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Middle school students working at a learning station
For Teachers

Using Learning Stations in Middle School

By Sarah Knutson December 20, 2018

Teaching via stations or learning centers feels familiar to elementary school teachers, but offering them in middle school may not feel entirely comfortable at first glance. I used to occasionally utilize stations to cover specific content very quickly but after I heard Catlin Tucker speak at a professional development seminar, I realized the potential impact I could have if I frequently used the Station Rotation model. I began making immediate changes in my classroom. The benefits of this type of instruction abound and can benefit a range of students.

Why offer learning stations?

Learning centers, learning stations, station rotations, blended learning — these labels all refer to the same general concept: rotating students through various learning activities throughout a single class period. When I moved from a middle school that allowed me to see my students for an average of 75 minutes each day to a site where I see my students for 60 minutes, four times a week, I had to change my method of instruction. The amount of content I needed to cover did not change, but the amount of time I had to cover it did. Enter the station rotation model.  

In addition to fitting in more content in a day, this model allows me to meet the needs of different learners via the teacher-led station. During each station rotation lesson, I group together specific students who need extra time on a particular assignment, may need re-teaching, or are ready to move on with advanced content. This small group instruction offers the chance to discreetly scaffold or advance students without drawing attention to them.

Additionally, because this type of instruction offers variety, student choice (where possible), and more student conversation than direct instruction, student engagement increases. Whether students are interacting with an experiential learning station such as an interactive lab, survey, or video, students focus on tasks and their engagement in classroom activities increases. I have witnessed students who aren’t comfortable using academic vocabulary during a class discussion suddenly have enthusiastic conversations around meaningful topics when they meet in a station with a group of peers.

Structuring learning stations

Using my classroom as an example, a typical station rotation structure could include different stations where students:

  • Interact with academic vocabulary
  • Read a document related to our current project and add notes to a graphic organizer
  • Discuss our current class novel with peers and add notes to a shared document
  • Meet with me in a group that’s formed around a specific need

In this model, students have fifteen minutes at each station. Often, that does not feel like enough time, so I split the stations over two days.  

Not every brain can focus on a single topic for an entire class period, and the station rotation model allows for smaller units of focus. While teachers may assign groups to follow a particular pattern, I often allow students or teams to choose their focus for the day and let them cycle through the stations at their own pace. This simple choice alone flexes some critical thinking muscles, asking students to prioritize tasks.   

Catlin Tucker’s Ten Tips cover the basics of establishing stations in a classroom. The most valuable piece of advice Tucker provides, in my experience, is her 10th tip: mix up the stations. Just as students cannot always focus on a single topic for a class period, they cannot always engage in the same type of task. And, you can support different learning styles with a mix of online, print, individual, group, and teacher-led stations.

Ultimately, the key to successful stations is consistent expectations. I knew at the start of the year that I would like to implement stations so here are the steps I took:

  1. I covered protocols, norm setting, and community building.
  2. I established the model I expected to use but included low-risk content (nothing heavy in terms of topics or points).
  3. I had students learn how to interact with print instructions (in stands on the tables), online instructions (to open links, view videos, complete written tasks, etc.), and with the different transition options (on a timer, when done as an individual, when done as a group).

This allowed me to cover the important beginning-of-the-year content and to establish norms around a key component of my ongoing classroom instruction.

Implementing stations with intention

In my first year at this particular site, I may have gone a bit heavy with the stations, and my students reached a wall. They felt that we were moving too quickly through content, and they were right. I was covering four lessons over two days, via the stations, and it felt like far too much for these students. Between my past experience seeing students for more time and their experience with teachers who implemented a less-than-rigorous curriculum, we needed to meet in the middle.

I realized that I must utilize the station rotation model intentionally. Rather than introducing content early in a project, I have found that using the model after students have begun completing tasks makes more sense. With their work in front of me, I can more easily create groups for teacher-led stations. And, with a basic understanding of the project, they can more readily work independently. Additionally, recognizing the different patterns in how my students work, I tend to move away from timed stations and offer students more choice in how long they remain at each station, depending on their individual needs.

Now that I think more carefully about what students can accomplish independently while I work with a small group, my stations feel more beneficial and less frustrating for students. Stations work in my classroom as long as I pay attention to the students in my classroom and then design stations according to those needs.

Additional resources

Sarah Knutson is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at River School in Napa, CA. She holds a BA in English from UC Berkeley, an MLIS from San Jose State University, and a teaching credential from UC Davis.

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