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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Diggin' Into Next Year - Organization of Math Workshop

Welcome to the second week of the Diggin' Into Next Year linky party hosted by Laura Graham from Where the Magic Happens. This is my first post in the series and I'll be back for a few more as the summer continues.

Today I'm diggin' into the way I organize my math workshop. This is one of my favorite topics from this past year. I have done some various math center approaches in the past, but last year I reorganized, rethought, replanned and retried it. And the results were so much better. So how do I organize my math workshop? I start my day with a calendar math review that is not connected to my math workshop block of time. It takes about 15 minutes. I'm not going to talk about it but just know that it's in my day but not during my math workshop block.

I start my math workshop with a whole class number sense activity. I have to move quick, so my goal is 5 minutes. I rotate the activity each day or week depending on what my students need. There is a great book out there by Jessica Shumway called Number Sense Routines for grades K-3. It's full of great ideas.

This past year I used counting circles, stop and start counting, the Rekenrek, visual images, and a guessing jar. I am planning on rereading it this summer to add a few more number sense routines to my rotation.
Visual Images - At the beginning of the year I simply ask how many there are. As students become quick at recognizing a visual representation of a number, I make it more difficult by asking them to double the number, or tell how many more it would take to get to 10 or 12, etc.

Then I have about 15 minutes for  a whole class mini-lesson or activity. This is where I take the opportunity for some direct instruction or fun concept practice like a scoot game. You can grab my free Place Value Scoot game at TpT.  It's also where I teach new math games. But with only 15 minutes I really have to have good pacing.

Next is my favorite time of the day. Really it is. My math workshop time gets 30 minutes. I organize my workshop time into 5 groups:
  • Math Exchange and Number Notebook
  • Problem Solving
  • Math Writing and Reading
  • Partner Work
  • Math Games
Each group will go to one activity per day. So there is not a lot of planning for this. I put everyone into a group based on what I want to do with them in Math Exchange and then pair them with a partner within that group. I love the pictures in the pocket chart - so easy to move around.

Partners and groups stay together for the entire week. Their activity changes each day.

Each day I only have to rotate the top cards for each group.
Let's talk about each group. 

Math Exchange and Number Notebook - Math exchange is my number one priority. It's my small group and it's also the basis for all of my grouping decisions. I consider what type of problem I want to work on, the difficulty of the numbers and the strategies students use to solve problems. So if I have a handful of kids who always, always go to a number chart to solve a problem, I might group them together to work on more difficult problems that can be solved with a number chart. But I might also put them each in a different group so that as they explain their thinking, they expose other students to using the number chart. The math exchange groups were extremely fluid throughout the year. 

So what do we do in a math exchange? Problem solving, problem solving and more problem solving. That's it. We solve problems and exchange our ideas, strategies, solutions and expertise with each other. Kassia Omohundro Wedekind has a great book all about math exchanges. I highly recommend it.
My math exchanges use Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) problems. CGI problems are based on the book Children's Mathematics. Basically I use the 14 types of CGI math problems in various themes throughout the year. I love how the problem types require students to think and problem solve in a variety of ways. I leave the numbers blank for each problem so that I have the flexibility of adding appropriate numbers for each group. Talk about easy to differentiate! I have included some links to my CGI products at the end of this post.  My math exchange time takes about 15 minutes, leaving me with 15 more minutes for providing extra help to students who need it. So I send my math exchange group to work independently on their number notebooks while I get in some daily reteach time or work with the group who are engaged in trying to solve my problem of the week (see below).

What is a number notebook? I started using a number notebook years ago when I was teaching third grade. It's an adaptable activity for any grade because depending on you students' level you can choose the number activities and then it can be easily differentiated by the number chosen. Here are some first grade examples:

At the beginning of the year we started with the number 5 and just did a few number activities.
Then we moved to the same activities with the number 10.
In January I added more activities and we chose numbers within 20.
Later in the year it became more difficult by choosing numbers up to 100.
Problem Solving - Each Monday I post a problem of the week.  The problem solving group works together in partners or as an entire group to solve the problems. Most weeks it includes an easy version of the problem and then a harder version. Here are a few examples:
These problems are from my Math Journaling and Problem Solving.

