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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Feb 4, 2015

One teacher’s 5 secrets for a fantastic math workshop

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

One teacher’s 5 secrets for a fantastic math workshop

By Angela Watson

One teacher's 5 secrets for a fantastic math workshop

Today, I’ve invited Meg from The Teacher Studio to share how she runs math workshop in her classroom. I really admire her approach to math instruction and she has done an AMAZING job outlining everything in this post. Meg has tons of practical, classroom-tested tips for math instruction on her website and is going to be launching a series of detailed posts about implementing math workshop, so make sure you’re following her to learn more!

Over the years, I have had many people ask me to blog more about my math workshop.  They want to know what I do…when I do it…how I do it…and how THEY can do it as well!  I have blogged here and there about the topic but have really struggled to get it all into writing; I think I have figured out why.

There is no formula for it.  There is no “easy way”.  There is no “right way”. So today I kick off what I hope to be a pretty detailed series of posts on math workshop by focusing on two key questions:

  • Why do math workshop, anyway?
  • How can I set the tone for math workshop?

I recently asked my followers to fill out a brief survey and as part of it to give me their definition of what math workshop IS.  I was fascinated by the results!  I bet if each of you left a comment with YOUR definition we would see a huge variety as well.  Is it important that we all have the same definition?  I don’t think so.

I do think it’s important to think about WHY we are doing math workshop because I think that might be more important.  I posed this question to my own students to see if I had done a decent job communicating this to them. Here’s what they came up with–with very limited prompting.

One teacher's 5 secrets for a fantastic math workshop
I loved hearing what my students thought!

I thought they did a pretty good job!  I did have to “coach” them through the part about “we can show our independence and responsibility during choice times” because I don’t think they had ever considered that before!  They all agreed that to make our math workshop time work, they DID have to really step up and show their independence and responsibility.  I really play that up and talk about how proud I am that they can handle this so that we can create a better environment to learn “just right ” math.

When I asked my followers to help create a definition of math workshop, I got words like “centers” and “rotations” and “choices” and “differentiation.” I prefer to push all of that aside and define math workshop a little more loosely. I like to say it’s “Just Right Math Time”.  Whether it be centers, rotations, or other structures…the intent of math workshop is to provide students with just right math opportunities…for practice, for collaboration, for teaching, for enrichment, for coaching, and for intervention.

So how do we create a climate for this in our classrooms?  As you can imagine, in order for students to be working independently and allowing you as teacher some flexibility, we really need to be mindful of our classroom climate and management.

There are a few key features that I believe need to be in place to make math workshop a productive and meaningful time.  See what you think.

1. Independence

Students need to be able to access everything they need without assistance.  One of the main benefits of math workshop is that the teacher can be free to pull small groups or work with students in RTI or enrichment situations, while knowing that students are doing meaningful work when not under direct supervision and instruction. Ensuring that students can access their materials builds responsibility, independence, and self-reliance.

Consider setting up your classroom so students can find and put away math items, making sure they know how to use the items and care for them independently and respectfully.  Remember, we want students to recognize when they need certain math tools, so having them available at all times allows them to capitalize when they see the need…all without interrupting you.

I have a bookshelf full of supplies that my students can access independently–and that my students are responsible for organizing.
One of our classroom jobs is “Math Zone Organizer”.  Here is part of our Math Zone!
By having a variety of papers available, students always have the tools they need to independently tackle problems.

2. Trust

This is so critical.  If we want students to be able to work independently, there has to be a level of trust between teacher and student–and among students.  Teachers need to be sure that  students can be trusted to use their time well while they work with other students.  Students need to trust that they are going to be getting the instruction they need–and that the students around them are going to allow them to do so.  By gradually releasing students into independent work and by setting clear expectations, we have a much better chance of having a classroom climate of trust.

We start the year by doing lots of brainstorming about what we want math workshop to look like, what behavior will look like–and why we need it to be that way.  We talk about how a smoothly running math workshop benefits everyone!  I want my students to feel how “grown up” this is so I put them in charge of monitoring their own bathroom use (we just keep a log by the door so they don’t need to ask me.)

We practice “Asking 3 Before Me” so they learn to use each other as resources, and I do a TON of “It is SO nice to be able to count on all of you!” to really build up how much I trust them.  Tons of compliments, stopping in the middle of class to point on great behavior, and rewarding good teamwork can keep the positive flow going!

Teaching teamwork is so critical!  We need to coach this and put students in positions where they can be successful together.

Trust is a funny thing.  I want my students to learn how to help each other without giving away answers, to know that it is okay to make mistakes, that helping each other and “coaching” not only makes the workshop run more smoothly, but builds community in the classroom as well.

How do I keep building that trust? Model. Model. Model. Model the actions you want, model the noise level you want, model the words you want.  It takes time!

