June 27, 2013

Guided Math Without Centers

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Another possible title for this post was: "Guided Math Without Losing Your Mind."  
This is a long post, so bear with me!

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has felt like they were ready to tear their hair out or lose their mind when attempting or even thinking about attempting guided math.  The truth is that we know small group instruction WORKS, but setting up a guided math setting is just not the same as setting up a guided reading setting.  First of all, in Guided Reading, it's easy to have the kids who aren't meeting with you "Just read" or "Just write" (Hello Daily 3!).  But there is no way to say to kids, "Just do math!" when they aren't meeting with the teacher.  I have seen beautiful math center structures on other people's blogs, but every time I looked at them I just have to say, "Where do you find the time???"  Seriously folks, I am already spread so thin at school that the thought of prepping math centers with meaningful activities every week makes me want to curl up shaking in the fetal position.  Maybe that makes me a lazy teacher, but I think it just makes me a realist.

This year I tweaked my Guided Math structure quite a bit, and while it is DEFINITELY not perfect and continuously evolving, by the end of the year it was functioning pretty well most of the time which to me is a success in itself.  I know Guided Math is a big push in many districts these days and something many teachers are still trying to figure out, so I thought I would share what has been working lately for me!

Seating Arrangement + Brain Buddies
One key feature of my math class is "Brain Buddies."  Basically I create my seating chart for math class so that each student is sitting next to or across from a student of a different ability level.  This student is their assigned Brain Buddy.  I have my kiddos Turn + Talk to their Brain Buddies during my shared lesson, compare answers on HW with their Brain Buddies at the start of class, and explain their thinking on problems they just worked out to their Brain Buddy.  (Within my (homogeneous) guided math groups, I also assign a Brain Buddy--more on this below in the Guided Math section).

Starting Math Class: Transition + First Minutes of Class
I use Everyday Mathematics in my classroom and get 60 minutes a day for math.  However, we switch classrooms (yay multi-grade...) for math, so by the time transitions happen it's usually around 50-55 minutes.  When kids enter my classroom at math time, I have a math message up on the projector:
I use music for my transitions, so the kids come into math to a song.  We sing and clap together, and at the end of the song, all kids are expected to have the appropriate materials out and be ready to learn.  I start math either with a homework check (SHORT--I just go over a couple tricky problems), some mental math, or a quick review problem on white boards.  I try to have this warm up and hw collection done within the first 5 minutes of math so I can jump into my shared lesson.

Shared Math
One challenge with guided math structures is keeping that shared lesson short.  I try to keep mine to 20 minutes so I can have plenty of time for guided groups.  However, there are days when 20 minutes just isn't enough to cover the new content I need to teach!  Those days I might go a little long and sacrifice one rotation of guided, but I try really hard not to do that too often.
One of may anchor charts created at the carpet during guided.  
(I create the "bones" in advance to save time during the shared lesson.)

To keep the kids from getting antsy, I often choose to move them to the carpet for my shared lesson.  I know that this transition takes an extra minute or two, but I find a lot of times a quick movement break, even just a change of seat, helps my kids focus.  I may say something like, "Join me at the carpet with your white board, marker, and eraser.  Get in 3 high 5s on your way and choose a seat by your brain buddy."  Otherwise, I either use my Tablet PC or journal pages under my document for shared.  I try to introduce a new concept, work through some practice problems, and maybe do a few problems on a math journal page in the EDM journal.

Guided Math Structure
At the end of my shared lesson, I will go over assignments and expectations for guided math time.  Guided Math time is usually 25-30 minutes, including 2 rotations: 1st rotation 15-20min, 2nd rotation 10-15min.  I post the rotation schedule and assignments on my screen:
This year I had a support teacher for guided math 3 days a week.  Here's a breakdown of the groups we met with and the frequency.  (I know not everyone has a support teacher, and that does make guided math way trickier.  I'll give some suggestions for that at the bottom.)
(My triangles were the "approaching" group, trapezoids were a "bubble" group, hexagons were an "on" group, and rhombuses were my "beyond" kids.)

