Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tips for Productive Math Groups

I was at the teacher table, working with a small group. Glancing up, I tensed as I noticed Tommy, Sarah, and Tanisha arguing about who should have the first turn. A game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ensued to solve the disagreement. Congratulating myself on having taught such a valuable problem solving skill (*cough*), I refocused on my group. A few moments later, Tommy appeared at my table. He tearfully explained that he had been winning the Rock, Paper, Scissors best-of-three round, when Sarah changed the rules to "next-one-wins." I quickly UN-congratulated myself for not seeing that one coming, (sneaky little Sarah!) and then spent the next few minutes dealing with the Rock-Paper-Scissors conundrum. Due to the crisis, Tommy's group lost a good 8 minutes of work time. My teacher table group lost about 4 minutes of valuable intervention work.

Sound familiar? Maybe you have these students in your class too. You may also have: excuse makers, wanderers, socialites, the bosses (Sarah), the I'm-too-good-to-work-with-him/her, the argument makers, the wallflowers (Tanisha), the criers (Tommy), and the refuse-to-work with anyone else students. Hopefully you've also got the all important: always-on-taskers, the peacemakers, the little teachers, and the rule-followers. With such a range of personalities, how can you make math stations productive?

What Do We Want?
Before looking at HOW to make productive stations, we need to define WHAT we want. First, how will our students be held accountable? As teachers, we need proof that our students were actually doing their work rather than visiting (or arguing) while we were engaged at the teacher table. Next, how do we ensure that all children participate? We don't want our rule-followers and little teachers doing all the work while our wanderers and socialites do their own thing. Finally, we need to know that students are practicing how to get the correct answers. That was my biggest fear; I was afraid students were practicing and reinforcing incorrect procedures. Once those pathways in the brain are reinforced, it can be difficult to undo! Let's look at solutions now.

How do we know students are doing their work? I have tried station answer sheets and weekly station rubrics which were glued into their math journals. However, students often forgot to glue them in and/or fill them out (2nd graders). I want their grades to reflect their math ability rather than their gluing ability! Additionally, the students' station rubrics ended up taking valuable time, and both solutions wasted paper. I finally decided on what now seems such an obvious answer...have them write the answers directly in their journals (*facepalm* Why didn't I think of THAT first?). Students title the page with the station name and write the answers underneath. If the station is unfinished, then they can go back to the page to complete it next time they are at the station.

Wouldn't it be nice if they were all able to take turns? If they could support, listen to, and coach each other with ease? Pipe dream? Nope... Kagan structure! Our district has been training us in Kagan structures, and I have to say I am sold. It compliments the valuable research and strategies I learned in the BrainSMART graduate program.

Update: I've updated the structure listed on this post after a discussion with a Kagan representative.  I discovered there is an even better structure for math stations, with more involvement! 

The structure we now use for our groups is called RallyCoach (Kagan, 2009). Students work in pairs. First, partner A solves, while partner B coaches. (Students need to be instructed that coaching means helping and guiding, not giving answers.) Once the problem is solved, partner B will give partner A praise and then the roles switch.  Now partner B will solve, and partner A will coach. Each student is getting a turn to solve and coach.

I have mentioned on this blog before what a powerful tool peer-coaching is. Students who teach each other will retain far more than students who work alone. The RallyCoach (Kagan, 2009) structure has this powerful brain-based component built in.

For more information about Kagan please visit the website

Correct Answers
Now that we have the accountability and the participation pieces in place, we need to make sure the kids are practicing the correct procedures. I try to have an answer key at each station. Therefore, the “answer checker” is able to be sure of his or her response if a challenge is issued.

Another, more fun way, is to use QR codes. After student 2 works out the answer, student 3 can use an itouch or ipad to check the corresponding answer embedded in the QR code. The app store has tons of free qr code readers. I like the one called Scan. Students love to check their answers with technology, so you’ve got instant engagement! Best of all, you can easily make your own qr codes.

Creating QR Codes
QR codes are embarrassingly easy to create! Simply google “Create QR Code” and you’ll have lots of possibilities. I usually use the website Type in the information you want to appear when the code is scanned, click on the “create qr code” button, and the free website will create the code for you. All you have to do is copy and paste the code into your document! (There are also iphone/ipod apps you can use.) Here is an example of station task cards I created:

You can download this taskcard set free in my TPT store Number Sentence Task Cards for a closer look. 
Now I am comfortable at the teacher table because I know my kids are LEARNING! They are problem solving and determining the best way to get the correct answer.

Are my stations perfect now? No.  However, things have dramatically improved! Now I know my kids are all engaged, I have proof of their work, and I know they are practicing correct procedures. Plus, I won't have to deal with the whole Rock, Paper, Scissors issue because the student with the lowest class number always goes first! What procedures do you use in your classroom?

Kagan, Spencer & Kagan, Miguel. (2009). Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.