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Launching Math Workshop

launching math workshop

One of my favorite ways to teach is through the workshop model because it allows me to differentiate and provide targeted instruction with hands-on and student-centered learning activities. The framework of Math Workshop is made up of several different elements that allow students to investigate math concepts and develop a deeper conceptual understanding in order to solve problems. In a workshop model, a teacher spends their time facilitating student learning, while students work in small groups where the teacher can confer and ask questions that guide their thinking.

The activities I mention in this post are part of this Launching Math Workshop resource. In this post, I will detail all of the aspects of a balanced Math Workshop in an elementary classroom, including setup and organization, how I do Calendar Math, how I incorporate fact fluency and spiral review every day, which math games my students use all year long, how I decide on future math minilesson topics and more. So, grab your favorite beverage and let’s get started.

You may be wondering how to organize your own Math Workshop. Well, let’s address the elephant in the room. Every classroom, grade and teacher has a different schedule and amount of time to work with. Of course, a 90 minute Math Workshop is ideal for getting all of the required standards taught, and taught well. But in many cases, that 90 minutes every day is not realistic. I’ve had everything from only 45 minutes of math each day one year to 90 minutes every day for the whole year. Some years, our administrators were heavily involved in planning individual teacher schedules, and other times we were told when our recess, lunch and specials were and could decide when to teach each subject. What I’m trying to convey here is that if you see a model of how to break up your math time and it looks nothing like your own schedule and you are frustrated by that, you aren’t alone. So, needless to say, this example of how to split up a Math Workshop is a suggestion and based on a schedule that allows it.

Once you figure out how much time you will give each element of your workshop, you’ll need to figure out in which order to have them. For instance, I prefer to start my Math Workshop with 5 minutes of basic fact fluency, then students move on to 5 minutes of spiral review, then I call students to the floor with their whiteboard/dry erase marker and we do 15 minutes of calendar math. From there, I do a 15 minute minilesson and then we move into our 45 minutes of math rotations (I’ll dive deeper into that in a bit). So, you’ll need to decide on the order that feels best for you and your students (you can always try it a few different ways first).

You’ll also need to decide how you want to manage math rotations and what students will be doing at that time, as well as what you, the teacher, will be doing. In my own math rotations time, I am meeting with a small group of students for targeted math instruction (this is very similar to guided reading), which means I am unable to work with other students at that time. I want students to be as independent as possible during math rotations, so I don’t typically begin meeting small groups for a few weeks or until I feel like the small group instruction won’t be interrupted. We’ll get into this more in a bit.

Now, let’s talk materials and storage. Similar to my Reading Workshop or Writing Workshop, I use Math Binders for each student and they are an integral part to my setup and organization. At the beginning of the year, each student gets a plain, white 2 inch binder with clear-view pocket to place the cover page. Each binder includes a zipper pouch to store dice, calculator, playing cards, a folded number line, dry erase marker, Coin War cards and just about any random piece that would otherwise be lost in their desk. Within a few weeks of using binders for the first time, students learn how to keep their math materials organized and can quickly get what they need from their Math Binder. My favorite part about students keeping the materials in binders is that I don’t have to store the math supplies. Students are responsible for putting things away properly in their own binder, which means zero minutes of my time wasted reorganizing a tray of math supplies or math games. That’s right. Plus, using Math Binders frees up more space for me to store other supplies that they aren’t able to keep in their binders (number lines, pattern blocks, counting cubes….all the math manipulatives).

Every piece of loose paper students put in their Math Binder, like their math reference tools, math game directions and game boards, gets a plastic page protector, which means I can reuse (most of) them year after year. The first thing students get to put in their binder is Roll and Write, which leads me right into the next element of math: fact fluency.

