Recently, I’ve been working with many secondary schools on developing teachers’ capacity to differentiate for their students. Secondary teachers face a much more complex level of challenges when it comes to differentiation due to the number of students they see each day, lack of consistent classroom space, number of course preparations, and district, state or federal mandates for graduation, just to name a few. As pressing as these issues are, it is still important for secondary teachers to work through the process of differentiation to address the needs of all students. This is especially important as schools eliminate courses that are meant to provide remediation or advanced level courses.
One strategy that can be very helpful in the process of differentiation is the use of centers or stations* to address the various needs of students in the classroom.
Based on the work by Carol Tomlinson, centers focus on providing individualized instruction to students who may be struggling or may need to be advanced within a lesson or unit. A great use of centers is after a lesson or group of lessons has been delivered and post-assessment suggests that some students are still not grasping the strategy or concept while others have met the goal. For those who struggle, the center reinforces or reteaches the strategy or concept in a different manner. Those who have grasped the strategy or concept will work on practicing, extending, or enhancing it.
Stations offer different tasks that students rotate through to learn content or develop strategies. Not all students will visit each station, particularly when you have students who gain understanding or proficiency quickly. In this case, set up alternate stations for those students who will or may skip a station. I call these stations “by-pass” stations. Ideas for by-pass stations include:
- Homework station: Students can work on homework from any one of their classes.
- Reading station: Students are allowed to read from a text of their choice—preferably materials from the class.
- Enrichment station: Students are provided with a focused topic within the content. (For example, in an astronomy class this station could offer an activity on black holes.)
- Extension station: Students explore a broadening of the content. (For example, when studying The Grapes of Wrath, students might listen to John Steinbeck discuss his writing process.)
- Enhancement station: Students connect the unit of study to other content areas. (For example, in a biology class students could learn more about the economic costs associated with contagious diseases.)
- Exploration station: Students are offered disassociated key words to do an Internet search. (For example, in a math class you could give them the words grief, economics, and division. When I did this search, I came up with an article from The Economist, September 24, 2011, on the shake-up in the global labor market.) This is a great way to get students to understand key-word searches and/or find out information on new topics.
Setting Up Centers and Stations
Here is a checklist to use in preparation of centers and stations:
Be clear about the outcomes of the centers or stations. If the intent is to reteach, reinforce, or extend, then you will create centers (where students will only do one center). If the intent is to directly teach skills or content, then you will use stations. Clearly articulate the outcomes for the students so they know what is expected.
Practice with your students how to move around the room. When space is an issue, either think creatively about what in your room can be removed to provide more space (such as desks) or use file folders or boxes that move between groups of students or individuals. This is a critical factor in the success of centers and stations. Students must learn how to manage themselves in the movement from space to space.
Set up classroom norms or protocol for actions when using centers or stations. When students are working collaboratively, they each need to participate and contribute. This is best accomplished by having no more than five students and no less than three students in each group.
Make sure students can do what is being asked at each location. Practice examples of the activities with the whole class prior to the development of the center or station.
Create clear directions for the students to follow at the center or station. Use as few words as possible and even include photos, illustrations, drawings, or videos of each step. Have the directions posted at each location.
Ensure that all activities at each location take about the same amount of time, are equally engaging, and require students to put forward effort. Be aware of the curse of “fluff n’ stuff” activities for advanced students!
Have formalized assessments after each center or at the end of the stations rounds.
Provide students with choices whenever possible. A suggestion is to have between two to three options at each center or station.
Keep the number of centers or stations to a manageable number. I suggest that you have between three and six. To keep the numbers of students at each center or station practicable and manageable, you may need to have two to three of the same stations. Example: If you have thirty students in your class and you want to have three stations, then you will have two of each center or station.
Critical to the success of centers and stations:
- Preparation. Think through each activity and be sure you have all the materials ready before the students arrive.
- Organization. Use file folders for papers, boxes or baskets for materials, bindings for utensils, and so forth. Especially when students are moving from station to station, be sure they know how to put items back into the original organization.
- Expectations. Make sure students know how to move from place to place; know what to do in each location; know how to work with others; know what to do when they have questions; and know what to do when they complete early or don’t finish.
- Movement. The teacher must move between stations or centers to provide support, guidance, and encouragement. If you are working in a co-teaching situation, have preservice teachers, classroom aids, or volunteers, they can be fixed at a center/station or follow a group of students from station to station.
Centers and stations are a great way to engage, enrich, and enhance your classroom and can provide students with what they need to achieve learning goals. I find that breaking up the normal classroom routine from “teacher as knowledge provider” to “learner as explorer” can have a profound effect on student motivation and achievement.
What suggestions do you have for using centers and stations in your classroom?
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