Daily Writing to Deepen Math Understanding

My ELD level 1 & 2  students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0.  A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.

Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”


Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development.
Do Now:  When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.

Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?

5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”


Day 7: Task: Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?



Day 10: Task:
Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.

Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.

Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary  discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with  either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.

By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback,  or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.

So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.

What Teachers Really Need: More Collaborative Planning Time

While participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative jurying process at the Southern Regional Education Board Conference this past July, I was blown away by all of the thoughtful, creative, standards-based Science & Social Studies learning modules created by fellow teachers from all over the country. These modules were both content-rich and heavily focused on critical literacy. For example, an 11th grade Chemistry module titled “Nuclear Sustainability” asks students students research the chemistry of nuclear power, evaluate its sustainability,  and write either an editorial or public service announcement persuading their audience of their views.  I was elated to read through the overarching goal and daily tasks because it was exactly the sort of student work production the Writing is Thinking team is advocating for.  

After being awe-stricken by the rigor and quality of the modules, I immediately began trying to estimate how much time the modules would take to plan. It was clear that they took hours upon hours upon hours. I know that when I create a unit plan or lesson plans that are intended to be shared with others, it takes me FAR longer than when I simply plan in isolation for just me and my students.  As a teacher, I view planning time as my most precious commodity – and the bottom line is that there is not enough time for me to plan during my work day. I must take time in the early morning, during the evenings, and on weekends to plan. This is unsustainable, and often leads me feeling burned out by around November of the school year. Also, I’m always planning alone. Work products are always better when more than one brain is thinking about it. In order for our public education system to improve, teachers need adequate time embedded in our work day to be able to collaborate and create top-tier, standards-based lesson plans that can be shared with educators all over the country.

It’s been my experience that a school system’s response to meeting the needs for planning is creating central-office positions around curricular design. What I’ve seen come out of these positions is a massive scope & sequence that provides a checklist of the content that must be “covered” throughout the year. I haven’t found these to be very helpful because at its core, teaching is a creative profession. Creating plans and adjusting them based on student needs is the crux of our work. What we need is time. Time to be thoughtful about how to modify and make curriculum accessible for ELLs and Students with Special Needs. Time to work with our colleagues to make our  plans better. Time during our work day to write, edit, and revise our plans collaboratively. Time to ensure that we are incorporating writing across the curriculum (even in math and elective class!). Time to collectively analyze student work and develop hypotheses around why students may or may not have been successful. Time to adjust our practice when student work tells a particular story. We need more time together as adults to create a strong professional learning community.

It turns out there is a wealth of resources to support teacher meetings so that they are fruitful and productive. I had the pleasure of learning about these great tools this summer during a week-long seminar with education consultant Gene Thompson-Grove and the School Reform Initiative, where we were given the tools of protocols to help structure meetings so that they ensure real work gets done. Whether it’s getting feedback on curriculum, analyzing student work, or digging deeper into a dilemma a teacher is facing, there are protocols designed to structure these important conversations.  From this, I learned that authentic teacher-driven professional learning communities are a means for us to really improve adult learning and thus directly improve student learning.

Some people may be asking, but wait – don’t teachers get planning time? As a member of the Boston Teacher’s Union, I am currently allotted 48 minutes per day for planning. I feel lucky to even have it, as I know that many teachers across the nation do not. The reality is, I do not usually spend this time planning. On any given day, you will find me calling parents, making photocopies, catching up on emails, rearranging desks for student groupings for my next class, or attending IEP and other mandated meetings. This amount of time during the day is not enough to be the practitioners our students, families, and communities need us to be. We need more of it, and we need to collaborate during it.

This upcoming year, one of my professional goals is to create a community of adult learners amongst my teaching team. I want us  to spend time during the day, even if just 48 minutes, to have structured planning time so that we may co-create high-quality curriculum, reflect on our practice, and become better teachers together. Hopefully we will be able to collect enough evidence to prove that this time is valuable. I’m hoping to enlist  their help in creating some LDC modules targeted toward our ELL level 1 and 2 students.  I’ll be sure to keep blogging my progress…stay tuned!

