Teachers are preparing for an uncertain future. Many are unsure if they will be returning to school on a traditional schedule, a blended learning schedule, or completely online. Teachers are questioning how the instructional strategies they have used in the past will work if students are coming to school on a modified schedule or if they are learning online.

I’ve written extensively about the station rotation model, which many teachers enjoy using but are unsure how to modify in this era of social distancing. This post is designed to create clarity about how to take this blended learning model and adapt it to meet the needs of a socially distant classroom or to create an online lesson.

First, I want to review the benefits of the station rotation model:

  • It frees the teacher to work with small groups of students.
  • It makes differentiating instruction more manageable.
  • It creates smaller learning communities within the larger class.
  • It encourages communication and collaboration among students.
  • It shifts the focus from the teacher to the learners.

I realize there is a lot we do not know about the next school year, but here is what I do know.

  • Teachers can expect to have students in need of remediation or reteaching. The transition to online learning in spring happened suddenly and without sufficient preparation. As a result, many students disengaged and missed out on the learning they would have experienced in a physical classroom.
  • Students may be struggling with fear, anxiety, and depression as a result of the events that have taken place in the last few months. Students may have lost loved ones to COVID19 and families may be struggling with economic insecurity because of the pandemic. In addition, the protests and growing awareness about racial injustice in this country are likely impacting our students’ lives.
  • Students have spent months socially distancing and feeling disconnected from their friends and their school community. Many may be missing the routines and interactions associated with their school days.

Given these realities, teachers will want to think about how to design their lessons to ensure they are able to remediate and differentiate, create time to connect with individual students, and foster communication and collaboration among students. The station rotation model offers an avenue to accomplish all of these goals.

Eliminating Movement Between Stations

In a traditional station rotation lesson, students physically move from one station to the next. However, this fall there will likely be new limitations on student movement in classrooms. Instead of designing a lesson where students move, they will remain in the same location throughout the class and work through a series of learning activities. The teacher, by contrast, will move to each group to facilitate the “teacher-led” station.

Setting Up Your Classroom for a Station Rotation in the Era of Social Distancing

Students may be asked to wear masks to school and remain six feet apart in classrooms. Although the recommendations have been to limit the number of students in a classroom at one time and place desks in rows, I worry that reverting back to rows may limit student interactions at a time when they are likely craving connection with peers. Students do not need to be physically close to engage in small group discussions or talk while completing collaborative tasks online. If we are limiting the number of students in a classroom, I would love to see teachers think about desk formations that would allow for social distancing without relegating students to rows.

Taking the Station Rotation Online

Teachers who enjoy planning station rotation lessons can use that same design to plan their online learning experiences for students. Teachers can combine online and offline learning activities in a virtual station rotation lesson and assign each group a virtual conferencing time to meet with you online for their “teacher-led station.” Below is a lesson template teachers are welcome to copy and use to create their virtual station rotation lessons.

bit.ly/virtualSR

As teachers think about and plan for the next school year, I encourage them to identify the strategies that worked well pre-COVID19. Then think about how they might modify those strategies to work in a socially distant classroom or online. With some modifications, many of the instructional models and learning activities that have become staples in our physical classrooms may be adapted for a socially distant classroom or an online course.

50 Responses

    • Hi Rachel,

      The online webex option is for the virtual lesson not the face to face. In a socially distant classroom where student movement needs to be limited only the teacher moves between groups for the teacher-led station. If you want to use the station rotation format to plan your virtual lessons if you are online with students, then the teacher-led station would be those online sessions.

      Let me know if that makes sense.

      Take care.
      Catlin

      • What book might be the best to read based on a very tech savvy set of teachers, but who just might need more structured ideas as we move into this new phase?

        • Hi Cherith,

          If they are new to blended learning, I would encourage you to start with Blended Learning in Action. If they have already done some work with blended learning, I would suggest Balance with Blended Learning.

          Take care.
          Catlin

  1. Hi Catlin,
    I found you through EdTechTeacher and am so glad I did! I teach 5th grade at a small independent school in CA. I would like to purchase one of your books to learn more about implementing blended learning. Can you recommend the best book for my grade level?
    Thanks for all your great work.
    Meg

    • Hi Meg,

      If you are just getting started with blended learning, I would suggest Blended Learning in Action. It is not grade specific but will provide a nice introduction to blended learning and the various models.

      Let me know if you need anything else.

      Take care.
      Catlin

  2. First, thank you for all you do. I value your input greatly. Currently the district in which I teach is stating that students can not face each other, thus rows are a must. It is so sad. I am currently in actual mourning for the loss of students interaction. If you have any ideas, please let me know. Pre-Covid, my class was very active and we did use station rotation model for Study Sync.
    Thank you.