In my guided groups, I did a mix of journal page problems, white board practice to reinforce the skill I taught in Shared, and homework previewing.  Nothing fancy--mostly we did in small groups whatever my EDM manual wanted the kids to do independently.  (I always meet with the most struggling students first.)

Independent Students
Obviously a good chunk of the class is NOT in a group at any given time, and figuring out how to best meet the needs of these kids during their independent time is by far the biggest challenge of guided math.  As the title of this post says, I do not use centers for guided math.  Instead, I give a daily assignment and utilize both the EDM games and skill reinforcement games I make up myself.  Assignments are posted on the screen as seen above, and I briefly go over them before transitioning to guided.  On a typical day, independent students are expected to:
  • Finish a journal page OR Start a homework page (ex. evens or odds)
  • Check journal page answers in my manual (which I left out on a desk open to the correct page)
  • Circle any tricky problems
  • Play a game from pre-selected options
I mentioned above that my students have "Brain Buddies" for both shared and guided.  My students are expected to sit by and work with their Guided Brain Buddy during the guided math portion of the math block.  They are expected to work through problems together, check work together, and then choose a game to play together.  I shared a picture of my math bulletin board back in March:
This board worked out great for explaining instructions for new games and organizing materials and handouts.  Kids always knew what games were available and where to find materials so they didn't have to interrupt my group.

When I finished with my first group, I would ring my bell and call over the second group.  These students had already been working on the assigned page, so our group looked a little different than the first group.  I would start by asking them which problems were tricky--either ones they couldn't solve at all or ones they noted were incorrect after checking with my manual page.  We'd work through those and do other practice problems if there was time.

 Many days the journal page and even the games in EDM would not be challenging enough for my highest achieving learners.  Those times I would take a short guided math session early on in the week to introduce a special challenge activity to my highest guided math group.  I would let them know that they could work on this activity during the week instead of journal pages and games during their independent time.  Obviously I meet with my highest group less frequently than my approaching group, but I would try to meet with them at least twice a week to make sure that a) they were understanding the main content and b) they were progressing on their challenge activity.  I pulled these activities from EDM's enrichment sections a lot, but one favorite from outside the core curriculum was when we were learning about percents, the enrichment kids completed a "shopping spree" where they cut pictures out of ads and calculated sales prices and sales tax.
What if I don't have support?
On days when I didn't have a support teacher and I felt that many of my students were struggling, I'd scrap my typical rotation schedule and instead do a "Show What You Know" Check-In.  Here's how it works.
I projected between 3 and 4 quick check problems on the screen as a follow up to our shared lesson.  Students had 5 minutes to solve the problems either on their boards or in their notebooks.  (I usually played a song during this time.)  After 5 minutes, instead of wasting precious seconds going over every problem, I'd just project the answers and ask the students to mark their work correct or incorrect.  Then, they'd show me on their fingers how many questions they got right by placing their hand on their heart (Daily 5 Style).  If I gave 4 problems, students who got 0-2 right automatically came to the carpet to work with me (instead of the table because it's often a bigger group), students who got 3 correct have their choice of whether they want to work independently or with the teacher, and students who got 4 right are independent.  Not perfect, but it works alright!
PHEW!  That was long.  I hope some part of it was helpful!!!  Email me at juiceboxesandcrayolasATgmailDOTcom  if you have any questions!

Tell me about your math block!!


  1. WOW! AMY!
    This sounds amazing!
    I actually PRINTED this post because there are so many awesome details in here!
    Despite your sentiments in the first two paragraphs, I think you should feel great about all that you have going on. Sometimes our jobs seem to be an odd mix of ringleader and magician...
    We don't have EDM, but I am trying to figure out how to adapt parts of this set-up to work in my room.
    Thanks for the awesome (and helpful) description!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  2. Thank you for posting this! This will be something I reference a lot this coming school year.

  3. Great explanation!! Thanks so much for sharing! :)

    Tales of Frogs and Cupcakes


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