Writing and Math

I taught English for four years.  As an English teacher, I often knew something about each student that other teachers never got to know.  I knew about students’ families, lives outside of school, interests, love, likes, dislikes, hates, and, in many cases, secrets.  Much of what I learned was through their journal writing.  I had discovered ways to get students to open up to me through their writing.

Last year, I made the switch to teaching math, and I missed getting to know my students in that way.  Sure, I used get-to-know-you icebreakers, had good conversations, and learned a little about each student’s unique personality through class and school activities.  But, I missed “knowing” my students through reading their journal writing.

I had always understood that writing belongs in the math classroom.  Math students should be able to explain and describe how they solved a problem, the processes they used, and the concepts they applied.  However, I hadn’t previously thought about how writing in math class could help me get to know students and make some personal connections with them.

Fortunately, I stumbled across an e-seminar, hosted by NCTM, in which Connie Shrock suggested several journal prompts that were math-appropriate and could help me make the kinds of connections that I so sorely missed from my days of teaching English.  These writing prompts have also helped me gain an understanding of my students’ dispositions towards math and are helping me to understand just how difficult or exciting math is for them at this point of time.

So far, here is my favorite journal prompt: If math was an animal, what animal would it be?  Why?  This prompt was a good choice because it gave students a chance to be a bit creative and even funny.   Moreover, it provided a safe way for some students to tell me that they don’t like math or are even afraid of it.  I sympathized with a student who compared math to a shark because she never knew when it could attack her.  I’m beginning to better understand a student who told me: “Math is a dog.  When you first get it, it’s easy to handle and you love it soooo much.  But after a while, it keeps getting harder to take care of (but you still love it).”

I gave a quiz in all of my sections on Thursday.  The next day, I had students respond in their journals to the prompt: How did you prepare for yesterday’s quiz?  Why did you choose to prepare in the way that you did?  Results on the quiz were generally very good. However, the answers to the journal prompts were quite revealing.  

Sure,  I know that some students will write that they studied for two or three hours because that is what they think I want to hear.  But, the students who wrote about specific ways they studied helped me to understand and appreciate the efforts they are making.  For example, one student who needed extended time to complete the quiz told me that he had his mother make up practice quizzes for him.  He worked in one room solving the problems on the practice quizzes and had his mother making up answer keys and checking his work in the next room.  From that answer, I learned that my student has a supportive mother, takes his grades much more seriously than I had ever imagined, is a hard worker, and may find the subject matter more difficult than I had realized.

At the start of the year, I had explained to my students that math is really all about solving problems.  (I was inspired by what I had learned through Jo Boaler’s MOOC- a great experience and something that I hope to blog about soon.) I  went on to explain that learning to be better at solving problems will help them in life because life is full of problems.  I then asked them to respond to this journal prompt:  Think of a real-life problem that you solved.  It doesn’t have to be a math problem, but it can be one.  How did you solve it?  Why do you think you were successful in solving it?  

We had some wonderful discussions, even though students were not required to share their problems with each other.  We were able to see similarities in responses and concluded that problem solving often requires patience, persistence, planning, and collaboration.  I won’t list any example student responses about specific real-life problems.  Some were much too personal.  But I will say that many of the responses opened a window into my students’ lives that I don’t think would have opened without journal writing.  This, combined with the great conversations about problem-solving approaches and dispositions made for a rich journal writing activity.

We’re only just a little more than halfway through the first marking period.  I have much more time to get to know my students through their writing, and I have great hopes for a great year.

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14 thoughts on “Writing and Math

  1. I love this journal writing idea. I just began reflection writing this year, and I’m looking for prompts. I will be borrowing your journal prompt: If math was an animal, what animal would it be? Why? This will be so good for some of my creative students, and also for my students who don’t think they should be writing in math class, ever. Thanks.

  2. I like this one too…I’ve used “if math was a food….” and gotten some excellent responses. I love the idea of math journals, but with 150 students not sure how I would have time to give them effective feedback. How often do you have them journal and do you always respond?

    • I like your prompt about “if math was a food.” I’d like to try that one later in the year and perhaps get a sense of whether or not my students’ math dispositions are changing. I teach about 100 students, and even then it is difficult to give feedback on everything. My plan is to read them all, give them all completion grades, and perhaps every second or third journal entry, provide some personalized written feedback. This is new for me this year, so I’m not sure how often we’ll do this type of writing. For now, I think two or three times per month is manageable.

  3. What a great post. I love how your perspective as an English teacher is informing your math instruction. I think many math teachers want their students to write more, and I hope they encounter your blog to get some ideas from someone who already has a background in getting students to write. I especially like that you were able to share some real examples of how your students responded to these prompts. As you said, what they said is very informative and helps you understand them all the better. I look forward to hearing about other prompts you give your students and how they respond. Keep it up!

    • I always keep journals in my room. They are just too precious to risk getting lost. You could ask each student to buy a notebook to keep in your room.

      This year, for each prompt, I am giving students a handout with the prompt typed at the top and lines below for writing their responses. After the responses are completed, I have students put them in a folder which has three prongs at the center. (These are folders from previous years that I reused. I just affixed new labels with each student’s name on them.) All the responses for one student are kept together nice and neat in one folder. I collect the folders and put them in baskets labeled with their class periods.

  4. Loved what you said about writing. I think I might steal your idea on reflection writing because right now the students reflection is jsut about what they are doing in class that day, Your suggestion sounds like more fun. I have maintained for a while that math is writing just a different language.

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