Do you ever have one of those warm fuzzy teacher moments where every last part of your insides sigh a deep sigh of “FINALLY!” when a student, even if it’s just one, takes everything that you’ve been trying to teach them and not only showcases it beautifully, but transfers the knowledge beautifully, terribly beautifully, across different subject areas?
I’m talking about writing in math people.
We just finished our 12th week of school, and since the very beginning we have been practicing our written responses. We write during every subject in our class, but during reading small groups we really hit it hard. Not that I’m “teaching to the test,” but I do teach my students how to respond to written response questions that are very similar to the TRC question stems that they have to answer during their benchmark assessments. We talk about the different parts of questions, how sometimes a question may not look like a question, citing evidence, using details and examples, etc. The list goes on and on. I model what a good response looks like, we practice together, they write independently, the whole shabang. Each of my small groups have been working on these skills multiple times a week with the different novels that they have been reading.
Yeh, yeh, but where was I going with writing in math?
Math these days is a lot more than the “naked number” problems that I was taught how to solve growing up. With the Common Core we have really been focusing on problem solving, multiple strategies, and wait for it… explaining our thinking. With explaining comes thinking out loud, pictures, and even written response questions that students have to answer in writing. It may sound easy, but anyone who’s ever worked with eight year olds know that “I did it in my head,” is the answer to everything. Sadly, that’s not enough to proficiently explain their thinking.
So about that deep sigh of “FINALLY!” that I mentioned earlier: Last week we were learning about square numbers (IN THE THIRD GRADE!) and my students did a really great job of picking it up quickly with their snap cubes and drawings. They were turning and talking like champs, verbally explaining their thinking and reasoning. It was quite beautiful. Their homework, however, was a math journal prompt that asked them to explain what a square number was to a friend, and asked them why it can’t be a triangle number or a circle number, wanted an example and so on. We went over the homework before putting it in our folders and, like in our reading small groups, we discussed the different parts of the question and how many parts our answer should have. The expectations seemed pretty clear.
Well, upon grading them the next day, I wasn’t surprised when I had to continuously write “Tell me more!” on each page and had to circle the numerous parts of the question that students didn’t address. I wondered what else I could do to help their responses be more thorough. Then I came upon J’s response.
“FINALLY!” He not only described what a square number was, but, like the prompt asked, he used a picture as an example. He also addressed why it couldn’t be called a circle number or a triangle number, AND he remembered to put the little comma after the phrase “for example.” We’ve really been talking about that sucker during writing workshop. J’s response assured me that, slowly but surly, students were beginning to link what they are learning about written responses in reading to their written responses in math and they are beginning to see that writing isn’t just something they do from 11-11:45, it’s something that they do all day long, at school and out of school, to explain themselves, and to convey a message.
I try my hardest to help students understand that they can show their thinking and share their ideas through the written word just like they do when they share out loud. I wasn’t sure that it was sinking in, but thankfully, right when I needed it I was proven wrong! I will continue to include writing in each subject matter and will model as much as I can. I can also now share examples of students’ writing so that those that may be struggling can know that it’s possible. J is now our “Expert Explainer” and since sharing his writing on the smart board as a proficient example he has consistently been living up to his new title!
Do your students write to explain? What does it look like in your class?