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I used to dread doing learning centers in my classroom because quite honestly, it always seemed like chaos in my room whenever I tried them.
On a theoretical level, I knew how good learning centers would be for my students, but that doesn’t mean that I had a CLUE what to do to set them up in a smart and efficient way or how run them effectively.
It took me a long time to figure out what would work in my classroom, and now I am so excited to be able to share this information with you so you don’t have to go through the same learning curve that I did!
Before we get started, I think it’s important to get super clear about why you want to teach this specific content using learning centers. It’s helpful to ask yourself what is it about this specific content that really lends itself to doing centers (instead of pair work or independent work or even something else like role play or debate?)
In my experience, I’ve found that learning centers work best when I want to reinforce content that I’ve already taught - that isn’t brand new to my students - because center work usually requires a high level of independence for my students to be successful.
You don’t want to spend a lot of time setting up learning centers, only for students to get stuck right away because the content is so unfamiliar to them. At the same time, you don’t want your centers to just be busy work. For centers to truly work, they need to provide meaningful and targeted reinforcement of specific skills.
For example, I loved to do learning centers to give my students extra practice with addition and subtraction facts when I was teaching 2nd grade. This was a skill that required a lot of practice, and I could use a lot of fun and creative techniques in centers to help my students to acquire these skills. Also, I could easily change up the activities that my students were asked to do at each center, increasing the level of difficulty as my students gained mastery.
My students loved getting this extra practice by doing centers because it was a fun and creative way to gain reinforcement of important skills while getting to move around the classroom and enjoy some social interaction.
Also, the collaborative and hands-on nature of learning centers was a strong motivator for my students who usually didn’t think of math as their favorite subject. Instead, because they loved getting to spend more time interacting with their friends, centers in math became one of the things my students asked for on a regular basis!
And finally, of course, there is a huge benefit to you, the teacher, to doing learning centers, because once you’ve done all of the up-front work of creating the centers and once you’ve set them up the right way, you really can relax a little more and let your students take the lead in their own learning because you aren’t at the front of the room, expending a lot of energy during that subject.
So, it can be a fantastic alternative for everyone – but you really need to set your centers up with a lot of care, or it will feel like a classroom management nightmare.
By the way, I do a deep dive into walking you through everything you need to know in five steps for how to set up and manage learning centers in my new program , Your Chaos to Confidence Classroom Management System:
Oh my gosh, I wish I knew all of this information when I first started teaching! It would have saved me so many headaches. Let’s talk about some of the best lessons I’ve learned about how to set up learning centers in the most simple, effective, and organized way in your classroom so that you can minimize stress and overwhelm that I went through!
Although setting up learning centers the way I’m going to suggest you do it will likely take some time, please trust me when I say that it’s worth doing right or you will be battling classroom management issues all year - and probably come to hate using learning centers in your classroom!
Also, don’t worry if you’re in the middle of the year and are already frustrated with trying to use centers in your classroom, because once you get clear about how you are going to do centers in your classroom from this point forward, you can always hold a classroom meeting with your students and establish a re-start.
The trick to successful (and a super fun and effective teaching strategy) is worth the time you spend introducing learning centers in a way that teaches all of your students how to be successful - while also allowing you to keep your sanity!
You might be surprised by this, but I would highly recommend that you take about 30 minutes each day over a full week to teach your students your routines for learning centers. This is because there is a lot of information that your students will need to internalize in order for your centers to run smoothly all year, and I promise you that investing this time now will save you so much time and headaches throughout the year!
So, let’s talk about what I recommend you teach your students each day on the week before you actually re-start doing learning centers with your students.
Day One: What Are Centers, Where Are They, and How are They Organized?
If your students haven’t done centers before, you will need to start at the beginning by teaching your students that this is small-group work that they will be doing with DIFFERENT students than the students they usually sit with in their groups.
Show your students:
Then, review all 7 things that you just taught your students to check for understanding.
Day Two: Review Day One and Teach Expectations for Center Work
On the second day, review what you taught your students on the first day, and then teach your expectations and procedures for when they are doing their centers.
Information to Share:
So, that’s a LOT of information to give to your students, so it’s best to review all of that again, as well as the information you provided them on Day One, on Day Three.
Day Three: Review Everything from Days One and Two
You might think I'm kidding, but if you skip this step, I guarantee you that half of your class will not know which group they are in or what learning centers even are. They need this repetition before they are actually taught the content of the centers!
Day Four: Teach the Specifics of Your Learning Centers
Okay, now finally, this is the stuff that your students are really looking forward to!
On this day, you will go through each of your centers and walk your students through how to do each one. This is especially important because the way you set up this group of centers will be the same way you set up every other set of centers throughout the year.
Here’s what I mean by that:
The most successful learning centers are the ones that mix up a lot of different kinds of activities and attends to different learning styles. So, you get to decide what your centers will look and feel like, but here is an example of what I mean.
Center #1 might always be an online activity where students get to use iPads or a computer to play a specific game for this set of centers.
Center #2 might always be a problem-solving activity that the group needs to work together to solve.
Center #3 might always be an art-based activity that involves using plasticine or drawing, and so on.
The point is that once your students know the rules and expectations for each center, they know how to be successful every time. This will also take the guesswork out of creating your centers every time as well.
Day Five: Review All of the Expectations & Routines and then Let Students Start
Now finally, before you release your kiddos to their centers, you may also want to have a short discussion about what the class will earn if they choose to follow the rules and expectations, and conversely, what the consequences are if they aren’t able to follow them.
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you will know that I am a HUGE fan of including a sprinkle of magic, mystery, and fun into my classroom by giving my kids what I call my Monthly Mystery Motivator.
Now if you don’t know what these are, I’m releasing a new one every month in my new Teachers Pay Teachers store, so you can go and check them out there if you’re interested, but my kids absolutely loved these. You can check them out by clicking here!
Now on the flip side, when students DON’T follow the routines and procedures I’ve set out for them, I usually give my students two warnings before telling a group that they will need to complete a worksheet independently to practice this skill instead of a center for the remainder of the time that the rest of the class is doing centers. That is usually enough of a consequence for them to not let that happen again, especially because completing centers is so much more fun than worksheets, of course! So, in order for this to work, you will of course need to have some extra worksheets on hand before you begin your centers.
So - we covered a lot today, and I really hope that what I’ve shared is helpful to you as you continue to think through how you want to set up and refine centers in your classroom.
I know it seems like a lot of work to set up centers, but it really is worth it because students love them so much, you will likely not have nearly as many classroom management issues if you set them up properly because students are so engaged when they are doing them.
And again, I walk you through exactly how to set up your learning centers inside my new online workshop, “Your Chaos to Confidence Classroom Management System." Click here to check it out now!
If you are a couple of months into the school year and you are feeling like you need some help clarifying some of the most important routines in your classroom, or if you feel like you have a super chatty class and you just don’t know what to do, I’d love to help you trouble-shoot to solve those problems.
I hope you have a fabulous week, and remember: just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one!
Bye for now.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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