Six Steps to Mastering Classroom Centers

February 7, 2020

Classroom centers are a powerful way to transform traditional whole-group learning into an interactive, differentiated, learning experience.

That being said, even the most confident teachers can feel intimidated by the thought of handing students the reigns while they sit back and observe from their kidney-shaped tables. When I decided to integrate Classroom centers, I learned that having a well-designed plan for exactly how I would incorporate centers into my day-to-day lessons was key! Here are six steps you can take to help you make centers a regular feature of weekly instruction and take student engagement to another level. 

1. Start with the End in Mind

Your first step should be asking, “what am I trying to accomplish?” Think about what your desired end-result looks like and create a ‘backward plan’ to fill in the steps you need to achieve that goal. For example, if your main goal is to increase student performance on year-end tests, your plan might look something like this: 

  • End Goal: Growth on high-stakes tests
  • Big Goal: Proficiency in literacy and math 
  • Weekly Goal: 80% mastery on weekly assessments
  • Daily Goal: students asking questions and spending adequate time-on-task

2. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Whichever stations you chose to incorporate, remember to keep it simple. Your curriculum may have additional resources for extended activities or learning that could be perfect for centers. In my classroom, we used iPads to access close reading passages that students could use to build stamina and comprehension. Check out an example of Classworks Classroom Reading activities

Start with small, manageable stations that students can complete in short intervals. Try this:

  • Dedicate a 40-minute period (or whatever you can work into your schedule) to center time on Tuesdays and Thursdays 
  • Set up four centers in your classroom On Tuesday 
  • Have your students begin working at their centers and then rotate after 20 minutes 
  • On Thursday, they can work on the two centers they have left 
  • As standards and topics change week by week, keep the same core stations just with different lessons 

Here’s a quick list of the most popular stations we see in schools:

  • Small group: Have a small group of students join you at a table where you can spend some time reteaching standards or providing additional support for Tier 1. This is a great opportunity to reinforce your goals and give a little TLC to students who are lagging. Pro-tip: our Standards Mastery Report can help you determine which skills students could use support with. 
  • Technology: Whether you have 1:1 or just a few devices in your classroom, this is a perfect time for students to get individualized lessons from Classworks. Your students should be able to complete one or two skills in a 20 minute period.
  • Writing: Building stamina in writing is crucial to student success. I used different photos with prompts depending on the subject matter to help build content knowledge. Some might consider adding a mini math lesson where students solve an extended word problem and explain their answers using grade-level writing expectations. Check out this quick video of Classworks investigative math exercise for an example. 
  • Practice: Practice looks different depending on the subject and content, but should always be Tier 1 focused. This could be reviewing vocabulary and context clues using a dictionary and close reading passages. For example, it may be practicing long division with three numbers. This could even be pulling up a Classworks Mini-Lesson and having students work through the activity together.

3. Grouping Students

When grouping students, there are two frameworks we can look at: Homogeneous and Heterogeneous. Homogeneous, or “readiness” groups are where students are selected based on their similar ability levels. On the other hand, heterogeneous groups consist of students with varying ability levels. Both frameworks have their benefits, but one may be more feasible when considering the needs of your class. The Classworks Standards Mastery Report can tell you exactly which students need practice on specific skills. 

Get creative with the ways you let students know which group they are in. Have students assigned to shapes, or break out the flip chart have an unveiling as you move students’ names around each week. 

4. Setting Expectations

Once you’ve decided what activities your student groups will be working on, the next step is to set goals. 

When starting anything new in the classroom, students should understand the ‘why’ behind it. Acronyms and sayings worked really well for me since they’re quick and easy to remember. It also makes it easier for students to reference and refer back to if someone happens to forget an expectation. 

I made a GROUPS acronym for students to understand what was expected of them and discussed why these rules were in place. It was displayed so it could be seen from any station. Another great protocol to have in place is “Three before me!” With this protocol, students take ownership of their learning and ask three friends to help them before they interrupt you at the teacher table. 

5. Build Excitement for Centers!

Stations aren’t just a great opportunity for learning, but also for having some fun in the classroom. Consider the ‘dancing protocol’. When it’s time to rotate, hit a bell to give students a one-minute warning to wrap up and clean up. When they’re ready, say “ALL SET?”  If they’re ready, they respond “YOU BET!” Then play some music for students to get the wiggles out as they walk to the next station. Always have students rotate in the same direction so there’s never any confusion. When the music stops, students get started at their new station. 

Consider adding fun elements by having students “unlock” them as they pass milestones. My students were always big fans of our Bingo Board. At the beginning of the semester, I would pass out bingo cards with the titles of Classworks reading activities typed in the spaces. Once a student completed an exercise with an 80% score, they got to cover the space with a sticker. It would take a couple of weeks for them to fill in enough spaces, but once they did you’d hear an excited “Bingo!” yelled in the room and the student would go and collect a prize from our treasure chest.

It’s okay to go several weeks until you and your students feel confident enough in the new routine that you can hand over the reigns completely. Once you become a pro, consider providing roles for students. These roles could include the presenter, the scribe, the task manager, and so on to reinforce your center expectations. 

A great way to increase accountability is by having students model what to do and what not to do during stations. As students are working in their groups, be actively listening, adjusting, and providing feedback for your students. 

Students at Bailey APAC in Jackson, Mississippi, celebrate their 80% mastery scores with an ice-cream float party!

6. Reflect to Apply - The Most Important Step!

After centers come back to whole group and have a moment for reflection. Ask students what they learned and how they did it. How did the groups work together? This allows other students to learn from peers and know what or what not to do when they arrive at that station. It puts more responsibility and ownership on the students. 

When it comes to grading, there are a number of ways teachers can keep track. Students can take notes in their classroom notebook, which can be graded at the end of the week. You could even have students complete their station work on a handout and turn it into their class bin at the end of the period. If using an instructional program like Classworks for an independent workstation, their unit score can be used. 

Classroom centers allow students to have higher engagement, build peer-to-peer communication skills, as well as reinforce skills in your classroom. We would love to hear your ideas for creating classroom centers! Email us at or chat with us using the chat button below and let us know what has worked for you! Your ideas may be featured in an upcoming post! 

Article by:
Jordan Ayers, Curriculum & Instruction Specialist 

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