I am convinced that without structure, simplicity, and clear expectations, nothing amazing would ever happen in my classroom. Ever. As bubbly and energetic as I am, and as much as I love to be creative and innovative with my students, I run a tight ship. I expect my students to toe the line. Although I am BIG on student choice (within parameters and within reason), unless otherwise indicated, nothing is an option in my classroom. Expectations are laid out on Day 1, and they are readdressed regularly. Is it because I have a complex? Is it because I like lording my “power” over my students? Am I just a total grump? Nope. Nope, nope, nope. It’s because I want my students to grow and achieve. I want my students to reach all of their goals and then some. I want them to believe in themselves. I want them to do things that they think are impossible, and I want to see them tackle things that used to scare them. I want to appropriately challenge my students, and I want them to LOVE (really love) learning. As a result, there’s just no time for funny business. I want transitions to be seamless. I want every minute to count. Therefore, my classroom needs to run like a well-oiled machine. I achieve this year after year, and it has nothing do to with magic or trickery. It just comes down to consistency, hard work, and a little grit. If you really want to implement centers in your classroom, but you have experienced hiccups in the past, read on to see how I have navigated and corrected issues in my own classroom in practical ways. There’s no rocket science or hocus pocus here.
Go over rules regularly (at least weekly).
Yes, I know. You have rules hanging in your beautifully decorated classroom, but do your kids look at them? Have them just become a part of the ambiance? Are they followed impeccably 100% of the time? I have found that making the time to go over expectations and rules approximately once a week is critical to the success of my students. We have five umbrella rules in our classroom, and sometimes I need to point out something that I’ve been noticing that fits below one of those umbrella rules. I might say something like, “I know some of you are SO excited about what we’ve been learning about in class. I LOVED your enthusiasm last week, BUT, that said, this week, we need to work on self control in order to maximize our learning and the amount of fun we will have. When you shout out while I am trying to do a mini-lesson, that’s a problem. Why?” I let my kiddos share reasons why this is unacceptable. Typical responses include, “It’s disrespectful”, “It’s distracting to others”, “We’re not supposed to talk without raising our hands”, or “We shouldn’t talk when the teacher is talking”. This calls attention back to the rules that help our classroom thrive, and it reinforces why rules exist: to maintain order, to ensure that we do our jobs successfully, and to have fun in the process. Sometimes we review them out of need like in my example, but typically, I make time once a week at the start of the week to explain what lies ahead of us and what behavior needs to be like to achieve the tasks. Usually, the kids are so amped up about whatever we’re going to tackle that week, that they fully invest. We spend about 5-10 minutes at the start of each week in a class meeting. I pull them to the carpet, we talk about expectations, we build a bridge from the last week’s accomplishments to our current to-do-list, and we set our minds on learning. It’s time invested up-front that pays in dividends. I have never regretted spending the time. Not even once.
Before getting started, review expectations.
Beyond the classroom rules, I have certain expectations that pertain to centers. Because I am not omnipotent and can’t clone myself to be everywhere at every point in time, I am very clear on what I expect my students to do, and what the consequences will be if rules are not followed to the letter. We ALWAYS review the retrieval of materials, volume, respect, active listening, caring for materials, staying on task, and the specifics of each task they will encounter. I know this sounds really cumbersome, but it’s not. I have the kids rattle off expectations, and it takes 2-3 minutes tops. Those 2-3 minutes save me countless minutes spent redirecting and dishing out consequences when I could be conferring and coaching. So worth it! The bulk of the time is spent explaining an overview of what the students will work on in each center (although I do include more detailed direction sheets with 90% of the centers my students rotate through). Giving them the gist of what they will work on sets the purpose for students, and it allows them to prepare mentally for those tasks. I just make sure to go around as soon as students disperse to check in and ensure that everyone knows what they need to do. All of this takes 5 minutes…tops.
Start again if expectations aren’t met.
