Make Your Own Whiteboard Tables

In the spring of 2015 I received brand new square tables for my classroom and turned the tops into whiteboard tables. It was a game-changer that I stole from Reuben Hoffman at my school. These tables were gold for promoting student-to-student discussion by throwing content directly onto the examination table in front of them. It was also a critical move in de-fronting my classroom.


Early iteration of my 10 tables

Here’s how to do it. I had 10 tables.

1) Buy the whiteboard paint. I got mine at HomeDepot and got the clear kind. Each box cost about $20. I used 3 boxes. Read the directions carefully, especially with the type of roller to use. Also, touch-ups aren’t pretty. When I was leaving for the day a gnat got stuck in the paint. I basically gouged it out, had to repaint that area, and now it’s a bumpy mess resembling shiny gauze that only inspires “what happened here?” questions from students.

paint    paint&roller

I spent one afternoon doing the first coat then came in on the weekend to do the second coat. The biggest issue was choosing a time long enough without students present.


2) Buy a few rolls of Velcro that can be cut to size.

3) Buy microfiber rags. I prototyped other rags but found the microfiber ones could stick to the velcro that I attached to the underside of each of the four corners. I got a big pack from Home Depot and had a student sew the ends so they wouldn’t fray. Thanks, Barbra!

4) Buy one Expo spray bottle of whiteboard cleaner for each table. I then refilled them from a gallon size bottle. One jug has lasted more than a year.


Every corner has a rag, but only two legs per table have cups.

5) Buy relatively sturdy cups to affix to opposite ends of the table. In this way every student can reach either left or right and find a marker. That’s two cups per table. No matter the cup, they’ve all been smashed enough to need replacing periodically. Replacing the cups takes more Velcro obviously.

6) Buy at least 4 Expo markers per table, two for each cup. This is the priciest piece of maintaining the tables. Students like to COLOR on the tables. They like to DRAW on the tables. They like to DOODLE on the tables. Although this eats up the markers, the price pales in comparison to the effect the tables had in class for getting students talking about the math!

Did I really need to make rules? The first two days I had the tables, I made no rules about using the tables.  I wanted to see what students did and if there was really a need to have rules. The last thing I wanted was to crush student freedom right way. So I gave myself a time period to observe student behavior and came up with these guidelines:

  1. Limit coloring.
  2. Erase your table at the end of class.
  3. Put the rags and markers back at the end of class.

Generally speaking these guidelines were sufficient.

Next step…vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPS) around the room that I learned about from Alex Overwijk. The research of VNPS will blow your mind. Moreover, Ed Campos Jr. is making it a habit to customize every classroom he occupies and it is inspiring! Think of Pimp My Ride takes on the math classroom.

I’d like to hear how you’re using whiteboard table tops and other classroom redesigning you’ve done.


My Goals for the 2013-2014 School Year

Today is the first day of the new school year. I’m probably more excited than ever, mostly because it’s another chance to improve. If the 10,000 hour rule has merit, I’d better step it up.

I will be more conscientious and deliberate in my attempt to…

1) Create more math discourse in class.

2) Slow down. Let learning happen. Flick it into action, but don’t force a forgery.

3) Use technology when it makes things better, not just digital.

4) Find even more of the good in kids. Find even more of the good in my colleagues.

5) Be more explicit.

6) Prepare like a feverish planning beast, but be ready to scrap it all if I pickaxe into an   unanticipated pocket of education ore.

7) Celebrate my students’ achievements.

8) Approach content literacy in a newly appreciated way.

9) Renew myself throughout the year in tangible ways.

10) Be ready to fail. And then try again.

Structure & Novelty

Last Monday I was one of four staff members who gave a 25 minute talk to the rest of the staff at West Hills High School.  The topic was student engagement. I came up with ten ideas that permeate my thought process when designing my lessons: five structures that  guide my class and five ways that I chase after novelty-embedding.

The time constraint was outrageous, the process of culling my thoughts was motivating, and the audience was inviting. A win all around.

Here’s the edited down version. It does not include video of students taking a Shot at the Glory in #6 :

My idea for the talk title was inspired by the same words @delt_dc used in a tweet recently. Thanks, David!

My Letter to a New Teacher

Bowman Dickson is doing a solid for some friends who’ll be new to teaching this coming school year and put out this call:

“Please help the first year teachers in the world by writing a letter to a new teacher.”

