Centers are becoming a hot topic in the elementary general music teaching world, it seems. Does anyone else feel that way? In the past I had done quite a bit of small group activities, including composition and small ensemble tasks where students where working independently in small groups, but no center activities that involved students doing different tasks with different materials at the same time. After studying the benefits of center activities in early childhood for my masters degree, and hearing tons of great ideas from other elementary music teachers online, I decided this was my year to take the plunge! With just over half of a school year under my belt, here are my tips for those thinking of getting started with centers themselves.
1. Less is more
When I first started doing centers, I consistently planned 6 centers each time because I had 6 color teams already set up in my room. It was too many. Not because it was too difficult to manage, but because I wanted students to go to each station and they weren't getting to spend enough time at each one. I also found that, with groups anywhere from 2-4 students (with absences, small classes etc), it was difficult for students to really "get into" most of the activities. I have since shifted to having around 4 centers, with 4-6 students in each group, and it is infinitely better. Students have more time to enjoy each activity, and it's less awkward with the slightly larger groups.
2. Choreograph the movement
I know some teachers give students the freedom to go between various centers at their own pace, with guidelines about how many they should each complete or how many students can be at a center at a time. If you're just getting started, DON'T do this. Split up the class into set groups and rotate all of them through the centers at the same time. I turn off the lights after a set amount of time (enough for them to have time at each center before the end of class) and wait for students to sit silently, looking at me, before giving the directions for where each group will be moving next. After I have told every group where to go next, they all move at the same time to the next station, and I turn the lights back on.
3. Plan for variety
One of the best things I have done is to plan centers that engage a variety of learning styles and personalities. For example, I usually have one fast-paced, competitive activity, one slower, low-pressure one, a center that involves movement, and one that involves technology (either a computer or iPad). That way you can be sure that most (if not all) of the students are really excited about at least one center, and you are differentiating for more learners so more students have a chance to develop their skills and understanding. This is the number one advantage of centers in my opinion- don't miss out on the chance to really differentiate for your kids because you saw these fun ideas on Pinterest that you want to try!
4. Give instructions at the beginning
I don't put written directions at each center because it becomes too much of a distraction for students- they spend too much time arguing about the "correct" way to do the activity and reading the directions instead of just diving in. Instead I verbally give directions for all the centers before we start, and make sure I answer any and all questions in advance. With fewer centers it's not too confusing, and I always make sure the activities are easy enough for students to do on their own anyway. Even if the activity is one that you've done a million times, I still go over the directions. There always seem to be a few students who don't remember how to do an activity and it inevitably leads to those same discussions about how to correctly do the activity instead of starting.
5. Wander the room
I always make sure I am free to walk around and trouble shoot, rather than trying to use a center for an assessment or other activity for which I have to be present. I manage technology problems, referee the occasional disagreement over turns, sharing etc, answer questions and, most importantly, offer lots of "I see you" comments. Statements like, "Wow, I saw that awesome dance move you just did! Cool!", "Whoa, you got 100 points already?!?", or "Yeah, level three is hard, right??" encourage students to keep working and give them positive feedback without directing the activity.
Have you used centers in your classroom? Share your tips in the comments!