Using Technology to Run Center-Based Activities

This is a guest post by Katherine Miller.

Both literacy and math instruction in my building utilize the workshop model.  This is an instructional practice that includes a mini lesson, a workshop time and a debriefing at the end of the class.  Katie Wardrobe, the creator of Midnight Music, describes this workshop, or center, time like circuit training in the gym.  The teacher sets up multiple activities around the room.  Different groups or individuals work on all of these different activities at the same time. Then, they switch to new ones for continued practice at a designated time.  The teacher, or in the analogy it might be the trainer, is overseeing the work of the whole room or working with one of the groups while the others work independently. 

As an elementary general music teacher, the idea of providing students with a chance to practice learned skills without a large amount of direct instruction is very appealing to me.  I feel exhausted at the end of the day as many times I am the center of the work that is happening during music instruction.  As I dug deeper into the practice of the regular education teachers in my building, I realized this practice of using centers has a lot of other benefits too. 

Centers can teach student independence by requiring students to be active participants in learning.  Whether this is through choosing the center activities they would like to complete or being able to take initiative to complete activities of the teachers choosing, this instructional practice requires students to be responsible. 

Centers can also provide students with diverse activities, or many different ways, to practice the same skill. This means you can easily tailor activities to different learning styles (like aural, visual, kinesthetic) or just different learning preferences (like working alone, working in a group, working somewhere quiet or loud) within one lesson time period. 

Lastly, centers provide an opportunity for enrichment.  Enrichment is defined as making something more meaningful, substantial and rewarding.  Using centers allows students the time to dig deeper and collaborate with one another.  Carole Corman, an educator who utilizes centers in her music classroom located in Canada, noticed that “collaboration fosters creativity”. And, can we really think of a better benefit than that? You can learn more about Carole’s journey by listening here.

These added benefits gave me the motivation I needed to start integrating some center activities into my classroom too.  But, where would I begin?  There are lots of things to think about when using this instructional practice and getting students used to a new routine.  I have found that technology can be an integral part to helping to make centers run smoothly for the most learning to occur.  Although there are many different ways to use the workshop model, or centers, I find that I ALWAYS have technology to help me out.  It can have different purposes, or even different users, depending on how it is included but it is part of every different kind of center work I have done in my own classroom.  

4 Ways to use Technology to run Center-Based Activities

1. Center Visual 

One way I have used technology is to help organize what centers will look like for students.  I do this by using only a teacher device.  This could be any type of device that allows students to see what they need to be working on, how much time they have to do it and what would come next.  


For example, in first grade music we learn about instrument families, specifically the brass family. I created 5 activities students could do to continue their learning about which instruments are in the brass family, how brass instruments make a sound, and so on.   In the visual (pictured above), you will see each center is labeled with 1 member of the brass family. This corresponded to the activity that they needed to complete during the time I set on the timer. It also showed them the other students they would be working with during that time.  Once the timer ran out, I would switch which instrument that was matched with each group on my teacher device so students knew what task to complete next. Once I projected this visual for students, centers ran smoothly!

Center visuals can also help if you would like students to choose their own activities to complete.  The visual can provide students with a list of choices they have as well as how many students can be at each activity.  For example, in fourth grade we work on being able to identify the absolute pitch names of each line and space on the treble clef staff.  I created choices, or centers, students could use to practice this skill.  Students were allowed to move their name to the choice they wanted to work on but I limited it to 5 students at each center.  When students were done, they could just move their own name to their next choice on my SmartBoard where I had the center visual projected.  

2. Center Directions

One challenge I saw in starting to use centers in my classroom was being able to give all of those different sets of directions!  I went to technology to be able to clone myself without any science involved. I did this by recording videos for my students to watch at each center.  When students arrive at the center they were assigned or chose, the first step would be to view a video of me giving the complete directions for just that center. This made it possible for me to make sure all students were able to complete the activities as well as included an added bonus of students being able to relisten to the directions as many times as they needed. Since all students will be completing the activity, it will also save time since directions do not have to be repeated for each new group! 

Here is a sample of one video I made for third grade students who were learning about instruments in the woodwind family. Obviously, you would need 1 to 1 student devices or a few devices available in your classroom in order to have the ability for students to watch the video directions you create.

An easy extension of this idea is to make the center direction videos accessible by QR code.  This would save students from having to remember where the videos are stored or where they need to go to find the videos because the QR code with the video they needed would be located right there at the center.  You can upload the video you created to whichever website works best for you and then visit a website like https://www.the-qrcode-generator.com

I usually put my directions videos in my Google Drive so that students are not distracted by other video suggestions or buttons.  Once I have a QR code generated from the Google Drive link (don’t forget to change the share settings!), you can print it off and place it at each center station that is set up in your room.  When students scan the QR code, it would take them to the specific directions for that activity or center. 

3. Center Activities

Another great way technology can help run your center based activities is by being part of the center itself! There are tons of different apps and ways students can demonstrate and practice musical skills using their device or even a shared device.  The list of options is far too extensive to include everything but here are a few ideas I have incorporated into center work for my students:

  • Chrome Music Lab
  • Staff Wars
  • Incredibox
  • Brain Pop (videos and quizzes)
  • Listening Centers
  • Composing Centers
  • Student Performing and Creating Centers

You can see more ideas by viewing this blogpost listing 30 Ideas for Elementary Choice Boards. Many of them are perfect for centers too!

4. Center Evidence and Feedback 

Another challenge I had when incorporating centers into my instructional practice was being able to see all the work students did at each center as well as being able to provide them with feedback towards the learning goal. We have learned this year, technology can be an amazing tool for this purpose in our classrooms. An example of this is creating a digital space for students to document their work at each center.  For example, I created a book in the Book Creator app that students would add their completed work to a page as they visited each center.

***Some pages are blank since students chose which activities to complete as they practiced naming pitches on the treble clef staff.

You could also easily recreate this idea using a variety of apps if you do not have Book Creator available to students. For instance,  you could create a slideshow template in Google Slides or even create a Jamboard check in for each individual center. Another great option is checking in using the Flipgrid app.  Within the app, students can respond to a prompt or record a performance on the work they completed during a center.  The options are endless but creating these digital check ins helps students be accountable for their learning and provides you with evidence of their learning along the way.

Once students have a way to document their learning, you can continue to utilize the online tools you have been using to collect their work and provide feedback to them.

Are you ready to try centers in your classroom? As you begin, it may help to check out this step by step guide on creating dynamic areas for learning from Scholastic. Once you have tried it out, we would also love to hear your tips! What works in your classroom? How does technology help you to run center-based activities?

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About the writer

Katherine Miller

Katherine (Katie) Miller holds a Bachelor of Music in Education degree from Otterbein University (Westerville, OH) and a Masters of Educational Leadership from Antioch McGregor Midwest (Yellow Springs, OH). She has 15 years of professional musical experience as a music educator and performer.

She is currently employed by the School District of Waukesha in Waukesha, WI, where she teaches K-5 General Music and serves as a district model tech classroom. She was recognized in 2018 as a WPT Education Innovator by Wisconsin Public Television Education team. Twitter: K8TMiller

Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?

Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.

I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.

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I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.

If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.

Learn more and take a sneak peek inside