we’d do almost anything to avoid the looks of disappointment that kids sometimes give when they’re paired with a classmate with whom they’d rather not work. for this reason, it’s rare that we partner kids in our classroom on the spot, and instead use already established partnerships. established partnerships are important for reasons beyond avoiding hurt feelings, though. if we’re going to ask kids to engage in rigorous and collaborative talk and reflection, to be a part of a community that really knows and respects one another, then well-established partnerships are a non-negotiable.
we’ve found success in having long term reading and writing partners, and having some structures in place for different types of partners in math. we’ll share a little bit about how we get partnerships up and running in each of these subjects.
during the first month of school, we rotate partners every two or three days. we start by using the classmate next door to your seat (except we use the term “adjacent,” since we expect students to know and use that term in math), then opposite, and then diagonal. we then move to other partners in the room, and keep track for ourselves so that we switch it up and avoid repeats as often as possible. (though repeats sometimes happen, and we ask kids to be flexible when that happens for a day or two until we’re able to re-shuffle.) we’re sure to do some same and mix-gender partnerships. this month allows for kids to get to know many different classmates, and see with whom they’re able to work well, and who isn’t as supportive of their work.
at the end of the month, students create a writing partner want-ad for homework. we learned this from shana frazin, and it’s been a game-changer for establishing effective, long-term writing partners. we show the kids our own writing partner wand ad, explaining how we’ve used what we’ve learned about the types of partners that worked the best for us over the past month. the want ad should describe the behaviors we’re looking for in a writing partner. the next day, we assign each want ad a letter so that it’s somewhat anonymous, and give students time to read all the want ads and write down all of the letters that they think they could be a match for. students write down many letters*, which allows us to create partnerships of students who requested one another. this is especially powerful when it’s an unlikely partnership – there’s such little resistance when we introduce the partners to the kids because they’re told they requested each other, that they’re going to be able to do exactly what the other one needs.
*important to note: we don’t give a minimum number of letters students write down, but simply say to write down all of the letters they feel like they’re a match for. most students see themselves in most of the post-its. there are always a few students who only write down a few letters, and we encourage them to look again to be sure they didn’t miss any want ads they may be a match for.
for simplicity’s sake, we use the same partner for both reading and writing during the first month of school when we’re rotating partners. during this time, we’re completing our reading assessment to determine students’ independent reading levels. at the end of the month, around the same that we reveal writing partners, we reveal reading partners. it takes a little bit more finesse when revealing the partnerships because students have had less choice in them because we’ve found it most effective to have students partnered with a classmate at the same or similar independent reading level. we let the students know that we’ve been watching them with different partners, and have partnerships in mind that will teach one another a lot. at this point in the year, the climate in our classroom has been well-established enough that we can trust students to have an appropriate reaction to hearing who their partners are.
we also create long-term read aloud partners and make these more mixed-ability. since the majority of partner work during read aloud is grounded in turn and talks, it’s important that the partnerships are able to talk to one another, but less important that they’re similar reading levels (actually, we think we could argue for more benefits for their reading levels to be different in this type of partnership).
math partnerships are the most flexible of the partnerships in our classroom. we use a clock partner sheet (you can find some by googling “clock partner pdf” and looking at the images) for students to have twelve different partners they might use across the year. as soon as we’ve completed our math pre-assessment, we introduce clock partners.
you could give students a blank clock to fill in or fill some in ahead of time. we’ve found success in filling in four names on each students’ clock. two of the names are students who are similar in math-ability, and two of the names are a mixed-ability partnership to allow for more struggling math students to be supported by a classmate. we use our pre-assessment data to create these partnerships, but don’t tell the students the reasons behind the partners already on their clock partner sheet.
when we introduce the clock partner sheet, we usually say something like, “your job is to fill in your entire clock partner sheet, so that any times that are blank have a classmate next to them. you’ll do this by writing your partner’s name down on your sheet. (so, for example, if kate and tara are 9:00 partners, kate’s clock will say “tara” at 9:00 and tara’s will say “kate” at 9:00.) you might start by asking a classmate if they can be your ___ o’clock partner, based on what openings you have. we’re not the type of people who would say no if someone asked us to be their partner, so you’d either respond with, “yes,” if you have the same time open, or say something like, “i don’t have that time open, let’s look to see what we both have open.” your job is to get different people across your clock, rather than repeat classmates.” we ask students to sit in their seat when their clock is full so they can easily tell who is still working to fill their clock. toward the end, students will have difficulty finding who has the same times open as they do. at this point, we usually call that group to the carpet and then go hour by hour to see who has the same time open. it’s likely that students will need to have some repeats at this point to fill their clocks in.
when partnerships aren’t working:
it’s rare that we switch up reading and writing partners. these partnerships are usually year-long in our room. we believe that there’s a reason for the students to be paired together, and support students in working through their trouble. usually, after some support, students are able to get past their difficulties and the partnership is successful. it’s crucial for partnerships to be a positive relationship, though, and so in the rare event that partnerships are no longer working, we make some changes, making every effort to affect the fewest number of partnerships possible.
addressing missing partners:
from the first time a student is left partner-less because a classmate is absent, we respond by saying, “how could you solve that problem?” students learn that, when their partner is absent, it’s their problem to solve by joining another partnership. the class learns that, since we’re the type of people who want everyone to feel included, when we see that someone is without a partner, we can invite them to our partnership. between these two practices, the problem of a missing partner is quickly solved with minimal, if any, teacher intervention.
on carpet spots:
in our classroom, we haven’t had the need for assigned carpet spots. there have been occasional students who have benefitted from a more assigned spot, but we’ve never done it as a whole-class thing, and instead give our kids the choice about where to sit. carpet spots or not, it’s crucial that partners know the expectation is to always be side by side (or in front and back of one another) any time they’re gathered for a lesson since there are opportunities in almost every lesson we teach for students to talk to their partner. we teach them to save a spot for their partner if they arrive to the carpet before their partner.
how have you created partnerships in your classroom?