    • Hi Jeanette,

      That is disappointing. I hate the idea of putting kids back into rows. I think you can retain a “feeling” of connection and collaboration if you can bring students together virtually to collaborate in classrooms. You may want to focus on integrating online discussions and collaborative work using the Google or Microsoft suite to get kids working on shared tasks. It’s not the same as working directly with a group, but at least it allows them to interact and learn from one another.

      Catlin

      • I’m in a similar situation. We’re bringing our elementary kids in daily, 6′ apart w/masks.We cannot move any furniture and the students must be faced in the same direction. Students cannot be pulled into groups and must remain at their desks. We will not have technology available at the elementary level until October-November (our school devices were distributed in the spring, secondary is hybrid and we’re moving towards 1:1.) I’ve been teaching 25+ years, the last 13 as a reading specialist, and have never taught whole class- other than an intro/mini-lesson. Any ideas?

        • Wow, that’s a tough situation, Stacey. What if you leaned on choice boards? It would allow them some choice and voice without requiring any movement. You could incorporate creative activities into the mix to keep the learning varied and fun. Hyperdoc lessons could be fun too. So many great resources at https://hyperdocs.co.

          Maybe others have suggestions too?

          Catlin

  3. Catlin
    Blended learning is a key part of differentiation in the classroom. Your ideas are great…I am very interested in reading one of your books. I saw that you recommended Blended Learning in Action. I will be sure to add that to my reading list this summer. This year is going to look very different for all of us and the more ideas we go into the classroom with the more successful our students will be.
    Thank you for your great ideas.
    Hope Miller

    • Agreed, Hope! This new year will be unlike anything we have ever experienced before.

      I think the hardest part for teachers is not knowing what to expect. I’m thrilled you have found my resources useful in thinking about next year. 😊

      Take care!
      Catlin

  4. Hi Caitlin,
    β€œ …to remediate and differentiate…”, as well as individuate right? This model feels familiar, it reminds me of my program to support students with individual education plans (IEP) plus an online group. Many of our fourteen students require small group, very directed learning opportunities, it may be tough (to say the least) but I just took a step closer to grasping the evolution.
    Kindest Regards,
    Eme

  5. Hi Caitlin,
    I teach AP Government and politics to seniors. I have done (pre COVID) alot of small group work and then come back to large group to debrief/teach their peers. Also, we did debates and Socratic Seminars. Do you have any resources I could read to learn some ways to make those activities possible online ?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Cheri,

      I would recommend checking out the work of Alexis Wiggins, who has written extensively about discussions. She recently wrote a newsletter (though I cannot find it online) about using the spiderweb discussion strategy for virtual conferencing sessions. She would be a great person to connect with!

      Catlin

  6. Hi Caitlin,

    I’m happy I found this article as we are in the planning phases of returning to school with full in person instruction and strict social distancing guidelines in place. It also looks like we will not be able to meet with small groups so the teacher moving between groups for the teacher led stations would not work for us. Any idea how to address this?
    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Marie,

      If you are 6 feet from the group, would you be able to meet with each one? I know social distancing will be a reality for many come fall, but this is the first I have heard of a school saying teachers cannot work with small groups of students if they are maintaining a social distance. I realize it isn’t the same as sitting close to kids and working side-by-side but this format does not require that.

      Would your room and furniture allow for a socially distanced station rotation experience?

      Thank you for sharing this concern as I am sure you are not the only person wondering about this.

      Take care,
      Catlin

      • I know in our classroom situation, the issue is space. Most of the teachers can barely fit the number of student desks we need with 6 feet of distance (or, often, we can’t fit 6 feet between student desks). When you insert a moving teacher into the mix, that teacher cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from the students in the teacher station because that would put us right next to another student’s desk, or well within the 6 feet space of several students.

      • In coming across the problem of small group rotations when we are in class but socially distanced, we plan to do our small group online, even though we are in the same classroom. Since our class cohorts will be split in half and in two rooms, we’d need to do that to bring us together anyhow. We will see how it goes, with a group meeting me online from class, with their headsets on, intermixed with others who are working independently. There aren’t any easy or just right answers!

  7. Small group instruction is the highlight of my day. I’m actually leading a PD in a couple weeks on it. We will be at 1/2 capacity which means I’ll have 15 – 18 students each day in my classroom. I’m pretty sure we will be required to seat students in rows facing forward. My concern is instruction a small group with everyone 6ft apart and the students who aren’t in the group being able to tune the group out. If you have any additional thought beyond your original article I would greatly appreciate them.

    • Hi Sherrie,

      That is tough. What if you divided the group in half and had two stations? One could be your small group instruction with 7-9 students (not as small as I normally like but doable) and then have the other station be an online task where students watch a video (Edpuzzle) or listen to a podcast (Listenwise). That way you would be less likely to distract students when you do the direct instruction with the other group. If you wanted to add a third activity (or station) that was more conversational or collaborative then that could follow the two rotations and both groups could work on it simultaneously.