Over twenty educators chimed in with their letters.

Here’s mine:

Dear New Teacher,

You’ve chosen a challenging and noble profession. I’ve distilled some thoughts into six   categories you might find useful.

The content will be the least of your worries.

Hard to believe, but your subject matter won’t consume your creative energies. More than likely you have a degree in the subject or have passed through the gauntlet of nasty state tests to prove your mettle. You’ll be fine with the challenge of teaching the content.  Your daily battles will be with how to motivate the unmotivated, how to satisfy the billion add-on requirements of new teachers that your department, district and state deem necessary, and how to deal with the human issues inherent to a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Suicide, fights, gossip, hunger, poverty, and other distracting “real” issues will show up from time to time, unannounced, and beg for your time and talents.

 Don’t take things personally.

(This might sound like break-up talk, it’s not. )

When a student doesn’t do her homework, it’s not you.

When a student doesn’t want to share his answer out loud, it’s not you.

When a student is habitually tardy to class, it’s not you.

When a student drops out of school, it’s not you.

When a student is quarrelsome, it’s not you.

When a student graffitis your new poster, it’s not you.

These behaviors are usually the symptoms of an aversion to school. There’s probably something much deeper going on in his life than keeping on top of the demands of your class. Your class is just another item to check off in the daily drudgery that is his schedule. If it weren’t you, it’d be some other teacher receiving the same apathy, poor behavior, or mean looks. I haven’t met a teacher yet who can rally all students to do all things asked of them, and I’m in the company of some amazing teachers. It’s not you. Don’t take it personally.

Build a network of support.

3-D people: Seek out at least one member in your department who has your back, who you can go to with questions large and small, who won’t judge you. Be sure to let them know that they are a valuable resource to you.  It’ll fill their cup too. If the whole department is like that, then stay in that department for a long time! Equally important, seek out colleagues outside of your discipline.  Conversations that are not necessarily about your content area help you maintain balance.

2-D people: Locate a pocket of like-minded colleagues online as well. You have to initiate this. Start with the educators who took the time to write these letters.  See who they follow and interact with on Twitter and who’s linked to on their sites.  Chances are that’s another hotbed of proactive teachers who can offer guidance. Remember, these are the teachers who enjoy professional development as a hobby! You’re only a click away.

Focus on the learner.

There will be many tug-o-wars for your brain power. You must prioritize. If you keep your focus on what’s best for the student, many of the non-essential tuggings will dissolve away.  One hundred and eighty days (or whatever your schedule) of doing the same thing can get monotonous if you look at each day as a series of do A, then B, then on to C.  Boring. Allow your students to connect with your passion for the subject. You are sometimes the very last salesperson a student will hear on your subject. Make the pitch resonate.

Age doesn’t mean better.

Age means less experience. When you’re just starting out, you’ll be in a sea of veteran teachers. They are not who you think they are. They might look like they know it all. They don’t. Resist the temptation to view yourself at the bottom of the ladder. Chronologically you are, but not pedagogically.  You’re awesome! Just because they’ve been at the craft longer than you does not mean they’re a better teacher than you. They just have had more experience and more opportunity to fail. Fail faster to succeed sooner is a motto to live by. Often times the old cronies are reinvigorated by the fresh ideas of new blood in a school. They might’ve plateaued themselves and are looking for the spark you can provide.

Take time to renew yourself.

Want to burn yourself out? Make school your life. While your union may define what your “work day” consists of, a seasoned teacher can tell you that there is an ebb and flow to the school year. All days are not created equal. Some days you’re slammed, maybe even ready to turn in your classroom keys, and some days you feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.  You have to pace yourself. While school life can be unpredictable, you can offer yourself the predictability of being fair to yourself.  You owe it to yourself! If you’re not treating yourself fairly, then you won’t be the best “you” to give your students. They want and need the best “you.”

Renewing yourself includes forcing yourself to take breaks, go running, get yogurt, leave papers at school occasionally, have reasonable hours, go to a non-school event on a weeknight, attend social gatherings with friends and family. This list is infinite of course, but it so often can only be found at the bottom of our unfinished to-do lists. You have to schedule the time to renew yourself.

Good luck on your journey!