6 Tips for Using Centers in the Music Classroom

If you haven’t yet taken the plunge and used centers in your music classroom, my advice to you is- do it! Teacher evaluations across the country are now demanding that administrators observe your students asking each other higher level thinking questions, engaging in problem solving, and even guiding their own learning! These behaviors can only occur when students are given the opportunity to interact with one another without the teacher dictating every action. Centers are one way to create this environment, but make no mistake; it can be a challenge to have several separate groups of students independently working around the room. The following are six thoughts that have stood out to me in my own personal use of centers:

1.   Embed your center activities into prior lessons: Most centers are going to require multi-step directions. Spending the first 10 minutes of music giving multi-step directions for four or more different activities and then sending the students off to their stations is asking for trouble. If one of your centers is a game at the interactive board, introduce the game as a whole group activity the week before. The kids will not only hear your verbal directions for playing the game, but they will also see it in action and perform it themselves as you play as a whole class. If the activity isn’t conducive to a whole class setting, such as the game “Busted”, then call some volunteers to model it. I usually start by using myself as one of the players along with a few volunteers while the rest of the class watches. After the kids start to understand (literally, kids start to say “Ohhhh! I get it!”), then I call an entirely new group of volunteers and I watch. Are the students able to do this without me intervening? Are there any points of confusion or misconceptions?

2.   Set students up to act as teachers to one another: Beyond teaching the basic instructions, introducing and practicing your center activities in earlier lessons also allows you to teach the types of behaviors you want to see. In this case, I’m not talking about behavior management (although that is also important). Instead, I’m talking about the kinds of interactions that indicate students are engaging in critical thinking. For example, if one station has students performing rhythm from notation and you are asking the students to provide feedback, you need to model this! Ask the class to provide you with feedback as you perform the rhythm, intentionally making errors that kids might make. Can your class identify what you did incorrectly? Can they give you information to help you fix it? I will often follow this up by inviting a student to intentionally make an error. It’s fun for them to make a mistake on purpose and again, it gives the class practice in providing constructive feedback. Many students are hesitant to correct their peers, others are all too eager to do so in a nasty way. Practicing this as a group allows you to teach them how to do it in a respectful and helpful manner.

3.   Be discerning about using paperwork: It’s tempting to use worksheets. They make for quieter centers and keep students still. But even if students are working together, worksheets rarely provide the same opportunities for interaction and creativity that you find with hands-on activities. Use your best judgment, is it busy work so you have a quiet center, or does it have value?
I just started using a listening center where the students listen to a selection through headphones while completing a listening journal. The journal asks the students about the musical elements used and it also gives them a chance to evaluate what they’ve heard and to justify their response. Yes, it’s a worksheet, but the students love this center and they are being asked to perform some higher level thinking operations.
Also, sometimes hands-on activities do involve paperwork. I recently added a scavenger hunt to my TPT store that involves searching the room for Halloween themed icons, identifying notes on the treble staff, and then cracking a coded message. There’s a paper and pencil involved, but the students are up and moving and then comparing their work with one another.
In general, centers should not involve drill and practice worksheets that kids can do on their own- leave that for a sub.

 Halloween Treble Clef Scavenger Hunt

4.   Give students time to clean up before moving stations: One time, I rang a bell and said “rotate”. I will never make that mistake again.
Some stations have no maintenance and the kids can literally stand up and leave. Some centers have quite a bit to put away. When there’s about a minute left at the current station, I walk up to the groups that are going to need more time and tell them to start cleaning up. Before we transition, I have every student sit in front of their center. I can quickly see if anything is left out and also easily communicate to students where they are going next. This works really well for the end of the class when it’s time to leave, too.

5.   Differentiate: I don’t always use differentiated centers, but doing so is often easier than differentiating a whole class activity. For example, when practicing quarter notes and eighth notes, I put one group at a Velcro board. I had three shoe boxes, each with different animal cut-outs that could be attached to the board. Students took turns placing different combinations of the cut-outs on the board while the other students wrote the rhythmic notation for the pattern on a white board. Which shoebox the group used depended on their level. For the students that struggled, their box contained animals that were either a quarter note or beamed eighth notes (no combinations). Their boxes also contained lots of repetition (i.e. they were limited to monkey, penguin, shark, and cat). My highest group had a box with a variety of animals, most of which had more than two syllables. This meant they had to use combinations of quarter and eighth notes for many of their pictures (i.e. their box contained butterfly, elephant, caterpillar, and many more).

6.   Have a plan for when students finish early: Some stations are indefinite, the students keep taking turns or just play the game over and over until it’s time for the next station. Sometimes, there are activities with a definite ending and those students will need some direction for what to do if they finish. For example, when the students find all of the hidden patterns for Write the Room, I have them compare their answers and then sit together and clap the rhythms. If they still have extra time, they can compose their own rhythms and perform them for the group.
On a similar note, having a back-up plan for technology related centers is a must! What will your kids do if the SMARTBoard crashes? What will your kids do at the listening station if the mp3 player dies? I always have an emergency folder at these stations and tell the kids that if I can’t help them and the technology stops working, they should go to the folder. It paid off last year when my SMARTBoard stopped working in the middle of my evaluation! I didn’t even realize it, because the kids just started the folder activity on their own.

Enjoy! Listen to what the kids are saying to one another. It’s truly amazing how much your students are capable of when you take a step back and let them take the lead.


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