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Math Workshop Model: Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Updated on August 22, 2012

What is math workshop?

When many people, even teachers, hear the word math, their stomachs start to tighten up. They think that math is hard, not easily understood and too complex to really get. It doesn't have to be that way. Math is the science of numbers and patterns. Since math is an integral part of our lives, it is critical that people understand how math works.

So what is math workshop and how can it help young people to not only have a greater understanding of math, but to love math? Math workshop is a method of delivering math instruction. Many teachers are familiar with Reader's Workshop or Writer's Workshop. Math workshop is very similar in its approach. Not only is math workshop productive, it saves you time as a teacher. With new national mandates for special education and the Response to Intervention (RTI) requirements, math workshop will help you to achieve these intervention strategies easily and effectively not only for your special education students, but for all students. There is great talk in the education world about differentiated instruction. Math workshop is a model of instruction that brings differentiation to new levels.

Students work together to gain a deeper understanding of math concepts.
Students work together to gain a deeper understanding of math concepts. | Source
Students play an active role in the learning process.
Students play an active role in the learning process.

What do I need to start math workshop?

To initially start, the only things that you need are a positive attitude, a willingness to try something new, and questions. I will tell you that I have moved into this method of instruction slowly. I started out last year with just asking students "what do you notice?" and recording their results. By starting out with this, I was able to build my confidence in both my understanding of math workshop as well as the belief that my students really could do this. As I saw the growth in my students and the knowledge that they already possessed, I knew that I was ready to move forward with this style of instruction. As a teacher, you will be amazed at the confidence that your students will gain as well as the depth of learning that will unfold before your eyes.

As you begin to feel comfortable in your math workshop skills, take on one portion at a time. It is ok and actually highly recommended that you move into this slowly. As you gain confidence you can add more parts to it.

What are the components of math workshop?

There are three major components of math workshop. They are the mini lesson, the work stations, and the reflection.

1. Math Workshop Launch

The launch starts out with an introduction to your objective for the day. It is not the time in which you will conduct most of your teaching. This is the time where students begin to think about what they already know about this topic. This is in essence the idea of activating their prior knowledge. I usually begin my launch with a question that prompts students to think about what they already know.

Questioning is a key part to the development and structure of math workshop. As you ask students open ended questions, it builds their observation skills, activates prior knowledge, and allows students to make connections. This is about 5-15 minutes in length. It is an introduction only. For great questioning techniques, I use Betty Garner's book Getting to Got It. It is a wealth of information.

2. Math Workshop Stations or Centers

Work stations, learning groups, centers. These are all different names for the same thing, cooperative learning groups. In the math workshop model, students spend the majority of time working together to process their thinking and learn from one another. This is the bulk of the learning time. Each station is about 12 minutes in length with a few minutes in between for transitions.

Work stations can be created in many different ways and are composed of many different things. Here are some examples of ways that work stations are used in math workshop classrooms.

  • Computer stations. Computer games are a way in which a variety of math skills are reviewed and reinforced.
  • Math games. These activities allow students to have fun while practicing a new skill or one that needs additional practice.
  • Teacher led instruction. This station is one in which the teacher guides student learning in the new skill for that day.
  • Building models. Constructing models of math problems using a variety of manipulates is a great way to exercise a student's brain and expand his or her thinking.
  • Writing. Writing in math allows for a two fold skill. Students are not only building writing fluency, but they are expressing their understanding in words. The teacher is then able to clearly see what the student knows.
  • Ongoing projects. Long term projects are also great ideas to use in work stations. They can keep students exploring more deeply about a particular idea.

The focus in this part of math workshop is to keep students active, engaged, and learning throughout this time. The more hands on the stations are, the more involved students will be and the deeper the learning that will ensue.


3. Math Workshop Reflection

The reflection piece is not only important, it is probably the most important part of workshop. Why? This is the place where students share their learning and the teacher gathers data. No, not formally gather data, but information about what students really learned and what students are still confused about and need some further instruction on. This portion should run about twenty minutes in length. It is longer than the mini lesson but much shorter than the activity part.

So why is it so important to gather this data? This is where your planning begins. By learning and taking careful note of what students really got and what they still need to learn, you are able to make some very specific, concrete decisions about what will be taught in the next few days. Perhaps you found that some students are still having trouble with addition with carrying. You can then set up a work station that reviews and reinforces that learning concept. In addition to that you can also make some decisions about possibly working with a small group of these students to give these kids more practice in this area of math.

Math Workshop in the Early Grades

I have just this summer read this amazing book, Math Exchanges, by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind. It has really changed some of my thinking on how to approach math workshop in the early years. As I move my teaching assignment from fourth grade to first grade this coming school year, I will be adding some ideas think about for grades K-2. In the meantime, I highly recommend reading this book. (Updated August 2012)

How do I incorporate math workshop into my classroom?

