Math Menu: A Variation of Choice Time that Helps Teachers Support the Range of Learners

Do you ever skip choice time because you were behind schedule?

Do you have kids who don't have the prerequisite skills to play the games at your grade level?

Do you need to differentiate instruction for second-language learners?

Teachers at my school, a school with 1100 low-income students and a high percentage of second-language learners, answered yes to all of these questions.

Because we have a timeline and want to address all the state standards for mathematics, we need to go through all the books at every grade level. This leaves teachers feeling an enormous time crunch. During grade-level planning, teachers often say, "I'm a day (or two) behind - I'll skip choice time this week."

At the same time, we were aware that kids often needed choice time to develop their computation skills, but we hated to give up a whole math lesson for it. As a math coach, I often see students who do not yet have the mathematical knowledge that they need to play the grade level games. Last year, we began sharing across grade-levels to help our students develop these computation skills. But we knew we would still need to do even more.

Our school has a high percentage of second language learners who come to us with a variety of educational experiences. Often, because of language issues, grade level materials are not always accessible to them but we knew that these students needed to develop mathematical ideas and strategies to enhance their learning.

What could we do?

In 1748 Ben Franklin advised a young tradesman to "Remember, that time is money." Like money, the most important thing is NOT how much time you have but how you spend it. We decided to incorporate something we called Math Menu in each classroom on a daily basis for about fifteen or twenty minutes. This version of math choice time is somewhat different. It does not mean that we will play the games in the current book every day for the duration of the unit. Rather, our teachers are making informed decisions about what is on the Math Menu, based on their ongoing assessments of student learning.

Let me give you several examples. In second grade, we have students who still have difficulty with counting. These students may be doing Inventory Bags from the Kindergarten curriculum. In third grade and fourth grade, there are small groups of students playing Turn Over Ten and Tens Go Fish because we believe that if students are not solid on their combinations of ten, they will need to practice until each can do them automatically. In fifth grade, there are some students who are playing Plus, Minus, Stay the Same because they need practice adding ten to a number that does not end in a 0 or 5. In sixth grade, there are students who are not yet solid with multiplication. They are playing multiplication bingo and array games.

This is not just a remedial process. Students who are advanced in a particular area can work on a game at a higher level. In kindergarten, we know that the counting jar can hold larger quantities for students who are comfortable with six. We can add the concept of 'one more' and 'one less' to their work. In first grade, students can move onto larger numbers and can play games that come later in the year if our assessments show that they are able. Fourth graders, who are adept at adding numbers, can start playing Close to Zero with two digit numbers and then move on to three digit numbers. The examples are endless.

Three things need to be established to make Math Menu work. First, teachers need to have specific awareness of their students' mathematical strengths and weaknesses. Second, teachers need to collaborate with teachers at other grade levels and share materials and ideas. Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult, teachers need to carve a fifteen-minute slice of an already busy day and give kids an opportunity to work in their zone of proximal development. Since this is where the fastest mathematical growth occurs. On our campus, Math Menu is just beginning, but we have high hopes that it will help our students become much more comfortable with numbers and mathematical ideas.

Marge Scanlon, Math Coach, Cartwright Elementary School, Phoenix, AZ
September 2004

Marge Scanlon has been an in elementary education for over 30 years, teaching pre-k through sixth grade and special education students. She has worked for the past three years as a full-time mathematics coach. Marge has been a frequent contributor to the discussion section of this site and this is her second Spotlight article. Her previous contribution: Cutting Stress with Weekly Grade-Level Planning.

This information was reprinted with permission of CESAME, Northeastern Univ., and the Educational Alliance, Brown University.