Mini whiteboards- the essential classroom tool

I have not always seen eye to eye with mini whiteboards. I hated handing them out, storing them, pens running out, pens going missing, not having enough, doodles, scribbles, drawings of inappropriate things, drawings of me, inappropriate drawings of me. In the past I would trot them out every so often before inevitably dismissing them as just too much of a hassle. Yet now I use mini whiteboards in every lesson and I can’t imagine teaching without them. Perhaps these are not the most fashionable tools in the education world, but here are the reasons why I find them indispensable.

Whiteboards are a way of getting immediate feedback about student understanding, with an effective sequence always starting with a well-designed task or question. Rather than just waiting as students write, this time can be used to seek the most useful responses. Do most students get it or not? Where are the great examples that can be used as models? Where are the examples of common errors that students can learn from? Which students are making the same errors?

Depending in what our checking tells us, there are many options:

  • Stop the task and reteach something immediately.
  • Give a simple piece of corrective advice to address a common problem e.g. ‘remember to mention the writer’.
  • Choose a range of responses (usually three) for students to compare.
  • Pick one example that is ‘nearly there’ and ask the class to improve it.
  • Sequence the responses shared so that they become increasingly more sophisticated.
  • Find answers with a common thread and ask students to connect them (really useful for language analysis).
  • Find three errors and ask students to connect them.
  • Teach the students who don’t understand in a small group. See in-class interventions.

MWBIf the first board I checked was this one, I would be thinking about spelling, particularly character names. Is this student the only one getting these wrong? I know that in this lesson I shared a model paragraph on the board and the phrase ‘ultimately lead to’ has been lifted from that and used incorrectly, so I need to know if others have made the same error. I could choose this board to look at the spelling of ‘ultimately’. We could use it as a fairly decent first attempt at an opening paragraph and ask students to rework it to make it better. I could seek out another contrasting set of adjectives used to describe Sheila and ask students to compare. Or I might not use this board at all-there are plenty of others to choose from! The main thing is, I don’t want to leave it to a randomly selected student response and hope it tells me something. By getting every student to write a response to a clear and unambiguous question (not ‘hands up if you don’t understand’), I can be reasonably sure of the class picture and do something about it.

There are other benefits of using whiteboards too. One of the issues that we have, as I am sure many schools do, is the use of unnecessary fillers in spoken responses. Part of the reason for this is, I feel, is students’ lack of confidence in what they are saying. Or that they don’t know what they are going to say before they start saying it. The few seconds it takes to write a couple of ideas down on a whiteboard can help to eliminate both of these. Add in grammar issues, not answering in sentences and the ubiquitous ‘innit’, and we have a number of elements that a quickly prepared written response can help to eliminate.

I want my students to develop excellent habits of editing, proofreading and redrafting. Whiteboards help me to create a culture where this is expected. It starts with making sure the first thing they write is high quality, and there’s an increased accountability when students write on whiteboards. When they know it will be held up and discussed, there is an incentive for it to be their best work. It’s easy to edit work quickly on a whiteboard and far less messy. With a constant focus on the quality of these short responses, students start to self edit, even as they are reading out their answers. They can spot the errors in other students’ answers and then fix their own. It’s easy for the teacher to correct the spelling of the word ‘beginning’ on a board and then instruct others in the class to fix it if they made that mistake. It’s great for adding commas or colons in the right place. Even as students write in their exercise books, they can make notes on whiteboards.

AOS 3Every lesson at our school starts with a Do Now which is completed on the whiteboards. It means that lessons start in a calm and prompt manner and it is efficient when we don’t have to wait for books to be handed out. The ability to immediately write something down on whiteboards can also help to eliminate the ridiculous amount of time it takes for some students to write the title and date.

Some argue that teachers might only do work on whiteboards in order to avoid marking books. Well, of course! And there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact is, I’m not going to mark everything students write in their book and I can’t mark it if it is only in their head. If it is written on a whiteboard, I am giving immediate feedback and in a fraction of the time it takes to mark books- in many ways it is more beneficial than marking books.

But what about the problems that I listed before? Surely these won’t go away. Much of what we try and do at Dixons Kings is to make it easy for teachers to teach and students to learn, so behaviour systems and classroom routines are crucial to ensure students don’t often exhibit those off-task behaviours. As for the equipment issues, every classroom has a set of whiteboards on desks and students must carry a pen with them as part of their essential equipment. Without these systems, I wouldn’t use whiteboards, especially as I don’t have my own classroom.

