Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learning Partnerships

"Communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioural.”
L.S. Vygotsky, (1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

As I reflect on my career I realize some of the greatest shifts in my learning and understanding have been a result of some type of learning partnership. During Reading Recovery training, my teaching partner, Jen, was trained alongside me. It was helpful having someone reading assignments I was reading, practicing techniques I was trying, reflecting on student progress in the new ways I was learning. As I trained to be a literacy coach, it was my trainer, Max, whom continually pushed my thinking. He asked challenging questions, suggested thought-provoking reading, and taught me to use student work to make teaching decisions. When I was writing More Than Guided Reading it was my editor, Brenda, who kept me on track by reflecting thoughtfully on my writing, sending periodic articles/books about writing (and its challenges!), and helping to clarify my thinking. Currently my friend and teaching partner, Deb, is taking classes to complete her master's degree. I'm learning so much from the reading she is doing, the conversations she is having, and listening to her reflect on her teaching as she considers this new learning (and she's paying the bill!). All of these shared experiences offered opportunities to shape, and often reshape, my thinking.

Partnerships have been significant in my learning. Lately, I've been thinking about the importance of these partnerships for the students in my classroom as well. I originally began using learning partnerships at the beginning of the year to help students learn to talk together. I assign partners in the first days of school. These partners are together, most often, on the carpet when we are having read aloud, learning in focus lessons, and building community. Typically, partnerships are together for 3-6 weeks of school.

Time is spent teaching students to:
1. Turn "knee to knee" so you are facing your partner
2. Look at your partner when s/he is talking
3. Take turns speaking
4. Talk softly to keep from disturbing other partnerships
5. Body language basics
6. Acknowledge/Respect your partners thinking
7. Rephrase your partners words (I often ask students to share what their partner said instead of their own thinking.)
8. Asking questions to get your partner to tell more

It wasn't long until I knew these partnerships needed to go beyond the first days of school. When I consider the significant partnerships in my learning, I realize they most often are partnerships that were time intensive. These partnerships lasted for a significant period of time. In my classroom, keeping partnerships together for awhile usually has several positive results. First of all, I find my quieter students grow comfortable in time and share more as they build a learning relationship with their partner. Students get to know each other well resulting in new (stronger) friendships and a tighter community. Students learn to listen to one another instead of just "the teacher". It gives everyone an opportunity to synthesize learning, respond to questions, and think about new ideas. Most importantly, it balances the voices in our classroom.

Yesterday my class began asking about new partners. Their current partnership was established right before winter break. As I think about creating new pairs, here are some things I will consider:

What are my learning goals for the weeks ahead? In the weeks to come we will be learning to use our prior knowledge and the words of the author to infer meaning as we think about stories. We are also beginning a study of matter in physical science and conducting investigations. I would like partnerships to be able to work in both situations.

What personalities go well together? Typically, I pair quieter students with quieter students. I find these children are often more comfortable with someone who is not talking over top of them. I consider whom I've noticed working and playing together in other parts of our day, or match students I think might make a good team but haven't discovered one another yet.

How will I group students based on academic needs? In our classroom, it seems to work best to pair students heterogeneously. Typically I match my higher students with average to high average peers, and my students needing more support in learning with average friends. I place pairs needing more support near me so I can scaffold and monitor their learning closely.

Partnerships accomplish much in our classroom community across the day. Bumping up against the thinking of others makes us reconsider our opinions, our understandings, and opens the window to new experiences. Partnerships build communication skills by requiring students to articulate and support their understandings to their partner as well as the larger group. Partnerships allow students to discuss literature, support thinking, develop math concepts, conduct inquiries, but most of all they build lasting relationships which strengthen the fabric of our classroom.


  1. Thank you for sharing insight and guidance for partnerships. Your guidance makes so much sense for young learners and keeping them together for some time makes so much sense!

  2. We recently had a coach come and present about David Sousa's book where he talks about how whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning. I am trying to have my students talk more to each other now in writing workshop so they can do the learning.

    Excited about your blog...and am going to try and find your book at my school so I can learn more about it. I'm trying guided reading groups this year by myself and am trying to do the best I can. I feel that I have a good grasp on the workshop time, but need to improve in the guided reading groups.

  3. I haven't found a way to channel the chatter of my students into a productive and respectful kind of talk. This might do it. It's never too late to start, is it?

  4. Cathy~
    Thanks for sahring your insights, they always make me think! The partnerships have been a great tool for my students and me this year! It is so nice to hear the kids put their learning in their own words, especially when they don't realize I am listening... what better ongoing assessment!

  5. Cathy,

    I love your blog. It always gives me something new to think about.

  6. Love this! Took notes to improve the partnerships in my classroom!