A couple of years ago, I attended an inservice on learning centers in the classroom. Since then, learning centers have become a huge part of my teaching. Now, my students participate in self-directed, self-motivating review, practice, and enrichment on a regular basis. The kids love the math centers and even ask for more work!! This blog is dedicated to helping teachers make math centers a meaningful part of their instruction, thereby increasing students' achievement and the enjoyment of teaching!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Money Plates

        Here is an idea for a fun classroom activity that you can also leave behind at your math centers afterwards. Just get some good quality paper plates, glue some coins onto  them, and then write the total values onto the bottom of each plate. I have 15 or 20 of these at this point, but you can get by with about one for every two children. I tried to carefully plan my coins so that a variety of situations were included (one plate has one quarter with dimes, one has a quarter with nickels, one has a quarter with both, and so on).  For my advanced students, I also have several plates that have fake dollar bills attached to them.
        I have the students count the coins in pairs and then check the bottom of the plate to see if they are correct, and then we rotate the plates around the room. It is good to have a few extra plates for those kids who always seem to finish first. I use the time to circulate and listen to kids count coins and offer assistance. It's a great opportunity for assessment through anecdotal notes. The kids love it, and it gives them good practice identifying all of those weird new nickels and quarters, especially if you normally use the plastic money that all looks the same. It's also good practice counting the money from the largest value coins to the smallest, while the coins are somewhat scattered around the plates. I don't overdo it on scattering them, though. After the activity is over, these plates certainly make for a fun math center activity that kids will really enjoy!
         Tip: Use those heavy cardboard Chinet plates. They last forever and they don't flex, which can lead to coins falling off. Also, keep a bottle of glue handy, in case you need to reattach a fallen coin.  I use Elmer's Glue-all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Free Multiplication Fact Game

Well, the Super Bowl is coming, and I have created a football game for practicing multiplication facts. I'm looking for some feedback/suggestions. If you'd like to try it out, I'd love to hear your ideas. Just click the link to the page below, and then click "Download Now." You should get pdf files with the football field, playing pieces, and fact cards, along with a set of instructions.

Click here to visit my TPT page for free download

For young children, let them PLAY!

With my second graders, I like to put things at the math centers that allow them to play in creative ways. This way they are learning naturally through play. Here are three of my favorites:

Money trays. I don't really even give any directions for this one. The kids just enjoy playing with the money. I put these out when we begin counting money. Sometimes they'll play "Store" or just try practicing counting on their own. You can typically find money trays, like the one pictured, at a discount store with the educational toys.

Talking Clever Clock. No, I don't have a stake in the company that makes this toy. I'm just a fan. It has two settings - easy (15-minute intervals) and hard (5-minute intervals). You can set it to different times and make it say the time, or you can get it to ask you to move the hands to different times and it will check your answers. Although I don't use this feature personally, it also has elapsed time problems. Great product.

Pan balance. After we first begin studying weight, I simply leave a pan balance out, along with the ounce and pound weights. Of course, you should discuss safe, appropriate use of the weights. It's a great math center, because the students can weigh whatever they want, or even compare the weights of different objects. You may want to include a recording sheet as an option.

Got other ideas like these? I'd love to hear them! I'm always looking for more ways to get my younger students "playing" with the math they are learning.

Tiered Assignments

If you want to meet your students where they are in the learning process, you may want to consider including tiered assignments in your learning centers. Tiered assignments are assignments where the level of challenge varies based on students' learning needs. Typically, this is done by starting with the middle level, which is based upon the instructional level that students generally should be expected to meet. Then, the assignment is modified to make it more basic and perhaps provide additional background information or scaffolding to help students whose understanding of the material is still developing. Finally, a more challenging version of the assignment is developed for students who have already mastered the skills, and are ready to start applying the skills in a new setting, or who may be ready to move on to a related skill that goes beyond the instructional level of the class.

For example, suppose the class is working toward a content standard involving plotting points on a coordinate plane, using all 4 quadrants. You might begin with  a whole group lesson where students learn about the purpose of plotting coordinates and how to do so.

  • The middle level assignment might simply be a set of points to plot in all four quadrants, . To make the work more enjoyable for students, you might create a set of points that, when connected, will form a design. 
  • For students who are still developing an understanding, you might provide an assignment in which only points in the first quadrant (with positive values) are included, and then scaffold the lesson, perhaps meeting with this small group for additional modeling prior to attempting to plot in all four quadrants. It is important that all students eventually meet the standard.
  • For students who data shows have already mastered the skill, you might require them to develop their own set of points on all 4 quadrants that will create a design of their own. Perhaps the design might be required to include some specific geometric figures. 

