By Jamie Kumiega
The project-based learning (PBL) trend is sweeping schools across the nation, and my special ed (SPED) classroom is no exception. Students in my classroom have a variety of disabilities, which make specialized instruction in content areas necessary. In class, we focus on functional life skills that are needed to achieve success in academic and post-secondary life.
A project-based approach works exceptionally well for my students, since it provides them different learning opportunities and is adaptable enough to meet the needs of students on every level.
Here are the top three reasons I use PBL with my students:
PBL is customizable to fit every student’s individual learning needs.
To help me plan my lessons, I use Defined STEM – an online resource with hundreds of real-world performance tasks segmented 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.
The flexibility of PBL also allows students to create final projects that showcase their strengths. Defined STEM makes it easy for me to pick and choose what’s appropriate for my students and customize every piece of the lesson for each individual. The wide variety of lessons helps me plan projects based on what I know students are interested in.
PBL helps build social and presentation skills.
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.
PBL bridges the gap between the classroom and the real world.
I use PBL to help bring the outside world into the classroom. 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. These real-world, project-based lessons are also cross-curricular, so I am able to incorporate STEM, literacy, and social studies into one project.
Jamie Kumiega is a special education teacher at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL.