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4 Tips for Writing in the Math Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Two boys writing at their desks

When I talk about curriculum, I think of it as lessons that tell the story of learning. In the English language arts classroom, we tell the stories of our people through literature and help students chronicle their own lives, communicating their learning through their writing. We write with narrative, with analysis, and with argument.

In history class, we tell the stories of our past events and how we can learn from the lessons that came before us, and thus influence our future. Students write of primary resources, of research, biographies, and prediction.

In science class, we explore the stories that our micro- and macro-reality, our nature, and our planet want us to know. Students write lab reports proving hypotheses and records of those who discovered, invented, and created.

What About Math?

Math, however, always seems to be a core outlier. But I would argue that math also has a story to tell. Math can tell the story of the logic that surrounds us, of the data and statistics that can be used to prove our theories and predictions.

All subjects are related. They braid and weave, individual lessons supporting each other and proving that real life is not segregated and that content is really blended.

But secondary teachers are trained and then quickly categorized by subject area credential, and as such, our muscles to integrate subjects can become weaker and more atrophied. One way to combat this is to incorporate writing into all of the subjects.

Writing is a universal thread that can unite all content areas. It is a fundamental skill of communication (as is speaking, but that's for a later post), and it can be a common skill that all classes require. If the character Jeffrey Lebowski (a.k.a. "The Dude") from the film, The Big Lebowski were a teacher, I'd think he'd agree that, like the perfect area rug, writing "ties the room together."

But back to math. We ask our math teachers to have students "justify" a frustrating request according to those who don't see what there is to justify about why 2 + 2 = 4. But there can be more to writing in math than mere justification.

Great STEM Teachers Continue to Learn and Grow

So I spoke to John Ewing from Math for America (MfA) to get some advice for math teachers in how to incorporate writing into their lessons.

For those who don't know, Math for America is an organization that has sites in seven locations; the largest is in NYC and has nearly 800 teachers. Their goal to help attract and keep great teachers in the profession and, as Ewing explained, "to provide a rich experience of workshops (many designed and run by the teachers), mini-courses, and professional gatherings" for the fellows selected to be a part of the program.

Math for America, according to Ewing, is driven by some core beliefs:

  • Teaching is a true profession. "We have enormous respect for teachers as mathematicians and scientists. Master teachers grapple with ideas that are central to their discipline at advanced levels."

  • Great teachers are always learning. "The best teachers strive to improve continually in three areas: their depth of content knowledge, their expertise in the craft of teaching, and their ability to know and teach to the strengths of every student in their classrooms."

  • Excellence comes out of deep collaboration and ongoing growth. "Great teachers need time, space, and opportunity to work with fellow experts to keep growing throughout their careers. They come together as a community to exchange ideas and challenge each other."

  • Honoring greatness elevates the profession. "When we celebrate, promote, and advocate for the best teachers today, we raise the prestige of the whole profession and attract the best possible candidates to a career in the classroom."

So here's my takeaway: Keep learning. Learn more about math and more about other subject areas that help benefit your students, and find others to learn from often and throughout your life. We can't stop learning even as we are teachers -- especially because we are teachers.

Writing in the Math Classroom

So how can math teachers who haven't worked their own writing muscles lately smoothly and authentically incorporate writing into their classrooms? I asked MfA master teacher and author Gary Rubinstein that very question. He came up with four tips that, frankly, can be used by any writing-tentative teacher:

Tip #1: Start Small

If you currently do no writing in the math class, start with just one sentence. When you ask a question, rather than just having students raise hands and you picking one volunteer, have every student in the class write a sentence. This way, students can be active and can get the feel of writing about math.

Tip #2: Read in Math Class

Have students read articles from Math Horizons or Martin Gardner's Scientific American columns. When students get a feel for what writing about math can look like, they will be able to do it better themselves.

Tip #3: Have Students Keep a Math Journal

In their math journals, students can write about things they are having trouble with or things that they've figured out. Putting these thoughts into words can help students get a more concrete handle on the logic of their ideas.

