In 1996, the New Yorker devoted a double issue, that of February 26 and March 4, to women. It included a wide range of articles [including] "Mom Overboard," which looked at the new lives of professional women who have shelved their careers to, as the author put it, "micromanage" the kids. What's interesting to me [Yancey] is how the women, first, understand and, second, evaluate their new motherly work. In language that resonates for parents generally, one mother says:
What I find hard in my life right now is being in a vacuum. I'm no longer in school, where I get a report card, or at work, where I would get a salary review. We don't get grades, we don't get paid. . . . There are no guarantees. . . . I have children and I have to make sure that I do the best that I possibly can. How do I define "best"? When you go to bed totally exhausted and saying, "I couldn't have done one more thing for them today."
I used this story as a starting point for a discussion I led dealing with student self-reflection and self-assessment with a group of teachers from a local school district several years ago. What strikes me about the mother’s comments is that she seems to have throughout her life depended on outside forces to give her a feeling of self-worth. When a person cannot internally feel satisfied with a job (well) done, it can lead to the exhaustion that the mother talks about. When I agreed to start a blog connected to the Kentucky Writing Project State Network’s website, I thought about the needs that I saw in the classrooms of the teachers that I work with as well as my own. Self-assessment and self-reflection is one thing I focused on. In my opinion, we (and mostly I) do not do enough to give students the skills they need to assess their own learning and evaluate their own performances. So often, I am guilty of producing teacher pleasers who learn to give me exactly what I ask for, without feeling a personal connection to their work. I am taking small steps to rectify this, and I would like to begin this blog by highlighting an assignment that I now use that attempts to get at student self-reflection.
One activity that I use to help students practice self-reflection is the math autobiography. This assignment, which I sometimes refer to as a “mathography,” is a writing task given at the beginning of the semester or year which asks students to write about their math experiences. I first read about the math autobiography assignment in the work of Marilyn Burns and Joan Countryman. According to Marilyn Burns, writing math autobiographies “is valuable for the students, as it focuse[s] them on examining their thoughts and perceptions. The information [is] valuable to teachers, as it reveal[s] the students’ thinking” (11). Likewise, Joan Countryman states that, “Asking students to write a mathematics autobiography at the beginning of the school year gives them permission to talk about what they know best: themselves, what they care about and what they know. It also helps students focus on their own learning styles and think about what works and does not work for them. In addition, writing enables many students to take more responsibility for what goes on in class, for as they write about doing mathematics they come to see themselves as central to the process of learning” (22).
You could probably google “math autobiography” and find many different specific assignments, but I just simply, at the beginning of each class that I teach, ask my students to talk about their previous math courses (and notable experiences with those courses and teachers), their feelings about math (Students can either love it or hate it, but they have to explain why.), and their favorite and least favorite types of math. I usually ask my students to tell me how math might fit into career fields they are interested in. I also tell them to relate a “Great Math Moment” or a “Tragic Math Episode.” I am always ready to relate my own!! J The assignment can even be given back to students at the end of the year so that it can be expanded.
I always have students who say they do not like math, but when asked to get their thoughts down on paper, they have trouble coming up with reasons why they hate it. Others, in writing, finally discover the time when math became a subject they disliked. Then, they are able to work on that issue and learn to enjoy math. In addition to being a great way to help students reflect, the math autobiography establishes writing as an important part of the course from the very beginning. It is an effective way to show students how writing can be a tool for organizing thoughts and seeing more clearly. Also, after getting their feet wet with this assignment, students can be asked to reflect on their progress as well as assignments and activities throughout the course. I am primarily a math teacher, so my mind is always focused on math. However, I can see a similar assignment being given in other content area classes as well. For example, I can envision a reading teacher asking students to reflect about reading in their lives (do they read for pleasure, etc.) What are your ideas? How could you use a __________ autobiography to help your students practice reflection?
Burns, Marilyn. Writing in Math Class: A Resource for Grades 2 – 8. Sausalito: Math Solutions, 1995. Print.
Countryman, Joan. Writing to Learn Mathematics. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1992. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen. “Getting Beyond Exhaustion: Reflection, Self-Assessment, and Learning.” Clearing House 72.1 (Sept.-Oct. 1998): 13- 17. Print.