Centers or Stations can be an engaging way to remove yourself from the front of the classroom. They engage students in a variety of activities without full-class, teacher-led instruction. Depending on how Centers/Stations are structured, they can be tools to work with the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines and the UDL Progression Rubric to empower students to engage in their own learning, rather than waiting passively for a teacher to tell them what to do.
As soon as the structure of Centers/Stations includes a required time constraint, the UDL aspect of it is negated. If all students are expected to complete Centers/Stations in a given time, those students are not empowered to take control of their own learning. They are not reflecting on their own needs and progress to make choices based on those needs. They are not adjusting their work based on self-reflection. Instead, they are just passively moving when the bell rings.
Unfortunately, much of the literature about Centers/Stations includes working within a time constraint and/or requiring all students to do all Stations/Centers within a given time/period/day, which amounts to the same thing–even without a bell going off to spur movement between Stations/Centers, students are still forced to move on someone else’s pace. This hurts students on both ends of the spectrum. Students who are proficient in a given topic are required to practice it regardless, which can lead to boredom and behavior issues. Other students are left with not enough time to learn the material. No one benefits.
So, if we need to create Stations/Centers that don’t have requirements on time, how can we implement them effectively? Here are some ideas:
I love the way using Centers/Stations allows students to work with a variety of activities. However, the classic format, where students physically move around the room from one fixed location to the next, can create problems of set-up, mobility, spacing, and discomfort on the part of students who are not moving at the same pace as peers. When I set up Stations/Centers, I put all materials in one place in the room and students go get what they need. They can then access flexible seating–playing games on the floor, doing timed drills at a desk–and they can still move through a range of activities, but the whole experience is much more casual and relaxed, which reduces student anxiety.
I often identify one or two Stations/Centers that are critical for all students to experience, which allows students to focus on those key topics and skip others (or do them for homework). This way, I can be sure students are getting the content I want them to explore, but I also provide options so students are empowered to make choices within that structure.
Allow students to set the time:
I have no argument with building fluency and speed with math computation and skills. However, I think it’s a disaster to do that full-class by forcing all students to rotate through Centers/Stations on a timer. Instead, my colleague and I sometimes offer a Station/Center with a timed component. For example, students might do a Sprint from our 7th grade Eureka lesson…but they set the timer themselves and decide for how long. Again, when we return the idea of “empowering,” this approach allows students to be in charge of their learning while also meeting the curricular needs teachers are responsible for.