5 Tips for Establishing Respectful Group Work Routines

When I first began to have students work in groups I gave it up immediately. Like literally, gave it up during the first activity I ever tried. As a new teacher I felt like half of the students were not paying attention to the task, kids were arguing, there was noise and chaos and I didn’t know what to do except abandon it.  Luckily there was an instructional coach who came in and modeled what group work can look like…and then I could see the benefits. For a long time I was afraid of math talk because I felt like I was losing control of the class. I also had my own learning preference, that I personally like to work alone. I felt uncomfortable forcing students to work in a group. But having a balance in the classroom and teaching them those skills is SO important. I noticed that with practice every year, students became more comfortable and more accountable to the task they were asked to do.

Here are 5 things you can do to make group work really amazing:

  1.  The Classic T-Chart: Have the students work in a group, share out what and record it on a t-chart. DEFINITELY do this together as a group. The ideas should come from them, then they’ll own it.tips-for-group-work-elementary-students
  2. The Role Model: Find a role model group and point it out. The best thing ever is to get the groups going, and then stop the whole class about 30-60 seconds in after you find one that is working really well.  Point out the behaviors of the group and praise them: heads together, everyone is engaged, all hands on deck, they are clearly invested.
  3. The One Person Share: (THIS IS MY FAVORITE!) Tell the students ahead of time you are going to ask ONE student to explain the thinking for the group as you walk around. Do not tell them which student. In your mind choose a student from each group that you KNOW struggles to explain their thinking, or who might often check out.  When you get to the group, do not allow others to talk when you approach that student.  If the student cannot explain, tell the rest of the group members that their job is to ask questions and help until the student can explain. Tell them you’ll come back.  The rest of the group will bring them up! Keep returning until that student can explain more about the task.  It’s an AMAZING strategy.
  4. The Fishbowl: Try a fishbowl activity when students are getting lazy! They love to watch each other and learn what is expected. Read about how to do that here.
  5. The Task: Last, have naturally engaging activities for them to try that encourage math talk. Reasoning Puzzles(try them free!), games (like Sink that Ship), Equality Elimination (my newest kind of puzzle) or consider trying some deep tasks from YouCubed! An engaging task takes care of most of the group work problems right from the start.





3 Free and Quick Math Activities to Start Your School Year

Those first days of school are a bit tricky and at times a giant blur.  SO MANY routines to teach! You don’t know the students yet and it’s all about establishing routines.  You want to create a warm, welcoming space, but also have some fun activities to get your kids pumped up to be in your classroom! They are easy prep, meaningful and engaging. Here are three of my favorites to open a school year, able to be fit in at any moment in the day:

People BINGO: This is the “find someone who” game where you get signatures, except this one has a little math flavor.


Math Attitude and Interest Survey: This goes without saying, it’s super important to know how kids feel about math! Give the survey and reflect on their responses, giving you a heads up about their mindset. I loved giving it at the start and the end of the year, and I especially love giving it to my intervention groups.Math-attitude-inventory-survey-mindset
Reasoning Puzzles: Get the kids talking about math during that first week of school. It’s especially a great activity when you want to set up group work expectations. Students study a puzzle and then try to figure out whether the statements given are true or false.




Push Past the Discomfort of No Worksheets

The first time I taught a math lesson without using worksheets was the worst mind shift ever. Why ditch the worksheets to begin with? Well, my biggest problem with worksheets is that a TON of the work has been done for the child already.  The problems are all set up, and a lot of the thinking is pre-determined. Here I’ve got students checking their thinking by writing what they did with place value blocks. Much more eye opening than checking just the answer they got!


So in an effort to do this more I tried group work surrounding a key concept using Reasoning Puzzles.  I was panicking at the end, wondering what did the students even practice, did they learn anything, and how do I know they learned anything???

What I really wasn’t doing was giving myself enough credit as a professional.  There are things that every teacher has in place, or can easily put into place to remedy that panic:

  1. Observation: Tell me about the time that you gave an assessment and were surprised when someone didn’t do well.  Oh? That’s never happened? That’s because you are in their faces all the time and you know what the students are able to do on a daily basis.  You’re never surprised because your careful observations tell you when students are lost. How you take notes is probably up to your own personal style, but what you do with those notes we’ll talk about in another blog post.
  2. Exit slips: One or two problems just to check on the key understandings is all you really need to know if someone understood what was going on. Sometimes we get caught up on things looking “pretty”…and it took me a long time to let that go. My favorite exit slip for whole group, small group or even 1 on 1 teaching is the ever useful post it note.
  3. Trust in the conversations:  You know that when are you are learning something new, you don’t always have to prove it with a worksheet.  Sometimes you watch a video, talk to others, write it down. You have multiple learning modalities which is true in the math world as well.  Watch their demonstrations and listen to their conversations. They don’t need a piece of paper to prove it EVERY time.

