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Years ago, my friend Chad (who tragically passed away from cancer last year) started the 21st Century Classroom initiative in our district. Teachers would be part of six-person teams where they would attend professional development, receive state-of-the-art technology, and have a learning coach who would help them implement student-centered learning. Teachers had to apply to be a part of this program.

But this wasn’t a gifted cluster or an initiative for honor’s classes. This initiative was only available for teachers who taught the ELL classes. We focused our professional development on how to integrate language acquisition strategies into project-based learning, writer’s workshops, inquiry-based learning, and other student-centered approaches. Meanwhile, Javier and Sarah led the initiative to redesign a rote-based, skills-based ELL summer school into a creativity-infused summer STEM camp centered on project-based learning.

Our philosophy was simple. ELL students deserved access to the same student-centered projects that gifted students were already doing. Soon, another colleague Jen led the way with special education, showing how we could blend universal design with things like student blogging and podcasting. This 21st Century Learning initiative was a hub in an unlikely space with an unlikely group of students. Our ELL students and our exceptional learners had genuine voice and choice in their learning. They had access to authentic PBL.

And yet, this initiative was not the norm. In our district, it was more common for gifted students to use technology for project-based learning and inquiry-based learning. They used their devices to connect to authors via Skype and experts through email. Meanwhile, many of the ELL and Special Education students used an adaptive learning program that delivered digital worksheets for a reading intervention program. Instead of designing and creating and problem-solving, they spent hours in isolation doing leveled multiple-choice tests.

As I work with pre-service teachers, I continue to see this trend. Low-income students, ELL students, and Special Education students are less likely to experience student-centered projects – the kind of that truly empower them with voice and choice.

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Why This Is Happening

In some cases, the lack of access is due to implicit bias. I’ve heard some teachers say things like, “I just don’t think my ELL students are ready for something like project-based learning” or “My special education students are too low. They’ll just get frustrated.” Sometimes they referenced issues with classroom management but often it’s the idea that somehow projects are simply too advanced for certain students. This implicit bias reinforces the creative chasm. It’s the belief that that PBL is great for advanced kids but students with disabilities or students who are still learning a new language just need “the basics.”

Often, there’s a philosophy that students must attain basic academic skills first and then focus on soft skills later. Here, PBL is something you get to after the “real learning” has happened. Two decades ago, Howard Gardner wrote in The Disciplined Mind, that progressive education (including PBL) were not ideal “for disadvantaged children, who do not acquire literacy in the dominant culture at home.” For Gardner “a prescribed curriculum helps to provide a level playing field and to ensure that future citizens enjoy a common knowledge base.” However, this reveals a deficit mindest about low-income students and assumes that they have no prior knowledge or cultural assets to bring to the table.

Meanwhile, we know that PBL can lead to moderate increases in academic achievement but it leads to higher retention of information.  Meaningful projects can boost student engagement and increase student agency and self-direction.  However, even when a teacher believes in PBL and wants to launch a project with their ELL and special education, they often face external pressures.

When I first started out on my PBL journey, I faced the following fears:

I taught in a high-stakes environment. PBL sounded great but the state test was the 2-ton elephant in the room. Actually, it wasn’t an elephant. It was more like the Demogorgon in Stranger Things: dark, invisible, its claws pulling people to an underworld of isolation and disengagement.  We had a strong focus on academic achievement, which made project-based learning feel even riskier. In other words, sometimes ELL and Special Education students don’t have access to PBL because of implicit bias. However, it’s often an issue of external policies – whether it’s because students are being pulled out more often for skills-based interventions, teachers are stuck using a scripted curriculum, or the school is emphasizing student achievement as the top metric.

This creative chasm has long-term consequences. Students who engage in authentic project-based learning have increased agency and ownership. They’re often more excited and engaged in their learning. When this happens, they retain the information for a longer amount of time while also learning vital technology skills like digital citizenship and media literacy. However, they also learn vital soft skills, such as collaboration, communication, curation, and problem-solving. As they work through iterations and revise their work, they develop a growth mindset. Often, they learn how to seek out constructive feedback. This connection to the community can help them develop empathy.