When tiered assignments are used, differentiation is certain to occur. You may need to assign students to work at a particular level, based upon your classroom observations or perhaps a pretest. If students are working on their own, you may consider allowing them to choose an assignment that they feel is most appropriate for them. Also, you may only want to have two levels, depending on the topic and upon the group of students you are teaching. There is a lot of information about tiered assignments available on various websites. You may want to learn more about tiered assignments and use them as a part of your math centers or as a part of your daily instruction.

To Grade or Not to Grade?

When I began my math centers, I had to make a decision about how to handle all of the work my students would be producing. I had so many unanswered questions. Would some students never complete any centers unless their grade depended upon it? Would some students only participate in my math centers if they were rewarded with extra credit points? Would some be discouraged because they got a low score and stop doing center work, or only choose the easiest review activities to help boost their average? What about all my math games that don't actually result in the production of any "work" to grade? Will those just not count, or should I have some sort of a log where kids can record the minutes they spend playing? Isn't that record-keeping going to be a hassle that makes centers more time-consuming? How will I keep up myself? Yikes!!! While I'm not here to tell you the answers to all of these questions, I can only share my experiences with you.

I ultimately made a decision. I would try simply not grading center work at all. Not at all. You know what? It worked. Kids actually seem to do better quality work than they do at any other time, because they are assigning it to themselves and because they are enjoying it. More importantly, they are unafraid to select even the most challenging activities. What's amazing is the way kids take more risks. For instance, on my "Backwards Facts" center, I gave students a bunch of blank math facts with only the products provided, such as ___ x ___ = 36. One of my fourth graders, (don't ask me how) began putting down answers like 1/2 x 48 = 24 and 1/8 x 64 = 8. Eventually, he began putting down answers such as 2 1/2 x 8 = 20. I was stunned. Would he have been willing to try that if it was graded? I doubt it. I also learned that this particular student had a whole lot to offer. I have seen him become one of my stars, and a lot of it has happened at least in part because of math centers.

Moreover, I love the fact that the kids are doing the center work sheerly for the enjoyment of learning. I think the math centers have helped my students become more motivated in general, and my decision not to grade the work helped that to occur. I simply check any worksheets that are turned in (I keep a turn-in folder at the center) and make notes on them, and then I return them to the students. In a few cases, a center assignment has revealed a lack of understanding of a particular concept and I have met with the student to go over it one-on-one. Overall though, the work tends to be remarkably well done.

In the end, you need to find a way of implementing centers that works for you and accomplishes all of your educational goals. I can only encourage you to try not grading work from your learning centers for a little while just to see what happens. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ideas for Math Center Activities (Formats You Can Use Again and Again)

So, now it's time to start filling your math centers with activities. What will get the kids excited, yet provide meaningful learning opportunities? Here are some basic activity formats that work well for me:

Card Games. I like to use a variety of 2-sided informational cards, where kids can play by themselves or with a partner. It's best if the game requires the students to provide some sort of verbal explanation of the concept in order to win, rather than simply requiring them to tell the answer. Even if the game could be played with just short answers or matches, I try to add a verbal explanation component if possible.

Here is an example. This is part of a 16-card game called "Which Is Greater," which not only helps students decide which of two fractions is greater, but also requires them to explain their thinking. Fractions are compared on the basis of like denominators (7/8 vs. 3/8), different denominators with like numerators (1/3 vs. 1/6 or 2/3 vs. 2/9), and fractions that are equal to 1/2 (1/2 = 4/8). Card backs provide correct answers as well as detailed explanations of various possible reasonings.
Buy this game

Coloring sheets. My students seem to like worksheets where the answers are all color coded, so I use them frequently in my math centers. I especially like them because, to some extent, the kids can find and correct some of their own mistakes when their answers don't match the color key. Coloring sheets are also nice to check, because in some cases, I can just look at the colors.

Here is the answer key for a mixed number addition sheet. I like this one because kids solve problems such as 4 3/8 + 1 5/8, and they get 5 8/8. Then they must convert 5 8/8 to 6 wholes in order to figure out what color to make it.
Buy this worksheet

Puzzles that spell out a word or phrase. Students also like math center puzzles that have a key that lets them use their answers with a letter code key, so it spells out an answer to a riddle or a hidden message of some sort. Again, I like that students can catch some of their own mistakes when their answers don't match the key. You can find these in some workbooks, but I sometimes just make up my own. 

Here is an example. This one focuses on finding factors. I put some very tempting distractors into the key, and that prevented my students from using the sentence to avoid working out the math. The answer key is pictured.

