Making Centers Work

Centers in your classroom. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they really worth your time and energy? If you choose to have them, then how do you manage them? It depends on what camp you subscribe to and your teaching style. But overall, I strongly believe in centers, because I believe they can really help students learn and can prevent teachers from feeling stressed when used properly.

Some teachers absolutely love centers, while other teachers want nothing to do with them. Centers can be challenging to set up and maintain, but once you have them in motion, they can be used for any subject area. In this post I describe the type of management and modeling you need to facilitate, how to set them up for sustainability, and how to keep students accountable for the work. Click through to read this post and get all of the details!

To begin understanding centers, let’s address the reasons why some people don’t think they are a good idea:

Centers Camp No-No

*Some people say centers are time-consuming to set up and maintain.
*Some people say they can be costly.
*Some say they can take up a lot of space, especially if you have a large classroom where you need to have many students (more than five or so) in a group.
*Some say they can be a waste of time because students are off-task and can get loud.

I can completely understand where these people are coming from – and there is nothing wrong with their viewpoint. As I said, it’s just not some people’s cup of tea!

And now, let’s visit my viewpoint…

Centers Camp Yesssss!

I love using centers in my classroom. I have been using them for years, and I have used them in a variety of ways for a variety of subjects and concepts. There really are no limitations to the way they are used.

The Key to Centers – Management

The most important part about having centers is that you MUST teach them in the beginning, much like any other routine in the classroom. Students need to see the expectations of them. No, I didn’t use the wrong word. I meant “see.”

Some teachers absolutely love centers, while other teachers want nothing to do with them. Centers can be challenging to set up and maintain, but once you have them in motion, they can be used for any subject area. In this post I describe the type of management and modeling you need to facilitate, how to set them up for sustainability, and how to keep students accountable for the work. Click through to read this post and get all of the details!
Sometimes your centers just end up on the floor! What can you do!?

When I first started teaching, I’d walk over to where a center was and I’d say, “In this center you are going to read this sheet here, and then I want you to discuss and fill out these questions with your partner,” and then I’d move on to describe the next center. I felt that was enough – easy-peasy! But, it wasn’t. I actually had to go over what behavior was expected during centers – and MODEL it. Model everything as a teacher, and never ever assume they know it. I had to model how to use the center, how to clean up the center at the end, how to transition quietly to the next center, how to work quietly in the center, how to solve problems when in the center – it was never a “here’s the center, get started” kind of thing. We practiced and practiced. It was just like our beginning of the year routines and procedures. That’s how you end up with a noisy kind of classroom with kids off-task if you don’t address those expectations (and be aware you may have to revisit them after breaks)!

I have also assigned roles in the group from time to time, depending on what we were doing – such as a timekeeper, a recorder or a note taker, a taskmaster (keeps everyone on task), and so on. Finally, and I cannot stress this enough until your centers are efficient, you really have to spend your time during centers walking around, assisting, scaffolding, monitoring, and reminding students of how to handle centers. That constant reinforcement is critical. I have also made that mistake of immediately thinking they were good to go on centers and started using that time for small groups, only to have to constantly stop.

Center Setup

Centers can be placed in a variety of places – there are actually no set rules. You can set them up at students’ desks (in groups or not), on a table or a counter top, or on the floor – any location around the room that works for you. I have used science fair tri-fold boards, and other times I have just placed plastic bins down. Sometimes I have placed just the papers themselves. I have even assigned drawers of my filing cabinets as a center. Why? Because I really don’t keep a lot of paper copies of things anymore. Most of my stuff is electronic and on my computer. There is no need for anything fancy, as long as the kiddos know where to go. I just recommend keeping it consistent.

Some teachers absolutely love centers, while other teachers want nothing to do with them. Centers can be challenging to set up and maintain, but once you have them in motion, they can be used for any subject area. In this post I describe the type of management and modeling you need to facilitate, how to set them up for sustainability, and how to keep students accountable for the work. Click through to read this post and get all of the details!
Plastic tubs from the dollar store work great for storing centers!

I have found it best to not have more than four to six centers around the room at one time, but this will, of course, depend on your class size and personal preference. Much more than that does get difficult to manage. To prevent the constant need to change centers (because I already have SOOOOO much to do, and I’m lazy), I try to make my centers beneficial to the students, yet simple enough that they don’t require a lot of changing from week to week.

For instance, I may have one center that is fact fluency. In that center, it may be a bottom drawer of my filing cabinet that is full of multiplication and division facts flashcards, a few games, and sprint practice sheets with a timer. (Again, always teach the center!)  Then, students know that in this center they can time themselves with a sprint sheet for a minute or two, practice with a game, or use the flashcards to quiz a buddy. Then, I just have to occasionally keep an eye on the copies of the sprint sheets and, if I feel like it, occasionally change out the multiplication game. (This can apply, too, with reading fluency!)  Costly? Maybe a little – but not too much. I get most of my stuff on TpT and laminate it for repeated use year after year. The dollar store is another place to check out! The reality is that we are teachers, and we spend our own money. I don’t always like it, and sometimes I (and my husband) wish I didn’t, but I just do.

Accountability

From year to year, how I ran centers varied a little. Sometimes I created an entire packet, and the students just worked through the centers at their own pace throughout the week. The packet was due on Friday. Other times I did not give any papers to turn in but instead made the centers self-checking.  The students would have to check their work, fix the mistake, and then journal in their notebook a reflection of sorts. Sometimes I have reserved the centers for just Friday afternoons, after lunch until the end of the day.

Some teachers absolutely love centers, while other teachers want nothing to do with them. Centers can be challenging to set up and maintain, but once you have them in motion, they can be used for any subject area. In this post I describe the type of management and modeling you need to facilitate, how to set them up for sustainability, and how to keep students accountable for the work. Click through to read this post and get all of the details!
Students in centers at their desks for energy stations

Each center (from the three types described above) included at least one activity from each subject area – math, science, social studies, writing, and reading.  I also had an activity that was related to what we were learning. This center was an engaging way to help the students review the concept, practice independence, and, once they had centers down, provided me with the opportunity to work more one-on-one with students who needed it.

I have also incorporated centers during just individual subjects.  For instance, I have described before (and above) that my guided math portion has three centers – fact fluency, meet with the teacher, and a hands-on activity. Sometimes I also have a fourth center – independent practice. This can also be done in science, such as with my Energy Stations activity. I have a center for investigations in mechanical energy, heat energy, light energy, sound energy, and electrical energy.

Grading can be completely based off of materials turned in, participation and work habits, and/or both.

I personally find centers to be beneficial, once you get past the initial phase of having students understand the expectations. They do not have to be costly or time-consuming. They really are what you make of them.  As with anything in education, start small and master that, and then begin taking on more as you are comfortable. There is never a rule that says you should just instantly jump into rotations of five to six centers per day!

Just be the best teacher you can be – and call it good! That’s really all you can do!

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