One of the main reasons I love Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman is because the strategies she offers provide meaningful learning opportunities for my students and myself. I often find myself dreading to grade tests or to correct homework. When I hand back corrected work, I see students crumple it into a ball and shoot it into the trash can. Why do I dread correcting? Why do students not care about their work? These observations lead me to believe that when work is not meaningful, it feels like a chore, as though it is unimportant. When students and teachers are allowed to be creative, to think deeply, to give and receive feedback on original thoughts, to have ongoing written conversations, then work becomes meaningful. I love reading the learning logs of my students. When I collect them, I go around the classroom exclaiming, “I can’t wait to read these!” Students find me before school and ask to turn in their log early, “Miss, wait till you read this!” What’s more, I feel like I understand and know my students on a deeper level. The learning logs, autobiographies, and formal writings of students that Countryman described have provided me a view into the mind and thoughts of my students; into the silent world of written text.
Last summer, while combing through math books online, I came across Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman. I ordered the book and when it arrived, immediately began reading it. Writing to Learn Mathematics is a short read that is packed with practical strategies for integrating writing into math class. Each strategy that Countryman outlines is accompanied by numerous student work samples. I didn’t read the book once, but multiple times! December is now upon us and I have had the pleasure of trying out Countryman’s strategies in my 8th grade math classes. We began the year with math autobiographies and are currently wrapped up in learning logs and formal writing in mathematics.
Countryman provides a compelling argument for why we should integrate more writing into math class, she explains that writing enables students to become aware of what they do and don’t know about math. Students are able to connect prior knowledge to new knowledge while writing, summarize their understanding and give teachers insights into that understanding, raise questions about new ideas, reflect on what they know, and construct mathematics for themselves. Countryman thoroughly outlines how to integrate various writing activities into math class including freewriting, learning logs, autobiographies, journals, word problems and problems with words, formal writing, and lastly, how to use writing for evaluation and testing.
I was able to easily adapt and modify all Countryman’s strategies for my classroom. In general I would not say that the strategies that Countryman outlines need to be modified. However, I teach math to 8th graders in a full inclusion setting. What that means is that I have students that are on grade level, above grade level, below grade level, with minor learning disabilities, with major learning disabilities, with autism, that speak English as a first language, and that do not speak English as a first language, and so on. Therefore, any activity that I do in the classroom needs to be accessible to all learners. When introducing the mathematics autobiography to my class during the first week of school, I broke it into three sections, each section taking one day. The first section was titled About Me, the second section was titled, My Family, and the third section was titled, My History of Doing Math. Just as Countryman suggested, the first section is designed to be the easiest, since all students can write about what they know best, themselves! I offered sentence stems and questions if students felt like they did not have anything to write about. Most students easily accomplished part 1 of their mathematics autobiographies.
In the second section, students were also writing about what they know, their family. I had to push students to include details, examples, and to use proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
The last section was the most difficult. I used the language of Countryman, “Tell me about your triumphs and disasters (in math). Go back as far as you can remember. What do you like about learning math? What do you not like?” For some students, that was enough of a prompt. Yet for others, I had to ask more specific questions, “Remember when you were in Mr. Shapinsky’s 7th grade math class? Remember how you learned about proportional relationships? What do you remember about that?” Many students struggled to provide details and examples in this section and had to write three to four drafts before I gave them the beautiful paper to write their final draft on.
Once a student had written the final drafts of all three sections, we glued them to colorful paper and posted them around the room. This created a culture in our classroom and set the tone for our 8th grade math class. So far this year I have not heard the complaint, “but this is math, why do we have to write?!”
The mathematics autobiographies will decorate our walls for the entire year. Parents have enjoyed them during open house and parent teacher conferences. Teachers have remarked, “I have never seen so much writing in a math classroom, this is amazing!” Even the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Tommy Chang, visited my classroom and took the time to read a mathematics autobiography.
I would recommend Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman to all teachers, not just math teachers! This is a great read with very practical and meaningful writing strategies for content learning. And what’s more, my students and I are doing meaningful work together that we care about, getting to know each other more, and constructing math knowledge together.