How to set up stations in a secondary level language class

As a high school teacher, I have  heard from colleagues that they don’t know why I use stations in my classes. They tend to see stations as something that happens in elementary schools, but not at our level. I have learned that breaking down the barriers between elementary and secondary is often one of the best things I can do as a teacher. Using stations (or centres) in a language class can be a great way to change a classroom routine, keep students moving, and differentiate content. In order to make sure things run smoothly in class, here’s how I set things up beforehand.

1. Decide how many stations you will have, and how long each one should take.

Having played around with the stations structure in my language classes for a while, I have found that 8 stations work well in an 80 minute class, and I normally allow a little time for introducing each one at the beginning of the class, plus a very short period of time for students to move from table to table as they circulate around the room. This leaves about 7 minutes for the activity at each station.

2. Decide what the activity will be at each station.

I create a plan in my Google Drive for what will happen at each station. This way, I can share my plan with another teacher if needed, I have the files at hand whether I am at home or at school, I can easily find and access the stations later if I want to adapt them, and I can locate them quickly and easily from my phone as I am circulating to support students on the day of the activity.

I normally use a skills-based approach when designing stations. For example, the stations I just finished putting together for my French 11 class include 2 each of speaking, listening, reading and writing. I have also built in the content, grammar and skills (in this case, description and narration) that they are practicing.

Keeping in mind that these activities must be completed within 7 minutes, they are short and just intended to give focused practice on a given skill, and an indicator of whether students are able to complete it.

3. Group students ahead of time.

Because using stations results in a fast-paced class, I don’t want to have students distracted by friends, being off task, etc. In order to avoid this, it’s important to break up social groupings in advance, and also be aware of the relative skill level and work habits of students in a given group. Having some students finish quickly while others are still struggling is likely to set up negative social interactions. Likewise, having a group of students who are easily distracted will be disruptive to the rest of the class.

In most classes, I use small groups of 3 or 4 for stations. These can be the same as the table groups I normally use, but changing the groupings often makes for more interesting conversations. You can’t control everything, but once you know your students you can group them to set them up for success.

4. Organize materials.

In my classroom, I have 8 small groups of tables set up around the room. For this activity, I make each group a station. I also have signs on the stations printed on coloured paper, and instructions in the target language (French) that students can refer to as necessary. Using table tents is a good idea to make the stations visible and make sure that they are easy to find.

If I have students answering on paper for a given activity, I have that activity copied and ready to go. If I am using a paperless model, I have my activities set up on Google Docs or Google Forms, and links posted for students to access on Twitter and/or on FreshGrade. If a station uses a listening track, I put the track on FreshGrade for them and they listen to it on their personal devices. I have also put tracks on my Google Drive, and have them set up on an iPad for students to listen to if there is a shortage of personal devices in a given class. If students need to create a video to upload, set up the assignment ahead of time so that they can access it. I use FreshGrade for this, but many other platforms are available.

5. Introduce the activities.

When students come into the class, I spend a few minutes previewing each station and showing students where they are, as well as what materials they will need at each spot. Some of them will forget, but I generally find that enough of them will remember that things will flow smoothly. Because this is all in the target language, using a limited body of vocabulary in your instructions with repetition of key words allows students to focus on the activity instead of the instructions. As a backup strategy, students will also tend to ask groups who have just completed a station for help, and you can use student experts in the class to help manage comprehension as necessary.

6. Moving around the room.

Before students start to move around, it’s important to remove obstacles. Backpacks, binders, textbooks, etc. can be placed against the wall or under tables. Tell students what they will need, and make sure they have those materials ready before they circulate.

Once things are underway, I use a timer on the screen at the front of the room. When students can see the time counting down, they tend to self-monitor more effectively, and they also have the freedom to work without interruptions from me letting them know they have one minute left. They tend to remind one another that time is limited, and it helps to keep them on track and keep things running smoothly.

7. Collecting work.

Depending on how I have set things up, I either ask students to hand in the paper they recorded their answers on, submit their answers to a form, or upload the files they created. If a student misses a class, having online options for handing in work makes it easier for them to make up missed work, and easier to hand in assignments. I recently discovered that you can create a self-correcting Google form right from your phone, and when used for short exercises like this, they are very useful tools that allow teachers to send immediate feedback to students.

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