29 October 2012

"I Secretly Agree When My Students Think They Shouldn't Be Writing in Math"

Have you ever felt that way? It's certainly easier to believe it?
"My job is to get these kids to perfect their arithmetic, solve equations, and make graphs for the ACT or state tests."
Writing has come back to the forefront the past year with the technical emphasis in the Common Core. The Missouri Algebra I End of Course Exam is reintroducing a required performance event this year, and its something that worried more than one of my colleagues. I had an opportunity to spend 5 days last semester in a writing PD with other teachers from North County, and it really helped to change my outlook on why and how to write in math class.

Where I'm Coming From

The training, sponsored by the Gateway Writing Project (which is the local effort of the National Writing Project), focused essentially on two tenets: writing for assessment and writing for learning.

I had a love/hate relationship with this training and our instructors, veteran/retired teachers from around St. Louis, most of which had spent some time in my district. Any time you go to a professional development with mixed subject areas led by someone not from math, they always will have several examples and takeaways reading for other subjects, and then I always hear this:
"I'm excited to see what you come up with on applying this to your math classroom."
You only need about 2 years of experience in the classroom before you just expect that will happen at 75% of PD opportunities. But at the same time its frustrating, it also forces the issue. How will I use this in my math classroom? And fortunately, most days, I was happy with the answer I found.

What I Learned 

Your students have opportunities for writing in the math classroom almost every day. Writing doesn't only have to happen in solutions to word problems, but (I think) is most useful in the learning process. I had already developed a practice of asking my "why" to my students after they responded to my questions, but writing those types of responses took that understanding to the next level (and got the introverts involved, too).

Tips for Getting Started:

1. Have your students explain steps to the problem they just solved, using relevant vocabulary to the lesson/chapter, and properties or laws they used. The first time you do this you'll get lots of "this" and "thats." My preferred response to generic language is always to ask the students how helpful it would be if I delivered my own examples to them like that. When my students stop moving "this" and "that," they make fewer errors of omission or inconsistency.

2. Have students describe their problem-solving process. Even better than "show all your work" is "explain all your work." When kids write down what each bit of their work is representing or in the solution for, they will often find their own errors in logic or process.

3. Have students reflect on success/failure/questions on the lesson of the day, share with a small group, and then combine their thoughts concisely. They might answer each other's questions, they'll better articulate where they have confusion, and its a good opportunity to wrap up/summarize learning goals for the day.

Have Courageous Conversations with other Teachers

Chances are, you or someone you know (kind of) really believes they we shouldn't be teaching writing. Challenge that, and (humbly) start a dialogue or brainstorm. Here's what I put together for my colleagues.

Where are you in your attitude toward writing in math class? Do you believe it enough to make your students do it?

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Thanks for sharing!