We designed a mini whiteboard routine which is used by all teachers in the school. When we want students to hold up their boards, we say, “3-2-1… show me.” They hold boards up with two hands then we say “track student x” and that student reads their answer out. We come back to these routines in our practice sessions to ensure they are consistent. There are some who might argue that these routines reduce creativity or lead to ‘robotic’ teaching. Yet they have allowed me to be the most creative I have ever been as a teacher and I would welcome anyone to come and visit to see just how much this routine and some of the others free teachers up to actually teach. Without these whole school approaches, you can still design a whiteboard routine that works for you. Consider in advance how equipment is stored and handed out and expectations during the sequence.

So, have a rummage in your stock cupboard, find the discarded whiteboards (I guarantee there will be some) and start using them.

Practising classroom routines

On Thursday I took a walk around the school during a lesson changeover. Students were walking out of lessons quietly and calmly, teachers were greeting their new classes as they arrived, and within 3 minutes work was taking place. Every lesson was different, but there was a consistency that meant that it was easy for students to learn. This wasn’t left to chance; it was the result of two hours of dedicated practice of classroom routines seven days earlier.

Our routines are so important, but when systems and routines are the sole preserve of the classroom teacher, we get inconsistency. And inconsistency is unfair. It’s especially unfair on the students, because they don’t know what to expect. Behaviour that is acceptable in one lesson suddenly merits a sanction in another lesson. It’s unfair on the experienced teacher who works tirelessly on developing their own classroom routines that are not followed elsewhere. It’s unfair on the new teacher, who needs to create classroom routines on top of the many many other things they must do. It’s unfair on the Teach First participant or the cover supervisor, who haven’t got the benefit of established routines.

So a school approach to classroom routines helps to ensure that consistency. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have tried to unpick the moments in lessons that could benefit from shared expectations and routines, from the habits for individual, paired and group work to the shared routines for mini whiteboard use. Yes, some elements are prescriptive – scripting of how we bring a class to silence for example- but these routines are designed to make it easier for teachers to teach the way that works best.

If we say a routine or expectation is important, then it can’t just be sent out in an email or relayed as a ‘policy’. It needs to be exemplified and practised, which is why we dedicated time to practising our entry and exit routines on our first day back. In addition to building consistency, practice shows us where we are going wrong (or where we might go wrong) and need to improve, but also helps reinforce what we are doing well, making us more confident and comfortable in the classroom.

We practised how teachers line students up, how they greet them, the way they bring them into the classroom, and complete the Do Now activity. We then practised how to end lessons (standing behind chairs in silence, teacher scanning the room to ensure that it is tidy, an orderly dismissal).

It’s a simple practice method. We share a model of what is expected, staff practise once through in groups of about six, receive feedback then repeat. Everyone practises, and everyone feeds back at least once. While the models that we practise are carefully considered, they are open to feedback, and practising will often identify the flaws, creating better models in future.

The group that I practised with had a couple of new members of staff. The practice was useful for them in internalising everything they had been told about- and as you might expect on the first day back- they had been told a lot. Think of that first lesson when students are sizing up their new teacher and the teacher starts the lesson just like the experienced senior leader. Immediately, the new teacher carries just a little more authority. For me, as someone who seems to forget completely how to teach by September, it was great to warm up. I won’t have my own classroom this year, so my entry and exit routines have become even more important. The practice session allowed me to consider things that I may have otherwise left to chance. For example, where do you stand at the end of the lesson? How do you move around the room? How do you dismiss classes from your classroom? How does this change in a completely different room? I don’t think that these are trivial questions at all.

There are more things to practise of course, and we won’t spend every session on the absolute basics, although we should never become complacent. With a relatively small amount of time spent on embedding simple whole school routines, we free teachers up to concentrate on the complex art of teaching.

Next week: how we practise in subjects.

Building classroom routines

I have been considering classroom management this week for a number of reasons.  First of all, I am going to deliver a training session on it and I have been thinking about the focus.  I will certainly discuss de-escalation strategies and language- see this blog from Tom Sherrington- but another focus will be routines.  I think good routines are essential for calm classrooms and they are also essential to create the climate for outstanding lessons.  Often, school is the most routine thing in some of our students’ lives and, while they may never admit it, I am sure that even the naughtier students crave teachers where the classes are ordered and learning can take place.

Secondly, I have a couple of classes which I feel are not making the progress I would like and I can see that this is partly because, for various reasons, my classroom expectations and routines are not ingrained.  I filmed myself teaching one of these classes yesterday and it was clear that I wasn’t following my own routines.  (Also clear was the fact that I have to establish a healthy eating routine!) So part of the reason for writing this post is for me to develop these areas of my practice- to look at the routines that work effectively in most of my lessons and apply them to areas where they are not established.

Charles Duhugg’s fascinating book, The Power of Habit, goes into some detail on how routines form, how they work and how they can be changed.  He speaks below about his own experience and the habit cycle: ‘cue>routine>reward.’

I suppose the reward is that classrooms are calm, positive, efficient places where students learn.  It does take time and concerted effort to make sure these routines take hold, however.  This post from Alex Quigley looks at the idea in a wider school context.

