Math Workshop Series: Math by Myself

Jun 16, 2017

After spending time with you in Math with a Teacher, students need time to practice what they’ve learned while the lesson is fresh, and so The Math by Myself station is a logical next step.

math workshopAs we mentioned in our previous post on Math with a Teacher, you will start your most at-risk students in guided math with you, and then have them move on to Math by Myself to practice. The group that starts in Math by Myself will be your highest level students, and they will come to Math with a Teacher last in the rotation. These kids aren’t going into Math by Myself blind, though, because they’ve just had your mini lesson. Your higher-order thinkers will catch your objective and be ready for practice more quickly.

CAN DOs and MUST DOs

The most important thing to ensure this station runs smoothly and is effective for students is to make sure you have CAN DOs and MUST DOs. If you go with a traditional practice sheet, as students are leaving your Math with a Teacher station, you will let them know that they MUST DO problems 1, 3, 5, and 7, and they CAN DO the rest. Some teachers will have students complete the whole page as a MUST DO and then provide another activity that students CAN DO if they finish.

You want to make sure that what they’re doing in the Math by Myself matches the objective for that day with Math with a Teacher. Practice problems from your math series are the traditional MUST DO activity for Math by Myself, but this station will look different depending on the math program you have. If you have Everyday Math, you might assign students math boxes or a journal page when they reach the Math by Myself station that day. Don’t limit yourself to paper/pencil problem sets in this station either. Students could be working on a journal entry, using a model drawing, doing a math task, or doing something on the iPad – just something that helps them practice/apply your objective for the day.

CAN DOs are activities that it would be great if the student completed, but if they don’t, you will be doing other activities with that same content, so it won’t leave a gap in their learning. CAN DOs are not “busy work,” but an extension of the objective or an enrichment activity that builds on previously learned objectives.

For example, in a lower elementary classroom, one teacher wanted to tie in some geometry, data and measurement, so she assigned a snowman activity as a CAN DO for students who finished their MUST DOs. The students had to build a snowman with pattern blocks, draw and trace all the shapes they used on a piece of paper, color the shapes, and collect data about the number of shapes in the snowman (hexagons, trapezoids, etc.), and from there, they ended up making a graph from the data about the number of shapes in the snowman.

If you choose to assign an activity like this, have a basket in the classroom labeled CAN DO. Your students know that they always have to do the MUST DO, but if they finish before the timer goes off, they have to go to the CAN DO basket and either start or continue their activity. They can keep their work in an individual folder or in a group folder inside the CAN DO box and go back to their on-going activity throughout the week.

CAN DO ideas:

  • Going on the iPad to practice math facts or some other math concept
  • Fluency packet
  • K-5mathteachingresources.com – Math projects (long term, but independently driven, and they’re already aligned with the standards!)

Make sure the CAN DOs are things students can do without asking you questions. On Monday, introduce the CAN DO project of the week. After the mini-lesson, you might put the activity on the document camera and read through it as a class, giving students a chance to ask any questions at that point.

The Biggest Challenge

Setting up Math by Myself with MUST DOs and CAN DOs helps you address the biggest challenge that comes with this station: some students will finish the MUST DOs in record time, while other students will struggle to complete their MUST DOs before the timer goes off.

student using manipulativesFor your students who are slower finishers, you have to make sure that their MUST DOs are something that they are able to do easily with manipulatives from the Math Salad Bar. When these students leave Math with a Teacher, send them to Math by Myself with instructions for what manipulatives they’ll need to complete their assignment (Counting Buddy, rekenrek, etc.). If you were just working on partial products with decimals, send students to get whole number and decimal place value strips to help with their MUST DOs. This group of students is only going to do two of the five assigned problems, but they’re going to use the manipulatives to show how they understand the concept.

Asking for Help

Ideally, the students are working through assignments and activities in this station that are challenging, but not too hard that they can’t do it on their own. In reality, students will still want help. Teaching students how to ask for help from someone other than you continues to work towards one of the big goals of Math Workshop – independence.

As we mentioned in the blog post on organization, we like to color code the student teams. For example, Katie and Sarah are both red, while the other two students in that same group are blue. This buddy system really comes into play during the Math by Myself station. If Katie is struggling with a problem, she starts by asking Sarah for help. These two students can be “Math Helping Friends” as they work through their MUST DOs.

Some teachers (especially in lower grades) will also have a Math Leader of the week. This student is identified somehow (in some classes, it’s with a construction vest!) and serves as the second layer of support. So, Katie starts by asking Sarah for help, but if Sarah can’t help, Katie will go see James. James might be in a different rotation, but he’s got the construction vest that identifies him as the Math Leader that week.

Note: Not every student gets to be the Math Leader. You know which of your students can handle the responsibility of being that contact person without disrupting you during your guided math group.

Finishing the Station

Teachers do different things for concluding the Math by Myself station. Some teachers have students come stand by the Math with a Teacher station and wait for a thumbs up before they move on the CAN DOs. Some teachers have students leave their notebooks out and correct them later. Some teachers have students turn in their work. They could have their buddy look over the work and then turn it in.


Remember, make sure you take a whole week at the beginning of the school year to introduce each part of the Math Workshop and the expectations associated with each. Take a whole week to practice Math with a Teacher. The second week, you’ll introduce Math by Myself. For this week, you’ll have half of the kids with you doing Math with a Teacher and the other half is working on something that may or may not be connected to what you’re working on in the guided math group, but they’re getting the idea of working independently without coming to you to ask questions and interrupting you while you’re working in Math with a Teacher. They’re learning to check the activity board where you’ve posted what they’ll be doing in that station that day. They’re learning that these stations are very defined and have clear expectations. (Check the blog post on organization for more on this!)

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