Eureka and Middle School Math · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

A deeper understanding of Project-Based Learning (PBL)

beach-15712_1920This summer, I had the honor of co-teaching a graduate course on Universal Design for Learning and Project-Based Learning with our Literacy Coach, Danielle Patenaude.  Danielle kept me on my toes–every time we sat down to have a phone-grading session, she challenged me to hold the teachers in the course to a true understanding and implementation of both Universal Design for Learning AND Project-Based Learning.  (Thanks, Danielle!)

When I think about implementing Project-Based Learning into my own practice, the challenge that I continue to run into, as a math teacher, is two-fold.  One, the current expectation in our district is that we will teach our district-approved curriculum, Eureka math.  As anyone who is familiar with Eureka knows, Eureka is a strong curriculum, but it is also intense, not overly UDL-friendly on some fronts, and very time-dense.  It is also not project-based, not designed around projects as the source of learning.


The second stumbling block of mine continues to be the issue of time.  We need to get our curriculum taught before our state testing window opens.  We lose time to schedule changes–we have a new schedule this year that takes away the equivalent of one full class period a week, every week–and to disruptions for testing, fire drills, our own assessments, etc.  Project-based learning takes time…and time is thin on the ground.

The compromise we’ve come to, and I think it’s one many of us end up at, is to do projects as end-game activities, rather than Project-Based Learning as the vehicle for teaching content.  For example, last year, my two 7th grade math colleagues and I put together this choice menu of math projects for the end of the year:

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Honestly, before I worked with Danielle this summer, I thought our projects were pretty good.  I like that we had a variety (hello, UDL!) and that there were options.  I liked that students chose two from six and that we had offered some more visual than others, some more text-based, etc.  And I think the projects ARE pretty strong on the UDL front, but they are, to be blunt, not Project-Based Learning.

The reason I can say that with conviction is that, every time we sat down to grade, Danielle would draw my attention back to the question of how the project we were assessing did or did not address a real-world question.  It took me most of the summer to wrap my head around that idea, to wrap my head around how we, as the teachers of the course, needed to be looking for that question.  Until or unless a project was asking students to address a real-world problem, it was just a project, not project-based learning.

So, I think the projects Irene, Melissa, and I created were valuable and are worth revising and offering to students next year.  I’m not saying we should throw them out.  But I am saying that I am committing to a better precision in my own language, a better understanding about the difference.


Thank you to Melissa Gordon and Irene Witt for designing, revising, and implementing the first round of these project in June 2019.

Thanks to Danielle Patenaude and the course participants (Jackie, Jacqui, Codi, Alison, Maria, Dorothy, Mary, Emily, Kelly, Sarah, Mark, Maureen, and Karyn) for a wonderful summer course–as always, you blew my mind and pushed me to do better than I’ve done before.  I am appreciative.

Visit Danielle’s Coaching website for more information.

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