What Do I Put in a Math Salad Bar??

Sep 14, 2021

“But what should I put in my Math Salad Bar?” This is a very common question we get from teachers who are excited about using manipulatives, but struggling to determine which manipulatives are the most appropriate as they integrate concrete, pictorial and abstract (CPA) means into mathematics instruction.

I was shocked to see that the last time I wrote about Math Salad Bars was in 2013! Wow! Time has flown! In the past eight years, I’ve seen Math Salad Bars take off, and take many different forms, in different schools and it has been amazing!

Why a Math Salad Bar?

When I would go into classrooms and observe students to see if they were conceptually understanding what was being taught, I often noticed that the teacher was at the document camera using the manipulatives while students were merely observing. The teacher would be using the correct concrete, pictorial, abstract (CPA) pieces, but the students weren’t getting that hands-on experience they really needed to solidify the concepts they were learning.

The Math Salad Bar was my solution. It was designed as part of a system to help create a common language in a school district around math, where students from Kindergarten through 5th grade would see commonalities from year to year. We were working on establishing things like number talks in every grade, common strategies (like Math Mights!), and a step-by-step visual model process to help students solve word problems. For students, these commonalities provide a familiar experience in math, which can increase comfort and eventually confidence in mathematical abilities. For teachers, commonalities from grade to grade allow them to spend less time establishing norms for things like number talks or how to use an application journal with visual models, and more time actually doing the number talks or working in the journals!

As I began to realize the CPA piece was missing in so many classrooms, I realized that the organization and distribution of manipulatives was a huge barrier to their use in the classroom. I also realized that I wanted to see every classroom have a commonality around math manipulatives. Enter: the Math Salad Bar.

What exactly is a Math Salad Bar?

A Math Salad Bar can look different in every classroom, depending on the needs of that classroom, but our standard Math Salad Bar is a cart with ten drawers on one side and five on the other. On each drawer we have dry erase labels so the contents of the drawer can be easily identified and changed. On top of the cart, we have 15 salad bowls for students to use to transport the manipulatives they need to and from their workspace. We’ve found that salad bowls are much more effective than hands at keeping materials from trailing all over the floor

The intention for the Math Salad Bar is that it is always open. Manipulatives are not just for Math with Someone when you’re playing a game and have to get the materials you need. If you’re doing independent work, or even group work with the teacher, a Math Salad Bar gives students the ability to access any of the materials that can help them at any time, while keeping things neat and orderly and efficient.

Now, obviously with the COVID pandemic, Math Salad Bars might have taken some different twists and turns as we try to keep everyone healthy and safe. 

Instead of one place for everyone to get manipulatives, many schools have created individual Salad Bar Kits for each student that includes some of the essential manipulatives, like two-sided counters, dice, a Counting Buddy, a number line, maybe a set of cards so students can interact with different games. This can still require a lot of maintenance though, so even if you’ve created individual kits, I would still encourage you to develop a common place for students to go if they need a refill. If a student only has nine counters and they’re supposed to have 10, they will inevitably realize it while you’re teaching. You don’t want to have to pause your lesson to go find the counters in that old peanut butter jar on the second shelf in the closet, when they could just go to a Math Salad Bar to get their counter.

Using a Math Salad Bar for Math With Someone

Organization is certainly key in being able to play games in the classroom. It often takes a lot of effort from a teacher to get everything ready for a game and, and that often deters teachers from playing games at all. Whether you do a math workshop model and have Math with Someone, or just have a time for math games, a Math Salad Bar can revolutionize math games in your classroom!

Another essential component of the Math Salad Bar that we’ve added just recently is the Games Binder. I find that, especially in grades 1-5, figuring out which games to use for Math with Someone and setting them up can be quite a chore. Once you figure out which games to use, how many copies do you need? Do you need it on cardstock? In color? What kinds of pieces do you need for it? The Games Binder eliminates all that headache!

Many of our teachers have created a set of three small, half-inch binders that go into one of the drawers on the Math Salad Bar. The binders are labelled (1, 2, 3), and are filled with any of the games that will be played in the current unit of study. For example, if we have three different games available during a particular unit, there will be one copy of each game in each binder. You could certainly laminate the games, but we recommend using clear plastic sleeves in the binders to save time. In that clear sleeve, students will find everything they need for that game – a game board on card stock, an accountability sheet, etc.

A Note About Accountability Sheets: If a game has an accountability sheet, I always recommend including 5 or 6 copies, plus the master copy. Label the master copy by writing “MASTER” in yellow highlighter across it because, when it’s time to make copies, the yellow highlighter won’t show up when you copy it. Develop a routine in your classroom where, if you take the last accountability sheet from the Games Binder and the master copy is the only one left, you put that master copy in my copy bucket so I can refill it. You could also have a designated Salad Bar Keeper who is responsible for checking on things like number of copies left and make sure the binders stay stocked.

These Game Binders feed into a giant Master Game Binder held by the teacher. In that Master Binder, you’ll find three copies of ALL the games for ALL the units. Teachers have a love/hate relationship with this binder. On one hand, it really is a lot of pages and a lot of work up front to make all the copies. But on the other hand, it is labeled by unit of study and everything is ready to go! If we’re doing an addition unit, I turn to the addition part and see all my addition games that will help extend my students’ learning that I can put right into the three mini Games Binders on the Math Salad Bar. When that unit is over, I can simply go to those three individual binders, put the addition games back into my master binder, flip to the next unit, and then go ahead and load the smaller binders with whatever I need next. 

