EdTech 542

Final Reflection on EdTech 542 – Project-Based Learning

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When I enrolled in this class. I had no real concept of what project-based learning entailed. I assumed it would be similar to EdTech 541, in that we would be creating numerous small projects to use in our classrooms. The reality could not have been further from the truth! Project-based learning, while it does involve projects, is a much more in-depth and inclusive tool than I ever imagined. In fact, it is a lot like assembling the perfect burger; many components are required to ensure that everything is in balance, allowing for that perfect bite. Gold standard projects pull from multiple subject areas, revolve around a driving question that must be both authentic and open-ended, allow students to dig deep into the question to find the means to answer it, and involve a public presentation at the end.


PBL can be time-consuming, and that is where I continue to struggle with this tool. How can I effectively implement true PBL in my self-contained special education classroom with the time constraints and large mathematical knowledge gaps that all of my students display? They require so much direct instruction and drill to grasp algebraic concepts that I worry about the amount of time a project would require and the level of frustration a true gold standard project will cause. This is not a strategy that is used in my district. Can it be successfully implemented with my population for the first time in 9th grade? On a more selfish note, my teacher score is based on my students’ results on a test that is not designed with their abilities in mind, that doesn’t take their challenges into consideration and is written at levels almost impossible for them to understand well enough to be successful. And while I know that my score should not matter, that it is not what good teaching is all about, the unfortunate reality is that it does. If my scores are routinely low, I can lose my job. I can even be publicly shamed. In 2012, the New York City Education Department publicized evaluation scores for their teachers in media such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which publicized individual teachers’ names and scores. It is not surprising that the lowest score belonged to a non-regular educator.

Because my expectations of the course were so far off from the reality of it, what I actually learned has little to do with what I expected to learn. I learned what gold standard PBL entails. I was introduced to the Buck Institute and found the planning forms, instructional tools and rubrics offered there to be essential. Using the provided checklists and information kept me focused and moving in the right direction for the duration of a very short class. I could not have completed everything that was required in such a short time period without the tools provided by this site.

While I like the concept of PBL and feel that it can be a very effective strategy, it is not a tool that I will use more than once or maybe twice a year with my students. I can envision using this at the end of a semester, as a way to bring many concepts together. My students gain greater understanding of individual concepts when they can take a step back and see how they all tie together. I plan to use PBL as a way to accomplish this, in an engaging, informative manner.

My schedule is changing. Next year, I am adding 8th grade to my current 9th and 10th-grade classes. Within the next two years, I will also add 7th and 11th grades. This means that I will teach math to self-contained students from grades 7 through 11. Once this happens, my hope is that PBL will become a bigger part of my curriculum. The continuity of having the same students for the same subject for at least five years will allow me to adapt many strategies that I would find difficult to implement otherwise. I plan to start small in 7th grade, exposing them to more collaborative, group activities, and increase those activities in both number and depth as we progress through middle school and high school. I am greatly looking forward to this and the impact it will have on the way I can teach my students.

PBL Reflection #7 – Post-Project Reflection

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dreamstime_xs_24412933The reflection that comes after a project is completed is arguably as important, if not more so, than the reflection that occurs during it. Whenever we gain new knowledge, we need time to think about it and decide how it fits with our view of the world. Reflection is a huge part of PBL. Students reflect on what they have learned and the impact that has on their thought process throughout a project. Teachers use that reflection to facilitate instruction and increase understanding and engagement. I use interactive notebooks with my students and make my own copy with each class. If you were to look through my notebook, you would find numerous sticky notes about what worked, what didn’t work, and ideas to improve a particular foldable for next year. These notes contain both my reflections and those of my students. Were they engaged? Could they make it correctly? Are they using it?

Reflection after a project follows much the same pattern. I think of it as a debriefing and would start the process with each student completing the Buck Institute’s “Self-Reflection on Project Work” form. Once this was complete, students could meet in their PBL groups to discuss their thinking. After small group discussion, the entire class should share their thoughts and ideas, allowing for new thoughts and ideas to build on the old ones. Collaboration is the key behind PBL, so it makes sense that the final reflection should also be a collaborative effort.

