Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Students talking about fractions!

One of my goals this year is to use journals (at least 3 or 4) in my developmental math courses to encourage students discuss mathematical ideas. Students usually do not see the reason for writing in developmental math courses. However, writing math journals helps students to pause for a moment from their hectic math studies (there is a lot to cover in these courses!), reflect what they have learned so far, and find out how math connects with their lives. If students write about math then they are becoming aware of its existence in their daily routines. Using thoughtful and provoking math prompts, students use their personal experiences, values, emotions, and knowledge to complete the prompts. The goal of the math journals is to view mathematics as a natural part of our lives, the same way is reading and writing.

Using the power of the Internet and Web 2.0 tools to increase students' interest and motivation for writing, I recently scheduled the first math journal in my developmental math courses using a discussion forum from a Facebook group (i.e. Learning about Mathematics and How and Where to apply it?), which was created by a math faculty member of St. Thomas University. Students responded to the math prompt "Fractions should be scrapped?!" which it came from an interesting article I read in the USA Today web site. This article immediately caught my attention since it mentioned how a math professor has been suggesting a delay in teaching fractions at the elementary level and to focus instead on teaching decimals. As a math developmental math educator, I found this suggestion absurd since I see everyday how many of my students struggle understanding math concepts that involves fractions (e.g. rates, proportions, percents, slope, etc.).

However, I recognized this article was an excellent opportunity to talk about mathematics with my developmental math students. I thought "why not ask my students if they agree or not with the professor in the article since they are the ones who often have difficulties working with fractions?" Their input about this topic may help me gain a different perspective from the article. Therefore, I decided to assign the first math journal about this article. I honestly was expecting the majority of my students being in favor of the professor's suggestion in the article. However, it was amazing to find out how most of my students did not agree with the professor's suggestion. My students may not like working with fractions but they clearly see how vital is learning fractions early in their schooling years. Many students commented how they regret not learning well this concept earlier since it is now hindering their opportunities for pursuing their academic and career goals.

I invite my readers to join the Facebook group Learning about Mathematics and How and Where to apply it? and read my students' posts. In addition, the moderator of this group invites anyone to take part of the discussions in the group. As I stated previously, the goal is to start talking about mathematics and gain awareness of its usefulness and practicability in our lives. Join us!


Janet Holzhauer said...

Steven, I think your journal idea is great! I am a former elementary math teacher who also has a reading specialist certification. I love math, but I value being able to read and write. Back in the '80s I taught one nine week grading period using basic math functions--add, subtract, multiply,divide--with a catch. Everything we did had to be written in complete sentences about how the 6th grade students worked their math problems how they got the answers and then why their process was correct. For six years we raised math scores on our standardized tests. I fully believe the writing we did was responsible. I have had one of those students (now 26 years old) tell me I had made him think about math and not just teach him to work problems. I applaud this effort!

Russ Walker said...

This really struck a chord with me. At my institution, all of us who teach math and technology courses struggle with how to incorporate writing assignments. Having students critique an article about how to teach the subject sounds like a great approach: It gets them to write, AND it gets them to reflect critically on their learning process; plus you gain some insight into teaching practices as well! I will probably try this myself the next time I teach a course that does not lend itself "naturally" to a writing assignment.