April 14, 2017
Graphing and Writing: When ELA and Math Collide

Grades
1–2,
3–5

Fitting in writing instruction can be tricky enough, but getting students to write throughout the day can seem like a true challenge. Responding in writing, journaling, answering open-ended questions, and quick writes are all little ways to tuck writing in throughout subjects. Science and social studies are often taught through literacy, and so the writing connection is easier to see. Math seems to get the short end of the stick, yet writing to explain can be powerful for kids of any age.

In his TED Talk, Conrad Wolfram says there are four steps to solving a mathematics problem:

1. Ask the right question

2. Make the real-world question into a math problem

3. Compute the answer

4. Translate the answer back into the real-world

The problem, Wolfram says, is we spend so much time learning computation, when that’s the one part a computer or calculator can do. What we need to work on are the other three steps. Translating the problem into a real-world solution is where writing and communicating work can be most important.

There are endless ideas for how to write in mathematics. An important caveat is that students shouldn’t just regurgitate the computation steps in their writing. Instead, students should be able to reason why the operation was the correct one to do, or what implication the answer has in the real-world context. This also means that you can’t have “naked numbers.” That is, problems must always have a context or a unit in order to be meaningful.

My favorite writing through math is a graphic stories activity. Starting from early data standards, even young students can start to understand how stories relate to graphs. I like using line graphs because of how diverse they can be, but even pictographs can tell a story.

Once students have a basic understanding of graphs, provide several graph options. Give students short scenarios and have them attempt to match the given scenario to the graph. This serves as a great initial activity because students can show their understanding of graphs and see examples of stories. To get students writing, ask them to write their reasoning when they selected the graph to match the story.

Create your own graphs or use these samples. The x- and y-axes are left blank intentionally so students can add labels such as distance and time.

Continue to provide scenarios for students to graph, but instead of having them match an existing graph, allow them to draw and create a graph that matches. Bring in writing by having students explain why and how they drew their graph. It may be helpful to have students verbally explain their reasoning first.

Use these stories to get started.

Now, the real fun begins! Have students either select or create a graph. Then have them write a story or scenario to match the graph. This can be a short activity, such as creating one short scenario, or much longer. Use multiple graphs throughout a longer story to illustrate different activities the characters take part in or make a very long x-axis and carry one line throughout an entire story.

These graphing activities can easily be tied to other classroom activities, such as scientific principles. Even more fun is creating graphs and scenarios that use book characters and scenes from literature. Imagine trying to graph the flight of a hippogriff in Harry Potter or the heart rate of Katniss in *The Hunger Games*. Dan Meyer’s GraphingStories.com offers short video clips to use, but any short clip can provide ideas. Check out the volcano video on StudyJams! and graph the height of lava over time, or try and graph the voyage on the *Mayflower* in distance and time. Would it really go in a straight line?

The important thing is to get students writing authentically and having fun exploring math.

What ways do you engage students in writing throughout the subjects?

*Thank you to Linda Hendry and Bruce Simpson, my valued mathematics mentors for introducing me to this idea!*

Fitting in writing instruction can be tricky enough, but getting students to write throughout the day can seem like a true challenge. Responding in writing, journaling, answering open-ended questions, and quick writes are all little ways to tuck writing in throughout subjects. Science and social studies are often taught through literacy, and so the writing connection is easier to see. Math seems to get the short end of the stick, yet writing to explain can be powerful for kids of any age.

In his TED Talk, Conrad Wolfram says there are four steps to solving a mathematics problem:

1. Ask the right question

2. Make the real-world question into a math problem

3. Compute the answer

4. Translate the answer back into the real-world

The problem, Wolfram says, is we spend so much time learning computation, when that’s the one part a computer or calculator can do. What we need to work on are the other three steps. Translating the problem into a real-world solution is where writing and communicating work can be most important.

There are endless ideas for how to write in mathematics. An important caveat is that students shouldn’t just regurgitate the computation steps in their writing. Instead, students should be able to reason why the operation was the correct one to do, or what implication the answer has in the real-world context. This also means that you can’t have “naked numbers.” That is, problems must always have a context or a unit in order to be meaningful.

My favorite writing through math is a graphic stories activity. Starting from early data standards, even young students can start to understand how stories relate to graphs. I like using line graphs because of how diverse they can be, but even pictographs can tell a story.

Once students have a basic understanding of graphs, provide several graph options. Give students short scenarios and have them attempt to match the given scenario to the graph. This serves as a great initial activity because students can show their understanding of graphs and see examples of stories. To get students writing, ask them to write their reasoning when they selected the graph to match the story.

Create your own graphs or use these samples. The x- and y-axes are left blank intentionally so students can add labels such as distance and time.

Continue to provide scenarios for students to graph, but instead of having them match an existing graph, allow them to draw and create a graph that matches. Bring in writing by having students explain why and how they drew their graph. It may be helpful to have students verbally explain their reasoning first.

Use these stories to get started.

Now, the real fun begins! Have students either select or create a graph. Then have them write a story or scenario to match the graph. This can be a short activity, such as creating one short scenario, or much longer. Use multiple graphs throughout a longer story to illustrate different activities the characters take part in or make a very long x-axis and carry one line throughout an entire story.

These graphing activities can easily be tied to other classroom activities, such as scientific principles. Even more fun is creating graphs and scenarios that use book characters and scenes from literature. Imagine trying to graph the flight of a hippogriff in Harry Potter or the heart rate of Katniss in *The Hunger Games*. Dan Meyer’s GraphingStories.com offers short video clips to use, but any short clip can provide ideas. Check out the volcano video on StudyJams! and graph the height of lava over time, or try and graph the voyage on the *Mayflower* in distance and time. Would it really go in a straight line?

The important thing is to get students writing authentically and having fun exploring math.

What ways do you engage students in writing throughout the subjects?

*Thank you to Linda Hendry and Bruce Simpson, my valued mathematics mentors for introducing me to this idea!*