Using Vertical Whiteboards To Promote Student Thinking

Discover the logistics of getting started with vertical non-permanent surfaces (aka vertical whiteboards) — a strategy to promote student thinking and engagement discussed in Building Thinking Classrooms In Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl.  I’ll share how I’ve set them up, how I prepared my students, and what it looks like during class time — plus what I’m loving and what I’m still working out when it comes to this strategy!

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Engaging Students In Thinking Classrooms With Vertical Whiteboards

Getting Started With Vertical Whiteboards

One of the biggest changes I am playing with this fall — something I have not done before! — is to utilize “vertical non-permanent surfaces” (VNPSs – as described in Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics). Instead of asking students to complete their tasks at their desks on paper, I’m going to experiment with having students work collaboratively on whiteboards around the walls of the room. 

Learn more about this idea in last week’s podcast episode, Why You Need Vertical Whiteboards In Your Thinking Classroom.

In this episode, I’m sharing the logistics of putting this strategy into action in my classroom — as well as what I love about it and what I’m still figuring out!

How Do I Set Up Vertical Workspaces For Thinking Classrooms?

First, I took stock of my current space and maximized my existing vertical workspaces — my large chalkboard and large whiteboard. I arranged my student tables to leave ample space around these areas, so my desks and tables are currently clustered in the center, leaving plenty of room for groups to stand and work on the boards.

Additionally, in order to have the optimal number of students at each VNPS (according to the research in Thinking Classrooms), I added a few smaller vertical non-permanent surfaces (aka whiteboards) on some blank wall space I had. I currently have eight “stations” where students can work in groups of three. 

For these extra work spaces, I explored two options. One was to get a few large pieces of shower board – cut to the appropriate dimensions by the lovely people at Lowes – to create a few extra whiteboards on one of my large, empty walls. Another option was to purchase whiteboard contact paper. This can be stuck right onto the wall where students will be working and (according to the product) can easily be removed at the end of the year (if necessary). 

I decided to go the shower board route, and I cut an 8×4 into two 4×4 whiteboards. The wonderful maintenance people at my school hung this for me, and apparently they just used some heavy duty command strips. So far, they haven’t fallen down! That said, I’ve also heard of people cutting up the snowboard into 2×4 boards, drilling a hole in the top, and then hanging using a command hook. So that is another option! 

What Does This Look Like During Class? 

The vertical whiteboards (or chalkboards) are a strategy that I’m using on conjunction with several others shared in Thinking Classrooms — such as creating random groups of three and giving tasks verbally. So at present, my system looks something like —

While students are working on their warm-up, I pass out out grouping cards face-down — so neither my students nor I know what group they’re going to end up in! When it is time to move to the stations, students look at their cards (which contain things like fruits, safari animals, breakfast foods, etc.) There are pictures of the “completed groups” at each work station, so they can independently figure out what station they are going to — and of course, over time, they will learn all of the stations. I spend a super quick moment going over expectations so students know exactly what to do when they arrive at their station (ex/ stack their cards, turn quietly to me so I can give them their task), and then I count down from 10 or 15 as they move to their board. (Eventually, this will be quicker but they are still learning the locations!) The students then wait at the board for me to give the task.

I then go to one of the boards — a different one each time — and give them instructions for their first assignment. For example, it may be a quick one — “What are two ways you can model the number 323?” Or it may be more elaborate, like when we completed the Tax Collector non-curricular thinking task. (I’ll link that for you!) 

In science class, it may be recording their observations from a photo or video, generating questions for the Driving Question Board, analyzing a data set or model, or even designing an investigation. Basically, whatever thinking-task they were going to do at their desks would be completed at the VNPS.

After I give the instructions, I say, “Go!” and students begin working on the problem while I move around the room.

What Are My Rules Or Expectations For The Boards?

behavior expectations and rules for using vertical whiteboards

But What About Instruction?

The whole gist of Thinking Classrooms is getting our students to think — to engage in math and figure it out themselves. It’s a more inquiry-based approach — which I love and have been using in science for years! And the question, “But what about instruction?” gets asked by science teachers a lot, too.

How will they learn it if we don’t teach it to them?

And just like in science, there are some things that students can figure out on their own if you give them a chance to! So using these vertical whiteboards actually cuts back on the typical “teacher talk time.” Instead, they’re working to discover concepts on their own, and I’m basically reviewing their work to highlight their discoveries.

For example, my students are starting with place value. And instead of some long spiel from me about the relationship between the value in the tens and hundreds place, they had a task about modeling batteries that come ten to a package, 10 packages to a box, 10 boxes to a case, etc. (taken from our textbook! You can still use a curriculum with this strategy!) I asked them to model that, one at a time. (Ex/ “A store sells batteries in packages of 10 batteries. They also sell boxes of 10 packages. How many batteries are in one box?) 

They came up with their numbers — 10, 100, 1000. Then, I asked them to figure out the relationship between these numbers — they are 10 times greater than the number before. They were able to figure all of this out on their own!

So when it came time for instruction, I was basically just reviewing the place value chart, plugging the numbers in, and bringing in their ideas about the relationship between like-digits in the tens, hundreds, and thousands place. Instructional time took about 5-10 minutes, and then they were back to practicing on the whiteboards.

In other instances, I’ve been able to kind of “skip” instruction and instead use student work at the whiteboard to teach the concept. I typically always do a debrief of student work at the end of the task set anyway — highlighting how a group solved the problems or showed their thinking. And I can sometimes use that as a review of the concept, or I can use it to springboard into the instruction. (Ex/ after students wrote a number in expanded form, I modeled tweaking it to include exponents… then they were back at it, trying it out with another problem.)

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