Tag Archives: Protocols

Whiteboards Aren’t Just For Math

Trapezoids with an area of 20 and height of 4

This school year I have been using vertical non permanent surfaces (VNPS or boards for short) extensively in my 6th grade math class. Boards have been magical as students love them and they give me an easy formative assessment opportunity. My goal in using boards is to get students actively thinking and that is something all teachers desire.

Therefore working in random teams at whiteboards is not a strategy limited to math class. It can be effectively implemented in any content or age level. A couple of the things that make boards so effective are the academic conversations and deeper thinking they encourage. Boards are an excellent way to get all kids participating in a discussion around your class content. Here are some specific examples from across the curriculum (math is not spelled out but it is applicable too).


Anytime that you are looking for students to come up with their own ideas, place them in random groups of three at the boards. They might be designing a science experiment, listing research topics for an essay, or coming up with a new project idea in PBL.

Boards work great at the brainstorming stage of design thinking as students can quickly discuss and list their ideas of either potential questions to tackle or solutions to try to a chosen problem. Follow up the brainstorming session with a carousel protocol by having students rotate around the room to see each other’s ideas.

Topic Introduction

Give students a small list of topics (3-5 big ideas) and have them list everything they already know about them at the boards. This is a great way for both you and they themselves to access their prior knowledge before launching into a project or lesson. As a bonus, students with broader knowledge on a topic will be pre-teaching others in their group.

In my U.S. history class I introduced a project on women’s rights by writing “male” on one board and “female” on the opposite side of the room. I had the girls write stereotypes about males and the boys write stereotypes about females. Afterwards we had a rich conversation about the hypocrisy that was clearly apparent.


Instead of introducing vocabulary with a lecture and notes, give students a list of new words and the resources (textbook, computer, or dictionary) to define for themselves at the boards. Challenge students to describe each term in their own words and come up with an example context to use it properly. An extension could be to have them use the vocab words to create memes to post on your walls.

Mind Maps

Make a list of your key vocabulary or content topics and have students create mind maps at the boards. Encourage them to look for connections between the content and their personal experience. This open ended protocol can be used for any content or text including textbooks, novels, or research articles.

Other variations are card sorts, making meaning, and hexagonal thinking. Anytime we can get students talking about connections with our content it builds on their prior knowledge and cements new learning into their long term memories.

Test Review

List major topics for your upcoming test on different boards in the classroom. Use a Chalk Talk protocol to have random student groups rotate around the room adding their ideas to each question. Consider using a timer for each station.

Students will not only be sharing what they know, but in reading their classmates’ contributions they will be filling in gaps that they may have. Conclude class with a whole group discussion on any areas of confusion or disagreement.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect is deep analytical thinking about your content. Give students a list of causes (or effects and work backwards) and ask them to explain, draw, diagram, chart, or mind map the historical or possible effects of the action depending on context.

Students might describe the results of a science experiment or an error analysis report. They could link key events in history or make predictions in a whole class novel. In P.E. class it might be analyzing healthy and unhealthy life choices.


Before students start a major product or paper, have them collaboratively outline at the boards. This gives them an opportunity to flesh out their ideas, research, evidence, or understanding of a topic before diving into the deeper work of writing/creating the final product. Students may discover areas of weakness that require more investigation or research.

This is especially powerful for students who struggle to start major assignments due to lack of confidence or just not knowing how to begin. As the teacher you can quickly see which students are ready to begin and which ones need some scaffolding support from you to be successful.

Controversial Question

Post a controversial question or ethical debate from your content and ask students to discuss it in random groups at the boards. Rather than taking a position on the issue, challenge students to list multiple viewpoints with their respective strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps give each student team a specific point of view to analyze the question from and present to other groups.

Instead of a T-chart, which encourages polarized thinking, have students list a spectrum of opinions on the topic. Students should see that there are many viewpoints with credible conclusions. Consider a Venn Diagram with a circle for each major view to demonstrate nuance and demonstrate overlap.

Analyzing Text

In social students give each group the same primary source to read and analyze at the boards. Encourage them to outline a summary and mark up their interpretations. Or jigsaw different primary sources for each group and then have them explain to the whole class their piece. Don’t forget to include multiple forms of media including pictures, graphics, charts, video, and data.

