How PBL Ignites SPED Education

How PBL Ignites SPED Education

By Jill Koenemann (originally published in the January 2019 issue of AC&E)

It’s one thing to talk about changing the way you teach, and another to actually try a new approach in the classroom. At a PLC meeting last year, my colleagues and I started talking about how to teach 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving in a classroom where students have a range of abilities. We were looking for a curriculum that would help students connect what they were learning with their own lives.

The conversation quickly shifted to project-based learning (PBL). This approach suits children with learning difficulties because it allows them to work at their own pace. For collaborative projects, teachers can pair higher- and lower-functioning students, who will then work together to accomplish a common goal that is often bigger or more comprehensive than what they could have done on their own. PBL can and should be fun: students have the opportunity to collaborate with their friends and share their final project at the end!

Connecting the Classroom to Students’ Lives

I didn’t set out to make my first project such an emotional one, but the Parkland shooting in Florida happened to coincide with us starting a unit called “Survival,” and this project brought our class together at a difficult time.

I included six students with varying disabilities. It focused on the challenging topic of survivor’s guilt. We started by reading the short story “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami, which is about a man whose best friend dies when he was 10. In the story, the man tells how he dealt with survivor’s guilt and PTSD for the rest of his life. We tied this story in with an op-ed entitled “The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt” by Nancy Sherman, as well as coverage about the Parkland school shooting and how those kids had to return to school without their friends. The goal was for the students to create a visual representation of how the two stories connected and how they were different, to see how fiction and non-fiction go together.

Encouraging Collaboration

Using a visual collaboration platform called Project Pals, students structured their thinking, collaborated on ideas digitally, and constructed argumentative essays. Working this way also supported our pedagogical shift towards infusing technology into all of our lessons, following the SAMR Model. For this project, students gathered all of their resources and put them in the platform to produce something that was much more than a pencil-and-paper report. You can see more in my video demonstration of the survivor’s guilt project.

The results of our project have been nothing short of astounding. The essays and projects submitted by my students were fantastic; I attribute this sudden increase in quality of work to the three factors:

  • The power of connecting learning with real life;
  • Providing students with the opportunity to collaborate in a controlled environment; and
  • My shift to a PBL approach.

5 Tips for Getting Started with PBL in your diverse classroom

Now that that I’ve gotten through this project and another one about World War I, I’m excited to pass on what I learned from the process with three local special needs teachers so that we can begin using PBL in more SPED classrooms. Here are some of the best practices that I’ll share with them about getting started with project-based learning:

  • Get involved with a supportive group of people. Collaborative teaching supports collaborative learning!
  • Choose a platform with strong customer support, because PBL can be daunting at first. If you’re new to PBL like I was, consider looking for a platform that will help you design your first couple of projects.
  • Visualize the process of how to structure each project before you get started.
  • Time is an issue for every teacher. Use PBL to work smarter, not harder.
  • Start with a short project and work your way into a larger project. This is mostly for teachers’ benefit, since kids pick up technology so much faster than adults.

PBL certainly took some getting used to, but I firmly believe that it is the future of SPED education, because these kids need 21st-entury skills to succeed in school and in life.

Jill Koenemann is a high school special needs teacher in Michigan’s Monroe ISD. She can be reached at

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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