Before each math class, I check and restock all the supplies my students will need: wide ruled paper, colored pencils, crayons, and pens. Pens? Not Pencils? Yes, pens not pencils – black and purple pens to be precise.
I know this is unconventional but there’s a method to my madness. Think about it: Why do we use pencils for math? Normally this question is met with a blank stare since the use of pencils for math is so universal that most have never considered questioning this convention. The obvious answer, of course, is to erase our mistakes but, why do we want to erase our mistakes when we know that we learn from our mistakes?
I teach my students to embrace mistakes rather than erase their mistakes. My students self-grade with purple pens. I teach them to not just mark a problem right or wrong but to annotate their work with notes on their mistakes. Was it a concept that they did not understand? Was it an arithmetic mistake? My students must write a note about every mistake they find on their paper. After a few pages of work, they look back at their purple notes find a pattern. Most days, most students are making only one or two types of mistakes over and over. By highlighting their mistakes, each student is able to focus on specific individual learning goals.
Students are usually surprised by what they find out about themselves by highlighting their mistakes. They learn that:
Neatness matters – The number #1 cause for getting the wrong answer is not being able to read their own handwriting.
Basic arithmetic matters – Students often dismiss ‘careless’ arithmetic mistakes but they quickly realize that these errors matter when they actually have to calculate an answer rather than simply select from a set of multiple choice options.
Once students realize the importance of neatness they understand some of my classroom rules which include:
Telling the children is one thing, getting them to adopt these practices is quite another. In my classroom these rules are enforced by The Crumple Monster. Any page that does not meet my standards is removed, crumpled, placed in the recycling bin and replaced by a fresh sheet of paper. The Crumple Monster destroys any and all messy work. It is rare for a student to not have at least one page destroyed by The Crumple Monster on the first day. In fact I normally fill two commercial sized recycling bins on the first weekend of class.
How do the kids react to these tactics? I thought they might think I’m mean but they almost universally think I’m funny. They love writing with the purple pens and joke with each other that The Crumple Monster is going to get them.
They eventually stop getting problems wrong because they can’t read their own handwriting. In doing so, they are taking their first steps to learning how to develop study skills that they will need for higher level math.
The bottom line is that they do learn to write to my standards. They eventually stop getting problems wrong because they can’t read their own handwriting. In doing so, they are taking their first steps to learning how to develop study skills that they will need for higher level math.
After students learn to complete their work so that it can be read, they can learn to add notes so that their math practice transforms from mindless, repetitive tasks that must be completed simply to earn a grade into meaningful exercises that they can use to learn from their mistakes. Only after their work is legible does it make sense to teach them how to take useful notes and keep an organized notebook.
Students do not magically acquire organizational skills as they get older. They learn organizational skills when they realize that they are beneficial. Whether it is writing legibly, writing notes or keeping a notebook, students must see the benefit of these skills before we can expect them to consistently adopt them.