaching practice, so does being a writing partner. The things that you and your writing partner celebrate and struggle with and work through will be the same things your young writers celebrate and struggle with and work through.
How do you set up and support writing partnerships? What tips and tricks would you share with other readers who want to add this feature to their workshops? Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or join our Facebook group!