Center time is designed to be a sacred time in the classroom. It is a time where students can have productive struggle time, learn with differentiated materials, and probably my favorite reason… a time where YOU can be in small group settings to facilitate more individualized learning with students.
This time can either be a dream OR a total nightmare. In order for the dream to come true, there needs to be some SERIOUS work done at the beginning of the year to create that sacred space with students. And that serious work takes time….A LOT of time. I’m talking about the first six weeks of school. That’s right I said SIX WEEKS. It may seem like a lot but TRUST me, after you read this, you’ll know exactly how to set up centers for a successful, dreamy year with students.
Where to Begin
Prepping for centers requires some behind the scenes work so that everything is set and ready for day one of introduction. Things that need to be prepped are:
Center Rotation Display (print or digital)
Practice Centers for Literacy and Math
Looks and Sounds Like Anchor Charts
Bins for Center Materials
Bins for Work Completion
Centers Expectations Practice
By having these things already prepped and ready BEFORE starting centers with students, you will feel SO much more prepared and things can run smoother when students know exactly what to expect from day one.
Center Rotation Display
Let’s talk about displays for a second! There are SO many ways to display how students will change from center to center. I personally switched to a digital display a few years back and WILL NOT go back. Here are just a few reasons why I love digital displays:
They are super easy for all students to see no matter where they are in the room. Win.
You can easily embed timers and pictures to enhance the display for students. Talk about fun!
Changing centers no matter the subject is as easy as changing the text. Another win.
You don’t to have separate displays for different subjects taking up space in your room because it’s all stored digitally. You need more space right?
HERE is how I love to display centers for all students! When displaying digitally it is easy to customize and make your own by adding images and text support of center names, activities, pictures, and of course timers!
Organization is Your Best Friend
One thing I have learned from years of centers is that organization is the KEY to not only student success, but teacher success as well. This means that students know exactly where to access, store, and turn in their center materials in order to keep everything organized. Of course this takes time and planning, but organization or lack thereof can make or break your center time.
We want students to be as independent as possible during centers so that we can solely focus on the students at our guided group tables. In order to make that happen, we must set up our materials so that students can do EVERYTHING on their own- from getting manipulatives to turning in center work. To store center materials, I love using the Michaels Scrapbook Cases. The reason why I love these is because they are big enough to store center activities for an entire unit which may include papers, manipulatives, and games. They can also be found on sale a lot throughout the year.
Once you have your centers organized for you, you must think about how things will be organized for student access and independence.
There will always be independent work at their centers to turn in so we can monitor progress. One way to organize work is by using a 3,2,1 System.
(3- I Totally Get it, 2- I’m Doing Ok, 1- I still need help)
This allows students to organize their work AND allows you to see who still needs support with their learning. Grab this freebie below by subscribing!
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No matter what subject students are working in, they must have access to manipulatives. This helps students become more independent problem solvers and allows them the tools they need to succeed. Think about where those materials will be stored so that students know how and where to access them on their own.
While your students are thriving independently, you have your hands full with different guided groups. We know how crucial it is to support our students’ independent learning during center time, but we cannot forget about ourselves. This is probably the most beneficial time of the day because you are able to differentiate instruction for ALL students so you must make this time count! It is absolutely imperative to have your own materials organized.
From decodable readers to white boards, make sure that you have created an easy to access organized space for you to grab everything you need while working with students. I’ve found that having drawers for each group helps to keep their specific materials organized, as well as a drawer for any manipulatives and/or materials I may need. No matter what group is at the table, there’s no fumbling or wasting time because everything is organized and ready to be pulled out. Below are some examples of my guided group space:
The First Weeks
The first weeks of setting up center time should include A LOT of modeling and practicing for students. This includes: getting started at centers, switching centers, cleaning up centers, working together, turning in work, getting needed materials, and being prepared for guided group time. You can learn more about explicitly teaching routines and procedures with the Beginning of the Year Teacher Survival Guide.
