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Become a Guide on the Side with Student Learning Centers

Too often, when I walked into secondary classrooms as an instructional coach or leader, I was disheartened to find students sitting in rows, not truly engaging with the material being presented. It was evident that the teachers loved their content and some students loved learning this way, but not every child was truly participating, and too many were even checked out.

One way we can engage all of our students, create autonomous learning experiences, and foster student leadership is through learning centers. Learning centers, or station learning, as they are often called in elementary classrooms, create a variety of opportunities for students to connect with content, practice skills, and collaborate with their classmates authentically.

In my newspaper classes, learning centers, or section centers as we called them, brought together content-specific groups that worked together to produce and deliver a schoolwide online news media outlet. Each center had a student editor who supported the reporters, production editors, fact-checkers, or technical designers on their team. The student editor provided feedback to their peers and led collaborative brainstorming and problem-solving sessions.

Each student reporter would pick a topic, add it to the newspaper spreadsheet, select a deadline, and submit drafts within the timeline for the particular issue. Editors ensured each piece was well written, informational, and appropriately formatted. Before publication, a student fact-checker would review and approve the articles and send them to the web team. The web team would format the submission for our WordPress site and upload it for publication with the images or videos that were taken or recorded by other students.

While the students were working on their particular sections, I would check in with the student manager who was responsible for maintaining the class status through a spreadsheet she shared with me to track the progress of stories and the production side of the newsletter. Each section editor met with me regularly to keep me abreast of any challenges the team was facing so I could intervene where appropriate.

The students loved this work! They had autonomy to make decisions and suggestions, creative freedom to develop written and visual content, the ability to collaborate on topic ideas and consider innovative delivery mechanisms, as well as serve in various leadership roles.

When you walked into my classroom, you saw and felt students moving, talking, and buzzing with energy. What you wouldn’t see is me sitting at a desk in front of the classroom. I was actively involved and worked side by side with individual contributors to support them along the way.

Now, you may be thinking that a fully student-led classroom can’t be possible in your space—but that’s not true. With some routine-building and clearly communicated expectations, students can thrive and eagerly own their learning. This learning centers method, rooted in student autonomy, worked so well in my newspaper class that I brought it into all of my classes.

Pretty soon, collaborative small groups became the norm in most of our classes. As students learned to work together, they also got better at understanding themselves and each other and advocating for their needs. When we came back together for whole-group learning, the students continued to lead in that larger configuration. Eventually, students began to see themselves as learning partners and became comfortable leading discussions or suggesting future projects—and I became a guide on the side.

As a leader, I consistently encourage teachers to take this brave leap into learning centers. I promise that, if you do it well, you will see increased student engagement, deeper learning, and further development of student leaders. Hacking Learning Centers will help teachers start this process and provide ways for leaders to support their teachers who want to give their students more authentic learning experiences. We’d love to hear what you think!


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