Most of you know me as the math girl and that is absolutely true, but….before I was the math girl, I was the word girl. I like to joke that I am a word”smith” but it isn’t a joke. I really am. I often introduce myself to new teachers by telling them that my plans for life included becoming a noted children’s book author but (as I point upward) someone up there had a sense of humor and made me a math teacher instead. I usually do that to let them know that even if we don’t start out believing math is our favorite subject, we can get better at it and, in my case, come to find it is our favorite thing to teach.
So, a funny thing happened on the way to the Common Core; math and writing collided. One of those darn Standards for Mathematical Practice insists I help children learn to construct viable arguments, to justify their thinking, and critique the reasoning of others. Suddenly, I find myself cast in the role of the communications teacher as well as math teacher. So how can this be accomplished?
First and foremost, students have to be immersed in rich problem solving activities (M.P. 1) and we, the adults, have to back off and let them think on their own instead of telling them how to solve. If problems are rigorous enough, children begin to pay attention to the structure of the problem (M.P. 7) and use strategies to solve that might include tools (M.P. 5), or representations that were not part of our math experiences. A student may use a different method to solve than his neighbor which provides him something to justify or construct argument about (M.P. 3). It also gives them the opportunity for higher level thinking as we compare and contrast strategies together in the whole group setting.
After orally communicating their thinking, students should transfer that thinking to writing. A math journal can serve as a portfolio of a student’s thinking about problem solving. Students of every age should be encouraged to capture this thinking in print. For our earliest learners this might mean transferring what they did with a tool into a pictorial representation. It might include the algorithm for solving as soon as they are ready for this more abstract concept. Eventually, students start writing about their thinking. At first teachers may suggest a format for this. They might provide sentence starters to help students with sequencing their thinking but eventually students should be able to do this on their own. In classrooms where this is being done regularly, students are able to communicate their thinking very proficiently by the middle of second grade.
Students need regular feedback during this process which is why teachers I have been working with are using a rubric we aligned to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice to assess student thinking in problem solving. They are able to capture notes about areas in which students excel and areas in which students need additional help. The rubric can be found under math resources on this site.
So for all the sceptics out there that say, “Writing in a math classroom?”, my response would be, “Right, or should I say, ‘Write’ on!”