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I am not ashamed of the fact that in my first two years of teaching, I printed about 135 individual worksheets for each of my 140 students—a staggering total of roughly 18,900 copies. My induction mentor kept emphasizing to me, “This is your FIRST time teaching this topic, so you CANNOT be hard on yourself.”

Having come out of my teacher credential program during the distance-learning year, I found myself at a loss when it came to teaching in person. I did not know how to make copies, create seating charts, or organize lab materials. It was through the grace of my induction mentor that I learned that every day was my FIRST day. Many of those days I would come to work, print 140 copies of another worksheet I’d found online — and that would be the lesson for the day.

Now into my third year of teaching, I’ve recently discovered partner worksheets, and converted all those individual worksheet assignments into partner versions. I did this to address two issues I encountered constantly when assigning students worksheets to complete on their own. First, those who were struggling to complete the work would often simply copy from a partner. Secondly, as the only teacher in the room, I was unable to help every single student, every time.

A new approach: Pass the Paper

One of the simplest ideas my induction mentor introduced to me was “Pass the Paper,” a protocol used during student-centered work time. On days when I use this protocol, I introduce the topic with a warmup question, a whole-class discussion with pictures, or questions projected on slides. These start-up activities serve as the motivation for why students should learn a certain chemistry skill.

Next, I move into the direct teaching segment, usually a combination of direct lecture and chemical demonstration, with students taking notes. After that, I pass out the partner worksheet, a single sheet of paper with a list of questions to be answered, and indicators of which partner should do which question. I walk the class through some example questions on their worksheet.

Afterwards, I have students use the “Pass the Paper” protocol with their shoulder partners and take on the roles of Partner A and Partner B:

  • Partner A does the first question on the worksheet, but is coached on how to do so by Partner B.
  • Next, Partner B does the second question on the worksheet, and this time is coached through the question by Partner A.
  • The partners take alternating turns doing the remaining questions, until the worksheet is completed.

I give the class a set amount of time to do the first question, depending on the difficulty of the question. At the beginning of the year, I might also need to help Partner B find the words to coach with by introducing sentence stems like, “The first step is…” or “First write the…” During the early part of the school year, I also make sure everyone has finished the first question with their partners before having the Partner A’s pass the paper back to their partners. However, once the partners are familiar with the protocol, I allow them to move at their own pace.

I always tell the students that I need to see “two sets of handwriting on the paper,” in order to emphasize that no individual student can simply complete the work on their own. This builds a sense of interdependency that causes students to hold their partners accountable. This is also going to lead into the grading aspect of the worksheet.

What if, you might ask, one partner does not understand how to answer the question or explain it to their partner? In such cases, I tell students who are struggling to switch roles as Partners A and B. This way, if Partner A is the better explainer of the two, they can explain it first. I also make sure they know they can ask the teacher to explain the question to both partners.

Grading partner work

I believe that accountability is an important part of the partner-work process, so I grade almost all of the partner assignments I give to my students by assigning each partner an individual grade. Though, exactly which questions I check remains unknown to my students. When comparing a worksheet to the answer key, I check each student’s work individually, then assign points to that student at the top of the page. For example, if there were 10 questions on a worksheet, I would assign certain grades for Partner A and Partner B by writing their score on the top of the page, based on this scoring rubric:

  • A = All 5 questions completed and all correct
  • B = All 5 questions completed and 1-2 incorrect
  • C = All 5 questions completed and 3+ incorrect
  • D = 1-2 questions completed
  • F = Only completed example questions with teacher

To earn an A-level grade on longer worksheets, I will usually accept one or two mistakes. For short worksheets though, I firmly believe that the highest grade should be reserved for students who achieve above and beyond the learning standard. After assigning letter grades, I translate them into percentages and enter them into the grade book (you can adapt this method based on whatever percentage-based grading scale you use).