When introducing centers, I like to start out by teaching one center at a time to students. This ensures that ALL students know their expectations for what center time looks like and how to complete the center. This greatly reduces chaos and allows YOU time to support students before teaching guided groups. I typically spend the first three weeks of school practicing a few centers before bringing in that guided group piece. At those centers students typically engage in easy review activities from the previous grade. Then I usually spend another week or so having students practicing centers, while also pulling students to come to guided group time. However, we aren’t actually teaching lessons but instead doing get to know you activities simply so they get the feel of our small group time. This allows students to get comfortable rotating through centers and losing that extra teacher support during them.
Once we have all our organized spaces for materials, our display for rotations figured out, and anchor charts are ready for anchoring, now it’s time to teach EXPECTATIONS. These are what can make or break this precious magical place of learning. If your expectations aren’t clear and consistent, your center time can turn into a seriously stressful daily event. I’ve had both. The latter is not fun. With THIS activity, students can quickly and easily learn center expectations in a fun way. Included you’ll find anchor chart headers, a class sort, and partner/independent activities to help students truly learn expectations of center time.
There are always a few different types of centers I like to provide to students to ensure they are getting ample amounts of practice in different ways. These activity types include an independent activity, a buddy activity, and time for technology.
Independent centers might be things such as reading to self, comprehension activities, or simply practicing the skill we learned from the day.
Buddy centers are packed with differentiated games, engaging activities to practice skills, and read alouds for partners.
Technology centers are equipped with whatever technology hardware you have and related software for the subjects such as Moby Max, Reading Eggs, Prodigy, etc.
While these are the types of centers that remain in place all year, the specific activities or tasks typically change weekly so that students get fun practice and don’t get bored!
Accountability is HUGE! This is how you will assess how your students are progressing with the skills they are working on. If students don’t have accountability during center time, what are they doing? How will you know? You can hold student’s accountable in many ways, such as using a self-leveling system mentioned earlier for when they turn in their work, having students take pictures of their work, and sharing our learning during our class close closure time.
I have been fortunate to have one to one devices in the past. Students used their iPads as a tool during centers, not only during technology time, but also to snap pictures of their learning . They could also record themselves for a short time showing how they played games to work on skills. There are so many ways to be creative! Just make sure to set your expectations up from day one that it is THEIR learning time and they are there in those centers to work hard and practice skills. Keep them accountable.
A lot of times during our center closure sessions, we would bring our work to the carpet and see how we did with our learning target and success criteria for the day. This is a great way to ensure students really understood the how and why of what they were learning. Learn more about that process HERE!
Differentiation is Built In
One of the reasons I love center time is because the differentiation that takes place is HUGE. It is where most of the student learning occurs and you as the teacher can really push and move students forward. During centers you can provide hands-on activities to target specific skills students are working on. You can gear it all to their needs. For math, my favorite way to differentiation is by planning my lessons and activities using the CRA Model. It is SUPER engaging and allows room for every student to thrive in a way that works for them! You can learn more about that model HERE!
Take a look at this bin below. Can you tell what phonic skills I am targeting for this group?
This bin is FILLED with activities to help this group of students practice this important skill they need more support with in a fun and engaging way. This is a time where they work together and practice important literacy and social skills.
See these bins with the different colors on top? This is how I differentiate for students. They have a certain color that is associated with their guided group. This is how I allow for independence. They know what color their bin is and they are able to CHOOSE what activity they want while honing their skills whether it be for literacy or math. Differentiation is key to helping students thrive in the classroom. It is possible and crucial to support the needs of ALL of our little learners.
Make it Fun!
What’s a great way to engage students and help them succeed? Learning through play of course! Take a look again at the bin above. That group of students is working on skills like blends and digraphs. But notice what’s missing… there is not ONE worksheet there. If we want students to love learning, we need to help make it FUN! Learn more about teaching through play HERE and how to do it!
Take a look at just some of the ways to make learning fun HERE, while still practicing important skills! When you have student engagement and differentiation, students can do ANYTHING!
Center time is a HUGE piece of student learning. Students can be pushed and challenged during that time far more than during whole group time. It can be game changing for student learning and it helps ALL students THRIVE. If you loved learning about how I set up centers, you’ll absolutely love learning how to Build a Student Centered Classroom. Not only is this piece included, but it is just the tip of the iceberg in helping your students grow and learn in a way that works for them. I highly encourage you to check out how to get your classroom to *almost* run itself.
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