If you are truly very tied to worksheet based mathematics, no one is suggesting you let it all go on the first day. Maybe try something different once a week, but build in the routines for it as well.  In coming blog posts I’ll highlight some of those routines and procedures to help us brainstorm together how we can keep students accountable.



Mathematically, Which One Does Not Belong?


I know when you see the picture, the egg immediately jumps out.  It doesn’t belong because of the fact that it’s not a fruit, right?

But you can’t let the students answer that way.  You have to push their thinking. How does one of those items not belong MATHEMATICALLY? Can we talk about measurement, shape, symmetry, or patterns?

Whenever we want to have students use precision of language in mathematics, we need to give them the opportunity to have authentic conversations about real life things.  We can’t create a language rich classroom without connecting mathematical terms to something that they know. We need to listen for mathematics in their every day language, not just during math class.


No Answers Given for Deep Math Tasks

If you haven’t heard of Dr. Jo Boaler of Stanford University, you’ll need to make it your mission to learn about her this summer. She is an outstanding educator that is truly creating a revolution in the math world.

You can find out more at YouCubed.org, where there are deep math tasks for many ages. I had the pleasure of working with a phenomenal fourth grade teacher who wanted to see these math tasks in action. Here is an example of one…


As teachers we were very hands off while they were solving, and decided to break them into small groups. We told them that we were going to come around and ask questions.  We told them they could use tools, use each other and that we would not be giving them the answers.

One particular group tried to just imagine it. That didn’t work. Then, a group mate began drawing. That still didn’t work.  So finally the group decided to build a model of the tic tac toe board.  Voila! The light bulbs turned on. They began to debate and talk and figure out which ones were repeats and which ones were unique combinations.


And guess what, we STILL did not give them the answer.  According to some of our most researched math educators/math gurus, it’s actually OK to not give an answer. Math isn’t about questions and answers, instead it is about THINKING.  It’s about estimating whether that thinking is reasonable. When you are shopping, and trying to figure out how many pizzas to buy for your giant family that is coming this weekend, there is no answer key. Right?

Don’t worry…I’m still adjusting to that way of thinking. This is VERY hard for me to not reveal any answers. More to come on these types of tasks!



Teachers, You Don’t Have the Summer Off

Summer is an anxious topic in my own mind. As an educator I go through so many emotions in the summer. First, it’s the disbelief that the school year is over! A little depression always follows, I miss the kids, I miss the staff and I miss the daily routine of getting up and having a purpose for working during my day.

Then, I have the guilt. The guilt of having this precious time off and feeling like I need to defend it to others. When I tell new people I meet that I am a teacher, the comments start rolling “Oh, how nice! You get the whole summer off?” and “Are you done working?” or “It must be nice to have all that time off!”.  Most of the comments are coming from kind, well meaning people. Others are jealous, others seem a bit judgy that I’m being “paid” for this time.  (Hello?! Can we finally dispel this myth that teachers are paid for their summers?)

But overall I feel a sense of calm. Yes, there are some work days that will follow but it’s a time for me to recharge and get my head around some of the things that were bothering me during the last school year.  I spend my time solving problems, thinking of creative ways to help kids learn more and just reflect. During the school year, I feel that there is SO little time for thoughtful reflection. It’s a constant rush and buzz and lots of stress with the things teachers are expected to fit in. In the summer my mind is finally quiet, and I can truly think.

So teachers, cheers to you. I know you’re not done working! I know that you are already thinking about the next school year, the next project, the next everything. And if you could also take a true break from that and check out mentally for a while, I won’t judge you.



Math Doesn’t Always Have to Be Numbers

Which one of these does not belong mathematically?



Visual mathematics will fire up your students, especially those that do not have an “answer”.  They also work as math warm ups and math shares at the end of your lesson. It’s SO easy to throw up 3 or 4 objects under your smartboard and voila! You’ve got instant math talk and math debate.  The only rule…there must be mathematical words when you describe and defend your thinking.

Your students will blow your mind!