Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher

Part 4: Starting Math Centers at the Beginning of the Year

Sharing my love for math centers has been so much fun! If you missed any of the posts in the series, you can click on the links below to get caught up.

Today I want to share a simple schedule that you can use to teach your kids the math center routines and procedures at the beginning of the year! 

The most important tip that I have for you is DON'T RUSH! Take your time teaching and practicing these routines. I broke it down into eight days of teaching the routines, but your class might need 10 or 12 days. Spend the time now, so that math centers run like a well oiled machine for the rest of the year. I promise that it will be worth the time!

This schedule of lessons is based on the schedule and activities that I shared earlier in this series. Hopefully you can adapt the lessons to meet your needs.

I like to bring students to the carpet when we do these lessons. I think it helps them to focus and makes the lessons more intimate. I always start by teaching the independent center because it requires more focus and includes more directions.

I made a little cheat sheet for you! You can download a schedule of these lessons by clicking HERE.

Day One

On the first day, you will want to explain to your students what math centers are. You don't need to worry about teaching them how to complete each center. Instead, help them to understand that they will be divided into small group and that they will doing two center rotations each day. 

Help students to understand that the reason they are doing these centers is so that you can meet with small groups of students and help them to practice new math skills. I like to finish by making an anchor chart with students that shows how center time will look and sound. 

Day Two

Today is the day that you will be teaching students how to complete the independent center activities. I always start with the back to school set of centers because they are a review of the skills from the previous grade level. This takes the pressure off of learning a new math skill and allows students to focus on learning the routines and procedures. It is also a great way to get a feel of your students' math level.

Gather your students in a circle on the floor where everyone will be able to see you. Start by modeling the first center. Read the directions and talk through how you would complete the work. You don't have to tell them every answer, but give them enough of a model to know what you expect of them. Do this for each of the ten centers. 

I would do lots of "turn and tell your neighbor..." during this time to keep students engaged and to demonstrate that they understood your directions.

Day Three

Today students are going to start practicing the independent math center activities that you modeled yesterday. I suggest putting students into groups of 2-3. Have students work on the independent centers together, but don't give them the recording book. Give the groups about five minutes per center and have them rotate through five of the centers. This is not about testing their math ability. It is not a big deal if they don't finish the center, because they will have the opportunity to work independently soon! It is about making sure they understand the directions.

Day Four

Today's center practice will be just like day three. Students will work in the same groups and rotate through the last five centers. Be sure to walk around and help groups that don't understand the directions or are not using the materials correctly.

Day Five

The focus of today's lesson is to teach students the math fact center. Start by showing them where to get their devices or materials. Give them their password and show them what it looks like when they log in. If you are not 1:1, you can make yourself a student account and project it on the board so that students can see what the site looks like and what they will be expected to do. You can also put students into groups to practice. You can give each group one device and have students take turns getting the device out and logging in.

Next, explain the math fact games. Make sure you discuss rules for taking care of the games, how many people can play a game at one time and how to put them away. Have students play a game in small groups. They should practice getting the games out, playing and putting them away. 

Close your lesson with praise for students and groups that did an exceptional job and suggestions for correcting any challenges that popped up. If the math game practice did not go well, consider practicing it again the next day before moving on to the next lesson. Games can lead to noice and arguing so it is best to get the kinks out now!

Day Six

It is now time to teach students the expectations for the technology center. You can do this similar to the way that you taught students to use technology in the math fact centers. Make sure you talk about what to do if technology is not working! 

Day Seven

By this point, you will want to split your students into their 3-4 leveled math groups. You can make initial grouping based on last year's scores, observations during the first few days of math lessons or any assessment your school might give. It's ok if the groups aren't perfectly leveled. You can move kids around after you get to know them better and work with them more in small group.

Show students your math center schedule display and explain what centers each group with be doing on each day. 

Do a rehearsal of the Monday/Wednesday center routine. Students should be working independently and completing the activities the way that you have modeled. In essence- this is their first day of centers! 

You need to be available to walk around the room and make corrections in behaviors. We don't want them to become habits! I suggest putting a simple game or even a worksheet at the meet the teacher table. You can explain to students that meet the teacher will be much different in the future.

Day Eight

Start by reviewing the center schedule and routine. Make sure to talk about any challenges that popped up the day before. 

Do a rehearsal of the Tuesday/Thursday routine. This will be just like yesterday, but students will be doing their other two center rotations while you move around the room to observe.

Moving Forward

Some classes will be ready to start a week of the center routine. They may be very independent and you can start working with your meet the teacher group.

However, some classes may still be struggling with center behavior or center directions. Don't move on without addressing it! Bring the class together and model the proper behavior. Have several students model the correct behavior. Practice until students are ready to be independent and successful. Don't get discouraged if this takes longer than you want. The end result is worth it!

