Beginning the Year with Math Journals

Math JournalingLast Monday marked the first day of my 2015-16 school year. It’s been an amazing week but I’m glad the weekend is here. Yesterday my school had its annual PTO picnic and I now have some time to write. I feel like I need time to process and reflect on the whirlwind of events that’ve happened over the past week.

Last Tuesday I planned on giving student their journals. Before passing them out I decided to cover a few ground expectations. I had a discussion with the students about what the journal will be used for. In the past, students used the journal to reflect on different assessment results.  This year I want to add more goals related to journal use. Primarily, the journal will be used by and for the student to reflect on math experiences and answer prompts. I told the students that I’d be writing feedback or ask questions related to their journal responses throughout the year. Most students were relieved when I said that the journal wouldn’t be graded. I indicated that it may be used during parent/teacher conferences or to show growth over the year. The students didn’t seem to have a problem with that. I ended the brief conversation reiterating that the journal was for them.

One of my priorities this year is to have students write more in math class. I read a book this summer that exposed me to research related to connections between the brain and math.  In particular, I found that students need adequate time to process and rehearse mathematical information for it to be retained.  I feel as though newly acquired math concepts can be processed through reflections and the writing process.  I intend to have students explain their thinking and view of certain mathematical concepts. I’d also like to give students time to process what they’ve been experiencing and document those events. I feel like students, just like adults, need time to process and reflect.I feel like the math journaling process can lead to the rehearsal of math concepts. In a sense, students are practicing what they’ve been learning and personalizing it through their journal writing.

So, this week all the grade levels that I teach had an opportunity to start their math journals. All classes participated in the Marshmallow Challenge and that event related to their first journal entry

Tell me about your marshmallow challenge experience.

The first response was more geared towards helping students recognize the teamwork involved as the classroom was, and currently is, building a community of learners. The second journal entries were content specific

How do arrays help me multiply?

What’s the difference between rays and line segments?

Students gave me a variety of responses. Some were lengthy with many pictures, while others barely scratched the two sentence mark.


Visual model

ArraysRegardless of the length, I’m finding that some of the students’ math understanding is revealed in their writing and pictures. I’ve already been able to find misunderstandings through student journal entries that might have taken longer to expose using other means. Also, writing feedback to the students gives me an opportunity to extend understanding by asking questions that lead students to question their responses. This year I’m attempting to use math journals more regularly and so far (only 5 days) we’re off to a decent start.  At some point I’d like to have student complete a journal prompt related to how they use my feedback in their journals.

Reflection before report cards

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc
photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

Last Thursday marked the end of the first trimester grading period.  After a few unit assessments, quizzes and special projects, my students are given a report card.  The report card splits into two categories: academic grades and behavior skills.  I tend to give my students their report card a few days before it’s actually sent home.  Once the reports cards are passed out I find that students focus only on the letter grade. Not the personal teacher comments, learning strands, checked boxes, but the letter grade is what gets the focus. Over the past few years I’ve challenged this type of thinking and laser-like focus on grades.  I’m slowly but surely moving my class towards a standards-based grading model, although the district requires teachers to use a traditional A-F model.

Before passing out the report cards this year, I gave my students an opportunity to journal about their math journey so far.  Math journaling has been a larger part of my teaching this school year. Students use math journals in my class to complete different types of math problems and for self-reflection.  I try to have the students journal approximately once every two weeks. During the journal time I turn off the lights in the classroom, turn on some music in the background and allow the students to go anywhere in the room to write up their response to the journal prompt. Some students stay at their desk while others find a hide-out in the corner of the room, on a comfy chair, or underneath a table.  As the year has progressed students are beginning to ask to have additional time to journal.

This year I gave each student their academic file before journaling. Enclosed in the file were all the past unit assessments and quizzes that took place during the first grading period.  Students were asked to analyze their own file and answer the questions below in their math journal.

  • What learning experiences stand out in your mind?
  • What do you feel are your strengths?
  • What would you consider a “growth” area for the next grading period?
  • What is one SMART goal that targets one growth area?
  • Create an illustration that matches any of the prompts above

After the students respond, I’ll review the responses and write short comments back to each student.  This does take some time, but definitely worthwhile.  I generally comment on their strength and ask questions that encourage students to reflect on their progress and growth areas.  This process also gives me an insight into what a particular student thinks and values.  By analyzing their own data, reflecting on progress made, and creating an action plan, I feel students are better prepared to take ownership of their own learning.