Improving First Grade Writing Partnerships Through Video
My experience reflecting with colleagues on video recordings of students’ writing partnerships in our monthly Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry sessions has led me to some surprisingly simple discoveries that affect the way I teach writing over the long-term. Not only have I been able to use video to reflect on my own work, but I have been able to use the same clip as a teaching tool for my students.. The opportunity to collaboratively reflect on a short video of a writing partnership has dramatically pushed my practice forward.
Writing partnerships provide valuable time for students to express, develop, and clarify thoughts about their writing with one another. Allowing time for students to confer with each other throughout their writing process gives them space to construct their thoughts and even garner new ideas from their partners. Partnerships are a common component in our literacy curriculum, and the collaborative listening and speaking skills students develop in first grade partnerships provide groundwork for years to come.
Last February, after having already established partner expectations with the class, demonstrating successful partnerships and carefully pairing students together, I set off to take a close look at writing partnerships in action. I hoped to find out what was actually happening during these peer conversations through gathering video data before my upcoming Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry session.
Before looking at the video recordings, I had imagined my students’ conversations would look like this:
- Reader reads story and partner listens to story.
- Partner asks clarifying questions and elicits details.
- Reader goes back and re-tells story, this time adding more details.
- Partners go back to desks and revise papers.
I grabbed my iPad to record some conversations and approached Caleb and Zoe, two focal students huddled up in a cozy corner of the room. Caleb was sharing his writing about basketball. Zoe was distracted, looking around the room, and jumped at the opportunity for a turn to speak:
Caleb: Defense is when you try to block the other team from scoring. Some players try to slap the ball from the other team’s hands.
Zoe: Okay, so I think that is a GREAT chapter. Okay, now can I read mine?
My goal for the partners was that they would listen attentively, ask questions, provide feedback and ultimately revise their work. My video recording revealed that partners weren’t actually hearing each other, rather they were just waiting for their chance to talk! Was I being too ambitious with my long list of partnership expectations?
Me: Zoe, can you tell me one detail that Caleb wrote about defense?
Zoe: When someone is trying to get the ball, you say “pass.”
Caleb: No, that’s not what I said.
I obviously needed to back up, slow down, and focus in on the first step, listening. I stopped to interrupt the conversation. We reflected on what was going well and what they thought they could have been doing to be a better partner, and thought about what they could change to show their partners they were listening:
Me: Can you show your partner that you’re being a good listener? How can you show you’re following along?
Zoe: Eye to eye, heart to heart.
Caleb: Maybe sit side by side so we can both see our work?
Caleb and Zoe gave it a try. I took more video of them and this time they showed they were successfully participating in active listening.
Later, Caleb, Zoe and I watched the video clip together. They reflected on how, even though they both took turns speaking, they weren’t really listening, just waiting for their chance to speak again. We talked about how better listening could help our partners think of new ideas, and we might be able to learn great ideas too.
After I learned that Caleb’s partner was unable to recollect any of his work, I figured this was likely happening in other partnerships, too. I suggested to Caleb and Zoe that it might help the whole class if we shared what they had just learned, that they could teach others in the class about how to improve their own writing partnerships. They excitedly agreed and in a mini-lesson the following day I played the class the first video clip of non-active listening, and students generated ideas about what partners do to show they’re listening. We used the student-generated chart of ideas to break into partnerships and practice and I provided sentence frames to guide students in constructing conversations with their peers. Roaming the room, I saw students holding their papers between each other so both could follow along and heard students compliment each other to show that they were really listening.
Later, I showed the class the clip of Caleb and Zoe participating in active listening. As a class we talked about how frustrating it could be to have a partner who doesn’t hear you, and how much better it was to feel like you were being listened to – how this made you feel like you could trust your partner. As students practiced active listening, they were naturally more engaged, curious, eager to know more about what their partners were trying to say. This eventually led partnerships into the more complex business of asking questions and eliciting details.
Partnering with students through my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work served to make student process more visible to me and to my students, pushing all of our learning forward.
Patty Desierto received her Masters in Education from Rutgers University School of Education. This is her third year teaching first grade at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley Unified. She continues to study partner conversations in her classroom through her Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work.