Month: May 2016

PBL Reflection #3

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Is it still PBL without an authentic audience?

This reminds me of the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” Both can make a person reason in circles, never to successfully find an answer. My knee-jerk reaction to this question is no. Project-based learning requires some type of public presentation as a culminating activity, and if the audience is not authentic, where does the true value in the presentation lie? But what exactly defines an authentic audience?

The original model of the 8 essential elements of PBL included a public audience. The 2014 revision changed this to a public product and added authenticity as its own category. It was felt that while the culmination of a project should be made public, the term audience was too limiting. Larmer and Mergendoller state, “we don’t want to suggest that students always have to make a formal presentation to an audience. There are others ways to make work public; students can put it online, display it on a wall, or provide a product or service that is actually used by people in the real world” (2015).

In the revised model, authenticity stands on it own as it should be woven throughout the entire project. “In education, authenticity refers to how “real-world” the learning or the task is and increases student motivation and learning” (Larmer & Mergendoller, 2015). From the context, to the tasks, to the subject matter experts to the audience, authenticity is the foundation for both the project and student engagement. When students understand that their work matters, that there is a purpose to what they are doing, rather than jumping through a hoop to obtain a grade, the ever prevailing question of “Why are we doing this?” is naturally answered. With this in mind, if a project meets the criteria for Gold Standard PBL, then the audience, by definition, must be authentic.



Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J. R. (2015, May 11). Why we changed our model of the “8 essential elements of PBL”. Retrieved from

Larmer, J., & Mergendoller, J.R. (2015, April 21). Gold standard PBL: Essential project design elements. Retrieved from


Write a Driving Question

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According to Andrew Miller, a driving question “helps to initiate and focus inquiry” (2015). It should be attention-getting and engaging enough that students will want to find an answer to it. It should clearly and concisely state what the project is about and the reason behind it. Think of the driving question like a map, but not like a GPS. It gives the student direction without specifically telling them how to answer that question. Driving questions should be open-ended, requiring thought and research to craft a response. They are also aligned with learning goals or standards. One way to create a driving question is to start with the standards and work backward from there.

I teach Algebra 1 and next year will be teaching 8th-grade math as well. The biggest unit that is in both of these curricula is the linear unit. I knew that whatever project I used, writing, graphing and analyzing linear equations should be part of it. Statistics is also a big piece of both as well, so I also wanted to include creating a survey to collect data and then using that data to create and analyze statistical graphs. I found a project called New-Tritional Info that could be adapted to meet those standards. The driving question that came with the project was “How long does it take to burn off menu items from McDonalds?”. My partner and I agreed that the question, while interesting, was not a good driving question. It is too direct, is relatively easy to answer and does not allow for varied answers and opinions. We came up with a new driving question “How much fast food can I eat and still be healthy?” This question is very open-ended, giving students a direction without actually telling them where to go and will lend itself well to both research and debate. Fast food is something that all my students are familiar with and most love. I think they will find this question engaging enough to be willing to put some work into first, figuring out what defines “healthy” and if fast food can play a positive role in that. The original driving question became one of our sub-questions. The questions will drive the three acts of our project, giving more direction to the driving question.

My partner is Cindy Goodwill. Our project site is here:


Miller, A. (2015, August 20). How to write effective driving questions for project-based learning. Retrieved from

PBL Reflection #2

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Business team work building a puzzle. Buuilding business concept.

As a special education teacher, I am naturally interested in how PBL works in a diverse classroom. As I searched for information, I found some articles that discussed the benefits of using PBL in inclusive classrooms. Many contained descriptions of finding tasks within the project and scaffolding those to allow for full integration of students with special needs. This made me reflect on my situation. If my classroom is self-contained, how can I allow for integration? Are my classes diverse enough to allow for truly self-directed learning or will the majority of instruction still end up being direct? While I would love to be the guide on the side, I have not yet been successful in implementing this type of instructional model in my classroom. As I continue to think about how best to use PBL in my classroom, I wonder about teaming up with a regular education teacher and combining our classes to work on a project together. Both classes would reap many benefits from this type of scenario. This is definitely something I want to pursue.

The consensus from the articles that I read is that PBL works well in diverse classrooms. It allows for easy differentiation, ensuring that each student receives instruction and tasks with which they can be successful. Andrew Miller shared strategies to help teachers differentiate instruction for PBL. He talks about how to create teams that best meet the current needs of the instruction. Sometimes that means the teams will be homogenous, other times they will be more diverse. He advocates for the use of centers and stresses that not every student will need to complete every center or learning task. Centers and mini-tasks should include varied resources that target different learning styles, such as videos, gamification, and hands-on activities. The final presentations should reflect the student’s “voice and choice” (Miller, 2016). I have a ticket out the door board titled “Show What You Know”. As a closure activity, I will ask a question and each student must demonstrate their understanding on a sticky note which is then posted on the board. I have had students write words, draw pictures, or solve an equation to demonstrate their understanding. It is a reasonably quick, very visual way for me to see immediately who understand a concept and who needs more time.

