It’s one of the oldest problems in teaching – managing transitions. Every time the bell rings, students are up, they’re walking the halls, they’re chit-chatting. Three minutes later another bell rings – but how many are where they’re supposed to be and ready to work? This is where math warm-ups come in.
When I first started teaching, a few minutes here and there didn’t seem like a big deal. But now I appreciate the importance of a clear and consistent routine for the start of class.
In my teacher education classes, I was never taught about DoNows, “bell-ringers,” or math warm-ups. But once I moved from elementary to middle school, I had to find time to get situated and take attendance while students were entering and exiting the classroom. I needed something to keep my students busy right away. Idle hands and all that…
Some of my peers use test prep questions for math warm-ups, but I want to start the period with a little more fun, creativity, and discussion. Through my weekly bell-ringer routines, my students have learned that math is so much more than just preparing for a test.
A Weekly Schedule for Math Warm-Ups
My math warm-ups have changed over time, but I have finally found something that works for me. This weekly schedule gets my students engaged and provides structure to transition into my lesson. Every day, my students have a 3-7 minute math warm-up based on the day of the week.
First is Mindset Monday, followed by T-table Tuesday, and “Which One Doesn’t Belong” Wednesday. We finish the week with ThinkFun Thursday and Futures Friday.
Having a weekly schedule of math warm-ups makes things easy for everyone. Instead of trying to come up with a new activity every day of the year, I can use these structures, adapting them for the standards we are currently working on.
The weekly schedule is also great for my students. If we did the same activity every day, they would get bored. But if it was completely new each day, they would be dependent on me to get started. This way, they have enough variety, while still being able to feel competent and work independently.
For Mindset Mondays, we begin the week by cultivating a positive mindset to build engagement and motivation. First, my students copy the weekly agenda into their notebooks. This helps build meta-cognition and student ownership. When students understand where we are headed, it helps them to understand the purpose of each day’s activity.
Then we spend a few minutes focusing explicitly on mindset. Some days, I provide questions and writing prompts that I have collected from various resources.
Other days, I show short videos about growth mindset and brain plasticity, followed by one or two questions about how the video applies to them. One video that really stood out for my students was how fleas were trained to stay in a jar, even after the lid was removed. My students were very curious about this concept and were quick to make the connection to themselves. One pointed out how they could be conditioned to not “jump as high” if restrictions were put on their learning.
On T-table Tuesday, we focus on using tables to organize data and build students’ understanding of functions. We start with an input/output table with partial data. Next, they plot the points on a Cartesian grid. Finally, they determine the equation based on the table’s slope and y-intercept.
Understanding functions is a big part of 8th grade math, although I began teaching this to my 5th graders with slightly simpler tables. In fact, even early elementary students can benefit from learning about functions and multiple representations.
Here’s a Multiple Representations of Functions graphic organizer. It can help students organize their thinking and understand how the same function can be represented in several ways.
On WODB Wednesday, I use the website Which One Doesn’t Belong to generate creative thought and discussion. Students are shown four related math images and asked to justify “which one doesn’t belong and why”. Given the right explanation, any four of the images could be described as not belonging.
The beauty of this activity is that every child can be correct. It also helps review math vocabulary and develops their ability to justify their conclusions (this supports the 3rd Common Core Standard of Mathematical Practice).
In the example above, a student could argue that ‘3x’ doesn’t belong because it has the only positive coefficient. Another might argue that ‘-3’ doesn’t belong because it is the only one without a variable. You could also contend that ‘-3x^2’ doesn’t belong because it is the only one with an exponent. ‘-5x’ is the odd one out when you consider the rest have a ‘3.’ Students of all abilities can find some way to justify their answer and develop confidence in their decisions.
ThinkFun Thursday is everyone’s favorite day of the week. At the beginning of the year, I go through my rules. During the 7 minutes of ThinkFun Thursday, they are not allowed to talk, trade puzzles, or complain that it’s too hard.
Over the years, I have amassed a large collection of one-player puzzles from Think Fun and other companies. Each puzzle, including Block by Block, 15, and Chocolate Fix, helps students develop spatial orientation, logic, and problem solving.
Since the puzzles use a different type of intelligence than traditional math, they allow students of all skill levels to experience success. A number of my students with learning disabilities have surprised their peers with how quickly and accurately they can solve some really complex puzzles.
When students solve a puzzle, they show me their result. I take their picture and post it on the ThinkFun Wall of Fame. My students learn that persistence and hard work are required to build their brains. For classrooms with 1-to-1 technology, teachers might be interested in the free online versions of Laser Maze, Chocolate Fix, and Rush Hour.
Lastly, on Futures Friday, I show my students short videos from The Futures Channel. These showcase professionals from a variety of fields using math in their jobs. Students are asked to look for math vocabulary and images while watching. Afterwards, we have a brief discussion of the math they heard or saw demonstrated.
This allows me to introduce my students to careers they might never have considered, and reinforces the importance of math in any career. As a result, I hear fewer students asking “When will I ever need this?” Many are starting to realize that no one can avoid math completely in their career. There is an annual subscription fee, but there are several free videos available on the website.
Ready to Make Math Warm-Ups Part of Your Routine?
Math Warm-Ups can be a useful tool to get students into the right frame-of-mind for learning. In my 48 minute classes, they are a worthwhile use of class time, giving me a way to enhance my lessons and develop my classroom culture, one day at a time.
Try the warm-up routines listed above, and I’m confident you’ll start to see positive changes right away.
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About the Author
Robin Zaruba has taught elementary and middle school math for 23 years in the Denton, Texas Independent School District. She has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and has worked in higher education as a student leadership specialist. While she never planned to become a teacher, she has finally found her dream job! Find her on Twitter @REZaruba.