Sometimes I include only one problem that requires multi-steps.
This problem is from my Solve It! Problem Solving for Young Mathematicians.
Students work together and record their work in their math journals as they try to solve these problems. I intentionally make them difficult (these are first grade examples) and in fact often students do not find the complete answer before our time is over. But my favorite quote of this past year came from a young mathematician who did not get the answer. As we headed to lunch he said to me, "I didn't get the answer, but I sure learned something." Wow! Exactly what I was aiming for. In order to teach students to problem solve, the problems must be difficult. The students must talk about the problem and brainstorm ways to solve it with their partners, often several ways are tried before they are successful. But by bringing them to the frustration level and helping them learn to work past it, they become stronger problem solvers. 

Math Writing and Reading - This center is so easy to manage. First I have my students start at math writing. Each week I give them a writing task. Sometimes it's a journal prompt that they gather as a group to discuss after everyone has written their answers. Other times it is writing word problems about a given topic that I can type and gather into a class book for more problem solving. Another writing activity is what I call "The answer is..." This is probably my favorite and it's the one we do most often. The idea came from an article in Teaching Children Mathematics (Barlow, A.T. and Cates, J.M. “The Answer is 20 Cookies. What is the Question?” Teaching Children Mathematics (2007), 252–255.) 

These math writing activities are from my What's the Question product.

This activity can be used at any grade level - you can change the difficulty by changing the numbers or the requirements. You can require 2-step story problems or the use of decimals, fractions, numbers with 3-digits, etc. After students finish the writing activity of the week, they gather at a basket full of math related literature for the remainder of the time.

Partner Work - This is the activity that I change every week. I try to choose activities that help my students gain some independent practice with a variety of math topics. Usually my Monday mini-lesson will be the basis for this activity. If I am teaching time, then this is an activity to help my students practice telling time, if I am teaching fractions to the whole class, then it's a fraction activity. While teaching how to add coins, I set up a small store for students to practice adding coins. I often use task cards for this center that go along with my math exchange CGI problems, sorting activities, etc. Here are some examples from this year:

This is also part of my free Place Value Scoot download at TpT.

This counting caterpillar idea comes from Debbie Diller's book Math Work Stations.
Spin the Answer is a free download at TpT.

Math Games - This is the favorite of all centers. I use math games as a way for my student to practice their basic facts. Most of the games use dice and decks of cards from the dollar store.  I use my mini-lesson time once a week to teach a new game and I rotate games throughout the year.  Up on the wall is a list of all the games students can play with a picture to help them remember each game. 

For the most part I am super happy with the way my math workshop went this past year. Remember, it was my first year organizing math in this way. My changes are probably more accurately "tweaks" for improving it.
  1. Rotate the math games more often. I need to watch for games that the students aren't playing and rotate in new ones. 
  2. Help students learn to help each other.  I need less interruptions while I am working with my math exchange group.  My kids were pretty good at just holding up their math journal so I could see their problem solving efforts and nod yes to move on to the harder problem or no to keep working on it. But I would rather have them work more collaboratively with their partner and wait for me to finish with the math exchange group. Then I could call them over to talk about their problem solving efforts, guide, and help them as a small group.
  3. More anecdotal notes. I did fabulous with this at the beginning go the year. During each math exchange I made notes on how each student solved the problem. I focused on strategies they were using, strategies that would help them become more efficient and things they were struggling with. Then I used the information to help with reteaching and dividing up groups for the next week. I even had the chance to pull them out and show examples at parent conferences. I just wrote my notes on a group form I had made but transferred them to a composition book later in the day that was divided by student and allowed for more detailed information. It worked great until somewhere at the end of January/beginning of February when I had a week that overwhelmed me and I got behind. I quickly found out that I couldn't remember what each student had done by my cryptic notes the next day, and a week later it was even worse. I needed to transcribe my notes the same day. The next week I was still feeling buried and thought, "Why not just write the full notes while they are with me?" I can tell you why not. When I tried to take the time to write out a more detailed note on one student, the other students were solving the problem faster than I could record or even observe. Basically I was missing a bunch of great math information. So next year I will stick with my cryptic notes during the group, but force myself to transcribe them in more detail on the same day for the entire year. I'm embarrassed to admit that by April and May I didn't have enough information to divide my groups according to my students' needs and I was just dividing in any haphazard way. 

