Why I Am a Better Writing Teacher Than Math Teacher

If you walk into my classroom during writing, you'll see talking but not yelling. You'll see students excited about the assignments and engaging in quality discourse about word choice and ideas. You'll see students practicing grammar and growing in their language development without filling out packets. You'll see students who groan when I tell them that we have to move on.

If you walk into my classroom during math, you'll see confusion. You'll see a teacher moving too quickly to try to cover the standards in the three days before the assessment. You'll see interruptions. You'll see a frustrated teacher losing patience as he tries to drum up interest with discourse questions and real-world problems.

The truth is that I am a much better writing teacher than reading teacher.

  • The writing standards are more real-world than the math standards. Students in the sixth grade do things that I never do in life: finding the LCM and GCF, doing long division by hand, dividing fractions by negative number fractions. It isn't that the standards are bad, per se. It's just that the writing standards are process-based, connective and true to how I actually write.  
  • Few people care about writing scores. True, they take a benchmark writing test, but even then writing isn't tested through multiple choice tests. The fact that nobody really cares means I have fewer "tights" to follow. I can teach based upon what works. 
  • Writing is easier to differentiate. The constraints of math make it more difficult for students to solve problems that are at their level. However, in writing, they can begin where they are and move from there without it being "wrong." This also means that it is easier to embed remediation into writing. In writing, when students struggle with grammar, word choice or sentence construction, they can still create something and then go back and edit it. This is harder in math, where a student who doesn't know multiplication has to do division with decimals. 
  • We assess as we go. In other words, students don't prepare for an assessment. They assess their own work and I assess their work. 
  • Students use technology. I try and integrate technology into math, but it is oftentimes not in a way that actually resembles how mathematicians use computing (i.e. models, spreadsheets, mindtools, etc.). On the other hand, when students use technology in writing, they are developing websites, writing blog posts, clarifying concepts in social media or editing in a Google Document. 
  • I share my passion for writing. My students know that I blog. They know that I am working on a novel for my kids. I get passionate about voice and word choice, about complexity of grammar and about how to change the fluency of one's sentences. It's hard for me to get excited about long division with decimals. 
  • I am much more likely to conference one-on-one in writing than in math. This means writing is much more relational than math, where I typically pull a small group and talk with them. 
  • Students work at their own pace in writing. It is social when it needs to be (in editing or shared writing) and silent when it needs to be. It is, in a sense, an organized mess in a way that is often calm. I haven't figured out how to make that happen in math this year.
  • Students own more of their own process. Instead of solving a pre-set problem, students create something from the brainstorming phase all the way through the revision, editing and publishing phases.  
  • The assignments are more engaging. It isn't simply a matter of choice. Often, I give students visual writing prompts with limited options. However, I can find topics that hook them, not simply based upon interests but also with deeper existential themes. This has proven more challenging in a set of math standards that are mostly computation-based rather than based upon problem-solving.
  • There are fewer standards in writing and the standards cycle back each week, with a constant sense of mastery. Instead of covering the standards, students discover ideas and wrestle with them from the start to the finish. 
As I look at the list, I am struck by a few things. First, it is no surprise that I thrive in teaching writing. I am, on some level, a writer. I am teaching out of my passion and my identity. However, on another level, the real issue has to do with policy. I teach concepts in isolation, test weekly and work through the standards in a very clunky manner. We focus on rote skills. Students miss problems because of computational errors that a calculator could fix. 

John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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  1. Recommended reading, when you can find time:

    "Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching."

    It will help you develop an approach to teaching mathematics which is more similar to the approach you are currently using in teaching reading and writing.

    1. I feel like I used to do that. I used to do problem-solving, reflection, discourse. I used to start with real contexts. The problem I've run into is that I am now forced to teach lock-step style. It's not that I am a bad teacher, per se, but that I am forced to teach in a way that isn't best. Does that make sense?

    2. It's hard for me to imagine a system where teachers are forced to teach in lock-step style working.

      I was required to teach to a prescribed schedule when I worked in NYC. I ignored the schedule because I could see that it was going to be ineffective for my students. My assistant principal at the time would routinely indicate that "I was not on the pacing chart" but was happy with the instruction that was occurring, and so always rated me positively. I think if I'd had a different person supervising me, it might have been a different story.


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