For my first several years of teaching, I struggled with teaching math. I tried teaching what I thought was Guided Math to my small groups. I hated it and didn’t feel like I had enough time to teach my students. I tried teaching whole group, but too many students struggled to stay engaged and I struggled to see the work they were doing to provide feedback and support. For a year and a half I tried various different models and groupings for my math block trying to find what worked for me, and, I couldn’t. I continued experimenting.
I tried 3 centers each day for about 45 minutes and the students would rotate to the other 3 the next day. While not all of the math centers changed each day, some of them did, and it was a lot of planning and effort. This was the best set up that I tried at the time, but something just felt “off” to me. I could see students in action every other day, but I struggled with what I had students do independently on the day they weren’t with me. I often had students do their independent practice while I was nearby so I could keep an eye on what they were doing. It was difficult spending 45 minutes of my block (half of it essentially) all in centers. I just didn’t feel like what I had students doing during that time was meaningful enough, and warranted half of the math block.
I also tried just doing 1 group each day and students rotating through during the week, but I didn’t feel like it was enough time for me to see my students working on their math skills. It wasn’t giving me enough time to work with my below level students who need more support.
But then I found what did work for me in my math block. I split my students in half and taught my lessons twice. My kids were engaged and I was able to differentiate for them in smaller groups to meet their needs.
My Math Block Structure
My math block typically begins with our Word Problem of the Day and Number of the Day. Some years, however, I am not able to have the length of a math block I want due to varying schedules, and these pieces easily move to different times of the day. For our core instruction, I split the class in half and teach the lesson to both of them. However, I teach the lesson differently with both groups based on the level of scaffolding they need. Here’s a look at how our typical 90-minute math block is scheduled in this format.
Now let’s take a deeper look into each of the components within my math block.
Word Problem of the Day
The beginning of our math block is *always* a Word Problem of the Day- even if it’s a bit earlier in the day. My first year in the classroom I quickly realized that my teaching of problem solving for one day at the end of the unit, or as a unit itself, just was not enough practice for my kids. Typical curriculums don’t give students enough practice, and do not spiral through the standards in word problems. You can read more about Why I Do a Word Problem of the Day I’ve done the same structure in 1st grade and 2nd grade as I had originally done in 3rd and I find it very beneficial.
Students work through the problem independently following our 3 Reads Strategy for Successful Problem Solving that I teach at the beginning of the year. Every now and then, and to help keep students engaged, I have students work in partners, or explain their work in partners. I find the power with our Word Problem of the Day being in students’ independent practice and oral explanations of their work. Student dialogue is incredibly beneficial in math.
As we solve, we identify the equation to be solved, and how that equation was determined. We focus on the context of the word problem to build understanding. I have dedicated posts for Addition & Subtraction Word Problem Types and Multiplication & Division Word Problem Types. If your students are having a hard time with word problems, you may be interested in reading more about Why Your Students Struggle with Word Problems and what you can do about it.
Students love displaying the steps they used to solve on the board, or explaining to me what steps I should take to solve step-by-step. This is great practice for state tests where students need to explain the steps they took to get to a solution. It also gives students opportunities to see other strategies in action. I also, at times, have students identify where their mistake or misconception was to help fix the misconception.
At the beginning of the year, this takes much longer than 15 minutes, and there are days throughout the year that it takes a few minutes longer, for sure, with more complex problems. But, I’ve learned that giving students daily practice with various levels of rigor, and spiraling through the standards, is key for my students to feel not only comfortable on their state assessments, but also confident that they can read a problem and develop a plan of attack to solve it. Daily problem solving practice gives my students the confidence they need to work through any problem they face, both in our regular curriculum and on our assessments.
We use my Word Problem of the Day bundle during this time as they’re rigorous, focus beyond just correct answers and into problem solving strategies, and keep students’ fresh on all of the standards through an ongoing build and spiral. You can click on any of the images below to take a closer look at each grade level’s word problems bundles.
Number of the Day
My Number of the Day routine is the single most important 10 minutes of my math block!
When I moved from 3rd grade to 1st grade I changed the way I do Number of the Day to an interactive whole group time and it was the best change I’ve ever made. I continued it in 2nd grade, and have continued doing it now that I’m back in 3rd grade. The number sense and mental math kids have shown due to this routine have forever changed my view on number sense and have made me believe that those 10 minutes is the most powerful part of our day. I use my Number of the Day printables (see below) when I’m out of class, or I want to give my students some independent practice. To see more about my Number of the Day routine, you can watch the video below.
Math Small Groups Structure
The change in my math block structure from what I’d previously done is really in the function of the small groups. I split my class into two groups: one with the average and above average students (the kids that don’t need as much scaffolding, or the ones who already have a ton of background knowledge); the second group is the below average and low students (with a few average students that need a bit more repeated practice to get something). Depending on my students and their needs, the groups range from about 9-12 students. While this is higher than my group numbers when I taught guided math in centers, it is more effective for me. I still can group the kids into smaller groups for on the fly reteaching. It also gives a range of abilities in each group. Because the groups are larger, they’re more heterogeneous than when I was working in traditional 4-6 group centers.
The most important part about it for me, is that my low students aren’t able to hide behind my strong math students who are quick to respond. I am able to identify and correct misconceptions and mistakes quickly. I am able to provide higher order thinking and extensions for those students that are ready. I’m better able to have a handle on exactly where my students are and what they need. It has the benefits of both whole group instruction and small groups, in my opinion.