I have a reputation for being “fun and strict”, which is a conundrum of sorts, but this mantra is basically why. If my expectations aren’t met, we will start over again. And again. And again. Early in the year, this might happen ten times. We will practice until we get it right, or until they are so tired of trying again that they just do it. (For example, it could be something as simple as pushing chairs in before we break out to centers. Pushing in chairs is not optional. It is a safety concern. I will not begin until 100% of the chairs in my room are pushed under desks. Students will go back to their seats, sit down, and push them in again, and again, and again. I just say, “Sit down” in a calm voice, and the process repeats itself. Eventually, it becomes part of what we do and who we are, and I may only have to have them sit down once a month.) If they still don’t fall in line after a few tries, we won’t do an activity at all. (I’ll get to that later!) This part is SO important, and I am positive it drives my students crazy sometimes. Ha! Here’s the thing though: Rules and expectations mean absolutely nothing if you are lenient. I’m not saying you have to rule with an iron fist. I’m not saying you have to yell and beat your chest. I’m not saying you rain on every parade and act like the fun police. (Please do not do ANY of these things.) What I am saying is, you have classroom rules for a reason. Those rules are not optional. They are not merely suggestions. They are the framework your classroom rests upon. They keep your class physically and intellectually safe, they keep the wheels in motion, even when you are with other students. They are the foundation. If the rules are not strong, everything else will crumble. Your classroom is like a house, and your rules are the basement…the stone slab…the part you build everything else upon. Don’t cheat here. Make an investment. Have you ever been in a house with a poor foundation? The floors slant. You can trip over yourself. You can feel disoriented, like you are in a fun house. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any part of that. Not in my home. Not in my classroom. No thanks.
Set procedures, and stick to them.
Creating a familiar and consistent structure is of paramount importance. Create a routine that your students KNOW, and they will THRIVE. In my opinion, this is the most basic part of my centers. We go over expectations, I explain the gist of the centers, I break kids into groups and dismiss them, they push in chairs, they go to their assigned centers and proceed to work through them (following the rules and expectations), and eventually, I call them back to their seats. If I need their attention during centers, I clap a pattern. If you were a cheerleader like I was back in the day, you’ll understand what I mean by a XX XXX pattern. For everyone else out there, it’s a double clap, followed by three quick claps. (Nothing fancy or intricate!) I clap the pattern. They clap it back, and as soon as they clap, their eyes are supposed to be on me, and their mouths have to be silent. (I only interrupt if it’s something important, and I try to make it quick.) If it’s time to head back to their seats because we are finished or because expectations are not being met, I say something else I borrowed from cheerleading many moons ago—a little cheer camp chant that helped us transition from one activity to another. I say, “Have a seat…take a load off your feet.” They reply, “Thank you. Don’t mind if I do”, and as they say that, they begin to get up and clean up. They make their way back to their desks as they chant it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you clap a pattern or say a catchy saying like I do. What matters is that you put SOMETHING in place, and you stick to it. In my experience, if something’s not working, it usually comes down to negligence and lack of follow through. Stick to it!
Have a Plan B. If things fall apart, clean up, and move on.
