The Vertical Classroom Project Begins

 In This Article

  1. The inspiration for the Vertical Classroom Project
  2. My first VCP lesson
  3. General and specific observations
  4. Questions, concerns and ponderables
  5. The next step
  6. Materials

The Inspiration

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.56.31 PM

By the end of Alex Overwijk’s vertical classroom session at TMC15, I had decided on my #1TMCthing and my goal for the upcoming school year.  It was also the first time, since becoming a math coach, that I felt the urge to go back into the classroom.  I loved the concept of setting up big non-permanent surfaces (white boards) around the room for students to work on. I want to teach using this method… but I can’t!! I don’t have my own classroom… UGH!

Plan B – Find 1 or 2 teachers who’d be willing to commit to implementing the vertical classroom concept. Then provide them complete support throughout the year.

Plan C – Convince as many teachers as possible to test out the vertical classroom idea here and there.

Alex credits the research of vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS) combined with visible random grouping (VRG) to Peter Liljedahl, PH.D at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

Peter Liljedahl’s site:

Alex Overwijk’s Blog describing his work with vertical non-permanent surfaces


Attempt #1

8th grade teacher, Mr. C, and I were talking.  He mentioned that his students were making a lot of mistakes when calculating with integers and he was planning a review day.  I asked if I could test out an idea.  He agreed and my first vertical classroom lesson was born.

The Lesson

  1. Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.55.54 PMStudents are arranged in groups of 3.
  2. Each group used 1 computer.
  3. They made a T-chart and titled the columns: Positive and Negative.
  4. Task 1:  Create addition problems that have a positive sum.
  5. One student checked answers using the Desmos calculator while the others recorded the problems.
  6. Task 2: Summarize their process therefore creating a rule how to add integers.
  7. Whole group discussion
  8. Students changed roles.
  9. Repeat steps 4 – 7 but with negative sums.

General Observations

I had the opportunity to run through this lesson 3 times with 3 different groups of kids. All 3 were LCAP classes and therefore capped at 15 students.  It’s fair to state that I worked with 85% of the students last year.  I knew their habits – good and bad.

  1. Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.56.20 PM After explaining the instructions and organizing groups, the students in the first class were slow to get going. They needed extra processing time. Time to figure out how to start their task – on their own. Once started, they worked well.
  2. The processing time was shorter for the other 2 classes.
  3. All students participated.  Some were reluctant at first, but eventually bought in.
  4. Time on task was high.
  5. There was a positive buzz in the air.
  6. Student body language spoke volumes!
  7. Kids were taking about math!  Great conversations.
  8. I also noticed that students conversed freely when working within their small group.
  9. The low entry part (using a calculator to check answer) allowed all students to feel comfortable.
  10. When a student asked if their problem met the criteria, I redirected them to check in the calculator.  This was a review activity not a concept building activity.

Specific Behavior Observations

  1. Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.56.06 PM“Daniel” who continually interrupted instruction last year stayed busy the entire time.  Daniel and his partner filled the entire column with problems.
  2. After some coaxing, “Adrian” who often had a negative attitude during class last year, participated fully.
  3. I saw Adrian sulking and inquired why. He was upset that his group wouldn’t let him write his version of the summary.  I handed him a dry erase marker and told him to add his version to the white board. He wrote a paragraph worth of information.
  4. After class, “Jessica” told me she enjoyed the activity b/c it helped her understand that when you add two negatives it equals a negative – not a positive. A misconception cleared up.
  5. “Mark” who struggles during direct instruction shined during this activity.
  6. “Jerry” who barely speaks during direct instruction participated.  I overheard his partner, Mark, say, “You were right.”
  7. “Abby” and “Anna” (talkers) talked up a storm while completing their task.  Their talking didn’t interfere with the lesson, just the opposite.  Their conversations enhanced the lesson.
  8. The students who didn’t like the activity normally try to hide during math class.  There were around 3 students who fell into this category.

Questions, Concerns & Ponderables

1. Notes vs Discovery:  When a teacher gives notes, they’re transferring their knowledge to students.  They can confidently say they’ve presented the information and addressed all points he/she planned to discuss.  Although the students have been busy writing, they may or may not have internalized the material.  The teacher won’t know the depth of their understanding until he requires his students work with the information.

On the other hand, when students start with a task that leads to a rule, the process is not so streamlined. There’s conversation, trial and error, analysis, more conversation, questions asked, questions answered,  mistake fixing, more discussion and finally observations and generalizations written in student language.  This learning process is non-linear and “messy” – As it should be.  We’re teaching individuals.  Individuals who not only learn differently but also have varying levels of prior knowledge.

2.  The big question:  Within the discovery model, how does a teacher ensure that his/her students are receiving all the key pieces of information? This is one of my questions I wish to explore and gather information over the next few months.

3.  What I do know … at this point… 

  1. Prior to the lesson, determine a list of anticipated responses and confusion points.
  2. Devise a plan to guide groups through confusion points.
  3. During the activity constantly gather information.  Scan the groups’ white boards and  listen to their conversations.
  4. Guide groups according to the information they present (on white board or through discussion)
  5. Stop when needed to address misconceptions or highlight overlooked yet key pieces of information.
  6. Once the activity concludes, hold a whole class discussion to highlight the key information, clarify misconceptions and tie up any loose ends.

4.  Time:    Time management is another critical factor that I’d like to document. Guiding 35 students per class through a discovery based/problem based lesson takes time, while transferring information through notes is quicker.  Which situation provides a rich learning opportunity for students? My answer to this question pushes me to find the time for the rich learning tasks.

The Next Step

  1.  Try again!  I have plans to work with another teacher next week.
  2. Collect information regarding how students learn within the vertical classroom model.
  3. Collect information on time management.
  4. Read blogs about Vertical Classrooms
  5. Collect information from the twittersphere. If you use the Vertical Classroom Model please share your experiences in the comment section. Or direct message me through twitter.  My twitter handle is @RilesBlue.
  6. Continue to document and blog about the Vertical Classroom Project


  1. White board:  Found at Lowe’s in the molding section of building materials.
  2. Cost:  $13.97 for a 4ft x 8ft board
  3. Cut:  Lowe’s will cut the boards for free
  4. Size:  I’m testing out the following sizes:  2ft x 4 ft,    4ft x 4ft   & 4ft x 8 ft
  5. Pictured in this blog:  2ft x 4 ft


Other posts in the Vertical Classroom Project series:

The Vertical Classroom Project – Seeing is Believing

Desmos, Dilations & The Vertical Classroom

Rethinking Classroom Design: Collaborative Stations, VNPS & Desmos


About jgvadnais

Instructional Technology Coach. Desmos Fellow. Google Level 1 Certified. SoCal transplant. New Englander at heart. Lover of yoga, dogs, green smoothies and coffee creamer
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4 Responses to The Vertical Classroom Project Begins

  1. Pingback: Kicking Off Genius Hour – A Guide | Communicating Mathematically

  2. Pingback: The Vertical Classroom Project – Seeing is Believing | Communicating Mathematically

  3. Pingback: Desmos, Dilations & the Vertical Classroom | Communicating Mathematically

  4. Pingback: Rethinking Classroom Design: Collaborative Stations, VNPS & Desmos | Communicating Mathematically

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