George Lucas Educational Foundation
Differentiated Instruction

4 Tips for Making Learning Centers Work in Middle School

From making art to coding a robot, learning centers offer students a chance to pursue their own interests in ELA classrooms.

December 7, 2022

After the last few school years, between quarantines, virtual school, and lockdowns, many teachers have noticed there are gaps in many students’ understanding and abilities. This school year, I wanted to find a way to provide Tier 2 interventions for all students in my eighth-grade ELA class and meet them at their current ability level. I needed a way to differentiate for students with a variety of needs in a small group setting, while also providing enrichment and choice for the students when they were working independently.

One of our district’s instructional coaches recommended Hacking Learning Centers in Grades 6–12, by Starr Sackstein and Karen Terwilliger. Often, learning centers are a strategy that is relegated to elementary teachers. They are rarely included in secondary teaching certification programs, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers.

1. Choosing Stations 

One of the most crucial elements of this model is choosing what will be at your stations. Each station was related to our class text and an overarching concept. For example, we focused on the concept of multiple perspectives, one of Gould and Kaplan’s depth and complexity icons.

I then selected categories of stations (gaming, technology, art) and what activity students did at each station in each new rotation. The stations also needed to be something that would either take the same amount of time or be completed multiple times without becoming boring. We spent 30 minutes per station, with one rotation per class period.

These are sample stations for the concept of multiple perspectives in the Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, the novel my class was reading at the time:

  • Art: I invited students to create a scrapbook of 10 photos that show the perspective of a character from the Hunger Games.
  • Coding: Using either Ozobots or Scratch, I asked students to code the bot or character to reflect the journey or perspective of a character in the book.
  • Games: I used BreakoutEDU to create online escape rooms based on content area and focus within the content. I also used Kahoot and Gimkit to create games and interactive quizzes for students to play.
  • Listening: I asked students to create a playlist of songs to represent a character’s perspective and share on a Padlet.
  • Reading: I selected a collection of books with unique perspectives and gave the students library passes and time to read. 
  • Teacher table: Depending on the needs of the student, we focused on enrichment, remediation, or redo work.

2. Logistics

Since I am a classroom teacher, I wanted to make this as budget friendly as possible and use tools and items already found in my classroom. Intentional setup for the centers was a key part of the success of this practice for my students, as was placement of the centers. I learned quickly not to put a table where students were playing Boggle or coding Ozobots directly next to a table that required quiet focus, like the independent reading table.

Providing detailed instructions for each station was also critical for preventing confusion or disruptions. Finally, it can be a challenge to keep students on task when they are working on different things. Proximity is a very useful, low-tech tool: just knowing that I am walking around, listening, and troubleshooting curtails the majority of discipline issues. You may prefer noise-monitoring sites like Bouncy Balls as a visual aid.

3. Accountability

Other teachers often ask: How do you hold students accountable for what they are completing at these stations? This answer is twofold: I set high expectations in the classroom, and I provide time for students to share and reflect. At the end of each station, I had students complete a Google Form, where they submitted a photo of what they had worked on, as well as a brief explanation of how they connected this to our overall concept. This helped them get used to making those connections.

I made sure to verbally praise students not just for following directions, but also for sometimes doing something a little different that also demonstrated divergent thinking. For example, if a student asked me if they could do something slightly different at a station to help represent their learning, I made a concerted effort to say yes to as many suggestions as possible. Because their grade came from their reflection and thinking, students felt safer to try new things.

4. Ask for feedback

I also had to be comfortable accepting feedback from students. After the first station rotation, I asked them what they liked, what went well, and what they wished they could change, and used some of that feedback for the next set of stations. I let students know that this was a new format for me, too, and that I wanted to know what they thought was beneficial versus what they did not think was helpful.

Students suggested a few things that they would like to see. For example, students requested that they have the option to put themselves at the teacher table occasionally when they needed help with class work. They also asked for more art, coding, and creative writing options. Students were excited that they had a chance to influence our class structure and to help choose how they wanted to learn.

While this classroom model requires some commitment and setup, in the end, the payoff is worth the effort. So far in this classroom experiment, I have seen students interact more with one another and stare less at a computer screen, go deeper with concepts, direct their own learning, and stretch their thinking in new and creative ways. I have also opened up at least one day a week when I am able to work with students on a more individualized basis, targeting specific gaps and needs. The centers and tasks may change, but choice and differentiation will always be effective and valuable for learning.

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Filed Under

  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Interest-Based Learning
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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