      I hope that is helpful!

      Take care.
      Catlin

      Catlin

  8. Hi Caitlin,
    I was able to get your suggested seating plan approved… since our classrooms are not huge-3 feet apart is acceptable. We are a smaller school district. I am completely on board with the students completing stations at their desks. However, I do not know how to manage Daily Five… would each group have different word work tools and then sanitize and switch the next day?
    We generally have 5-6 rotations… word work, writing, i pads/chromebooks, phonics skill with cards, and library. While students are working, I pull students for small groups.

    It is just hard to imagine first graders staying in there seats the whole time AND not sharing… I am at a loss for how to implement Daily 5 and math stations without losing instructional time to sanitize.

    Thank you so much for your help,
    Jana English

    • Hi Jana,

      I’m so glad I was able to be helpful on that front! I do think you would need to have each group using different word work tools and then sanitizing them each day to make that Daily Five work.

      I agree that keeping first graders in a seat all day is going to be tough. They are so active and enjoy interacting with their peers and their teacher. Limiting their movement and interactions is going to be challenging. I wonder if some basic movement between seats at tables and socially distanced seats at a rug will allow for some limited movement. Regardless, it is not going to be an easy situation for teachers to navigate.

      Catlin

  9. I’m at a pretty small private school where we plan to have every student on campus for in-person learning every day this fall (barring any COVID outbreak occurring within our cohort). I have been wracking my brain for ways partners or small groups can interact while remaining 6′ apart, but here are my non-negotiable constraints in my 1st/2nd grade blend classroom:
    1. I have 20 students (this is a reduction in class size) and space in the room is maxed out by these 20 desks (plus mine) spaced 6′ apart. (There is no space available to meet with small groups at a table or carpet area.)
    2. Students’ desks are all facing forward. (Pretty sure this is required, but also, they MUST be able to face the board up front for much of the day. Arranging them in ways that allow them to face each other would negate that for at least 1/3 of the students and they are not realistically movable/flexible throughout the day.)
    3. Even when out of seats (lining up, picking out books, etc.) we must do our best to maintain 6′ of physical distance between students. This isn’t going to be possible with students’ desks 1′ from bookshelves, aisleways, etc. I worry that we won’t even be able to let students self-select books for independent reading, and getting up and moving around the room for any reason will be very limited.

    So here are the few things I’ve come up with:
    1. Students can sit up on top of desks and turn and talk to a partner temporarily (with a mask) though the volume in the room is going to be crazy loud since partners won’t be able to use soft voices with 6′ between them.
    2. I can maybe use lap desks on the floor to allow for a few kids (maybe 3 or 4?) to come sit up at the front of the room for brief small group check-ins. (That’s the only bit of floor space available.) Again, the noise level and maintaining engagement within the group will be a challenge.
    3. I am looking into Plickers (app with printable QR codes for student polls & quick formative assessment) to engage students and give me quick data for timely re-teaching and possibly mini-intervention groups. I think this app may have some other great possibilities for the physically-distanced classroom setup.
    That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m feeling like I’m about climb Mount Everest while blindfolded this year. Just praying we all stay healthy!

  10. I teach high school math and usually do lots of station type activities with kids moving around the room.
    If I can’t do that, do you have recommendations for math. We don’t need discussion as much as we need practice – often with assistance!

  11. I don’t understand how we can safely inside discuss in small groups. Your models show students face to face (while distancing). Considering we are trying to decrease talking loudly, even with masks on, our school will be seating students all facing in the same direction. I get blended learning – but not with the guidelines set forth by the CDC.
    Teacher’s can’t use proximity control since that would mean getting closer than the required 6 feet. Students even with masks can not be working shoulder to shoulder. Spacing them out will get loud and hot in a classroom without air conditioning.
    I can appreciate your spacing but it isn’t following the guidelines.

    I still can’t see blended learning as a small group within COVID restrictions. I see blended learning individually – but the small group unless done through a google chat or doc while be the only way? Suggestions for he next restricted classroom?

  12. I am entering into my 25th year as an educator and even though stressed about the prep work on my end to get this BL rolling in my classroom, I am a bit excited about it as I really think my classes and their learning will take off this year. I teach on level Physics to mainly juniors. I have enjoyed your videos and they help A LOT. Especially when we are in the midst of a pandemic. We are now 1:1 this year in our district, therefore, it’s the perfect time to implement BL.

    • That’s wonderful to hear, Casey! I’m glad you are excited about using blended learning with your students. I’m thrilled you have found my videos helpful. I hope you and your students have a fantastic year! 😊

      Take care.
      Catlin

  13. Station rotations can be a great way to maximize the class time, while monitoring students understanding. Incorporating various technology tools can help promote social distancing.