Related Resources

Have a Not So Wimpy day!

Part 3: Schedules for Math Centers

Ways to organize your math groups!

Math centers make me leap with joy, and so this blog series is a blast to write! If you missed any of the other posts in the series, you can click below to get caught up.

Making Time

I have so many teachers tell me that they just don't have time for math centers. I personally view math center time as the most important part of my math instructional block. I MAKE time for them! 

I am lucky enough to have 90 minutes for math. I have this much time because I don't give much of any time for morning work. We don't have class meetings or spend too much time on classroom management programs. We reserve large blocks of time for social studies and science on Fridays rather than short blocks the rest of the week. 

Ways to organize your math groups!

I know that many of you have no choice in the matter and have only an hour for math. That sure makes me sad, but you do what you have to do! I would look at other places in your day and see where you can squeeze in some extra math minutes. Can the math fact sheet be done as bell work? Can you skip count while you walk to specials? Can you flip your instruction and make videos of your lessons for students to watch as homework? Get creative!

Ways to organize your math groups!

Whole Group

The only way that is will work is if you keep the whole group lesson short and sweet! You cannot teach at the speed of your lowest learner! There isn't time to do 20 examples on the board. You aren't going to pass out a bunch of manipulatives. Everyone doesn't have to master the skill during whole group. You will be meeting with them in small group later that day or the next and you will be able to supplement and help them to grasp the skills then. 

Your instruction is not over when whole group time is over. That is just the beginning. Think of your whole group lesson as the introduction to the skill. 

I have lots of teachers who ask, "But what about those kids who can't finish the practice sheet in ten minutes?" I find that my higher learners will complete the sheet while my lower learners do not. That's differentiation at its finest. The problems tend to get tricker as they move down the page. My lower learners just aren't ready for the challenge. We can work on it during small groups! If I give my low learners enough time to complete the page, they are likely to get several wrong and my high learners are bored. 

Tips for keeping the whole group lesson short and sweet:
  • Read the lesson ahead of time (gasp!) and highlight the most important parts.
  • Until you get used to delivering short whole group lessons, practice giving your lesson to a stuffed animal the night before.
  • Prep any example problems prior to the lesson so that time is not wasted with you writing on the board while students just watch.
  • Don't repeat yourself over and over. It is a teacher habit and we all do it, but students get used to it and stop listening.
  • Hold off on the manipulatives if possible. Perhaps you can draw pictures instead.
  • Don't have kids come up to the board to complete a problem. Have everyone do it on their whiteboards and then quickly teach their partner how they solved.

The Key

I am about to share the single most important thing I did to make my math centers run like a well oiled machine. 

I only have two center rotations per day. Therefore, I don't meet with every group every day.

That might sound like a bad idea to some of you, but it truly made my math center routine a hundred percent easier to manage and more meaningful for students. Let me explain...

Here is what math center time used to be like:
I had four groups and was meeting with each of them for 15 minutes per day. Or was I? Students had to put away materials from one center and get materials for the next. Time was wasted. By the time I really had my group in front of me and ready to work, we might have 12 minutes. That is time to go through one problem with manipulatives. Then we must hurriedly change centers again.

I wasn't getting time to dig in deep with my group and we all felt stressed by the constant changing of activities before we had truly enough time to get anything done. 

Here is what math center time is like now:
I meet with two group per day for 30 minutes each. When students are meeting with me, we can do a couple of problems with manipulatives and do an interactive notebook activity. 

Less time is being wasted with transitions and we are able to get more accomplished. The vibe in the room is a whole lot less stressed. 

Schedule for Four Groups (Larger Class):

I would use this routine for any class with over 18 students. You will have four leveled groups. It is important that we keep the groups small enough to be meaningful. 

Ways to organize your math groups!

With this schedule, you will meet with groups 1 & 2 on Mondays and Wednesdays and you will meet with groups 3 & 4 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Schedule for Three Groups (Smaller Class):

If you have 18 or fewer students, you can try this schedule with three groups.

Ways to organize your math groups!

With this schedule you will meet with groups 1 & 2 on Mondays and Wednesdays. You will meet with group 3 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

This leaves you a rotation block without a scheduled group. You can use this time to pull a few students who need extra support. You can help a kiddo who has been absent. It is the perfect opportunity for some reteach and intervention. This schedule works well for teachers who are required to meet with lower leaners every day.

Posting the Schedule

You will need a simple way to post your math center schedule so students have a reference. I think that it is important that the schedule is easy to change so that groups can be fluid and students can easily be switched to different groups when necessary. 

