Literacy Centers in Middle School

This past week I finally tried using literacy centers in my classroom. I’d thought about it (and probably blogged about it) for several months, but the mechanics of actually doing it daunted me, and I procrastinated. I spent lot of time talking about it with my friend Alicia, who has centers in her first grade classroom, but still I put it off. Finally, one day last week my colleague, René told me she had just tried it, and she and her students liked it. After reviewing the stations she created, I decided I’d go for it too.

I decided I’d create nine stations, and not expect that each group would make it to each station. I wasn’t sure about timing, so decided this would be fine. I would have eight groups of three or four students, and I thought they might spend ten minutes at each station. That would give me enough time to explain the process and still leave time for writing reflections at the end of class, before it was time to leave.

Here are the stations I created:
1. At the SMART Board were two Anagram games for practicing spelling words. Each game had only five words, so they played both of them. They had done these same games a week or two earlier.
2. Sentence Revision: I wrote three sentences on different colored sentence strips. I cut the strips apart and put the pieces in a zip-lock bag. I told the students that there were three sentences in there, each a different color, and they were to figure them out and write them on a half sheet of paper. One paper per group.
3. Critical Reading: At this table was a short (3 paragraph) article, which was followed by four multiple choice questions. They were to read it aloud and decide together on the correct answers to the questions. One of the questions required them to make an inference.
4. Reading food labels: I collected some chip and Cheeto bags from the students after a recent field trip. I brought in a Coke and a bottle of Gatorade. Students had to pull data from the nutrition labels of these packages, and then answer some analytical questions about them. This center was more time consuming than the others, so students were instructed to just collect the data here and wait until they had downtime at another station to answer the questions. This worked very well.
5. Brain Gym: I have been reading some brain research over the past couple of years, and every so often I pull out a couple of exercises for the kids to try. This center had instructions for three exercises, and told them what they were good for (reading comprehension, focus, retention of information, etc.) We practiced these three exercises the day before the centers activity.
6. Prefixes: This station had a worksheet from Skill Sharpeners 3 which included 20 words with prefixes. It involved matching prefixes and definitions. The group was to do it together, only completing one sheet.
7. Cause and Effect: This was another worksheet similar to the previous one, from the same source. It was a little tricky, which made it more challenging for them. Again, they only did one of these for the whole group.
8. Greek and Latin word roots: I have made some sets of “Word Root Dominos” and we played them as a class a week or so ago. In this station they were to play the game until they had collected at least 10 connections between roots and their meanings or a word that contained them.
9. Reading a Manual: I copied a diagram of the remote control from my cable company. I asked four questions about it, the answers to which were found on the diagram.

The Results
My Opinion: I was pleased with this outcome. The students were engaged most of the period, far more than in a normal situation with me directing everything. The things that made it work (I think) were these:
* We had done all of the activities ahead of time, so they weren’t mystified by new skill requirements.
* I kept them outside the room until everyone arrived, and I got all of their attention before they entered the room, so I could explain what they would find there. This helped set the expectation for order and calm which doesn’t always happen with these guys.
* I watched the time carefully, adapting as I saw them finishing sooner than I’d expected.
* I saved time at the end for the students to answer three reflective questions about the day. This gave me valuable feedback as well as made them feel like part of the process.
* I was careful to intersperse the activities so that each station was a different sort of task than the one before it. The three worksheets did not follow one another, for example.

The students said:
* Thank you. This was really fun.
* They wanted to do it more often. (3 times a week!?)
* They needed a little more time at each station.
* They felt more confident working with their friends.
* It provided a good review.

The things I’m still thinking about are these:
* How often can I do this? It is important to have regular types of stations and then change the content each time, I think. For example, the sentence revision station was a big hit. Next time maybe I’d change the instructions to have them add in adjectives or adverbs. Maybe I’d do it with magnetic poetry rather than paper sentence strips.
* Should I keep them with their friends? A couple of the boy groups got a little overactive at the SMART Board and at another station or two. Would random grouping make this part work better?
* I think this is a way to do review. I still think the initial teaching has to be more direct. Am I right about this?
* I want to build in a writing station. Maybe a way to generate ideas for more concentrated writing the following day. Also a reading station that is a little more solid than what I did today. The story could be more interesting, the questions more rigorous. Should I have a reading station where I actually read with them? Make one station a small group with me? If I do that, how will I manage the movement?
* I need a louder timer. I used my iPhone, and it was a little too subtle for the noise of these learners.
* I don’t know why I thought doing only eight of the nine activities would be fine. Next time they will go to all of the stations, even if it means only creating eight of them.

