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Episode 112: The power of journal writing

Removal vans, Triangle trouble, and more. In this episode, Andy and Robin are joined by Rosie Ross to discuss the importance of journal writing. Are they marked? Does journal writing help kids for SATs? Plus, Rosie talks on the progression in Year 1 from a Class journal, to a Group journal, before letting the kids write their own.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos

@andy_psarianos

Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!
Profile of Robin Potter expert educational podcaster.

Robin Potter

Robin comes to the podcast with a global perspective on parenting and children’s education. She’s lived in ten different countries and her children attended school in six of them. She has been a guest speaker at international conferences, sharing her graduate research on the community benefits of using forests for wellness. Currently, you’ll find Robin collaborating with colleagues and customers in her role as Client Experience Manager at Fig Leaf Group, parent company of Maths — No Problem!

Special guest instructor

Profile of Rosie Ross expert educational podcaster.

Rosie Ross

Rosie Ross is assistant headteacher and maths lead at St. Bridget’s CofE Primary in Wirral, England. She is also an NCETM Accredited Professional Development Lead and a mastery specialist. She is a contributor to the Maths — No Problem! blog.

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.

Robin Potter

Hi, I'm Robin Potter.

Adam Gifford

Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.

Andy Psarianos

This is the School of School podcast.

Welcome to School School podcast.

Robin Potter

Are you a maths teacher looking for a primary school assessment tool that can give you a detailed look into learner or class achievement? With Insights, it's all in one place. Make sense of assessment data, so you can strategically plan and teach lessons. Insights, it's assessment for advancement. Visit mathsnoproblem.com for more information.

Welcome back to another episode of The School of School Podcast. I am here, and so is Andy.

Andy Psarianos

Hello.

Robin Potter

We're joined by a special guest today, Rosie Ross. Rosie, hello.

Rosie Ross

Hello.

Robin Potter

I'm welcoming you to the show. I am so excited that you're here. Rosie, I know you're a year six teacher at St. Bridgets. You are also the assistant head and maths subject lead. But if you could please share a little bit more about yourself.

Rosie Ross

Okay. Yeah. I still teach. So despite all the other roles, I teach. I've been teaching for over 20 years. And alongside the work I do in St. Bridget's, I get to work with other schools and other professionals through the NCTM. Which is our National Centre for Teaching Maths in England. And I do mastery specialist work for them. So maths is very much my passion.

Robin Potter

We're going to... I want to get into journal writing right now, because that's what we're going to talk about. And it sounds like all of your kids do it, no matter what year they're in. I know year six does it, but you were just telling me a little bit about even the younger children.

So tell me how or why you encourage journal writing every day.

Rosie Ross

Okay. So for us, journal writing, that's where we really see inside our students' minds. That's where we really see their mathematical thinking. So I guess it's that metacognitive window, isn't it? We can see what they're thinking about maths. We can see what connections they're making. And it lets them work themselves into the subject. When they write something down, they have to commit to it. They have to have thought about it. And they can see their thoughts on a page, and they can reflect on those thoughts as well. So at the start of our maths lessons, we'll maybe have that messy thinking while we're exploring. But that peace and that quiet of those 10 minutes or however long to just sit and get your ideas down, as an individual, that's just golden. And it's a lovely moment in our lessons when it's peaceful, it's quiet. Because, the children are absorbed in their own mathematical ideas.

And as a teacher... Not everybody is confident to always want to share their thoughts out loud. Everybody can record something in a journal, one way or another. So as a teacher you get to really see the thoughts, the conceptions, the misconceptions maybe. The train of thoughts that a child's having about maths, and how they communicate maths. And it's just a really beautiful thing to see. And I think as well the other thing for us as well is, it gives the children a way of capturing. It helps their working memory. Stops that cognitive overload from lesson to lesson.

