Keeping Math Routines Fun and Fresh!

Do you experience points during the school year that send you into a mini-panic about where your kids currently are and where they need to be? For me, one of those moments tends to be Thanksgiving week. I suddenly realize that Winter Break is just around the corner, and with that comes the reality that the school year will be half over.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a strategy for helping myself get past this brief moment of panic by focusing in on the math routines that are most influential for maximizing student learning. These are the routines I encourage teachers to use regularly…and we take a few moments to think about how they’re working. Are they being used consistently? Is there evidence of student learning? Do the routines need to be refreshed?

You may have your own go-to routines on which to reflect…and here are five of my current favorites:

Clothes Lines: This routine has been around for a while, and yet it never loses its appeal Basically, a student or a group of students is given a set of numbers or expressions which is written on folded paper or note cards to be properly placed on a “clothesline” – a piece of string or yarn that is stretched across the room to create a “hanging number line.” The number sets may include small numbers, large numbers, fractions, percents…you name it! After the numbers are placed, subsequent class discussions offer opportunities for students to clear up misconceptions and learn new insights from their peers.

The Daily Five: Used as a spiral review, the teacher places 5 problems on the board at the beginning of the math period. These generally include one arithmetic problem, one place value problem, one fraction/ratio problem, one story problem, and one problem related to the content currently being covered. As much as possible, teachers select operations and number sets that link strategically to the current content.

Number TalksNumber talks were developed for classroom teachers to engage students in “mental math” through grappling with carefully selected arithmetic problems. Teachers can use number talks regularly as introductions to the day’s mathematical practice, as “warm ups” for other lessons, or as stand-alone extended engagements with mathematical concepts. First, students solve the arithmetic problem mentally. Next they share their answers while the teacher records them on the board. Then they share their solution strategies with a peer using a “pair-share” format. Finally, two to four students share their solution strategies out loud as the teacher records their thoughts. To see how this works, check out these videos or these books.

Show Me: For this routine, students need manipulatives, paper, and writing utensils. The teacher calls out a quantity, and the students must represent that quantity as quickly as possible in as many different ways as possible. For example, if the teacher calls out, “74,” the students may use manipulatives, such as KP Ten-Frame Tiles, to show 7 tens and 4 ones, 6 tens and 14 one, 5 tens and 24 ones, etc. Another student may represent 74 on a number line. And still another student may represent 74 by drawing 7 boxes of markers and 4 extra markers. The goal is for everyone, as a class, to use as many different representations as possible. This can be done with small numbers, large numbers, fractions, decimals, etc.

Splat: Steve Wyborney, math coach extraordinaire, invented this routine, and it’s catching fire all over the place! If you go to his website (linked here), you can download 50 power point sets that help students work on number sense by figuring the quantities covered up by the “splats.” So simple, yet so profound!


In my experience, we’ve found that after these routines are in place for a while, they may need a refresher to keep them from getting stale. This is the perfect time of year for teachers to reflect on practice, refresh as needed, and perhaps introduce something new.

Please let us know how it goes as you reflect on the routines used at your school. Are they being used consistently? Is there evidence of student learning? Do the routines need to be refreshed? Our community is growing, and it’s in our shared experiences that we all get better. We’d love to hear from you!

Kimberly Rimbey, Ph.D., works with teachers and leaders to develop system-wide change in mathematics teaching and learning.

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