How to design stations for second language classes

My collaboration partner and I have been using stations (sometimes also called centers) in our secondary level French as a second language classes over the past year. When we tell our colleagues what we’re doing, reactions vary. If we’re talking to secondary teachers, the reaction is somewhere between asking us what we’re talking about to something along the lines of  “you can’t do stations in high school” or that it’s “too elementary”. If we’re talking to elementary teachers, there’s almost no explanation necessary, because they understand that it’s a great instructional strategy and it just works.

We understand where all these feelings come from. We have had great results in student engagement and in improving learning through using them in secondary school, and have spent a lot of time this school year experimenting with the organization of our stations. We have come up with 5 formats for classroom use, and are continuing to experiment.

Rationale

As with any instructional tool, we need to be able to come back to a sound pedagogical reason for using it. Our own personal rationale is this:

  • Our collaboration has stretched over 5 years, and has evolved to dig deeply into the curriculum, focusing on integrating skills into instruction and assessment.
  • B.C.’s redesigned curriculum is skills-based, and the stations models are a perfect format to focus on specific skills and allow for practice and feedback.
  • Our desire to develop a more student-centred classroom. Once our students understood what stations were, we became facilitators and could work one-on-one with certain students or just observe what they were doing and learning.
  • We wanted a way to provide focused practice on specific aspects of skills or content, and to build students’ competencies when it comes to larger assignments.

A further rationale for using stations can also be found within our district’s Priority Practices – specifically in the area of Instructional Strategies.

Learning thrives when teachers design instructional strategies that:

  • encourage students to think creatively and critically, communicate skillfully, and demonstrate care for self and others;
  • acknowledge the social nature of learning;
  • tailor flexible groupings to enhance engagement and learning;
  • allow for both physical and virtual collaboration;
  • support the personal aspect to learning;
  • differentiate content, processes, and products;
  • promote risk-taking, wonder and curiosity;
  • build connections across and within areas of knowledge;
  • embed formative assessment practices such as learning intentions, criteria, questions, descriptive feedback, self and peer-assessment;
  • inspire and stretch student thinking;
  • promote student engagement;
  • reflect the relationships between emotion, motivation and cognition;
  • connect learning to the local and global communities;
  • provide opportunities for students to share learning and reflect;
  • utilize technologies and other tools in purposeful ways;
  • involve explicit and intentional teaching; and,
  • make learning visible, open, and transparent.

(Source: https://surreylearningbydesign.ca/principles/instructional-strategies/)

So what does a station look like?

Within each format, the design of the station is fairly consistent. With a couple of exceptions, we almost always try to design them around the core language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Each stations-based class would run for one class block, and within that block students would complete anywhere from 5 to 8 individual activities, depending on which format we were using.

A station activity is short and focused. Students have a chance to practice something in a small group format, with support or feedback from their teacher, as necessary. This is not a time for students to work on a longer task like an essay, or reading a longer text, but gives specific, targeted practice of a skill that will contribute to student success in a larger task.

For example, our curriculum document states that students need to be able to understand and express preferences. This means that they need to be able to communicate them orally, recognize them through listening, understand them in reading, and express them in writing. This is a skill that my students have practiced in multiple contexts, using all of their language competencies.

A sample listening station

Listening tasks have always been challenging for my students, and they tend to look at them as something they can, or more frequently, can not, do. There are several skills and strategies that I want them to use while they listen, and so I developed a series of listening stations that focus on specific aspects of a larger task. Listening to something short and focused is a great way to improve students’ overall abilities in listening. Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 1.58.15 PM

The image above is an example of a listening station that Meghann and I gave to our grade 8 classes. The listening track itself was only about 45 seconds long. It was a conversation about food preferences, and included information about choices Lucie did or did not make, why she made her choices, and allergies she had which influenced her choices. The wording in the audio track is not identical to the wording of the questions, so students had to use some critical thinking skills to decide which answer they should select. Students have to decide whether Lucie loves, likes, doesn’t like, or hates the things she talks about in her 6 statements.

This exercise would just be one station out of 8 in total that students would complete in an 80 minute class block. Because there are other things going on in the room, we would not play the track for all students to hear at one time. We both use FreshGrade, and we attached the audio track to an assignment which students signed in to access on their own devices, while wearing earbuds. This gives gives the students the freedom to listen to the tracks as many times as needed while at that station, and then to answer the questions. If Student A needs to listen 5 times but Student B only needs to hear the track twice, they have that choice and can pause, rewind, etc. as needed. This allows students to practice the skill of listening for keywords associated with preferences as much or as little as needed. I will integrate other listening exercises later on that are not in a stations format for that class, in which everyone will listen at the same time and respond. This gives a variety of types of assessment, and allows for both formative and summative opportunities.

In addition, students have ongoing access to information that has been sent to them on FreshGrade. This means that if they know a listening assessment is coming up in class, they can go home and listen to the old track or practice the attached exercise as a form of review, and then compare their results to see their growth.

A sample reading/writing station

Reading and writing stations are short and focused, and the example below gives students some in context practice with the two verb tenses they were working on at the time. I adapted this exercise from a workbook that goes with the program I’m using in my French 11 class, and at the end of the exercise, students are asked to demonstrate their understanding of both the verb tenses and the meaning of the text by writing a sentence which could logically follow it.

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 11.19.49 PM

Things to consider

In setting up our stations, we have learned that a few things are important to remember, regardless of the format we choose.

  • Be prepared and set up before the students enter the room.
  • The first time that you use this model in your class spend the time explaining the expectations. This will save time later.
  • Build in opportunities for students to be independent as much as possible. This will allow stations to run smoothly and you can focus on supporting learning as necessary.
  • Tie the content of each station to material you have already covered. This is not a time to introduce a lot of new content, but to allow for focused practice on skills that have already been introduced.

We have experimented with both paper and paperless stations. When the exercises are printed on paper, it generates an enormous number of pieces of paper for us and our students to keep track of. Things can get lost or misplaced quite easily, and if a student forgets to write his or her name on something, it becomes very hard to track down. That being said, our students still generally seem to prefer working on paper. They are gradually getting comfortable with working paperlessly, but it’s a slow process that is definitely made slower by situations in which they are worried about a mark they will receive for something.

Future plans

I plan to continue working with stations in my classes, and have lists of things I want to try as time allows. Top of my list is:

  • Review stations. While my class is working on something, students who need to review some of the information required to complete it may step out of the group, go to the station and work for a period of time on some review, and then return to the group.
  • Student-designed stations.
  • Reggio-inspired stations.
  • Stations that take longer to complete.
  • Repeating a previous set of stations (perhaps with some formatting changes) so that students can see growth.

 

 

 

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