Because, they've got their journal there. So they can go back and physically see what you were talking about last Monday when you introduced the topic. So they've got literally their brain on a page, that's what we call it. You've got your brain on the page. Go back, use your journal. Go and see what you were thinking. Go and see what helped you the other day. Go and see what helped you last term when we were doing this bit of maths, that actually is going to be really helpful for what we are doing now.

So we've got that... We're helping our students, as well as finding out what they're thinking as well. So I mean, it's not an easy journey, to start journaling. It's probably much easier for me in year six. And I was very lucky, the first class of students that I taught journaling with were year six. My colleagues in year one were not having such a great time. Because, it's messy. The thing is when you give children their own journal and you are like, right. Record your ideas. How did you do this? What was your thinking? You're going to get all sorts to start with. So there's a lot of training that needs to go within that. And I think we've learned over time. So with our very little students, our very young ones in year one, we do want to get to their individual journals as soon as they're able.

But actually, sometimes maybe teacher needs to journal. Let's do a class journal. Let's move from a class journal. Maybe we are going to start bringing in group journals. And then gradually from group journals, then into individual journals. And then a couple of years ago we thought, do you know what? Our early years children, so they're our four to five year olds. So they're our youngest children. And they do all the exploring in maths, that we all do in our maths lessons. Let's capture their thinking. Why can't they journal as well? So we actually introduced it in early years. And oh, we have this... They're so sweet. They're lovely, the journals. But they're funny little pictures maybe. Or we might... They'll be maybe sticking in a little 10 frame or just their thoughts. Capture their thoughts about maths. And that's really helped us with our year one as well.

And it's become just something that we do. And the children do really enjoy that journaling time. And they're proud of their journals. And it's a really good way of... If I as a subject lead want to find out about what maths is happening in the class, I can sit and chat with the children with their journals. And it just helps them to tell me about, oh... They're so proud of them. This is what we were thinking, and this is what we were doing. And look at this problem that we were working through. And oh, actually I really like this method. So it's a good way of helping them to learn efficiency as well. If you are doing something that's quite number-based, calculation orientated, great way of them deciding well, you could do it this way. And you could do it that way. But actually, do you know what? The most efficient method for me is to do it this way.

Or we started to think about different types of journals. So an investigative journal. Actually we had this problem, and these were the steps and learning to be logical and coherent with your thinking. And step by step. And one of the lovely things that we can sometimes do with our journals is get the children to share them with each other. And it's that question, do you understand what happened in the lesson from looking at your friend's journal? Does that tell you what happened in the lesson? Can you understand their thinking? Do you think you'd know what to do from what they've read?

So it's encouraging being coherent, being logical. Being descriptive, and creative. So it's learning that maths isn't just about a page of equations or expressions, or whatever. Maths can be about writing. It can be creative. It involves models, and being really precise with your models. It involves generalising. It involves using stem sentences. So it can be a written thing. And that's where we pull in that creativity of maths. And actually, maths is individual. Because, my journal won't necessarily look like your journal. It's something that, it's unique to me. Something for me to be proud of.

Robin Potter

I like though, what you said. That for the student to think of it... If they were to show their journal to someone else, would this make sense to that other student? Not that it has to entirely, because it's really a personal journal. But is it at least expressed in a way that if someone else were to look at it, they would have an idea of what that day looked like? I don't know.

Rosie Ross

Yeah. I think for me, that was... You don't always want to be thinking about tests, and accountability. And things like that. But we have the SATs tests in year six in England. And some of the questions on those, require children to show... It says show your method, or show your thinking. But if you are not used to showing your method clearly and logically, if you are not used to ever showing your thinking, how on earth do you just suddenly pull that out the bag? That needs to be something that you've practised and rehearsed. And not scared to do as well. Showing your thinking is just making it really, really clear so that somebody else could understand what you've done.

