by Kristen Uliasz
Today’s classrooms are increasingly full of diverse learners with a spectrum of personalities, cultural identities, and ability levels. There is much to say about why “all students should have access to Project Based Learning” as Bob Lenz, the executive director of BIE writes in his blog, Project-Based Learning With an Equity Lens. This is a soapbox on which I have a tendency to find myself, even by accident, because I passionately believe it and have seen it in action. But, this post is about how to give all students access to PBL.
As you can imagine, that is a huge topic. Today, I’ll focus more narrowly on adapting curriculum within project design as a means to provide access to PBL. While these ideas may only apply directly to specific students with modifications and accommodations designated in their IEP, the resources provided can also be used to create supplemental materials for students who are not yet identified, learning English as a second language, below grade level, or otherwise struggling.
As an advocate and practitioner of inclusion, I know that when we bring the needs of our most marginalized students to the center of our attention and intentionally plan for their success in general education classrooms, instruction improves and all students benefit. This is what Universal Design for Learning is all about, and in PBL it starts with project design.
Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Utilizing Special Ed Staff
People are often our best resource. If you believe in the ideal of collaboration for students, but you aren’t utilizing it yourself in planning for their learning, you are missing opportunities and your students are missing out.
Your special education staff are high on the list of people you should strategically seek out and create time to consult on specific aspects of your project design. Special education teachers can help you to understand the abilities and needs of specific students with IEPs in your class, and may also have special insight into what might engage them.
More broadly, they are a wealth of knowledge about effective instructional strategies and experts in scaffolding student learning, which can apply far beyond the students on their caseloads. Not to mention, they are specifically trained to increase students’ communication, self-management, and problem-solving skills—key success skills in Gold Standard PBL.
As an inclusion and resource specialist in a PBL high school myself, I want to share some of my go-to’s when designing projects to ensure all students have access to the curriculum.
Find or Create Modified Text
There are several resources available to provide students with modified reading levels within projects. This is a great way to differentiate instruction and push students’ independent reading skills, or use as a supplemental resource to make sure students stay in tune with the big ideas of the project.
I know, I know - Wikipedia? Hear me out. Simple Wikipedia is a great place to find overviews of grade level content written in plain language, and it has become a starting place for me when creating modified text on the diverse and often unpredictable topics that projects require. I also appreciate that it is not called “Kids” Wikipedia, like so many other resources with simplified language.
When it comes to literature, if I can’t find an adapted version already published, I use SparkNotes and modify as needed to different reading levels. I often create modified chapter summaries and analysis, add visuals, and even record myself—
or better yet, a student—reading the text aloud to pair with the writing. Of course, I consult with teachers to make sure that the characters, events, themes, and symbols relevant to the project are highlighted in these modified versions.
Depending on your content needs, this tool may replace the previous three. Rewordify allows you to copy and paste any text and will simplify the language for you. It even allows you to choose different levels and features to meet the specific needs of your students.
Use Technology to Provide Access to Content
There are many a blog devoted solely to this, but I’d be remiss if I didn't share at least a couple of my favorites.
Not just for flipped classrooms, video modeling lessons are great tools that allow students with different ability levels to learn content and skills at their own pace. You can keep it simple, and use smartphones or tablets to create videos that model needed success skills. Khan Academy has a huge library of video lessons for different skills to choose from, assign, and track. Or, you can use a site like Zaption to create your own video assignments more specific to a task or level.
It should go without saying that these tools and tips are not stand-alone substitutes or quick fixes, but rather a starting point for thoughtfully designing and embedding adapted curriculum.
As you design your next project, I implore you to consider the needs of your most marginalized struggling students. Who requires curriculum adaptations? Which of these ideas might work for your required content? How could your other students benefit from these resources?
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