Reflection of PBL should include the audience as well as anyone who had a hand in the project itself. This could be done through a survey if needed, but a face-to-face conversation would be my preference. Find a time to gather everyone around a table and talk about what went well, what needs more work, what should be added and other important considerations. A survey for the audience to fill out would also be helpful.

Edutopia offers a list of 40 reflection questions that is very comprehensive. Questions are divided into four categories: backward looking, inward looking, outward looking and forward looking. The list is designed for students but many of the questions could apply to teacher reflection. You can find the list here.

The 40 Reflection Questions (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/resource/40-student-reflection-questions-download

Self-Reflection of Project Work (n.d.). Retrieved from http://bie.org/object/document/self_reflection_on_project_work




PBL Reflection #6 – Managing the Process

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Change is scary. Change is hard. PBL is far outside of my comfort zone, and the thought of implementing it makes me nervous. But I have found that my fear is often much worse than the reality. I just need to make up my mind to do it. Going back to school was nerve-wracking. It has been a long time since I was on the other side of the desk and I was not sure that I could handle it. While this program is a lot of work, I have found that the reality of being back in school is not nearly as bad as my fear. I need to remember this when I am faced with change.

As an instructor in a PBL unit, my role in the classroom will change a lot. Right now, the majority of my day is direct instruction. I am the sage on the stage and my students/parents expect this. This is the format they are used to, and change makes them even more uncomfortable than it makes me! As I have worked my way through this class, I am finding myself more comfortable with introducing some projects. I like the idea of mini-workshops for students who are struggling with a concept. I can see myself working with smaller groups as needed and letting them find their wings when I am not.

Effective facilitation is the cornerstone of a successful project. The teacher must offer enough instruction to students without offering too much. Knowing the students well is imperative, as this will drive the amount of instruction that is necessary for them to find success instead of frustration. Many of the usual teacher responsibilities are shifted to the students. They will decide how to find and use information, what their roles are within their groups, solve problems as they arise and evaluate themselves and each other. The teacher can guide discussion, listen and ask good questions to encourage students to consider many avenues of thought.

My biggest concern with PBL is if my students will actually learn the material I need them to learn. They all have large knowledge gaps that I already find impossible to close during a single school year. Having my students for multiple years will help address this issue, but the concern is still there. The biggest change I need to make is my way of thinking. If I look at PBL as a way to teach life skills with some math involved, I think I will find more success with less frustration and fear. Many of my students are functioning at the third-grade level or below. It is not feasible to expect them to successfully complete a high school algebra class. Using PBL to give them some skills that will help them outside of school may be the best thing I can do for them. By shifting my expectations, I can ease some of the frustration these students feel on a daily basis. Incorporating PBL will better allow me to differentiate, giving the stronger students more challenging math and allowing them to practice their skills by helping their peers. Often, students will listen to each other when they do not listen to me. After all, what do I know? I’m just the teacher! I need to remember this and approach PBL as it says in the quote, as a process instead of an event.


Managing the Process

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While PBL may have a slightly different look in my special education algebra classroom, it will still be very different than any other classroom in the district. I cannot get away with being the guide on the side for the entire project; the learning gaps are too significant, and my students are too dependent to avoid a lot of direct instruction. It is my hope that if I incorporate PBL more often, my students will learn to be more autonomous and be more willing to search out answers with less help. In an attempt to add continuity and expose our special education students to a math certified teacher, my boss is adding 8th grade to my classes next year and is trying to add 7th as well. If 7th doesn’t happen this year, then it will next year for sure. This will give me the same group of students (more or less) from 7th through 11th grades, and allow me to use strategies like PBL. The longer time frame increases my chance of success.


