The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’
– Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori’s quote hangs on my wall at school, reminding me that in all I do, I am striving to create engaged, independent learners who take ownership of their learning. I do what I can to limit the time children are expected to sit and listen for long periods and try to encourage workshops where children can work at their own pace with autonomy and agency. This is when I see my students happiest, and the best learning occurs. But how do you make that happen for a room full of children with different needs? Math Menus are one way that has successfully worked in many of the classrooms I work in as an Instructional Coach.
In the classroom
My school has time every day devoted to Math Skills Block. Some schools call it WIN time or “What I Need.” It’s a time when instruction is differentiated to meet the needs of all the learners in the classroom. If you were to walk into a classroom during Skills Block, you would see some children working in small groups with a teacher, classroom aide, or specialist. Some children may be pulled out of the classroom to receive IEP services. Others may work independently or with a partner on math menu activities. The room has a buzz, and people are moving about, working at tables, on computers, or gathering with friends on the floor to play a game together. Overall, there is a sense of engagement where everyone works on math, but not all in the same way.
Some teachers use math menus with the whole class, and others use them for independent work, as they work with small groups of students for differentiated instruction. Either way, it is a valuable way for children to practice and have fun with the math skills they are learning by using them in games and other activities.
Creating the menu
When creating a math menu, I always ask, “What skills do I want my students to have more practice with? What games or activities can help them practice these skills? What computer programs would be a valuable use of their time?” Then I gather ideas and organize them on a grid so children can choose between activities they want to do.
Before using the menu with kids, teaching, modeling, and practicing each activity with the whole class is essential to ensure students can work on each task confidently and successfully. This can be done in small groups or with the entire class.
I always make sure to go over guidelines with students, such as making sure each choice is complete before repeating any of the activities on the menu or differentiating expectations on how many activities each student should complete by the end of the week and which ones are “must do.” We also discuss which activities should be completed alone and which can be done with a friend. Having a math folder available for students to keep their incomplete work during the week helps organize student work so children know what still needs to be finished.
Here are some examples:
Math Menus can be designed from simple to complex. Some teachers just list the work choices on a grid, and others have a more elaborate theme, such as comparing math choices to choices on a restaurant menu with an order to complete them. One thing that most menus have in common is they often include review worksheets, games to play with peers, and time on a math computer game such as IXL, Prodigy, or Dreambox. Children rotate between these activities to complete their choices within the time frame chosen by the teacher.
Sources for games
An excellent place to find activities for your math menu is in the math curriculum you use with your class. Many math programs have game components you can teach to the whole class and then use as menu options. Here are some of my favorite activities and games that I have included on math menus:
Loops and Groups: A simple game to practice multiplication facts.
Addition Top-It: This can be played with number cards or dominoes to practice addition facts.
Board Games: Games are a great way to reinforce math skills while playing with a friend.
Printable Math Games: Here are many printable math games and resources all in one place.
Illustrative Math Games: Games for all ages sorted by skill and grade level.
Love Maths Games: Minimal materials are needed to play these games, usually just dice or cards.
Chalk Games: If an adult can bring a small group outside, chalk games are always fun, like this multiplication labyrinth made for friends to hop along.
One thing to consider is how you will assess students’ work on their math menus. After students finish each activity, I ask them to have a teacher in the room initial that square on the menu to show it was completed, and they showed their work to an adult. For any paperwork students finish, I staple it right to the math menu so that at the end of the week, I can look through a child’s work packet and assess understanding by how many activities were completed and the quality of work attached to the menu.
When looking through students’ work, I may group kids by abilities and decide to pull small groups the following week based on skills they need more practice on. For example, if a group of kids struggled with adding multi-digit numbers, I would pull them together to play a specific game with me the following week and reteach that skill. The work samples I collect during skills time and the observations from myself and other teachers in the room help me form these groups. At the end of the week, all work is sent home with a note commenting on how much each child accomplished. It is an excellent way to communicate with parents and show them what their child is learning in math.
For my record keeping, I take a class list and record a check, check plus (+), or check minus (-) to track who is completing grade level, above grade level, or below grade level work during math menu time. Sometimes I will add a one-sentence note with observations from the week for each student. I don’t always have the time to do this, but when I do, it is a valuable way to collect informal assessments for report cards and parent conferences. It also helps me plan my instruction for the following week by assessing which skills students are mastering independently and which skills need more instruction.
Benefits of math menus
Using math menus is a great way to make math fun for your students. Giving them autonomy and choice in their math learning helps them build independence, learn from their peers, and practice needed skills. It also frees up teachers to pull small groups of students and differentiate review work as needed while the rest of the class works independently. And it gives teachers time to step back and observe their students at work. Teachers can pop in and out of groups, have informal math conversations with students, and get an overall sense of who their students are as math learners. It is informative to watch and see which activities draw their attention and which ones they tend to avoid. These reflections are valuable information when planning your math curriculum and deciding which activities best engage your students. The best thing about math menus is that they make math time fun!
Alissa Alteri Shea
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