Making Partner Work Perfect!

If you have followed the discussion over the past years about "21st Century Skills" or have been on this planet long enough, you know that the ability to work with others is just as important as any "content" knowledge that we, as teachers, can provide.

That being said, working "cooperatively" is NOT natural for all people, especially young children, and we have to make sure we are thoughtful about how we help students learn this valuable skill.  Today I thought I'd share three key things to keep in mind--and then offer a few suggestions to get your brain thinking about ways to incorporate more learning partnerships in YOUR classroom!

Partnerships are the perfect "starting point" for cooperative work!

 Think about how difficult it is for us, as adults, to get 4 or 5 of us to agree and be productive!  Young students simply haven't been around long enough to know how to do that "delicate dance" of sharing, contributing, listening, and more.  Learning how to actively listen is easier with just one other person.  Sharing with just one person is so much easier for student who are more shy--and it's easier to have a back and forth conversation than try to balance several people.  As students become accustomed to working with pairs, then it becomes easier to add people to the group.

When forming partnerships, be mindful of your students' feelings.  Be careful about the "find a partner" direction--because that is SO difficult for so many students.  Whether they be shy, slower thinkers, worried about other students' feelings--asking students to form partners on the fly is often a tricky situation.  Think about those who struggle finding partners and make sure everything is safe for them.

Ideas?  Use a "people picker" like popsicle sticks or index cards.  Premake partnerships whenever possible (in addition to avoiding popularity contests, this allows you to encourage students to work with MANY other students, not just best friends).  If you DO have students pick partners at times, consider a disclaimer, "If you don't find a partner in 15 seconds, come to me." so you can quickly help pair off those last few students.  My students get very used to working with EVERYONE in the class (males, females, tall, small, etc) and they actually REQUEST me to pick popsicle sticks to take the partnering process out of their hands.
student partnerships

 We need to explicitly TEACH partnering skills

Before I ask my students to work in partners, we have a number of discussions where we talk about what partnering LOOKS like, SOUNDS like, and WHY working in partnerships is beneficial.  Together we made a list that we continue to refer to as we refine our partnering skills.  The students did a pretty good job, I thought!  Consider making a similar list with your students to make sure they understand that partnering isn't always easy--but it's worth it!

As students start to work in pairs, you may need to stop and review some of these...and your students may come up with different ideas as well.  Students need to realize that partnering isn't easy--and they will have to work at it!  For some students, understanding that "balanced power" means that BOTH people have to share and both people have to listen is key--they can all relate to times they have had someone try to take over a group...and trying to work with someone who is NOT engaged or on task.

So when should I use partnerships?

All day long!  Think about all the different ways that "Two heads" might be better than one...try some of these!  Creating a climate where students work peacefully together will help increase engagement, improve learning, and increase the amount of academic discourse in your classroom.  Another added bonus?  As students work well TOGETHER, you are free to circulate, coach, and get a better sense of what is happening with your students' learning.

Buddy reading

Whether your students read with younger students or with others in your class, learning to read so others can hear, taking turns, staying on task, and using an appropriate voice level are all easy to practice with buddy reading.  Try making copies of a fun poem for students to experiment with--or have them partner read an article. If you really want to dig in, have students read a novel as partners where they have discussions and buddy reading over an extended period of time.  They can even complete a culminating project together!

Checking for accuracy

One of the first "partner routines" my students learn as we start the school year is "check for accuracy".  I start this with basic math problems, math homework, and other tasks--where students work alone, then compare answers with a partner.  We then practice how to handle when answers are different...and learn how to re-solve the problem together to see who was wrong and how to "fix up" any mistakes together.  This really helps create a climate for collaboration, not competition and is a great way for students to check homework, to check over practice work, or to test the spelling of a tricky word!

"Turn and Talk"

One of the classic partner activities...and a GREAT way to get all students involved in discussions--turn and talk is a way for students to participate more frequently.  This DOES need to be explicitly taught as well.  If you simply say, "Turn and talk to a partner", you can sit back and watch certain students immediately turning to a best friend, other students sitting back and waiting to be asked (often ending up sitting silent)--and this doesn't lead to productive talk.  Teach students to turn and talk by first checking around them to "include" students (may mean creating a trio!) and to make sure that each partner has a chance to share their ideas.  This is a great way to get everyone talking--especially when asking questions ALL students should have access to.  Not all students will know the answer to all math problems...but everyone should be able to answer questions related to read alouds ("What do you think Ally should do next?")...or other easily accessible ideas.

Math games

Math games are a fun and easy way to teach the give and take of partnering.  When students struggle, you can sit with them and coach the fair play and sportsmanship...but with games, the turn taking part is more automatic and students can work on some of the other factors such as voice level, on task behavior, using supplies wisely and more.
math workshop
This is one of the games in one of my "Partner Play" resources!  

Partner journals

One thing my students enjoy once in a while is what I call "partner journals".  You can do a lot of different things with this--but essentially in involves "sharing a notebook" to reflect back and forth on a read aloud, an article, a math problem--anything.  Check out THIS POST for more information.  It is a great way for students to realize that they write so that others can understand--and if they don't, communication breaks down.  Try it and see!

Challenge problems

Putting students in situations where they need to solve difficult problems can be a great way for partners to learn how to make suggestions, listen to ideas, and politely disagree.  When the answer isn't immediately obvious, it becomes clear that "two heads can be better than one"...and students can take their learning to higher levels.  What about when students WANT to work alone?  This is when coaching might be important...students need to see that other students might have great ideas, might help them find errors in their own thinking--and can make the entire process more fun!  
problem solving
My students did a great job partnering on this back to school shopping challenge!
algebra thinking challenge
These algebra thinking cards were MUCH easier when partners started working together!  The math discussions they had were fantastic--and they found lots of misconceptions and mistakes they were making as they worked!  My favorite quote?  "I knew I could  never do math this hard by myself!"

And so much more!

These are just a few suggestions to get your students working in pairs--but there are so many more!  Keep stressing how important collaboration is--and how it takes practice to get good at it...but when we ARE good at it, working together can be so much fun!

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