How to Facilitate Successful Learning Stations in the Secondary Classroom

Welcome to my third and final post in my series on learning stations in the secondary classroom! Thanks for staying with me! If you’re just now tuning in, you may want to check out my first post that outlines the research-based benefits of learning stations and my second post that takes you through my learning station design process, from start to finish.

I have been successfully facilitating learning stations in my secondary ELA classroom for 4 years now. Stations are embedded in just about every unit I teach, and I’ve even used them to earn “highly effective” teacher evaluations. My students have internalized my procedures and expectations, so facilitating stations is more like “watching the magic happen.” One of those lessons that warms your little teacher heart. It’s that moment when you look around the room to see all of your students engaged and collaborating, with metaphorical light bulbs hovering over their heads. You might see your students’ newfound independence and question, “Do they even need me anymore?”

The answer: Of course they do! They just need you in a different way, because the learning is now student-centered, rather than teacher-centered. I don’t think Albert Einstein ever facilitated learning stations, but I think this quote from him perfectly embodies this type of lesson:

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

During stations, you’re not exactly “teaching” in the traditional sense of the word, but you’ve designed and orchestrated the entire learning experience behind the scenes. You’ve created the conditions in which your students can learn, and that’s better than merely “teaching” your students. That’s empowering them.

If you’re ready to implement stations for the first time, or if you’ve facilitated stations with less than light-bulb level success, here are my practical tips for providing those “conditions” of a well-structured learning experience for your students:

CLEARLY COMMUNICATED EXPECTATIONS

The expectations you set, or the lack thereof, will make or break your stations, especially in the secondary environment. Students may have been used to stations or centers in the elementary grades, but they are likely out of this routine in high school. Stations are student-centered, so structure is necessary to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Like I said in my previous post, you will need to let go of the feeling of control that comes with teacher-centered lessons. With learning stations, there will be some noise and it may seem like chaos at first, but it’s the “everyone is engaged, collaborating, and learning” kind of noise that I also refer to as “organized chaos.” If you’re anything like me, then you LOVE that noise. But it is important to teach your students about the level of noise you will tolerate and reinforce the expectation that the noise should be healthy and full of learning, not chatter about the latest gossip.

In addition to the appropriate noise level, I emphasize expectations for collaboration. I remind my students that EVERYONE should be contributing, and I warn them that if I see a group member disengaged, then I will deduct points. Stations are about peer learning, and sometimes you have to remind your students of this. I like to be transparent about the purpose of my lessons; I remind them that oftentimes, they can learn more from their peers than they can from just me!

Stations are anchored in meaningful peer-to-peer learning, but it’s also important to provide guidance for individual accountability during the group work. Even though students are collaborating, I usually make each student record an individual response. I want everyone learning and processing, putting the ideas in their own words after group discussions. More on this later on in the “Student Accountability” section!

I also stress that there is absolutely NO down time during stations. I tell the students that if they get done early, then they’re probably not thinking or discussing enough. I tell them to continue their discussions until time is up; if they can’t, then they should raise their hand, and I will gladly give them something to discuss or do. Like I discussed in my previous post, I sometimes create “Bonus questions,” or extension tasks, for groups that finish early and need an extra challenge.

Fair warning: The first time that you introduce stations, you might have to embrace the chaos and constantly reinforce expectations. But it gets better and it’s worth it–I promise! After multiple rounds of stations, your students will become so familiar with the procedures that stations will become automatic and natural, and they’ll soon be a staple in your lesson planning toolbox!

THE RIGHT TIMING

Timing is crucial because it’s important to give your students “just enough” time. With insufficient time, students will quickly become stressed and frustrated with stations, but with too much time, students may abuse the freedom that comes with stations and get off task. I have no perfect prescription for timing in stations, but I will say that it is dependent upon your class period, students, and the tasks involved in your stations. In my 42-minute class periods, I usually aim to achieve 4-5 stations of 5-7 minutes each, but there have been times when we’ve had to finish our last station the following day in class. I don’t lock myself into a set time. I usually set a goal time, and then adjust accordingly after observing the first round of stations.

One great way to help students with the pacing of stations is a timer projected on your screen. It is seriously magical. Without a timer, my students seem to have no sense of urgency or awareness of time. If you just Google “online timer,” you will find one embedded in Google. I also like https://www.online-stopwatch.com/ too.

