Math Small Groups: Common Struggles & How to Fix Them

Common Struggles with Small Group Mat

The thought of starting math small groups can be overwhelming without support and ideas. Over the years, I’ve tweaked the way I’ve implemented math small groups in order to help support the group of third-graders that I currently have. When I first started math small groups, I struggled with the time management piece before I found a routine that worked well for my classroom. The intention of this blog is to ease your mind when it comes to beginning small group math instruction.

Author: Simone Vega, M.Ed

Common Struggles with Small Group Mat

Thank you to everyone who responded to the survey in our last blog post. The responses help us gauge teachers’ needs, and guide us in supporting teachers who want to implement math small groups. Here are answers to some of the questions we received.

Q: What are your hesitations for running small groups in math?

“I barely get my reading groups in, I can’t imagine trying to doing math groups, as well. I do pull and work with my kiddos who need help and give my others options for doing things when they are finished (or sometimes instead of), but running actual groups seems overwhelming. I’m determined to take it on in Jan, but for now, I’m limping through.”
“There is not enough time in the day to teach a math lesson and work in small groups.”

Let's Talk TIME

As we know, time is a constant battle as a teacher. I feel like I am always trying to fit everything into a jam-packed day with not enough TIME. With small groups, I finally feel like I have the flexibility to fit everything in with time left to spare.

The thought of running groups can definitely seem overwhelming, especially if it is something new. The biggest mindset change I had is it is not one more thing. There are two ways you can structure your groups. Choose the method that will make the most sense in terms of TIME.

Toluca's Method

Toluca likes to teach the day’s lesson whole group instead of in the small groups. If you’re doing this method, lessons need to become mini — as with any workshop instruction model. Your whole group time should be a concise lesson where you state the math objective for the day, model a couple of problems, and then try 1-2 problems with student input. Answering questions and clearing up misconceptions happen in small groups, when you are doing your guided math lesson. After your whole group minilesson, it’s time to break into groups to practice. When you have the groups visit you for guided math, that’s when you can get deeper into the instruction based on what that group of kids need.

Simone's Method

I’ve combined my math lesson into my math small groups. My lesson and small groups are not two separate entities. I’ve designed this layout to fit everything into my one hour and fifteen-minute math block. This graphic breaks down my instructional block.

Learn how I implemented small groups in my classroom with the Beginner’s Guide Blog Post.

Math Small Groups Schedule

What about management?

In regards to the noise level, I really make sure my students understand that when they are too noisy in the independent groups, it takes away from my small group instruction. When students are in “Tech Time,” they are not talking unless they need help from a peer. In “Math Menu,” students have to speak in a whisper volume, or they will have to play independently at their desks. I also have groups challenge one other to see which group can be the quietest. The quietest group will earn class cash or a Jolly Rancher at the end of math time.

Over time, students will look forward to having that small group time. You can also use this as an incentive. You’ll be surprised at how students will manage their behavior if they know that small group time is a privilege earned.

Q: What would you need in order to implement small groups?

“Resources for the kids who are not working with the teacher.”
“[Clarity around] what others are doing when I am with small groups.”
“Producing worthwhile, engaging activities for other groups.”

What Students Are Doing in Simone's Class

One of my favorite parts about teaching math in small groups is the fact that kids become very independent and take ownership of their math block. Having meaningful independent groups will take small groups to the next level!

When students are not with me in small groups, my students are either in “Math Menu” or “Tech Time.” The idea behind having a “Math Menu” is that students are working on grade-level fluency games, and “Tech Time” students are reviewing the math concepts using devices on various sites, such as ST Math.

Learn how how to implement “Math Menu” in this blog post.

What Students Are Doing in Toluca's Class

Toluca has three 15-minute rotations. The students rotate through the following centers: guided math with the teacher, independent practice, and math games.

In the independent practice center, students are working independently or with partners on math problems that are at their level. 

In the math games center, students are playing math-related games either by themselves or with a partner. The games are easy to play, familiar (because they can be reused with different math skills), and they reinforce the current mathematical concept.

Markers and Minions Small Group Math Resources

Toluca is also developing differentiated small group math resources that include a pre-assessment, task card practice (that can be used during guided math and as an independent task), and games. Based on how the students perform on the pre-assessment, they are grouped in either a circle, square, or triangle group. The task cards and games are differentiated by shape. You can sign up here to be notified when different standards and grade levels are finished!

Small Group Math Resources

The following response to the survey embodied our small group mission and had to be shared!

“I would first need to know each student’s funds of knowledge, his/her individual profile of prior knowledge, concrete experiences, preconceptions, strengths and challenges involved with the math standard I intend to teach. Then I would need to deeply understand the foundational concepts addressed by that math standard and time to anticipate all the possible misconceptions my students might develop or bring to the table. Finally, I would backwards plan the support structures I will need to provide during the whole and small group parts of instruction so that all students have an equal opportunity to develop their own deep (DOK 3-4) understanding of those concepts. This last step is where I would intentionally choose the resources, materials, and support I require for a specific small group rotation. Thank you for this “Beginner’s Guide”. I especially appreciate the use of the “I Do, We Do, You Do” approach, and the use of exit tickets to check for the students’ individual level of understanding.” – Adriann

Starting something new — especially something out of your comfort zone, can be a daunting task. BUT, having the courage and the supports in place can make that daunting task painless. Small groups in math works, and the benefits outweigh the scariness of the unknown. 

Be sure to join us over in the Markers and Minions Teacher Community Facebook Group to keep up with the conversation or to ask any questions!

Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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