Partner time in reading and writing workshop was something I dreaded. Year after year, I struggled with the same things: forming what I could only hope to be successful pairs, off-task behaviors, absent partners, lack of engagement, and static partnerships because they were the only two kids at a certain level throughout the year (this one really bothered me – and don’t think kids don’t notice it). I spent as much time managing partnerships as I did coaching them.
Kids met in partnerships because I told them to. It was a part of our workshop because it was designed that way.
Last year, I needed a change in the way partnerships existed in my classroom. As I tried to let go of rigidness in routines and schedules, I held off on forming partnerships. In the beginning of the year, most of my kids didn’t know each other, were in a new environment, and did not yet identify as readers or writers. Immediately pairing them didn’t feel like it was in their best interest, rather it was in mine. It would make reading workshop easier for me. It made things predictable and easier to plan for.
Letting go of what felt safe, I invited my kids into a more flexible world of literacy, free of boundaries. Without segmenting independent and collaborative work time, I carefully observed my kids’ reading and writing behaviors. Partnerships formed naturally on the first day of school and continued to grow throughout the year.
In reading workshop, book clubs emerged when friends realized they loved the same series. Groups of four or five kids huddled around a book, engaging in the most authentic book talks I have heard from young readers. Kids who read lower-level books were exposed to higher-level books. Kids read and reread to other kids who did not speak English. For the first time, they were able to communicate, because pictures in books are a universal language. I realized that it didn’t really matter if partners were reading at the same level all the time. They were practicing reading behaviors, and because they had choice and were engaged, these behaviors were sticking.
In writing workshop, kids crafted books together. Processes that I have tried to teach within partnerships year after year – planning, oral rehearsal, peer feedback, revising, were unfolding before my eyes. Through writing in a partnership, kids were providing scaffolds for each other, modeling skills, as each partner brought different skills to the table. Partners were so proud, that they wanted to share their writing with the class. Kids who had never found the courage to do so, read proudly next to their partner. Kids complained when writing was over and asked to keep writing during other parts of our day.
We became a community of readers and writers. Literacy was joyful and alive.
The focus became my kids, not my curriculum. I coached into partnerships and then partnerships modeled for other partnerships. I used what my partnerships were discovering and trying on their own to guide and teach my mini-lessons. Partner work didn’t happen every day for every kid, but when it did, it mattered.
There are countless benefits to partner work in literacy. What I think gets forgotten about is purpose and joy. When you think about the reading and writing partners you have in your adult life, who do you think of? What habits have you formed together? What brings you together or to share? How do you feel after talking? Now think about the partnerships you are nurturing in your classroom. Do they emit the same purpose and joy?
Kids are forming identities as reading and writing partners just as much as they are forming identities as readers and writers. Giving kids space to form these partnerships out of choice and not as a task can be transformative in your reading and writing workshop.
This flexibility within the workshop model was not challenge-free. But the challenges felt more like opportunities than barriers – opportunities to self-regulate, collaborate, compromise, monitor work habits. I still have questions and things to think about. There are certainly times to pair kids strategically. If you have tried this, are hoping to try it, please share your questions, thoughts, struggles, successes below!