Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Writing in Math

Chapter 3 of Literacy Strategies is about writing in the math classroom. I was particulary interested in this chapter because the topic of writing (journals, learning logs, etc) has come up several times recently in discussions with my twitter PLN. While I got some great ideas from this chapter, I'm ultimately left with more questions than answers about how to integrate writing effectively.

We all know writing has great benefits. For the student, they are provided a canvas in which to develop their communication and thinking skills, and for the teacher, an avenue in which to assess how well the student understands and processes a concept. The author of this chapter relates writing as "mindful meditation" and the page as a "holding place for our thoughts". To me, that idea is the basis behind a journal or a blog. I've never been much of a writer, but even I find writing on this blog to be very useful for my personal and professional growth/reflection (aka mindful mediation) and I've often used my blog as a minddump of ideas that I haven't fleshed out, but that I don't want to forget. However, I had never quite put that idea into the classroom.

In the classroom, I would guess most of us rely on verbal communication, whether that comes from lecture, student responses, etc, yet all of us would like for all students to be engaged in the classroom. The author points out that only one student at a time is able to speak, but if we ask them to write instead, this encourage more participation because the entire class can be involved at the same time. Again, a simple idea, but one that I had never quite thought of. Ultimately, I would like to get to the place of presenting a problem, having students think and write individually, then work with a peer group to refine and edit, but worry about issues like student buy-in and wondering if kids will take it seriously or just jot down random things and not really grasp the benefit of the writing.

One point that the author made that I struggle with is that the thinking involved in writing/explaining is different than the thinking needed for solving a problem. All of us have experienced this issue. Students can find the answer to the problem, but struggle with explaining the how and why of their work. You may have even had a situation where a student could explain a topic (such as multiplication), but has very little computational fluency. There must be a balance between these two types of thinking and I'm not sure where that balance lies. We want students to be successful in both conceptual and computational learning, but how do we find that balance?

Writing in the classroom should allow us to open a dialouge with our students. When presenting them with a task that requires them to explain their thinking, we should take advantage of that opportunity to assess their thought process and any gaps or misconceptions. The teacher taking the time to read and respond to student writing on a regular basis is important in order to help students develop clarity in mathematical thinking and communication. However, that poses another question - where do we find the time? Obviously reading and responding to written responses will take a lot more time than grading a traditional math assignment. Also, many writing assignments may just be an informal assessment, gauging where students are conceptually and are never meant to be entered into a gradebook.

This chapter also provided insight on how writing can help ELD and SPED students develop mathematically. One point the author makes is that for both of these subgroups, there is a need for teacher assistance in organizing their thoughts through structured-response prompts. As confidence grows, the teacher can provide less and less structure until the student is performing independently. In my opinion, all students, not just ELD and SPED, could benefit from this structure as they are learning how to write in the math classroom.

Overall, I leave this chapter feeling convinced of the power of the written word in helping a student learn math and to reflect on their learning. I still struggle with some of the practical questions that come with this idea, such as the time issue, needed balance, etc. I feel like this post is more of a jumble of random thoughts instead of a cohesive review, but that may be appropriate considering that I feel quite lost and jumbled in how to effectively apply this strategy to my classroom. :)


Jason Buell said...

This is something I struggle with too. I know the value of writing, I just don't know a good way to implement it. I struggle with the balance btwn focusing on the writing content vs. the structures of writing. I don't want to devote large portions of class time to teaching writing skills, but I'm also not happy with ignoring it entirely. So for science, the balance between say, a quick write, where I want my students to be able to just dump things onto paper and sort it out later or a formal lab report where I would like to be more helpful with organizing their thoughts.

I'm doing like three things at once here so if this doesn't make sense let me know. Also, if you or the book have a solution/opinion for this, let me know.

Anonymous said...

Hi there! I'm a new reader of your blog.

A question that came to my mind as I read your post is this: If a student can complete the computation but can't explain the steps he's taking or the reasons for taking those steps, does he really understand? Knowing how to follow an algorithm and understanding the concept behind it are two different things. I think having students write about their problem-solving process can reveal a lot about what they really know.

Finding time to read what they write is definitely tricky, though. I will follow this post with interest to see if anyone has suggestions on that front!

SarahKM said...

I don't have the exact link to the video that our literacy coach showed us toward the end of the school year (it's currently locked in my classroom) but it had students folding their paper in half hot dog style, working the problems on the left side of the paper and on the right side explaining each step. I'm planning on using this template and idea next year in my remediation class to have the students talk about math more.

I'm not sure if that is a way you would like to start to incorporate writing in the classroom but that is, hopefully, how I'm going to start.

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