Integrating writing into math lessons, and vice versa, can be challenging. After all, the main point of equations is to avoid having to put complex things into words.
On the other hand, for many people, one of the great things about words is that they allow you to avoid equations. So you can adapt many good writing activities for math classes. Let me share a few of my tried and true writing exercises with you, with suggestions for bringing math in — or bringing them into math classes.
One of my favorite exercises for getting students to think about the importance of clarity in academic writing is this one:
Back to Back Descriptions
Have students find a partner and sit back to back with their partner, each student having a paper and something to write with. Students take turns being the speaker and the listener. The speaker draws something and describes it, while the listener reproduces it based on the speaker’s description. The students compare their drawings when they finish, to see how similar their drawings are, and then switch places.
This makes it clear that it takes some effort to be clear and complete when writing (communicating without interaction), and also show students how helpful feedback is, since the second try is always far more successful than the first one.
In a general writing course, the drawing can be the students’ bedrooms or a fantasy robot design or anything at all. For a math connection, specify that the description must consist of geometric shapes, hand out rulers and aim for complete precision, or have the speaker start with a graph or other graphic representation of math data — whatever fits with the math you’re currently working on.
Note that this assignment doesn’t involve writing. Sometimes it’s easier to grasp lessons when they’re broken down, and in this case we’re separating the point about how clear you have to be to communicate well, and the point about how feedback helps, from the process of writing.
I like this exercise for working with tenses, genres, and also with math:
Recipes are written in a particular way. There is a list, liberally studded with numbers, or tools and ingredients and possibly also temperatures. Then there is a section written entirely in the imperative. But you can rewrite a recipe as a narrative, describing how a character made something. I like to useRoald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, and you can find a sample here, but you can do this with any recipe.
Tell students they can’t use numerals at all, though they can write out numbers if they have to. How much more you elaborate the rules on this depends on your class, but you can end up with things like this:
“Betty divided an onion evenly in half, and then in half again, and packed away three of the four pieces. She took up the knife again and chopped the remaining part into ever smaller pieces, enjoying the thwack of the knife on the wooden board…”
Or of course it might be, “I cut the onion into four pieces. I took one of the pieces. I cut it into a lot of small pieces.”
With young students, it can be good to do this activity in groups, dividing one recipe into sections.
The result is not only an interesting problem solving and creative writing activity, but an opportunity to gain and show complete understanding of the meanings of fractions and measurement. Students should also end up with an appreciation of the value of numbers and math terms for communication.
Bring a pineapple into the classroom, or a sunflower, or a pine cone — or all three. Look for spirals in these nice plants. Then count. You’re going to end up with numbers like 8, 13, 21, 34… numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.
How far you go with studying the sequence depends on your students’ grade level. Here are some resources if you want to get deeper into the math of it:
- Platonic Realms
- Math is Fun
- Wolfram Math World
- Environmental Graffiti
- Patterns Across Cultures, an Artsedge lesson on the sequence in nature and visual arts
- Amazing Fibonacci, an Artsedge lesson looking at the sequence in music
There’s also Textism’s “What the Hell is the Fibonacci Series?” which is quite a nice demonstration, if you cue it up after the title and make sure to stop it before the credits.
Have students write, once they understand the phenomenon, about how it made them feel to learn this amazing thing.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be the Fibonacci sequence. Math is all around us, so just pick your favorite mathematical phenomenon.
Writing a useful definition of something is harder than your students might expect, and requires a good understanding of the term. Have students write good definitions of math terms in a class wiki, or on sentence strips which then become part of your classroom word wall. This can be a satisfying project with long-term usefulness.