I’m not a fan of formal lesson observations but I do appreciate that they remain a part of teaching.  If you have your classroom routines established then you know that you have a good chance of a positive outcome.  Routines are evident in exercise books through good progress and I do know of Ofsted inspectors who have asked the students, ‘is this a typical lesson?’

So where do we need to build routines and what should these be?  Here’s my top ten:

Meet and greet at the door: Line the students up, make sure they are wearing the correct uniform but most importantly, talk to them and say hello.  Deal with any issues outside before they come in.  You are indicating that you are the sort of teacher that insists on the rules but that you are happy to see them too.  I appreciate that some teachers don’t have their own classroom so find it hard to get there before the students but there is still no reason why they shouldn’t be lining up and have a settled start.  Find ways that work for you.  I know of an MFL teacher who asks students to stand behind chairs.  It’s not for me but it works for her.  I will never ask a student to write down a learning objective but I know teachers who use this as part of their routine with difficult classes.

Transitions: Work out routines for moving from one stage of the lesson to another.  I love when primary school teachers clap in a rhythm and the students have to respond.  The old hand raise can also be used although I hate when this is used in teacher training to shut up teachers (but it does work!)  I like a leisurely count down from 5 to 1.  It goes something like this: “5…4…and just finishing off your conversations…3…and putting pens down…2…everyone facing me…and 1…brilliant, thanks.”  It is also good to move into position at the front of the room as a cue.  Some teachers use music and others use a call and response.

Active listening: When you are speaking to the class, insist on full attention with pens down.  Keep insisting on this and it’ll become established.  Nag nag nag about it and also expect them to track you as you walk across the room.  Don’t allow anyone not to show you they are listening.  Once you allow this, more will follow and you will have more and more students who don’t know what they should be doing.  This video, advertising Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion– a book full of routines- shows this in action:

Equipment: Art teachers have this nailed because the equipment is essential- they count out pencils and rigorously police the equipment. Go and visit them or a Technology teacher to learn their routines.  I am fortunate to have a set of laptops and use students to check them, count them, plug them in etc.  For students without equipment, there are a number of responses.  One colleague of mine makes students write in a brown pencil when they forget their pen.  It means that they can chase this up when marking if it happens more than once.  I also hand pens to repeat offenders which they keep in their folders.  The only surefire way to make sure students have the correct equipment is to chase every incident up but it is time consuming.

Handing out books: Work out your best routine for handing out and collecting in exercise books.  I have 7 tables.  At the end of lessons, they put them in table piles, then bring them to me as they leave.  It takes 20 seconds.  Then they can be handed out really quickly next lesson because they are in table groupings.  If you can reduce the time spent on these parts of the lesson, then you have more time for the proper stuff.

Acting on feedback: Establish routines for acting on feedback.  I go into some detail about my routines for the whole process here.  Make it a habit for students to read and act on feedback.  They really value this when they are accustomed to it and getting this right will lead to massive progress.

Teach group work: Bad group work is really really bad.  It is impossible for group work to be effective at all if students don’t know how to work in a group, what their roles are and how these roles combine into a productive group.  I like the following: ‘Scribe’-writes everything down; ’Reporter’-presents findings to class;  ‘Chairperson’-leads discussion; ‘Envoy’-sees what the other groups are up to. All students are involved in the discussion.  Kagan structures are worth exploring and jigsawing (from David Didau) is another routine worth teaching.  The key is to teach group work skills explicitly and revisit.

Marking: You need to establish routines for marking.  When should you do it?  I set aside Sunday afternoons for some of it but most of it I do the day it is handed in or before the next lesson with a class so it is completely fresh.  I have to plan for this so that I have time but I rarely have any of those days when I’m marking literally every waking hour.  Marking also makes it very easy for me to plan the next lesson, especially when much of it will be spent acting on feedback.

Questioning:  As an English teacher, I love a good class discussion.  To get this right, you need routines.  I use lollipop sticks to select students and they know that I won’t accept ‘I don’t know’.  This has forced them into a habit of thinking which some do not have in class discussions when it is hands up.  This blog from Rachael Stevens also has some great questioning routines.

Modelling: This one is less about classroom management.  In each subject there are methods which should be used repeatedly.  For example, as an English teacher, I am asking students again and again to respond to texts.  I show them examples but, more importantly, I model the process.  I don’t just do it once and accept it is learnt because students need to practice.  This goes for any other aspect of the subject that is required and doesn’t stop with the subject specific stuff.  We should regularly model peer assessment, redrafting, presentation etc.

Routines won’t make students learn anything but they will make it much easier for them to do so.  Oh, and if anyone has any good ideas for establishing good homework routines (or anything else) then I’d love to hear them.