Reflections and Resources from Tarheelstate Teacher: July 2017
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5 Rules for Math Stations...that you can break!

Are you a little giddy (and overwhelmed) as you think about implementing math stations this year? Are you trying to figure out your activities for BUILD stations or pinning down what your MATH acronym stands for? Worried about teaching routines and procedures for math stations or how you will keep up with all of the groups and assignments? Stressing over what your math bulletin board will look like?
Trying to implement math stations or guided math centers into your upper elementary math routine this year? Well, I've got 5 rules that you can plan to BREAK as you set up your routines, schedule, and teaching plans. 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students will love this approach to math stations, and teachers will feel RELIEVED to break the rules that may have been ingrained in your mind about "how math stations" must be done. Check out these "new" ideas for upper elementary math stations and make your life easy as pie!

Well, let me stop you there!

Using stations, centers, or guided math in an upper elementary classroom doesn’t have to be complicated or a management nightmare. You don’t have to plan or search for an outrageous number of activities or spend hours laminating and cutting. And you don’t have to have figured out these uniform categories of activities that you use all year.

I have implemented some form of math stations with my 4th grade and 5th grade students since my 4th year of teaching, and let me tell you, it made a tremendous difference in my ability to differentiate for and engage my students. {My last post was an overview of my take on upper-elementary math stations--head back there first if you missed it!}

I want to share with you some “rules” for upper elementary math stations that you may have somehow got the impressions that you must follow. I will admit, I can be a bad influence, but I encourage you to break these so called rules if they aren't working out for you and your students.

Let’s be Math Station Rule Breakers together!

Rule # 1: Figure out a Fancy Acronym to Organize Your Stations/Rotations

I’ve never used a fancy acronym for my math stations. I’ve tried. I’ve obsessed over it. I’ve come up with activities I want my students to complete, and I’ve tried to force them into this perfect acronym. What I’ve found is that I’m much happier with my math stations without over-structuring them in this way.

We can still have common routines, procedures, and activities that occur regularly enough that students “understand the drill,” but I don’t have to force my math stations into specific math categories. To me, this over-complicates the planning process and sometimes forces teachers to find “filler” activities just to fit a category.

So, the first “rule” of math stations that I break that you can also break is that you don’t need some fancy acronym. You can simply have ideas for a variety of activities or just create stations as you find resources you love for your unit.

Ahhh, isn’t this freeing?!?

Rule #2: Plan for and Have Math Stations Every Day

You may think that the only way you can get started with math stations is to get them going every day. 4-6 different activities or groups each day of the week sounds like a lot of planning and laminating fun to me (not!). Before you go all in like this, ask yourself why you are committed to have stations every day and consider the benefits of only having stations a few days a week.

The biggest secret to my enjoyment and management of math stations (IE—keeping my sanity)—is that I do not run math stations every day. Just because I (you) see value in this teaching structure doesn’t mean I (we) have to be married to it every day or even every week.

Whole-group instruction and whole–group learning activities also have value. Engaging students in problem solving, inquiry, and math talk where everyone works together and learns from one another also has value!

Often when I launch a new unit, we do a lot of whole group activities, discussions, group, and partner activities. I work hard to get students to elicit prior knowledge about our new math topics (tap into what they learned the year before) and I collect information about the strengths and weaknesses I see. I keep a notebook handy and I jot down their misconceptions and insights word for word so that I can use them later in lessons and “bell ringers.” Then, I’ve got more information to help me proceed with planning my math stations. We may spend the first week or two of a unit in whole group discussions, inquiry, and partner activities.

Rule #3: I must tie myself down to a small group table and teach my students never to interrupt my small group.

Running math stations doesn’t have to mean that you are always tied down to a table teaching a guided group. There are lots of ways that you can meet students’ needs and often for 4th and 5th graders, a new lesson is not needed every single day. (Repeating yourself over and over for 3-4 small group lessons is also not a very efficient use of your time. If you find yourself doing this, ask why and if it is effective.) What many of our upper elementary students often need is PRACTICE, new challenges that they have to grapple with, and consistent feedback throughout the learning process.

Providing consistent feedback and support is easier when I am not tied down to a kidney table.

Re-teaching can be done one on one and as needed while you are rotating the room and checking students work. This does not mean that I never plan for a “with Mrs. Roose” station, but I don’t require this of myself for every rotation plan that I make.

Rule #4: Every station and activity must be differentiated.

Now, I have to give you permission to break this rule because I know you know that I am a passionate differentiator. I am a growth mindset enthusiast and a huge advocate of challenging our gifted students while meeting the needs of our struggling students.

But, let’s keep it real. Your students will be a-ok if all of your stations are not differentiated all the time. I have numerous reasons for running math stations—differentiation is a big one, but it is not the only one.

