Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Math Troubles? Write About It!

We are just finishing up our long division unit in math and I've got to tell you...this was a painful one (for both me AND the students).

Unlike any other year that I've taught math, my students really struggled with finding a method that worked for them.

Some of this can be blamed on Common Core, I am sure.

Whereas we used to teach one tried and true way to do a division problem (now called "digit by digit," but some of us may know it by its other name, Does McDonalds Sell Cheese Burgers Rare?), students now need to have exposure to dividing a variety of ways, especially those based on place value.

We have been working on long division for four weeks.  In the beginning, I'm sure my students thought I was trying to torture them.  Complaints and whining ("This is hard...") brought about my need to introduce the word "yet" into our classroom vocabulary.  (See this post for more information on how the word "yet" transformed our thinking.)

Every day was painful...for all of us.

Being a writing person, I decided it would be a good idea to have my students get their worries and concerns down on paper so we could discuss and address them.  I had them write me a letter telling me:
     1.  What they knew about division.
     2.  What their concerns, confusions and worries were in regards to division.
     3. Anything else they wanted me to know about their thoughts about division.

I collected these letters and kept them in their writing Treasure Chests.

Fast forward three weeks...Lots of practice, lots of collaboration, lots of reassurance, lots of perseverance, lots of the word "yet."

We are now getting ready to take our division test.  The mood and attitude toward division has changed DRAMATICALLY in my classroom.  There is confidence and composure and dare I say it -- excitement -- for division.

Today I had the students write me another letter telling me:
     1.  What they knew about division.
     2.  What their concerns, confusions and worries were in regards to division.
     3.  If they felt they were ready for the test, giving evidence to support their thinking.

Here are a sample of their letters.  Each picture shows the before and after letters for the same students:

Reading their "after" letters today brought me such joy!  There was a definite change in the tone of the letters.

I shared the before and after letters with the students and we talked about why there was a difference in the letters.  They told me that perseverance, patience, and hard work helped them understand.

One of the best parts of these letters is that now my students have them as a part of their memory.  The next time we do something hard in class (say...fractions), we can recall the before and after letters of division as proof that we WILL make it through, as long as we work hard and understand that even though we may not get it "yet," we WILL.


  1. Cheers for metacognition - you get it and so do your students!!!!

  2. Writing letters about math - what a fabulous idea!! I love the clear, confident lines in each of the after letters: Nothing confuses me about division. Wow! I believe you have taught your students so much more than division - you showed them they have grit!!!

  3. I taught 4th grade departmental math for 7 years and I don't know which was worse: long division, fractions, or area of irregular rectangles! I always joked that I would have no hair left by the time we were done. Your letters are true signs of teaching, learning, and reflecting. Great job!

  4. The change of attitude must have made your heart sing. Congrats on surviving long division, now on to the next topic?

  5. It's a wonderful thing you did with the letters, Jennifer. I love that one that says if needed, "will you always help me?" Sorry it was painful, but success helps, doesn't it?

  6. Great Idea! I have trouble getting them to write proficiently about their understanding. And they always start a new concept believing that they don't know anything and it is so hard.

    (I used to know how to leave a link to my blog but forgot, do you know how)

  7. Reflection through writing is so powerful! Did you let your students see their first and second letters side-by-side? I love this idea and I'm going to have to use it too! POWERFUL!



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