On the fifth day of back to school, my principal gave to me, five packs of pens with a mixed-up set of TEs.
Over the years, journaling has been the single most valuable tool for me in the classroom. Math journals are a great assessment tool for evaluating your students’ understanding of a specific skill or concept. They also strengthen your students’ writing and communication skills within the context of a mathematical situation or problem. In addition, regular use of math journals will allow you to evaluate your students’ progress over time and provide you with an excellent portfolio of student work for ARD meetings or parent conferences.
While it can be time-consuming to assign and grade, the benefits of the task make it worthwhile. Using math journals in the classroom gives me a glimpse into what my students are thinking and where they are in the process of mastering the concept or skill that I am assessing. This single task can provide more information about a student’s progress than any test or quiz.
It’s easy to start implementing journals in the classroom. Even if you only assign a handful of journal tasks this year, you will find the feedback useful for planning your next steps for instruction.
Where to Find Journal Tasks:
You can convert almost any problem into a journal task. Here are a few ideas for resources:
- Math textbook word problems (I always add “Justify your thinking.” to these types of problems to increase the level of communication and rigor.)
- Math worksheet word problems (I always add “Justify your thinking.” to these types of problems to increase the level of communication and rigor.)
- Convert a simple problem into a “Who’s Correct” situation.
- Convert problem solving tasks into journal questions to evaluate a specific skill or concept.
Assigning a Journal Task:
I typically assign a journal task at the end of a learning cycle or unit. For example, if I am teaching a unit on adding and subtracting decimals, I might assign both an addition journal task, as well as, a subtraction journal task.
My students respond to all journal tasks in a spiral notebook so that I have a comprehensive assessment tool to use for ARD meetings, intervention planning sessions, and parent conferences. The journal is set-up as follows:
- Inside Front Cover: Journal Rubric
- Page 1: Journal Expectations
- Pages 2 – 4: Table of Contents
- Remaining Pages: Numbered in the upper right corner beginning with page number 5
When I assign a journal task, I provide students with the task on a strip of paper for them to glue at the top of each page, just below the title line, or I project the task onto the projection screen for the students to copy onto the same location. I always review the task and be sure the students understand the question and key components before beginning. I also ask students to underline the question, circle the important numbers, and box important words.
Introducing the Journal Rubric:
Math journals are a fairly new concept for most students. They are familiar with writing in Language Arts and sometimes in science but not math. It will take time to develop the idea of a “good” journal response and train your students how to communicate effectively. Here are some general ideas for getting started:
- I found a cute idea on Pinterest that I use as the first journal response. You can view the example at: http://tinyurl.com/mathaboutmeexample. It’s a great visual to start the journal and gives the students some ownership in the assessment tool.
- Either before the first task is assigned or during the first assignment, review your journal rubric carefully with students so that they know how their response will be graded. This ends up being just a general overview. The students will have more questions and/or concerns when you “critique” their first response.
- I do not grade the first two journal tasks in order to give the students time to understand the grading rubric. These first journal tasks may have correct solutions but will not have the most effective communication, which takes the longest to develop.
- After the first task, I read through the responses and choose a few to “critique” in front of the class. Since the responses are in a spiral, I do not ask the students to put their names on the individual pages, so the critique is anonymous. Instead of me selecting responses to critique, I have asked for volunteers before, too. This ended up going really well. After the students saw that the first few critiques were in fact helpful, they all wanted to volunteer for a “critique.” It was great!
- The second set of journal responses should be much better than the first. You can choose to “critique” them again with the class or grade them using the rubric and provide feedback on how to make it better for the first graded task.
The pictures to the right show two samples of student work from the beginning of the school year. This was the students’ second journal entry of the school year. Notice the difference in the responses. How would you assess these?
Communicating with Parents:
Because this is a comprehensive assessment tool, I do not allow them to leave the classroom. However, if journals are new for your students, parents will have questions and maybe concerns about a lower than normal grade. I usually copy the entry in question and send it home for the parents to review or ask the parents to come-in to discuss their concerns.
Scoring the Rubric:
This is the most difficult part of assigning journal tasks. I typically use a rubric to assess journals, so I either assess the journal response based on on the number of points obtained out of the total points, or percent correct, determine an arbitrary amount of points to deduct for each missed rubric point, for example, two missed points equals an 88, or determine a point range for each score, for example, 16 points = 100, 13-14 points = 90, and so on.
How do I determine which method to use? I usually let the community expectations guide me to avoid issues with parents; however, the method I use most is the points earned out of the total points method. It’s the most accurate method. You can find out more about the rubric that I use for grading journal responses and my scoring procedures here or click the image to the right.
Remember, communication is hard for many students. It takes time to develop this. Rest assured, with continued discussion about what is expected, you will see one or two sentence responses grow to a full page over the course of the school year. What a powerful thing! Hang in there!
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