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.

My take on upper-elementary math stations.JPG

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.

Want more helpful math stations tips? Check out these posts about Math Stations:

5 Rules for Math Stations...that you can break!

Math Station Essentials {Tools for Organization and Management}

Organizing Your Math Stations Schedule: Math Stations Rotation Template

“Must Have” Math Manipulatives for Upper Elementary