Everything You Need to Know About Math Journals
Math journaling is a great way to get insight into your students’ thoughts about math and their problem-solving strategies and a wonderful addition to
ANY math program from grades K-12. This page will help you set up and manage an easy-to-maintain math journal system in your classroom.
FAQs about math journaling
What’s a math journal?
Many teachers have a regular journaling time in their classroom in which students reflect on a variety of topics. Math journals work the same way, except the prompts are about math.
Here are a few math journal entries produced by K-4 students in New York City during my demonstration lessons as a math coach. These are students’ initial attempts at math journaling (their very first prompts). Most of these lessons were taught in the second semester of the school year.
Why math journaling?
There are a number of reasons why math journals are gaining popularity at all grade levels:
-Kids have the opportunity to reflect on their strategies and assess their own learning
-Students practice putting their knowledge into words both verbally and in writing
-Instructional focus is shifted from computation to problem solving and real-life application
-The teacher gains insight into children’s abilities, opinions, understandings, and misconceptions
-It creates a documented portfolio-like record of student growth and progress
-Math journaling is an open-ended and naturally differentiated assessment tool
Who should use math journals?
I recommend math journals to teachers of grades K-12. They’re an incredibly versatile tool that can be used by students of all ability and age levels. Because the topics are open-ended, math journals are an easy way to incorporate differentiated instruction and meet the needs of every child in your class.
How do math journals work?
Many teachers choose to have students respond to math journal prompts in a separate math journal. Having a special math journal that’s different from everyday school materials can be very motivating for children. Other teachers have students respond to math journal topics as part of a Math Notebook: one composition book holds a student’s journal reflections, class notes, and practice activities. Still other teachers have students keep one journal in which they respond to a wide variety of prompts across different content areas (this could be termed as a ‘Writer’s Notebook’.) There’s no one right way to do math journaling, so feel free to pick a format that makes sense for you.
How often do students write in them?
Once a week is a beneficial and attainable goal for teachers just starting with math journals. Personally, I like to have students reflect on a topic before we begin the unit of study so I can gauge prior knowledge, and then after a few days of instruction, I have students reflect on their strategies and use their writing to assess progress and address misconceptions. As we finish the skill, I assign a topic that will provide an assessment, such as having students explain how to solve a particular type of problem or connect what we’ve learned to other skills. Because of the variety of ways I like to use math journals, it usually works out to two assigned math journal topic each week. I also encourage children to write in their math journals even when a topic hasn’t been assigned; it’s very own personal place for reflection and extension.
What do students write about?
I recommend three different types of prompts:
-Prompts That Assess Attitudes: Students write about their personal thoughts and feelings about math. Examples: When it comes to math, I find it difficult to…, I love math because…, People who are good at math…, and When I study for a math test, I….
-Prompts That Assess Learning: Students write about what they’ve learned and reflect on what they know (and don’t know). Examples: The most important thing I learned today is…, I could use today’s skill in my real life when I…, Today I used math when…, At the end of this unit, I want to be able to…, and Some good test questions for this skill are….
-Prompts That Assess Process: Students explain how to solve problems or discuss a particular skill or strategy. Examples: Two ways to solve this problem are…, I knew my answer was right when…, Another strategy I could have used to solve this problem is…, If I missed a step in this problem, I could have…, and The most important part of solving this problem is to remember….
How long should students write for?
Only a few minutes is needed for math journaling: 5-10 minutes is enough for most classes, though you may want to allow for 15 minutes for more complex prompts. Allow an additional 2 minutes at the end for sharing.
Do students need to share their writing?
It’s important to allow about 2 minutes at the end of the journaling period for students to share what they wrote because the sharing time:
-keeps students accountable
-provides an incentive to write something meaningful and cohesive
-acclimates kids to expressing their thoughts and strategies verbally
-allows them to hear and explore other children’s strategies and techniques
Math journal sharing can be done whole class in the beginning of the year (walk around as students write and take note of any exceptional or thought-provoking responses, and ask those students to share with the group afterward). This is a great opportunity for you to encourage reflective thinking and reinforce your journaling expectations. Later, students can pair-share on their own. I would not force an unwilling student to read his or her writing, but that’s my personal preference.
What if students only write one sentence?