I teach the two groups slightly differently. For the groups, students bring their dry erase boards and markers or their math workbooks and come and join me on the floor. I prefer the floor because it allows me to see what each of them are doing throughout each step. When I would do this whole class, it was so much harder to keep tabs on everyone and circulate. Now I’m able to jump right in, quickly put a couple kids together to reteach, or to show something to the entire group. Students also often jump in and assist each other when someone isn’t getting it. Because we’re all sitting close together and have fewer students to wait on to finish the students stay engaged with what we’re doing.
The big differences between the way I teach my two math groups is the “We do” part of our lesson. With my higher group, after a very quick two problem or so review of yesterday’s lesson, I quickly explain the new lesson and we practice a couple together. The bulk of our time is students practicing the skill on their own with me checking on their work. I do this one or two problems at a time so I can clear up misconceptions right away.
After the group has demonstrated a solid understanding we often are able to take the skill to the next level: to quickly apply the next step in the standard, or even sometimes doing the next grade level’s standard for the skill depending on what the skill is. I will also often ask questions to up the DOK level of the task, or we will work on the skill in more complex word problems. I ask questions like, “If Sarah got X as her answer, what was her mistake?” or “Why can’t we X”.
When I plan, I plan out the week for group 2, and look to see where I might be able to take group 1. With group 2, we spend most of the time working on the problems together. This is the group that needs additional practice, that often has previous misconceptions that need to be cleared up, and needs more practice to truly master it. We discuss the steps together and do problems step by step before I “turn them loose” to try on their own. Even when they do try it on their own, I’m still closely monitoring to see who is getting it and who is not. Often, even within just that few minutes, I do a quick reteaching with a small group, or the whole of the group to make sure students understand. There are times when I never truly give them independent practice, depending on ow much they’re struggling with the skill.
This structure allows me to spend a few moments on previous grade level’s skills that students may be missing, while my focus continues to be on the grade level standard. I can push my high students and also reach my low students who need a lot of “cleaning up”. It’s allowed me to really differentiate and meet their needs. We work through the grade level curriculum together, just at different paces and different levels of scaffolding.
Finally, I really try to make this time as long as possible. Ideally, it’s about 25 minutes per group. I really work on transitions during our classroom procedures at the beginning of the year. I steal a minute or two from our fact practice as I can.
What Do Students Do When They’re Not with Me?
What the students do when they’re not with me has varied over the years. I want that work to be meaningful. I don’t want the kids to just be doing something, nor do I want to spend a bunch of time planning or grading to ensure accountability. Here are a couple things I utilize:
When I’m working with one of the groups, the other group is typically working on their Chromebooks. I want students to stay engaged and really be furthering their knowledge so I tailor this time to work on students’ independent levels or practice our specific standard. Students are usually on iReady (our district curriculum), Freckle, Khan, or Moby Max, but occasionally I’ll throw in something different to keep their excitement up. These websites allow you to assign specific skills/standards and also allow students to practice on their individual levels. With Freckle, I love that I can have students work within the domain that we’re practicing but working at THEIR level. Students practice a specific standard from time to time, and sometimes it’s additional practice with a skill not yet mastered, but often they work where they need to work, and with my low group it’s been great to know that they’re practicing those skills that need to be cleaned up.
I also sometimes assign specific lessons in Google Classroom for additional practice. I often use my 3rd Grade Digital Lessons & Task Cards to give students additional practice with the vocabulary and skill. I use the digital task cards to give my students practice away from my support so I can check in on how they are independently grasping the skill. And I also use the digital quiz as a quick check to gauge progress. Because I formally assess the standard the week after introducing it, I like to use the digital quiz to see which students need additional time on the skill during the next week.
I also utilize games from time to time. My students LOVE to play them, and they’re engaging ways to build their fact fluency. Sometimes we play games like Multiplication Roll & Cover or Addition Bump. If you’re looking for games to build fact fluency, you might be interested in my 5 Fun Games for Building Addition and Subtraction Fact Fluency and 5 Games to Build Multiplication & Division Fact Fluency posts.
Math Fact Fluency
I love to wrap up my math block with some fact practice though it’s not often the full 10 minutes so that’s spent with groups. When a specific program has been dictated, we use that time to fit that in. The last couple years I’ve utilized XtraMath & Multiplication by Heart to help build my students fact fluency. But, my students’ absolute favorite way is to play 5 in a Row. They beg to play each day, and it’s my kids’ favorite part of our learning. I have a blog post that goes into depth about how it’s played and what you need (Powerpoint and a printer!). You can also check out all of my 5 in a Row items in my TpT store.
Math Spiral Review
I also do a daily spiral math review every morning as part of our morning work outside of our math block. It gives students a chance to work through all of the standards several times a year and gives students practice on various standards each day. We do one set of the previous year (40 pages so that makes it through about the first quarter of the year) and then do three sets of the current year throughout the year. I have math spiral review sets for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades. You can click any of the images below to head to my TpT store to check them out. There are yearlong bundles for 2nd and 3rd grades, and each set is sold separately in 40 page sets. The 1st grade version includes two sets for use in spiraling the 1st grade math standards during the second half of the year.
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a walk through our math block. For other math posts you might be interested in, you can click the images and links below.