5 Ways to Keep Student Engagement High During Your Number Sense Unit in Upper Elementary

Keep your mini lesson "mini" or switch to a flipped classroom model
A mini lesson should be 5 – 10 minutes. Try to keep it as close to 5 as possible.

Mini Lessons

When students are learning new material, they need to be fully engaged. Chances are, a room full of 8 – 11 year olds will not all be fully engaged at the exact same time, but if you’re delivering a whole group lesson to them, they need to be. This is why I fully committed to the flipped classroom model in math during the 2022 -2023 school year, but I also think you can achieve the same goal by keeping your mini lesson as close to 5 minutes long as possible. Chunk out the material you need to cover so that you’re focusing on only one skill per day. With the number sense unit, I always start with place value whether I’m teaching 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade math.

Differentiate with 3 small groups per day
If you meet with 3 small groups of 5, you’re working with 15 children every day.

Differentiate By Scheduling 3 Small Groups Per Day

Hear me out. If you flip your classroom or keep you mini lesson to 5 minutes, it’s possible. Now, I am fortunate to have a long math block this year (an hour and half), but that isn’t always the case. If your math block is 50 minutes long and you have a 5 minute mini lesson, you can have 3 12 – 15 minute small groups. Keep the small groups interesting by varying the skills you teach and the strategies you use to teach them. For example, use manipulatives (of course), but I also like to let my students write right on the table which they love.

I might give them number tiles with numbers from 1 – 9 written on them and a riddle such as, “I’m thinking of a number. It has 4 digits. It has a 9 in the 10s place. Its digits add up to 24. If you add the number in the hundreds place and the number in the ones place, you get the number in the tens place. The number in the ones place is odd. The number in the thousands place is even. The number in the thousands place is a multiple of 3. What is my number?” and have them move the tiles around to solve the riddle. They could also draw 4 lines on the table and write and erase numbers as they think of them. (The answer is 6,891 for those who are still following along.) Something like this is easy to differentiate because you can do 3 digit or 5 digit numbers or throw in prime and composite numbers for those who are ready for that. With my small groups, I always start with the group with the highest needs to get them on the right track for focusing and learning. Since I use the flipped model, I have entrance ticket data to use for grouping before students even walk in the door.

Students need practice materials that will keep them engaged
Use a variety of printable materials for independent work time

Use a Combination of High Interest Print Materials for Independent Work Time

When students are working independently, they have to be able to complete tasks alone. I absolutely use “Ask 3 then me,” but they should know the practice material well enough that they can complete it independently. If I’m focused on my small group, I can’t have people coming up to me saying, “I don’t get it,” every 2 minutes. Now, as I think most of you know, I teach in a gifted program, so my students don’t need a lot of independent practice to reach mastery and they get bored VERY easily. The way I prevent this is by varying the materials in their centers. We use worksheets that include problem solving and often multi-step directions, puzzles, dice games, task cards, scavenger hunts, file folder games, escape rooms, card games, and more. They can work alone or with partners or small groups but they need to work quietly (LOL – “need to” doesn’t always happen). I also have them turn in their work.

Digital resources are a wonderful, no prep option for independent work
Digital resources engage students in fun activities that provide instant feedback

Digital Resources for the Win!

I feel like a lot of teachers said, “no more” to digital resources after the spring of 2020 and 2020 – 2021 school year, but I’m here to tout their value. Digital resources are here to stay and students love them – especially if they’re gamified. I totally understand the sentiment of, “they spend enough time on computers after school”, but when used in moderation, digital resources can really lighten your grading load and balance out your students’ time doing independent work. It’s incredibly easy to assign digital resources and, if students only have one or two digital assignments per week, they should only be spending a few minutes in front of a screen. My students always love puzzles, mazes, monster munch, task cards, and choice boards. I also use district approved sites (DreamBox, ST Math, and Khan Academy) that monitor my students’ progress.

Mini anchor charts featuring even, odd, prime, and composite numbers
Mini anchor charts are great for easy reference

Use Mini Anchor Charts

I’m in a new classroom this year, but from 2018 – 2023, I was in a classroom with very little wall space. I started using mini anchor charts that students glue into their notebooks. I absolutely love them because they’re RIGHT THERE when students need them and they can even take them home when they need to study for a test. A lot of times, I will just shrink full pages down to 85% to create mini posters for my students. Easy peasy.

Record sheets and checklists
Record sheets and checklists keep students accountable

Keep Students Accountable by Using Record Sheets and Checklists

Finally, I want to make sure that my students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing during the workshop time, so they use record sheets and checklists. Record sheets are also great for error analysis and reteaching.


I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration to help you manage your math workshop whether you have a long math block and a small class (like me) or a short math block and a large class (which I have certainly had in the past). I really believe that differentiation is the key to keeping engagement high and know that these 5 ways of keeping them excited work.

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