Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Getting Started

The back story to our blog...

After seeing success in book clubs in small grouping, we decided, "Why not try it in math?!" So we implemented a math workshop that focuses on one math skill a week.

So far we've seen...

Mastery of basic skills
Increased student engagement
Student excitement about learning math
More confidence in math competencies
Students taking ownership of the learning

... and of course---a whole lot of fun for us and the students!

Getting started...

When we first began brainstorming ideas for how to organize a math workshop, we knew that we had no idea what we were doing. :) Just like good writers look at mentor texts before writing, we researched what was working for other teachers.  We came across several great blogs and resources that we will mention throughout this blog.  We also found a few resources within our district for support.  We synthesized the materials to fit our teaching styles to support our philosophy of teaching and learning.  As with anything, it took a lot of trial and error, and--it still does!

Organizing our students...

After reading a wonderfully helpful blog by Beth Newingham, we decided to follow her suggestion for dividing our students into three groups: low, medium, and high.  To group our students, we give our students a weekly pre-test over the week's skill.  We then group the students according to their skill level. 

We also followed her rotation suggestion. 

Low Group:  Our low group starts out at the teacher station because they will need teacher instruction in order to be successful at the other stations.  They then move onto the independent station to apply the skill that they just learned and/or reviewed.  Lastly, they go to the game station for further practice on that specific skill or to review a previous skill.

Medium Group: Our medium group starts out at the game station.  Then they move to the teacher station and finish at the independent station.

High Group:  Our high group is often able to do the independent task before coming to the teachers station, so that is where they begin.  Then they rotate to the game station and end up at the teacher station. 

Differentiated Instruction in Math Workshop

Not only do we want to meet students at their level through small-group instruction, but we also tier the game and/or independent stations to best support their level of proficiency.  We try to keep the quality and the quantity of the activity/task the same.  However, the high group might solve more complex problems or take the learning more in depth.  Whereas, the low group will probably need more scaffolding by using manipulatives,
Organizing the Materials

Since groups are often completing different tasks for the game/independent station(s), we have to organize the materials so that each group receives the correct supplies without needing our assistance during transition.  We have designated specific areas of the room for each station's activities and materials.  For example, the game station materials will always be on the side table, and the independent practice materials are on the back counter.  At each place in the room, the materials are organized by group.  So far we have used folders with group names on them to organize the materials that groups will need during that station.

Math Workshop Schedule

Depending on the skill, we typically use this schedule for our math workshop instruction.  On Monday we give a pre-test over the week's skill.  We then teach a whole-class lesson.  We have found that most of the students need the background knowledge or a review of it to be successful at math workhop stations.  Tuesday through Friday lessons consist of a min-lesson, when we normally discuss the stations and the expected norms for each.  Then we spend 12-15 minutes at each rotation.  Finally, we wrap up our lesson with a closure. 

Transitioning between stations

When we first started workshop this year, the first few weeks were spent creating norms for each station.  One of the norms includes transitioning efficiently between stations.  To do this, we display a timer, either on the Smart Board or using Kagan's Jumbo Timer so that students know how much time is left in each station.  When the timer gets to 1:30 left in that station, students pick up their materials and quietly move to the next station.  We may earn a class marble for arriving at the next station, ready to learn by the timer gets to 0:00.  It's amazing to see the ownership the students take in watching the timer and moving on to the next station. 

The content at each station

Teacher station is spent at the Smart Board. 
To ensure equal participation and student engagement, students bring their slates and markers to the Smart Board.  All students work out problems on their slates.  Once all students give a thumbs up, signaling completion, the teacher may have students take turns writing an answer on the Smart Board.  This serves as ongoing assessment and promotes discussion.
Smart Exchange provides numerous resources for the Smart Board.  We start there when creating lessons for the teacher station.  Then we tweak our findings to best meet the needs of our students.
The teacher station looks similar for each group but also provides an opportunity for the teacher to modify instruction based on students' needs at the present time.  For example, the low group may need more practice with basic skills.  While, the high group may be able to solve more complex word problems.  When creating the Smart Board lessons, we try to include slides containing varying opportunities for practice.

