Technically Writing

I spent last week helping some of my teammates lead the regional scoring of the NYS Assessments in Mathematics. It was quite a relief to just have to "be there" this year as opposed to having to play an active role in the training! And that allowed me to really listen to and think about the conversations the teachers were having about student answers.

Being a social studies teacher with a passion for all things writing, I was struck by how much writing is required of students on the math assessments. Interestingly, it was often the writing that prevented students from receiving full credit on some of the answers. Many of the teachers complained about this, particularly as we moved onto the middle grade levels. Often, I heard comments like these:

"These kids clearly knew the answer - I don't know why we can't just give them full credit."

"These scoring guides penalize the students who can 'do math' in their heads and don't need to show their work."

I understand their arguments but I also know that NYS is trying to emphasize (through the standards as well as the assessments) the power of communicating in math. And in order to communicate well in math - they must do so using the very technical language of math. While these teachers found the issue to be one of math (and sometimes of reading), I really saw these as the students not being able to express themselves in the mathematical language. A few examples:

When asked to express their answer in exponential form, several students would provide the correct answer when writing "three to the sixth power" but could not receive full credit because they did not write it in correct form.

Some students would write to explain how they found a particular answer, but in a somewhat vague manner such as "because you have to find the straight 180 so you would subtract." Teachers would argue that it is evident that the students understood the notion of complementary angles, but in reality there is not enough detail in this statement. The straight 180 what? Subtract what? From what?

Writing in the disciplines is very content specific. I have long held the belief that each content area has its own literacy that goes beyond merely teaching students to use the English language. In social studies, students need to be able to read and communicate about maps using correct terms. They need to understand the symbolism in political cartoons and the trends in charts/graphs. In science, they need to understand scientific notation, the symbols in chemistry and how to write a chemical equation. I could go on and on but you get the picture. Each discipline requires a highly technical language and one that we must explicitly teach our students. Each of us truly is a teacher of literacy.

For my math friends, it didn't seem the appropriate time to share my thoughts about the difference between having students muscle through the math to come up with a correct answer and having them share their understandings of the process and relationship between numbers in written form. But you can bet that I will be learning more about the technical writing in other subjects so that I can help them teach writing there as well.

Cross-posted on Writing Frameworks.