One big reason to launch math stations (and hold them twice a week) is to break up the monotony of a regular math class. Now, I know if you are reading this, you are not aiming to be a boring math teacher, but it happens to the best of us. Math stations force you to be a little more creative and gives students more time to work and less time playing "sit and get."

In addition, differentiation happens through more than the resources we assign. You differentiate for your students based on the level of support you give them—are they working alone, working by your side, do you grab a whiteboard and re-teach something to them, do you partner them up with another student so that they have to explain their thinking?

When I run stations but have not assigned different work to different students, it is often because I want everyone to be able to work at their own pace. (A quality of an ideal math class that is hard to achieve when using a whole-group structure). I also want to use math stations to break up the rut that we can get in with “regular math class” and to motivate my students to push themselves and work hard.

I’ve found that breaking my math block into 2 parts (usually 20-25 minutes each) helps keep students from getting bored from the same activity. Math stations allow me to incorporate seat work and independent practice AND games, partner activities, and mini-projects within one class structure. My students are often “in the zone” in their math stations and then eagerly awaiting their opportunity to get to work on something new. This doesn’t mean that I have differentiated their work all of the time.


YOU, yes YOU, (repeat after me) DO NOT have to have it all figured out before your school year begins. 

Seriously! Your math stations can evolve and progress as the year goes on. Your math station experience can be organic. You can keep it loose and fluid (like I suggest) and you can choose to add new station ideas every time you start a new unit, or a new quarter, or a new week if you get a sudden (awesome) burst of teacher energy.

Trying to implement math stations or guided math centers into your upper elementary math routine this year? Well, I've got 5 rules that you can plan to BREAK as you set up your routines, schedule, and teaching plans. 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students will love this approach to math stations, and teachers will feel RELIEVED to break the rules that may have been ingrained in your mind about "how math stations" must be done. Check out these "new" ideas for upper elementary math stations and make your life easy as pie!But, you really don't have to know every little thing you and your students are going to do before the year starts. Just plan that you are going to have math stations 2 days a week with 4 different stations. Sometimes those station assignments will have students finishing work that was started during a whole group lesson or independent work time.

It's okay for a set of math task cards that you launched in whole group to show up the following day as a math station. It's okay for you to pull out a game that students played in the past to help them review previously learned content. (Actually, these two math station ideas are my preference!)

Then, you can have them experience something new in a small group with you or a station that you monitor and support heavily during station time.

It’s never too late in the year to add stations into your math instruction, but you don't have to follow a set of arbitrary "rules" that you've heard rumors of. 

You have my permission to implement math stations a few days a week, keep yourself available to help all of your groups rather than tying yourself down to a small group all the time, and to use assignments that you had students start with in a whole-group lesson.

Oh, and those bulletin boards and beautiful {fancy} math station acronyms---I'll show you how to get around those in my next blog post!
Management Tools for Upper Elementary Math Stations
An Overview of My Upper Elementary Math Stations

An Overview of My Upper Elementary Math Stations

Deciding to take a step back from whole group instruction in math can be scary. If you are thinking about implementing math stations, math workshop, or math centers, you may be excited, but you may also be having some concerns.Looking for ideas to implement into your upper elementary math stations or guided math centers? Well, you will want to read my tips and ideas for math stations and why I love them before you dive in. Your 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th grade students are ready for this framework for math learning--and you can be too when you find out why I love math stations and how I schedule them into my teaching plans.
How will you move students through all of the material they need to learn? How will you teach them new content and new strategies? How will they learn from YOU as the teacher? How will you keep track of who knows what?

Today I want to share with you my take on math stations, why I love to use them, and a bit about how I schedule our time for math stations.

How I Define "Math Stations" for my Classroom

Math stations are a teaching approach that allow me to use a small group model for teaching math. I can group students flexibly and use stations to assign different activities within one math class. 

I can group my students heterogeneously, homogeneously, based on skills and mastery of concepts, personality, work ethic, how much attention they need, and in cooperative partnerships. I can pair students with partners who will challenge them and partner up students that need more support with a student who is eager to help. 

Math stations allow me to reduce the amount of whole group instruction that I use and provide more variety in activities and assignments than through a whole-group (sit at desk) instruction model. I have 1 hour for math and typically hold math stations 2-3 days a week. I plan for 4 stations and students complete two a day.

Why use math stations?

(See above, haha). Math stations can be a wonderful framework for math instruction to help break up the monotony of whole-group instruction. I have found that math stations encourage my students to develop greater work-ethic and independence. Students learn to work cooperatively with classmates on math-related endeavors.

