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Becky Ramgren

© 2001

Action Research

Writing in Mathematics - An Important Connection

I chose to research the connection between between writing and math, because it is something I know I need to work on in my classroom. I have tried connecting writing and math in the past, but it has never felt very authentic. I use the Everyday Mathematics curriculum, which does a good job of incorporating writing in math lessons, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it fits. I want to develop a system for using writing in math that feels more natural in my classroom. I am hoping to set up some routines that help build this habit.

I know writing can help understanding. Even I use this technique when studying something I don't readily understand. It always helps me to recopy notes, or prepare a study sheet. By transferring something into my own language and writing it down, there are connections made in my brain that produce better memory and understanding of the subject. It is my hope that by connecting math and writing, my students will be able to see this for themselves.

I also chose this topic because I am new to fourth grade and its curriculum. I know that a grade level expectation is for students to have experiences that link math to other curriculum areas. I also know students are expected to communicate about math. I feel writing is a great way for them to do this communication. It can be shared with others and with me. I can really see what they are thinking about a math concept, and use this to inform my teaching.

Finally, I chose this topic because of the value the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989) place on connections in math. This study highly recommends that writing is embedded in the math curriculum to help promote significant learning. This is what I strive to do in all subject areas, and my hope is that by better connecting math and writing, I will be closer to my goals.

Annotated Bibliography
Brown, Sue. "First Graders Write to Discover Mathematics' Relevancy." Young Children 52 (1997): 51-53.
This article promotes the use of math journals to get students writing and thinking about math. The author suggests having the students brainstorm ways math is used outside of the classroom and then write about it. Students should be writing entries in their math journals on a regular basis recording the date, what they did, and what math was used. The author suggests further pursuing this by having kids write math problems based on their journal entries. This was a practical and easy way to get kids writing about math.

Burns, Marilyn. "Writing in Math Class? Absolutely." Instructor 104 (1995): 40-47. This is a practical article that really helps teachers see ways they can implement writing in the math curriculum. She lists nine good strategies like "use students' writing in classroom instruction," "provide prompts," and "post math word lists." She then lists four ways to have kids write in math class. She ends the article with some activities to try in your own classroom. This is very teacher friendly, and gives some great suggestions that would be easy to try.

Manning, Maryann, and Gary Manning. "Teaching Reading and Writing. Writing in Math and Science." Teaching PreK-8 26 (1996): 107- 09.
This article first tells why writing is so important in content areas like math and science. Writing helps students "clarify and extend" their own knowledge. They can better understand content if they write down their knowledge. There was also a list of ways to use writing in math and science. Some of the ways are content journals, written conversations, letter writing, and informal reports. This was a helpful article giving practical ideas.

Phillips, Eileen, and Sandra Crespo. "Math Penpals! Developing Written Communication in Mathematics." University of British Columbia (1995).
This was a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in 1995. The authors did a study taking a class of fourth grade students and a group of preservice teachers from a local college. They exchanged letters for three months. The letters were a form of authentic communication, and were directed to be about math. The preservice teachers started the math conversation, which then continued throughout the whole process. It was such a success because of the language development the kids worked through, and because of knowledge the preservice teachers learned from their penpals. All participants were able to be reflective about their mathematical thinking, and have a fun reason to write.

Ryan, Jeanine. "Writing to Learn Math and Science." Teaching PreK-8 27 (1996): 78, 81.
This article focused on using the "Write Now" approach. This approach is about "writing to learn." It is an easy way to start writing in both math and science. It only takes a short amount of time at the beginning of a class session to get started. The teacher asks (or writes on the board) a probing, open-ended question having to do with math or science. Usually the question relates to what the kids are currently learning, and has real life application. Kids then write responses in their journals. Finally there is a time of sharing. Teachers can monitor students' progress, and assess needs for reteaching.

There are a number of ways I think I can better use writing as a connection with my math curriculum. There are some things I know I want to implement for the coming year.

* Using the "Write Now" approach, I would like to do a math journal prompt 2 or 3 times each week. This could be a part of morning work the students do as they come in the classroom.

* I am planning on having a separate journal specifically for math. I'll try to set it up like the Brown article, in which students are recording things they did outside of school that used math. I would love to try the extension of having kids write math problems from their journal entries. Maybe I can include this as a literacy choice or at math centers.

* I need to make sure I have a current fourth grade math vocabulary list and then make a math word wall. I had a math word wall in my classroom last year, but I need to sort through the third grade words from the fourth grade words. I also need to be better about talking about the math word wall. My students should know those words and what they mean.

* My big goal from this research project is to get in touch with a college or university who has preservice teachers, and set up a math penpal program. I think I'll start with Bethel or Northwestern because they are a little smaller, but I could certainly try the University of Minnesota as well. I really want to implement this program to get kids writing about math and work on their communication skills. Hopefully I would be able to meet with the preservice teachers to explain the program and the successes of the paper I read.


Creative Writing

Ordinary Sacred

Things all around us
We want to accumulate more things
Isn't that the American Dream?

