The first time I saw Kevin, he shuffled into my classroom, staring sideways toward the floor. It was the third day of the new school year—he hadn’t made it to my room the first two days.
“Hi. You must be Kevin,” I said with a smile.
Kevin didn’t look at me. He only grunted a slight noise and looked around for a place to sit. As it turned out, Kevin was mostly non-verbal with emotional and learning disabilities. He was also an apathetic student who lacked the ability and desire to self-start or persist with educational tasks.
As the weeks passed, I tried to connect with Kevin, but he was indifferent to my attempts. He only shrugged or ignored me when asked questions and refused to do his work. I began to wonder how he was going to manage when learning centers started.
Since starting college, I’ve wanted to develop a classroom that ran entirely by learning centers. I spent the first four years of my career building the activities and classroom management skills I would need to pull it off. Sure, centers in elementary school made sense, but I wasn’t quite certain at first whether a middle school biology class could pull it off.
To start, I set up five centers: lab, science skills, reading, technology and a makerspace. The idea was to have students spend an entire block of class time at a single center, completing a content-based activity or open-ended prompt. Over the course of two weeks, students would alternate each day between being at a center and being in direct instruction. By the end of the cycle, they would have completed four centers and spent four days with me. The other two days are free for whole-class meetings, assemblies, remediation, larger labs or other activities. Students would build a portfolio of center work, add a reflection and I would have the perfect assessment, tailored to each student.
While looking at the number of students that could work at the centers simultaneously, I decided to cut my classes in half, creating two groups. Instead of needing to find space for thirty students at learning centers, I realized I only had to find space for fifteen. While one half was at their centers, the other would work with me in “direct instruction” where I would focus on student skills and reinforce the concepts they were learning on their own. I would cut my teacher-student ratio in half! It seemed beyond perfect, if only I could manage it all….
To get ready for the centers, I spent the first three weeks going over lab safety, reiterating classroom expectations and guiding the class through an entire cycle so they could see what each center was all about.
At the end of September, it was time to give the students their group assignments and Kevin wasn’t the only one I was nervous about. There was Jimmy, a boy with severe ADHD and learning anxiety—he wanted confirmation that every answer he came up with was correct before he wrote it. Emily, a girl with an emotional disorder that prevented her from going to the restroom by herself because she couldn’t stand to be alone, had me especially concerned about the need for students to be able to work and learn without me checking in on them every few minutes. I wondered if Mike, a boy prone to verbally abusive outbursts, could be left to work with a partner without the mediation of teacher.
In general, I worried that unmotivated students left alone would spend center time using their phones—Kim was one of many student who fell into this category. How could these children, who seemed to need so much attention, learn—or even function—in a setting where they had to complete challenging educational tasks entirely unaided by an adult?
Despite my misgivings, I pressed forward. The scientist in me knew I wouldn’t find answers if I didn’t act, and the teacher in me knew that I would do whatever I needed to in order to pick up the slack in my center program for these students.
The first center rotation went by quickly and quietly. There were no outbursts, no breakdowns and few incidents of my needing to leave direct instruction to help students working at centers. I figured it must be going too well—I was dreaming or wishing and only seeing what I wanted to. After two weeks, it was time to collect and grade the portfolios.
Jimmy, for whom writing was a particular struggle, had not only completed all four centers, but also wrote a fifteen-sentence reflection about how much he enjoyed the lab center because he “got to feel like a real scientist.” Emily, too, turned in a lengthy reflection, including a comprehensive list of suggested activities for other centers, including diagrams. At the end of first quarter, Mike brought home a report card with an A and a behavior comment of “Above Average:” something that had never happened in his three years of middle school. Kim still had her cell phone at all times, but she learned to self-initiate silencing it at the beginning of class and putting it away when working at centers.
When Learners Take Responsibility
I was elated at my students’ successes, but I still worried about Kevin. He struggled with the reading and technology centers. He didn’t turn in work for the science skills center two cycles in a row. Then, during the third cycle, Kevin stopped me in my tracks.
The prompt for the maker space was: “Use Legos to create a model that shows one of the stages of mitosis or meiosis.” As I looked at the work, I saw single Legos arranged across the table, solid walls with different colors placed strategically in the middle to look like chromosomes, and blobs of bricks that needed to be explained.
Kevin created a moving model that accurately depicted the process of cytokinesis during cell reproduction.
I stared, unable to believe how far above my expectations his answer to the prompt was. “Kevin, that’s amazing,” I said.
He still didn’t talk—just shrugged one shoulder and refused to look up from the floor—but he grinned.
Over the following months, Kevin slowly came out of his shell, producing increasingly impressive work in each center. He still struggles during direct instruction, but when he is given a prompt, materials to design with, and space to learn his own way, he continues to surpass many of his peers.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why this model works so well, not only for students like Kevin, but for everyone. I think it comes down to students being responsible for their own learning and realizing that no one is going to stand behind them, forcing them to learn. In their reflections, students answer three questions: Which center are you reflecting on? Why did you choose that center? What did you learn about the content or yourself at that center?
Universally, students lean more toward writing about what they learned about themselves (e.g. learning styles, interests, skill levels, strengths, weakness) rather than about the content, which shows me that they’re really connecting to the learning process on a personal level. It has stopped being, “The teacher told me to,” and moved toward, “I decided to.” In my experience, that can make all the difference.
Amanda Lotz is a life sciences teacher at at Southside Middle School in New Hampshire. Student names were changed for this story.