Some criticisms that I anticipate are things like the extra noise in the classroom. I can see an administrator wanting to know how any learning is happening when students are out of their seats, and everyone is working on something different. When I do facilitate in my classroom, I am always wary of someone walking into my room and thinking I am not doing anything because I am not at the front of the room teaching. I can envision getting phone calls from parents telling me the that the work is too hard or the project is too long. Another issue that may come up is how students receive grades. Are they based on the group as a whole? What if someone isn’t doing the work?

There are numerous ways to respond to these concerns. The most important is visibility. We must have an open door policy, and be ready for anyone to stop in, observe and ask questions, both of us and of our students. I would try to lay the foundation before the school year starts but sending home letters explaining what we will be doing in the classroom and why. I may choose to enclose some relevant articles and invite parents to stop in and see what it looks like. I would also address this during our Open House, with a presentation that includes pictures of the classes working on their projects. I would also make sure that parents and administrators are included in the final presentations of our projects.

My students are forever asking me when they are going to use this level of math. The honest answer is that they aren’t. My pat answer is that I am using algebra to teach them how to approach a problem and find a solution. That’s a life skill that they need to acquire. PBL lets me take that several steps further, incorporating more of the skills they need to be successful after high school. Through PBL I can teach them how to research effectively, how to use Web 2.0 tools to create engaging presentations, how to function in a group setting, and how to deliver a presentation. It teaches them how to problem-solve and how to work on their own, with guidance from someone rather than direct instruction. Coming up with solutions through research and discussion and making those solutions public will instill pride and a sense of accomplishment in students who rarely find these things in school. That alone is enough of a rationale to include PBL in my curriculum.

PBL Reflection #5 – Scaffolding

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6a00d8341c650653ef01310fba4d31970c-500wiIf you search for the word scaffolding in the dictionary, you will not find any definition that mentions education. But ask any special educator about scaffolding and you will get an earful. In its simplest form, scaffolding is supports for students. And special education teachers are masters at it.

I teach algebra to special education students. Scaffolding is something that I do every single day. For my inclusive students, scaffolding allows them to function successfully in a regular classroom. For my self-contained students, scaffolding increases understanding of difficult concepts and decreases frustration, giving those students the tools they need to pass the state exam and graduate from high school.

So what is scaffolding? According to the Glossary of Education Reform, scaffolding “refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process” (2015). Alber describes scaffolding as “breaking up the learning into chunks and then providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk” (2014).  This is vitally important in PBL, as students may find this new way of learning overwhelming without extra support.

Our project, Burger Battle, is designed with special education students in mind. It is comprised of three acts. The first is quite detailed, with more direct instruction, more modeling and more teacher input. It includes teaching and practicing concepts that are part of this unit. The teacher is expected to vocalize thought processes to model this behavior for students. Prior knowledge is activated by linking the topic to real life, and then asking questions like “What do you wonder?” or “What do you need to know to answer that question?”  The second act removes some of the scaffolding, allowing students to take more responsibility for their learning. There is less direct instruction, and less teacher input. The students start to take the reigns, and as they are working together in carefully designated groups, success, while not guaranteed, is anticipated. The final act removes even more of the scaffolding, giving students full responsibility for their final product. Even then, the teacher can quickly put back supports if they are needed, or remove others that are not. We started Act One having students answer a specific question with a  blog post. My students tend to have a hard time with writing assignments, and open-ended reflection posts are very intimidating. The hope is that by Act Three, some of them will have progressed enough to be able to successfully complete a reflective blog post, with minimal teacher input.

We have created numerous rubrics to show students exactly what they need to do. The standards this project is based on will be posted in the classroom for students to see, and discussed thoroughly. We included a list of possible resources they can use to create their final products and students have access to our graphic organizer on Pinterest if they need it, which includes many articles about the topics included in this project.The one thing we are missing is examples of quality work. This being a new project, we have no examples of great products to share but plan to add those as soon as possible. I am sure that as we use this project, we will continue to adjust the scaffolding. I have found that the supports I put in place change, depending on when I use a particular activity and with whom. That makes sense to me, as different learners will require different supports, leading to a truly individualized experience, even within something like project based learning.



