Building Enduring Mathematical Understanding, one lesson at a time.

Made4Math Monday: Sticks and Seats

One of the benefits of working part time for a NUMBER of years was that I could find the time to be a “parent volunteer” while my own kids were in Elementary School. I must say that it was a valuable experience as a teacher as well. Most of my teaching experience up until that point was at the high school level, so many of the classroom routines were new to me:) One of those ideas was “picking with Popsicle sticks.”


The question is. . .how do you pick sticks when you have six different classes? Do you have six different cups of sticks? After a few years of “refinement” I have a method that works well for me. I picked up a package of big, brightly colored “craft sticks” at the dollar store. There are actually six different colors, but I generally only use four. I wrote the numbers 1-8 on the bottom of the sticks and I am good to go for a class of up to 32 students. Each student is assigned a color and a number (which they remember quite readily after the first few days.) I, on the other hand, have a “cheat sheet” that I post on the board and “borrow” during class so I can actually call on the student’s name instead of just the “color-number combination.”

Here is my “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” butterbeer cup that I will being using this year. (I am finally retiring my University of Minnesota cup with the lettering all worn off, but I am still using it to hold my little six inch rulers.)


Here is one of the (currently empty) “cheat sheets” that will be filled with names once our class lists are finalized.


(Ha! I just noticed the Yellow column twice. I must have used my class that only had three colors last year and copied and pasted a new column. It’s supposed to say Green!)

Soooo. . . what if you have more than 32 students in a class? I’m glad that you asked. There are a number of different ways that you can deal with this issue. Since there are more than four colors available, you can certainly use more colors and fewer sticks of each color if you wish. Last year I had a class of 34 students and I included two blue sticks (in addition to the red, orange, yellow and green ones) numbered 1-2. If you have far fewer than 32 students (less than 24, for instance) you can eliminate one color all together, and never “pick” that color during that class. I have an additional “rule” that I follow as well. If I pick a stick that does not “belong” to anyone in the class (not just because they are absent) then I am the one who must answer the question! (Occasionally I have a class with lots of “unclaimed sticks” and I end up “calling on myself” more often than I wish, so I will put a limit on how many times I can answer in a period.)

I rarely use the sticks for “total cold calls” in class. Quite often students work on a problem, discuss it with a partner, and then I pick a stick to share their response. Other times I will have students work on five or six problems and as I begin to pick sticks, the first person chosen is allowed to decide WHICH of the five or six problems he or she wishes to share. (If no choice is made, I will choose!) By the time the last person is chosen, at least we have already discussed the other problems – even if the most challenging one was left for last. However, this is certainly not always the case. Some students definitely WANT to share their response to the toughest problem! I do not allow students to “pass,” even if they have not completed the problem. I will instead ask questions, questions, and more questions, to help them reach a solution. I will also call on raised hands after a problem has been shared if students wish to add more information, an alternative process, or an alternative solution. I generally leave the stick out of the cup for the rest of the period. I am not sure this is a “good thing.” Some students then “relax” knowing they won’t be called again. Others are disappointed that they won’t get “picked” another time.

I have to chuckle sometimes at the responses I get when I start to pick a stick. (Some times I will have already grabbed it, just waiting for the time to call.) Since they know their color, some are happily anticipating that it might be them, while others are nervously hoping it WON’T be them! Often the people up front will see the number as the stick is drawn (apparently I’m not very adept at hiding it) and actually KNOW the particular student before I can even look it up! Occasionally a student professes “disbelief” because they (let’s be honest, it’s usually a “he!”) “called it” that he would be picked. Oh, sixth graders – I will miss them this year 😦


Why all this hassle just to assign a stick to a student? I have ulterior motives. 🙂 The color-number combination is also often used to assign seats! On a daily basis, students enter the room and need to figure out where they are sitting and who they are sitting with for that particular day. (I alluded to this in my First Day post, but here is the full text version.) Some days the desks will be in groups of four and they might be sitting with their number groups or “half” of their color groups (evens and odds or highs and lows.)

Other days they will be sitting in two’s where they are generally paired up with someone else in their color group.

Since there are usually six or seven other people in their color group, this partner will also change from day to day. Part of my reason for posting the lists is that they act as a “cheat sheet” for the students as well.


You may have noticed signs above the class listings that notify students the groups for the day. I have laminated (double-sided so I can just flip for a new option) all of the different seating choices available. For the “color pairs” there are seven different signs that all have each number paired with a different “partner.” (Now there’s a math problem for you!) I also have laminated signs for each number group that I set out on the groups of four, and for each color group that I place out to determine the “row” or “section” for that color. These are all stored in a basket right under the section of the board I use for group assignments.


