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Math Classroom Structure
by Gail Englert

A response to the question:

How do I set up math groups?

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In the typical elementary classroom, the classroom teacher teaches reading using reading groups based on the students reading level. What about math? I would like to set up 2 math groups, 1 high and 1 low, and target the concepts that they are struggling with or challenge the students who need it. I know the needs of my students but I'm not sure how to set up these groups. Do I teach whole group then pull the lower group aside and drill them some more or do I teach 2 separate lessons? What about the students who finish early. Do I send them to math centers? What about the lower students, will they ever be able to attend math centers because they are still working on their seat work? HELP!

Dee Dee


Dear Dee Dee,

I teach a fifth grade group of students with pretty diverse abilities. Sometimes the lesson is a whole group lesson, if the material I am covering is something I think the entire class will benefit from.

Like you, though, I recognize that sometimes students need a bit of extra help or some enrichment. I do not establish solid groups in math because there is a great chance that the students who don't know something in one area of our studies will do just fine in another area. Of course, there are some students who I find always "select themselves" for my helping group, while others are most often working independently on tasks designed to extend their thinking.

When I'm planning to use groups for a lesson, I use the first five minutes of a class time to give a very quick assessment of some sort. It needs to be something I can quickly look at and make some decisions about. Students finish this "sorting activity", give me their paper (usually a half sheet), then work on a problem of the day until their group mates are also finished. At that point, the group discusses the 3 - 5 problems from the prior night's homework. They are free to use classroom tools to "prove" their ideas to each other, and they may record any changes they wish to make, using ink, on their homework paper. By the time I am done checking through the responses to my "sort" they have finished discussing their answers, and we take a short time to discuss anything the group couldn't come to consensus on.

I call out the names of the students who will be working on an independent activity. They are asked to select one or more partners, and to read over the directions quickly with me. The activity I select for them usually applies the topic we are studying to a problem-solving situation or a number theory investigation. They might have to find division problems that all have a certain remainder, or use geobaords to build figures of a certain perimeter. Though I am basically going to be focusing attention on the "weaker" group, there will be some moments when I can pull away and check on their progress. They are familiar with the materials in the classroom, so when they finish the assigned task, they know it is their duty to find something else to explore, like measurement materials (length, volume, mass), calculators (we have the programmable Explorers, and they know some random number games they can play), or the myriad of other manipulative materials lying about wanting to be handled.

Meanwhile, the other group uses concrete materials to lay the foundation they are missing, or they may work to methodically record the results of what appear to be random calculations, looking for a rule. Whatever the activity is, they do something guided by me, but still with an element of investigation and discovery. This is the group that often needs guidance in exploring. They aren't sure what math tools to use yet, don't have enough experience with numbers, and they often don't have the power to see what is happening without a bit of prodding. We might be finding a way to determine equivalent fractions, or using money pieces to divide, or building decimals with a place value game. The key is to engage them in the experience, so they won't feel "punished" since they are working directly with me, and so they will gain the skills the other group already appears to have -- those discovery/exploration tools that will serve them so well in the future.

My goal is always to stop about 5 to 10 minutes early, so I can "debrief" with the independent group, and give the other group some "independent time" -- even if it is working on the same sort of activity we just did, but on their own or in small groups. It gives them a sense of accomplishment to see that something they were really struggling with is beginning to make sense, and I have a bit of time to check on the outcome of the other group's activity.

The downside of this approach is that I do NOT have adequate time to do it justice every day I want to use it. There are days where we run out of time (I have 55 minutes), and I don't feel I've had the closure I wanted. Sometimes I don't feel that I worked enough with the independent group. And sometimes the task turns out to be much easier, or more difficult, than I recognized it would be. But that is what teaching is, isn't it? We constantly assess our instruction, looking for the perfect fit of lesson to student, but aren't always able to pull it off. That idea, and the fact that my students enjoy the lessons, and grow from them in their personal knowledge and math expertise, keeps me going.

I hope I have given you some ideas to work with. If you are looking for ideas for independent work, Marilyn Burns has many books that give all sorts of games and activities for use in the elementary classroom. Good luck in your efforts. We would love to hear how you fare.

-Gail, for the T2T service

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