Centers. A word most teachers either love or hate. Lengthy planning, chaos, and students working on meaningless activities were all fears that came to mind when I was beginning to roll them out in my classroom. However, they don’t always need to be this way. They can also be a useful way to differentiate the work that students are doing, while also helping to remediate or extend any learning that is occurring in the classroom. Here are 5 simple tips for rolling the centers out with older students:
- Set Clear Expectations
Before you get started with rolling out centers, you need to make sure that you have clear expectations of what you would like to achieve in your classroom. When I got started with embedding centers into my classroom, I needed to make sure I understood what I wanted students to be doing before I asked them to get started with the work. What was my intention for using centers? Once I clarified this for myself, I could then easily communicate this with my students.
Not only did I need clear expectations for centers as a whole, but I also needed to set clear expectations for each center. We spent some time as a class reviewing the expectations of each of the individual centers before centers were rolled out. Then I was able to answer questions, teach students the expectations, and ensure that the activity flowed as I had initially anticipated. The key was to continue to hold students to these expectations as the centers rolled out.
- Implement Slowly
This cannot be emphasized enough: It is imperative to take your time rolling out centers. When I taught fifth grade, my administrators recommended using the first six weeks of school to completely roll out centers. Six weeks seemed like forever at the time; however, when you break it down, it makes complete sense. Here’s a general outline of what this could look like:
Week 1: Help students get used to doing independent work after a mini-lesson and to the routines of asking for help.
Weeks 2-3: Whole group model and practice the centers’ expectations and activities. Typically, I would spend one day as a whole class on each center activity (I had 4 centers going at a time). After one center was introduced, students were allowed to go to their desks once they completed their work.
Weeks 4-5: As students complete their independent work, those who are on-task can choose a center to go to instead of having to stay at their seat. Monitor behavior as they are working at centers. Toward the end of week five, I sat at the small group table where I would be eventually pulling small groups so that students got used to be being in that space within the classroom.
Week 6: In week six, pull small groups while students are at centers. I started small with only one group and slowly added groups as I found students became more comfortable with the procedures set forth in the classroom.
- Make Centers Meaningful
Students need to know that the work that they do in centers is just as vital as the work that they do in our whole class lesson. It is essential that in turn, the center activities are meaningful. Here are several ways to do this:
- Align them to the current unit as extra practice
- Align them to your previous unit as review or extension
- Use centers as a time to review MAP instructional areas
- Use them as a way to address gaps in student knowledge
- Provide multiple options at centers in terms of level of rigor
- Change up the content of centers regularly
When I implemented centers, I used MAP goal strands and had a center for each topic. This way, I could ensure students were able to practice different skills at different times even if it was not covered in the curriculum. With a small set of tablets or technological devices, center time is also a great way to get students on programs that help them individualize their learning.
- Alternate Days
Sometimes with a busy schedule, short class periods, and lots of curriculum, centers seem unmanageable in several grade levels — particularly in middle and high school. However, sometimes it is more manageable if you alternate days. A colleague successfully alternated days for her sixth grade classes that functioned like the traditional 40-minute class period middle school. Students knew that Tuesdays and Thursdays were always center days; Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were dedicated to more defined curriculum.
The important part about centers is that students have choice in what they are doing…”
Centers do not have to be an everyday occurrence. Doing centers might make the most sense for your class once a week, at the beginning of each unit, or as a method for re-teaching after an assessment. The important part about centers is that students have choice in what they are doing and that it allows for students to work at their own levels.
- Provide an Opportunity for Feedback
It is essential to allow students the opportunity to give themselves and their peers feedback, as well as for you to give students feedback. This will help move the learning forward and enable students to be active participants in their own learning. This feedback and reflection could occur in multiple ways:
- Integrate self-monitoring tools and rubrics into each individual center
- Incorporate technology into your centers, such as apps or online sites that allow students to have a digital chat forum and provide feedback to each other
- At the end of each day or week, create time and space for students to self-assess on their learning for the week
- Provide written feedback on center work for students
No matter which of these tips you follow, you can make centers work for you. Every teacher has a different style of classroom management, instruction, and classroom set-up, so the same prescribed method will not work for everyone. Hopefully these five tips will get you started!