All these elements work together to buy time for the teacher. You don’t want to spend time setting up games. Even if you do think through all the things you’ll need – all the game boards, the accountability sheets, the game pieces – and you gather them all into a bucket in the station, it’s inevitable that someone will be missing (or have lost) something when it’s time to play. Usually they let you know this while you’re working with a group in the Math with a Teacher station!

Instead of interrupting your teaching time, a Math Salad Bar gives autonomy and independence to your students. They can choose the game they’ll play, they can gather the items and pieces needed to play in their salad bowls, take it to their table and play, and take everything back when they’re done.

Playing Math Games

Here is where the Math Salad Bar can really shine and help create a math community in your classroom!

In 2nd-5th grade, I often don’t like to spend class time teaching students how to play the games for a particular unit. Instead, I’ll provide a tutorial video for students to watch, like the ones we created for our M3 Members or one from YouTube. Let’s be honest, kids go to YouTube to look up everything, so let’s use that! Check out some of our free game tutorials here!

Let’s say we’re playing Multiplication Tetris (always a crowd-pleaser! Check out the tutorial video here!). On Monday, students will watch the video. They’ll talk about the rules, the different levels, and make a plan for how they’re going to play. The next day, they grab the game from the Games Binder, fill up their salad bowl with the materials they need, and they’re off.

But what do I actually put IN the Math Salad Bar???

Hopefully, by now, you love the idea of autonomy and organization in your classroom as much as I do! Now, the next big question often goes something like this: “I’m doing (fill in the blank – fractions, addition, decimals, etc.). What should I put in the Math Salad Bar, Shannon?”

There will be certain things you always have on the Math Salad Bar. These “stagnant” drawers will be things you just always use in math – like two-sided counters, clear counters, dice, and number lines. In K-2, many of our teachers have a stagnant drawer filled with the appropriate level of Deck o’ Dots and maybe one with Counting Buddies as well. As you incorporate more manipulatives into your lessons, you’ll start to realize pretty quickly what your stagnant drawers should be and what you want your students to have access to all the time.

The other drawers will be loaded with materials you’ll be using for concrete, pictorial, abstract (CPA). For example, if you’re going to be doing place value, let’s say in second grade, you’ll want to have our T-Pops Place Value Mat, place value discs, and place value strips available. If you’re doing place value with decimals, then you obviously need to have your decimal strips and your decimal discs in their respective drawers as well. You’ll also want to have your base-10 blocks ready as your proportional manipulative.

I try to at least put 15 sets of manipulatives in each drawer, assuming you have a class set of 30. This way, even if I’m doing whole-class instruction, students can access the manipulatives in small groups. 

As I was writing this post, I really wanted to do something to help teachers get their own Math Salad Bars up and running. Since “What do I put in it??” is one of our most frequently-asked questions, I decided to make a list of materials that we use in each grade level, organized by unit so you could see what to put in your Math Salad Bar! 

We do work with nine different math series, so these units might not match yours perfectly, but you’ll be able to get a really good idea of what tools you might need for a place value unit, or a fractions unit so you can have things loaded and ready to go!

Making Materials Student-Ready

All materials, stagnant or otherwise, must be student-ready when they go into a Math Salad Bar drawer. Student-ready means that a kid can just grab it and go. We have some really great videos on our website to help you prepare your place value discs, your place value strips, maybe even your fraction tiles, to be student-ready! 

When it comes to preparation you don’t need anything cute. Of course Ziploc bags work, but I have also had great success with the 4×6 photo boxes that you can get at most stores (and Amazon!). They are great for storing your place value discs and strips. I also really like using the 5×7 photo boxes (on Amazon) for my fraction tiles, and those are both featured in our videos.

Labelling sets of things like place value discs, place value strips, and Deck o’ Dots is really important as well and we have some great tips for doing this quickly and easily in our videos!

Maintaining the Math Salad Bar

I think one of the biggest problems with math manipulatives in schools is that, if you don’t have it organized, there’s always these misfit tools that are laying around. It’s inevitable that, at the end of the day, kids are putting their chairs up and getting ready to go for the afternoon, and a child comes up with a 1000 disc (or a Deck o’ Dots card, or a fraction tile, etc.) they found under their table. *cue the horror music* Which set does it go with? When are you going to have time to look through and figure it out??

But this was before the Math Salad Bar! Now, when this happens (WHEN, not if), you can simply add it to the “Misfit Tool” bucket on top of the Math Salad Bar. If the misfit is found during your teaching, no one needs to interrupt you to let you know they found it, they just put it in the bucket. At the end of the day, the Host or Hostess of the Salad Bar can make a quick check of the bucket and quickly check the label, locate the set, and return the lost tool to its home.

Integrating the Math Salad Bar

Integrating what is in the Math Salad Bar into your instruction is truly key. Are you thinking in the way of CPA? Are you using CPA in your lesson launch? Do you have the tools ready for students to use if they aren’t understanding the concepts, like a balance scale for students working on balancing equations? If you are doing guided math groups, are you allowing kids to go get the materials that they’re working with? Are there things in your Math Salad Bar that are ready to go for your numeracy talks? For our lower grades, do you have Counting Buddies ready to go? How about double 10-frame mats and single 10-frame mats, with two-sided counters?

It’s a lot to think about as you prepare your Math Salad Bar, but by planning and preparing ahead of time, you’ll be free to spend more time actually teaching and working with students during your class time! I truly hope you’ll find the download to be a helpful resource during that process!

Now that we have our materials organized, the next question we’ll tackle is: How do I bring in CPA thinking when I’m teaching each of these concepts? Stay tuned!

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