Recently, I was chatting with the counselor with whom I work about the statewide assessment for our English Language Learners which requires the use of writing samples in order to evaluate the students’ progress toward understanding how to speak, read, write, and listen to English. The state requires the writing samples across all the content areas; therefore, teachers are required to submit a writing sample for math. As we begin to discuss the elements of what is needed to create samples that meet the state guidelines, my counselor says the hardest samples to collect are in mathematics because “how much can you write about math?”
Needless to say, I was flabbergasted! But, I understood her perspective; it’s one that I have heard many times before. I decided to take the opportunity to tell her about the power that writing in math holds and to explain why it is hard for students to produce writing samples of substance when they write for this assessment– ACCESS! Most students have not been exposed to consistent opportunities to write in mathematics. Often, they see math as a subject of numbers, not a subject of rich communication and discussion. They simply have not had the opportunity to see math connected to the work they do in language arts. Implementing math journaling is one way to emphasize this connection and help students develop the tools necessary to become powerful thinkers and communicators of mathematics.
I’ll admit, I did not become a believer in the power of math journals until I was finishing my Master’s degree. I was in my third year of teaching. I was teaching seventh-grade math at a school where the students came from diverse backgrounds and many of whom needed a lot of support. At the time, I was very interested in assessment in mathematics and how to evaluate what students’ gleaned from my lessons using more than just the traditional test or quiz. As I began to investigate these resources, I find a plethora of assessment tools that I had never considered. To aid in my understanding of how to use the tools, I began experimenting with them in the classroom. At the time, I really felt empowered by what I read about writing in math, so I started a math journal with the students.
I found a wonderful website that offered performance assessment tasks that were aligned to my state standards, so I selected one, gave the directions, and watched my students go. As one can imagine, the responses I received were poor at best and indicated a low-level of understanding. However, this is where my real experimentation began. I didn’t give up; we discussed the responses, I gave samples of the best ones, and I offered feedback on how to make them better. We did this several times throughout the year and, low and behold, the writing got better each and every time. By the end of the year, the responses were much more detailed and gave a more complex view of where each student resided in the learning process.
Each year after that, I continued to fine-tune how I used math journals. We regularly connected our work to the rubric that I used to grade student responses and I referred to the rubric often. After the first few writing assignments each year, I even asked for volunteers to allow their work to be critiqued in front of the class. Scary right? Maybe initially; however, once the students saw what great feedback they received, all of the students wanted a critique. That was a powerful moment!
Writing about math and developing the ability to communicate mathematically gave me the most in-depth look at what my students knew and understood about mathematics. Even though it takes some time for students to understand the task and expectations for writing in their math journal, these responses became more valuable than any traditional test or quiz ever could because the written response gave me a glimpse inside the students’ heads.
So, to answer the question, “How much can students write about math?” Simply stated– a lot. While initial responses will be weak and lack a depth of understanding, with time and opportunities to understand how to expand their ideas, students who started with a three-sentence response will expand their thoughts to a whole page. Imagine what we could learn about a student’s thinking from that!
If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know that I am passionate about writing in math. Here are some resources and tools for getting started with using math journals in the classroom.
A. Read this post about combining an engaging assessment strategy with a writing task.
B. Grab my “Getting Started with Math Journals: Rubric and Resource Guide” in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.
Sound Off! What strategies do you use to get your students writing in math? Respond in the comments section below.