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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Writing in Math? You gotta be kidding...

Internal dialogue: why do I insist on writing in math?

For my National Board Certification I had to show how I teach students through a writing process in a content area. At that point in my career I was thinking that math would be strongest portfolio and that writing, while not hard, might be my weakest. I thought of myself as a competent teacher of writer (I like writing for my own self) but always conflicted by what my exact role should be helping my students improve their own writing. I worried that I would become more product oriented if I didn’t see enough progress in my students’ work.

"What I hear you expressing is a concern that an overemphasis on the mechanics or end product of writing may stifle the process itself…."

I chose two sample students I felt highlighted the range of students I work with. The first was a boy who was technically very competent, but formulaic in his writing. The second was a girl who had nearly illegible writing and convoluted logic.

The assignment was to recreate in narrative form the arrival of European explorers up on the Hudson River in New York as they encountered the native Americans of that region.

I led my students through two drafts of the narrative piece. The first draft included a peer based editing with the use of a simple rubric about grammar, ideas and questions. Taking this edited draft, they rewrote their stories and submitted them for a teacher writing conference. Based on this conference, they rewrote the stories one more time and turned in the final product.

Of the four portfolios, this was the highest scoring one. I believe that this activity intrigued my students because it dealt with an encounter of two cultures and they could write from various perspectives. They could include facts from the history text but were not held accountable to many specifics. They were able to share their work with a person of their chose, so they likely felt more comfortable. And while I was perhaps more focused on the outcome of this activity than many others, I had also adopted a wait and see attitude with regards to the product because I felt more compelled to pay attention to what I thought was my strongest entry: math/science.

A dilemma I have with teaching is assigning work that students deal with on a superficial level. I think about my math POW essays and how often I am disappointed by the level of reflection they offer. While I do see them as strong technical writers, I am often let down by a simple sentence or two of reflection in which they might say: “I’ll work on my time management” or “this problem is interesting because I never thought about it before”. I find this statements to be fillers and I am constantly wondering what it is I need to be doing to improve this and how will I know when I am doing it.

"What I hear you asking is…how can you bridge that narrative depth of reflection produced when students’ interest is genuinely piqued by perhaps a less fact based piece with writing that may require a more data or fact based M.O."

I personally thinking that writing helps calm my chaotic mind. I have found over the years that if I put down into words what I am thinking, I can organize ideas better, edit them and move on to other ideas without undo clutter. I am been called a linear thinker and I used to rebel against this name. Now I am embracing this type of thinking and using it effectively in how I present a lesson and how I think about my practices.

"I hear you moving from referring to yourself as a “competent writer” to one aware of his writing as a meditative practice….and reflecting on ways to extend that awareness to the teaching of writing…"

I always want to know more about how I teach. I know that I am an odd ball by teaching writing in math. I know that it is a certain luxury of private school that would be difficult to import into the typical public school math setting. I would really like to consider why this is important and how to make it work in public schools and struggling students.

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