Work with classroom teachers, who spend all day with their students, to create strong heterogeneous groups. Since station work includes writing, reading, speaking, and listening, it is important to mix students that have various strengths. Along with the mix of academic strengths, you also want to consider social-emotional strengths. A group made completely of outwardly strong leaders can be as much of a disaster as one with all students that struggle with the target language.
I created a Google presentation with the groups so that it was easy to get them up for the class every day. The groups are assigned to a symbol or color that rotates each day. As a result, the groups don’t need to change, just the basket they find and the leader.
The leader has a big responsibility. Not only are they in charge of grabbing supplies, but also reading directions, keeping everyone on task, making sure everyone understands the task, and turning in a copy (when necessary) of the work done as proof. By changing the leader every day, all students get the opportunity to take on this important role and not just the natural-born leaders in the class. By assigning a leader, students also know whose responsibility it is to get things going.
Another important responsibility for the leader is to read the rules (expectations) each time we begin. My rules are written in the form of can-do statements (thank you Heather!), but they can also be done orally or with motions. The leader reads the rules at the start of EVERY station day to help reinforce a positive work experience for everyone.
Plan all four (or more) stations ahead of time. I actually create two sets of stations: one to introduce and practice materials at the beginning of a unit and another set to practice language at a higher level later on. If possible, I also try and connect the activities to create less materials and work for me! Day 1, for example, students write descriptions of animals in as much detail as possible. For day 2, they to read the description to their group and the group tries to guess the animal. Two activities for the price of one!
When deciding on activities, use activities with which your students are familiar. This promotes self-sufficiency within the group and can also keep students from arguing about what they are supposed to do. Further, it allows students to concentrate on the language piece and not the activity itself.
Finally, I know this seems to go without saying, but make the directions as clear and detailed as possible. Spell it ALL out! If part of the goal is for students to work together to do the activities independent of the teacher, students need as much information as possible. Where do they find materials (we are 1:1 iPads and often pieces are stored there)? Do they work as a group or individually? Does the leader need to turn things in? The more familiar students are with the activity, they more easily they can decipher directions, but I believe it’s better to give more than less. We definitely went through a few stations before I determined the best way to manage the directions.
Make your set-up as easy as possible. As a traveling teacher, I try to minimize how much I carry from class to class. Stackable baskets have been amazing, as they hold a lot but don’t take up a lot of room. If you plan to do centers in multiple grades, plan to have different baskets or drawers for each grade level. It requires a bit more creation on the front end, but saves so much time once the baskets are set. I have two sets of baskets: one colored set and one white set with shapes tied to them. Not only does this help me keep the baskets straight, but also gives the students an opportunity to practice colors and shapes without realizing it. J
Since I don’t have my own room, I have no control over the physical set-up of the room. I try to work within the confines of how the room is set up with minimal changes. With only 30 minutes, I don’t want to waste time rearranging the furniture! On the first day, I explain to students how we will make the stations work and I make them responsible for moving to the correct seat and arranging the furniture or for simply finding a spot on the floor. It takes a few days to get it going, but it helps move things along.
For the first set of centers in each grade level, everyone does the same activity with their group. In doing this, each student has the same experience and groups have time to practice the routine of this self-guided work. With this first round, we reflect at the end of each class about what worked and what didn’t’, what was better than the last class, and how we can continue to get better. This has been a great way to help all students understand the expectations and the workings of the centers and for me to work out some of the kinks as we go.
It may seem a bit daunting at first, but it is a truly great way to have students use the target language, be involved in a wide number of activities, and work on being independent learners (getting started and following directions) while also working in a group. It also allows for more student-led work time, practice of leading and listening, and showing independence in the classroom.