I simply have a poster for each group. Their schedule is typed at the bottom. I laminate the poster and then use dry erase marker of vis a vis marker to write student names. It is super simple, but works perfectly!

Ways to organize your math groups!

Ways to organize your math groups!

You can grab a free template for my poster HERE.

Ways to organize your math groups!

I know that you may need to adapt things to make the schedule work for your classroom, but I hope that you have some ideas for making time for a simple math center routine!

Check out the next post in the series to grab an eight day lesson plan for introducing centers and procedures!

Have a Not So Wimpy Day!

Part 2: Math Center Activities

I think that math centers are the best thing since sliced bread! If you have missed the first post in this series, you can click HERE to read all about why I think every classroom should use math centers and guided math groups! 

Today I want to talk all about the activities that students complete in centers and when they meet with the teacher for small group practice. 

Keep it Simple!

I see so many teachers who make math center activities complicated and time consuming to prepare. 

You don't need to have six different activities! That is just six different things that you have to make/buy, print, prep and keep track of. You don't need that craziness! I have four different centers and only two require any prep at all. 

You don't need to change the center activities every week. Again, that is a ton of work for you. It also takes up valuable class time because you are having to explain the new activities every Monday. Use activities that can stay the same all year!

My Center Activities:

I am going to share the four center rotations that I have used in my classroom. I chose these activities because they are super easy to prep, can stay the same all year, but include meaningful practice for my students.

Meet the Teacher

This is by far the most important rotation during our math centers. This is the center where students meet with me in small guided math groups. This is the time that I get to meet them at their level and provide the differentiation that they need.

I keep this center simple by using manipulatives, white boards and my curriculum. I give students a problem from the lesson, practice sheet or homework sheet. It might be a problem from today's lesson or it might be a problem from yesterday or the week before. This just depends on the needs of the students in the group. We take the problem and use manipulatives to build the numbers. We use white boards to show our numbers and mathematical thinking. I am right there to help them. We can work as a group, as partners or individually. This is nothing fancy, takes almost no prep, but is some of the most meaningful time I spend with my learners.

I do use interactive notebooks during the meet the teacher center rotation. I DO NOT do this every time that we meet. I probably give them an activity every few times that we meet. 

The activity is used primarily as an assessment for me. As students are solving a problem, I am able to take a quick look and decide if the group is ready to move on or if they need more practice with a skill. If they need more practice, we get out the white boards and correct the problems together. If you want to read more about how I use interactive notebooks, click HERE.


I was blessed to have a small group set of Chromebooks in my classroom. If you have any computers or devices, I highly recommend having a technology center. Kids love technology! The best part is that this center does not require ANY prep! 

You can still have student accountability with a technology center if you use an app or website that tracks and monitors student progress. 

Websites or apps that I recommend for this center:
Moby Max
Splash Math


This is a hands-on center rotation that is actually a spiral review of topics that we have previously learned. Since it is a review, students are more independent and successful with the center activities, but also getting practice. We may be working on geometry whole group, but the activities in this center may be multiplication- a unit we finished already.

In this center rotation, students will complete ten different activities over the course of 3-4 weeks. The activities are hands-on such as sorts, spinners, rolling dice, measuring things and coloring 100s charts to show patterns. There are also task cards and even math journaling.

I allow students to complete the centers in any order that they wish. Since there are ten activities and only a small group is at this center at one time, I only need. to prep one copy of each activity. Since their are ten activities in each unit, I am only having to prep a new unit once per month! 

I do take a grade from this center. At the end of the month, students will turn in their one recording book that holds the work from all ten of the centers. 

Math Facts

I was very lucky to have a small group of Kindle Fires. If you have more devices, besides those that are being used in the technology center, I highly recommend having your kids start this center by practicing they math facts on xTra Math. It is a great website that provides differentiated math fact practice. The teacher and the parents can receive weekly reports that show the student's progress and the exact facts they are currently working on. 

Since xTra Math only takes about 5-10 minutes, my students will spend the remainder of their time playing a math fact game. I like to keep this super simple so that I am not wasting time teaching kids how to. play new games. I have a small collection of familiar kid games: Chutes & Ladders, Candy Land, Connect Four, etc. I keep a stack of flash cards with the games. Students play with a partner or small group. They flip a flash card over and answer the fact. If they are accurate, they get to take a normal turn in the game. If they are not accurate, their turn is skipped and their partner flips a flashcard. 

I love this type of game because it is super cheap, doesn't require any printing or prep and doesn't take long at all to teach to students because they have played the games before! All you need to do is switch out the board games and flash cards from time to time.

If you don't have the technology for this center, you can always have them do flashcards or fact practice in a sleeve protecter with a dry erase marker. Maybe they can set a timer for five minutes and then move on to the game component.

