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free choice center

Making Math Centers Work in Your Classroom!

Math centers are, by far, my students ‘FAVORITE part of the day! I look forward to it just as much as they do! If you’re interested in trying math centers out in your classroom, please keep reading!

How My Weekly Schedule Runs:

I do math centers every week on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Let’s first talk about what I do at the beginning of each week.

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On Mondays, I like to introduce the new skill I am teaching that week in a whole group setting. I am a big fan of interactive notebooks. My students get out their math notebook, record the new skill in their table of contents, and we glue the lessons into our notebook step by step. Students can then use this notebook as a reference during math centers and at home while completing homework. After we finish our notebook lesson, I have students complete a worksheet independently. This allows me to see who’s getting it and who’s not. I’m also able to plan who’s going to be in my high group, on grade level group, and below grade level group that week.

Tuesday: My math centers switch every two weeks. So every other Tuesday, I take about twenty minutes to explain the new math centers to my class. I try to explain the centers before our math block on these Tuesday mornings so students don’t lose any center time.

Wednesday: Students complete three math centers.

Thursday: Students complete three math centers.

Friday: Students complete two math centers and take a math quiz on the objective taught that week.

What Does Center Time Look Like?

My students complete math centers for an hour each day. I have my students complete 3 centers in that time frame. I typically set a timer for 18 minutes for each rotation(I leave a 2 minute transition time for changing to the next center/center clean-up). I always meet with my lowest group first, my on-grade level group second, and my highest students last. I do this because my lowest group normally takes the longest amount of time. Though I aim for eighteen minutes with each group, this isn’t always ideal. My low group needs my time and attention the most. So, having them meet with me first allows us to go over our time together if necessary. I can easily take a few minutes away from high group because they will finish their work much quicker as well.

What Are Students Doing During Math Centers?

All of my students have the “same” three centers every Tuesday-Friday. All of my students complete Teacher Time, Teacher Choice, and Free Choice each day.

Teacher Time

All of my students come to the back table to work with me during one of their three centers. They all do this every day. My students complete their on-grade level work during this time with me. I don’t differentiate this work. This is to see if they understand what the objective of the week is asking them to do. Sometimes we play a game. Sometimes we do partner work. Most of the time, my students spend this time completing a paper and pencil packet. My students don’t ever completeΒ worksheets during their other two centers. Doing their packets during this time is a great way for them to get that daily practice in, have some small group/individual time with me, and I can clearly identify what their strengths and weaknesses are. My students look forward to coming to me just as much as their other centers! It’s a small group environment where they feel safe to ask questions and gain confidence in their abilities as mathematicians!

You may wonder why I don’t differentiate the work I provide to students during this time. I provide all of my students with the same work because it’s what works best for me. I differentiate my Teacher Choice center (more to come on that) so that my students are getting the enrichment/remediation they need during that time. Trying to keep up with three different packets, who’s done with what, which students are working on what, and how three different groups are reacting to different material is exhausting. I found myself getting extremely stressed out when I tried to differentiate the time I spent with kids at the back table. I had to prepare three different lessons for each day of the week and it just didn’t work for me. It makes my life easier and I’m a better teacher because of the way my students complete their work. So don’t try to do differentiated activities during your Teacher Time ANDΒ your math center time if it feels like too much! It’s okay to give your entire class the same activity! Just make sure you provide opportunities for differentiation in whatever way works for YOU! πŸ™‚

Teacher Choice

Teacher Choice is a center I specifically choose for each student to complete. My students know that they won’t go to every Teacher Choice center, but only to the ones that I know they need practice with. Students complete these centers in partners normally but I do have some games for up to four people I like to use as well. During this center, students are completing a remediation activity, enrichment activity, or a spiral review game of some sort to help them practice a certain skill.

I keep all of my Teacher Choice centers in Sterilite containers in a corner of my room. I keep these separate from their Free Choice centers so students have no chance of confusing the two. Students grab the box they are assigned and get to work. I know that every student is getting exactly what they need during this center as well. I normally put out about 10-15 Teacher Choice Centers during each biweekly period. This allows me to have some choice on where to send each student. My high kids will complete the enrichment, critical thinking centers (things like project-based learning assignments, brain teasers, above grade level work, error analysis, critical thinking). My on grade level group normally completes centers that spiral review skills we’ve learned in previous weeks so they don’t forget those skills. My low ability learners complete the centers that reteach or remediate the skills I want them to improve upon.

Also, I always have a few Teacher Choice centers that all of my kids would benefit from no matter what ability level they are so that I can match up high and low level ability partners too! Collaboration is a huge part of my classroom and I never want any of my kids to feel like they don’t get a chance to work with everyone in the classroom. The high group isn’t always matched with the high group and the low group isn’t always matched with the low group. My students know that they are valuable and all have something important to contribute to our classroom. πŸ™‚

Free Choice

Every student also gets to complete a Free Choice Center that THEY get to choose! All of my students get a choice chart every two weeks each time we start new centers. I load up the cart shown below with the centers they may choose from. We write the centers on our chart so that they know what each center is and can cross out each center as they complete it. You can get my Choice Chart for FREE here!

The number of Choice Chart centers in my classroom varies each biweekly period. Sometimes, there are ten Free Choice centers and sometimes I provide even more. When I provide more, it’s typically something like a project-based learning activity, a SmartBoard Game, or something interactive I have set up around the classroom like a race, a scavenger hunt, or a math challenge of some sort.

My Free Choice centers range from easy to hard. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year talking about making wise choices when choosing your Free Choice Center each day. If I see students dilly-dallying and not choosing a center immediately, they know that there are consequences for their actions. We also discuss choosing appropriate centers for yourself. I love that my students have the option to challenge themselves on a daily basis if they wish to do so by choosing some of the most difficult Free Choice Centers! Students who you don’t think would typically think outside the box or go above and beyond can surprise you. I love the opportunity this provides for them to shine. However, with that being said, working on a center that you truly don’t understand isn’t helping you grow your math skills. My students know this because we communicate and talk about it on a weekly basis. They know that they need to choose the center that is going to benefit them the most. For the most part, students do a great job of proactively choosing the centers that are appropriate for them. I also have rewards and consequences put into place to encourage these behaviors. It has worked well in my classroom!

Another thing I include on my students choice chart each week is a “Must Do” section. At the top of the choice chart, students have to write down which centers they MUST DO during that two week period. They can choose to do them right away or wait till the end of the two weeks but I expect those centers to be DONE by the time we start our next round of brand new centers. This teaches my students time management and they also know that there are consequences for not completing their work as asked (their center time is taken away!).

How to Start Centers in Your Classroom!

I have MANY math centers that are ready-to-go in my TeachersPayTeachers Store. I have recently started to create Monthly Math Centers that are great for third graders too! Check them out here. I also have some other GREAT blog posts you may want to check out if you are interested in learning more about math centers!

Want to learn MORE about math centers? Check out these blog posts!

Part 1: Making Math Centers Work in Your Classroom

Part 2: Math Center Organization

Part 3: Math Centers Tips and Tricks (this post!)


Math, Uncategorized