Your students will follow your lead in math journaling: if you model lengthy and detailed responses, eventually students will follow suit. Writing about math is difficult and strange to many children in the beginning, so be very positive and encouraging with their efforts. As the weeks pass, you will see marked improvement in most students.
Also, be careful not to fuss at kids who are staring into space and not writing—math journals require a lot of thinking time, and even if you suspect the child is daydreaming, give him or her the benefit of the doubt during journaling. The time spent thinking is equally important as the time spent writing.
I recommend using math talk activities to help students get comfortable with writing about math ideas. You can use discussion starters and question stems such as these to help you:
What do students do when they’re done?
Set a clear expectation on this. Either students should write until time is up, or they should begin another activity as soon as they are finished. If you want students to write for a set time, make sure it’s short (like 5 minutes). You don’t want kids to start writing nonsense just because they know you’re watching. An alternative is to let kids draw about what they wrote when they’re done–this is actually very useful and most children will stay focused on creating pictures related to the prompt.
How do I introduce math journaling to my class?
MODEL, MODEL, MODEL. In fact, the first few times you do math journaling, students may just watch you write, or copy down your example. With very young students (gr. K-1), you might choose to model every time you introduce a new prompt to the class for the first few months. The same is true if your students are older and reluctant to write: compose several journal prompts together to get students comfortable with the idea and acutely aware of your expectations.
I’ve written demonstration lesson plans for the teachers I work with as a math coach. These lesson plans include scripts that tell you exactly what you can say when introducing math journals for the first time. These lessons are my approach to the concept, but there are many other ways to do it. Read over the lesson plans and get a feel for how you’d like to adapt it for your class and teaching style:
How do I collect and assess math journals?
Collecting and reading math journals is critical; assessment is far less important. In fact, some teachers don’t grade math journals at all, using them only as a record of students’ progress and thinking. If students know you are regularly reading their math journals and you care about what they wrote, you won’t have to assign a grade to get them to give their full effort.
Here are a number of assessment methods that I like—you can choose one or mix them up throughout the year:
-Walk around while students are writing and verbally confer with individuals. This is my favorite assessment method because it’s the easiest on the teacher and probably the most meaningful for students. I stop to talk to kids who are stuck, and comment on what’s been written so far to encourage the reluctant writers along. When I see a student drawing about the prompt (our assigned task for then they’re done), I ask to read the whole response and then give verbal feedback or ask further questions to help the student improve his or her response.
-Collect only a handful of journals to read after each prompt. For one prompt, you might collect only your lowest students’ journals in order to see if they’ve understood a concept you know the rest of the group mastered. Another time, you might select journals randomly to get a pulse for how the class is doing as a whole and keep everybody on their toes. Or, you could create a schedule in which you read half or a quarter of the class’ journals this week and another group of kids’ work next week. If you’re going to only read a handful of journals, you can either collect them and write written comments during your planning period, or call a few students over to your desk while the others are working and verbally confer.
-Collect the entire class’ journals. You can have students pass their journals in (bookmarked or left open to the current page) and write a short comment at the top of the page. Or, have students bring their journals up to you (be sure to have another activity for students to do when they’re done so the class isn’t playing around—this can be time consuming so make sure you’ve got your procedures in place). You might have children come to your desk whenever they’re done writing or call over one team or group at time and give verbal feedback. I like collecting the entire class’ journals every few weeks in the beginning of the year to make sure students are using the correct heading, copying the prompt (or not, depending on my directions), writing to the topic, etc.
-Give a grade on particular prompts and/or a cumulative grade once every few weeks or once a quarter. If you do feel the need to grade journals (and I like doing so every few weeks cumulatively), I encourage you to base the grade on how thorough a student’s responses have been. I don’t recommend taking off for spelling and grammatical errors if you want students to stay focused on the content and their problem-solving skills. You can give a checklist or rubric to students to make the scoring less subjective, but I’ve found it’s more valuable to have students journal about what grade THEY think their responses have earned, and then simply write a comment and my grade on the top of that page. Keep in mind that the cumulative grade should be IN ADDITION to regular collection of students’ journals: if you’re only reading them every other month, you won’t be able to use students’ responses to inform instruction.
Don’t feel guilty about not reading every student’s journal after every single prompt. Play around with a few different approaches and find something that works well for you. Remember, the main purpose of math journaling is for students to reflect on their thinking, so as long as they’re doing that and you’re using their writing to help you teach, you’re on the right track.
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