The most important thing that I take away from this article is that while collaboration and teamwork are a large part of PBL, they are not the only part. I need to find a balance between group and individual work. As Miller points out, “we all need time to process and think alone just as much as we need time to learn from our peers” (2016). I think finding that balance in my classroom while being a challenge, will allow me to make PBL a better fit in my environment. I need to come to terms with the fact that PBL, for my students in a self-contained setting, will probably look very different than PBL in an inclusive or regular classroom. And as long as I am meeting their needs, that’s okay.


Miller, A. (2016, January 8). “6 strategies for differentiated instruction in project-based learning. Retrieved from



PBL Project Search

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I spend a lot of time searching the Internet for engaging ways to present instruction in my classroom. That being said, I am a little surprised that I have never stumbled across PBL before. As I searched through various sites for projects that involve math, it was easy to become overwhelmed. There is a lot out there, and since I have just enough knowledge to be dangerous, I had to be careful that what I was reading was actually PBL and not just a project. To that end, I found several commonalities that helped me identify solid project based learning. All of them somehow involve the real world. There is a huge focus on collaboration and students are generally involved in planning, which is very extensive. The teacher is the guide on the side, and facilitates instruction, so instruction is more constructivist than instructivist. There is usually some type of hands-on component. Many of the projects I looked at required students to design or build something. The time involved is lengthy. All begin with a hook to activate student engagement right from the beginning, and all close with an assessment, often based on a rubric.

I found Domino Effect while searching on the Buck Institute site. It caught my eye because I had done an activity with the same name last month to introduce our linear unit. Common Core moved the linear unit to 8th grade so technically it should be review for my students. When I looked it over, it was the project from Mathalicious that I had used with more pieces. I did the first two acts with my students. It took us about a week working together with about 90% of it ending up as direct instruction. This has not done much to ease my anxiety about using PBL with my students. I am concerned that even with the huge amount of scaffolding that I do, my students will not be able (or willing) to work their way through a project without me guiding them through it step by step. If this is something that none of them have ever been exposed to before ninth grade, how successful will this be?

business_10065792-1115-allint-1_LI found this project, New-Tritional Info, on this site. Even though it is for 6th grade, all of the standards addressed here are relevant for my 9th graders. It is written close to their levels (my students’ math levels range from first through fifth grade) and looks like it would be easy to adapt. I liked the project tasks that were offered but would probably modify it to add a third task, asking them to compare McDonalds food to that of other fast food restaurants. We could even discuss what constitutes fast food. I love the challenge at the end where they are required to graph their data into a box and whisker plot. For some reason, NY is fixated on this type of graph, and it is usually a test question on the Regents exam. I also really like the activity in Act One, where they are asked to figure out how many calories are burned off with one minute of exercise. The examples they are working with are all familiar celebrities, increasing engagement and motivation. The length of the project is not overwhelming and can probably be finished in two-three weeks.


PBL Reflection #1

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This week introduced me to project-based learning (PBL). While I have heard of this, I had no real understanding of what it entailed. What I learned intrigued me, but is also making me nervous. I feel like the more I read, the more questions I have. While I have answered the “what?”, now I must figure out the “how?”. And right now, I have no idea how to do that.

My students are all special education students that have been in self-contained classes for their entire school careers. None of them have basic math skills mastered, indeed after 20 plus years, I still find myself surprised when they use their calculators to answer something as basic as five times zero. And yet most of them do. Almost every single time. And some of the ones that don’t, get it wrong. My strongest students have math skills that are in the 5th-grade range. How can I teach them enough algebra to get them through a high-stakes test that they must pass to graduate, and still incorporate PBL? How do I teach these basic skills and use PBL? Can I use PBL to teach basic skills?

I love using activities and exploration in my classroom and spend a lot of time searching for material that will fit well with my students’ capabilities and interests. Invariably, an activity that says it can be completed in a period or two will take my students at least a week, often with so much hand-holding that it almost becomes direct instruction. If short activities take us so long to complete, I can’t imagine how much time gold-standard PBL will take. This seems almost insurmountable to me. I never have enough time. With forty-minute class periods, if I do a warm up, it takes 25% of my class time. Going over homework? Another ten minutes, at least. That leaves 2o minutes to teach a lesson, guide practice and allow for some independent practice too. Plus a closure activity. Most days, I feel like I come up short.

I find myself being afraid of PBL. I’m afraid that my students won’t engage. They have been spoon-fed for so long that it is a constant battle of wills to make them try to think on their own. They are masters at playing the waiting game, and I am ashamed to admit that there are days that I cave.

I’m afraid that I won’t have the time to do this right. I am a perfectionist, and I struggle with accepting that something is “good enough”. Teaching full time, college classes, playing the role of both parents, tutoring, conference presentations….where do I find the time to do this and do it right? I am known for implementing new strategies in an effort to reach my students. I’m the only educator in my district that uses interactive notebooks. My co-teacher and I are the only math teachers at our high school that use technology regularly. I present at local and state conferences on both topics. Isn’t this enough?

