Getting started with learning stations in middle school

Student engagement

Student engagement | Monday, July 19, 2021

Getting started with learning stations in middle school

James Hunt

This post is written by James Hunt, a 6th grade science and geography teacher in Southeast Missouri. James was selected as Teacher of the Year at his building in 2019. You can connect with him on Twitter at @Mr_JamesHunt.

Have you ever tried stations in your classroom before?  Stations are centers (or areas) set up in the classroom where each task has a specific goal that’s targeted.  These centers can be hands-on activities, intervention practices, enrichment tasks, or tech-related applications revolving around a certain skill.  

Just because students hit middle-school age doesn’t necessarily mean we need to take away procedures and activities they’re familiar with.  Stations in middle school hold the same purpose as they do in elementary: reinforce a standard or skill, provide differentiated opportunities for learning, and keep students engaged.  When we offer differentiated learning methods in our classrooms, we are providing multiple opportunities for our students to be successful.

When we think about trying stations in middle school we tend to think of all the fires we will have to put out, but did you know that you can successfully implement stations in the middle school classroom?  Here’s how...

5 tips for successfully integrating stations in the Middle School classroom

Tip #1:  Set procedures and expectations

This may seem like a no-brainer, but clear expectations should be set, modeled, and practiced before implementing stations in the classroom.  When students reach middle school, they crave the same autonomy that teachers do.  Have them help you set up the expectations that must be followed during stations!  This will help develop a more meaningful approach to implementing stations in the classroom.

  • What should we do if we are stuck on a problem or question?
  • How should we rotate through our stations?  Should we wait for a timer or move on to the next station as each individual is ready?
  • How should we treat each other and the materials used in the classroom?
  • What should we do if we finish a station early?

All of these are examples of how to set meaningful boundaries the class must follow during stations to make sure you are getting the most impact out of your time.

Tip #2:  Give clear activity instructions

We can spend time (and we should) explaining activity instructions for each station, but let’s be real.  Your students aren’t going to remember what to do by the 3rd, 4th, or 5th station if all of the directions are explained at the beginning, and that’s okay!  Providing multiple avenues for students to see and hear activity directions will alleviate off-task behaviors at each station.

Although I briefly explain what we’ll be doing at the beginning, I also know that I have learners in my classroom who need visual reminders.  Using Google Slides to display groups and instructions helps set students up for success.  I also like to use group names that garner their interests!  You can use my template here to get started.

I also like to have the instructions printed out at each station.  You can use my template here to get started.  These instructions are printed on Astrobrights and magnetized to my paper holders for easy display options.  This keeps the, “Now what do I do?” question at bay.

Tip #3:  Be over-prepared

When preparing stations for your middle school classroom, it’s important to have a backup plan.  We’ve all planned these incredible lessons and activities only to find out they take a fraction of the time we thought they would.  With stations, students are “on their own” with you as their guide on the side.  I usually end my station instructions with, “If you finish early, get on __________ until it's time to switch.”  This way their minds are constantly busy.

You must also think about accessibility when it comes to supplies and activity papers.  Here’s how to cut down on wasting time when moving from one station to the next…

  1. Store worksheets on your whiteboard using magnetic paper holders.  These hold multiple copies for all of my classes without falling off the board!
  2. Have additional papers needed stored in a folder at that station so they can grab what they need and get started!
  3. Keep all supplies needed for each station in a tub or bin that’s easy to move and store.  This assures your students won’t have to look around for what they need to complete the activity!

Tip #4:  Assure smooth transitions

Transitions are a major part of stations, and if it’s anything like my experiences it's also the most frustrating.  Let’s tie in some of those open-ended questions from the top to provide smooth transitions through stations.

I like to make sure all activities can be completed on one page.  They will carry the same paper with them throughout the entire rotation; no papers left behind, easy accountability.  Even if nothing can be written down in that section, make sure it’s on there!  Here’s an example of how I made 6 stations fit on one page (front/back).  

How will your kids move from one activity to another when time to switch?  I like using my SadoTech Wireless Doorbell.  Once I press the wireless remote I keep at my small-group table and the sound goes off, my students know it’s time to clean up and switch.  This doorbell comes in a variety of colors, has 52 different chimes to choose from, and 4 different volumes!

Tip #5:  Actively seek less chaos

This goes hand-in-hand with all four of the tips above.  Don’t make stations more frustrating for you, otherwise you will never want to use them again!  You know your middle schoolers.  What do they need in order to be successful?  If you try something and it doesn’t work, gather some feedback and don’t give up!

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