  14. Hello! I love the set up to this activity. I also noticed you have some books available for purchase. I am looking for teaching strategies and techniques WITH technology AND WITHOUT technology. Which book(s) would you recommend that most closely meets that? I am equally interested in having tools for both since I do not know if students will be able to use and share the tech in the classroom.

    • Hi! I agree about the importance of balancing offline with online learning, and you’ll see that emphasized in all of my books. If you are just beginning with blended learning, I would start with Blended Learning in Action, which introduces the various models. If you are looking to take blended learning to the next level to partner with students, then I would suggest Balance with Blended Learning.

      Blended Learning in Action

      Balance with Blended Learning

      Take care.
      Catlin

  15. Hi Dr. Tucker! My name is Gabriella, and I teach at Jesuit High School in Sacramento. We are using this article as a learning module for our schoolwide PD this week, and are learning so much from it. You were my freshman year English teacher at WHS back in 2007/2008! Just wanted to drop a message and say hi πŸ™‚

    • Hi Gabriella!

      Thank you for taking a moment to say hello! it is wonderful to hear from you. I’m so glad you found this useful during your schoolwide PD. I’ve been doing a lot of blogging about blended and online learning πŸ™‚

      I hope you have a wonderful school year despite all of the craziness!

      Take care.
      Catlin

  16. Hi Dr. Tucker,
    Our district is doing the hybrid model with parents able to choose if they want in-person or the online option. I am in elementary, and we are currently having discussions about how to teach in-person while also teaching the students online when we have some required synchronous learning times.
    My idea was to have the mini-lesson pre-recorded for the students that are online, they watch that while you teach the mini-lesson to the in-person students, then when you start rotations, you can pull your online students in a group and work with them while the in-person students are working in stations and then switch groups so that your in-person are in a small group with you and the online students are in their virtual stations or completing an independent activity. (I hope that makes sense)
    What are your suggestions for doing this hybrid model when we have both in person and online students in our class and how to manage teaching and the different components?
    Thank you so much for all of your valuable knowledge!!

    • Hi Tammy,

      I LOVE your idea for how to manage this! If you are comfortable recording video tutorials and making those available for students to watch at the start of class so you can present live to your kids in the physical room, then you are also creating a resource any of your students can return to and rewatch if they need to hear that explanation again.

      I like the idea of using the Station Rotation Model strategically to allow you the time to work with small groups (in-person and online). That may make it more manageable to rotate students between your teacher-led station and other learning activities.

      Have you seen the virtual station rotation template I shared? It’s in the blog I wrote about using station rotation in a socially distant classroom. You can assign groups specific times to meet with you at your teacher-led station (be it in person or online). Then when they are not working with you, the students online can rotate through the other online/offline “station activities.”

      You may want to check out a tool called ClassroomQ where kids learning online can submit questions directly to you during class so that when you have a free moment during the lesson, you know who might need help online.

      Catlin

  17. Helpful. I would like to see more specific examples of what this looks like in a class teaching Ancient Greek or in a computer science class.

    • Hi Lizz,

      I would design your centers so they do not need to share materials or physically rotate. Collaboration can happen online if you want them working on shared products or they can each be responsible for producing something separate offline.

      Catlin

  18. I am wondering if anyone has any advice on teaching ideas in covid, social-distancing classrooms. I am particularly seeking advice on how we can teach in small guided groups as well as providing students with independent, center activities at their own desks? Thank you for any advice πŸ™‚

  19. I love the use of stations but my leadership told me two years ago that the trend had changed. I am glad to see them swinging back in. I also wonder about teaching small groups during COVID. We have to go to their desk to meet individually.

  20. Hi There,
    I am a secondary ceramics teacher 100% virtual, soon to be blended. I was wondering if you had any suggestions for a class that is so hands on? The students were given a clay kit (complete with tools) to have at home during virtual time, but I am struggling trying to wrap my head around the blended model. Ideally (and for safety) the students shouldn’t bring their clay projects to and from school every other day. Do I attempt 2 projects going at the same time, one at school and one at home? Should one of those projects be an independent station, and the other be teacher led? We are going to be required to teach all students (those 100% virtual and those blended) daily, SIMULTANEOUSLY. That is where I’m struggling-how can I teach them all at the same time if they don’t all have the same project in front of them?

    • Hi Stacey,

      That is tough. I would be hesitant to suggest running two projects at one time as that feels like a lot to manage. Could you have students capture and document their process? I can imagine using digital notebooks (e.g., build a website with Google Sites) to combine photos with reflections on technique, materials, process, etc. While students are working at home on a blended schedule, they could do research, explore, and reflect on their hands-on work from class.

      I’m not sure if that’s helpful, but that would be my first step if I was coaching a teacher in your situation.

      Take care.
      Catlin

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