What will stay the same? That's easy - most everything will stay the same. I loved this structure. I loved that my students were actively engaged. I have never had a year where we did this much problem solving. My students this past year are probably my best problem solvers as a whole. I had students who knew they were going to be on problem solving the next day trying to remember the problem to work on it at home. One little mathematician called his mom into the bathroom while he was showering to ask her how many stars are on an American flag.  Then he tried to figure out how many would be on a bunch of flags. He was working a harder problem than I was giving, I think his answer was in the ten thousands whereas the actual problem had an answer of 300.

Another thing I loved is that all of my addition and subtraction fact practice was with games. In my heart of hearts I thought this was the best for my students, but I have to admit that I got a little nervous when my team wanted to give a paper and pencil common assessment in the late fall. I realized my students hadn't completed a single math worksheet. In fact the test was going to be their first and I was the only teacher using this approach. My team basically told me, "Sounds interesting, let us know how it goes" when I told them I wanted to change up math before school began. So I got a little nervous about this common assessment. However, my results were amazing - everyone passed. Plus by the end of the year they were more fluent with their addition and subtraction facts than my last few classes had been. Math games will definitely be staying the same!

I created so many products for my math workshop this past year. I will try to just show a few! All of my CGI math products are available individually or in bundled sets for savings.
This bundle contains all of my CGI word problem products and all of my task cards.
Each product in this bundle is also available in smaller bundles or individually.
Here are my smaller bundles:
This product contains 10 of my CGI word problem sets.
This product contains 4 more of my CGI word problem sets.
The task card bundles are available with numbers up to 20 or numbers up to 100. They are also included in The Ultimate CGI Word Problem Bundle. I use these task card sets for partner work. Each set correlates to a word problem set that I use in math exchange.

Here are a few of the individual task card sets:

And some of the individual problem solving sets that I use for my math exchange:

Preparing for the Feast
In the Barnyard
In Santa's Workshop
Sliding on the Ice
Here are some other products I use during my math workshop for problem solving and math writing:

Wow! That was the longest post ever! Thanks for sticking with me on this one. My next post in the Diggin' into Next Year series will be about reading comprehension on the week of June 22. Hope to have you back for that.

You may want to head over to Where the Magic Happens to read how some other great teachers are organizing their math workshops. You'll find more links there.


  1. Brandi, I love the way you based your instructional decisions on research. Do you have a calendar time? Do you integrate it with your Math block?

    1. I do have a calendar time but it's not during my math block. I actually decided to write my "topic of your choice" on calendar time. So I'll talk about it during week 10 of Diggin' into Next Year.

  2. Brandi, I read Math Exchanges a few summers ago, and LOVED it!!! Not going to lie though, as I moved states and grade levels, I sort of forgot about it, or rather, it went to the wayside! I was still pulling small groups, but it just wasn't the kind of focused time I wanted. Thanks for reminding me about it!

    Theresa @ True Life I'm a Teacher!

    1. There are so many good things we can do in our classrooms, it's easy to let something go and just forget about it. Just this year I was bemoaning the difficulty I was having with a student who would not use context while reading and it hit me, "Hello! What about read the covered word?" A strategy I had used for years and just hadn't thought about for a year or two. Too much to do and too little time. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Brandi, great post! I love how you really challenge your students. As I read I just kept nodding, along with each and every great feature you mentioned. I had a thought when I was reading about your note taking situation. Would it help to snap a picture of their work? There's an app called 3-ring binder where you could tag pictures to students. Just a thought.
    Not very fancy

    1. Thank you so much for the great idea. I am definitely going to look at this. A picture is worth a 1000 words! If I could snap a picture and comment on it all electronically, it would be so amazing and time saving. I love this suggestion!

    2. I have been looking for the app and am somehow missing it. Does anyone have any tips for this?

    3. I finally found it. Should have waited 5 more minutes before posting that comment above! It's called Three Ring and it's for iPad or iPhone. It looks perfect for documenting student work with problem solving. Best of all it's free so I can give it a try with nothing to lose. Thanks for the idea, Deb!

  4. You truly have great products that are cute yet mathematically sound. You really know your research!