Author Archives: Scott Nielsen

Why Teach Using Centers?

Have you ever seen a fellow teacher running math centers and wondered how they could pull it off? I used to think that if I tried, chaos would erupt all over the room and it would end in disaster.

This past spring I was able to run some math centers in a first-grade classroom. It was a meaningful experience which led to some significant shifts in my understanding about centers and how they can be run effectively in a classroom.

One change involves the purpose behind the use of centers. I have come to understand they can serve two equally important objectives. The first purpose is to give students enough experiences so they can abstract, or generalize, relationships. These experiences are what allows their mathematical understanding to grow in sophistication. Therefore, the center is for the students’ learning. The second purpose is for the teacher to observe students’ mathematical behaviors. These behaviors serve as clues to help the teacher identify the thinking of the students. So the center is also for the teacher’s learning. These two purposes work together. Whole-class instruction is acceptable for student learning, but it offers fewer opportunities for the teacher to make individual observations of student behavior.

This understanding changed how I viewed the success or failure of any particular center experience. Previously, I might have judged the success of a center by how closely children were matching the behaviors I was showing them. With this new view, I deemed center a success when I could identify which students could access the presented situations and perform some meaningful (to them) operations.

I also learned to approach each center with the desire to see what math behaviors students would show me. The attitude I learned to bring was one of questioning with genuine curiosity, as if I were saying, “Let’s see what you do in this situation.” In short, the change in my understanding involved a transition from telling to asking.

Teaching interactions were in no way willy-nilly or lacking a goal or purpose. Knowing the research on students’ developmental and conceptual progressions altered the presentation to the students. The research also informed me as to what is most likely would happen next, and so it guided my prompts of students. Furthermore, my understanding of the research allowed me to be less rigid. I was able to dynamically change center activities if they were not allowing students to show me their mathematics, or if students were unable to make sense of a situation. Finally, the research helped me know what mathematical behaviors to look for and how to interpret my observations.

What are your thoughts? Have you taught math using centers? What did you find valuable, or challenging? One big issue many teachers wonder about is what the other students should be doing while they run a center, and how can it be managed? If you have ideas or success stories, please share.


It CAN Be Done!

Here they came. As I sat at the kidney table in a first-grade classroom I began to sweat a little. I had just called over a small group of students. They were coming, including Lincoln (pseudonym). This boy had been challenging me since I began working with him. He sought attention, but never for positive… Continue Reading

Mr. Miyagi Should Not Teach Math

“Wax on! Wax off!” Most people can identify these words as being from the classic 80s movie “Karate Kid”. In the film, Daniel, a karate student, is told his lessons will involve waxing a car. This makes no sense to him, but he follows instructions. Following this “lesson” are others involving painting the fence, sanding… Continue Reading

Using Tools

Teachers use a lot of tools. We use physical tools like copy machines, scissors, and staplers. We also use educational tools like math manipulatives, websites, textbooks, and assessments. Recently, I had an experience with a tool which was new to me and I would like to share some thoughts about that experience. At the AIMS… Continue Reading

Math is NOT Beautiful

People who are seen as mathematicians are famous for uttering this line all the time, “mathematics is beautiful.” Whenever someone says this, some people nod in agreement, while still others nearby are probably wishing they saw the same beauty in math. I would like to take a moment to analyze this statement and, ultimately, refute… Continue Reading

Encouraging a Playful Spirit

It is difficult to open any kind of math publication lately without seeing the word “play.” It seems like everyone in the math-twitter-blog-o-sphere can’t say enough about the value of allowing children to play in the classroom. Indeed, the power of play in children’s development is undeniable. However, I can’t help but wonder if a… Continue Reading

Do Teachers Really Teach?

Picture a beach along California’s beautiful coast with sand, sun, and a light breeze. Waves crash with regularity. Now imagine that one particular wave comes higher up the beach and splashes into a collection of driftwood. The effect of the wave on the wood depends on the wood’s weight, shape, and size. In short, the… Continue Reading

Spoiler Alert!

My teaching career began in a 6th grade multiple-subject classroom. Along with math, I loved having my students experience good literature. One favorite activity for both the students and myself was to read aloud to them. I had a few favorite read-aloud chapter books that I would share with them, like Freak the Mighty by… Continue Reading

Reflections from the New Guy

A few short weeks ago I was in my 8th grade math classroom asking students to put away their fidget spinners, managing the controlled chaos that is a junior high classroom, and encouraging groups of students to argue in a productive way about math problems from the curriculum. Coming to AIMS has put me in… Continue Reading