Teaching: The Greatest Profession

Editor’s Note: A Literacy Design Collaborative Lead & Learn Fellow, Christina Kostaras teaches middle school English Language Learners how to communicate and problem solve like mathematicians and scientists. She works at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Last week at the SREB Conference in Atlanta, Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) Lead & Learn Fellows Lisa Hollenbach (@lisa_hollenbach)  & Sheila Banks (@ehretbanks) hooked me into their break-out session when they did a quick Google News search of the word “Teacher” and a whole slew of negative images and headlines appeared on the screen.

lead learn graphic

My entire body ached as I read them. I questioned, How did we get to this point? In lieu of placing blame, Lisa and Sheila provided us with an antidote to combat the media contagion affecting teachers: use tools such as blogs and social media to start controlling the conversation.

I began thinking about another communication medium we should begin to control: in-person conversations.

The conversation described below happened to take place on an airplane, but it could have happened any place that lends itself to small talk with strangers – a friend’s party or at the park with my niece and nephew.

Gentleman on airplane: (smiling and engaged) “Wow – you’re a teacher! I don’t know how you folks do it…. So, what do you teach?”

Me: (somewhat unsure of my response) “Well, I teach Math & Science but I teach it to students who are English Language Learners who have recently arrived in the last year or two, so really I teach them how to read and write in English while at the same time making sure they can solve complex math and science problems.  Oh yeah and also some of my students have learning disabilities so I have to make sure all of the reading, writing, math, and science is accessible to them so they can learn, too!

Gentleman on airplane: (with a look of sheer bewilderment on his face)  Wow! Yeah, like I said, I don’t know how you folks do it – thank goodness for the summer though, right!? I’d kill for 8 weeks off!

Me: (slightly perturbed from hearing the summer comment yet again, but smiling) Yeah, summer is nice.

After sharing that I’m a teacher, the following question from my conversation partner is generally: “So, what do you teach?”

This is the point in the conversation at which I can start professing our greatness. I’ve found that when non-teachers ask,  “What do you teach?”, they are usually anticipating a quick, one or two-word answer. They are quite unprepared for my 30-second-word-vomit-schpiel of me trying desperately to explain my position, officially  “Bilingual ESL Math & Science Teacher”.

The conversation about my work usually ends there. And what I’m realizing now is this conversation is all wrong as in the past, I’ve made no profession of greatness.  From now on, I plan to use these conversations with friends-of-friends and strangers to talk about how awesome my work is.

It all starts with our answer to the question, “So, what do you teach?” The answer to this question cannot be simplified by one word. One word cannot express the demand that all teachers must be reading & writing teachers within their content area. It also cannot be verbal finger-painting of the exact picture that already exists in the media: overwhelmed teachers complaining about all the work they are charged with doing.

So as I sit here and think about how I should respond, I think about my intended audience, word choice, and modality. I know that in order to be prepared for these conversations, I must first write it down. Think it out. I realize the response should be a perfect blend of all the writing styles the Common Core standards ask of our children: narrative mixed with expository and a dash of persuasion may be just the recipe for a new-and-improved conversation.

Here is a script I created to guide me through future conversations with non-teachers:

Woman at friend’s wedding:  Wow! You’re a teacher, that’s great. My mom was a teacher, so I know what hard work it is. So, what do you teach?

Me: I teach middle-school aged immigrants how to effectively communicate as mathematicians and scientists, both orally and in writing. I also teach them how to inquire and think critically about the world around them and their role as individuals in it.

Woman at friend’s wedding: So interesting! Hmm, I’ve never really heard anyone put it like that. Oh boy, middle school, that’s rough – but it’s so nice that you get all that vacation, especially summer!

Me:  Yeah! Summers are great because I get to spend them taking courses, researching, and collaborating with my colleagues so that we can elevate our work as teachers. We really take this time to make sure that we are prepared to have the best courses. We also take time to reflect on our behavior management systems and how we can improve and be the best versions of ourselves when we are in front of children. We do this because they deserve absolute greatness. Always.

Woman at friend’s wedding: That’s so nice to hear.  I hope all teachers feel the same way you do!

Me: Trust me, they do!

It’s easy to answer the question about what you teach with one word and brush off comments about what we do with our time outside of school rather than educate others on the work of teachers.  But know that when we do this, we do our profession a disservice.  We must be more articulate about how truly incredible our work is. We must craft our responses to these questions. We must write them down in order to be prepared to respond in a thoughtful yet understandable manner. And the next time you are asked the question about what you teach, take it as an opportunity to profess your greatness.

I Teach