And I know from seeing my own children when they go through secondary school, and they get to the GCSEs. And they've got those massive questions that they have to answer, but they won't... They might get the answer right, but they won't get all the marks unless they've shown step by step by step, these are the steps that I needed to take to get this answer. So it's journaling. And that's what you will see. I always say to the children, if you went to a university and you saw somebody in the maths department there, they might be working on a problem. They might be journaling on that problem for six months. Because it's not speedy, this. This is about being so interested in something. And I'm pulling out all the other things. But also that chance to make connections. I mean, we had a lovely one in year six yesterday. We were looking at volume, and there was a lovely problem. You'll know it. So there's the van, and the Elliot and his mom are moving. And they need to pack the van with all the removal boxes.

So that was our initial focus, and we did the journaling on that. But when I looked at the journals, I had children who'd started to create their own removal companies. And there were lots of what ifs. They were creating their own fleet of vans, where we could have a van with a volume of this, and then you could put these in.

And it's that, isn't it? In your journal, you can actually start to go off a tangent. Which is what mathematicians do. People who love a subject do that, don't they? And that's really lovely to see.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. And developing that freedom of exploring those thought experiments. Well, what if? What if we did it... Well, what if that? And making that a safe environment to do that.

I'm going to take you back to something you said, Rosie. Which I think is really critical. So you talked about the challenges of getting a group of very young, small little people to start recording their ideas. What does that look like in the beginning? And how can teachers model in a classroom? Because you talk about group journals and classroom journals, but you didn't really talk a lot about it. But I think that's such a critical and important part of it. What does that look like?

Robin Potter

Are there drawings in the journal at all? I would think there would be.

Rosie Ross

So journals... Yeah. It's not just about writing. So our little ones, a lot of it is drawing. And drawing maybe the equipment they've used, or things that they've done. But I think that modelling by the teacher... So to produce a journal when you are little, you need to know what your teacher's asking you to produce. So those first early journals that you are doing maybe, as a group with your class. You'll explore your problem. Then you might be on the carpet going, okay. What was the equipment we used? How did we use our manipulatives today? Could we draw that? Could we show that to somebody? What if somebody wasn't in our class today? Oh, let's do a little picture of that.

Okay. And what was the problem that we were actually thinking about? So how could we record that? Or was there anything else that we thought about? So it's about scaffolding how you're doing it. And it'll be a very, very simple thing. You might have a picture, you might have a little abstract calculation there. Or you might have a little sentence there. Just something small to start with. And you do that, I think. Over a few weeks, you'd just be modelling that. And then you might narrow that down to work in the group.

Well as a group, what could we put on this page that captures all the thoughts in our head? That captures all the things we've talked about? And you'd be surprised how quickly then the children then are really happy to have their own blank page to record their thinking on. What you've got to appreciate though is, these are little children. These are 5, 6, 7 year olds. They're not going to naturally be all neat and tidy and perfect. So we sometimes have to manage our own expectations as teachers. Because can we look beyond sometimes what looks a bit messy, to see the maths? I think that's the important thing.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. That's right. Drawing a triangle is really hard for a five-year-old. Not all of them, but for some of them. Just drawing it. But the struggle of drawing it, that's when the learning is taking place. And that's what we forget about. So I think often, people who don't do a lot of journaling in their learning environment think of it as a means for assessing the children.

And of course, it can be that. But they don't necessarily think about it as part of the learning process. So how do you see it in your school? Do you mark your journals? Do the teachers mark them? And...

Rosie Ross

It is fundamental to the learning process. Because we see it as that, it's a midpoint in the lesson. Where we gather what we've learned, the processes we've gone through. It's a midpoint, where it's totally individual to the child. So in terms of marking them, I do study my journals quite intently at the end of the class. But it doesn't take me a long time to do. They're really interesting. And to be honest, you can move around. Depends. Sometimes, you need to sit with a child. But actually, you can move around amongst your class and have a little peep at what they're journaling as well. And it's really interesting for me. Because when I look at a class' journals that's maybe not my own, the quality of that journal, the quality of that recording, it tells me about the experience. The maths experience that the child had, had prior to doing that recording as well.