The game station may sometimes include an exploration, where students work with a partner to problem solve.
During this game station, students work in partnerships to write down the perimeter of each shape.  To allow for smoother transitions, students were told which shape to start with.  Each pair started at a different shape.
Independent station normally consists of a tiered writing activity that reinforces the week's skill.  Once a week, the independent station also provides students with the opportunity to review learned skills through a review sheet or Math Box, as used in our Everyday Math curriculum.  On Fridays, we often have our students use writing to explain how they solved their problems.  We have found that by having students explain their work in writing, they demonstrate their understanding of the skill. 

Please share your comments and experiences with math workshop. We are continually seeking out ways to improve. 

Check back soon for posts with specific content ideas for math workshop.

--Chloe & Tabitha


  1. i want to try something similar with my kiddos.... my question is how much time do you spend teaching math? our third graders rotate classes. math is 50 minutes each day. i also was wondering if you have any suggestions with that block of time (50 minutes)how long each group has at a center?

    1. We typically spend about an hour on math instruction each day. Sometimes we go over time. We set the pacing based on the students' needs. When the low (red) group is with us at the teacher station, we may spend 13-15 minutes; while we may only spend 8 minutes with the high (blue) group. I think you could certainly do it in the 50 minutes that you have. The smoother transitions are, the less time lost. Good luck! Let us know how it goes! Three groups might also be a better alternative for your classroom as well.

      --Chloe & Tabitha

  2. I am loving your website!

    How tight do you have to stay to the EM curriculum? Some lessons bounce between two or three topics. I'm wondering when that happens how you make the decision for the week focus?

    thanks! Danielle

    1. Hi, Danielle!

      This is an excellent question and one we are often asked by colleagues within our district.

      Fortunately, our principal gave us the go-ahead to use the curriculum to support this year's learning but not as the only resource.

      When we mapped out the year we first considered which 3rd grade skills (from the Missouri Grade Level Expectations) were foundational. We plugged those skills into the year's map first. Then we tried to plan the rest of the year in the order of EM.

      You are right about the lessons bouncing between topics. Honestly, we taught the EM lesson on Monday for whole-class instruction during the time that we created an anchor chart over the week's skill. If that particular skill's unit contained multiple math journal pages and/or home links to support the skill, then we assigned those. Why create new materials when we already had several resources in EM? Yet, as you probably know, the EM curriculum does not contain content for every GLE that we are to teach. Therefore, we did quite a bit of searching and creating for those skills--properties of addition & multiplication, congruent figures, multiplication drill, analyzing and interpreting 4 different types of graphs.

      In summary, we used the curriculum as much as we could, but we certainly relied on our creativity and other available resources (i.e. Super Teacher, Smart Exchange, Brainpop!, etc.)

      Thanks for your comment!

      Tabitha & Chloe

  3. This is a great idea! I am interview to be a first year third grade teacher. My experience has not shown me an excellent way to differentiate my instruction. This is a great way to do it! I have to present what a differentiated Math classroom looks like and I am going to use your model! Thank you for posting it!

  4. I'm a fifth grade teacher and I teach two sections of math per day. I love the idea of math workshop and rotating stations, I'm just not quite sure how to put it into practice. Do you incorporate children's literature in your mini lessons? How do you suggest organizing materials for 50 or so students? Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    1. Sometimes we use children's literature in our mini-lesson if it fits our topic. As for organizing materials for 50 students, we love using tubs to store materials, color-coding paper for different groups, and so on. Perhaps having a tray for each class would be helpful.

  5. Thank you for your detailed description of your Math Workshop!! Very Helpful! I was wondering though, you say Tuesday-Friday's mini lesson is teaching the expected norms of the math workshop stations but I was wondering how that works that you only use Monday to teach a skill? Do you find yourselves using any Tuesday-Friday to teach different strategies rather than the expected norms?

    1. Meredith,

      We use Monday to teach a whole class lesson on the skill for that week. We then pretest the students. That pretest data is used to group students and drives our instruction for the week for all of the groups. We may focus on the skill of the week for all of the groups if needed or we may teach different skills and strategies to those groups who have already grasped the skill of the week. As for the mini lessons, we use that to simply introduce each station for the day. The stations may look the same for all groups or it may be slightly different activities based on where they tested. The main instruction on the skill is done at the teacher station.

      Thanks for reading!