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5 Ugly Truths About Workstations in the Urban Classroom

Small group instruction is great, workstations not so much! Every week I am in awe of how many administrators and support personnel offer workstations as a solution for students who struggle with certain concepts. I have learned that silence is golden whenever I am offered workstations as a solution to any of my teaching problems. Here are 5 ugly truths that you should know about workstations before you implement them in your classroom.

1. Workstations are No magic pill.

I was introduced to workstations in 2001 by my son’s 1st grade teacher. She bought me the book,  What are the Other Kids Doing? as a gift when I taught 2nd grade. At the time I was teaching Reading Mastery and they had to complete board work. To give you a visual the chalkboard would be sectioned in 4 sections labeled Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies. As with everything else in education Reading Mastery eventually disappeared and Guided Reading appeared….tadah! This time there’s a twist wait for it, wait for it, the students now are supposed to go to workstations while the teacher is conducting small group instruction.  In addition to the small group workstations are supposed to be designed so that the students are working at their independent levels.

When I was teaching first grade 2 years ago I had to email my principal and ask her to cap our first grade classes having 30 first graders in a classroom was a safety risk because if we had to evacuate in an emergency all of us would not make it out. So if this is your situation workstations are not the magic pill that many other teachers rant and rave about.

2. Classroom management is a MUST!

 When workstations are given as a suggestion to new teachers, or experienced teacher without experience with workstations the one thing that is always missing is the classroom management piece. I disagree with the way that Guided Reading introduces workstations to students. I know that some of you all are probably sitting there with your arms folded shaking your head.  Trust me, I completely understand.

In my opinion the workstations that Guided Reading suggests are inadequate for upper elementary as well as urban students.  These workstations do not provide struggling readers with support with 5 essential components of reading or the engagement needed to keep the students’ attention.

When students from diverse backgrounds are not engaged chaos is inevitable. The Guided Reading manual instruct teachers to establish routines, however it fails to provide suggestions on how classroom management will vary in different settings. In suburban settings where the demographics are different the suggestions for managing the workstations may be doable, however in a classroom where there are more diverse learners who need additional support the Guided Reading suggestions will never be enough.


3.The preparation time is enormous.

 Some teachers get a kick out of creating workstations because they get to create cute activities for their students. I found that the preparation time for creating workstations for students is overwhelming and time consuming for many reasons.

  • Too many students at different reading levels- in my 1st grade class I had 8 students who were reading above a 2nd grade level and the other students’ reading levels ranged from lst grade to non-readers.
  • Differentiation is mandatory- because there were so many different reading levels I had to differentiate ALL of my stations. This took forever because even though I combined the groups’ lessons there were still students who couldn’t complete the station work.

 4. Student accountability is inconsistent.

I was very honest with myself. There was not anyway that I was going to check workstation work! If I really based my students’ grades on workstation work most of students would fail. Most students in urban settings are below grade level when they enter kindergarten and continue to work below grade level unless the school has school wide Response to Intervention plan that actually being implemented.

So if you are looking to get grades from the students’ workstation I’ll save you the frustration and tell you the truth that most of the workstation assignments end up in file 13. We all know where that it is.

5. Students can ONLY work at their independent level.

What teachers who absolutely love workstations fail to mention is that workstations are a only review of skills that the students can do independently. The word independently can mean different things to different teachers. As a math teacher independently means to work the problems by yourself and do not ask me to check it to see if it is correct. If a student continuously asks to have their work checked this is NOT their independent level.

So as you can imagine I would have to create at least 15 different workstations to accommodate the 3 classes that I teach. This is not an option for me. I am one of the fortunate teachers who have enough laptops and desktops (when they are working) to assign review lessons from Reasoning Minds for my students. This works better and I can actually get through my small group lesson on time without stopping 10 times to redirect students who are off task.

Workstations can be beneficial when they are strategic and planned appropriately. I know that they are good engagement activities and tend to break up the monotony in the classroom. Some students and teachers like them for various reasons but they aren’t my cup of tea.





5 thoughts on “5 Ugly Truths About Workstations in the Urban Classroom”

  1. Socrates Lantern

    Youve brought up some excellent points in your post. Some I hadn’t thought if before. Thanks for sharing .

  2. Urban Science Teacher

    I’m wondering how utilizing these strategies in an urban setting is any different from any other setting. Teacher quality is the mote important factor in any classroom setting. You don’t need specific strategies for urban students. Your points are valid for EVERY classroom.

    1. In a true urban setting most of the strategies that are used in suburban settings do not work for urban students for several reasons but I’ll just name 2. 1. Urban students generally lack the background knowledge that is needed dive right into most on grade level material. 2. Most urban classrooms tend to have a higher rate of Tier 2 and Tier 3 students. So, working independently doesn’t have the same impact that it would have in a suburban setting.

  3. You are 100% on point about workstations in a true urban classroom. I taught 4th ELA this past year, and I had readers ranging from 1st-5th grade. I also had the ELL students. I implemented workstations without being told because our independent time was strictly dedicated to reading an independent book. I found most of students were not engaged in that. It was a lot of work to do the stations at differentiated levels, but the students couldn’t wait until that 30-40 minutes of time had arrived. After my formal observation, my AP was truly shocked that the students knew what to do, where to go, and knew I would bounce around to check on them. Our small groups were strictly dedicated to skills based intervention. I plan on changing that to guided reading this year. It’s too challenging and silly to think that a student who is reading on a 1st grade level, will be able to infer how a character feels or changes on a 4th grade passage.

    1. Awesome! In my other blog posts I talk about implementing instructional routines that meet the needs of your students. Many of the people who promote workstations don’t leave room for adjustments based on student need. I’ve pretty much started using agendas in Google Classroom while I’m in small group. The students are engaged (5th graders) and I don’t have many behavior issues during this time.

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