The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Mix-Up Math

I have no idea how it has taken this long to get around to writing a post dedicated to this topic, but that just goes to show that we sometimes get so caught up in doing things that we forget to actually explain them! I think there’s a lesson to be learned there, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what that lesson is.

For several months now, our two fourth grade classes have participated in differentiated math groups that, thanks to a student in the other room, has become known as Mix-Up Math. I’ve mentioned this in passing from time to time, but I’ve never actually explained in detail what it is. I’ll try to do that now.

Last year, I began toying with the idea of having differentiated guided math groups in my classroom, similar to the guided reading groups that are common to most classes around the country. I talked to some of my colleagues about the idea, tried out a few ideas with my students, and looked up resources. I even acquired a copy of Dr. Nicki Newton’s book on the subject, Guided Math in Action and wrote a review for it! Then I continued to explore the concepts over the summer. When the school year started, we had some sudden staff changes in the building, but the new fourth grade teacher was willing to try this idea out as well.

We sat down one afternoon and looked at all of the math data we had collected so far on our students. We divided them into three groups, looking at strengths, weaknesses, interests, and peer relations, aiming at creating groups that could work on specific, targeted math skills that were related to one another. For example, one group would be working on factoring, another group on multi-digit multiplication, and another group on mastering math facts, but all three groups were working on multiplication concepts and skills. Because I had a student teacher, we decided that the largest group would work with the other teacher and I would have the two smaller groups in my room, one working directly with me and the other working directly with my student teacher. Then we continued to collect and review data to change groups as needed.

An important thing to take note related to Mix-Up Math is that what we do in these groups is not necessarily going to align directly to what we are doing in our respective classrooms. For example. we started the groups with multiplication, focusing on two-digit by two-digit computation. In my classroom, the students were working on single-digit multiplication, then adding and subtracting greater numbers. Once the math groups had attained a level of mastery with two-digit multiplication, we moved on to working on long division.

Now that we are back from the winter break, we are starting a unit on fractions. I rather like the way we are integrating math concepts throughout the year. Far too often, math is taught in an isolated unit format with limited “spiraling” or review of earlier concepts. The main math curriculum I use for my class, Houghton Mifflin’s Math Expressions has spiral review as part of the daily homework and there is some built into the daily lessons, but it is still a curriculum designed around units. Mix-Up Math allows us to make connections within and across the broader learning targets. For example, while working on equivalent fractions this afternoon, the students were also using concepts about multiples, addition, and multiplication. This also allows students to constantly improve on all the skills we are learning all year long and receive specific help on specific challenges.

Even though this has only been my first year doing this for math, and even though we have only completed half of the year, I am very optimistic about this approach and hope to continue it long-term. I hope that the students are enjoying it, as well. While there are always a few who will complain about anything a teacher tells them to do, my general observation has been that the vast majority of our forty-five fourth graders here at Wiley love Mix-Up Math!


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