Saturday, January 18, 2014

Using Station Teaching in the Middle School Classroom to motivate readers

I've been working with struggling readers long enough to know that when they don't want to do something, the likelihood of it getting done is slim to none.  Our job as teachers of strugglers is to first make these kiddos WANT to do it or feel like it NEEDS to be done.  We would call this motivation.  Sometimes this doesn't work, and we need to just not give our students time to decide if they want to do it.  That is one of the beauties of station teaching and something I witnessed last week while working and observing in classrooms.

Earlier in the week I had a chance to visit in our seventh grade language arts class designed specifically for struggling readers.  Students in this class hit the same curricular targets, but the teachers in our intervention classes use more accessible text, class sizes are somewhat smaller, a special education teachers is scheduled in each of these classes for a co-teaching model, and I can drop in to work with smaller groups and coach these teachers easily because the kids are all lumped together. In my experience these kiddos are more likely to participate instead of hide behind their peers because there is nothing to hide and nobody in there to "make them feel stupid".  We choose kiddos to be placed in this class when we have seen that the differentiated model of the regular language arts classroom doesn't seem to be working, and many of these students make double the gains of what their peers do in the regular classrooms.

I knew that the teachers in this class had been planning for a station-teaching approach, and I was excited to see it in action.  On this particular week they were just starting out with training their students how to move between stations, work independently, and work under short time constraints.  The teachers had created four stations with different activities.  Each activity hit a specific target and aligned with a selection of text (all connected in some way).  One of the stations was a teacher-led station while the other three were more independent.  These two teachers are lucky because there ARE two of them in the room.  One can lead a station while the other one moves from station to station monitoring the work that the students are doing and answering questions.  We even discussed the possibility of planning me into the mix so that two of us could lead a station while the other one monitored and answered questions of the other two stations.  Students were at each station for about ten minutes before they moved on to the next one.  All materials and directions needed for the station were supplied. 

This type of teaching made me look back at my old approach to classroom instruction, and ironically the special education teacher who was in this class was the same one I had my last few years of classroom teaching.  She and I were able to reflect on that experience and how some of the theories were reflected in this type of instruction. 

The philosophy of station teaching works for a variety of reasons.  First off, at least one station is guaranteed small group instruction by a certified teacher.  Research shows that small group instruction works because each student can get that individual attention he/she needs, and there's no where to hide in a small group.  Sometimes (as seen in the picture at the left), we can even squeeze in some one-on-one time!  It also works because learning is bound to be more social.  As a part of the groups, students were told they could use each other to help them get through material with which they struggled.  There were a few times when students took advantage of this and worked  in partners or in small groups, and it was nice to see them try to rely on each other until the monitoring teacher became available to answer a question.  If you read my summer blog on social learning, you'll know that many of our students (especially our middle schoolers) lean more toward social learning because it makes them feel like they're a part of a whole. 

Finally, students were at each station for about ten minutes before they were moved on to a different station with a different activity.  I find this to be one of the most brilliant components of the approach because of the lack of focus so many of our kiddos have - especially our strugglers!  They struggle for a reason, and some of them struggle because they have very short attention spans. Others have short attention spans BECAUSE they struggle.  Whatever came first, the idea that we move these kids (physically and academically) from one  activity to the next keeps them fresh and engaged.  They don't have TIME to lose focus, and very few of them did!

So how can something like this work in another classroom?  Especially because most of us do not have the luxury of having an extra body in the classroom AND many of our classes are sitting with thirty-plus students.  Here are some ideas to consider while mulling over the idea of station teaching:
  • Splitting your "groups" into partners might help in terms of management.  If you have eight students in a group that moves to a station, have them split into work partners so that they're not trying to work in a large group of eight kids.  The activities in these stations should have clear directions, and at least one student who is a natural leader should be put into each group to explain things. 
  • Use the timer for both group work and transition time.  Saying, "You have one minute to pack up and move," gives students parameters in which to move and keeps everybody honest, because we all know that transitions can sometimes turn into disasters if not carefully constructed.
  • Think about activities that you would normally do whole-class and how you can create stations out of those activities.  Plan four days of stations when you might plan four days of different activities.  Then move your kiddos to a few stations each day.  Try 20 minutes per station each day and have students visit each station twice to keep their mind fresh. 
  • Make a station hands-on or more social so that students have a station or two to look forward to. 
  • Give explicit directions for each station.  Include pictures and any materials needed for each station.
  • Make a station or two a familiar activity such as a writing activity or reading log, so that students aren't met all period long with unfamiliar activities. Too much in one day may be overwhelming.
  • If you can pull in a student support specialist (reading specialist, speech therapist, social worker, school psych, or even an administrator) you could create some more teacher-directed stations.
  • If you want to do a teacher-directed station, create the rest of your stations to be VERY easily implemented, or you will spend the entire time repeating instructions.
  • Lay the groundwork for what is expected by the end. 
  • Train your students from the get-go.  Maybe even plan a few weeks of independent stations so that you can monitor their group work before you try to weave in a teacher-directed station.  You want your students to be able to work independently and be productive, but without guided instruction on this, the entire thing may fall apart before it even gets started!
Ideas for stations might be things like:
  • reading an easily accessible article with a specific purpose
  • vocabulary organizers using the text book or technology
  • completing a writing activity
  • playing a game (my husband, the music teacher, created a pretty impressive music card game that would be PERFECT in a station)
  • a guided reading activity
  • independent reading with a reading log
  • an activity that requires students to reflect on work they have done or edit/revise somebody else's work (with specific parameters)
  • a very easy kinesthetic activity or lab (with specific directions and purpose)
  • puzzles related to the topic
  • watching short video clips with a specific purpose
The idea of station teaching is daunting at first glance, but imagine the engagement as students move from activity to activity.  If you can't imagine it, ask a colleague to considering working on it with you.  We started to get crazy in our "oooooo, this could be awesome if . . . " conversations as we imagined two classrooms where stations were going on in both, and students traveled from room to room working on different activities.  It was at this point that we had to shut ourselves down because we knew we were moving too far too fast!  But there is potential for lots of neat stuff to happen here!  And the social aspect paired with the smaller blocks of time is just what the doctor (or reading specialist, in this case) ordered for our kiddos who are unmotivated and apathetic. 

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