Student Math Writing

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Last Tuesday I was able to participate in the ICTM chat.  The chat was on the topic of math writing in the classroom.  My teaching journey began as general fourth grade teacher and writing was often placed squarely in the writing/language arts block.  This year I’m trying to find ways encourage students to strengthen their writing in the math classroom.

When asked to explain their writing I find students at the upper elementary level sometimes struggle to find the right words.  Some students have the perspective that writing should be minimal to non-existent in the math classroom.  Mathematical writing at the 3-5th level is often expected on state and district assessments.  Beyond that it’s a bit inconsistent – depending on the teacher.  Generally the math writing prompts ask students to explain why or the steps involved in solving a problem. When students approach these problems I find that they’re sometimes unsure of where to start or are very brief with their submission – often too brief.

Over the past few years I’ve been working for ways to chip away at this issue.  I think part of the concern is due to exposure and practice. I believe students have opportunities on a daily basis to explain their math reasoning.   Quality math tasks can give students opportunities to engage in explaining their math reasoning. I see it more so in classrooms through verbal interactions – not so much in the written realm. Students may present their ideas to the class and/or engage in a dialogue with others about why their answer makes sense to them.  I also see students participate in these types of sessions with partners or a small group.  I find that students can take those meaningful dialogue experiences, but lose some of the substance as teachers attempt to connect the transfer to written form.  Bottom line, I feel like students need more meaningful math experiences with writing and revisions in a math class setting.

How do students get there?  The article discussed in the chat covered four different types of math writing:

  • Exploratory Writing 
  • Informative/Explanatory 
  • Argumentative Writing
  • Mathematically Creative Writing

I find students aren’t expected to write unless they have a prompt to answer – which generally falls into informative or argumentative.  For some students this is the only practice they get in strengthening their mathematical writing skills.

Part of the questions discussed in the ICTM chat revolved around the different types of math writing that educators currently see in the classroom. Organizing this math writing (along with a criteria) into the four categories was fairly new to me and I dug deep into trying to find ways to apply this in my own classroom.  Moving forward I plan on using my student math reflection journals with more frequency. Right now students use them to reflect on their math unit assessments, set goals and progress monitor.  They’re revisited every 1 – 2 months.  I find that’s a valuable use of time, but I’d like to expand and have students more frequently reflect on weekly topics or the skills that are highlighted in class.  I’m also planning on looking at more of the creative math writing component.  I find that interesting and there’s a self-motivation piece that could be helpful.  Planning on using this will take some time, but again, I feel like students will benefit from analyzing the skills discussed in class and applying them to their life.

I think the more practice that students have with writing in math class the better prepared they’ll be to explain their mathematical thinking in written form.  I’m looking forward to seeing how this idea turns out.


Making Math Meaning Through Writing

Yesterday I was able to dive deeper in my summer reading.  I’ve been reading David Sousa’s book on how the brain learns mathematics.  I’m finding the chapter related to making meaning interesting.  David says that there are basically two questions that determine whether an item in the memory is saved or deleted.

Does this make sense?

Does it have meaning?

I believe students ask these questions on a daily basis. Some of the asking is mumbled under their breath, while other students will down-right ask the teacher.  I find myself asking these questions as I sit in professional development sessions.  Students want to know how this new learning applies to their life.  Students are better able to retain what they’re learning when it makes sense and can be connected to past experiences.  Those past experiences can develop into having meaning for students.  What’s also interesting is that experiences that have an emotional component present have meaning for students. Past experiences that are clear in my memory are often related to some type of emotional component. I feel like this is similar with students.  Those experiences are more likely to be stored in long-term memory.

This chapter in particular emphasizes the need to spend more time creating opportunities for students to develop meaning.  Without meaning, students often use formulas to compute numbers.  Their confidence falls on the formula and the student doesn’t necessarily understand the concept. Students eventually become so skilled at computing numbers that they find answers without thinking of the context. Most teachers have had conversations with students about their answers and if they make numerical sense?  In those cases students understanding the procedural aspect (formula) but it’s not in relation to the context (meaning).  In order to create meaning, students need time to connect and personalize the content.  In addition, they need time to explore, reflect and practice.  Writing in math class is one way for students to practice and create meaning.

I’ve been a long time advocate for using writing in math class.  My students in 2-5th grade have used math journals in the past.  They reflect on their past performance and set goals moving forward.  Writing in math class gives students time to process information.  That processing can lead to personal meaning.  Writing in math class can take many different forms. I believe interactive notebooks and foldables can also provide opportunities for student to process and make meaning.  By writing, students are required to organize their thoughts and find sense and meaning in their learning. Using math notebooks/journals can assist in giving students a way to also communicate their current understanding of the material.  Having a component where the teacher responds to the students’ writing can also provide another opportunity for feedback. Regularly writing in math class can also provide students with an outlet to create a record that they can look back at to review their growth.  Something that I need to keep in mind is that the math writing doesn’t have to be on paper.  Writing through a math blog or in some other digital format can also play a role in making meaning.

How do you use writing in math class?

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