VNPS, VRG, and creating flow

Last summer at TMC16, I learned about vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS) and visible random groupings (VRG) from Alex Overwijk, which is based on the work of Peter Liljedahl. Despite the explosion of ideas that I came across at the conference, I knew that I had to implement these two.

So after the conference I visited my new school to poke around the classrooms where I was to teach to see what the whiteboard situation was like. I was discouraged. My school is a converted elementary school with gigantic windows, lots of cubbies, and lockers that take up half of the walls. Disappointed, my hopes for VNPS and VRG slowly faded away.

Fast forward to last week. We were studying advanced factoring and the pains of heavy algebraic manipulation and computation lurked. I’m not sure what triggered me to rekindle my excitement, but I reread Alex’s post and slides from TMC and decided dive in.

Each of the rooms I teach in have some whiteboard space already, but I still needed several large whiteboards. I had no time to get to Home Depot. Then I remembered seeing the physics teacher having some. He’s probably the kindest teacher in the building. He let me borrow them with open arms.

I found some guidelines from Laura Wheeler (more here) and away I went into the world of VNPS and VRG.

I randomly assigned 2-3 students to each board. I displayed the expressions that I wanted them to factor on the board and the groups immediately jumped in. The level of complexity grew slowly with each expression, some of which they had never seen before.

The clearly visible work allowed me to efficiently assess everyone in the room. I gave some hints, but I wasn’t needed much. When I felt a group was hitting a wall, I outwardly moved someone to their group who could help. With their knowledge now mobile, their insights spread throughout the room like wildfire. And despite calling out “switch” periodically to keep the marker bouncing between group members, I also moved students who looked to be disengaged in their group.

This was all to maintain optimal levels of engagement, or flow. It worked like a charm.

At the end of each period, rather than looking finished, my students looked recharged. They wanted more. I couldn’t count the number of students that declared how much they loved the structure. They were doing like never before, completely lost in the work for over 30 minutes.

I can say the same for me. I felt my senses heighten as I feverishly assessed the students. I was completely in sync with their thinking. As 30 students openly crisscrossed the room to collaborate and build on each other’s ideas, I knew that my classroom would never be the same again. It was like magic. What Alex described as flow back at TMC16 is exactly what my students and I experienced.

That was Tuesday. Thrilled, I’ve used VNPS and VRG every day since with no plans to slow down.

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10 Responses to VNPS, VRG, and creating flow

  1. Wendy Menard says:

    Awesome, and inspiring. Thanks.


  2. mslwheeler says:

    Great write-up! So glad that you found success with these strategies. They really are a game changer!


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  5. Jess Gabrielson says:

    I’ve been reading a lot about Alex’s ideas recently. Sounds so interesting! My only thought (worry?) is what problems you’re giving them. It would be so helpful to hear examples of lessons. Do you use this everyday? Not sure how I can replace all instruction with this set up but I would love to!


    • brian says:

      Hi Jess! I don’t use it every day, but regularly. In trial run last year, I gave a problem set (like factoring) with solutions on the board or paper, and had kids work their way through them. Next year, I want to mix it in as a strategy to explore problems/tasks that are messy…in the spirit of PBL.


      • Jess Gabrielson says:

        Do you use it in place of instruction or mostly for days where they are practicing a skill?


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