Writing in Math: After a Number String

Many people ask me when and how I use journals in math class. At those moments,  I always seem to have so many reasons that it is hard to pinpoint just one to focus on during the conversation. And even when I seem to find a coherent way of explaining when and how I use journals, I often forget the reasons that seem to happen naturally in the classroom. The other day I had one of those moments that I think Joan Countryman, author of Writing to Learn Mathematics, would classify as continuing the conversation.

During Number Talks or Number Strings it always seems to happen…one student has a way of solving the problem that, as he or she gets midway through the explanation, the rest of the class begins to disengage either because it is a long explanation or they are lost in what is being said mathematically. Journals help me continue that conversation with the student who is sharing. I attempt to clearly capture what is being said, but ask the student to tell me more in their journal because I am so interested to hear all of their thinking.

This particular string was in a 3rd grade class who has been working with multiplication. I wanted to see how they thought about changing one of the factors in a particular way. This was the string:

3 x 4

4 x 4

6 x 4

12 x 4

The majority of students shared strategies that involved either skip counting or using repeated addition of one of the factors. Some used previous problems (which was my goal) to help them with the new one, however there was one student who started using 5’s for the last two problem instead of either of the factors. He had a very clear way of explaining it, but I could tell many students were beginning to get lost in the explanation. I encouraged the students to ask him some clarifying questions, but that conversation began to stretch this number talk a bit too long time-wise. Not to mention, many had stopped listening at this point.

I was so curious to hear more about his strategy because to be honest, I was getting a bit lost in his explanation of 12 x 4 using 5’s. I told him I wanted to hear all of his thinking but we needed to finish up the number talk to get started with class. I asked him to explain to me what he as doing with 12 x 4 in his journal and I would be sure to check it out later! He went right to work and knocked out this beautifully clear explanation, not just for 12 x 4 but EACH of the problems!


The thing that I appreciated most was the opportunity if gave me to continue this conversation with him. I could feel he wasn’t done explaining his strategy during the talk and this also gave him the chance to think about how he could clearly communicate it to me in his writing. What a powerful thing for a student to be able to do! It was amazing to me he had done all of that decomposition, adjusting, and adding in his head!

So, if you asked me this week for a reason I have students write in math class, it is to continue the conversations that are not quite ready to end during our class time together.


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