Writing in a Mathematics Classroom – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 4

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


Zach Carter, a 7th grade Math teacher, gets us started on our next demo lesson with a quickwrite.

Prompt: How does math make you feel? What are your feelings when presented with an equation that you need to solve?

I really enjoy math in an abstract sense. Although I was never good with numbers, I really enjoyed algebra and statistics. I never developed math anxiety per say, I was just never all that good at it. I failed Algebra I in middle school and had to retake it the next year. I really struggled academically in middle school and high school, and I think of this first F as the beginning of my decline. 

I remember always testing well, being put into higher classes, and then flunking out of the class. My 7th grade teacher had the cringe-worthy habit of reading everyone’s quiz grades aloud as he passed back our papers. Having a teacher broadcast your 30-40% grades didn’t exactly inspire confidence. That said, my mind just struggles with math. I make a lot of careless errors and I have a hard time staying following through on a single procedure. But I enjoy it!

We share out. Although no one professes extreme hatred of numeracy, it’s clear that we all have some pretty strong feelings on the subject. I wonder what answers I would get if I asked a room full of math teachers about their experiences with reading and writing. Zach tells us that he was never a strong math student. That it doesn’t come intuitively to him. But he loves the problem solving aspect of it. He also discusses how it’s become socially acceptable to say “I can’t even balance my checkbook” but not “I can’t even read the comics page.”


He puts up some problems for us. He has to remind the room that when you evaluate you don’t solve; you combine like terms. I got ’em! We really enjoy this. He talks us through how these questions have multiple answers and multiple methods to move through them. This is essential. He says reducing math and numeracy to “If you see this problem, solve it this way” robs children (and teachers) of the joy and complexity of math. There’s no building, there’s no crescendo, it’s just A -> B.

Math is a way of looking at the world around you and bringing order to the chaos. It’s the same thing people get out of writing. Zach explains how much he struggles with realizing this vision in the classroom. He also briefly touches on the transactional nature of much math coursework and how problematic that is. Students come in wanting nothing more than they key to the castle. They don’t want the ‘why.’ This critique can be leveled at not only much of our education system but our entire culture. That’s for another post.

He brings up the conflicted and highly political nature of how schools approach math placement. Kids who posses a decent level of numeracy skills get pushed way too quickly into coursework above their developmental level. And then kids who struggle with math can find themselves stuck in basic, remedial math. Zach is blowing minds. We find ourselves talking about Khan Academy, grades, and parental expectations.

Math should be about the struggle. About getting things wrong.

Next he puts this up:


All laughter dissipates. He tells us that this is the formula for determining the NFL Passer Rating. He picked it because it looks intimidating. Ir was also created by someone who hated math. This person wanted to figure out how he could compare quarterbacks across teams, time frames, etc.

He helps us breakdown the formula. Each variable represents a type of percentage. For instance C = completions / attempts * 100. The equation helps us compare different factors (completions, yards passing, interceptions, and touchdowns) at the same time.


He’s basically giving us a truncated social history of the quarterback rating. It’s fascinating stuff; I just don’t understand some of it. The perfect score on the QB rating was unimportant to the equation’s creator (the highest score is 158.3). He cared about what the mastery level was. He wanted everything weighted equally. My inability to grasp the basic facts of football and algebra makes this difficult. But regardless, I (and everyone in the room) is loving this.

We take another look at the formula, this time using a real example.


Everything is up for debate, he says. One of the things that makes sports so fun, for Zach, is how you can manipulate the numbers and find the stories behind them. Coming up with what we should measure (and value).

Michelle mentions how this works with having children keep track of the amount of pages they read in 10 minute segments. Doing this allows for conversations about why the numbers are what they are, how the numbers change with genre and where in the book each reader is, and etc. This is a Penny Kittle thing.

He then has us write about everything that just happened. Writing to learn and writing to understand. This isn’t about what you can recall and put on the page. Students need to be decision makers. Making arguments. Providing evidence. Making choices based on what they value. Problem solving. For the last section of the presentation Zach talks about how he requires students to make their thinking public by writing

He ends by telling us to be blind. To be be foolish. To do everything wrong, but to do it.

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