As mentioned previously, this year I am committed to getting students to think, rather than just mimic me in math class. A huge component of this is working in small groups at vertical whiteboards (VNPS-doesn’t have to be whiteboards) around my room. Each day students solve either open-ended problems or practice on progressively more difficult problems at their boards developing their own strategies and building on their background knowledge. So far it has made a huge impact in my class.
While vertical whiteboard use is very popular in math classrooms, it is a flexible strategy that can be used in any content area. In science, students could problem solve or document experimental data that they turn into graphs or charts. In social studies students might create timelines or outline key events. In English, it is a great strategy for collaborative mindmapping, brainstorming, or outlining a draft of an essay.
Vertical whiteboards are engaging and a great pedagogical practice to add to your tool bag. Here’s four highlights of why you should try vertical whiteboards too.
Kids sit too much in school. Their bodies need movement. It is not a luxury but a biological need for both their muscles and their brain. I think that most educators realize this, and some teachers use brain breaks to introduce movement into static lessons. But oftentimes adding movement feels like another thing to include in an already overcrowded lesson plan. On the other hand, consistent vertical whiteboard work creates a culture where movement is a part of every day routines.
Whiteboards allows for age appropriate movement. Students don’t need fidget toys because they can move freely in their area unrestricted by desks or the need to “stay still.” I played some quiet music one day this week and noticed several students “dancing” unconsciously while working on the math. Movement while working at boards is natural and individualized as each student moves as their body needs too.
Students attack the problems together practicing teamwork. There is plenty of research that shows students learning from each other is an effective strategy. Students are able to combine their background knowledge to attempt a solution together. Since students can erase their work and start over at any time, they are free to make mistakes without judgment.
Another key aspect is not bailing kids out. When I restrain my natural tendency to over help students-they think. So instead of answering questions, I respond with questions to point them in what they need to analyze.
This past week, students were struggling with one part of a story problem. Students would ask me, “we need to divide, right?” Instead of bailing them out, I explained that it could be solved with addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. Different groups tried different approaches. After a long struggle when most groups had solved it, one group finally figured it out. A girl in the group jumped up and down saying “we are so smart” after sticking with it and finding a solution. I am seeing students confidence in math grow daily.
Shift in Control
Previously I talked too much in class. We spent a ton of time following the textbook notes in the format of “I do; we do; you do.” At the end, I noticed two things demonstrating how ineffective the notes were. First, we often only had 5-10 minutes left for the “you do” part. Too much time was spent on “I do.” Secondly, I still had many students who needed my help and could not solve problems on their own even though I had just demonstrated it several times and they had examples written down. Clearly it wasn’t working for them.
At the boards, students are working on math and talking about math with each other. They are negotiating strategies and approaches. They are checking each others’ work for errors. Instead of following a prescriptive algorithm that they don’t understand they are using and building their own number sense. It fits my manifesto: “whoever is doing is learning.” I have turned the time of class over to students to work on math instead of aimlessly listening to me.
My sixth graders naturally love working at the boards. After forming random groups for the class period, they immediately get to work solving problems. I have experienced zero resistance or complaints to working on the boards. Students are disappointed when I say that we are done and are shifting to something else. Previously, I heard lots of complaints and resistance to taking notes or practice problems.
Will kids get tired of the boards? Is it just a novelty? Time will tell. So far I have mixed in a game, Prime Climb and the Exploding Dots interactive to work on number sense. If needed I can “spice up” board work, but my guess is that students won’t get tired of boards if the tasks are compelling.
I am enjoying class and having fun too. It makes me more positive and light-hearted. I am less stressed. Kids are loving math class and telling me daily.