Photo by Woodley Wonder Works
Do you use centers in your primary classroom? If yes, you love them and can’t imagine life without them. If no, you can’t imagine how you could possibly trust your 30 to 35 students to work independently, nor can you figure out where you’d get the time to set them up.
Centers are an excellent tool for differentiation that will free you up to work with small groups of students, whether gifted, high-achievers, or those needing extra help. Simultaneously, centers can support your language arts, science, social studies, and math mandates, proportional to your needs and goals. Done right, your students will be close to angelic, quietly engaged in meaningful and often irresistible work as you work with ability-grouped students on language arts, math, or other subjects. But there are some important tips and tricks that you need to know to make the experience effective for you and your students.
Centers, in my opinion, go beyond mundane and standard worksheet tasks. Sometimes they involve worksheet-type work, but it is work that is intriguing, creative, AND practical all at once. Admittedly, this would take years to develop on your own, but fortunately there are resources out there that have done the heavy lifting for you. Is It Friday Already? by Greta Rasmussen is my favorite learning center resource, and it is the only one you need if you teach second, third, or fourth grades. Of course, you may wish to supplement or tweak the centers provided, but the book has everything you need to get started: an explanation of process, a chart to show how you move your students through the rotation, and enough centers for your entire class for 30 weeks.
Though centers can be used at any time in the year, some teachers like to wait at least a week or two, and sometimes six weeks into the school year to implement them so that they can gain a greater understanding of their students and be confident that they are ready to follow protocol. But if you haven’t started yet, you can certainly begin mid-year with effective benefits to your students.
One issue with large numbers of students in small rooms may be space. If space is a concern for you, purchase a couple of sets of colored plastic trays at Lakeshore, set up the centers on these, and then place them at strategically positioned student desks at center time.
The Rasmussen book is most appropriate for second grade and higher, but if you teach kindergarten or first grade, you might like to explore Mary Peterson’s website, teacher freebie newsletter, and resources. She presented at the California Association for the Gifted conference in Palm Springs last year and shared wonderful, practical ideas for using centers in early primary classrooms. The nature of the centers are different, and she advocates centers that can accommodate multiple children, versus Rasmussen who has created a structure for individual centers (which can be tweaked for larger class sizes). Peterson has a number of pre-made center products, but she also provides a lot of free information if you want to create them yourself.
The bottom line is that centers, with a relatively small upfront investment of time and the purchase of a couple of key resources, will free you up to differentiate in small groups and give students a measure of independence in their learning while exercising creative thinking skills and bolstering standards-based knowledge. Set it up right, and you won’t believe how excited your students will be to follow directions for the privilege of this rich, time-tested approach!
Kathryn Haydon, founder of Sparkitivity, is a teacher, nationally-known writer and speaker, and a mentor to students of all ages. A life-long learner herself, she loves to find the most creative, innovative, hands-on ways to present math, writing, history, and science to kids. She has taught second grade, Spanish, creative writing, and journalism at Monica Ros, Topa Topa, and Valley Oak Charter schools in Ojai,CA, and creative writing at the Center for Gifted in Chicago. Katie is a published author on teaching, parenting, and early foreign language instruction, and her work was recently featured in Igniting Creativity in Gifted Learners, K-6, edited by Joan Franklin Smutny. A graduate of Northwestern University, Katie majored in Spanish and Latin American language, literature, and culture, and minored in economics. She serves on the Torrance Legacy Creative Writing Awards committee for the National Association for Gifted Children.