One of the hardest things to do is change the way we teach. We learn in educational programs that engaging students with each other and individualizing instruction are some of the keys to keeping students on track. Yet I sometimes find myself stuck in the mode of “talk and chalk,” leading the whole class through “I do, we do together, you do” activities. One of the solutions to getting out of this pattern of whole group instruction is the use of rotations and math centers. I am including one of my favorite math center activities as a download for this post.
MATH CENTERS ARE NOT JUST FOR ELEMENTARY STUDENTS
Those of us teachers who are of an age that our teachers in elementary and middle school did not employ math centers or rotations sometimes struggle to grasp how math instruction can be made more engaging by using these techniques.
My experience is that teachers at the younger grades are more willing to implement math centers, but teachers at the middle school level, and definitely at the high school level are increasingly unaware of what math centers and rotations are, or are unwilling to avail themselves of the opportunities that math centers or rotations present.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of using learning centers in middle school and high school classrooms, I suggest downloading this informative eBook from Dr. Katherine McKnight.
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES OF MATH CENTERS
While the suggestions below, culled from my own experience and research, will provide you with a template for implementing math centers in your classroom. I should point out that my own experience began more with “rotations” rather than math centers themselves. For this reason, I want to share how this helped me shift my thinking.
Gallery Walks or Carousel activities allow students to get out of their seats and circulate in the rooms as they solve problems. A large number of simple problems can be posted around the room and students can circulate in pairs to complete the tasks. This moves us toward the idea of Math Centers, but while I have used them often (and still use them), they are not Math Centers in the truest sense of the term.
Math Centers are different from Gallery Walks or Carousels and have several distinguishing features:
Students work in small groups of four to six, rather than in pairs
The number of centers varies from as few as four to as many as seven, depending on the size of your class and how long your class period is
The nature of tasks in a Math Center is a somewhat deeper than the type of quick problems used on a Gallery Walk or Carousel
Tasks in Math Centers come from a series of routines that you have built in your classroom and can be recurring as you continue to manage your class in this mode
One station in all well-developed Math Centers is dedicated to the teacher working with a small group of students for 10 minutes.
KEY DECISIONS IN IMPLEMENTING MATH CENTERS IN YOUR CLASSROOM
RECOGNIZING WHEN TO USE MATH CENTERS
To ensure center work is successful, educators need to know when in the learning cycle to use Math Centers. Now, I don’t want you to think that I am doing Math Centers every day! They are only one of several ways I teach my students. Choosing the right strategy for certain content at different points in the learning cycle is part of the art of teaching.
FRAMING YOUR PLANS FOR MATH CENTERS
The number of students in your class and the length of your periods are major determinants in framing your plans for Math Centers. Through most of my teaching career, I have had relatively large classes of 26 to 30. I typically like to have no more than six students in a Math Center group.
With a class of 30 students and a 60-minute class, I can have five ten-minute stations with six students per group. Classes shorter than an hour will make organizing really great Math Centers difficult. Longer classes can mean smaller groups of four or five and more stations.
A typical class sessions using Math Centers looks something like this:
5 Minutes: Organize the groups and review the goals of each station
10 Minutes: Station 1
10 Minutes: Station 2
10 Minutes: Station 3
10 Minutes: Station 4
10 Minutes: Station 5
5 Minutes: Summarize and close out class (assign homework)
Another key decision about Math Centers is how to group students—homogeneously or heterogeneously.
For me, one of the great advantages of using centers to structure a class is that once students learn the routines, I can insert myself at one of the stations, spending ten minutes with each group. When this is the case, I like to group my students homogeneously with at least one high-ability group and one or two groups that are struggling on the current topic. These ten minutes of focused time with groups of students at different levels of readiness allows me to differentiate my instruction, accelerating with students who are ready for a challenge, and providing support to students who are struggling with a concept or procedure.
At the beginning of the year, I would institute Math Centers fairly early on, but would keep them very simple, without a teacher-led station. I focus on having students getting used to the various routines that will allow the groups to function more independently as the year continues. At this time, I am probably grouping heterogeneously as differentiation is not the goal, but rather the development of routines.
After students have learned the routines, I can shift from my role as a supervisor to that of a station-leader. When I am ready to do this, I am usually using Math Centers more than a week into a topic—when I have a good idea of how students are doing. It is at that point where I am able to group students homogeneously and really meet their needs in those small group settings.
