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Keep a Straight Face

By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller

Wouldn't it be nice if it didn’t matter at all to seventh graders who they had for a partner when cooperating on a shared assignment? Yes, it would be nice, a nice fantasy. It isn't going to happen. They do care who they work with. Many students want to work primarily with a few friends. Others prefer to work only with their best friend. Still others will work with anyone except Willy or Rolanda. Few are gracious and mature enough to work happily with any of their classmates. That's why a structured process is necessary when you assign partners.

We have seen partners assigned in several ways.

"Everybody find a partner and come up with some ideas about why the main character in the story we read made that choice." Forget that process. The same students will always be left out. No one picks them for a partner. Assigning partners is not a process that can be left to the students. This situation requires teacher structure.

We have seen teachers structure pairs in several ways.

  1. "The first row turn to the second row and the third row turn to the fourth row, etc. The person across from you is your partner."
  2. "Count off from one to twelve. When you get to twelve, start over. Now find someone in the room who has the same number as you. He or she is your partner for this next activity."
  3. "I will be passing out cards with a number on the back. Two of you will have the same number. Find that person and sit next to them for this activity."
  4. "You will be getting a popsicle stick with a color on the end. Find the person who has the same color. That's your partner."
  5. "Get out your Interaction Pal sheet. Today I want you to work with person number five on your list."
  6. "On this chart I have assigned pairs. When I turn the cover sheet over you will find your name and the name of the person you will be working with today."

Any of the half-dozen ideas above are adequate for assigning partners. But none of them go far enough to insure mutual respect and emotional safety during the delicate partnering process. What is needed in each case is a "keep a straight face" lecture burst and direct teaching piece on the part of the teacher. That lecture burst could sound like this:

"I am getting ready to assign partners for the day. As in the past, this is not your partner for the rest of the year or even for this month. This is the person to work with today when I ask you to share with a partner. You will only work with this person today. Tomorrow you will have a different partner. In time, you will get an opportunity to work with all your classmates.

"If you happen to be partnered with a friend, you won't be tomorrow. If you don’t get your best friend today, you will later. You will get to work with everyone in the class at one time or another.

"When you find out who your partner is, I don’t want you to react verbally or nonverbally. No verbal reactions. When you find out who your partner is I don’t want to hear any groans. Nor do I want to hear, 'Oh darn,' or 'That stinks.' Those verbal responses are not respectful of your classmates and do not create the accepting and affirming environment we are building in this classroom. I will not allow anyone in this classroom to say those things about you and I will not allow you to say them about anyone else. Also refrain from saying, 'Yippee, I got a good one,' or 'Yes!' No positive comments. No negative comments."

"Nonverbally means no facial expressions or gestures.  No eye rolling. No disgusted looks. No thumbs up. No smiles. I want you to keep a straight face. Let’s practice that now. Everybody put on your straight face. Place your hand on your head. Now bring it down slowly across the front of your face, wiping off all expressions as you go. A couple of you are smiling. See if you can wipe that off your face."

"Looks like you all have it. Now let's practice the no verbal or nonverbal responses as I pull the map up and reveal today's partners."

By teaching students to keep a straight face in this situation you teach them that disrespect will not be tolerated in your classroom. You help them appreciate that respect and tolerance is something that all of us need to practice with intentionality and regularity in order to honor the diversity and uniqueness that exist in our classroom and in our world.


Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of Teaching the Attraction Principle to Children: Practical Strategies for Parents and Teachers to Help Children Manifest a Better World. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for them or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: and