All in all, I’m happy with the outcome. I’ll definitely do this again, and then again. I think I will even nerve up to do it with my Really Rowdy Boy class in the morning. Eventually. I’d love to hear any feedback from readers who have tried this sort of thing. I am definitely open to suggestions.


29 thoughts on “Literacy Centers in Middle School

  1. stuckinmypedals says:

    Way to have courage, Lynn! A couple of things that have made my work stations go more smoothly is doing the looks like and sounds like charts with the class beforehand. Debbie Diller talks about those in her book. And at the end of stations we meet back as a class and they tell what they saw or heart a partner doing well. This is also the time we discuss any problems they encountered and how they handled them. This wrap up discussion is key. Plus it’s how they let me know they wanted a puppet station. Next month we will also start an overhead projector station with some word games. If you have a computer that is not being used during your rotations, is free and pretty awesome when it comes to timers. It counts up and down and you can make it as loud as your computer goes. I use mine on my Interwrite board for timed math, etc.

  2. lynnjake says:

    Thanks Alicia, for those reminders. I will add them to my list of what to try next. You are my centers leader!

    Bonnie, I wish you could be there too, taking pictures, helping me to see where I can change or add things, and where it’s just right.

  3. Kathryn says:

    This sounds like a great way to get my kids ready for state tests (a task we all loathe!). You have my brain spinning, and I definitely bookmarking this post. I may hit you up for questions as I get closer to doing this in my own classroom.

    • lynnjake says:

      Thanks Kathryn. I think some collaboration about this idea would definitely be a plus! I think my next session(s) will be designed for test prep. We’ll see what I come up with!

  4. Txotl says:

    I am going from an Instructional Technology Specialist position to back in the classroom due to budget cuts. My new classroom is 8th grade Career Development which I observed for 2 1/2 years as I co-taught Keyboarding and switched back and forth (our rooms connected).

    I am begging for 6 computers and hope to have 4 centers.
    Computers – if I had my way, they would sit on big balls
    Media – bean bags on rug to watch videos or read (with clickers or clipboards)
    Paper – traditional seating,
    Projects – I would like to have tall table and have students stand
    I plan to have 20 minute centers and rotate through every 2 days.

    I think this room configuration would give me a lot of flexibility.
    I am not crazy and will have enough tables and chairs for all, if needed.

    I have to admit I am a former Kindergarten and third grade teacher and have had success in the past with centers.

    This is all in the planning stages. I have had discussions with the retiring teacher and meet with the principal tomorrow.

    • Debbie G says:

      I completely agree with your ideas on various ways of “existing” in the classroom. I, too, come from an early childhood background and have used centers and flexible seating without ever considering any other way to do it. I like your ideas for seating and will keep these notes. With 6th graders, you just have to introduce slowly, bring ONE ball in and take turns, making the expectations CLEAR and removing the ball for short periods of time when rules are broken. Eventually they will realize that life WITH the flexibility is more desirable than fooling around. I also kept notes on the literacy centers. I will be using Open Court which incorporates “Work Shop” and some of the centers they suggest are *lame.* I had great ones in 2nd and I know I can create grown up versions of those.

  5. Txotl says:

    I will keep an eye out for updates on your success with centers. It is great to hear from people who have implemented centers already.

  6. lynnjake says:

    Thanks for checking in, Txotl. I look forward to hearing what you come up with. I like the idea of the big balls as seats. I’ve thought of that for a couple of my more, um, energetic kids, but I am pretty sure they’d send them flying. I’ll keep you posted as we move forward with this.

  7. Lisa says:

    Try: for a timer. I have used it in my class and if you have a speaker to connect to computer, it can be LOUD! Do you have any further advice on the stations or samples of other assignments you’ve done during stations? I’m considering doing stations like yours in my Resource English class.

