Groups of 3 with a 4th Desk Free #VRG

Yesterday,  my students were working on their independent practice problems on solving similar triangles on Khan Academy. As I reflected at the end of class, it was so obvious to me how important it is to have a seat free at each group’s desks so that I can sit with them to help them one-on-one. And while that seems obvious, I’m sure I’m not the only one that lets myself be lured into the temptation of sitting at my teacher desk while students work & saying “come over to me if you have any questions!” meanwhile I can shoot off an email or two that need sending. And of course a couple of students will come over to ask me something. But so many others will not leave their seat. Might not even get any work done at all & I won’t notice. Some just can’t get started because they have no idea where to start. So they’ll make it look like they’re working, but at the end of 75 minutes they haven’t done a single practice problem.


Each group has either 4 desks or 3 desk + a stool.

Even on independent practice days, I have students sit in “visibly random groups” by giving out playing cards as they enter class. New partners, new seat every day.

So yesterday as my students started on their practice problems, I moved from group to group, helping students that asked for help. I also sat down to work through a question together with students that hadn’t even started yet (not because they’re being oppositional – but they just don’t know where to start!). Here’s a short video with my reflection on that 4th seat at each group:

Or you can view the video here also.

How do you make sure your quiet, reluctant learners get the same one-on-one help from you as those that self-advocate a little louder?

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

My Classroom Setup

This morning’s BFC530 chat was about one’s ideal classroom setup:

I said that my room is pretty much ideal as is & then realised I didn’t have a good current photo showing off our setup. So once I arrived at school I fixed that scenario:

PANO_20161102_075457 (1).jpg

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

What I Did Differently This Year

A roundup of things I did differently, or that I continued to evolve with, this year in my Math classes:

Visibly Random Groups

Groups of 3 students sitting together. New partners & new desks every day. I used playing cards given out at random as students entered class to assign students to tables – with hanging numbers indicating which tables made which group. More details about VRGs here.


2 to 3 days per week I used Kahoot as our bellwork. Kahoot is an interactive quiz that the kids answer using cell phones/tablets/laptops. I have created a bank of basic skill-based multiple choice questions for each of my courses and we often start class by playing 10 randomly chosen questions. Correct answers get points & the faster you answer, the more points it’s worth. The kids really love this & it’s a great way to practice basic skills.
What’s especially cool about Kahoot is that they have pre-made question banks for lots of different topics and courses, so you can play this with almost no prep work required. Julie Reulbach does a nice job of outlining her experience with Kahoot this year in a blog post here.

Problem-based Learning

As much as possible, I try to start with a problem to solve, instead of starting with a lesson. Sometimes this is a hands-on activity in the style of Al Overwijk & Bruce McLaurin. Sometimes it’s 3-act math in the style of Dan Meyer. Other times it’s a word problem from a textbook stripped down to make it more open (like here & here) and solved on vertical non-permanent surfaces (see next). Students always started by estimating the answer (too low, too high, best guess), collect data/measurements if needed, and then solve. And at whatever point students get stuck, or need to learn something new, that is where I go to the board for a mini-lesson before having groups return to finish solving the original problem given their new knowledge/skills.

Vertical Non-permanent Surfaces

In our visibly random groups of 3, we solve the problems on whiteboards & blackboards. This gets students up out of their chairs, working together, thinking. They try out different ideas because they know it’s easy to erase whatever doesn’t work. It allows me to see everyone’s work all at once and give prompt feedback on their progress. Students can also look around at other boards to get ideas if they’re stuck. More details on VNPSs here.

Khan Academy

Now hold on with your booing & your hissing … Math teachers love to have a hate-on for Khan Academy. It’s not a replacement for a math teacher, and it has it’s disadvantages, but they have some good exercise sets that can be used as homework instead of problem sets from the textbook. At the beginning of the year the homework on KA was optional as I explained here, but in the 2nd semester the homework for my grade 10 academic class was mandatory and tracked daily.
The students sign up with you as their “coach”. You can set a certain exercise as homework with a due date. The site then summarizes who has and who has not finished their homework. You can also see how many problems they have attempted to solve and whether or not they got the correct answer. The advantage for the students is that if they get stuck, there is a “hint” button (which isn’t so much a hint, as the next step explained) and a link to the infamous KA-created video related to that specific problem.


Instead of teaching unit by unit, I have continued spiralling the curriculum. This means teaching every expectation in the curriculum over the first few weeks, albeit in an introductory fashion. Then we cycle through all the material for a 2nd time, delving deeper. And then again a 3rd or maybe 4th time through depending on time. Mary Bourassa has a good explanation here of spiralling.

There are a few smaller things I introduced also such as the wireless keyboard, a “tech tub” with 5 chromebooks for students to borrow when needed, posters of course expectations & mathematical processes on the walls, etc.

For next year:

  • Make my evaluation tools match the group-work, problem-based learning we do in class.
  • Work on recording the observations & conversations that can inform a student’s final grade in addition to the products they create (tests, tasks, projects, etc).
  • Improve my Link Crew class that I taught for the first time last year.

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)

Wireless Keyboard

At $50, this might just be one of the best investments in my classroom recently: a wireless computer keyboard:
Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

In the above picture you can see in the back corner, just to the left of the classroom door, is my “teacher desk”. On it sits the desktop computer that is hooked up to my projector. But the projector points at a screen that is behind where I’m standing in this photo; across the room from the computer. This means that when I’m teaching, if I need to type, switch tabs, manipulate anything on screen I have to go to the other side of the room from where my students are looking. So I wind up talking to the backs of their heads while they look at the screen.

Now, I don’t spend a ton of time teaching from the “front” of the room. We do a lot of group work. But it’s still inconvenient. I had partly solved the problem for powerpoints by purchasing a clicker that allows me to move the slides ahead from across the room. This was most useful for my teaching at uOttawa this past semester. But the other day in my high school classroom, I was leading the students through a linear regression problem on the graphing calculator. I had the graphing calculator software on the screen but had to be behind where my students were looking in order to manipulate it.

So I had an idea to purchase a wireless keyboard & mouse set.

Originally, I bought this Insignia set at Best Buy in Ottawa for $40:
But when I got it all set up on a rolling cart (needed a surface for the mouse to be on), it wouldn’t work all the way across my classroom despite claiming a range of 30 feet. I tried halfway across the room and it would only work sometimes, losing contact w/ the computer every minute or so. Well, that’s no good!

So I went back to Best Buy, but the location in Gatineau. Returned the crappy one & looked around for a replacement. I found this beauty: 
This one has been awesome! A bit more expensive, although as of this morning it’s on sale until Thursday. The mouse is integrated into the keyboard which means I don’t need to set it on a surface for it to work. The keyboard is light so I can easily move around the room with it in my hands. And this one works in every corner of my classroom! I can walk around the desks, stand near the front, even hand the keyboard to a student to have them work on the board with it.

If I had my way, I’d set up every classroom with one of these babies!

– Laura Wheeler (Teacher @ Ridgemont High School, OCDSB; Ottawa, ON)