I think my all-time favorite center is the singing center. My first year teaching I got the idea from Debbie Miller's book, Reading with Meaning (If you teach K-3 and are not familiar with this book I highly recommend you run to go get yourself a copy. Just the pictures of her classroom make me drool. She has wonderful ideas and great read-aloud lists to support her teaching topics.)
In one of her first chapters she writes about the importance of using songs both as shared reading and also having song books available for independent reading. Familiar songs instantly become familiar texts once the words are put into their hands, and for many of them it becomes something they can "read" beyond small books with two words on each page. For older readers it promotes fluency- because it is a familiar song their eyes and brain communicate quickly as they process the words, giving them practice for reading regular texts quickly. Looking at print while singing is a great solution for the robotic reading we tend to get when we do shared reading. Yes, we want everyone to stay together when we read as a class, but half the time we are sending the message to the kids that we read slowly. Songs help to counter act that.
As a classroom teacher I milked our familiar songs for all they were worth. One new song a week and we used it as a text for word study, identifying new word wall words, and of course, independent reading. Every week the children went to the "singing center" where they were able to get a copy of the new song, illustrate it, and put it into their song book. Once in their book they were free to read that song as well as any previous songs from our thick stack. I set up the classroom so that the singing center was facing the air conditioning/heater and was away from reading groups. The children knew they needed to face the heater so that it would (somewhat) drown-out their voices during reading workshop. We sang all the time- during transitions, when we needed a wiggle break, or when we were walking outside so the kids knew each song by heart. (I should add I have a terrible singing voice. It's really painful. But after reading Debbie Miller's description of the power of songs in early literacy I decided that wouldn't stop me. The poor intern-teachers stuck in my room had to act like I wasn't killing their ears.)
This year Pixie ROCKS the singing center. She struggles with the texts we read in guided reading- simple texts with two or three words on a page, she struggles with letter names and their sounds, but she ROCKS the singing center. She could sit there for hours singing the songs over and over again, running her fingers over the words as she sings, with an intensity and focus we rarely see from her at other times. When it's her turn at the center we know her entire group will be singing along with her. Sometimes louder than we'd like, but we've all gotten so use to her singing that it doesn't distract the other readers.
Yesterday after our cupcake adventure we sent the kids to the rug with their reading bags for independent reading. The minute the instructions were out of my mouth I shuddered at what I'd just told them to do. Every kindergartner on the rug for independent reading? The rug is not that big. There was no way it was going to end well, but we needed to get them away from the tables so we could do one last wipe-down to make sure no cake batter or raw egg was clinging a chair anywhere.
And yet- even with all of them on the rug they pulled out their guided reading books and started to read. And when they were finished with their guided reading books Pixie pulled out her singing book and started singing. Quickly everyone else in the class followed suite. Our whole class sat having a sing-along, independently, as we teachers cleaned in the background. They sang for about 20 minutes with no adult interaction. They weren't all singing the same song so the carpet was full of different versions of color songs, the autumn leaves song, the gathering song, but it didn't matter. Everyone was happy and on task even after the excitement of cooking. It was pure magic.