Now, here’s the thing. I fervently believe that kids can accomplish ANYTHING, and I wholeheartedly believe that as the only college-educated, license-wielding, over-18 person in my classroom, I am the boss. I will give students ownership. I will give them choices. I will allow them to explore their passions. However, when it comes down to it and push comes to shove, my classroom is still my classroom. I am the one in charge. I am the one who is responsible for maintaining order, challenging my kids, and facilitating learning. About 99% of the time, we move forward with Plan A. This is when my kids work in centers. I facilitate and float. Many times teachers and support staff search for me in the classroom because I am on the floor with my kiddos or sitting next to them at a table. I LOVE that I blend in because that means my kids are actively learning and collaborating, and I am coaching them along the way. It means it’s not the Mrs. Nickerson Show. It means that my kids are not totally bored out of their gourds while I talk at them and give them a one-size-fits-all lesson. That said, there is that 1% of the time that warrants a little space in the blog post, because sometimes, it gets ugly. Sometimes things fall apart. If it’s just one kid, I can deal with that. I can intervene. They might need a chat, redirection, or time to work alone until they are able to rejoin our classroom community and work productively. Sometimes though, I feel like I am the mayor of Crazy Town. Sometimes arguments are unproductive, kids are off-task, materials are being destroyed, and I end up feeling like I am talking to the wall. In those moments, I refuse to go down with the ship. I refuse to let my kiddos go down at all. Classroom time is SO precious and so fleeting, so if students are being unproductive in centers, then we will stop them. Before we capsize, I will put everyone in life boats and we will jump ship. I will proceed with Plan B. I always plan ahead because I don’t want to waste ANY time. If centers crumble, we will immediately go back to our desks and work on something else or we will do a clicker game on the SMARTboard. Something connected. Something meaningful. Something else. Again, it’s not an option to not follow directions and follow through. So when kids opt to lose control, I show them who’s really in control. Me. We move on. They feel a little sad. We are productive in other ways, and eventually, maybe after a quick regrouping chat, maybe later that day, maybe later that week, they revisit the centers once we’ve had the opportunity to discuss what fell apart and what we need to fix. Never, ever just let centers be a free-f0r-all. It ruins all of your hard work, and it’s basically a waste of time.
If you retry, the kids will thank you & fix behaviors.
When you relaunch centers after bringing them to a halt, you show your students grace. You show them that you believe in them. You show them that what you are working on is important and has value. You also show them that they have to play by the rules. Centers aren’t fun for kids when everyone fights or when the room has devolved into a state of chaos. Hitting the restart button brings equilibrium back to the classroom, and then students can truly enjoy and benefit from the centers you’ve worked hard to provide for them. They will enjoy themselves, and they will thank you.
Compliment hard work and good behaviors.
We all like a little recognition for our hard work and accomplishments every once in a while. Sure, there’s something to be said about the value of hard work in and of itself. Sure we all have to have intrinsic motivation. That said, when someone else notices a talent or sees that you’ve overcome an obstacle…and then takes the time to acknowledge that… it feels good. It’s affirming, right?! While my students are working in centers, I really try to float as much as possible. I pop in to each group, and for the most part, I observe them. I may intervene if there’s confusion, or I may pose a high-order question to propel them forward. I try to give timely and meaningful feedback, so I will give a coaching point as needed, but perhaps more importantly, I share what I noticed that they are doing WELL. It may be the application of a strategy or skill. It may be a compliment on work habits or leadership. Ultimately, I try to compliment what I want duplicated. If I am struggling with trying to get a pocket of kids on board, I loudly compliment a student or a group of students. Sometimes I have them clip up on the clip chart, or I give them character cash (and enough to cause students to raise their eyebrows). I don’t always give tangible rewards though. Most of the time, I really focus on naming the behavior and singing their praises. This empowers my students, and it ensures that our centers will continue to be productive and enjoyable!
Kids are responsible for ALL clean up.
I LOVE my students. I think of our class as a “school family”. That said, I am very clear about something from day one. I am their teacher. I am not in the classroom to their best friend, their mom, their maid, or their babysitter. I am there to teach. That is my job. My job is to teach my students the standards, but it’s also my responsibility to teach them responsibility. So, I do not clean up after them. I don’t clean up after them when we conclude centers, and I do not clean up after them at the end of the day. I expect the floor to be spotless. I expect my students to take pride in our classroom. I clean up my mess and my materials. They clean up their areas. Again, this is not an option. After a while, it just becomes ingrained. It becomes part of our classroom culture. It becomes something that builds community and something that I don’t have to nag about. Plus, when everyone cleans up, the process is expedited!
The point is, structure is everything. Having a predictable structure and clear expectations yields high achievement. Rigidity allows for fluidity within the centers. If the framework is strong, you can be creative about the activities you provide for your kiddos. You are also free to be a facilitator instead of a dictator (yes, I went there), and because you are able to move around and support your students, differentiation also becomes a more manageable component. Remember, you can still love your kids and encourage them without being wishy-washy. Stay strong, friends. Your centers will be stronger as a result.