You can pick up so much about what was available in the lesson. What was the modelling like? What were the representations? What were the manipulatives on offer as well? So we do mark them. Because, we do have the workbooks. But they... For us, we have those at the end of the lesson. And they're almost our individual assessment, if you like. The assessment part of the lesson. The can they do the maths part? And if we've spent time and given them time on the journaling, our workbooks probably take 5, 10 minutes tops to be honest. Because by that point, you'd hope that they could do the maths. But the journal is more about the thinking, the creativity as well. And the communication as a mathematician. So if I really want to understand a child's mathematical understanding, I really look in their journal.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. And I think that's super important that people understand that journaling as a process for the child, they should be allowed to freely explore what they're thinking and how they're thinking. And that the teachers can use that as a form of formative assessment in understanding where they're at. And what you might be able to do, to get them to where you need them to be. As opposed to final summative assessment. You're going to grade them and give them a mark and say, you didn't meet the expectation. It's really part of the learning. It's not part of the end bit.

Rosie Ross

Yeah. It's very personal as well, a journal. It's a very personal response to the maths, isn't it?

Andy Psarianos

Absolutely. Yeah. So do your children talk about their journals amongst themselves?

Rosie Ross

Oh, yeah. Yeah. They'll talk about them. They love to share them with each other. They can get quite irritated as well when you'll say... Especially as they get older. When you'll say oh, right. We need to wrap up our journals. You can feel that... I mean, and that in itself... Because I think when we first started journaling, that was a pitfall. Because you were like oh, go on then. Go on then. But actually it's good to know, let's be concise. That's quite a good thing to learn to be.

Andy Psarianos

But it's a fundamental shift in your maths class that maybe would not be obvious. But it's evidence that in the past... I'm going to quote you again, when you said that maths is not a speedy thing. It's a creative thing. You're... In the past, where children might have dreaded the maths class. And just couldn't wait for that bit where you said they could put their pen down. Now, they're actually getting a bit annoyed and frustrated that you're interrupting them during this fantastic creative process that they're going through.

Robin Potter

And telling them to put the pen down.

Rosie Ross

And I'm always like, you can go back to your journal. Let's just have a minute. You can go back to them at the end. They're still going to be there. But it is. It's lovely because sometimes they'll have some coloured pencils there, because they want to really highlight something in their journal. Or I think, there's... It's not wrong.

It's very hard to be wrong in your journal. Because there's no, this is what your journal should look like. Because our brains are different. And I think that's the bit that children like they can all find their own response to the maths. Everybody can journal something. Everybody can do that.

Andy Psarianos

And I remember seeing some... I don't remember what year group it was from, but I remember seeing a journal someone showed me quite a number of years back. And it was that. It was... A child had gone off on a tangent. And then at the bottom they wrote, I was wrong. This doesn't work, or something like that.

And that's just one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in a journal. When a child...

Robin Potter

Well, the fact that they even shared that. And they wrote all of this down. And then at the end it's like oh, right. This one didn't work, but that's okay. They had to come to that conclusion.

Andy Psarianos

But it was okay. It was okay. Yeah. But they weren't... It wasn't like they tried to cover it up, or something. It was like, this idea was a bad idea.

Rosie Ross

And that's when you know it's working.

Robin Potter

Yeah.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. Exactly.

Robin Potter

Yeah. It doesn't always have to be correct in the learning process. You're learning from making mistakes, and realising all that-

Rosie Ross

Absolutely.

Andy Psarianos

That's right. That's right. Oh thanks again, Rosie.

Robin Potter

Well Rosie, this has been wonderful. We always learned something new from our guests. And you definitely have taught us a few new things about journaling. So thanks for being here.

Rosie Ross

Thank you.

Andy Psarianos

Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.

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