Q&A #7575

Setting up math groups

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From: Gail (for Teacher2Teacher Service)
Date: Dec 28, 2001 at 08:38:30
Subject: Re: Setting up math groups

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 classtime 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 groupmates 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 

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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