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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

What happens when students choose their partners?

As a principal I get to go into classrooms in different ways than as a teacher. First of all, everyone sits up straighter! Sometimes, a hush falls over the room. But, what is interesting for me to reflect upon are the practices which have been around forever because I get to see them as an observer instead of as a teacher. One of those practices is picking partners.

There are many activities we do every day where kids need a partner or a group. And, as a teacher, I often didn’t give that a lot of thought. The quickest way for me to manage was to say find partner, find a group. Of course there were always kids left over but I fixed that and my lesson went on.

As I have observed classrooms more than I have taught them over the past few years (although I still love the teaching, so do ask me in when you want a break), I have noticed things about picking partners that I thought I would share.

1. The minute the teacher says there are going to be groups or partners, kids stop paying attention and start making eyes at each other to make sure they get in the “right” group.

2. Some students, in every class I’ve been in, immediately look at their desk or the floor. Their shoulders hunch in. They look unhappy.

3. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, some students have multiple people coming up to them asking to be their partner. Often that person spends a lot of time deciding exactly who to take. There is often begging. There appears to be a lot of power on the part of the partner of choice.

4. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a few students run about madly asking a number of people to be their partner. They seem a bit desperate. I wonder if they aren’t worried about being left out.

5. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a couple of students hang back and don’t say anything. Sometimes they are approached. Sometimes they are not approached by anyone at all. They make no effort to find a partner. They are usually hanging out at the back or edge of the group.

6. At the end of the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, there are students without partners or group members. The teacher then intervenes and places these students in groups or together. In every class I’ve been in, someone has made a face or rolled their eyes, or said something negative about their group member.

So…what is a teacher to do in order to have this process go smoothly and make everyone feel included and welcome?

 – Start with having your students understand that a working relationship is not the same as a friendship. Mutual respect in the classroom means that we can all figure out how to work together. Have very direct conversations about the types of comments and behaviours that will not be tolerated when students are asked to work together.

-  Mix up your groupings frequently so that kids have the opportunity to work with many different students all the time. For some activities you want homogeneous groups but for others heterogeneous groups might work.

-  You know who the friends are, so let them be in the same group sometimes, but not always.

-  You always choose the groups whether it is random or by design. Never leave choosing groups to the students or someone will feel left out.

 – Random groupings can be chosen by handing out coloured cards, by assigning numbers, by colour of hair, by height—there are lots of ways.

 – I suggest that working groups are created by the teacher and that students work together long enough to develop trust.

-  It is often handy to create partners for the month. You could even do it by homeroom so that no matter which class students were in, the teacher could say—find your partner—and it would be done. The next month, new partners.

The easiest thing for us, as teachers, is to say “find a partner”. But, guaranteed, someone is going to feel left out and lonely. I’m sure you aren’t planning for left out and lonely in your lesson plan. It is easy to avoid.

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