But what things have
Where less is more
Value does not mean
Money or expense

Ordinary things


Oven mitts, with the ends burned off. Navy blue oven mitts, kept in the drawer furthest from the stove. Ordinary, but sacred. The smells and stories cooked right into the cloth. Like the first time I made popovers. The new pans. The old oven. Those mitts pulled out the popovers at just the right moment. They were steaming and had stayed fluffy. Perfect. Now, at my house, popovers are considered a specialty. Or the time I wanted to make a fancy dinner for Steve. Lobster bisque. I studied the recipe. I stirred and sifted. I simmered and sat - waiting with eager anticipation. So did those oven mitts. They kept me company in my vigilance. They shared my disgust when what they pulled out was not a delicacy, but a disaster. Sometimes things are not so tasty. Those mitts have pulled out numerous pans of Rolo Brownies for numerous school potlucks. Somehow I always sign up for dessert. But isn't it over a tasty morsel in the teachers' lounge that our lives are told, and we share a moment that is bigger than our jobs? My oven mitts represent an art, a gift. Each recipe has a story. Each dish spins a yarn. My oven mitts have endless tales to tell.

Are they just things?
It all depends on the meaning they are given
When ordinary things
Become sacred



Holocaust Memorial—Boston, MA


The Fourth of July

It's the Fourth of July. Hot summer days. I'm 7 or 8 or 9, who knows. Summer days blend into years. But it's the day we've been waiting for, planning for, dreaming of - it's Cousin Parade Day. My dad's side of the family does it up for the 4th - huge family reunion - huge parade - huge buffet line - huge amounts of food a 7 or 8 or 9 year old doesn't really like - huge birthday cake for Auntie Fran whose birthday is always on July 4th. I guess your birthday is always on the same day, but somehow having your birthday on the Fourth of July is like always having it on a Saturday.

Why do we call her Auntie Fran? She's not an aunt. She's not even related to us really. She and her husband Hilmie are good friends of my grandparents, but why do they come to our family reunions? Don't they have their own family? Would you always want to have your birthday with someone else's family eating your huge cake? We cousins hoped to get a corner piece because it had more frosting.

We tried to eat first, which was hard because we were not so tall, and Auntie Fran always got to go first because it was her birthday. Same thing every year - long line, with my grandma at the front passing out the cheap and flimsy paper plates. She always made us check to see if we had more than one. Why didn't she just check them before she gave them to us? Why did it matter? Had she counted out the exact number of plates to the exact number of people? Can you count that high? What if Auntie Fran had taken two plates? It was her birthday. Would my grandma make her give one back? After we passed the plate clearance, skipped the whole buffet line (except for my mom's cherry coke Jell-O with marshmallow topping and one piece - come on corner - of birthday cake) we headed outside to the picnic tables.

Somehow on the Fourth of July, the backyard of the cabin became a picnic table haven. I don't know where all the picnic tables came from. My family had one, my grandparents had one, and maybe my aunt and uncle had one. But there were always way more than three picnic tables. Did my grandparents, who were stingy with the paper plates, have a secret stash of picnic tables? Did family members have to bring their own? Did the invitation read: "Bring a dish to share - preferably one a 7 or 8 or 9 year old wouldn't like - and a picnic table - one with detachable benches would be best." Do you get an invitation to a family reunion? How do people know what time to come? How do they get all those picnic tables to the cabin? All I know is we always tried to find one far away from the grownups so we could talk in private about the final details for the parade.

We had to eat our meager meal as quickly as possible. We didn't really think we were eating fast, but we did, in comparison to grownups who take extra long to eat. It's like chewing and digestion come to a screeching halt somewhere around age 18, and then children become victims of grownups' slow eating problems. Our moms and sometimes grandma, (never our dads, who secretly wished they could get away with eating just one scoop of cherry coke Jell-O with marshmallow topping and a side of Auntie Fran's birthday cake in 15 seconds flat) shouted at us to slow down.

There was always an underlying fear of choking. Don't moms know you can't really choke on Jell-O? And of course, they reminded us that you can't go swimming right after you eat - wait at least a half an hour. What would happen if we did go swimming? Would hungry fish come and take a bite out of our stomachs to get to the food that had not yet digested? Would some kind of terrible pain be inflicted upon us and those we loved most? How bad can swimming really be?

But on the Fourth of July, the swimming rule didn't matter- we had a parade. The parade was the cousins' shining moment. A cumulation of sorts. Hours had been spent back in the garage planning, choreographing, and designing. Weeks of this actually, plus the dress rehearsals.

It's odd to think we spent the better part of the month of June in a hot garage with the door closed (the parade is a secret) at the cabin. Not swimming. Not hiking. We were in a garage - in dress-up clothes that were often made of non breathable fabric - at the cabin. All for a parade?

One older cousin would always wear the red flannel night gown with matching night cap, pushing the shabbily decorated wheelbarrow holding 2 or 3 younger cousins, each in an equally strange (and not patriotic) costume. Another older cousin, wore the purple polyester disco shirt and long plaid pants, pulling 2 or 3 younger cousins in the wagon. We threw candy. We waved at the crowd of grownups. We went around and around the circle driveway at the cabin. But was it really a parade? There were no floats or clowns or marching bands. And what were we celebrating really? The Fourth of July I guess, but was it more? Auntie Fran's birthday? Our country? Our family? Being together? Summer?

Or maybe we were just protesting becoming grownups - people who eat slowly, make the rules, count out the paper plates, and don't understand the hours devoted to a hot garage in June. Where have those days gone? Have I started eating slower? Did you see my plate at the last family reunion? There was no room for Jell-O or birthday cake - I only ate salads. Who have I become and who was I then? Is she me? The circle driveway of life moves on and takes us with it, but I hope I never lose who I was those summers at the cabin when I was 7 or 8 or 9. And God Bless America on the Fourth of July!