I’m excited to introduce Alex O’Connor from Math in the Middle. Today he’s sharing how he’s using math workshops in his sixth grade classroom.
Last year, in the middle of my third year teaching 6th grade math, I was approached by my middle school’s instructional coach about a new (to me at the time!) model of teaching called math workshop. The general idea was that students would be placed in small groups that would rotate through different stations, or centers, throughout the class period.
I’m not going to lie, I was pretty skeptical at first. It was a little overwhelming to think about completely overhauling the structure of my everyday classroom routines, and in the middle of the school year none the less! Pair that with the fact that I coach high school baseball in the spring, and I was envisioning what would have been close to zero free time dwindling into the negative numbers! Ultimately I decided to give it a try, and am I glad that I did. I truly believe it has benefited all of my students.
Math workshop can be set up in a lot of ways, depending on what works for that teacher and their students. So let me start by telling you about what I have been doing in my classroom. This year, because I have smaller class sizes of around 22 students, each of my classes are divided into four groups of 5 to 6 students. Last year I had larger class sizes, so I had them rotate through five centers. In general, I create groups based on the level of the students. I have thought about mixing the groups up, but I really like how I am able to differentiate instruction when the groups are based on how well the students are understanding the material. The four centers include a center at the front table with me, a homework center, a technology/hands-on center, and a problem solving center. I teach four classes that are 60 minutes each, so after accounting for a 10 minute warm-up problem, a very brief introduction to the lesson and a wrap-up at the end of class, I have about 10-12 minutes for each center. Below is a chart I made to keep track of groups and stations. I also have a document posted that shows what color group each student is in. So you might be asking yourself, what do each of these centers include?
Teacher Center: This is BY FAR the most important center for students and really the number one reason why I decided to switch to a math workshop structure. It benefits the struggling and advanced students in so many ways, not to mention all of the students in between! For my struggling students, I am able to work essentially one-on-one, in their small group, to see what they aren’t understanding. With these students, I start with basic problems, which I have ready ahead of time, and work up from there. For my advanced students, I have spent a lot of time creating enrichment problems for various topics. I sometimes have these higher groups do one regular problem, just to make sure they’ve got it, and then they begin on the enrichment questions for the day. Here is a link to the enrichment questions I use! I laminate and cut out six copies to have ready, so each student has their own. Originally I had students working in their notebooks at this station, but I recently switched to white boards…and am I glad I did! Just be sure you order enough dry-erase markers…I learned the hard way this year and am already running out!
Homework Center: I always have students head to this center directly after they have met with me at the teacher center. This is their chance to practice what we have just learned at the previous station. We use a textbook series for our math curriculum, so my assignments are usually 10-15 problems from the lesson we covered that day. The issue that arises with this center is that you will have one group that needs to start their day at homework, without having gone to the teacher center. I have my advanced group always start here, since they can usually do the homework with little introduction. Then by the time they get to my station at the end, they have practiced on the homework and are ready for the enrichment problems!
Tech/Hands-on Center: This center by far is the most loosely defined (and sometimes the hardest to plan for!). Our school IMC has iPads available to check out, so usually on Thursdays and Fridays I have students play math apps (from a list I have pre-selected!) on six of the iPads that I have checked out. On days without the iPads it varies greatly. A lot of times, at this center, I will incorporate math games that either review a past concept or relate to what we have recently learned. Other times I will create a more hand-on activity for them to complete. For example, when multiplying fractions, I had students use fraction dice and cards to create their own problems. They wrote their work on the answer sheet (FREE!) found here.
Problems-Solving Center: This center can also fluctuate a bit. I usually have students working on these awesome (and once again free!) Problems of the Month, which are from the Inside Mathematics website. These problems are progressively more challenging applications of recently learned concepts and skills. I print and laminate six copies of one of these problems to have ready to go at that center. Students have about a week to work on each problem. The great part is that there are different levels, from easy to difficult, so students can work at their own pace.
Some common questions arise about starting math workshop, so I will try my best to answer a few. One of the most common is how and if students stay on task at all the different rotations. This was my biggest concern going into math workshop. After using math workshop for about a year now, I’ve found that if anything it has been easier for kids to stay on task. By moving around and changing activities every 10-15 minutes, it helps them get a quick movement break and refocus on a new activity. Sure, there will always be behavior issues at times, but these behavior issues probably would have occurred if students were being asked to sit through a “normal” class and work time. Setting up routines at the beginning is very important and I have already done a better job this year compared to last year. I’m sure, like everything in teaching, I will find a way to make it that much better next year. I also use a behavior system where the class starts with four letters, P-U-M-A. If I need to take away all four letters for not following expectations, then we lose math workshop for the next day. This is pretty good motivation for them, especially when we are planning to use iPads the next day!
Another question that comes up is the amount of preparation. To be honest, it is quite a bit of preparation up front. Having a bank of math games and some form of technology for the technology/hands-on center has been important for me. I do spend a lot of outside the classroom time getting things ready and creating activities, but it hasn’t been completely overwhelming. I have been using math workshop for less than a year and I am already starting to notice less preparation because of materials I have ready to go!
If you plan to start a math workshop structure in your class, my advice would be to find what works for you! I know some teachers who don’t have a schedule that allows every group to go to every center each day, so they have them go to one or two centers per day. As far as I am concerned there isn’t one right way to use math workshop. I would love to hear any ideas or answer any questions that you have in the comment section below!
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