I also value writing in the classroom, whether that’s a Language Arts classroom, an Art classroom, or, yes, a Math classroom. I want my students to reflect on their own learning process, to think more about whatever they are thinking about, and to be able to communicate that to others both verbally and in writing. My struggle is how to do that well in a Math classroom.
It’s a struggle for me primarily for three reasons. First, the old excuse of time. I’ve complained previously (see my comment here, the one from me that starts “@David Cox - You're going . . .” - I can't link directly to it) about not having as much time as I’d like in my Algebra class, and providing time for writing is one more thing to try to squeeze in.
The second issue is overcoming expectations. Students (and their parents, and my administrators) have an expectation of what a math classroom looks like. I’m pushing the envelope on those expectations in quite a few ways, and writing will be one more way. While I’m willing to have those conversations, there’s also the practical matter of not pushing too far, too fast, or I might lose some folks along the way.
The third, and perhaps most important issue, is that I’m not sure how to do it well. When I’m writing primarily for myself, like on this blog, I know what to do. But when I’m having students write in the service of mathematics learning, then I feel like I need to reach a higher standard of purpose and meaningfulness. I don’t want to have them write just because I find writing valuable, I want them to write because it is valuable for them.
So, given all those caveats (yeah, okay, excuses), here are my fledgling ideas for how I’m going to use writing in my classroom. Please chime in not only with suggestions about my ideas below, but additional suggestions of how I could use writing in my Algebra classroom. This first year back I anticipate not being able to do as much writing as I eventually hope to, but the great thing about this blog is that it will still be here a year from now when I try to improve what I did this year.
- About Me
The first writing assignment the students will do is an About Me piece. In fact, I’m actually giving this to the students before the school year even starts. I already called all the parents to make sure they had broadband access at home and I asked for an email address when I talked with them. I then emailed them some preliminary information about the class (more on parent communication in a future post). Next week I’m going to follow-up that email with a second email, that will have a little more information for the parents, but is primarily information that I’m asking them to pass along to their student. (Once the school year starts we’ll have Google Apps for Education, and therefore students will have an email address I’ll use but, for now, I’m going through their parents.) One part of that is giving them the About Me assignment.
They do not have to work on this before school starts, it will be an assignment the first week, but I highly recommend that they do for two reasons. First, that’s one less piece of homework they’ll have to do that first crazy week back. And second, it will allow me to know a little bit about them before that first week of school. Here’s the prompt as well as my own About Me piece, as I want to – as often as is practical – complete any writing assignments I assign to my students. This will also give them a chance to know a little bit about me before the first week of school.
One of my stated goals for this course is for students to be metacognitive, to think about their own learning and use that self-knowledge to become better learners. So a yet-to-be-determined number of times a semester I’m going to ask them to reflect on their learning. I’m not sure of all of those prompts yet, I’d like to strike a balance between giving them something pretty specific to focus on (like Dean’s suggestion in the comments here), and leaving it general so they can write about what they feel is important.
I’ve tentatively scheduled the first reflective piece to be at the end of the first week of school. I’m going to ask them to reflect back on the first week, to share any questions or concerns they have about the structure and expectations of our class, and to set a couple of goals for the semester (one related to our class, one related to another class, or an activity or sport, or something outside of school). Then periodically throughout the semester/year, I’ll ask them to reflect on their learning, what’s working for them, what’s a challenge, and anything else they’d like to share. I’d love any suggestions for prompts you’d like to share in the comments.
I really like the idea of conferring, where teachers meet with students to talk about their writing. I’m going to try something similar about the first of October, when I’ll ask my students to write something. It might be along the lines of the reflection mentioned above, or it might be about a mathematical topic, I’m not sure yet. In either event I’ll ask them to submit it and then schedule a time to come in and meet with me so that we can talk about it. The timing (first of October) is designed so that this happens once we're well into the school year, but before our scheduled Parent/Teacher Conferences.
- Parent/Teacher Conferences
We have two nights scheduled for parent/teacher conferences in the middle of October. This is designed as a time for parents to have 5-7 minute conversations with teachers. While I like the spirit of this, I don’t particularly like the format, as I don’t think it’s particularly timely or useful. If a student is struggling in my class, I don’t want to wait until mid-October and conferences to talk about it. I also don’t think 5-7 minutes is necessarily optimal, and I’ve always been a fan of having the student present at any conference that talks about the student. While I can think of a few rare occasions when it would be helpful to meet without the student present, the vast majority of the time I think they should be there.
I’m going to suggest to the parents in my class that they bring their student with them. I’m also going to ask my students to write something for parent/teacher conferences a few days ahead of time. This will be along the lines of the reflection/conferring ideas, but directed toward this parent/teacher/hopefully-student conversation about how Algebra is going for them. I’ll then ask them to share it not only with me, but also with their parents before conferences. That piece of writing will then provide the focus for our conference, and should provide some student voice even if the parents choose not to bring the student.
- Writing about Mathematics
I’ll be asking my students to write about mathematics on a fairly regular basis. They’ll have writing questions occasionally as an opener, sometimes as part of their assessments, and fairly frequently as part of our in-class activities. Again, I would love any suggestions you have in terms of prompts that would help elicit their thinking about mathematical ideas.
That's what I've got so far. I’d love your thoughts on any of the above ideas, including suggestions for prompts, as well as any additional suggestions for me to mull over and perhaps implement sometime this year (or next).