The sentence “I’m done, what do I do now?” is one of the utterances I least enjoy hearing in my fourth-grade classroom. Yet as the last school year began I had a hunch that I’d be hearing it far too frequently—and I was right. As in previous years, each day’s math lesson resulted in some students needing more time to complete the activity, another handful of kids finishing in the allotted time, and still others who blazed through the task and were ready for the next steps (my “I’m done”-ers). The biggest problem with this scenario wasn’t necessarily having to come up with the next steps. Rather, it was managing the logistics of all of the different activities that were going on, including scheduling the time needed for completion, setting up groupings, providing instructions, gathering materials, and conducting assessment. After a while it felt like the students and I were on a mathematical treadmill, always going, going, going, but not really getting anywhere, and certainly not finding the time for reflective conversation, critical thinking, and project-based learning. I felt frustrated and overextended, and I knew I needed to find a more manageable way to address the needs of my students so they could all engage in meaningful work. For the first time in my three years of teaching, I was willing and eager to try a new approach to mathematics instruction.
Around that time, I picked up a copy of the book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners by education researcher Carol Ann Tomlinson (1999). As I read through a chapter on instructional strategies, my attention focused on a section entitled “Grade 4: Math.” I was astonished by the content it contained. What Tomlinson described was exactly what I needed in my classroom: learning stations “where students work on various tasks independently” that allowed for flexible use of time and a variety of student groupings (p. 62). Learning stations would allow me to use a variety of mathematical contexts (e.g. problem-solving, basic skills practice, projects) and instructional strategies (e.g. small group instruction, partner work, quiz-show-style review, portable centers) that could be tailored to the individual learning goals of each of my students. I envisioned a math class where on any given day I could look around and see students hunker down to solve word problems (and create their own!) in one corner of the room, explore a new math concept via online video at the computer station, practice fundamentals with hands-on centers while plopped down on our blue polka-dotted rug, gather around the small coffee table discussing the next steps in an ongoing math project, and engage in a conversation about a mathematical discovery, all at the same time! My mind felt as if it might explode with excitement. It seemed as though I had found the perfect solution to my instructional woes, and I couldn’t wait to try it out!
Shortly after stumbling upon the idea of learning stations in Tomlinson’s book, my initial enthusiasm waned ever so slightly when I realized that implementing an entirely new math program mid-school-year might be easier said than done. While on one hand I was ready to jump right into making these big changes, I also knew that I needed to create a strong organizational system to support the students’ work; without it, they couldn’t achieve the degree of independence and self-monitoring that would be critical to the success of this kind of instructional approach. In addition to creating the framework for the stations, I also needed to schedule in some time to actually teach the students all of the structures and routines, plus articulate the expectations for and goals of each station. All of this may explain why it was not until several weeks later that I even considered introducing the idea of stations to my students, let alone start to use them in the classroom.
After devoting a few long days over the winter break to putting all of the pieces of the new program together (tackling issues such as communication, group size, readiness level, assessment, student choice, etc.), I finally felt ready to bring forth the fruits of my labor to the students. On the first day back from the break, I began right away by describing the rationale of the new program (nothing like a new calendar year to justify a major change in the way you do things!), and as I described my Big Idea, their young faces lit up with curiosity. I had their full and undivided attention as I pointed to the big pocket chart with the names of the stations written on colorful pieces of construction paper. They followed my every move when I held up a copy of the Daily Memo, a piece of paper adorned with a simple graphic of a clipboard that would serve as a written list of their to-dos at that particular station. Twenty sets of eyes pored over the details of the Exit Cards they would be filling out at the conclusion of the day’s work. With the promise of a richer, more exciting math experience on the horizon, the anticipation only grew each day with the introduction of Teacher Town (small group instruction), Center City (folder games/activities), Media Mall (computer and web-based activities, games, and demos), and Project Place (applied learning opportunities). After a brief hiatus to get caught up on some neglected content, we rounded out the line-up with Quiz Corner (Jeopardy-style review game), Practice Plaza (basic math fact review activities/games), and Problem Park (word problems). Each new addition to the list of stations was met with the same high level of enthusiasm as the first, making all of the hard work behind the scenes feel completely worth it, and bringing a huge grin to my face every time I thought about what was to come.
After introducing each of the seven stations over the course of about three weeks, not a single day had gone by without at least one student asking me, “When are we going to start the stations?” I must admit that although I knew I had done my best to prepare for this huge change in my instructional methods, I was still somewhat hesitant to launch into this unknown territory. I wanted to believe that I had designed everything so well that all difficulties would be avoided, but if I have learned anything about interactive learning and about working with children, it’s that you can always expect the unexpected. It was time for me to just jump in and trust that, like my students, I would learn everything I needed to know along the way.
* * *
At the end of the school year, as I looked back on a semester’s worth of using learning stations in my classroom, I realized that there were many benefits to having students work on many different activities at the same time. On the other hand, I had also experienced some difficulties while using stations, particularly in the areas of organization, record keeping, and ensuring on-task behavior. Overall, learning stations had been a great way to address some of the differentiation challenges I’d been facing, and they had also helped me fulfill the interactive learning goals I’d outlined for my students. I made a plan to implement stations again in the following year and was excited to learn even more about how to use stations effectively to meet the needs of my math students. To that end, I designed an action research project around the question, "What happens when student choice is used to differentiate elementary math learning stations?" I felt that giving learning stations a trial run had given me great insight into the potential of using this instructional strategy to support a diverse group of learners, and I looked forward to using the stations in new and different ways and evaluating the outcomes of these methods in the months to come. Ultimately, I was hoping those cries of "I'm done!" would become a thing of the past, replaced by laments of "Math class is over already?" Did I find success in this mathematical makeover? Read on to find out!