Fast Finishers

The independent center is the only center rotation that I have where students might finish early and need something additional to do. Again, I am all about keeping it simple. Students don't need a list of a dozen different things that they can do!

One option is to have a couple of math skill games for fast finishers to play. My students love this, but the only problem is that you need more than one person to be finished in order to play the game together.

The fast finisher activity that I actually like the best is the math menu. The math menu includes lots of fun math projects that extend a student's learning and can be done independently. The activities are intended to challenge them and encourage them to use their creativity to work with real life math examples. 

I ask my students to complete a side dish first, then an entrĂ©e and finally they can complete a dessert activity. 

Side Dishes: These projects are intended to be warm-up activities. They get students writing about the topic and exploring the math vocabulary.

Entree: These projects ask students to apply the skills they have learned to a real world math problem. These activities often require students to write about their problem solving strategy.

Dessert: These projects allow students to apply higher order thinking skills to create something that demonstrates their knowledge of the skill such as a game, poem, video, presentation, poster, etc. 

I love my math center activities because they don't change every week. Students will get a new unit in their independent center each month, but the activities are consistent from unit to unit. Students don't need to be taught how to do the center every month.

I also love that I am not spending hours every week copying, cutting and printing! I prep my independent centers at the beginning of the year and don't have prep throughout the school year!

I only have one center that I actually have to grade and that is only once per month! The other centers send me reports!

Finally, I love that almost every center is differentiated. The only center that is not automatically differentiated is the independent center. They can easily be differentiated by crossing off a few of the higher level activities for those learners who are not quite ready for the challenge.

Check out the next post in the series to see some center schedule plans and tips for fitting everything into your math center time.

Related Resources

Related Blog Posts

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Part 1: Why You Need to Have Math Centers

I am super pumped about this math center blog post series! 
Part One: Why You Need to Have Math Centers

Math centers and guided math groups are the heart and soul of my math instruction. I can't imagine teaching without them! I often hear teachers say that they don't have time for math centers. I honestly feel that, if you are doing centers correctly, you don't have the time NOT to do centers. 

Math centers are NOT just fun and games. They are not just a way to busy your kids.

There are several reasons that I think math centers and small groups are a must:

1. Differentiation

When all we do is teach math whole group- we can't meet all of the individual needs of our learners. It makes our lessons a "one size fits all." We are actually wasting precious classroom time.

When we do a quick whole group lesson and then move into small groups and centers, we can help kiddos with exactly what they need. The groups are leveled so that we can reteach a skill for one group and extend the skill for another group. The groups are not taking away from your time for teaching curriculum. Instead, groups are making your curriculum more individualized for your learners. 

2. Manipulatives

I love using manipulatives (tiles, base ten blocks, place value discs, fraction bars, etc) to help solidify a skill or concept. It makes math more engaging and meaningful. 

However, I am not a huge fan of using manipulatives whole group. They take time to pass out and collect. You are not able to carefully watch each student use the manipulatives and guarantee that they are being used to correctly represent the problem. 

On the other hand, I love using manipulatives in small group! I keep my most used manipulatives next to my small group table. I can hand them out in a matter of seconds. As students are building and experimenting with the manipulatives, I am able to easily see what they are doing and gage their understanding of the skill. I can quickly make corrections and model the skill.

3. Using Technology

If you have some technology, but are not 1:1, then centers are the perfect way to get the best use out of your devices! Four-six devices are all you need for a simple center! There are several great apps and websites that will give your students practice with math skills. Many of them will even produce reports for you to see how students are performing. I recommend Zearn, xTra Math and Moby Max.

4. Spiral Practice

I love to teach math in units of study because I think that it makes it easier for my students to focus on one skill and master it before they move on to the next skill. That being said, if they don't continue to review the skills that have been previously taught, they will be forgotten.

Centers give students the opportunity to practice a skill that was taught earlier in the year. We may be doing fractions whole group, but they are doing multiplication center activities. This helps them to be independent and successful during centers, but it also helps to make the concepts more concrete and committed to memory.

5. Engagement

When students just sit in desks and complete worksheets, they quickly become bored and disengaged. When students are not engaged, lessons will take longer and behavior issues are likely to pop up.

Centers are very engaging. Students can get out of their seats and move from one activity to another. They are hands-on activities that might include technology, games, sorts and such. The activities are fun for learners. When students are having fun, they will have increased productivity and memory. Win!

Hopefully I have convinced most of you that math centers and groups are A MUST. Now you need to come up with a simple routine and center activities that will be meaningful! 

Check out the next post in the series to learn about the activities that my students complete during center time!

Related Resources

Have a Not So Wimpy day!