Math is so much more than just numbers and symbols. It engages the mind in deep and meaningful ways. I absolutely love teaching math. I enjoy seeing my students’ faces go from total confusion to “I’ve got it!” looks of joy. I live for the moments when they get it.
Sadly, I was beginning to notice that my students weren’t understanding as deeply as they were before. Our accountable talk conversations were starting to become not so accountable. Students were struggling to explain their thinking because well, they didn’t have many thoughts about what we were learning. They simply were not as engaged as I wanted them to be.
My problem was the size of my class.
My class isn’t one of the biggest classes around. Some teachers have 30+ students, but truly, effective teaching is much easier when the class size is not overwhelmingly large. I needed a solution that was feasible and overall, manageable. I decided to split my math block.
A Split Math Block
I first began by making a list of all my students and separating them by understanding. For example, students who were still learning numbers or lacked number sense were on one end while students who could employ higher order thinking skills and problem solve were on the other end. I then created two groups and ensured that each group had an equal mix of the students I had listed.
Why did I list my students?
Studies have shown that students learn best from one another and from having hands-on experiences. I have many emerging bilinguals in my classroom and students who are learning mathematical concepts for the first time. With the idea that students learn from one another, student pairing becomes very important. Two students who lack number sense would struggle, whereas students who vary in understanding can help one another as well as serve as speaking models for each other.
Once I split the class into two groups, I divided those two groups into two so that I could end up with a total of four groups. Example:
Team 1 was split in two groups: Team A and Team B
Team 2 was split into two groups: Team C and Team D
Our math block runs for 90 minutes. For the first 10 minutes, I meet with the entire class to work on an activator. We usually work on activities such as subitizing. Subitizing Flash is one of my students’ favorite math activities. They use their hold up cards from their Engagement Kits in order to answer and for me to formatively assess. I show them a slide like the one below for several seconds. Students must write down the number they see represented. They must explain how they knew that was the number they saw. i.e. I know a ten frame has 5 spaces on the top and 5 spaces on the bottom. The top row was full and then there was one more on the next row, so it’s 5 plus 1 more which makes 6.
With 80 minutes remaining, I meet with Team 1 (A & B) for 40 minutes (8:40-9:20) while Team 2 works independently. Because Team 2 is split into Team C and Team D, they can work on different things and keep noise at a minimum. Team C goes to centers and Team D goes to technology (iPads) for 20 minutes (8:40-9:00). At 9:00, a timer that’s in the back of the class goes off (I keep it in the back so it does not interrupt my whole group) and Team C and D switch from centers to technology and vice versa.
This same exact rotation happens again from 9:20-10:00 except during that time I meet with Team 2 and Team 1 goes to work independently. The picture below is how I set up my schedule. I also print out the students’ names with their Team letter and post it somewhere in the classroom so students always know what group they are in.
What does a whole group lesson look like?
My whole group lesson is only 40 minutes long so I have to include the modeling piece, the partner work with accountable talk, the independent practice and intervention all during that 40 minute block. The key is to keep my direct instruction to no more than 10 minutes. If students aren’t doing the work, they are not necessarily learning. It has been a challenge to keep to the 10 minutes because I tend to over explain things, but I have alarms set on my Apple Watch and that has really helped. I set all my alarms my watch simply vibrates without disturbing the students.
My split math block works in a mirrored way. I teach each team the same information and provide them with the same work. Depending on how each progresses, some areas may take longer with one group than with the other. If I had a class of 30, a split math block would mean that I’m only teaching 15 kids at a time. This is conducive to better observation and intervention.
My favorite part of the whole group process is when students are engaged and working with one another. They use their accountable talk stems and work hard at “proving” their work. Student ownership is pivotal to their growth.
When I share this approach with other teachers, the first thing they ask is “how do you manage it?”. At first glance it seems extremely complicated, but with time, patience, and classroom management it is completely doable. I love the way my students seamlessly move throughout the classroom, knowing the expectations and without interrupting their peers’ learning time. A few suggestions to ensure that it all goes smoothly…
*Know from the beginning that the rotations and groups will take time to learn. Your students may take up to 2 weeks to fully understand where they need to be at a specific time. Don’t throw in the towel. It’s like reading groups and centers: it takes time.
*Have your whole group lesson be in an area separate from the students that are working independently.
*None of the materials needed should be anywhere near your whole group area.
*All materials should be easily accessible. i.e. the centers can not be in a different area from where you expect them to work.
*Designated independent work areas should be in your range of vision, so you can supervise students as you work with your whole group.
*Students should have headphones when using technology.
*We use iPads for tech time, so I place all of the iPads on a table in the back of the class and students are expected to work on technology at that table.
*Try to use center materials that do not make noise i.e. get foam dice instead of the typical ones.
*Pre-teach all centers and have the whole class practice them as you supervise and support. All centers should have instructions written out and pictures to model what they are expected to do to decrease interruptions.
*Assign 2 students to be the “support” during independent time. If a peer has a question about materials or what to do in a center, they can ask those support students.
*Assign students to be responsible for clean-up or explicitly teach the whole class how to clean up materials.
*Repeatedly practice quiet rotations. Quiet rotations are key. If your independent students are rotating loudly, it interrupts your whole group lesson.
*Create a shortcut for the website they need to access during technology time or if using an iPad, create a specific folder with the apps they are allowed to access.
*Whatever technology app or website your students use, make sure you have explicitly taught them how to log in and have provided a “cheat sheet” with their log in information.
Would you consider having a split math block?
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