A common complaint I hear from fellow teachers is they don’t feel like they have enough time to do fact fluency. The good news is that your students can practice using basic math facts really at any time of the day and not just during your Math Workshop. When you’re standing in line getting ready for recess, as students are coming in each morning, when they’re tying their gym shoes…basically any random moments you can find. You can use flashcards, or simply verbally give math facts for students to answer. You can call on individual students for answers, or ask for all to answer (if your students start answering excitedly and get too loud, just ask them to use a “whisper voice” instead). If you’re able to incorporate written fact fluency into your Math Workshop, I recommend 5 minutes of daily basic fact fluency. In my second grade classroom, we call this “Roll and Write,” because we use dice (you can find foam dot dice here and digit dice here), but you can use a deck of cards as well (i.e. “Flip and Write”). I highly recommend foam dice because they’re silent (20+ sets of regular dice clanking on desks is distracting for most students).

First, students pull out their dice and Roll and Write packet from their Math Binder, open it to a new page, write the date, and wait with pencils in the air (a management trick I started that keeps them from writing before the timer starts) for me to start the 5 minute timer.

Before we do our very first Roll and Write, I give explicit instructions on what Roll and Write should look/sound like. Students need to hold the dice in their hands, put their wrist down on their desk and open their palms.  I’ve discovered there is no reason to roll or shake the dice (sometimes kids like to shake dice for 30 seconds…time wasting). After the dice are rolled, they ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH THEM. For some reason, I’ve noticed lots of kids that like to adjust their dice and make them side by side or perfectly aligned so the number isn’t upside down.  Doing this each and every time adds up.  I demonstrate why we don’t roll dice, drop them from above, or waste time making them ‘look pretty’ (I make a show of it, dropping dice all over, acting silly…acting is such a big part of our job, isn’t it?).

Once I can see all students are ready, I start the 5 minute timer and students get to work.  They roll and write, roll and write, roll and write.  While they are working, I roam the room with a red pen.  It could be a different color, as long as it isn’t the same as what they are using (a pencil).  If I spot ANY mistakes (number reversals, digit reversals, incorrect answers, sloppy writing, etc.), I underline the mistake with my red pen and WALK AWAY.  That part is really important.  Students need to be able to identify their own mistakes, and I’ve learned that if I stay there right next to them, they tend to argue or get in a discussion of “what I meant to write was a ….” instead of just fixing the problem.  As soon as I underline, students need to fix their mistakes.  This is really important as I don’t have time to look over each roll and write every day (repeat: they don’t turn their Roll and Write page in for me to grade), and I don’t want to reinforce incorrect answers or proper digit formation (number handwriting).

After the 5 minutes is up, the timer goes off and students get to finish the equation they are working on. Then, they count up all of the equations they were able to complete and write their total at the bottom of their page. Each student is working right where they should be at (i.e. they’ll all be working on different types of equations with dice that are right for them).  And because they’re working at their independent level, they should be getting at least 15 problems done in the 5 minutes.  If  a student wasn’t able to complete 15, I keep them in at recess and have them do it again for 5 minutes, but not as a punishment. Read: I do this so that I can watch to see if it’s something like they are wasting time adjusting dice or need a minilesson on a math facts addition strategy (for instance, how to “count on”).  At this point, I’ve discovered students will sometimes cheat and start writing on a previous day’s page to make it appear they have completed 30 that day. So, to combat that, I’ve added a “you must get the teacher’s initial at the top of the page the same day you get 30/30” rule.  That way, if they try to show me a 30/30 that isn’t signed from a previous date, I know they were combining two days of work. I also have them fold their packet so they aren’t just copying the equations from the day before. They write the date in pen for the same reason.

We also have a discussion about “not announcing your score” and how they are competing against themselves rather than their peers.  I want them to beat their best score and not worry about anyone else’s. When a student completes 3 days (this does NOT need to be consecutive) of 30/30 correct, I move them on to the next set of equation types on my checklist and write the date they started the new skill.  I put names in alphabetical order to make it easier to find them when updating their set.

