Social Sundays: Stations are for High School Social Studies

The idea of centers (or stations) started largely in elementary schools.  As students get into middle school and high school, centers or stations start to disappear.  Less and less time is spent on different learning styles and more time is spent by the teacher talking. Lectures often become king in the secondary history classroom.  Lecture is easy yet also the least effective way of teaching. Centers take time to set up and implement, even in flipped classrooms. Still the engagement that comes out of well-designed centers make them a valuable part of secondary classes even if you only use once a week.  
Here's what I have learned about setting up and using centers in the secondary social studies classroom: 

  1. How many centers do you need?  I teach in 90 minute blocks which allows for students to usually go to 3-4 centers depending on other class activities.  
  2. Will all students go to all centers? I use the formula of 1.5 centers times the number of centers an individual student will go to. For example if I expect each student will go to 4 centers, then I have 6 centers available. 
  3. Which, if any centers, are mandatory?  When we study the Progressive era, we spend a day on each of the Progressive presidents (Taft, Wilson and T. Roosevelt).  All the centers are different for each president. I want students to do an analysis cube for each president. The cube station is required.   We do one set of stations each class period, and at the end we have 3 of the cubes - one for each president.
  4. How long do students spend at each center?  My centers include a reading or video plus analysis activities.  It takes 20-30 minutes to complete a center. If you want to reduce the time per center, students can do the reading or research at home and then come in for just the analysis part. My experience is that a good center requires significant analytical thinking not just regurgitating of information. It is important not to rush students through the process. 
  5. How do I design thoughtful centers?  I wish I had an acronym for this, but I don't. A high quality center activity includes: open-ended questions that require analysis of information or make connections to other periods or events; opportunities for students to express opinions or thoughts on the topic; multiple ways to present analysis to appeal to different learning styles: written, visual, and kinesthetic. 
  6. How to create variety for engagement? For example, in one center, students write about an event from the point of view of a person at the event; at another center, students create a cartoon; at another center, students complete a Venn diagram comparing the event to another event, etc.  When my students study Theodore Roosevelt's domestic policies, they have 3 activities to choose from. 
  7. How to empower students by giving them choice?  I do not pre-designate where students go.  I introduce each center briefly and the required number of centers, if there is a required minimum.  Students then select which of the centers to complete.  I have students make a quick note in their notebook about the centers they selected. It's their reminder if they forget after a couple of centers which one they want to go to.  If there is a required center, I usually designate that it can be completed only after 2-3 other centers.  In such a case students pick up the activity and then work at their tables so the required center does not become too crowded. 
  8. How to bring it all together? After the centers are completed, we always conduct some kind of share and analysis activity.  I have students meet in small groups to discuss what they did and what they learned.  I have 2-3 overarching analysis questions to prompt the group to find the overall themes from the activities.  
Centers are an integral and essential part of my class and an enormous hit because:
  • Students move
  • Students are empowered by choice
  • Students use inquiry-learning
  • Students are engaged
Give it a try.  You will be amazed at the deep learning that goes on.

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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.