differentiation in writing workshop through partners

partnerships can be so powerful in writing workshop – or, really, in anything – and we’re advocates of long-term writing partners. most years, most of our fourth graders have partnerships that last the year in writing, with lots of coaching and support to help navigate the inevitable problems that pop up in any meaningful relationship.

when making the partnerships, and then creating opportunities for those partnerships to support one another in their writing, there are many chances for differentiation.

pairing purposefully: while our students have a say in who their partner is through their writing partner want ads (in both the process of writing their want ad and also answering the want ads of many classmates), we try to be purposeful when pairing students up with one another. we consider strengths and opportunities for growth in writers, and make these mixed-ability partnerships (heterogeneous!).

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here are a few examples of things we might consider when pairing students up with one another:

  • if there’s a student who consistently struggles with making a daily plan box, we might consider pairing her with a classmate who has been successful using the charts in the room to create specific plan boxes. this way, when partners have the job of approving one another’s plan, the more proficient plan-box-making partner can offer support.
  • if there’s a student who has difficulty attending to the mini-lesson, and is often lost during the active engagement, we might pair her with a classmate who will be able to give some prompting during the active engagement to help with re-engagement and success trying the strategy. although, alternatively, shana frazin sometimes advocates putting those dominant partners together and the quiet partners together so that they’re sort of forced into a situation that requires them to work things out and find some sort of balance. we can see a lot of value in this, too, because we certainly don’t want our students who have a tendency to check out to always rely on others to keep them on track.
  • if there’s a student who consistently struggles with writing in the moment, we might pair her with a classmate who consistently uses a variety of details in his writing. through the daily practice of sharing writing with partners, the summarizer will be immersed in stronger writing, and we’re big believers in the power of immersion. if you want to write well, you have to hear good writing over and over again, and partners can do that for us.

creating opportunities for working with different peers: our expectation is that long-term writing partners are side by side one another during every mini-lesson, so that they always have someone to talk to during the mini-lesson, and they know who that person is (so there’s no time spent finding someone). we see the value in giving kids opportunities to work with different classmates, though, and so there are some ways  in our writing workshop that we build in possibility for this.

  • peer conferences – we teach kids how to have a conference with one another, how to be one another’s teachers. students can ask for or offer a conference to anyone, usually using the help offered & help wanted postings in the room, so they have the chance to work with classmates outside of their long-term writing partner.
  • monday headline partners – every monday our kids add story ideas from the weekend to the back of their notebook and then pick a story idea and write it as a headline. they then practice storytelling the story orally to their partner and give one another two pluses and one wish for their storytelling. (that night, they’ll write the story for homework, usually with a specific goal or focus in mind, sometimes using their partner’s wish and sometimes trying a craft move that we’ve suggested the class focus on.) our kids are paired with someone different than their long-term writing partner to be their monday headline partner. part of the reason for this is just to provide some variety – our kids will be with each other in writing workshop that day, at some point, and so it’s nice to have a chance to work with someone different – and part of the reason is to give an opportunity to provide a partner who may serve a different purpose than the writing partner does.

varying the responsibilities between partners:

  • a & b – as soon as we start using partners, and definitely once our long-term partnerships are established, we have partners decide who’s a & who’s b. with long-term partners, they can be permanently one or the other so no time has to be spent deciding or reminding who’s a and who’s b. we’ve heard some people mention assigning who’s a and who’s b, and then using that purposefully in your planned turn and talks (so, for example, if you know all a’s are students who tend to sit back, you might plan opportunities for partner a to do something first so that they have the experience of initiating the work rather than following after their partner’s work). in the way that we use a & b partnerships, we let the kids decide who’s a and who’s b, but then make sure that we plan for opportunities for both of them to lead the conversation at some point. in our planned turn and talks and active engagements, this means making sure we sometimes ask a to do something and an equal amount of times ask b to lead in doing something. this helps lessen, if not eliminate, one partner dominating the conversation.
  • teaching the habit of turn taking – we think this is really a life-skill, a courtesy that we all deserve and should give one another. so, whenever we’re not saying who should go first (a or b), we remind our kids that, if you went first in sharing your homework yesterday or in your head you know that you’re the type of person who usually goes first, you can invite your partner to start today.

a final thought about partners is that we make sure to make a big deal the first few weeks of school about it being our kids’ responsibility to solve the problem of a missing partner. the message we send is that partners are so important in our room – having a partner to talk to is so essential – that if your partner isn’t there, it’s a problem that you must solve immediately. the way that our students know to solve it is by finding another partner-less classmate or, if no one else is missing, asking a partnership if they can join and make it a group of three. (we also hope for, and do a celebratory dance inside when it happens, partnerships to notice when someone needs a partner and invite them to join before that classmate has to start asking to join partners. being asked if you’d like to join an existing partnership sends such a powerful message that you matter.)

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