Social Sundays: Using stations in the classroom that incorporate student choice

I was in a discussion with several social studies teachers, some of whom were curious how I use station activities.  I guess in my head I thought that teachers either used them or didn't, but as one teacher put it "I want to use stations,  but I can't figure out how and just fall back on whole class work."   It hadn't occurred to me that it was the "how to" that holds some teachers back.  So this post is really about the how to of station activities and is entirely inspired by the aforementioned conversation. I've written about the value of station activities elsewhere.


First I am going to break down the organizational structure and then I'll show you two different examples.

  • TOPIC: Choose the topic or focus for the lesson
  • DESIGN ACTIVITIES: Develop (or purchase if you don't have time),  and set up 3-5 activities related to that topic. An activity station includes:
    • Informational text
    • Activity directions
    • Materials for the activity
    • A writing prompt for the end of the activity (easily incorporated in notebooks).
  • INTRODUCTION/BACKGROUND (Optional): Depending on your time and previous lessons, you may want to introduce with a brief whole class discussion or activity or have students read or watch a related video the night before.
  • STATION INTRODUCTION: Introduce each station briefly - what's the focus and what's the general activity (kinesthetic learners tend to gravitate to building activities; visual learners will gravitate towards activities that incorporate drawing, photos, or video; audio learners tend to like activities that incorporate music, video, or auditory expressions). The introduction also gives students a general overview of the topics.    Students are likely to be interested in some topics more than others.
  • REVIEW PROCEDURES: What is expected? Who will be at what station? What do I do when I finish a station? The first few weeks will require a quick review of expectations.  After students have worked with stations a few times, less time is needed for procedures.
  • STUDENT CHOICE: Let students choose stations (optional). I usually require a minimum of 1 station, but it depends on the subject, class period, etc.  Basically, I'm fine with students being engaged in one activity the entire time if it allows them to explore deeply.  When we build domes with Brunelleschi, some students will get their first dome built and then have ideas for better ones.  I'd rather let them explore then rush them through.  If a student is developing a detailed political cartoon at a muckraker station, I want him or her to spend the time and then write about it to really understand not just know the material.
  • TIME CHECKS: remind students periodically of remaining time and provide time for students to write.  If there are a required number of stations, let students know when it is time to move to a new station.
  • SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION: We close station activities with small group discussions. I try to mix students up so that each activity has at least one student who tried it. There are two broad guiding questions for the discussions: what did you learn and how does it connect to the broad topic?  This is where we start to make connections to the big ideas. The discussion time is also an opportunity for students to discover other cool stations. Students share what they did and learned with each other.  Often, we have a second round of stations the next day so that students can explore stations they missed in the first lesson.  
That's the basics of how I use stations in my secondary classroom.  To give you an example, the table shows 2 sets of station activities: one for Theodore Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policies and the second for engineering achievements in Ancient Rome.

For each large topic, there are several options.  If students need to work with all the topics, then students visit every station.  There are lots of ways to work with stations depending on the needs of your individual classroom.  


In practice a station has the following:


Informational text and/or video for learning the big ideas (NOTE: in a flipped classroom, these may be read or watched at home).




 



Activity directions that require students to reflect on, apply knowledge and analyze the topic. 
















When a station is complete, students move on to a new station or join a small group discussion.  

I love stations because stations allow me to:

  • Differentiate by meeting the needs of different learning styles.
  • Provide student choice
  • Get students up and moving
  • AND make students the expert in teaching each other about what they have learned.




Social Sundays
 is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  

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14 comments

  1. Thank you for the link-up! I look forward to finally being able to start some stations now that pre-testing is over. Your tips gave me a lot to think about! I like how you mentioned student choice. I always just have a strict rotation where you have to do them all, unless I give them a choice board. I like the idea of them having options. I also think the discussion at the end is a really good wrap-up. I need to make time for that. Thank you!

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    1. So happy if it is inspiring at all. Student choice is at the center of my teaching, so I always try to put it in there.

      Cheers,
      DocRunning

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  2. Thank you for the information and links to other resources. I particularly like the idea of the printing press station. In first grade, we have stations that show students what children may have done back in colonial times: carding wool, wooden toys, paper dolls and hand sewing. The students truly enjoy going back in time with those stations.

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    1. The printing press is super fun and challenging. I give students very little direction on it, so they come up with some pretty inventive ideas. I bet your 1st graders would love the venetian masks we do with the Renaissance as well. Super fun! Oh and for colonial times, I recommend a pop-up colonial town. Seriously fun!

      Cheers,
      DocRunning

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  3. Great article! A couple of questions:
    How often do you use stations?
    Since you let students decide for themselves (which I love) when/where to travel, (how) do you limit the number of students that can be at a station at one time?
    Thanks!

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    1. Hi David,

      I use stations probably 50-60% of the time. We also do a lot of student-centered projects so that takes a good amount of time. I don't usually have to limit too much, but I try to make it so there is no more than 6 kids. If there are too many, I check to see if people are finishing up. The students who might be say still writing their journal entry, I encourage into the middle of the room, so more can start in. Additionally, when we start, I take a quick survey for where students want to start. If say, I have the majority who want to start at one station, then I take second choices and divide up so that students move from station to station. I also usually leave stations up a couple of days, so if anyone missed a station they wanted to try, they still can. I am trying out a new card system this year. I will let you know how it goes, and it will go into the eBook which will be free for people who grab it from the blog. It should be done in a couple of weeks...September 15th at the latest, but maybe even this week.

      Cheers,
      DocRunning

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    2. Thanks for taking the time out to reply. I'm glad you said you keep the stations up for a couple of days - I had wrongly assumed this was a one-day activity.

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    3. No problem...I teach in long blocks, so I can often do this in a whole block, but if you teach in 45 - 50 minute blocks, I recommend 2 days.

      If you have more questions, feel free to email me at docrunning[at]kulikuli[dot]net

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  4. Learning stations are great for life in the colonies! Lots of fun things to learn, but not usually enough time to teach. So it's awesome to give students the option to decide rather than choosing for them.

    "I do not ever publish pictures of students, because I believe in protecting the privacy of children at all times" - wise words! :)

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    1. I use station activities for almost everything. My students love them! Thanks for appreciating that I don't post pictures of kids. I know everyone has their own views on this, and I completely respect that.

      Cheers,
      DocRunning

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  5. These are great! I love station but I move while my kids stay put and setting them up in each classroom is too time consuming. Hopefully that'll change and I can use some of your tips!

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  6. You laid out what's needed, how they work, and what the kids do. This is a great article for someone looking to start using stations. Good information!

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  7. These are fantastic! I love using stations in secondary ELA, and you are right -- there are a number of ways to do it, depending upon your needs and the needs of your students. I have never seen a secondary social studies teacher use stations, so your ideas are wonderful to share.

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  8. I LOVE the idea of the printing press. That looks like so much fun...and learning of course. I also think it's great that you are giving your students plenty of options. Thank you so much for all of your amazing suggestions on learning stations.

    Best wishes!
    Jen :)

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