Center time (or workstation time, whichever you call it) is something that starts slow and simply, and grows and changes along with the students. While centers are going on, both my assistant and I are pulling small groups---I work with word study or guided reading groups, and my assistant often works with math skills or writing.
Some basic principles of centers in my classroom:
1. Centers are never used to introduce skills. They always reinforce skills we have
already learned and practiced in whole group or small group activities.
2. Centers are more about process, not necessarily a product. My goal is for students to be
actively engaged during center time. If center time ends and the task is not completely
finished, but the student was engaged and focused during center time, the actual 'product'
(often a recording sheet of some sort) doesn't necessarily need to be finished. I don't want
students who work more slowly to be penalized---and get bogged down in an endless cycle
of not moving on because they didn't finish the last center they were working on.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but overall this is the plan.
3. As much as possible, center activities are hands on activities. I love Dr. Jean's worksheet
philosophy (my paraphrasing): "If the student can't do a worksheet (because they don't
have the skills), why have them do a worksheet? And, if the student does have the
skills and can do a worksheet, why have them do a worksheet?"
4. I have students work in pairs. I have tried groups of three or four, and groups of two
just seem to work best. It started out of necessity three years ago, when I had an
extremely small room to work in. After we moved to a larger room, my assistant and
I both agreed that pairs still seemed to be the best option. The teams are changed often,
so that students don't get into a rut and have the opportunity to work with many different
children throughout the year.
5. Often the procedures stay the same in a center, and the materials are just slightly changed
to keep it interesting. This saves a lot of time when explaining new centers---no more
30 minute explanations, just to have students forget what to do by day 3. Now it takes
10-15 minutes maximum to explain 36 centers (yes, I said 36).
At the beginning of the year, we start by showing students how to use the materials. On the first day, we start with everyone using the same manipulatives, On the second day, we introduce another manipulative, and half the class uses one manipulative, and the second half uses the other. When the timer goes off, we switch. The third day brings three manipulatives, and so on.
At this point in the year, things look much different. We integrate skills, such as fine motor and science, or reading procedural text and following directions. I put a lot of time and effort into
creating authentic centers, as you can see by the center board below. The kids do love centers, though, which makes it worthwhile for me. We have a new student, and on the first day I had all of the students introduce themselves to him by sharing their name, their age, and what their favorite
thing about school was. Almost every single child said center was their favorite thing about school!
Here is the center board:
And here is a glimpse at some of the centers from around Christmas (these are the pictures I have home with me at the moment):
I'll try to post more recent pictures when I get back to school after spring break.