In ELA, place a selection of poems or short stories on the boards to have students discuss and evaluate. In science or other content areas students could evaluate articles from a professional journal or a kid friendly source. Breaking down written content (even textbook assignments) is challenging and students benefit from working in collaboration rather than struggling in isolation.

Novel Reflections

Rather than the traditional book talk or whole class book discussion which is usually dominated by a few, have your students discuss novels in small groups and outline key points on the boards. You could include any questions or guidelines that you typically use, but this way all kids will be talking rather than a select few.

Focus your energy on groups who are not showing much activity and ask probing questions to deepen their conversations. This can be used whether students are all reading the same book or have individual choice books.

Early Elementary

What about in early elementary where students are just beginning to write letters and read simple words? Student teams can draw pictures or mind maps to demonstrate their thinking. Encourage those children that can to practice writing, but all kids can contribute their ideas in some way.

The teacher can always summarize the class thinking in an anchor chart after time working in groups at boards, but giving students of any age a chance to share their thinking with their classmates in small groups is powerful!

One of the great think about working at boards is that you don’t need to design all new lesson plans but simple adapt your existing assignments.

Helpful Hints

  1. Adapt, don’t create. Ask yourself how you could turn any existing assignment or assessment into a collaborative activity at the boards?
  2. Use protocols. Choose a protocol to use at the boards to structure and scaffold student-thinking. Consider using a visible thinking routine.
  3. Take pictures. Use your phone to document thinking and encourage students to take pictures too.
  4. Encourage messy. Board work is meant to demonstrate half baked and emerging thinking. Students should be comfortable sharing their thoughts without judgment.
  5. Don’t grade it. The power in boards is the conversations and deep thinking. You will sacrifice that if you make it a graded activity.

Learn with me!

Are you interested in professional development for your school on how to infuse whiteboards? Of course, I highly recommend PBL as the ideal framework to use. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for this summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

10 Ways to Introduce SEL & PBL Culture

What would it look like to intentionally plan our first weeks of school to introduce SEL competencies and PBL structures?

Some of us are already back in school, and the rest will be starting soon. This is the sixth and final post about how to plan for SEL and PBL as we hopefully return to face-to-face learning this fall. 

Summer is a glorious time to rest and reflect on last year. As we head toward school reopening, PBL is the answer for how to address the diverse needs of students after this trying year. First, you make some big picture plans of your scope and sequence for projects, and then build your network connections for community partnerships. Now you are ready to plan the first week…

Every teacher knows the power of relationships in the classroom, and there is a heightened awareness of the importance of Social and Emotional Learning. As we launch into yet another year of Covid teaching, the safety and health-both physical and mental- of our students are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The first weeks of school are a time to get to know students and build community. This is vital work that should be considered through the lens of the entire school year.

Teachers around the world launch new classes with icebreakers, team building activities, and the sharing of personalities and passions. In the past, some might view this as ‘just fun’ or wasted academic time, but it is the critical work of building a classroom community. One result of the pandemic is a greater appreciation for people’s mental health and the need for a supportive environment before deep learning can take place. While this alone is rationale for starting school with a child-centered focus, SEL and PBL teachers have always approached school this way. They realize that these activities have a dual purpose: building culture and community while at the same time establishing PBL routines and introducing SEL skills that will be cultivated the rest of the year. Consider these 10 ways to accomplish both goals this fall.

1. Checking In

Let’s start at the beginning, when kids enter the room. I have always been an advocate of greeting students at the door. It gives the teacher a chance to connect with them on a personal level and check in on their emotional state. There are many ways to do this. One way is to explicitly teach students to self-identity their emotions with a mood map as shown above. Elementary students might choose to wear mood bracelets to identify their feelings. These are great ways to teach Self-Awareness. Other teachers may choose customized handshakes for each student. How you greet kids is less important than making it a priority. What’s vital is that students know that they are welcomed and recognized daily.

