Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mathematics the write way

Two decades ago Marilyn S. Neil wrote Mathematics the Write Way: Activities for Every Elementary Classroom. The NCTM had published their professional standards which included writing to explain problem solving and writing in the content area was a catch phrase. She begins her text with a rationale for writing in math: help students clarify meaning, develop understanding, demonstrates valuing communication, combine new and old learnings, explore ideas, demonstrate learning process, apply new concepts, organize ideas, and evaluate understanding (p. 3-13). We have known for a long time that writing is important to math, but today we still hear complaints if we ask students to write in math class- especially if we ask that they follow the conventions of standard written English.

Today's common core curriculum put an emphasis on writing in math. On tests, students are not only asked to solve problems, but to explain how they did it. In class conversations discussing ideas are being prioritized. Students still hate to write in math. For the struggling learners that I work with this is especially true. They often have weak understandings of what they are doing so their explanations are weak. They struggle with the written word, so thinking through writing is not seen as doable. We have kids who have scribes and access to notes. They are especially unlikely to really think through writing. We are shooting our kids in the feet when we intercept their writing, yet we do it.

How can we incorporate writing in math for our struggling learners?

My first thought is interactive notebooks. Have the classroom notes provided on the right side of the notebook and on the left have students write, draw, and solve problems. Nonlinguistic representations, one of Marzano's key learning strategies, can be brought to bear: Ex draw the word problem out. They might need to start with actual manipulatives and act out the word problem. We still need them to write. Provide sentence frames:
  • Analogies: solving two digit subtraction problems is like a(n) ____________ because ______________.
  • compare/contrast: Squares are like rhombi because _______, but different because _____.
  • Sequence: First you, _______. Second you, _________. Third you, _____, etc.
You could ask them to describe to an adult the steps, record key words and then have the student write sentences with the key words.

Ms. Neil suggests having students write their own word problems illustrating the concepts being discussed. For example write a word problem showing addition could be I had seven cookies and bought three more at the store. How many did I have altogether? This strategy works easily with many elementary students but we hesitate with older students. These students who ask, "When I ever going to use this?" benefit from having to discover it. If you are learning exponents, write problems involving compound interest. If you are learning to use a protractor they can divide a cake into even portions. If you are learning about dividing fractions you can cut partial pizzas into portions. You can solve for slope of water lines to promote the fastest movement of water through a tunnel. You could ask students to write one word problem per homework assignment and then solve the assigned problems. It might be more motivating even if it is harder to grade.

This book is an easy read. It is practical and relevant today when we need to get kids to write in math more than ever. While the target audience is elementary, I think some of the strategies scale up well. It might take a group with some creative thinkers  to try and develop prompts for any particular class, but with some thought, it can be done. This is a great entry point for a reluctant writing in math teacher.

No comments:

Post a Comment