Alber, R. (2014, Janary 24). 6 scaffolding strategies to use with your students. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber

Scaffolding (2015, April 6). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from http://edglossary.org/scaffolding/


Planning and Preparing

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The Internet and Web 2.0 tools play a huge part in our project. My students are on the wrong side of the digital divide. Fifty percent of the students in my district live in poverty. Almost 100% of my special education population meets that criteria. Many of them do not have access to the Internet outside of school, nor are there computers in their homes. If they do have access, it tends to be through a cell phone. My district went 1:1 with Chromebooks last fall. I feel it is very important to incorporate those 21st-century skills into my lessons. If I am not teaching my students how to access and use these tools, who will?

Industrial worker with the construction plan

In planning our Burger Battle, Cindy and I have incorporated many Web 2.0 tools. We have an Edmodo classroom set up for students to post answers to teacher-directed questions. This is a solid first step towards introducing students to blogging. They will be required to post not only their answers but also responses to their peers’ posts. We are encouraging them to add links and other multimedia to their posts through the expectations detailed in the rubrics. Our Tools and Resources page lists many Web 2.0 tools that students can use to create an infographic and put together a presentation. Everything created will be posted on Edmodo for classmates to view and comment on. Teachers, parents, and administrators from the district will be invited to our Edmodo site, giving students a very public forum for their work. A graduate of our district owns a local gym and is very involved with both our staff and or students. It will add authenticity to invite him to view our Edmodo site as well.

Student Learning GuideScreen Shot 2016-05-28 at 9.28.18 PM


Entry Event

Tools and Resources

PBL Reflection #4 – Planning the Assessment

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assessmentMy district uses the Danielson Evaluation Rubric for teacher evaluations. In Domain 1, Component 1f – Designing Student Assessments; to be found highly effective, it must be evident that students contributed to the development of criteria and standards. Student input is found throughout the rubric under the distinguished column, and it is an area in which I find myself struggling to incorporate. My classroom is more instructivist than I would like, but I have found it very difficult to use projects with self-contained classrooms that are lacking many of the pre-requisites for algebra. Even though my students are not self-starters, there has to be a way to push them in this direction without creating anxiety and frustration to the point where they just shut down. I have tried to keep this in mind as I thought about how to assess the learning that should occur during this project.

As my partner and I worked to create assessments for our project, I printed the Seven Principles for Developing Performance Assessments and kept them where I could see and refer to them. According to J.S. McTighe, the seven principles are:

  1. Establish Clear Performance Targets
  2. Strive for Authenticity in Products and Performances
  3. Publicize Criteria and Performance Standards
  4. Provide Models of Excellence
  5. Teach Strategies Explicitly
  6. Use On-Going Assessments for Feedback and Adjustment
  7. Document and Celebrate Success

In our project, we have created several rubrics. We have also created other assessment tools, including peer feedback forms, checkoff lists, Google form pretests and regular pencil and paper quizzes. As we discussed how best to assess the learning during this project, we tried to use as many of the above strategies as possible. Our expectations are clearly stated in the assessments and use authentic real-world experiences to practice math standards. The criteria are part of each learning Guide in each Act, so students will have their own copy to refer to. Our assessments are found throughout the project, giving us enough information and time to adjust instruction as necessary. Special education teachers document everything, so our assessments are built to give me the ability to use the results to show growth and learning, allowing me to prove that we are working towards the goals on student IEPs. Cindy and I both agree that we lack models of excellence. I, too, find that looking at student examples increases my understanding of the requirements exponentially. I look forward to being able to meet this requirement as I start using PBL more often with my students and can build a base of great examples to share.

One of our summative assessments for this project is to have our students create a presentation that each group will share with the health classes in the middle and high school. This meets the criteria set by the organization “What Kids Can Do” by having their performance viewed by a large part of the district, as well as teachers from o departments and schools. I plan to record these presentations to allow us to critique the performances in class. Once recorded, they could then be made public for even greater sharing. Students will work harder and take more pride in their product when they know someone other than their teacher will be looking at it.