Focus on Math

Helping children become mathematicians!

Math Toolkits for Students (part 1) May 17, 2011

When I worked with a group of teachers last week, one of them asked about math toolkits for students. I have talked a lot about this idea in my district, and even did a workshop on the topic a couple of years ago. It has come up again as a topic of interest in a number of teacher groups, and I thought it would be a good idea to post some ideas about toolkits here.

I first heard about the idea of creating a toolkit about 15 years ago when I went to a workshop offered by Kim Sutton. I loved the idea then, and still do. In fact, as I work with children all day at Charlie Lake School each Wednesday, I have a toolkit in each desk for students to use during the day. When I had my own classroom, each student individually had his or her own toolkit. The way I have my one-day-a-week room now is that a toolkit must be shared with all the children who happen to sit at that desk during the day (I teach 8 groups of students during the day ranging from grade 1 to grade 5). I confess I do not like the shared tookit quite as well as each student being responsible for his/her own toolkit, but it is still working out pretty well.

I have used some of Kim Sutton’s ideas for the toolkits, and added other ideas of my own, all with the purpose of helping children “do mathematics”.

So this post does not become unwieldy, I will talk about some general components of a toolkit, and separately post some specific ideas for primary and intermediate toolkits.

The Toolkit Container:
I have always used a large, Ziploc-brand freezer bag. I prefer the “squeeze to close” kind, without the little white slider, as I found that those sliders come off too easily with consistent use. We call them “large plastic bags” only on the very first day when they are passed out. After that they are always referred to as “toolkits”. I liked that the bags were basically flat, and I always have had students store them right in their desks. For me, this is part of the “power” of the toolkits: they are easily accessible for students to use, whether in an activity directed by me, or by their own choice as they work to solve problems.

Although plastic bags are my personal preference, some of the teachers in my district have used other things. One teacher would go out at the beginning of the school year when school supplies are on sale and purchase large, plastic cases for her students. These became the math toolkits and they were stored at the side in the students’ cubby-holes. A variety of containers would work — they just need to fit the kinds of things you are going to put into the toolkits.

Building the Toolkit: My personal philosophy about toolkits is that I do not give them to students packed with tools. I remember hearing about a mechanics program in which all of the would-be mechanics were given empty toolkits, and as they went through the program and learned how to use a particular tool, then the tool became part of each student’s toolbox. At the end of the program the toolboxes were full, but the students knew how to use all of the tools inside. That is my thinking for the math toolkits. On the day I give the bags and introduce the toolkits, I also give out the first tool and we use it together in class. Thereafter each time a new tool is introduced, we work with it as a class and then it goes into the toolkits.

I’ll begin to talk about the contents in my next post.

Mathematically yours,



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