Thursday, February 6, 2014

Math Centers: A Three Ring Circus

I’ve always said teaching math is like running a three-ring circus.  One year, I team taught with a friend and I only taught math; I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was at the end of each day.   During a math block, there is no down time.  Each task you assign requires 10 minutes of student effort at absolute most and one minute on average.  There are constant questions and there is never a moment when less than five students genuinely need your assistance (usually it’s more like ten). 

Furthermore, there is so much pressure to make math fun.  When my students have to actually sit in their seats and take a math quiz on a Friday, I’m literally greeted with groans and comments like, “I thought Fridays were supposed to be fun.”  I don’t think they’ve have even touched their math textbooks this year.  I do pull the electronic version up on the Promethean board from time to time, but if I asked my students to open their textbooks and do some math problems, they wouldn’t even know what I meant.

Teaching math has changed since I was in school for sure— more than any other subject.  I’m reminded of that regularly in parent conferences when perfectly intelligent thirty-somethings tell me they have no idea how to help their child with their math homework.  It’s fast-paced and you have to come at it from so many different angles— ten-year-old brains are wired this way and it’s not a huge problem or the kids; it’s us teachers who sometimes struggle to keep up the pace.

Over the past few years, I’ve gradually changed how I set up my math block, to the point where it now isn’t even recognizable compared to what it looked like when I first started teaching.  Sometimes I think back to the ole daily math practice on the overhead projector, the never-ending stacks of transparencies, the whole group “guided practice,” trying to do a complicated activity with the whole class at once... and shake my head.

While I doubt any of us are still teaching by the blinding light of the overhead projector bulb, I know from talking with my colleagues that math looks different in everyone’s classroom.  Most of us are accustomed to teaching small groups in reading, but for some reason, teaching small group math has been a lot slower to catch on.  The only reason I started trying it was out of desperation one school year when I had 30 students in my math class.  If I could put them into three groups, perhaps I could reach them ten at a time, I thought.  It worked, better than I expected, and I never looked back.  

In essence, math in my classroom IS a three-ring circus.  Four days a week, we operate on a three-center rotation.  I have found that this method not only allows me to engage with every student one-on-one every day to ensure understanding, but it also requires students to work together and think for themselves.  It’s hard to tell what’s going on with test scores these days, but my entire grade level teaches math small groups in one form or another, and we have shown steady growth in math the past few years. 

Each day, we open class with a homework check and an activating strategy of some kind.  After that we do centers for about an hour, hopefully leaving time at the end for a summarizing strategy.  The heart of my math block is the centers, which each last 20 minutes:

Teacher Time: Students meet with me on my carpet area by my Promethean board.  I teach the skill we are currently focusing on, they practice on white boards and do activities with me on the Promethean board.  Many days, we end with an interactive game where each student gets up and gets involved.  With less than ten kids on the carpet with me, I can ensure that each child is fully engaged, and they feel more comfortable approaching me with questions. 



Partner Practice:  Students each have an assigned table where they and an assigned partner sit and work together.  They usually have a game to play, and I have pre-loaded most of the necessary supplies in a small plastic bin.  There is also a folder for each table with standing activities to work on – word problems or a math puzzle activity, for example.  The folders and supply bins are key (including pencils!) because the students have no reason to be wandering around the room looking for supplies.  If they are out of their seat, they off considered off task.  If they have a question, they have to work together to figure it out. 


Skills and Strategies: This center is really two stations in one.  For ten minutes, half the group is on the computer working on an assigned website and the other half is at a large table in the back of my room working on basic math skills (spiral review word problems, math journals, math facts, etc.)  After ten minutes, I give a signal, and the groups switch.  Again, everything the students need is already at the table for them—there is a zero tolerance policy on wandering around the room.






I have found that it works best if you do plan the groups at least somewhat by skill level – if you mix them, you can’t make as much progress with your accelerated learners in Teacher Time, and the kids who need a little more help get left behind. This is perhaps the most important benefit of teaching small group math – students get the same individualized attention as they do in guided reading.  I use a certain template when making up my groups.  It would look like this for a 24 student class:

Student A, Student B
Student C, Student D
Student E, Student F
Student G, Student H

Student I, Student J
Student K, Student L
Student M, Student N
Student O, Student P

Student Q, Student R
Student S, Student T
Student U, Student V
Student W, Student X

Each section would be a group.  I suggest rotating the groups the same way each day so that students are never confused about where to go next.  Student A and Student B are partners, and Students A, C, E, and G would get first turn on the computers, tagging off with their partners after the 10 minutes.  This gives different students the chance to work together during Skills and Strategies than at Partner Practice (and less time for them to get sick of each other and start arguing). 

Speaking of time, keeping a timer is vital!  I use the timer on my phone and if I didn’t, this plan would run off the tracks every single day.  I have a certain sound I ring on a bell at the ten minute switch that’s different than the time when we all switch stations.  The kids know the difference, and they move around the room like soldiers.  Okay, that’s an exaggeration…they still act like crazy ten-year-olds in transition but they DO know where to go and they get there relatively quickly.  That’s also because I have an entirely different discipline plan for math groups than I do for the rest of my day…I want to be able to hand out a consequence with no warning, no parent repercussions, and no apologies, so we have a special reward system just for that hour.

Teaching math in small group doesn’t only help me teach more effectively, it also helps me plan more effortlessly.  Planning math feels more like putting together a puzzle.  Instead of having to fill a seemingly endless hour-and-a-half block with short, little activities, I just have to fill in the blanks for the schedule and routine we keep every single day.  I’ve said many times, “My math pretty much plans itself.” 

Teaching math DOES feel like running a three-ring circus but this plan at least leaves me feeling more like the ringmaster and less like the lion tamer.  If you’re feeling like you’re juggling too many balls during math, it’s definitely worth a try. 

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