Tip #4: Do Some of Your Own Writing

To understand the writing process, teachers have to write also. Start by writing about your family or yourself. Get "uncomfortable" as you try to make your writing efficient and interesting. Just as students are uncomfortable doing unfamiliar math, teachers should experience that same feeling of being out of their comfort zone, and writing is a good way to do that.

My takeaway is this: just jump in and start. Put the pen to hand or the fingers on the keyboard and start writing. Write about the math that's confusing or write about that "eureka!" moment that led to a solution. Have your students write, sure, but you write, too.

We Can All Learn From Each Other

Rubinstein emphasizes that all subject area teachers have things to learn from each other. He believes that English language arts teachers can learn from math teachers:

"They can learn about how to break large abstract concepts into smaller concrete blocks. In trying to teach a big idea, math teachers often identify the essence of the problem and create the simplest possible questions that allow students to practice that skill."

On the other hand, Rubinstein said, "STEM teachers can learn the opposite from English language arts teachers. Sometimes a math teacher makes the learning units so small and concrete that the students don't get the opportunity to see the big picture and to figure out for themselves what the essential elements are."

The key concept here is to tear down the walls. Learn from each other, and we will have created a learning story that weaves around every student. So, how do you break down your curricular walls? Please share in the comments section below.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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MissyDrBetty's picture

I am a major supporter of writing in the mathematics classroom. When I taught 7th and 8th grade Pre-Algebra and Algebra I, writing developed into a strong component of the curriculum. It can be done, and really, folks, without too much pain. The best thing, however, is watching the kids grow and deepen their understanding in math.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

dgburris, that's an interesting post by your colleague. I appreciated the examples and the pro vs. con for each approach. Thanks for sharing!

Nashid Ali's picture

Also, thanks for sharing dgburris. I like how you mention that he started with the model and then made his own way. I think Heather Wolpert-Gawron is saying something similar in the "We Can All Learn From Each Other" section. Great article and great blog! Thanks all

Timothy Rigney's picture

There's an example that's related to this that I feel is very important to spend some time thinking about.
Most students know how to divide fractions - you simply "invert and multiply." VERY few can explain why that is the case; and I would say that of almost-equal importance, few could figure out why it's the case in the first place.
What that means - and there's absolutely no way around this - is that very few students are being taught how to divide fractions.
Memorization is not learning or even anywhere in the general vicinity of it; and calculators can be used to do basic arithmetic much more efficiently than "on paper."
Students' time is valuable and it shouldn't be wasted with things like pointless memorization.
That's nothing other than a control game.
Meanwhile, in China.....

Peg Grafwallner's picture
Peg Grafwallner
Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist

I appreciate your comments, especially #4: "Do some of your own writing." As the Instructional Coach at a large urban high school, I've been reviewing writing opportunities with the chairperson of the math department. I haven't asked him about his own writing, however. I think that's a great way to start the math writing conversation! Thank you!

Matt Schugel's picture

I have really worked to implement writing into my math classroom. A few of the ways I have done this is having students explain and/or justify what they did when they were taking quizzes. I have found it gets them to slow down and think more about what they are doing.

Students also enhance their learning by teaching others. For this reason, we have students complete response (sort of like a journal) where they have to pretend they are explaining to someone how to complete a certain type of the problem. After doing this a few times students realize how much detail they need to go into in order to help someone who has never seen the material before. By completing these responses, students are not only helping themselves reinforce topics, they are then able to help others in the class as well.

Dlacraft's picture

Thanks for the four step approach to writing that educators can apply to ALL classrooms. Having just completed a twelve day ABYDOS Writing Institute, I look forward to 'writing on the move' with my 850 K-5 physical education students. Starting small includes collaborating with grade-level and special education teachers to strategically use movement as a learning enhancer in their classrooms. Teaming-up with passionate educators is the winning ticket for our students. Plus, stretching our writing skills in and outside of our classrooms provides unexpected personal satisfaction.

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