See and purchase the full version

Mazes. If you have a lot of information that needs sorted, mazes are a really fun option. Students must identify the spaces that fit the description and follow those spaces to travel to the finish. It works well for skills such as odd/even numbers, multiples, and divisibility rules.

Here is an example. Students must follow the multiples of a given number to get from the start to the finish.
Buy this packet

Crossword puzzles. I sometimes put  crosswords of my vocabulary words in my math centers. But, when I want students to practice converting word form to standard form, or perform some sort of computation, I sometimes put out "crossnumber" puzzles at the math centers. They are just like a crossword puzzle, but they have numerical answers. Again, kids tend to catch some of their own errors, whenever the criss-crossed answers don't overlap.

In the puzzle pictured to the right, students must read the word form of the number and write the number into the puzzle in standard form.
Purchase place value activity pack including this puzzle

These are are just a few of the types of activities I use to make math centers fun for my students. The students don't realize how much they are learning! Hopefully this helps give you some ideas to get your math centers rolling!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Finding the Time to Make Learning Centers Effective

Perhaps you are thinking, even if I start a math center or other learning center and fill it with games, puzzles, and other fun activities, I'll never have time to let my students work on any of it. As a fellow teacher, I get it. Time is your MOST valuable resource. When I first implemented my math centers, I originally questioned whether or not any of them would ever get used. But, you'll be surprised when some of your students seem to do everything you offer them. You will have time.

Here are some ideas for creating time for your students to work on math centers or other center activities:

Before school.  Many teachers assign morning work anyway. Some of the students in my school have as much as 35-40 minutes of free time in the mornings before class, while others go to breakfast or tutoring. If you have that sort of opportunity, consider assigning one morning a week to math centers or writing centers instead of morning work. Centers are a great way to get students focused and get the most out of your mornings.

During class. For my math class, my students have a math journal that they get out every day. I encourage students to keep a math center worksheet handy at all times, by sticking it in the front cover of their journal. This way if we are preparing to transition from one activity to another within a lesson, kids who are finished early can just pull out an extra assignment and work on it for a few minutes instead of sitting around talking or drawing a picture.

At the end of class. When you have a range of ability levels in your class, no matter how much you try to differentiate, there always seem to be some students who tend to finish early, and some who never do. When you are trying to help that struggling student who just "doesn't get it," it's great to know that everyone else is on task. Giving students the option to move on to a center activity when they finish really helps keep the class running smoothly. Sure, you may actually have to stop and help a student with a center activity, but it's a great feeling knowing that everyone is challenged and engaged. My math lesson plans almost always end with the words, "Math centers." The students know, that center work is always an option when they run out of work. I don't even have to say a word. I believe that some of my students even work harder to get finished with their assignments so they can go play a math game or do a math puzzle.

After a test. Tests are the one activity that is seldom differentiated, and they leave many students sitting around pulling out a book or doodling when they are finished well in advance of their classmates. At the end of a unit, I love having those students work on a fun math center activity that addresses some of the skills they have just learned, or forces them to apply those skills in a different situation.

After school. Depending on the size of your school and the geography of the area that feeds students into your school, you may have "babysitting duty" at the end of the day, with several students sitting around for up to half an hour waiting for their bus to be called. Math centers and other learning centers are a great way to give them some purpose while they are sitting around waiting to go home.

The fact is, you will find that centers actually save time in many ways. You'll have to stop less often toward the end of lessons or between activities to create work or correct behaviors of your early finishers. More importantly, your students will have less down time and complete more work than ever before.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Organizing Your Learning Center (Getting Started)

In order that your learning centers can be as effective as possible, they should be organized in a way that is inviting and accessible. Most teachers I've observed seem to use the storage crate as a primary organizer for centers, but I'd highly recommend a more inviting and more highly visible display. I would encourage you to consider either a tri-fold project board or a bulletin board display. 

I use the tri-fold project board on a trapezoid table to display and organize my math centers (special thanks to my friend and colleague Jenny Neville for helping me come up with the project board math center idea). It not only helps to "advertise" new center activities, but it is excellent for helping them find a center activity that focuses on a particular skill, or an activity that offers the level of challenge that they need. In each of the classrooms where I teach, I stapled nine colored file folders onto the project board in three rows of the three. Any cards, manipulatives, or other materials that accompany the activities are placed on the table in front of the board. 

Math Center
Each column focuses on a different topic. Since I teach math, I use the middle column for math facts, because I want students to work on them throughout the year. If you teach reading, you might consider using the middle column for something ongoing and fundamental, such as sight words or phonemic awareness. I use the two outer columns for activities that align with the two most recent units being taught.  So, students can choose between the current topic or continue working on the previous topic. Then when I start a new unit, I replace the oldest column. If I have a few extra activities that won't fit, I just place them on the table in front of the board. In addition, I placed a crate with hanging files under the table to house older activities that students may want to revisit, or activities they wanted to try but never got around to working on. 

