Friday, January 6, 2012

Learning about Learning Centers


I'm experimenting in my class.  Again.  I've experimented on my poor students since that fateful first day when I sat uncomfortably on a teacher's stool and stared awkwardly at my class for a full fifteen minutes because I had no realistic idea what 90 minutes meant in actual teaching time.  Even on that first day I had experimented: I had not taught my students the way I had been taught; we started the first day of school with stick figures decorating the marker board (newly installed--the room still smelled like chalk!) and talking about "reading" Latin instead of "memorizing" it.  Then I ran out of steam and sat on a stool, and stared at my students and they stared at me, and I figured I needed to come up with something more and better.

My newest experiment is actually nothing new in terms of the holistic teaching world.  I had heard of learning centers here and there and even met a Latin teacher who uses them in her class a few years ago, which was really interesting, but so foreign that I had no idea how I could do such a thing in my own classroom.  It wasn't until two years ago when I was teaching at a small private school in Tulsa, which ranges from pre-k to 12th grade, that I became genuinely positive that I need learning centers in my own class.  I was exposed to some great teaching at that school and surrounded by people who were passionate about the school and its children. I was given the unique chance to talk in detail to teachers who had learning centers, to find out the research and philosophy behind them, and to see them in action.

That was two years ago.  Why did it take me so long to start experimenting?  Those teachers were elementary school teachers and I teach 7th-12th graders.  Figuring out how to create a similar environment in my own class without making my students feel "babied" was and is a huge concern.

There were other concerns, among them how to create flow between the tables, how much work will it be to create activities for each table, what kind of activities are conducive to that setting, etc.  Some of my concerns have been resolved, others are still works in progress, as is the technique itself.

I have used learning centers in my room around five times now, and I find positive and negative points to it.

Positive:

  • There is room flow.  I have arranged things so my students end up with a different group of people at every table so they don't get to stay just in their "safe" crowds.  
  • There is movement.  I personally cannot concentrate without pacing or moving at least a little, and I am never surprised to find that students feel the same way.
  • We can do several activities at once.  Sometimes I want to approach a concept from a certain number of angles, but doing those activities as a class is difficult, because they start to feel repetitive and often are small-group activities, which means I'd have to organize my students into those groups anyway.  In this setting, they're in groups and they are moving around, so those concerns diminish.
  • I can get closer to one-on-one learning.  If I set a certain table aside to be one that I use to talk to my students about a new concept face-to-face, I'm now explaining to five students at a time instead of 30.  That can make an explanation that might take 20-30 minutes only take 5 and offer students the chance to ask detailed questions in a less threatening environment.


Negative:

  • It seems chaotic on the surface.  This is not so much a concern for me, because I understand that sometimes things that seem chaotic have organization to them.  That said, some people face administration who judges a loud classroom to be a bad one before looking for the method to the madness.
  • I have trouble balancing the different learning stations.  I am so new to this, and there's not a lot out there for me to easily reference, that my activities are not evenly matched in terms of time.  There is always one or two tables finished very quickly, around two that are in the middle, and two that take much longer than all the others.  This does not create the smooth transition I want for my classroom.
  • I have no idea how to approach grading it.  Currently I'm giving completion grades, which works for most of my students.  But that seems like it's cheapening the point of the arrangement, which is, for me, mostly experiential.  I have students doing activities I think will make Latin easier for them to understand, or ones that cause them to reread stories for more detail.  Giving a grade seems to make it more about the work and less about the learning.
  • Some students are not taking it seriously.  This is only around five students, all in the same class, probably influencing each other.  But it's the only reason I'm even considering what to do about grading it--it was the only way I could get them to take it seriously.  
I have a lot to learn about this concept, but I like it, and most of the feedback from students has been positive.  Those who are very dependent on their friends for support are less happy with it, but that is a smaller minority than I thought it would be going in, probably because they are changing company every 10 minutes or so (so if they don't like someone, they'll sit with someone else soon after).  

Will this latest experiment be successful?  I don't know yet, but I will let you know.  For me, at the moment, the positive is outweighing the negative, so I'll continue to try it out.