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?

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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 give 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.

> > > Lastly, I WANT TO BUST THE BIGGEST MYTH THAT YOU MAY BE BELIEVING ABOUT MATH STATIONS right.now.my.friend. 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

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! Click below to read about it!

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

An Overview of My Upper Elementary Math Stations

Math Station Essentials {Tools for Organization and Management}

Organizing Your Math Stations Schedule: Math Stations Rotation Template

“Must Have” Math Manipulatives for Upper Elementary