Each row is a different challenge level. For my math centers, I used traffic light colors:
                      Red row (top) --  Challenge / Enrichment activities
                      Yellow row (middle) -- Practice activities
                      Green row (bottom) -- Review activities
This allows for student-driven differentiation if your students are ready to handle the responsibility of choosing activities for themselves. You could always assign certain students to particular color levels if you felt they need more direction. Sometimes I will personally select an activity for a student, either because I feel that he or she is choosing something too easy or too hard, or because I know that a student needs practice on a certain skill. However, my students are typically very good at selecting work for themselves.

Another good organizational tool is a bulletin board display. It can be set up the same way as the project board, but with the potential for more available topics and difficulty levels if desired. Like the project board, it is also highly visible and inviting, and it helps to advertise new activities for you. It's also one less bulletin board to have to decorate over and over again. :) The drawback is that you don't have the table for manipulatives and other materials that don't fit into the pockets, although placing a slim table or row of extra desks in front of it or beside it might solve that problem.

The storage crate is another option for organizing your math centers if you have an extreme lack of space. Any centers, provided they are filled with worthwhile activities, are better than nothing. You can still color code your folders to help organize by topic and/or ability level. However, the storage crate is not highly visible, and does not help students to see their options of activities very well. It is also difficult for more than one student to dig through the files at once.

Hopefully these ideas will be helpful in setting up and organizing a learning center in your classroom.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why should you use learning centers?

Learning centers are an amazing way to get your students to take a more active role in their learning. If designed effectively, math centers can provide much-needed review, practice, and enrichment for students that is differentiated to meet students' needs and interests. When I first began to use math centers, I had no idea what an amazing impact they could have.
                                                  Here are just some of the benefits:
  • Increased student motivation.   I'd be willing to bet that you like it when your principal involves you in making important decisions at work, instead of simply telling you, "This is what we are doing and that's that."  Kids feel the same way. Students who have a choice of learning activities feel empowered and tend to show much more interest and persistence in completing work. I am often amazed by how much center work gets completed in my classes. As a traveling math teacher, I occasionally walk into a classroom  to teach the day's lesson, and I find a student or two already working on math centers before class even begins. When kids are assigning themselves work and having fun doing so, that's a pretty exciting thing to see.
  • Meaningful learning opportunities.  Students are working on skills they genuinely need to practice or that they are personally interested in exploring further. This is provided that your center activities target students' real learning needs, which requires a degree of planning on your part, as well as an understanding of your students' strengths and weaknesses, instructional levels, and your curriculum. Future posts will address this topic in more detail. Also, it bears mentioning that after my first full year of using centers, I had a significant increase in the number of students scoring "advanced" on their state testing. 
  • Learning centers foster independence.  Because students are working at their own pace on a variety of activities, students have little choice but to work somewhat independently. Although some centers may be completed with a partner and I do circulate and assist students, there tends to be a little less teacher involvement with center work. Also, because students are choosing their own activities, it forces them to make decisions about which activities provide the right skills and offer the appropriate level of challenge for their particular learning needs.
  • Learning centers improve classroom management.  Once your centers are in place, your students will have no reason to get into mischief. Early finishers will have the freedom to move on to another activity that interests them, instead of sitting around talking and passing notes. Also, motivated students tend to behave better in general.
  • Learning centers improve time management. Not only do students have less down time, but they sometimes work harder to get their regular assignments done so that they can move on to a center activity. 
  • Learning centers challenge advanced students. You can tailor your centers to challenge even your most gifted students. You will be far less likely to have to sit in a parent conference and hear that a student is "bored" in your class because they aren't being challenged.
  • Your principal will like it. Because the students' interest in their center work will be apparent (and because your classroom management will be even better than ever), your principal will be impressed during your next observation. Administrators like to see students being independent and taking charge of their own learning.
  • Center activities can be fun! Although I strive to make learning fun all day, the activities in my centers tend to have a slightly greater "fun" factor than my average classroom assignment. Meaningful, challenging games and puzzles are a staple of any successful center, and kids truly enjoy the freedom and choice that centers provide. 
Here is an example of a fun math center activity that provides meaningful 
application of a skill I teach, classifying angles:

Click to view:
Geometry Pictures (Set of 2)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ideas and activities coming soon!

Welcome to the Math Center Ideas blog! It is aimed at offering great ideas that will make math learning centers a dynamic part of your classroom that will enrich your instruction in amazing ways and motivate your students like never before.