Just to make things even MORE confusing, I also have a few additional ways of picking the groups for the day. One is “Find Your Match” (pairs or trios) that I described in my post on Math Cards. The other is “Just for Today” groups (pairs, trios, or quads.) I often use this option after a formative assessment or during review activities where I purposely group students so that at least one person in the group has a strong understanding of the concepts. I sort their formative assessments and put them in groups, then jot down the names on a blank seating chart in a page protector using an overhead pen (I guess they still have their uses!)


I assign new “color groups” every quarter. (I used to do it more frequently, but it can be time consuming, and with eight people in group, plus the other options, they get quite a variety throughout the quarter.) Initially the groups are usually alphabetical. By the second quarter I put some work into assigning groups. I often have the highest performing students with the same number (or two to three numbers) so that I can choose to use “Number Groups” when I want to differentiate a bit. (Those groups would “receive” a more challenging problem than some of the other groups.) I am also aware of when I end up with “high-low” pairings so that I either take advantage of built in “tutors” or at least I do not plan an activity in which partners might be “competing” against each other. A definite part of my lesson planning involves deciding how students will be grouped for the day. Finally, for the last quarter I usually allow some student input regarding who they would like to have in their group. I take requests of 2-3 people for each student and I can usually place them all in a group with at least ONE of the people they requested, often with two (or another in their number group.) Again, THIS is a challenge as well!

Back to Sticks

There were blue sticks I used in my class of 34 last year. When in “Number Groups,” they just created a group of five. When in color groups pairs they were my “Wild Cards.” They took the place of students who were absent for the day or sat together as a pair. (I also randomly drew sticks that they would switch with so each day there were different student’s sitting in the “Wild Card” seats.) For odds/evens or high/lows, if everyone was present, I would have them join a “convenient group” with the most extra space to form groups of five. I would also probably do this for a class of 25 or 26 instead of having four color groups with “lots of empty seats.”

Last year I came up with a new way to use the sticks during group work. If the students were in Number Groups, I would walk around with one stick of each color in my hand. When stopping to check on a group or to answer a question, I would place the sticks behind my back, mix them up and pick one to determine who to call on to either ask or answer a question. If students were in Color Groups, a collection of sticks with different numbers could be used. (Although I also used an octahedron, but this sometimes resulted in MANY rolls if I was at an “even” group and the numbers kept coming up “odd.”)

Whatever For!?

Sticks: I am TERRIBLE at calling on “purely random” students, so the sticks help me to do that on a more regular basis. (We also have class discussions that don’t involve sticks – it depends on the particular activity.)

Seats: I want every student in the class to be comfortable and familiar working with every other student in the class. We all have our strengths and weaknesses that we bring to a group and I want student to be aware of that fact, and looking for opportunities to share their strengths while acknowledging and working on their weaknesses. Not every student “enjoys” working with every other student in the class, but they know it will change the next day. Sometimes we will stay in the same groups for two consecutive days, but really no more than that. Some students swear to me that they have been with the same partner waaaay too often because they “happen” to end up partners in find your match (over and over. . .), they are IN the same color group so they are in pairs and quads with that person, AND I even put them together in a “Just for Today” group!! Oh, the injustices of being a middle school student!

Minor Pitfalls

Last year my sixth graders were my first class of the day. The buses arrive by 7:30 and class starts at 8:00, so more than a few of them would “hang out” in class for awhile. Then, I started noticing some patterns. Within a “column” of eight seats, the pairs can choose their spots on a first come – serve basis. Some students would quickly “claim” spots so that they could be just across the aisle from their “BFF” – who they were not actually in a group with (on purpose, from my point of view) but wished to sit near them anyways. I began to be quite careful about where each color groups was assigned, or where each number group was placed to try to avoid the “cliques.” I was not always successful. This year I have 8th grade Algebra students first thing in the morning. I am not sure they will “hang out” in class before school, but if so, I think I will wait until closer to 7:55 to make the group placements for the day!

Whew! “Leadership Team” meeting this morning, working in my room all afternoon, and I still finished this post at a decent hour – West Coast Time! Still nine more days ’till students arrive – unless you count out Open House on Wednesday, but I think I’m ready for that 🙂


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3 thoughts on “Made4Math Monday: Sticks and Seats

  1. I love how you have them sitting differently on different days. I am stealing this for sure!

    • Glad to be assistance 🙂 It takes some time to organize up front but then there’s not much effort involved. It does take some kids more time than others to “get used to the idea.” I had one kid who was still complaining in November, I think. “Why can’t we just sit in the same place every day.”

      Sent from my iPad

  2. Pingback: Made4Math Monday: Formative Assessment Forms « findingEMU

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