As soon as students finish writing their Roll and Write score down at the bottom of their page, we move right into spiral review.

Spiral review is just what it sounds like. Review. NOT new learning. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you teach 2nd grade, students can be working on Kindergarten and First Grade standards during spiral review. Basically any math worksheet pages will work because they will typically cover the variety of topics. Students should be working INDEPENDENTLY.  That means, if a student doesn’t know how to do a problem, I do not use the packet to teach them.  That doesn’t mean I don’t help them with a minor issue they are stuck on, but if they are lost on a problem, I don’t sit down right then and there to show them how to do it: they skip it. After a few weeks, students will learn to just skip the random problems they don’t know how to do on their own. If I see a pattern of skipped problems, I will teach the concept later during a math minilesson or during Calendar Math time (this is a great way for me to see what things I need to add to my minilessons).  Basically, this means I don’t stand in front of my projector going through each problem with the whole class and using spiral review to teach new skills/concepts.  Every student starts off with the same level of work (I begin with Kindergarten standards), and as you might expect, each student works at their own pace, and at their own level. Again, keep in mind, it’s meant to be review.

I set the timer for 5 minutes. While students work, I roam around with that red pen I was just using during Roll and Write. I underline or circle mistakes and walk away so they have to figure out what they did wrong right away.  If a student reaches the bottom of the page before the 5 minute timer goes off, they TURN THE PAGE and keep working.  When they finish their whole packet, they turn it in so I can have a more thorough look at it.  I correct any other mistakes I wasn’t able to catch during my roaming, and write which page numbers they need to fix on the front of the packet.  A student might turn their packet in 2 more times before all of their mistakes are fixed, but they aren’t done with it until it is completed and corrected.

Once students put away their spiral review packet, they bring their dry erase boards and markers to the carpet and sit in an assigned spot. I seat students that need the most support right in front of me so I have easier access to them for the next activity, Calendar Math.

I write anywhere from 1-5 questions on the board for students to answer on their dry erase board (i.e. we call these “DEBs”). The problems are usually finishing a pattern, adding coins, input/output (function) boxes, identifying shapes, fractions, and telling time.  I do this for a couple of reasons, but the main one is that I need something productive for my kids that get seated quickly. I like to make every minute count. My kids that take a long time to put their binders away might get to the floor and only have time for 1 problem. My intention isn’t for everyone to do each problem, so that doesn’t matter. After only a few minutes everyone should be seated and working quietly.  I begin Calendar Math by showing how to find the answers to the problems on the whiteboard.  Students don’t get to change their answers or add anything, DEBs remain on the floor in front of them. This is SO HARD for so many of them.  But, eventually, they get over it.  Also, I’ve decided against students showing me their answers on their DEB simply because I can see them from where I stand. Of course, I use what I see on their DEB to guide my instruction.  This whole DEB process takes about 5 minutes total.

After DEBs, we move on to the actual Calendar Math. You might call this time Calendar Math, but because it’s so much more than teaching days of the week and months of the year, it’s sometimes referred to as, “Routines Time” instead. I move through a variety of things and keep a “perky pace” to the best of my ability. I only have 10-15 minutes, and I use every precious second of it. No time to tell me about the time your grandma took you to the zoo and blah blah blah. I try not to “quiz” students too often during calendar time as this tends to slow the whole thing down (i.e. I just tell them and have them repeat or say it along with me rather than “Bobby? What’s today? Marcus? What was yesterday?”). An important thing that I keep in mind for Calendar Math, is that if the class understands a concept, make it more challenging. Don’t just keep doing the same thing over and over.  Remember to differentiate and keep them learning, not just reviewing. We don’t sing the months of the year song every day all year long. Of course, it’s important to go back and make sure they remember the months of the year. But if all 23 students have it and know the months of the year by the end of October, I don’t need to do it every day. Instead, I change the question about months to be: What month comes after February? Or what is the 5th month? I’m constantly differentiating and changing the questions to fit the needs of my students.

