Taking the step: Vertical Non-Permanent Surfaces in my mathematics classroom

The first time I asked my students to do their mathematics work on a vertical surface, I knew immediately that it was a gem.  My students, however, were not as convinced. They were like, “Um…what if someone else see’s our work? Isn’t that cheating? Then everyone will see what we are doing!”  Exactly, my friends, exactly.  They looked at me like I had finally gone off the mathematical deep end. But, they trusted me, and so they tried it. And it was genius. Kids began collaborating, learning from each other in their groups, and also learning from other groups. They began wandering around, looking for inspiration, and questioning each other. They starting pointing out errors, and then going back to their work to see if they had made the same mistake. Learning abounded.

However, since we don’t have a lot of whiteboard space, I had them use chart paper and markers, which they couldn’t erase. While this is valuable at times, I did realize that that the permanent marker sometimes makes kids hesitant to start. So today, we took the plunge. I re-organized my classroom, and divided up my whiteboard into sections, randomly formed them into triads using playing cards and assigned them a problem that we worked on in a math leader’s workshop yesterday.  I gave oral instructions, and then set them to it, with the instruction that the person who had the marker wasn’t allowed to contribute to the thinking — they were simply there to record. So, they set about the task. And I think I learned more about them as mathematicians in that 35 minutes than I have in several different types of lessons.

Things that worked well:

  1. Students were engaged and were willing to take risks since their work wasn’t permanent.
  2. They demonstrated perseverance — they all worked at the task for the entire time given. I was able to then visit groups and ask questions, and prompt their thinking.

The challenges:

  1. They had a hard time with the fact that the marker holder could only record thinking, and not do the math. They were, however, reluctant to be responsible to pass the marker to a different member of the triad.
  2. Asking questions of each other is still something they struggle with — they have a hard time telling each other that they disagree with something that has been said.

The richness of the mathematics and the thinking that resulted from it was well-worth the challenges though. Moving forward we will use this strategy for some logic puzzles and number challenges, and then transition into specific curriculum content.

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