I like math because when I do math, I feel like I’m in a place where I belong.
—Ruthie, third grader
When I was in high school, I absolutely adored math. I loved solving algebra problems . . . the more complicated, the better. I remember sitting with my dad at the kitchen table, poring over a problem, listening to him explain it, and thinking deeply about why the solution worked. When my high school offered calculus for the first time in 1979, I jumped at the chance to take it. I was a trailblazer (albeit a geeky one), because there were only two girls in the class of about 10 kids who were eligible to take it.
After starting my career, my love affair with teaching literacy blossomed, and my love of math fell by the wayside. I’m ashamed to admit that I was one of those teachers who followed the lessons in the math book as they came along and all my extra efforts went into leading my students into great literacy experiences.
Two years ago, I became disenchanted with the way I was teaching math. I didn’t believe my whole-group lessons were meeting the needs of my struggling or my advanced students. My students kept math journals, but we used them only sporadically, and even then we used them only to solve problems. I often found myself thinking about the usefulness of my students’ reading and writing notebooks. Here I had evidence of my students’ thinking and the progress they were making as we worked through different minilessons, and a record of the books they were reading. I knew I had to change something, and it only made sense to use what I knew about teaching reading and writing.
I still remember the day I met our new math coach, Tammy. I told her that I wanted to try a workshop approach with math. Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm, and I knew I had met a kindred spirit. As we began the journey together, my love affair with math was reborn. Beginning with structuring my math class like my reading and writing workshops, we started with a minilesson, then I met with small groups while the other students worked independently on authentic math activities, and then we ended with a sharing time. With the support of Tammy and Marilyn Burns’s Writing in Math Class, I also began using math journals in a purposeful and authentic way that helped both my students and me.
How to Use Math Journals
I sometimes use the journals as a pre-assessment tool at the beginning of a unit and again as a post-assessment tool at the end. Comparing students’ answers at the beginning of a unit with those at the end shows me how students have grown in their thinking. Are they reflecting on the topic more deeply? Are they correctly using the vocabulary they learned in the unit? Are they able to support their thinking with concrete examples? The journals are also a place to problem solve or practice what was learned in a minilesson.
Students can use their journals to solve problems. They can jot down their thinking as I scaffold their learning through think-alouds, shared problem solving, guided problem solving, and independent work. Here students can experiment with different strategies as they solve problems. One of the most important tenets of our learning community is that there is not one correct way to solve a problem (be it in math or any other area). I want my students to be flexible thinkers and to be able to explain their thinking clearly. It is here that I can assess not only students’ problem-solving strategies but also their ability to explain the steps they took and why their solutions make sense. It is also helpful for students to go back to their math journals when they have conversations with others about their problem-solving strategies.
Getting Started with Math Journals
At the beginning of the year, I want to get an idea of how students view math. I think some adults would be surprised to know that seven- and eight-year-olds have already formed a positive or negative opinion about math. If it’s hard, then the student probably isn’t going to like it very well. One of the first things I ask them to write about is what they think about math. What is easy in math? What is hard in math? What do you like about math? What don’t you like in math? I assure them that there are no wrong answers and that I want their honesty. It’s one of the first steps in creating a safe environment for students to share their thinking. Several times a week, I ask my students to reflect on that day’s lesson. I begin by giving them the following sentence stems:
Today I learned ___________________________
I am still confused by _______________________
I am wondering ___________________________
Eventually, they learn to reflect on these questions automatically. I can tell at a glance who understands what, and who still needs help with certain concepts. I believe it’s important for students to be able to articulate what they understand and what they don’t. We also work hard to cultivate a culture where it’s perfectly okay to admit that you don’t understand something.
We also use the math journal to keep track of important vocabulary in each unit. After we’ve worked together as a class to create a definition of a term, I type it up and print it so that the students can paste it into their journals. The vocabulary is then accessible in their notebooks, on the math vocabulary wall, and often on an anchor chart too. As a class, we are able to develop a common vocabulary for building our conversations and thinking.
The Value of Math Journals
Incorporating more authentic writing into my math class has made a huge difference in my instruction. My students learn that writing in math can help in several ways:
• It helps writers organize their thinking.
• It helps writers go back and check their thinking and make needed revisions.
• It helps writers think through the problem-solving process (writing to learn).
• It helps writers make connections to other problems.
• It helps writers show what they know.
• It helps readers understand writers’ thinking.
Thanks to the support of our math coach, I happily made the leap to teaching math in a workshop environment and now consistently use math journals throughout the math curriculum. I am convinced that this is the right way for me to teach. I have more knowledge of my students’ thinking and math abilities, which means I can better meet their needs. In addition, my students are more adept at organizing and explaining their math thinking. My love affair with math has been rekindled!