2. Identity Activities

Many ‘get to know you’ activities focus on students’ families, likes, and passions at a surface level. Create a stronger community when students reflect on their unique identity background. There are a myriad personal identity wheels available appropriate for students of all ages. Or check out this great Identity portrait idea from Shana V. White. Make sure you model for students by sharing parts of your identity. Then students can choose to share a part of their identity in small groups. Be careful not to make this mandatory or intimidating in any way. Many students may not feel comfortable sharing openly at the beginning of the year, and we need to respect this.

3. Team Building Activities

You are probably already doing these but are you getting maximum impact? Team building activities allow students and teachers to meet one another in an enjoyable fashion. They demonstrate that learning can be engaging and fun. But the greatest value comes in the debriefing stage.

Students should reflect individually on what skills they used to complete the challenge. Then have them share with a partner or in small groups. Project the CASEL competencies on the wall and show the connections between their answers. Instruct students that they will be working in groups often in your class and developing these same skills everyday. You may want to follow up by creating some class agreements for how to work successfully in groups. For the next few weeks, remind students that they will need to use specific SEL skills and tie it back to your team building activity. For example:

Remember how we needed to listen to each other and take turns during the marshmallow challenge? We will need those same skills today as your team works on their final product. Let’s focus today on making sure everyone has a chance to share their thinking before we make a decision.

4. Video Clips

Is his feedback specific, helpful, and kind?

Share a video clip of a group of people working together to create something amazing. Similar to team building, project the CASEL competencies on the wall and have students reflect on which ones were used to create it. This is another opportunity to introduce and define SEL skills while encouraging students to practice them.

Another way to use video clips is to show part of a TV show and evaluate people with a rubric. Contestants could be scored for collaboration or communication skills. Choose one of the many shows with judges and have students evaluate the feedback given to participants. This is a non-threatening way to teach students to use a rubric to reflect on their own work.

5. PBL Routines

PBL is full of its own protocols and terminology: Entry Event, Driving Question, and Need to Knows to name a few. Start teaching students the vocabulary immediately, especially if they are new to PBL. The human brain cannot learn a new process and new content at the same time. So giving students a chance to experience the process without pressure helps them become comfortable with it. Take simple things like introducing themselves or learning how to use technology and turn it into a one hour ‘project.’ Students can present about themselves and offer each other some basic feedback.

Never expect a routine to go smoothly the first time. Students need space to practice and learn it first.

6. PBL Tools

In addition to the routines, there are many tools that help students develop SEL skills such as Self-Management and Relationship Skills in PBL. Teach students to write group agreements and fill out scrum boards to manage their groups. Elementary students might build a PBL wall to monitor their progress whereas secondary students might use Trello. For how to use these tools check out the post: How to Teach Students to Manage Themselves.

7. Content

There is no reason that you can’t start teaching content at the same time as building relationships and introducing SEL. Demonstrate that working in groups, problem solving, and practicing SEL skills is how your class will function all year long, not just during the fun, first week before ‘real’ school begins. Launch a mini-project with simple final product choices and low stake community connections to model the PBL process.

8. Discussion Protocols

A vital part of Relationship Skills is for students to explore controversial topics with diverse perspective in an empathetic and safe way. Protocols such Socratic Seminars, Harkness Protocol, and Talking Circles provide the structure. Before using any discussion protocols make sure that there is clear understanding that respect and civility are expected at all times. Introduce a new protocol with a fun round of an engaging topic at first so that students can practice the procedures without any pressure of difficult content.

9. Visible Thinking Routines

The middle of a project can get bogged down in research and traditional assignments unless we plan for rich student engagement with the content and each other. Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking Routines provide many structures for student interactions throughout the project process. Don’t try to use them all, but rather pick 2-3 for specific purposes and use them throughout the year. You can access my templates for them at this post.

10. Create Class Rituals


One of the strongest cultural bonds is rituals. All cultures have their unique ways of celebrating important events such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and even death. Schools have rituals too. They may be tied to athletics, the arts, or community history and values. You can intentionally create rituals with your students that honor their identities and establish a culture of belonging.

Free Resources

Matinga and I have released a whole slew of resources from our recent book, Pulse of PBL: Cultivating Equity Through Social Emotional Learning. Sign up for our newsletter for free access to all of the strategies in the book.

Pulse of PBL

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to teach SEL skills. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I have limited availability for PBL & SEL workshops during the school year so contact me early. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.