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.