The Power of Partnership

An intense game of Finger Baseball

Partnership is a key ingredient of what distinguishes life at Miquon from many other schools. One central partner relationship is between families and teachers. Another is between teaching partners within classrooms and across grade band teams. Classroom teachers and specialists partner around curriculum year-round and during conference weeks especially. The partnership I am focusing on here, however, is the most central one of all, and the one that most sets Miquon apart, in my experience.

The young people in our group—ten, eleven, and eventually some twelve year olds—partner with the adult teacher-facilitators regularly and effectively. This collaboration includes building community as well as planning and implementing learning experiences, and its effects are profound for children and adults alike.

We partner around significant decision-making, together setting the pizza sale menu and pricing in the beginning of the year and establishing class systems, for example. Last year, that meant adding a gluten-free brownie option to the menu. This year, setting up systems meant adding the role of “dish dryer” to the job list and removing last year’s “dish washer” role. I stepped out of a true partner position last year and insisted that the individual washing of dishes would be too time consuming. The returning sixth graders persisted this September, and we gave their idea a try. They were right, as I should have predicted. This week, we’ll be deciding how to present our Halloween UNICEF fundraiser to the rest of the school at assembly. The adults in the group do not decide on the format—skit, video, song, etc. We adults present the tradition, in which they have long anticipated participating, and they figure out everything else. We even find ourselves cast in skits from time to time. Other major decision-making is ahead. The group has made their interest in performing a play this year abundantly clear. We (teachers) have an invoice for tickets to a theater performance that we believe they will find inspiring in our hands, but we won’t finalize those plans until we have brought it to the group for feedback. As with the dishes, they may have a better idea. This winter, we’ll be making plans for our big spring trip. This is perhaps the most momentous of the shared decision-making opportunities. Since we partner in decision-making so often, we also grow accustomed to needing to adjust our decisions. We create. And we adjust. No one often bears the brunt or reaps the benefits of those adjustments alone, because the decisions were made in partnership initially.

Organizing and stacking money from the pizza sale with the sale’s student manager.

This level of partnership means creating space for multiple voices and that involves the flexible use of a variety of structures. A structure (form of voting or turn-taking or job sharing) might be proposed by a young person or an adult in the group, then accepted or adjusted to fit the occasion. We use “rotating chair” fairly often—each speaker calls on the subsequent speaker. Students several years ago proposed a student-led current event discussions structure (using Jr. Scholastic magazines), and it remains a popular and valuable part of our program, with adjustments made by the group-in-residence as necessary. This fall the adults overlooked giving the 5th/6th groups enough notice or guidance about facilitating mini-courses. We apologized. There is already a growing list of offerings for the winter session hanging on our board. Since we all see ourselves as responsible for creating and adjusting structures that allow for multiple voices, we all take on the critique of the quality of our conversations and discussions when it happens, describing in specific terms what went well in the discussion and what we hope to improve down the line.

For some (not us!) the topics above might seem secondary to the “real” purpose of school—learning “stuff” more typically seen as curricular or academic. There is partnership between children and adults in this as well. The broad academic goals we hold for fifth and sixth graders are translated into affirmative statements for the students, and early in the year, they mark those statements: Very True, Sort of True, or Not True. Then students use a highlighter to note their strengths in each academic area and also set a goal for themselves. Throughout the fall, we are meeting with students one on one to hear and record their thoughts on strategies for meeting their goals and to help them brainstorm possibilities. We aim for transparency in the general and specific purpose of activities we introduce as well, noting aloud the why as well as the what we are doing. How is it relevant now? How is it applicable later? These are fair questions. Even in those activities we adults have initiated, there is room for deviation and interpretation in many instances. Our open question for a thumbs up or down is: “Does it meet the goal of the activity?” If it does—and offers no serious safety concerns—we are in agreement! Conformity for its own sake is not only not the goal; it is what we are actively avoiding.

Finally, we value the role of partnership between children and adults in play. To be sure, at choice time the young people typically play, build, and socialize on their own (although Diane does join the occasional game of four square and plays full-out). We are available to sort out challenges, to reach out to children we see struggling to negotiate, and to facilitate group discussions meant to clarify ground rules. However, we also partner in play within classroom activities—joining as partner in a game of Multiplication Blokus or Multiplication Connect Four this fall or deeply engaging in a game of Finger Baseball during a mini-course. Beginning next week, we are piloting a weekly shift in our Tuesday schedule that will condense the two half-hour choice periods into one hour-long block, targeting that day for play, building and making activities, and other pursuits that can involve the adults in the 5th/6th as well as the children and can continue for a longer flow of time, something we adults think will meet the needs of these children at this age. Of course, being in partnership, the success, adjustment, or dropping of this experiment will depend on how the piloting goes and on all of our thoughtful feedback.

That’s the power of partnership.