Are Guided Math Centers Really That Hard?

Let’s face it. The idea of centers in the classroom can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re a new teacher. There’s so much to it- management, planning, organization, coming up with space for each station, a rotation schedule, prepping, and so on. And then if you’re new to the math workshop model, the idea of guided math centers may make you want to hurl. But- is it really that hard?

Sometimes the idea of putting together guided math centers can feel overwhelming and hard. This post helps you simplify and make the task doable!

I’ve been spending a few weeks talking about everything you need to know to successfully run math workshop. First, I talked about what math workshop is and the benefits of it, then the flexibility of math workshop and its structure, and about the opening. Next, I focused on the whole group portion (mini-lessons) and on the guided math portion. Today, I’m going to walk you through the idea of using rotations or math centers during guided math.

The Logistics of Math Centers

If you were to have students work in math centers during a portion of your guided math, students would move from one center (or station) to another center after completing activities in an assigned amount of time. If desired, you could provide choices at each center. Any work provided in the center should be a reviewed concept- not a new one. The work is typically not collected or graded.

Routines are established ahead of time and students are gradually eased into the centers. These routines can be assigned through a schedule or students can choose which math centers they go through using a checklist.

Examples of Math Centers

What math centers you choose to use in your classroom is based on teacher preference and student needs. It doesn’t need to be fancy or elaborate. I would recommend starting very simple and add more as you feel comfortable.

This image is just one of many different math centers that you can use in the math workshop model during the guided math portion. Check out this blog post to help your rotations be successful!

For instance, the most common math center is the one above where teachers have some students work on fact fluency, while others work independently at their seats, and still some work on hands-on manipulatives to make the concept more concrete. The last group would work with the teacher or whatever the teacher decides.

This image is just one of many different math centers that you can use in the math workshop model during the guided math portion. Check out this blog post to help your rotations be successful!

In the stack model, there are five groups. The teacher meets with the students, offers technology math practice, application practice, critical thinking skills, and hands-on practice.

The guide model is very similar to the others. It contains games, application (using what we know), independent work, fluency practice, and journaling. However, it doesn’t have the opportunity for students to meet with the teacher. Instead, the teacher can move around and individually confer with students.

Again, the model you choose is completely up to you and your students’ needs. Some teachers prefer to have fewer students in each center, while other teachers want fewer centers.

Math Center Schedules

When students rotate through centers can be flexible. To determine how often your students will rotate, first, determine how long you have total for guided math (not your entire math block because remember you have to have your opening and mini-lesson). Then determine how many centers you have. Divide those two. For instance, if you have 45 minutes for guided math and 3 centers, you have approximately 15 minutes for each center. But, you also need to factor in a transition time, so take off 5 minutes. Now you have about 10 minutes per center. If that’s plenty of time for your students to complete meaningful activities in each center every day, then go for it. For me, that’s just a little too tight. So I’d rather break that up and give my students 30 minutes each day in once center and use that last 15 minutes for closing and transition. It’s completely flexible and up to you.

Here are some sample ideas for rotation schedules.

These are examples of schedules for math centers during math workshop. Save this pin and check out the blog post to learn more about having successful stations during guided math!

Ideas for Centers

Sometimes trying to figure out what you have your students do during math centers can be a huge challenge. Especially when you don’t want to keep coming up with activities to switch out each week.

Instead of constantly switching out activities, look for activities that can be reused over and over regardless of the concept or skill. For instance, fact fluency is a skill that students really need to master. This station will not require you to switch it out every week. If you’re worried about it becoming boring, place several activities in the center for students to choose from to practice their facts. This could be activities such as flash cards, games, technology, etc.

I provide ideas in my post 20 Math Center Ideas along with the ones below. These are just a few ideas.

  • collaborative work
  • project based learning
  • problem solving tasks
  • games
  • journaling
  • estimation stations
  • fact fluency
  • completing work from small groups
  • math investigations
  • find the error
  • task cards
  • hands-on activities
  • worksheets
  • technology (games, math practice, apps, etc.)
  • vocabulary/word wall
  • poetry math center

Planning for Math Centers

Planning for math centers does not have to be hard. In fact, nothing about this process has to be hard. Start with the basics.

  1. Decide how many groups you’ll have, what centers you’ll need, and how long each rotation will last (as described above). Remember that centers should not just be done to give your students something to do while you’re doing small groups. Centers should NEVER be busywork.
  2. Next, decide what kind of math centers would most benefit your students, yet be easy for you to manage. Always choose quality over quantity!
  3. Choose the order of the rotations and create a schedule.
  4. Plan out the centers’ content. It’s not necessary to spend hours creating content for the centers. Work on making them as “evergreen” as possible. This is where you only switch out a few materials. Try to keep it open-ended and versatile. When planning, consider asking yourself:
    • What might support this math unit?
    • What would be important to spiral review?
    • What could I preview for an upcoming unit?
    • What does the data tell me?
  5. Teach the centers, one at a time, until mastered. Then introduce another. Practice rotations until they are mastered. Do not start teacher groups/conferring until students can do rotations individually.

When considering guided math centers, it can feel overwhelming and hard. It doesn’t have to. Work through these steps, have faith in yourself, and give yourself a little grace. In due time, you’ll be a pro. All it takes is moving a little slow.

If you’re looking for math workshop units, check them out here in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Want to read more about Math Workshop? Check out these additional “Everything You Need to Know to Run Math Workshop Successfully” Posts:

  1. Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Run Math Workshop (Intro to what math workshop is and it’s benefits)
  2. Why Your Math Workshop Model is Not Flexible (and How to Fix It!) (The math workshop structure and your options to being flexible)
  3. How to Teach Your Math Opening Like a Pro (All about the math openings of math workshop)
  4. How to Take the Headache Out of Mini-Lessons in Math Workshop (All about the whole group component of math workshop)
  5. Make the Most Out of Guided Math (All about the guided math component of math workshop)
  6. Are Guided Math Centers Really That Hard? (About the choices in guided math centers)
  7. 3 Super Easy Alternatives to Math Centers (About alternatives to math centers during guided math)
  8. The Importance of Meeting with Students During Math Workshop (All about one-to-one conferring and guided math groups)
  9. Lesson Closures for Math Workshop (Ideas for how to close your math workshop)
  10. How to Rock Your Math Workshop for Ultimate Student Growth (Tips for increasing student growth in math workshop)


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