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Math Centers: You Can Do It!

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

—Philippians 4:13 ESV

It can look overwhelming, but there are a few simple strategies to make math centers more feasible in your classroom.As an elementary school teacher, you probably know the powerful impact of math centers in your classroom. But how does one organize and then implement such a big endeavor? All through Christ, of course!

Teachers have many questions related to this math curriculum strategy. How many centers should I have in my classroom? How do I group my students? How big should my groups be? What materials do I need? And, how do I organize all of these supplies?

Every day, teachers educate children of various learning profiles and personalities, administer assessments, conduct evaluations, and grade papers until their hands hurt. Teachers supervise children, monitor classroom behavior, and teach and observe daily classroom procedures. Educators make weekly (sometimes daily) parent phone calls, attend teacher meetings, go to conferences, and write lesson plans. These are just a few of the usual teacher tasks. How does one then add items to the task list, like incorporating math centers as a core part of math instruction? It can look overwhelming, but there are a few simple strategies to make math centers more feasible in your classroom.

How many centers should I have in my classroom?

My golden rule is to have four to six math centers rotating at a time, depending on the number of students. There is no set number of centers a teacher must have up and running in their classroom. It is essential to start small and add more centers as you go. It is also important to introduce math centers as a part of whole group instruction, allow the entire class to practice and play the game or activity, and then allow students to practice the center with teacher assistance before putting the center into the rotation. If students are confortable with the activity or game, then there is a better chance for success. Again, start slow and introduce one center at a time. Then add new centers throughout the school year and make changes and adjustments as needed. Below is a sample center rotation chart.

Station A
10-15 minutes
Work with the teacher

Station B
10-15 minutes
Fluency practice

Station C
10-15 minutes
Support or enrichment activity based on skill taught or a technology-based activity

Station D
10-15 minutes
Center game or activity

shape tableHow do I group my students?

One significant advantage of using math centers is the opportunity to work with small groups of students once the centers are up and running. I prefer to put students in homogeneous groups, incorporating at least one high math group and one group that may be struggling with a concept. This grouping strategy I start my rotations by working with the group that struggles the most to get them on the right track.allows teachers to work with a group, at their learning level, focused on the content taught. I then have the opportunity to review, reteach, guide, or encourage my groups to work at a higher-level depending on the students in the group and the group dynamics.

How big should my groups be?

An ideal number of students in a math center group is four to six maximum. If the classroom has students that struggle with math, I would keep that group even smaller and incorporate one or two “at-grade level” math student(s) that can support the group. When working with small groups throughout my math center rotations, I start my rotations by working with the group that struggles the most to get them on the right track, assuring that the math center the students are utilizing is academically appropriate and feasible for their ability level.

What materials do I need?

Keep it simple. Use materials that you may already have on hand, such as decks of cards, math number rods, and dice or number cards. Please do not go out and buy all sorts of new manipulatives. Borrow or use what you have and make it work. Other potentially useful materials are dice, colored tiles, Unifix® cubes, place value blocks, spinners, counters, hundreds charts, and number lines. Again, I suggest that teachers use math manipulatives that they have or if they can share tools among teachers, that's even better. It takes years to build up math resources, but little by little teachers can develop their repertoire of math materials.

math manipulative storageHow do I organize all of these materials?

One of the most overwhelming parts of implementing math centers is organizing the materials and setting up the centers. Here are a few tips and tricks to reduce the stress of organizing in preparation for math centers.

Mathematics center-based learning is vital in meeting the needs of all of the children, but can be overwhelming for teachers. These simple steps will start all teachers out on the right track for manageable and successful math center rotations.

Dr. Anne Thies is an assistant professor and is the Coordinator of Elementary Education at Concordia University Chicago. She has worked as an administrator, classroom teacher, intervention specialist, professional development provider, and now as a professor who works to prepare pre-service teachers for the classroom.

Photos © iStock/AsISeeIt, iStock/Kali9, Kathryn Brewer.