3. Excitement

This is a big one for me.  Math is fun.  Math SHOULD be fun.  If students sense YOUR passion for math and for problem solving, it will be contagious! I have had groups of students work for hours on open-ended task because the climate of excitement for math has been built.

Want to know where your classroom is on the excitement scale?  Write a quick math survey to see students’ attitudes…and then make a concerted effort to build fun into math and have them retake the assessment a few months later.  See if you have made a change!  One of my favorite things is when I hear “Math is over already?” (and my math block is 80 minutes long!)

So, how can you build excitement for math?

    • Use interesting, authentic problems
    • Find games to help students with fluency
    • Make the difficulty level “just right” (tips for differentiating math workshop here)
    • Give students choices when possible
    • Encourage technology use
    • Celebrate math discoveries
    • Share math from the real world (We spent an entire day making up math problems based on a picture I took of the prices at a local apple orchard–the students had a blast!)
    • Recognize great work and display it  (tips for organizing and showcasing student work here)
    • Keep it fun!  Use food if your school allows it…or write funny problems…or use students’ names in the problems…anything to keep things fresh and exciting
I can’t lie.  I love using food for math–especially for my reluctant learners!

4. Accountability

If math workshop is new for you, you might be concerned about student accountability.  How will you know if students are really doing what they are supposed to be doing?  You are welcome to design intricate rotation systems, checklists, and the like.  I have made calendars with tasks, rotation boards, and tic tac toe sheets with tasks.  All of them are great ways to have students record what they are doing.

Before you worry about doing this, though, I would highly recommend you start small.  Take a baby step with your students…like maybe write three options on the board for them to do once they finish an assigned task.

Allow 5 minutes at the end of class to have a meeting to discuss how things went.  What did they pick?  Were they on task?  What would they do better next time?  Go ahead and share your observations as well.  If you felt the noise level was too high, come up with a plan.  If you felt students weren’t working independently enough, have them brainstorm solutions.  Over time, these discussions will go a long way to helping students be accountable for their own work times, and then whatever others systems or checklists or rotations you try will be so much more effective.

Create anchor charts with your class and refer to them often!

5. Risk Taking

Learning how to be a risk taker is such a critical part of being a 21st century student!  One of the greatest benefits of math workshop is helping students learn to work together on a task, to be willing to “give it a try”–even when the task is challenging, and to realize that the journey is more important than the answer!

I make sure my students know that getting a correct answer is only part of the game; that showing their thinking, persevering through challenges, looking for patterns, being willing to dig in and work together, and being able to recheck their own work to make revisions are equally important. I want my students to value the process so we practice taking risks!

Want some suggestions on creating a climate for risk taking?

      • Present a challenging problem and ask students to write their answer on a post it note and put it on the board.This encourages everyone to share an answer–but without the worry of sharing in front of the class.
      • Give students problems with multiple answers and ask them to find as many solutions as possible.Some students might find one–others might find many! Everyone can be involved.
      • Model making mistakes and show how you handle it.I will frequently make mistakes when I work through problems on the board and use this as a way to teach my students how to politely point out errors and make suggestions. We practice this in partners too! When students don’t feel they will be criticized for making mistakes, they are much more willing to take risks.
      • Recognize students who share ideas, even when they are incorrect.Point out parts they do correctly.  “I like how you explained that you needed to line up the decimals.  That is exactly what we need to do.  I wonder if there is anything we could change to make sure our answer is accurate?”  is much more respectful of risk taking than “Nope!  Can someone tell us the right way to do it?” I’ve written more on the power of not giving an answer here.
      • Teach students to celebrate each other’s work!Ask them to let you know when they see other students doing quality work or solving a challenging problem.
      • Challenge students to work collaboratively on problems.Teaching the power of teams is a great way for less confident students to stay engaged.
      • Ask students to troubleshoot their own work.Celebrate when they can find their own errors.  Put them in control of proofreading their own work so they see that mistakes are just a part of the process.
Students playing games during math workshop

Can you successfully implement math workshop in your classroom?  Absolutely!  There are countless resources out there that can help you make decisions about how to organize your math block, figure out what kinds of groups to use, learn how to differentiate, and so on.  In my mind, creating a climate to celebrate math and independence is the perfect foundation for ANY way you eventually organize your math workshop.  Thanks for stopping by!


Thank you SO much, Meg, for taking the time to share so much detail about math workshop in your classroom! Do you have feedback or questions for Meg? Please leave them in the comments below. Don’t forget to follow her blog so you can catch the follow-up posts on math workshop, or catch Meg on FacebookTwitter, or TpT.


Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I will be trying math workshops this year, and I cannot wait!!!! My kids are really excited, and so am I!

  2. Awesome!!! Really insightful and helping , planning on having a workshop for my pupils soon

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