    • lynnjake says:

      Thanks, Lisa, for the timer info. I’ll use this next year, for sure. As for using literacy centers, it seems to me that the most manageable way to use them is to think of a few categories that you always use in your classroom, and create a center for each of them. For example, a sentence building center, a critical reading center, a vocab practice center and so on. This way you can plug in content but the procedures will remain constant. Maybe you have one center that is unpredictable to keep it interesting. This way it is manageable for you as well as productive for the students.

  8. Sandra says:

    Lisa, great job! I teach middle school and one of my coworkers does centers every two weeks. I find it so hard to do. I get a little overwhelmed with the amount of questions from the students when I am working with a small group. The other concern I have is students not having enough time to complete each session. You totally convienced me to try it again. Ill keep you posted. PS…love the lesson with the sentences. I was thinking of getting sentences from the novel they are reading. Chapters we havent reached yet.

  9. Jeniene says:

    I really appreciate your post! Our district is guiding us towards Intervention groups and working with those groups on a consistent basis during regular class time. I am really intrigued by the idea of using stations and making myself one of the stations.

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  11. jamieayres says:

    Found you on Pinterest. I’ve taught elem school for 12 yrs so literacy centers are my friend, but now I’m making the transition to teaching 7th grade LA. I’m a new follower of your blog and plan to visit often 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share your ideas!!

  12. Heidi S. says:

    I as well stumbled upon your blog via Google. I’ve taught 6th grade for 2 years and it was a very economically depressed area and little to no motivation from students. So when I applied for a new job in a much bigger area with more diverse learners, from SPED to gifted I thought, Finally! A chance to actually teach! Well, with it being a new curriculum and much higher expectations I feel like a new teacher all over again. I definitely need to differentiate with my class and act more as a facilitator rather than an “dictator” because these students can be trusted and want to learn. These literacy stations sound awesome! I have been racking my brain on thinking how to implement them in class, and your concerns about them were totally what I was stressing about. Seeing that you had been able to reflect afterward has given me the confidence to try them out this coming week. We have a big test on non-fiction next week and it will be great getting them prepared instead of the so over done review game.

  13. Carol says:

    I am an ESL teacher who wants to incorporate centers/station rotations. My students are either new to country or only here one/two years. I have procrastinated because of my fear of failure because I am used to doing a lot of direct instruction and then paired practice. I am wondering if you are still using this method? ANd, if so, how often? Have you tweaked it? How much direct instruction do you incorporate into your literacy period?

    THanks for your feedback,

    • lynnjake says:

      Hi Carol. Thanks for your comment. I really haven’t used stations for quite a while. This year I have such an awkward arrangement of students that I’ve been wondering if using stations might be a good thing to go back to. I would only use them once a week, probably on Thursdays (Our Fridays are short, so we wouldn’t have time to do this activity on Friday.) The students do like them and it gives them a chance to work independently with what you have directly taught them earlier in the week. Because of time shortage and the work involved in setting up each station, I think it’s a good idea to have two stations of each lesson, so maybe four different stations total for about 12 minutes each. This way students can have a little more time to thoroughly do the activity at each station before moving on and the number of kids at each station will be smaller.

      I still do use quite a bit of direct instruction. I like to pull the students into the direct instruction, and do it a little piece at a time, with independent practice in between bursts of the “sage on the stage” action. I find that my students can pay attention better and become less distracted by playing around if I’m strongly leading a lesson. But we each have our own ways that work best for us and our individual students, right?

  14. Penny says:

    I have been teaching 6th grade for 16 years, and have been encouraged to incorporate centers. Thanks for the ideas to help me with the process.

    • lynnjake says:

      I hope these ideas will work for you. I plan to use them more extensively this year as well. I think the biggest thing is to decide what category each center will be (like spelling, sentence construction, etc.) and then just changing the content each time. Best of luck with it!

  15. Jessica Chandler says:

    How many minutes were your periods? I used to teach elementary school, but now I teach 6th grade ELA. My struggle is the time factor- 57 minute periods can be challenging. Thanks for any info you can share.


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