While it may sound ridiculously simple, the one classroom tool that changed my teaching life forever is the whiteboard. Before you decide to write me off as stating the rather obvious, please know I am not talking about whiteboards for me. The whiteboards are for the students! I don't mean the dinky little ones about the size of a sheet of paper either. I mean sheets of melamine the students can fill with all of their physics-doing. Want to know what this looks like? Here is a picture of one of my lab tables!
I'm ridiculously fortunate to have a beautiful classroom with desks on one side and four lab tables on the other. I place 4 whiteboards on each table and each student gets their own. If you are doing the math, you also know I'm quite spoiled to never have classes larger than 16 students! In this picture, there is an extra whiteboard as my son was visiting my class that day and decided to join one of the whiteboarding groups. I couldn't resist including the picture with my little man in it!
While many teachers have different approaches to integrating whiteboards into their pedagogy, I am going to share how I do it.
At the start of every unit (in all of my physics classes regardless of level), each student receives a packet that carries them from the early foundations of the unit all the way through to more complex analysis. Each whiteboarding group works on the same packet problem on the whiteboard FIRST. There is no writing in the packet. This takes a while for some students to get used to. As a group, the goal is to get everyone to agree on a solution path and answer(s). Each individual works through the problems while discussing along the way. At the end of their work, the whiteboards should be quite similar with all units, labels, and details necessary for a thorough solution. Good practice for assessments, right?
Then I visit the table and ask questions about their thought process, their diagrams, and their supporting work. If further attention is needed, the group resumes discussion and massages their results until they are ready for another check. If all is well, I give the group the go-ahead to write their work in their packets. I love this second writing of the work as this is the final documentation of the problem. By the end of the unit, each student will have a packet filled with accurate, detailed solutions from which to practice.
During documentation (which can sometimes be a bit annoying to the kids as they make the point that they JUST solved it), I always encourage them to remember that they aren't writing this for themselves in this moment. They're writing for their future self who hasn't done this type of problem in a week, has no idea what is going on, and needs to look at their packet for support! I say things like, "This is for Alex of the future! Is she going to understand how you got 0.3m/s?" or "It was pretty clever the way you used the area under the curve to get the time of the fall. Are you going to remember how you did that? Why not write a note to yourself?" and of course "Don't forget to label your axes! your diagram! your units!".
After the first week or two of class, the students know exactly what to do. They even police each other by exclaiming when someone writes on the packet before the whiteboarding is complete. They really enjoy being able to share their board work easily, visit each other's board, and correct mistakes quickly. I love that I can see what they are doing without interrupting the flow of conversation. When they used to write in notebooks, I had to be on top of them to see their work. Now I can stand in the middle of the room and know what's going on at almost every table. It gives me a chance to prepare questions in my head before I start visiting.
How often do I do this? Honestly, as much as possible. I strive to whiteboard every day. My goal is to minimize lecture and me-centered activities and turn our time together over to the kids. My favorite moments in class are when the classroom is buzzing with expo squeaks, excited physics chatter, and smiling faces, all without my intervention. Just thinking about it now makes me smile. It's like physics magic!
Thank you, whiteboards.