In our summer work with teachers, many of whom are new to Investigations and/or are rethinking the way they teach mathematics, we get lots of questions. Some come up after reading about a structure like Math Workshop, or seeing a list of materials needed for Unit 1. Others arise after “visiting” a classroom – via a Dialogue Box or video of a classroom. For example:

  • How did students learn to discuss math ideas, and listen to each other, like that?
  • Pairs were working independently, all over the room, on different activities. How did they know what they needed and where to go?

While the questions often raise issues of logistics and management, they ultimately address a much larger topic; how does one develop and support a thriving math learning community?

Given it’s the start of a new year, we reached out to people who have experience with Investigations, and asked: How do you think about creating a math community? What’s critical, particularly at the beginning of the year?

What follows are their suggestions about establishing norms, setting up the classroom, and organizing math materials. (Part 2, to come September 10, will focus on Math Workshop, and whole-class discussions.)


“When the students work with each other as math partners we make a big deal about that in our math class. We talk about things like what makes for a good math partner and how important it is to really listen to what your partner is saying, to take turns, to help each other. They like the idea that they are a student and a teacher. They are a teacher for themselves and as a math partner they are a teacher for their partner. So if your partner doesn’t quite understand something, your job or responsibility is to try to be a teacher for them. And then some days your friend is going to be a teacher for you. So, the message is, in this classroom, we all work together and help each other.” – Kindergarten teacher

“At the beginning of the year, we establish classroom norms together on poster paper and keep them posted all year long. I refer to them often. Norms important in our room are listening to and thinking about other’s ideas, asking questions of the speaker when something isn’t clear, sharing your own ideas, trying another solution when one doesn’t work, checking solutions with a partner and discussing them when they are different.” – 3rd grade teacher

“Starting the year by establishing norms and expectation is vital to a well-run math class. By investing time right from the start, you are able to save much valuable time that can be spent actually thinking about math! In my 4th grade class, we start the year with a lot of mindset work.” – 4th grade teacher

Classroom Set Up

“I have tables in different areas of my room, labeled by color. We almost always begin math class on the rug. When we are all working on the same activity, kids choose where they work. Other times, the game or activity that a student chooses determines where they work. For example, if they start with the game of Compare, they go to the red or blue table. If they choose Grab and Count: Compare, they go to the orange or green table. I gather the materials for each activity ahead of time and organize them in bins. Kids pick up the materials for their activity as they leave the rug. Basic materials like pencils and scissors are in a bin on every table.” – Kindergarten Teacher

“I have my students in pods (groups of desks) of 4-5. This allows them to always have a partner for turn and talks and to work with on a problem. It’s also convenient for sharing manipulatives. There are also large tables and carpeted areas for kids to move to during games or if they just need a place to spread out.” – 3rd grade teacher

“Kindness and respect are a huge theme in my classroom, so I have several quotes about being kind around the room. I group my students in pods so that cooperative learning is easy. I also have a large gathering space at the front of the room so students can find their row spots for reading and math discussions, as well as circle spots for morning meeting.” – 5th grade teacher

Manipulatives & Math Materials

“I have my math materials, the manipulatives, arranged in bins and labeled, so I can access them pretty easily. And the curriculum lays out what’s needed really clearly, so I can just gather those materials.” – Kindergarten teacher

“I sort the pages from the kindergarten student books into file folders for each unit so that I have easy access within my lessons and will not be tearing pages during the school year.” – Kindergarten teacher

“For me, I normally look to see what materials I need the day before. I tend to put everything in containers so that we’re just grabbing and going as necessary. It saves a lot of time come work time.” — 1st grade teacher

“I have all my manipulatives (cubes, pattern blocks, tiles) in containers for easy passing out. They stack easily and they are on shelves in my classroom for easy access at any time. The beginning of 2nd grade has the children using a variety of manipulatives daily and then using them as they need. Investigations has kids choosing the materials that will help them with activities (choosing appropriate tools) so they need to be handy. I have lettered my decks of cards so that it is easier to return misplaced cards (and there are always misplaced cards!) and then all the cards are in their own container.” – 2nd grade teacher

“I make up small plastic bins for each child with the manipulatives that they will need often (protractor, power polygons, colored tiles, calculator, array cards, etc.). This helps save time passing our manipulatives, as each child can grab a bin as needed.” – 4th grade teacher

“Most of the math manipulatives in my classroom are stored in open tubs where any student can access them at any time. We become familiar with the math tools right away and students know that they are welcome to grab anything they need. Allowing students to choose their math tools instead of me telling them what they will need helps students with math practice five, ‘Use appropriate tools strategically.'” – 5th grade teacher

We are thankful to the teachers who contributed, and hope these varied ideas are helpful to readers, looking for solutions that work in their classroom. 

Megan Murray
Tag(s): classroom culture | classroom set up | manipulatives | math materials | norms | tips |