What is the “Work” in Math Workshop?

Written by Donna Boucher

Donna has been a teacher, math instructional coach, interventionist, and curriculum coordinator. A frequent speaker at state and national conferences, she shares her love for math with a worldwide audience through her website, Math Coach’s Corner. Donna is also the co-author of Guided Math Workshop.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many professional development sessions. One such session that stands out in my mind was renowned reading and writing expert Lucy Calkins, who was hosted by my district. She spoke to the principals, assistant principals, and instructional coaches, both language arts and math, about writer’s workshop and writing.

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You might wonder what a math instructional coach could gain from a presentation on writing. Lots, actually. First, any expert in the educational field is worth listening to, even if it’s not my content area. But she spent the morning talking about writer’s workshop, which is very similar to math workshop. In fact, Laney Sammons based her Guided Math framework on the work of Lucy Calkins.

Here are some notes I made during Lucy’s session:

  • Workshop is laboratory instruction; structure is kept simple and streamlined so the heart is the work
  • Predictable
  • Procedures are thought through in advance
  • Mini-lesson only 10 minutes; it’s for teaching a strategy to add to their repertoire; might just be adding a bullet to an anchor chart
  • There are strategies in place for transitioning from mini-lesson to writing; must get community going quickly; go around quickly and communicate with gestures; cover the room
  • Intensive small groups; “I pulled you guys together because…”; must be planned; anticipate how kids might screw up what you taught in the mini-lesson
  • Mid-workshop interruptions; “Can I stop you guys?  Look what Robert is doing.  I wonder if some of you can try Robert’s technique”; “Guys. You’re forgetting to paragraph!” (voice over);  “Eyes up here.” (If you say it, mean it)
  • End with a share; usually getting back with a partner and discussing the strategy they were practicing; could be a class discussion

Doesn’t that sound a LOT like what should be going on in math workshop?

One statement Lucy made during the morning that really stuck with me was this:

The primary time in workshop is time spent writing.

Not the mini-lesson, but the time spent writing. Now translate that to math workshop and you get The primary time in workshop is time spent doing math. That’s your workstations. Think about your planning process. How much of it do you spend discussing and planning the actual workstations the kids will be doing versus the lesson you will be teaching. If you are teaching in a true workshop structure, your kids are spending a significant amount of time in workstations. They have to be deliberately planned, not an afterthought.

And how have you planned sharing/reflection time into your workshop schedule? Is it an afterthought that you sometimes get to? I know it’s hard to stop 5 minutes before the instructional block ends. But it’s so, so important for kiddos to get time to process and communicate about their learning!

If your math workshop process needs tweaking, check out this series of posts:

  1. Do This, Not That: Structuring Math Workshop
  2. Do This, Not That: Aligning to Standards
  3. Do This, Not That: Accountability & Assessment

If you’re looking for even more information about planning and organizing math workshop, check out the book I co-authored with Laney!


  1. Bethany Kennedy

    How can I adapt a math workshop to a multi grade classroom?

    • Donna Boucher

      Hey Bethany! Actually, math workshop is a perfect fit for multi-grade classrooms. Because you are doing most of the teaching in small groups, rather than whole group, you can organize your small groups based on grade levels. You might even have students from different grade levels in the same teaching group based on their needs for a specific skill.


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