OnlineTimer

Google’s magical online timer

 

AN ORGANIZED SET-UP/SYSTEM

There’s no one-size-fits-all system, but it is helpful to have some kind of predictable structure or organization that will provide guidance for your students. I like to print out enough copies of the station tasks so that each student can follow along, instead of forcing all students to squint at one copy posted on the wall. I use folders, page protectors, or trays to keep the station papers in one place, but paper clips or binder clips work just fine. I also just purchased these clear sign holders  from Amazon to display station tasks. I like to place one color copy of the station task in my sign holder and give B&W copies to the students.

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I even redesigned my flexible seating classroom to better accommodate learning stations, because they are such an important part of my teaching. I have 7 distinct zones: the library, the lounge, the cafe, the bistro, the patio, the coffee bar, and the office. When we do stations, I can easily set up a station in a specific area. But you don’t have to have my classroom to do this. You could simply created numbered “learning zones” or stations around the room by hanging up paper signs.

PURPOSEFUL GROUPING

Teachers all have their preferences for grouping, but it’s essential to have a purpose behind one’s grouping strategies. Like I explained in my first post in this series, stations can be a form of differentiation with purposeful grouping. When you structure the groups by ability levels, you know which groups to spend more time helping and which groups can master the content independently. This works, but heterogeneous grouping can also help because students can reach their zone of proximal development (ZPD) from the “more knowledgeable other” (MKO), according to Vgotsky’s social learning theory.

I employ strategic grouping strategies, but I’m not above letting students choose their own groups occasionally.  If we are doing literature discussion stations and I want my students to be comfortable within their small groups, I will often let them choose their groups. Even when I let my students select their own groups, they know that I have the power to swiftly rearrange groups if students are not handling their freedom appropriately.

STUDENT ACCOUNTABILITY

With any kind of student-centered lesson, there must be accountability for it to work. For me, that comes in the form of my informal observations as students are working AND individual responses that I grade after stations. I always require individual responses for each station task, except for “discussion stations.” For these, I do not ask students to write anything down, because this often stifles natural discussion. Students become too worried with writing down an answer that they race through a cursory discussion. Instead of a written response during these stations, I ask that students “invite” me over to their discussion at some point during the rotation so that I can check their group off and give them credit.

For all other station responses, a simple paper recording sheet like I described in my last post works perfectly, but there are other options if you are 1:1 with technology:

  • A Google doc, with sections for each station
  • A Google form with a page for each station, or multiple forms, one for each station
  • A Google Classroom “question” for each station (my favorite)
  • A Padlet board for each station

My personal favorite is the Google Classroom “question” for each station because it organizes all responses in one visible spot, which also makes for easier grading. The students can see each others’ responses once they submit, so it’s great seeing the small-group discussions build upon one another throughout the course of a stations lesson. It also creates a great resource that students can return to and reflect on after learning.

TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY

With effective classroom management, clear expectations, and repeated practice, stations can practically facilitate themselves, but that does not mean you are not needed. Remember, with stations, you’re the guide on the side, instead of the sage on the stage! Even though you’re not necessarily “in control” of the whole class, delivering a lecture, you’re still the expert in the room. Sure, stations are student-centered, but what you do during stations can take the lesson from good to great. If you merely sit at your desk the whole time, your students will a) see that you do not value the content or care enough to get involved, b) have no reason to stay on task, because there’s little accountability. But if you are circulating throughout the room, students will quickly recognize how much you care and value the lesson.

I love stations because they allow me to interact with ALL of my students, which is often impossible in a traditional lecture-style whole-class lesson. Stations help me meet my students’ unique needs and build relationships. When I circulate throughout the room, I like to pop in on discussions. Sometimes I’ll even pull up a chair and join them, “student style.” I also like to play devil’s advocate and throw curve-ball questions into the discussions. My students know that I could join their group at any second, so it’s all the more important for them to stay on task throughout the stations.


With the right expectations, pacing, organization, grouping strategies, and accountability, you can cultivate optimal learning conditions with stations, Einstein style! Remember the wise words of old Albert: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Stations will not be perfect the first time you facilitate them. Embrace the mistakes that may happen, the sometimes-too-loud noise level, and the constant reinforcement of your procedures. Soon, you’ll be embracing the joy that comes with creating an engaging, student-centered learning experience for your students. They deserve it. 

 

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