DEVELOPING ROUTINES THE MAKE MATH CENTERS FUNCTION WELL
Especially if you and your students are new to Math Centers, it is going to take some time to develop the routines that will make Math Centers function well in your classroom.
In the beginning of the school year, we focus on developing routines in our classrooms. What I recommend is to build routines as a whole class that can be incorporated into Math Centers. That way, your first few attempts at centers can focus on the rotation of students and not on the tasks themselves.
MATH CENTER IDEAS OR ROUTINES FOR THE CLASSROOM
Remember that each Math Center activity should last ten minutes; here is a list of that I would develop as a whole class, which can later be used in the centers.
#1 FRAYER MODELS
Completing Frayer Models is a vocabulary development tool where students list the vocabulary word in the center of the page, and then complete four sections with a definition, facts/characteristics, examples, and non-examples. Students should be able to complete several Frayer Models at a station. This is a simple routine to teach as a class and implement as a station.
Download the Frayer Model Organizer template associated with this post and start using it today!
#2 NOTEBOOKS OR JOURNALS
Checking notebooks or journals can be completed by students at one of the stations. I have students keep a separate notebook for only math class that includes class notes, class assignments, vocabulary, reflections, and so on.
After notebooks or journals are introduced to my students, I initially collect the notebooks myself and use a checklist to set the standard for what I expect. Then after a couple weeks I have students use a checklist, and as a whole class practice notebook checks. After students have learned the routine, this is a great station for a Math Center that results in a quick grade calculated by another student!
#3 PRACTICING BASIC SKILLS USING TECHNOLOGY
Practicing basic skills using technology, if you have it, is a great use of ten minutes in a Math Center. Some students will need to sharpen their basic facts. But all students can benefit from a set of exercises to memorize certain facts—decimal equivalents of fractions, perfect squares and cubes, square roots, and so on.
If laptops or tablets are available and your school subscribes to a online tool for basic facts, then this is the easiest of stations once students are trained in using the software. But even if you don’t have access to programs like this, flashcards can do the job!
#4 WRITING PROMPTS
Writing prompts can often be completed in ten minutes. It could be a quick note to a friend about how to complete a procedure, a comparison/contrast of two methods to solve a problem, or an open response item asking students for critiques or reasoning about a problem. With laptops and Google classroom, you can cut down on the amount of paper generated.
#5 WORKSHEETS TO REVIEW PREVIOUSLY-LEARNED CONCEPTS
Reviewing previously-learned concepts and skills is an area that is easily overlooked in the rush to press forward in the curriculum. A quick worksheet to brush up on operations with base-ten numbers, fractions, percents and other proportions, measuring using centimeters or inches, creating line plots—there are so many topics. Self-correcting papers (ones with the answers listed on the side or bottom that help provide letters that solve a riddle… you’ve seen these, right?) allow students to see right away if they have the correct answer once they are trained to use them correctly.
#6 PRACTICING CURRENT SKILLS AND CONCEPTS
Practicing current skills and concepts is a station that requires little training. This station is best placed immediately after the teacher station, once you have it up and running.
#7 ROTATING THROUGH THE STATIONS
Rotating through the stations is a routine that also needs to be taught to students. Once you have taught several of the above-mentioned routines, you can start students’ rotation through Math Center stations.
The first few times, you will need to supervise this activity to make sure that students are learning the routine of efficiently and quietly changing stations. Your alert eyes and ears can help students keep their focus and learn this routine. There are some online timers that you can project on a smartboard or screen. For a series of ten minute stations, I like to set these timers for nine minutes and leave one minute for students to organize themselves. At the ten-minute mark they are ready to move.
MATH CENTER ACTIVITIES YOU CAN DOWNLOAD FOR FREE
Go Fish Place Value, K–3
Wild West Checkers, Grades 2–5
Tic-Tac-Toe, Grades 2–8
Triangle Sorting Activity, K–2
Candy Bar Fractions, Grades 3–5
Fact Family Array, Grades 3–6
Add Fractions with
If you have never used math centers or rotations in your classroom, it is probably going to take a while to build the routines and get yourself adjusted to them. I would encourage you to push through the challenges so that you can add this powerful modality of teaching to your repertoire.
If you are looking for a great activity to start building routines for your math centers, download the Frayer Model Organizer for math classes and start using it today!