Tag Archives: Thinking Classroom

What to Do When Students Mess Around at Boards

As I have written about several times, I am using Vertical Non Permanent Surfaces (VNPS or boards for short) from Peter Liljedahl’s Thinking Classroom, extensively this year. Students love it, and I get excellent, real time feedback on their mathematical thinking. Of course whiteboards can be used for any subject beyond math to get students thinking and talking. But even the best strategies in the classroom are not effective all of the time.

Sometimes students get restless or tired of the same routine. Sometimes the activity that I have planned tanks horribly. Students start to get off task. They may be doodling pictures at the boards, wandering the room and socializing with others, throwing erasers, or just passively sitting instead of collaborating with their teammates. Much of the time my back is to the room as I check in with a particular group. If I let these small behaviors go, things can escalate quickly.

So here are 8 things to try when students start messing around at whiteboards.

Clear Expectations

How one frames the class is critical. Set expectations daily before starting work at the boards. Remind students what they should (working together, sharing the marker, thinking, checking each other’s work, etc.) and should not (sitting, doodling, wandering, erasing other’s work, only watching, etc.) be doing. Stick with firm but fair consequences. It is important to establish a culture that time at the boards is for thinking and working, not socializing.

SEL Lesson

If you notice a trend starting of conduct that is unacceptable than plan a five minute mini-lesson on an SEL competency such as collaboration or perseverance. Target the specific behavior you observe to discuss and focus on improving that day. This might be with a small group or the whole class as needed. Challenge students to work on that skillset for the day and have them reflect at the end of the class on how they did. They could do a quick Turn and Talk with their group or rate themselves on Fist to Five on how they did. If you see groups or individuals still struggling have a private conversation about your observations and challenge them to improve tomorrow. Consistently talking about SEL skills and reflecting on them is a great way to grow them in students.

Remove Individuals

Sometimes one or two students are sabotaging the class with their choices. Avoid “punishing” the whole class in this circumstance. Instead send the individuals back to their seats to work by themselves for the day while the rest of the class continues board work. Prepare a couple of extra copies of the activity and have these students work alone. Remind them that this is only for today and that they can try again to work with a group tomorrow. Most students want to be at the boards with others and this will motivate them to monitor themselves.

Slice Better

It is important to reflect when an activity goes poorly. There is a difference between one or two off-task students seeking attention vs. most of the class not engaging with the content. Oftentimes the fault lies with the teacher. Was the task too easy or too difficult? Easy tasks can lead to boredom, while too challenging ones might cause students to give up easily. Properly thin sliced problems gradually build on students previous knowledge to the new content. Thin slicing is not simple to design, especially when you are new to using boards. I have erred in both directions of too easy and too hard. When this happens, don’t beat yourself up. You are learning this process too. Adjust as necessary to where your students are at and keep trying.

Non-Curricular Problems

Sometimes repeatedly solving thin sliced problems feels just like going through the textbook. Students become bored with the routine. Mix it up by throwing in a day with a non-curricular thinking problem to get students re-energized at the boards. Better yet try an open-ended problem connected to your current content standards. Check out Geoff Krall’s curriculum maps or a 3 Act Task for great ideas in math.

Shorten Duration

One thing that I have noticed is that my students can not work all hour at the boards on thin sliced problems. It is too long, and they start to lose interest. I have found that 20-30 minutes is a good maximum for 6th graders. Then I shift to consolidation of their work and check your understanding problems at their individual seats. They can still work with their elbow partner so they are not alone, but the variety in structures helps them focus. Consider the age and maturity of your students and pay attention to how long they stay on task on a normal day and plan your board time accordingly.

Math Lottery

A math lottery is a fun way to encourage focus that a colleague shared with me. Basically you project a number chart and students get to write their initials down for each problem that they get correct. At the end of class do a random drawing to reward a few numbers. Or try the unfair version. Although these seem designed for individual student work, I did mine by groups at boards and rewarded students for collaboration rather than for getting problems correct.

Take a Break

If your students work at boards often (3-5 times a week) they may get tired of the same old, same old. It’s human nature to both thrive in structure while finding it monotonous after awhile. It’s ok to take a break from the boards and try a PBL project or even a traditional lesson once in a while. If you spend a week or so on other things, students will start to ask when they are doing boards again and be excited to get back to it.


In summary I think it is important to keep a big picture perspective. All of your students are not 100% on task all of the time no matter what you do in class. They are human, and some days they may be distracted from something outside of your class, tired from lack of sleep or too many extra curricular activities, stressed from a family situation, or just feeling unmotivated and bored that day. All of this is fine and normal.

It is not our job to have 100% student engagement at all times.

That is unrealistic and only leads to feelings of defeat and burnout. Aim to engage most students, most of the time and adjust your plans when you feel a critical mass of students are off task.

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

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