The more I am working on moving to more skill based instruction, implementing BC’s new curriculum redesign, the more I am finding that using stations are a good instructional design to allow students to practice those skills using communicative activities, and receive feedback in class. The more I use them, the more they are becoming routine, and the instruction needed to explain to students what they need to do is decreasing each time we repeat a similar exercise.
When something becomes a classroom routine, it risks becoming boring. In order to address that, I’ve been working on a variety of different ways to use stations. These are not exclusive to language learning, but since that’s my teaching area, these are the examples I’m using. These models could easily work in other subject areas, and I have adapted my use from other teachers’ writings about how they use these structures in their subject areas.
In my classroom, students sit in small groups. Our classes are about 75 minutes long, and my classes this year range from 19 kids to 30. In any given class, there is a range of ability levels, and in one block I have a split grade class (French 11/12). I teach both juniors (grades 8 and 9), and seniors (grades 10-12). My junior classes are linear, while my seniors are semestered. This means that I see the juniors every second day, while the seniors have classes every day. Seeing a class every second day means that from time to time, there are big gaps in their learning, because if a weekend and a statutory holiday occur at the same time, it can be up to 5 days in between classes. I need an effective, familiar way of bringing them up to speed, reviewing previously learned information, allowing students to get help or feedback, and introducing new material. The beauty of stations is that you teach the structure once, and it’s easy for students to remember how it works. The structure fades into the background, and they can focus on the content, skills or ideas involved in each station. This allows me to play with the structure from time to time as well, so that I can adjust it to meet the needs of my students. The basic structure that I have found that works the best is anywhere between 6-8 stations, and anywhere from 6-15 minutes on a given station, depending on grade level and the complexity of the task they are doing at each station. Following are some ways I have adapted this basic structure.
Model #1 – A common theme with a variety of skills.
In this model, I can explore one theme while students circulate and use a variety of skills. The skills may be as simple as reading, writing, speaking and listening – the basic language competencies. This would work well if I need to introduce the theme of a unit, a story, a project, etc. For example, the unit I am currently working on in my French 10 class is “Aventures extrêmes” (extreme adventures). I can easily find materials for 8 stations to allow them to explore the theme through listening to a podcast, an interview, reading an article and a story, viewing a movie clip, writing interview questions and possible answers, writing an engaging introduction to an adventure story, and having a variety of conversations in which they could talk about how they would react in certain situations, describe movies they have seen, and so on. The focus of all of these activities would be building knowledge about the topic, but doing it in a way that allows for a variety of learning styles, and skills in which students may be more comfortable.
Model #2 – A common skill with a variety of themes.
In this model, I can plan a class in which students focus on one skill that I want them to practice, but I can explore a variety of themes within that skill. For example, if the focus of a class was working on listening skills, I could ask them to listen to a variety of listening tracks that all explore different themes, or different perspectives on a common theme. Examples include a song, a music video, a movie clip, an interview, a podcast, a news broadcast, a TV show, a speech, a storyteller, a conversation, and more. In using this model, I can include a variety of perspectives, or I can integrate different verb tenses, accents, cultural perspectives, etc.
I have also used a hybrid blend of #1 and #2, in which I asked students to listen to a variety of tracks on a common theme, but to focus on a different listening strategy at each station. Strategies included listening for key words, using context to understand new vocabulary, listening for intonation, and so on. I used this model to teach specific listening skills that I need them to work on in order to be more effective listeners in their second language.
Model #3 – Make the student a station.
My collaboration partner and I used this model to get our French 10 students to practice for a presentation they had to do. Once they had gone through the process of putting their presentations together, we set up 8 stations around the classroom. Working with approximately 24 students, this gave us 3 groups of 8. We placed one student at each station, with two students at the station to listen to their presentation and ask them questions. The listeners had a task to do as they listened – in this case it was listening for familiar vocabulary and key words in persuasive presentations. After each presentation, we rotated the students who were listening, but kept the presenters in place. After a set number of rotations, we changed the presenters, and those who had presented previously now became listeners, and the rotations continued until all students had both presented and listened. This ensured that all students were involved in either active listening or presenting, and all of them had a turn in each role. They had more practice and more peer feedback with this model than we would have been able to schedule in a regular class, and the discussions and peer coaching as they were circulating were rich and very helpful.
Model #3 – Make the teacher a station.
This can be an add-on to any of the other models, but if your students need more feedback, you want to check their understanding of a given concept, or you have a specific skill you want to teach in a small group setting, the teacher can be a station in the rotation. This way you have small groups of learners to work with at any given time, and can focus and give a great deal more one-on-one attention to those who may need it.
Model #4 – Alternate creative activities with discussion and reflection.
I have used this model for the cultural identity stations my classes are doing this year. In one station, they engage in a creative activity that may involve drawing a picture, role-playing a scenario, making an object out of play-doh, etc. These stations generally are highly engaging, and I have found they work best if I allow about 10-15 minutes per station. However, I also want students to be able to articulate what they learned or explored in the creativity station, and so they will go from a long creativity station to one in which they again spend 10-15 minutes, but half of the time will be used to talk about a focused discussion or reflection question, and the other half to draft a written response to the same question, using the vocabulary from the discussion. This works best for situations where there is a deep idea to explore, and I want to provide a range of ways for students to think about and express the idea, and has resulted in some of the most interesting student responses I have ever read.
Model #5 – Differentiate the model.
Not all students will be capable of engaging at the same level or performing the same types of tasks. In a split grade class, for example, the younger students may need more time and/or more support for their learning, while others may be able to progress at a faster rate. A few ways in which my collaboration partner and I have differentiated the station models include:
- Allowing students to repeat stations if they need more time.
- Offering students the option to sit out one round of the station rotation at a “study station”. This can be a separate station where they leave their resources, or additional supports can be placed there for students needing more information on a skill or topic.
- Use variable times on stations. Similar to the structure described in model #4, some activities may simply require more time. For example, if a class needs more time to write and less time to speak or listen, the time at the writing station can be doubled, while other students rotate through listening and speaking activities.
- Use a buddy system. This can be almost imperceptible to other students in the class who are focussed on what they are doing at a given station, but students who require more support or who may struggle with things like social anxiety benefit from being placed in a group with a friend or partner with whom they work well.
What I’m currently learning…
Catlin Tucker blogs about the use of stations at www.catlintucker.com. She recently wrote about offering optional skill stations, which is next on my list of stations to try. I see this model as being less of a rotation, and more like an in-class support option that I can offer my students if they need more information or practice on a given topic or skill. I’m looking forward to trying this, and I see it as a good option for situations where students are unable to come in for help or tutoring in an overcrowded school, or in classes where there is a wide range of skill levels and some students need more practice while others are ready to explore further. This would not be a timed option, but more of a flexible feature that students can access as needed.