A Centers Approach to Learning

This is a reblog of an earlier post originally found at BoxBreakout.

Simulation Center
Students working on a science simulation from PHET.colorado.edu

Over my 13 years as an educator I have taught middle and high school. Last year I moved to a School of the Arts which is focused on STEAM where the Principal is big on using Learning Centers as an effective teaching approach. I am up for trying new things, but I will be honest with you I did not understand how to make learning centers work in my sixth grade Social Studies class. Whenever a discussion concerning Learning Centers came up it was always in reference to an elementary classroom and for whatever reason I just could not bridge the gap in transforming the building block station into my 45 minute Social Studies classroom … that is until I read Dr. @GaryStager ‘s blog titled: Thoughts on Classroom Centers and then everything seemed to click. I finally realized how I could integrate centers into my class and here are my thoughts.

Learning Centers removes the teacher as the center of the learning and literally puts the learning into the students hands. Instead of relying on the teacher to regurgitate the standards based textbook content from the front of the classroom the teacher creates learning opportunities at these centers. I think what made it easier to understand the centers approach in the elementary world was because each teacher taught all the subjects so you had the Math station using manipulatives and over there you had the Reading station where the kids would go read, but using a single subject mindset it is difficult to see how to use stations until you realize how to break it apart and still keep moving toward the learning goals.

First step … Giving Up Control.

Let’s be honest. Many teachers have a real fear, myself included, about kids independently working. I can talk about trust and letting go all day long, but when I have the kids working like this I fear when the Principal walks into my classroom. The argument here is the need for classroom management … no kidding … therein lies my problem … my classroom management skill …  let’s just say would make Harry Wong cringe. I think the key element in making the centers work is to give the kids something worth doing. How can we expect the kids to maintain focused learning if we send them to the “Word Search” center. Word searches are fun, but what are they really teaching the kids? As I begin this school year, my biggest question that I need to answer of myself is; Can I give the kids something worth learning every day?

What types of centers should I have? 

According to Dr. Stager, “Centers are clearly delineated areas in the classroom where students may work independently or in small groups on purposeful activities without direct or persistent teacher involvement.”  As I prepare my room I am keeping this thought in mind, which is no easy task considering my portable was designed for rows not for centers. I also want to try and avoid making room look like a game of 4-Corners so this will take some thought. Using some of the suggestions I decided to integrate the following centers into my class repertoire:

Writing Zone: Based on my own reflection writing is one of the areas I shortchange on a regular basis. Yes, I implement DBQs (Document Based Questions) which require students to think and write, but I rarely afford the kids the opportunity to write and reflect. I talk about it and I think it is a great idea, but I just do not do it often. I would love it to be solely standards-based, but the reality is creating writable topics based on Ancient History may get a bit mundane so I will inject current events and other topics that interest the students. The purpose of this station is not for students to regurgitate learned facts in paragraph form, but rather to get them thinking and then writing with a purpose.

Viewing/Listening Zone: This area could be considered the “Flipping Zone” as it will be where students will be able to view content related material. Could be a video, article, music, or podcast. It may be something I create or I provide or even better … something the kids create. This may be where the direct instruction sneaks in, but as I write this, it could also be where students can see what the other students are producing based on the content. Instead of getting each kid up in front of the class, which terrifies many, they can view and reflect at this station.

Picture depicts an early view of the discussion area that contains a couch without any decorations.
Developmental stage of my discussion area. 

Discussion Zone: As the students rotate through the stations I will be interacting with them as necessary, but I want to minimize my distractions. Help when needed. Guide, but NOT give the answer. Is this area I want to be able to meet with the students in a small group and participate in a discussion … key word here is PARTICIPATE in the discussion. Please, note I did not say LEAD the discussion. This could be thought of as a formative assessment area as I am checking for understanding without bombarding them with a multiple choice quiz. Yes, this zone has a sectional couch that is similar to a socratic learning circle. The goal here is to create a comfortable environment where the kids can talk about what they are learning and what it means in the bigger picture.

Construction Zone: In this are I envision students building something … working on long term projects. For example they could be building a virtual world in Minecraft, coding a website to house their virtual portfolio, or working on a project like History Fair. This zone will be connected to the curriculum, but will give the kids time to work in class on their project. This area could take on many different faces as it could be digital, but it could lead to them physically making something. Yes, the direction is pointed by the teacher, but how the kid get there is all on them (with some teacher influence as needed).

Skill Zone: As a Social Studies teacher, I know there are certain things that kids should know … they may not necessarily like to know them, but it makes future learning a bit easier. I envision this area to be the spot where the kids will be working with maps and creating an improved understanding of location. No, this is not a worksheet zone, but a place where they can use both physical and digital resources to learn about the “where” we are studying … a virtual exploration. Maybe taking virtual field trips or connecting with students in the areas in which we are studying.

There, is my plan for implementing a Learning Center approach to teaching this year. I would love to hear what you think. Are you using centers? How is it working out for you?

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