After Calendar Math, I usually transition students back to their desks and begin my daily minilesson.

If you’re using a math program, this is where you would begin your direct instruction for the lesson/unit you are working through. My minilessons cover what my students need based on what I see throughout math workshop, but they also follow the standards from the math program our district uses and I love that I have yet another tool to help guide my instruction. As a side note, I want to mention that no program will ever be perfect, despite what the curriculum representative selling the program tells you (they are sales people hired by a company, after all). This is why I base the majority of my minilesson topics on what I see in the classroom with my actual students, not just what’s in the textbook.

So, you may be wondering how to keep track of minilesson ideas and how to decide what to focus on. I keep a blank page in my teacher binder just to jot down math minilesson topics. I might notice that a handful of students are struggling to understand how to accurately count on when using a number line, so I add that to my minilesson list. Maybe I confer with a student (more on that later) and discover they can’t identify the tens place for me, so I add reviewing place value to my minilesson list. Essentially, it’s an ongoing list I create for myself. I may not always get to each topic during the whole group minilessons, so I make a note to provide support for those students during small group instruction.

After I finish the math minilesson for the day, I give students a problem for them to work on in the next part of math workshop, which is our Math Rotations.

Math Rotations can look very different for everyone. The main idea is that students switch from one activity to another and aren’t working on the same thing the entire time, which in my workshop, means 45 minutes. This gives me time to meet with 3 different groups, and have 3 different 15 minute rotations. For my own rotations, I use a mix of 1.) writing about math (I call this “Math in Real Life” because it helps students put numbers into real life context), 2.) math games with a partner, and 3.) independent practice.  As we move through different units (based on the math program purchased by the district), I add new math games to reinforce whatever concept we’re learning. Math in Real Life is focused around the same concept and so is independent practice. Let me explain a little more in depth about each of my four rotations.

Every student (that I’m not meeting with in small group) starts Math Rotations with Math in Real Life. Essentially, Math in Real Life is turning numbers and problems into something students can wrap their minds around. Numbers that are on the whiteboard are just that. Numbers. They’re referred to as “naked numbers” (as silly as that sounds, it’s true). They have no context, which can make it difficult for children to understand what they are doing to numbers when they compose (put together) and decompose (take apart) in an equation. So, a solution to this is to start teaching students to add their own context to naked numbers. When we first start Math in Real Life, students need a lot of guidance in coming up with stories to go with equations. This is completely normal and expected. I follow the “I do, we do, you do” rule and give a lot of support with shared story problem writing until they’re ready to write their own story problems.  The last thing I do before I end my minilesson is give students a problem to work on in their Math in Real Life packet. Sometimes it’s just a number. Let’s say I write 32 on the dry erase board. This means the answer is 32, and students get to decide how to make that into a problem. Some students will write 30+2=32. Other students will write 16×2=32. It’s an open ended question, so it’s perfect for differentiating and gaining insight into student understanding. After they come up with an equation, they draw a “quick sketch” that shows how to solve their problem and gives context to the otherwise naked set of numbers, and then write a story that goes with that same problem. Again, the purpose of this is to help students understand what’s happening to the numbers so they can visualize the problem in a real life context. After students finish their Math in Real Life, or if they aren’t done and the 15 minute timer goes off, they move on to the next rotation.

Math On My Own is exactly what it sounds like. Independent math. This is when students work on their own to solve a set of problems in a lined notebook (I prefer composition notebooks because the pages tend to stay in better and I don’t ask students to rip them out and turn them in). I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year making sure students write the date, write on the lines in a smaller size than most are used to, use the pink lines to guide starting and stopping points on the left and right, number their problems, box their answers…all that management stuff that I *hope* those intermediate teachers will appreciate later on.

