When we covered the practice of writing across the curriculum in my teacher ed courses, I was on board with the idea, but it was definitely one of those “nod your head and smile” moments when I understood the premise, but never really believed I could pull it off in a meaningful way. Since then, I’ve tried writing in science, religion, and math, but it wasn’t until today that I fully saw it come alive and actually work for good in my classroom.
This year, I’ve decided to skip the fluff at the beginning of our math text and head straight for multiplication and long division to be sure my students have those skills down before we move on to fractions and algebraic concepts. Last year, still in my rookie, “I’ve got to do everything by the book” mode, I spent way too much time following the textbook’s recommended scope and sequence and not enough time on the skills my students really needed to master. This is one of the major differences I am noticing my second time around: I feel much more in control of my pacing and am owning the choices I make to fulfill the standards of our curriculum. I feel much more confident that I know what my students need and I am much more well-equipped to give it to them.
So, today, we began unpacking more difficult multiplication word problems: separating essential information from the unimportant, locating what we need to solve the problem, identifying the question being asked of us. Once I was confident the students were able to solve word problems already written for them, we switched gears and took on the task of writing our own.
I was nervous to let them try. I thought it would be a disaster in that the word problems they wrote wouldn’t showcase multiplication or maybe even worse, that they would sit at their seats, staring blankly at their notebooks, wondering why in the world we were using words in math instead of numbers. And here’s where I learned my first lesson of the day: I rarely give my students enough credit. In a few minutes, students’ hands were raised to get their work approved and I found myself pleasantly surprised at the caliber of word problem they were writing and the creativity they had employed in setting up the situations for their problems. Some were even writing two-step problems without having been instructed to and probably without even knowing they were doing it.
They had taken my simple instructions–create a two to three sentence multiplication word problem (using problems we had created together and from our book as examples) on any topic you’d like–and really run with it. We had word problems about lemonade stands, football games, iTunes and iPad app downloads, snow cone sales, shopping trips, and pizza-eating. After writing, each student traded with a partner who illustrated the problem and then solved it. Suffice it to say, they got it. And next time, I won’t be afraid to give them the benefit of the doubt. If I set the expectation high, they rise to the occasion. We’re in store for some great things this year.
A few things this “math write,” as I’m calling it brought to the classroom:
First, it allowed my students to experience math, which they usually see in numerals, in a different way. For those who we sometimes say aren’t “math-minded” (like me!) it allowed them to approach math and multiplication in a more familiar and comfortable format. They were writing, but they were multiplying, too, and it didn’t seem as “scary” to some of them, as was reported to me when we finished and I got a rousing “I love doing math this way!” from many of my language arts-liking students.
Secondly, it allowed me to work in writing in yet another format, especially when I’m trying so hard to get my students to write as often and in as many ways as possible. So, for those who’d rather see numbers and only numbers, it pushed them to use their writing skills in a subject they enjoy. Choosing their own topic to write about didn’t hurt either.
This activity brought creativity to a discipline that is usually black and white. My students were able to showcase a favorite hobby, food, activity, or sport, and create a situation around it that displayed something as simple as a multiplication problem. Seeing the topics my students chose on their own also allowed me to learn a bit about them in an indirect way, which is always a plus.
Lastly, and most importantly, my students were able to learn something from this task. Even if they used multiplication facts they knew off the top of their heads, the process had meaning in that it enabled them to view the theory of multiplication from another angle. A common error was writing a problem that exhibited addition instead of multiplication. In a mini-conference, I was able to adjust the way the students were viewing the problems and showcase the theory of multiplication, the emphasis on having so many groups of a certain number, rather than just “x amount of this” and “x amount of that” adding up to something. Seeing them revamp these problems and shift them to multiplication really showed me that this is where true learning about multiplication was taking place. Not in the hours of drilling facts and the pages of pages of timed tests, but in digging in and really storytelling with the numbers to see what a multiplication problems really says to us.
My goal is to continue to find ways for my students to write in math. I find that even though the subject isn’t my forte, if I bring in an element that I do feel comfortable with and am proficient in (writing) I am able to teach my students better. A little writing never hurts.
Today, I taught my students, but they also taught me.
They reminded me that I am always a learner first.