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Mild-Mannered Math No More
By Cheryl Bastarache

Like New Orleans cooking, math lessons can be spicy too. Children will find it hard to be bored when they are working on problems like figuring out how long it would take to walk the full length of the Great Wall of China, constructing a new Stars Wars racer with a given set of geometrical shapes, or creating a skit about the powers of zero. Mothers can integrate math with other subject areas and get their children to write without complaining. Sound too good to be true? I assure you that no matter what your curriculum, math journaling can easily be added to enhance your child’s learning.

Writing in Math Class?

Well known math educator, Marilyn Burns, says, “Writing in math class supports learning because it requires students to organize, clarify, and reflect on their ideas . . . .”1 This starts right from the beginning with the choice of notebook. Depending on the preferences of your child, you will want to provide a marbled composition book (or bound journal), glue stick, a plastic, three-prong folder with both blank and lined paper, or a three-ring binder with dividers and choice of paper. (Note: We have tried spiral notebooks in the past but found that they didn’t survive the whole school year.)
How to Make the Notebook

Have each student divide his or her notebook into the following sections: notes, copywork, research, challenges, responses, and fun stuff.

The notes section should include vocabulary, diagrams, charts, or illustrations about new concepts. Having a visual spatial learner, we often make use of the visual mathematics dictionary at The math handbooks from Great Source® are also great tools. If you have a visual spatial learner, then you will probably want to make some graphic organizers available as well. 


The copywork section consists of sheets such as Copying the “Facts” by Sheri Graham of Graham Family Ministries (my favorite). I also include lists made with my well-loved Startwrite software (or handwritten by Mom), such as the days of the week, skip-counting charts, etc. My read/write learner also likes to include math quotes in his notebook. I find these by googling “math quotations.”


The research section will have findings from math biographies, interesting information about the history of math, and other topics of interest. Some topics that we have covered this year are the evolution of the calendar, the history of the Canadian dollar, and early calculators. In other years, we have explored the mathematics of cartography, tessellations, and probability and genetics. The Canadian Mathematical Society has a great list of topics for math projects here: The student can choose many ways to present his research, such as comic strips (we like the printables from Donna Young,, scripts for skits, lapbooks, digital scrapbooks, etc. Let them be creative.




Their creativity will be sparked by the challenge problems. This part is my sons’ favorite! The Internet offers a wealth of challenging problems and puzzles. Visit,, and Hands down, the best print resources are from Prufrock Press Inc. I have used many books from the Enrichment Units in Math series, as well as It’s Alive! And Kicking: Math the Way It Ought to Be—Tough, Fun, and a Little Weird, Real Life Math Mysteries, and Challenge Math. I also like The Critical Thinking Co.’s Scratch Your Brain® series. As a general guideline, don’t go more than two grade levels above the child’s current capabilities, or he will become frustrated. Make sure you require the student to explain how he arrived at an answer, whether in pictures or words.


The responses section incorporates a broad range of activities, including student problem construction, logs about math literature, and answers to open-ended questions. It would best be explained by examples. After reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one son recorded this word problem: “If Alice needs to share her cake with the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse, draw a picture of how she would divide the cake so everybody gets a fair amount.” Another son constructed this one: “If the duplicator ray can make only one clone of the original at a time, how many total robots would there be after it fired 4 times?” For my part, I will ask them questions such as “Tell me about a time when you needed to use subtraction in your everyday life” or “Who is your math superhero?” or “What kind of math tricks do you think your brother needs to know?” When I have asked them to read some math-themed literature (see, then I will ask questions like “Tell me everything you learned about estimation from that book” and “How could you apply what you learned from that book to your life?”


Fun Stuff

And last of all, the fun stuff section. Here I let them insert puzzles that they have worked from magazines or Martin Gardner books or The Everything Kids’ Math Puzzles Book, print-outs from computer games (or descriptions of what they did), sketches of their answers to domino problems, and pages from Rod-Clue Puzzles or Patternables. I also ask them to include their work from sources like Simply Charlotte Mason’s Your Business Math Series ( or A Blueprint for Geometry by Brad Fulton. They get “credit” for making file folder math games or playing math-related games such as the ones from 25 Super Cool Math Board Games. They, of course, have to provide “proof” that they have completed these games.

If you follow these guidelines for implementing math journaling in your homeschool, you are sure to have proof that your child is learning and enjoying math. You might even become brave enough to make math journaling the centerpiece of your curriculum, using a framework such as Kathryn Stout’s Maximum Math with textbooks only as a resource for practice problems.
Cheryl Bastarache homeschools her three sons in beautiful eastern Canada, along with the help of her husband. She is a self-confessed math geek and freelance writer. Check out her blog at

1. Burns, Marilyn. 2004. “Writing in Math.” Educational Leadership 62, No. 2 (October): 30–33.

Copyright 2008. Originally appeared in The
Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 2008/09.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher


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