There are 2 methods I use for Math On My Own.  I like to make up my own equations for students at varying levels of ability, but I often use the ones straight from the district provided textbook or math workbook. Students work independently to solve these problems and check their work with a partner when they are finished. If partners get different answers, they are supposed to solve the equation together or prove why they think their answer is correct until they can agree on the answer.  This is where having a good foundation of Math Talk is critical. I have students initial the top of the page of their partner’s Math On My Own notebook to show that it’s been checked by a peer. Next, they use a calculator to check their work. This requires some preteaching about how to use a calculator, and then how to use a calculator appropriately. If students finish solving and checking all of their problems before the next rotation, they get to create their own equations (using a deck of cards) to solve and check. Once the fifteen minute rotation is up, students move on to the final rotation: Math Games.

Math Games is typically a favorite rotation because students are working with a partner. I use 2 types of partners for Math Games: partners with similar abilities (homogenous pairs) and partners with different abilities (heterogenous pairs) and I usually can figure out partnerships based on district-wide assessments (we use MAP testing, so I look at their RIT score for Math).  I keep a list of the partners visible and handy for myself and for students to refer to. When someone’s partner is gone and there isn’t another partnerless student to work with, they can just join another pair for the day.

I start the year off by introducing 6 games for students to choose from, and these 6 games stay in the rotation all year. I do add other games/centers/activities to this rotation throughout the year, but students always have the choice to play one of the original six games they learned at the beginning of the year.

The most popular game is always Coin War (grab your copy in my Free Resource Library), which is basically the classic game of War, but instead of using a deck of cards, students use cards that have coins on them. I use differentiated cards, so some of my students have Coin War cards with pennies and nickels, other students have cards with all coins, and a small handful of students have cards that include paper bills. The basic idea behind Coin War is students are counting and adding coins, which means they are not only practicing coin identification and value, but they’re practicing adding 10’s (dimes), 5’s (nickels) and 1’s (pennies, dollars), along with 25’s (quarters). Once they’ve counted the coins on the card they drew, they compare that number with their partner.

If you’re unfamiliar with small group instruction for math, it’s essentially the same thing you would do in guided reading small groups. You meet daily with students that need the most support and provide targeted instruction for the skills and concepts they are struggling with. You can have flexible groups where the students are not “assigned” to a group and are based more on a specific strategy you want to support them with. Or, you can have more traditional guided math groups that are based on assessments (i.e. if you have district testing scores, they might help identify commonalities among students to create your groups). Typically, you wouldn’t have more than 6 students in a group (otherwise it’s not a “small” group, really). Depending on your student needs, your students will typically fall into one of these grade level groups: far below, below, on level, above level.

I meet with students that are far below and below five days a week. Students that are on level typically see me for small group instruction every other day (depending on if I am doing 15 minute groups or 20 minute groups that year and how much time I have for rotations). I check in with students that are above level once a week for a math conference.

This could be things you notice during Calendar Math, something you caught during a one on one conference, or a concept you just reviewed during your minilesson. The purpose is to provide daily check in and support for your students that need it most, while also allowing the other students in the class time to practice a skill or concept independently and with a partner. You can also use the conference prompts and notes to check in with students in the small group as they work through problems with you.

When the last rotation is over, students put away their things and gather back on the carpet for the final part of Math Workshop. I do my best to make time for this because it is really important, but realistically it doesn’t always happen.

During the last few minutes of Math Workshop, students quickly pair-share with the person next to them about how math went for them today. After a quick pair share, I ask for volunteers to share with the group a bit about what they learned, how they challenged themselves, an important mistake they made or what they could do differently next time. Sometimes their focus is on their own behavior (for example, “I was off task during Math Games and my partner was frustrated with me because we didn’t get to play the game for very long”) and other times it can be very insightful and more about their conceptual understanding of the standard we are focusing on. Both types of sharing are valuable and important.

So, I hope that explains a little bit about how I manage my Math Workshop and run math rotations in my 2nd grade classroom. If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned in this post, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to help.



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