Author: Simone Vega, M.Ed.
Simone is a third grade teacher with a Master’s Degree in Math Education. She specializes in small group math instruction. You can find her over in the Markers and Minions Teacher Community Facebook group.
Why math in small groups?
“What are math groups? When I first started teaching, I was under the impression that math was always taught whole-group. I taught some parts of English Language Arts in small groups, implementing Daily 5, but the concept of teaching math in small groups was unfathomable. Some basic and realistic questions went through my head… What do the other kids do? Where will I have my small group? How will I determine which kids are in which group? Throughout this series of blog posts, I hope to ease your mind and help you feel comfortable with running math groups in your classroom.
I’ll start off by introducing myself. My name is Simone Vega and I am a 3rd-grade teacher in Northern California. I’ve taught kindergarten, 6th grade, and I have now spent the last 2 years in third-grade. I have a Master’s degree in mathematics education and I focused my research thesis on small groups in math instruction. So, as my students like to say, “Math is her jam!”
Halfway through teaching 6th grade, I felt like giving up. My students were struggling with big concepts. I saw failure not only in their results, but in the instruction I was delivering. They were lacking fundamental fluency skills to conquer concepts and I didn’t have enough time to remediate. I knew I had to change what I was doing, for their sake. I observed a 5th-grade teacher, Kelly Benbow, splitting her class into two groups to meet her students’ needs. Well, I took this idea and ran with it.
Since that initial lightbulb moment, I have not taught one day of whole group math. Kelly and I have held professional developments for kindergarten through high school teachers focusing on the power of small group instruction. Daily, I’ll have kids beg to start math groups and thank me when we are done for having math groups. I see the success in their eyes and finally the love they have with math. This is my why.
Like I mentioned previously, I teach math solely in math small groups. I will rotate through three groups (high, medium, and low groups) and scaffold/challenge, as needed. When I am teaching my small group my other kids are rotating through a math fluency choice called “Math Menu” and a technology center called “Tech Time”. (I will go in-depth discussing independent groups in our next blog post.)
I have roughly an hour and ten minutes teach math, so I have strategically structured my math block to maximize my time. I begin my lesson whole class. I introduce the lesson objective and I activate prior knowledge. I will also provide students with a success criteria. Providing a success criteria is vital for students to know what is expected at the end of the lesson – how will they know they are successful? I follow this routine whole class so that when students are in independent groups, they know the purpose of the day’s math lesson.
I then review independent group expectations and show my students their grouping. After students know what groups they will begin their day in, we begin small-group math.
I start every small group on the carpet in front of my SmartBoard projector. I previously taught kindergarten, and Sit Spots were amazing, not only for management, but for organization. So, my third graders find their Sit Spot and we begin. We go back to the lesson objective and review our goals for this specific lesson.
Now, I have to mention, I begin with my high group because they are my timekeepers. I am able to gauge my lesson based on their understanding and I am able to challenge them in ways I can’t yet do with my other groups. While I am with my higher group, I tend to look at the other groups, and I will see them watching what my first group is doing. They begin to absorb the content even though they are not in my small group yet.
Once we have reviewed the lesson objective, we dive into the concept. I will usually have a hands-on component for my students so they are able to grasp the concept as I am modeling. We follow the I do, We do, You do approach during our lessons.
One thing I absolutely love about small groups is the proximity I have to my students. I usually have anywhere from 6-12 kids in my small group, so the intimate setting allows for immediate feedback and reteaching, if necessary.
When the concept has been taught, we move into practice. I will provide a few examples of problems to work on. Students will work with their partners before we have a check-in. Once the check-in has been completed, we review our success criteria. I’ll ask higher-order questions like, “Let’s analyze our work. Were we able to meet our goal for today?”
I will then release my students back to their desks, into their next round. I will have my group work on their Problem Set (Independent Practice) before they are allowed to work on “Tech Time” or “Math Menu”. This provides students with practice time for the concept we’ve just worked on.
I will rotate through this model for a total of three times. Each round is modified and scaffolded to meet learners’ needs.
Once each group has been taught the concept and had time to practice the skill, we will come back together as a whole class. This is when I provide an exit ticket and close the lesson. Closure of a lesson is very valuable to ensure students end the lesson with confidence.
Teaching math in small groups took a while to master. As educators, we know our teaching is always changing and will change day-to-day. I will never be done tweaking small groups to make it work for my students. But, my small groups work! Not only do my students love learning this way, but I am also able to meet the needs of students and get them to where they need to be.
Since implementing small groups, our state testing SBAC results have increased significantly. Last year, our district met or exceeded by 48%. My students, with the implementation of small groups, met or exceeded by 62%. Within our school district, we have students with disadvantages that would normally equate to failure. We have students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. We have students who have learning disabilities. We have students with home issues. But, with small group instruction, we have found a way to meet our students and have fostered a love for math.