Teaching to the Edges Using Project-Based Learning

For these two teachers, PBL is the key to differentiating lessons for students of all ability levels.

What do special ed (SPED) and gifted students have in common? They both have unique educational challenges and are often removed from the classroom because traditional teaching methods don't "fit their needs." While some students struggle through a lesson, others speed through it and end up bored because they aren't being challenged enough. The age-old question is, "How do we teach a class of 30 students with a variety of learning differences, needs, and challenges — without isolating them?"  Project-based learning (PBL) allows students to explore and discover at a level that fits their individual needs.

Here, two teachers discuss how PBL showcases their students' creativity and strengths, no matter what their ability level is.

Jamie Kumiega

Students in my SPED classroom have a variety of disabilities, which make specialized instruction in content areas necessary. In class, we focus on functional life skills that they need to achieve success in academic and post-secondary life. A project-based approach works exceptionally well for my students since it is adaptable enough to meet the needs of students on every level.

To help me plan my lessons, I use an online PBL resource called Defined STEM, which has hundreds of project-based performance tasks broken down by grade level, career focus and standards. The resource provides support materials like articles, videos, and rubrics — all in one spot. Many of my students have difficulty with traditional reading and writing tasks, so I use the videos and other visual resources to keep them engaged.

Because my students struggle with appropriate social interactions, we often focus on basic skills like how to interact with others. After students complete their research, I ask them to informally present what they've learned to myself and/or other students in the class. While sharing with others, the presenter is able to work on making eye contact, speaking clearly and comprehending what they've learned. The audience practices how to act when someone else is talking, which includes not interrupting, asking appropriate questions and sitting quietly. Although speaking to the class is stressful for some students, I've found this is a wonderful way to empower individuals to learn and help everyone feel part of the group — no matter what their needs are.

I use PBL to help bring the outside world into the classroom, too. For example, during a unit on the environment, my students acted as city park planners. I was able to customize the lesson for my students and make them think deeply about who uses parks, what sort of animals live in parks, what they eat, where they sleep at night and more. When lessons use examples that students can relate to, they're able to connect the dots and bring relevance to what they're learning. Connecting new information to something they already understand is at the core of education. The flexibility of PBL also allows students to create final projects that showcase their strengths. These lessons are also cross-curricular, so I am able to incorporate STEM, literacy and social studies into one project.

Brandi Zivilik

I see every student for 44 minutes every day in my social studies class. The SPED and gifted students remain in my classroom during this time. Groups that are at a higher learning level are challenged with various questions and pushed to further their knowledge; whereas groups that are struggling are guided, given websites to find their information and provided with other tools to help them succeed. PBL allows me to address each individual student's needs, and, in turn, I have found that all students are successful in the classroom.

My gifted students have a choice among the projects that they complete and are challenged using thought-provoking questions that they must research and respond to. I give them a lot of freedom to build upon their discoveries instead of sticking to a specific task.

I am fortunate enough to work in a 1-to-1 iPad district that also has a STEAM lab, a makerspace and a green screen room. For their final projects, my gifted students often choose to develop their own websites, build a model for their project or use TouchCast or other apps to demonstrate their learning. For example, one group of gifted students worked together to build their restaurant in Minecraft and then used TouchCast to record themselves sitting in their restaurant and going over all the details of it.

PBL really allows students' strengths and personal interests to stand out. For example, my students created a song in GarageBand to use for their iMovie they created to advertise their farm-to-table restaurant. I had another student use Stop Motion for her Advertising Analyst TV advertisement project. Students who enjoy drama and acting were able to develop and perform scripts as projects. Allowing my students to think outside the box and incorporate things they are good at and passionate about allows them to be successful and learn in my classroom.

Once you dive into PBL, you'll realize it is basically designed in a differentiated manner. Each student or group of students is working on a different project task and doing so at his or her ability level. The PBL model really allows them to push themselves academically and creatively.

About the Authors

Jamie Kumiega is a special education teacher at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL.

Brandi Zivilik is a 6th-grade social studies teacher at Viking Middle School in Gurnee, IL.