Juxtaposed with whole group instruction, I find that math stations encourage students who are typically quiet during whole group to ask for help when needed. Because students are spread around the room and working on different assignments, getting help can be done without reservation or stigma attached. During stations, my students are also more likely to seek help from a classmate when struggling (and this is often allowed as long as students are not helping one another too much).

Students who are self-motivated can push themselves during station time. They don't have to wait for other students to "catch-up" or get needed help in order for them to be able to move forward. #wholegroupstruggles right?

Another helpful aspect of math stations is that you can plan for just one small group of students to do an activity with manipulatives at a time, saving you some prep and organizing time because you don't have to get materials together for the whole class. (Like, who is lucky enough to have a class set of fraction manipulatives? Usually not me!)

You should also know that my version of math stations and my use of task cards in math are almost synonymous things. I can use two (or three or four) sets of task cards to create differentiated stations--so, if you are interested in hearing more benefits, you should also check out my blog post about why I LOOOOOVE math task cards

Timing & Scheduling Math Stations

My stations are typically held two times a week. I plan for 4 rotations and spread those across two days. My math blocks have always been an hour, so I plan for students to have 20-25 minutes for a station and then to rotate to a new assignment/activity.

I’ve found that I can run three stations max during my math block, but I am happiest (IE-less stressed) when I have planned 4 rotations across 2 days because of that whole one hour thing. If you have more time, you can have more stations or increase the time for each station. You can also add a whole-group bell ringer, minilesson, and/or a closure about something you see during station time (math related) that you want to address.

For me, 15 minutes for a math station is NOT ideal and I truly caution you from cramming so many stations into a math block that students don't have time to "get in the zone." (I feel the same way about literacy stations!) 4th and 5th graders really should be learning to work and stay focused for 25-30 minutes at a time. With a 15 minute station schedule, by the time students settle and get in the zone, it’s time to move on. Very little work gets completed this way and I find that students have a lack of investment because they simply don’t have enough time. 20-25 minutes is an ideal chunk of time. 

Having students complete two stations per day puts me in my happy place. With two stations, we have around 25 minutes, saving a few minutes for one transition. Students are not rushed in their transition from activity to activity, and with their attention spans, at about 20-25 minutes, they are ready to do something different. With two stations, I can often plan for a quick minilesson (or “commercial” as I sometimes call them) and then send students off to work.

Two ways that I tend to plan and organize math stations in my classroom

1) Most students complete the same activities, just at different times, through a rotation schedule. You may be asking, “If everyone is working on the same assignments, why use stations?” (See all of above again and read on ;) 

My classroom make-up always includes students who work above-grade level and at least a few students who are 1-2 grade levels behind the rest of the class. During whole group instruction, some students zip through practice problems and are left waiting for the next step while slower-working students are unable to complete an assignment and need a great deal of assistance from a teacher. (Does this sound familiar?)

I find that no matter the skill level, most 4th graders still need to complete practice work for our “on-grade level” math standards. Many new concepts are introduced at this grade and I want to be confident that they can multiply, divide, and solve fraction problems with accuracy and deep understanding. I can easily add levels of challenge by having students solve problems in more than one way and use different methods to check their work. I also use my differentiated math sheets to provide tiers of challenge for everyone within one station.

With stations, students can work at their own pace, but still experience variety in the activities they complete during our math block. No one is left waiting for a few students to finish a piece of the lesson before he/she can move on. (This makes stations EXTREMELY MOTIVATING for some students!)

So, even if I am not providing really different assignments for different students (in general), math stations provide lots of benefits. (And in this example, I would need 4 station assignments/ideas.)

Looking for ideas to implement into your upper elementary math stations or guided math centers? Well, you will want to read my tips and ideas for math stations and why I love them before you dive in. Your 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th grade students are ready for this framework for math learning--and you can be too when you find out why I love math stations and how I schedule them into my teaching plans.2) On the flip side, I sometimes plan stations where students complete 1-2 of the same activities but other station assignments are differentiated. With this stations structure, students on different mastery levels may not complete the same activities. For example, everyone completes pages from the math textbook, but students work on different task cards based on their level of mastery. Or, a struggling group meets with me for one of their stations, but other students do not.

Looking for more information about the types of station activities and assignments I use with my students? Read all about the Activities I love using for math stations (coming soon!).

If you still have questions about math stations, please DROP THEM IN THE COMMENTS. I'm writing a whole series about using math stations in upper elementary and I want to share ideas and lots of helpful information to help you reduce the "stress" (fear? anxiety? boy do I have a story to share about my "math station" anxiety during a principal observation) that you may feel as you think about implementing math stations this year.

Be sure to catch these upcoming blog posts:
→ Rules for Upper Elementary Math Stations...that you can break!
→ Management Tools and Classroom Resources that I think are Critical for Math Station Success
→ Activities I LOVE using for Math Stations


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