Grouping Students

There are some decisions that need to be made when putting groups together. Certainly personalities need to be considered. We all know that not every student will get along with each person in the class. There is no right or wrong way in grouping your kids. I feel that mixing the abilities in groups is more advantageous to everyone. By mixing ability levels, students can work together to gain a better and clearer understanding of a concept. As time goes on, lower ability students gain more confidence and a stronger voice from working in these groups.

The number of students in each group will vary based on your classroom size and time alotment for math. My math block is about an hour and a half. The first five to ten minutes is the mini lesson and the work stations consist of about an hour. I have four groups and each group rotates to a different work station about every twelve minutes. Three of the stations are student led and one is teacher led. During the teacher led station, I give my instruction for the day. With my thirty students, it leaves about seven or eight students in my groups. This is not ideal in my opinion. I would prefer to have about five in each group but due to time constraints and class size, it is what I have to work with.

Materials and Resources

The easiest thing to incorporate is a math notebook.  In my students' notebooks, I have them answer questions, keep track of their own thinking, reflect on ideas and ask questions about things that they are still wondering about.  All students are required to keep a notebook and I check it often.

Games and activities can be found in many places.  If your math series has games that your students play, this is a great place to add those in.  Some commercially generated games work well also.  Online computer games are an easy resource to use and your imagination as well.  The more creative you are with your ideas, the more excited students will be in their engagement in the lesson and activities.

How will math workshop benefit my students?

In my journey through moving my instruction to a math workshop model, my students never ceased to amaze me. After the first chapter test, I saw my students test scores result in higher grades than I had ever seen in my years of teaching in my school district. I also saw an excitement in doing math that was new in my students. Gone were the looks of apathy and groans as they took out their math materials. They were replaced with enthusiastic smiles and quick steps to our carpet for our mini lesson.

How does math workshop benefit me as the teacher?

I will tell you that I have moved into this method of instruction slowly. I started out last year with just asking students "what do you notice?" and recording their observations. By starting out with this, I was able to build my confidence in both my understanding of math workshop as well as the belief that my students really could do this. As I saw the growth in my students and the knowledge that they already possessed, I knew that I was ready to move forward with this style of instruction. As a teacher, you will be amazed at the confidence that your students will gain as well as the depth of learning that will unfold before your eyes.

As I stated before, it also allows an easy opportunity to differentiate learning for your students. You can adjust activities to scaffold the learning needs of struggling students while bumping up the challenges for students who are more advanced. This fits perfectly in with the RTI tiers that are now mandated across the nation. By moving to the workshop model, you are already building in those interventions that are required in this process.

RTI Pyramid
RTI Pyramid

Math is Fun! A Lesson in Letting Go

I think that teachers are by nature control freaks (myself included). They want to be sure that learning is taking place and the only way that can happen is by delivering all of the information as a lecture style format. I can attest that this is not the best way to have your students learn. Do you like to sit all day and listen to someone lecture? I don't know about you but I have sat in many teacher trainings and doodled, written notes to the person next to me, and written my grocery or to do lists. Aren't kids the same way? We observe the glazed over looks on their faces and wonder, why aren't they getting this? Why do I have to continue to reteach this? Dear very smart teacher, they are BORED!!!! So what do you need to do as the teacher? Let go. It is hard, I know and I still struggle with it. Believe in your students. They know so much more than you think that they do. As you and your students become more comfortable with the questioning process and workshop model, your students will begin to question each other and they will deepen their learning.


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    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks Steve, I'll have to check that out.

    • Steve LePoidevin profile image

      Steve LePoidevin 

      8 years ago from Thailand

      Great ideas. We just had our first math fair, which I recently wrote about. It would tie in nicely to what you are doing already.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Michigan

      Glad you like it mom. Not doing a challenge this month! Maybe in July.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Excellent job, Cara-voted it up and awesome. Video was way cute! Kids looked like they were enjoying themselves. Nice finishe to the hp challenge. A new one is starting today, LOL

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Michigan

      Long time no see HBN! Glad you enjoyed it. My kids love math workshop and they do so well with it. I hope other teachers can learn from what I have done. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      9 years ago from South Carolina

      These math workshops sound like a great idea, and I loved listening to the You Tube video where the kids had a chance to express their opinions about it.

      I love the way you break things down so other teachers can also implement these ideas, and it's refreshing to see a young teacher like yourself, so dedicated to the profession and to your own ongoing professional development.

    • cardelean profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks, I wish that all of the powers that be and my parents noticed it. I'm glad you are getting useful things from this. Thanks for the read, comment and vote!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      9 years ago from Illinois

      Care, you are such a good teacher and as a still new teacher, I have learned some good points from you.

      You are right, it is easy to get up and lecture for 45 mins and I know from my own experience that when I have students do a group activity or hands-on assignment, they are more engaged and interested. I plan to incorporate more of those in my class next fall.

      Voted up, useful and awesome. Great info!


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