In cases where one partner does not engage with the assignment, despite repeated attempts to engage with them by their partner and me, I will score their assignment lower. Most of the time, students’ handwriting is different enough to tell you who did which work.

Building a partner culture: Turn + Talk

I’ve noticed that using Pass the Paper has increased student engagement across all my classes. Students who generally “check out” whenever they see a worksheet, now seem more likely to become engaged by virtue of their partner coaching them. However, there are still students who do not engage consistently with their partner.

Thus, I realized that going into my third year of teaching, I would have to focus on building a stronger partner culture. I took more advice from my induction mentor, and began to use the Turn + Talk strategy, specifically to help partners hold each other accountable in a low-stakes environment. Now, at the start of every class, after asking the class a chemistry-based warm-up question, I explicitly instruct one partner to start the Turn + Talk activity by asking the first of a series of questions to better get to know their partner. An example is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. An example of a “Turn + Talk” task with a 3-minute timer. The author uses these Turn + Talks daily as a way for students to get to know their partners. 

When the partners are unsure of who should talk first, it helps to specify which partner should start. This allows me to find the pairs who are not talking, and hold the correct partner accountable for their conversation. These questions serve as a great way to get the class members talking to each other. When a student’s partner is not present, I have them sit next to another solo student. If I have an odd number of students, I’ll sit in the empty seat next to the unpaired student and have a 1:1 check-in with them.

After three minutes, I use equity cards (a set of index cards with students’ names on them) to call on students to answer the question: “What did your partner say in response to the (first / second / third) question?” I pause for a few seconds, to allow any pairs who have not shared yet to do a quick share.

At the beginning of the year, I have every pair share, but after the first two weeks, I start to only call on two or three pairs of students. This takes about four minutes of class time, and is my attempt to build a classroom community and for students to feel comfortable talking with their partner. I emphasize to my students that remembering what other people tell you is how you build long-lasting relationships.

Now, as my third year of teaching has progressed, I find that students are more open to asking questions of their peers, to giving and receiving help on activities, and to stepping up and talking with the other students in the classroom. This has especially been a great benefit in lab activities. Since the partners in each pair are familiar with one another, I usually create lab groups of four by assigning two pairs to work together. This way, each student always has at least one other person in their lab group whom they know and feel comfortable talking with.

Final thoughts

All of these activities might seem superfluous to a chemistry classroom, but I believe that they have led to a more collaborative learning culture for my students. One piece of evidence is that I can now leave the teaching in the hands of one of the partners. For example, when I’m explaining a question to one of the partners, I usually end by asking them, “Show me how to solve this one…” and wait for the student’s response. If they respond correctly, I cue them, “Okay, now show your partner how to do the next one.” Then I walk away and let the student take charge.

When I start the school year, I randomly assign partners every week until students have had the opportunity to partner with at least five different classmates. This allows me to see which students work well together, and also gives me an understanding not only of each student’s personality, but also of the classroom dynamics as a whole. Then for the remainder of the quarter, I assign students to stay with their specific partner, helping them cultivate deeper relationships with each other. At the end of the year, each student will have partnered with at least eight different partners throughout the whole year.

Building a partner culture is not easy, and I still work on refining my strategies every day. At the end of the year, I hope to gather some formal feedback from students on how these protocols did (or did not) help them succeed in class. Some students remain silent, even when prompted to talk with their partners. Other times, a student’s partner is absent, and they have to start a new partner relationship from scratch. And honestly, there are also times that students and their partners do not engage productively, and become a distraction for the class. Whenever I see that a partnership isn’t working, I assess whether it is something that requires me to give them a simple redirect, find new partners for both of students, or have a more serious conversation.

I have truly enjoyed transitioning my classroom to a partner-based environment during the last two years. My students report that they enjoy working with their partners, and several students have even found friendships with their assigned partners they otherwise may not have found. I continue to build a collaborative culture in my classroom, as I know how important collaboration will be in my students’ futures, no matter what career they pursue.