By Gayle Solis Zavala
Special Education Teacher, Gove Elementary, Belle Glade, Fla.
CEC 2009 Clarissa Hug National Teacher of the Year
“Learning centers” can take on a variety of shapes in any given classroom. They allow students to learn and practice new skills and provide an awesome opportunity for them to sharpen their social skills (i.e., turn taking, good sportsmanship, appropriate use of materials, pragmatic communication skills, and task completion).
I have a few key considerations for setting up learning centers in your own classroom:
1) Decide what centers to set up based on classroom needs and space. Depending on the needs of your students, you will become aware of what skills to focus on. And the amount of room you have available will sometimes determine the number of centers you can practically set up.
Over the years, I have generally set up a computer center; an independent reading center (an area that includes picture books, easy reading books, magazines, photo albums, and maps); and a listening center (with a Language Master, LeapPad stories, and CD or tape player). What I expect the students to accomplish in the learning centers may change, but usually the procedure for using the equipment and materials doesn’t change. The various software programs should be modeled and monitored to ensure students are using them appropriately and haven’t wandered off onto the internet!
Another learning center I often introduce is a math center, which can be facilitated by a paraprofessional, volunteer, or teacher. If the students are able, it can also be set up for them to work independently. I have also tried science/classroom pet centers, writing centers, letter and word centers, and weather centers. I have also found success with a puzzle and game center (i.e., Hi Ho Cherrio, memory games, Guess Who?).
Scholastic Books are a great resource for learning center ideas, such as directions for creating shoebox activities, which work really well in these settings. The activities I created were focused on literacy, which is my teaching specialty.
I have also coordinated with the speech pathologist who delivers speech and language services to my eligible students to create a speech center for three to four students at a time during the class’s learning center period.
2) Minimize distractions. Think about the noise level generated by a center and whether that will distract other students. Spacing the centers out so that noisier centers are not near each other is important. I usually do direct reading instruction (with one to three students) during the period scheduled for learning centers and am careful to have my reading area located far from centers that need to be more talkative.
3) Model what is to be done in each learning center. Don’t expect that you can just send the students to a center and “presto” all will run smoothly. In fact, you may have to model centers more than once. The modeling can be done in either a whole-group or small-group setting. Be sure to include examples of how to and how not to behave in the particular learning center you are demonstrating.
Some teachers like to introduce one center at a time to be sure students have been successful and any changes can be made and/or inappropriate behaviors can be addressed. Once the children have mastered that center, then a second center can be added and modeled, and so on.
4) Post visual supports remind students. As I set up my centers around the classroom, I have found it helpful to also include mini-posters with visual supports to remind students of the key behaviors expected at each center. For example, at the listening center, the students are expected to use the headphones provided, keep the volume at a low level, and return materials back where they belong.
5) Don’t forget positive reinforcement. It is so important to continually catch the students when they are being on-task and demonstrating good behavior -- and that includes during learning center time. This is especially important for the students with behavioral challenges.
6) Coordinate the transition. This can be done in a variety of ways depending on the students you have. You can create a board that lists all the centers in the classroom and use students’ name tags to indicate the area you want each child to work in during that period. Thus the transition is teacher-directed and less hectic; the students can be directed one at a time to go to their designated learning center or in groups.
As the year goes on, it may be possible for the students to check the learning center board and go to their designated center all on their own. I have observed some teachers in the general education setting and they allow the students to choose which center they want to start with and then flow from center to center based on how many students are allowed to be at each center at any given time.
7) Assess group dynamics. There is so much more to say about learning centers, but one last point I don’t want to forget is how to decide which student to place with which student. If a center is set up for only one student (i.e., computer or listening center), this is not really an issue. But where two or more may gather…watch out! You need to be mindful of the personalities in the classroom; don’t start out by pairing or grouping students you know are not getting along.
This doesn’t mean you will never group them together, but you may need to ease into it and address potential conflicts when modeling the learning centers. Stress that it is important in life to learn to get along with others, including people you are not especially good friends with. If you pair two conflicting personalities together, talk with them ahead of time, set up a positive behavior plan for them to work toward, and perhaps assign a staff person to monitor the interaction. In some cases, when there is a time a student just can’t work well with anyone, you may have to request that the student complete the learning activity alone at his or her desk.
My hope is that new teachers will be successful at setting up their learning centers and prepare their students to achieve what is expected at each center. Working cooperatively in groups can be challenging for many students, so the time you take to model the activities and talk about the do’s and don’ts will be well worth it.
I wish you the best – and let me know how it goes!