Teacher Scholar Voices

Strengthening Classroom Learning Communities Through a Focus on Positive Student Partnerships

Teacher Scholar Voices

What happens when a teacher takes the time to focus explicitly on supporting positive partnerships between students? Joanna Davis, a second grade teacher at New Highland Academy Elementary School and one of the Mills Teacher Scholars teacher leaders at her site, began her inquiry looking at partner reading but soon realized that students needed to learn to work together before she could expect this structure to support their reading development. 

When I began teaching in 2005, I remember saying to another new teacher: “I didn’t train to be a therapist, I trained to be a teacher.”  With experience, my attitude around this role began to change and this last school year completed my “180.” I really am not a therapist, but many of the actions I take with my students feel like therapy moves.

My students are mostly English Learners and New Highland Academy is in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Oakland. Many students in our school experience trauma, but they are also remarkable: they generally remain a positive, resilient bunch. And like everywhere, some mixture of individual temperament and environment makes some kids better than others at talking and working together.

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During partner activities in the past I had often ended up frustrated over arguments that would erupt with certain students.Over the course of the school year, partnerships would slowly peter out in the classroom. With all the academic demands it felt like too much time to spend teaching and re-teaching how to get along.

My work with Mills Teacher Scholars has transformed my commitment to supporting students’ social-emotional development.  Partnerships are now at the center of our classroom culture and I am like a coach on the sidelines of these partnerships, listening, recording, and giving suggestions.

Teacher Learning=Changed Practice

I began my inquiry project focusing specifically on partner reading. Then, in October I read a blog post by Larry Ferlazzo from 2009 about the importance of explicitly teaching “non-cognitive skills”.  That’s when I decided I wanted to go deeper into the partner process. My goals shifted to more generally 1) completing work with a partner, 2) cooperating respectfully, and 3) remembering and articulating the specifics of the interaction.

I began to consciously modify my own practice to support students in meeting these goals.

Partnering with Everyone

Students were usually partnered at random. I told students that success in school and life means being able to work with all kinds of people. I modeled at a granular level how students should respond to the news of who their partner was that day.

Circulating, Coaching, and Learning from Students

While students worked with partners I circulated and recorded. Focal student Veronica was a quiet English learner who got along with everyone. I noticed that she tended to shut down when working with a more assertive student–her way of coping was to let them have their way. I coached her to state what she wanted instead of putting her head down.

By observing and working with her closely I learned that she had a hard time accessing vocabulary to express her thoughts, in both English and Spanish. I met with her mom, who also said that she took long pauses to find words when responding at home. Veronica and I talked about what she could do when she needed more time to express herself. Veronica learned to notice whether she was “looking for the words” or “forgetting my idea.”

This is the image I used to represent cooperation, along with a feedback poster that asked students, “How did you cooperate today?”

By the end of the year,  instead of saying “I forgot…” when I called on her, she raised her hand and took the time she needed to articulate her response. The time I spent observing and coaching her helped her become more assertive, self-aware and confident in her learning style.

Tools for Reflecting on Partnerships:

I created a feedback poster with the question, “How did we cooperate today?” Students answered the question after some partner activities by sticking post-its on the poster.  As I mentioned earlier, one of my project goals was to have students move from generic language to language specific to the situation. The whole class made progress in articulating specifics about a partner interaction.

Another reflection tool was a questionnaire. Although students were not always enthusiastic about filling it out, this pushed them to internalize that disagreeing is a normal process. It also helped them recognize their own role in this process.


A questionnaire filled out by a focal student who often had a hard time working with others.

More often than written reflections we had class discussions to  reflect after partner activities.

Students seemed to enjoy airing their disagreements with a partner publicly. I made it clear with my words and tone that we were just unpacking the interaction in a neutral way, not pointing fingers. I might say, “Josue, next time you could try asking your partner how they want to write on the posters…”

The good feelings generated by these discussions reminded me how many of my more aggressive students were calmed by the language of disagreement.The students with a “my-way-or-the-highway” negotiating style needed a positive and public way to showcase their successes.

Shining a light on disagreements without placing blame, reduced conflict, especially for more inflexible students.

Emotional Independence in our Classroom Culture

By year’s end, my students clearly had come a long way with their ability to collaborate and cooperate in partnerships. They became more independent and reflective problem solvers.

One of my focal students, along with a friend,  started an anger management group to help resolve conflicts during recess. In one incident a student had a conflict with a student from another class at recess and came back very upset. I called the child’s teacher, who sent the student back to talk it out. My student asked if the anger management team could help. The team took care of it outside the door while I was able to continue the lesson!

Conflict did not disappear in our class. They were an emotional group, especially when I skipped class meetings because of other pressures, or when I was impatient with them. But I was greatly impressed with their ability to take responsibility and try to improve.

This school year I’m continuing  to use the partnering tools I developed last year. Instead of taking time away from academics, reflecting on partnering creates a close community where students can work together.