And yet, there is a small voice inside of me that insists that not only can it be done, but that I can do it, and probably should. That I can use PBL to make a seemingly irrelevant topic, not only relevant to my population but engaging too. I am not the only teacher with these limitations. I need to find a way around them because I truly believe that this will be better for my students. I am hoping that this class will be my guide.


What is Project Based Learning?

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What are the current and potential issues surrounding the use of Project Based Learning in traditional or nontraditional schools?

What do the numbers say? How many K-12 teachers/students/schools/programs are involved in the move toward PBL?

While PBL is a huge buzzword in education today, less than 1% of school districts in the United States are actually teaching with it (Glenn, 2016).  As I read through the BIE website, I got the impression that this number was much higher. So why aren’t more districts jumping on the PBL bandwagon?

  • There is a lot of information on the BIE website, but since few districts are using PBL, most teachers that choose to implement it are on their own. Not only must they create projects by themselves, most have to do this sight unseen. This can be equated somewhat to groping in the dark. According to Glenn, teachers are finding that “even after significant training, it can initially take three times more time to plan and organize projects than teaching with a traditional lecture and test format” (2016). With all the pieces and parts that make up a teacher’s job today, it is difficult to find the time to implement PBL at the Gold Standard Level. This is a huge concern, according to Mergendoller, who states that if PBL is not rigorous, or if it is poorly implemented, it “runs the risk of becoming another one of yesterday’s educational fads – vaguely remembered and rarely practiced” (2015).
  • Changing school culture is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Most teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. While many of us are interested in changing our methods, it is so easy to get derailed and fall back into what we are most comfortable with. In times of stress, it is easier to do what we have always done, rather than continue to fight to blaze a new trail. It can be difficult to change from the instructor to the facilitator, leading to frustration from both teachers and their students.
  • High-stakes testing has become a fact of life in public schools. Many teachers express concern about taking the time to do PBL when many classes end in a high-stakes assessment. According to Larmer, “in well-designed projects students gain content knowledge and academic skills as well as learn how to solve problems, work in teams, think creatively and communicate their ideas” (2015). These are all areas that are part of the rigorous standards and shifts in instruction for Common Core.

Are at-risk students served by programs that incorporate PBL? How?

Students who are at-risk can be a challenge to engage in the classroom. These students tend to have high absenteeism rates and perform poorly in academics. PBL, by bringing the real world into the classroom through relevant projects, can increase engagement in at-risk students. According to Elias, “The feeling of being engaged in a setting or group happens when students have opportunities to receive positive recognition and to make positive contributions, can spend time in environments in which teamwork is encouraged, and get help learning new skills that they find valuable and helpful in their lives” (2009). PBL addresses all of these, increasing the chance that these students will stay in school.

Students with IEPs are another sector of at-risk students. PBL can increase engagement by easily allowing for modification and differentiation within a project. “Special needs students often flourish in project-based learning, since projects provide a variety of learning modalities for students to show their understanding (Cochran, n.d.). While I can see this working in a collaborative classroom, with a solid mix of regular and special education students, I have concerns about successfully implementing PBL in a self-contained setting. “PBL projects incorporate a good deal more student autonomy, choice, unsupervised work time, and responsibility than traditional instruction and traditional projects” (Thomas, 2000, p. 4). My self-contained students do not handle any of these things well and have been spoon-fed to the point that they are at best unwilling, and at worst, unable to think for themselves.  According to the Buck Institute for Education, teachers “must take into account what is possible in their classroom (Introduction to Project-Based Learning, n.d.).  Teachers in self-contained settings will need to find creative ways to overcome these challenges and allow their students to find success with PBL. For many, the time involved, coupled with students’ large gaps in knowledge and looming high-stakes testing, especially testing that impacts graduation, makes PBL a daunting challenge for this population.

What role does NCLB play in encouraging/inhibiting the use of PBL in traditional classrooms?

NCLB directly led to the current state of education, complete with high-stakes testing that assumes one-size fits all. As a special educator whose students must pass a test that is far above their capabilities in order to graduate, there is not enough time to cover the curriculum to a level that will ensure these students success. This leads to teaching to the test and inhibits teachers’ ability to incorporate PBL to the gold standards demanded by the Bucks Institute. The Common Core is trying to change this with the instructional shifts, but until the reliance on high-stakes assessments lessens, I am not convinced that PBL will become mainstream in public schools.



Cochran, D. (n.d.). Opportunities abound. Retrieved from

Elias, M. (2009, January 22). The four keys to helping at-risk kids. Retrieved from

Glenn, P. (2016, April 23). Why project-based learning hasn’t gone mainstream (and what we can do about it). Retrieved from

Introduction to project based learning. (n.d.)  In Buck Institute for Education. Retrieved from

Larmer, J. (2015, October 21). Debunking 5 Mmyths about project-based learning. Retrieved from

Thomas, J. (2000, March). A review of research on project-based learning. Retrieved from

EdTech 542 Self-Advertisement

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Our first assignment was to create a self-advertisement. This is what I came up with.