To be frank, it sucks watching kids fill in blank boxes on worksheets. It’s true that in some cases, paper-pencil assessments or worksheets may be a necessary evil. After all, we need streamlined, systematized ways to collect data from our kids. In a perfect world, we would interview each student and watch them grapple with math tasks as frequently as we could, but the reality of our situation is that this is not always possible. We can’t do this every day, especially in classes of 20 or more children.
While we may not be able to eradicate formalized, one-size-fits-all, paper-pencil assessments or worksheets entirely from our classrooms, we can significantly minimize them and take a different route–especially when it comes to math. We can use math journals, instead. Similar to how we use writer’s notebooks for student-driven writing or reader’s notebooks for student-driven responses to reading, math journals can provide a similarly student-driven avenue for sharing unique responses to mathematical provocations or problem-solving tasks.
The benefits are numerous. Not only is it better for kids to learn how to communicate their unique learning journey, but it’s also a way to inherently personalize what may feel like an impersonal math curriculum. By using math journals, we create space for children to interpret, connect to, and build upon flexible tasks with many entry points.
But how does one start this complex and nuanced practice? Because we don’t necessarily have the safety net of a worksheet (and yes, I do believe it’s a safety net for teachers), it’s critical to think through the process of launching an organic, student-driven math journal carefully.
Here are a couple of ideas:
1) Start with building a routine.
Check out mine here on the left. The first day of math workshop, I showed them the five steps, using the Responsive Classroom style of interactively modeling what this looks like. It took us about fifteen minutes to get started on our first day, and I made sure to draw my students’ attention to this. We followed up by setting a goal to reduce the amount of time this takes, and within only a few days, we had gotten it down to five minutes. It turns out that taking the time to solidify this routine is already paying off in huge dividends.
2) Give your kids a rubric.
Kids cannot meet our expectations if we’re not clear with them about what our expectations are. While the math journal is supposed to be an organic, learner-driven way for children to share their thinking, they need models to help them develop a vision. While at first glance, it might seem like less constraints will lead to more creativity with problem solving, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Design thinking principles tell us that constraints and boundaries can actually make us even more creative, and in the classroom, the structure that comes from clear boundaries can help students feel safe in the face of uncertainty.
3) Meet the students where they are.
Actually, don’t just meet them where they are; honor where they are when they start. Making your thinking visible on paper, especially in the context of math, can be a very vulnerable act for children. The first day, I had a couple children write nothing at all. A handful of them only had scratches and eraser marks on their papers. This is okay for the first day, because after seeing an example, a reasonable goal can be to simply write something on day 2, even if they’re not sure. Allowing them a reasonable amount of space and time to sit in this uncertainty, I believe, will pay off in the long run. In fact, I’m already seeing it.
4) Just jump in.
We’re asking our kids to jump in to uncertainty, so we need to be prepared to be vulnerable and do the very same thing. You are going to make mistakes when starting to use math journals; you’re going to mess up and have to re-do some lessons. But what better way to model making mistakes than authentically experiencing (and learning from ) them in front of the kids? In my humble opinion, this vulnerability and humility builds trust, community, and comfort with discomfort.
And in math workshop–if we are intent on achieving our vision for flexible problem-solvers who approach math with persistence, grit, and a growth mindset–we must begin by grappling with our own discomfort.