Five Ways to Make PBL More Inclusive

The following are specific ways we can craft our units so that every student has access to project-based learning.

1. Teach students to self-select scaffolds.

Create tutorials and resources for all students and then allow them to determine when they need to use them.

By making things like sentence stems, anchor charts, and other resources available to all students, you reduce the stigma while teaching students how to self-manage and self-advocate. This might seem like “lowering the standards,” but think of this way. There’s a good chance that you’ve used curb cuts when walking on a sidewalk. You’ve also used Siri or Alexa or you’ve used voice-to-text while texting. You might run closed captioning on the television. In each case, they design elements were originally created to help people with disabilities but are readily available regardless of status.

I remember learning this lesson the hard way as an eighth-grade teacher. I gave my ELL students sentence stems to guide them during the peer feedback part of a project. At one point, a gifted student raised his hand and said, “I feel like I could use one of those handouts. Could I have one?”

I nodded.

Another student asked for one. Then another. Finally, I paused the lesson and said, “These are sentence stems. They’re sort of like templates for discussions. You can use them and modify them if you’d like. Think of them like a blueprint for your discussion.” I then set the sentence stems on a table in the back and about half of my students chose to use them.

Note that this doesn’t mean you need to require all students to use scaffolds. I made that opposite mistake by requiring students to use specific scaffolds in research, reasoning that it couldn’t hurt to require each student to use a specific methodology. However, certain students braced against these requirements. What I meant to be a scaffold felt like a cage to students who had already mastered the skills and processes. This is why I love the idea of having students self-select the scaffolds. It honors their agency.

2. Pull small groups.

Although it’s helpful to make scaffolding available to all students, you might still need to help certain students with key skills. For example, when doing our Tiny House Projects, I pulled some small groups for intervention in proportional reasoning. This allowed them to practice key skills within the project. Similarly, when students struggled with research, I pulled small groups to help students identify sources, make inferences, and summarize key information. However, the need for additional help did not negate the need for meaningful projects. With a few small group meetings, certain struggling students could have access to the skills necessary within the project.

I actually found it easier to pull small groups within a whole-class PBL project than in a traditional environment. With PBL, students were often working independently, which made it easier to pull small groups. I was also able to do one-on-one conferencing and quick check-ins.

3. Build interdependency into the projects.

Often, the default in a project is for one member to work independently while other members are dependent on the single member, merely filling in the gaps when asked to help. In these moments, it’s not uncommon for an ELL student or special education student to become marginalized. The solution is to have students work interdependently. If independent learning is fully autonomous and dependent learning involves students simply depending on another person, interdependence is the overlap, where students have autonomy but they must have mutual dependence on one another.


When students work interdependently, each member is adding value to the group project. Each member has something of value to add to the group. So, what does this look like? One example is the following brainstorming strategy. Notice that students must listen to one another depend on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group. This is a core idea of interdependence. Each member has something valuable to add.

Similarly, when doing research, every student can add additional information to the group’s shared knowledge. They can read texts that are varying reading levels and interest levels and then share what they learn during an interdependent research debrief. However, as a teacher, you sometimes need to integrate differentiation into mixed-level groups. You might provide specific scaffolds for students, such as sentence stems or tutorials. You might even pull students aside for small group interventions or do quick direct instruction lessons for students who need extra support.

In some cases, you might assign roles that correspond to skill levels. When students move from inquiry to research, they often need to narrow down their questions to determine which ones will actually guide the research process. Here’s what the process looks like. See if you can spot the interdependency and differentiation.

  • Students generate questions independently. They might need sample questions or sentence stems, but they can all create questions.
  • Once they have their questions, they can send them to a Google Document or submit them on a Google Form. Or if you want to go old school, students can have chart paper and smelly markers. Seriously, Mr. Sketch markers are the best. I don’t care about being Google Certified or Apple Certified but if Mr. Sketch ever does a certification, I might just do it.
  • Students analyze the questions to see if they are actually research questions. Each member has a role. The first member checks to see if the question is fact-based. The second checks if it is on-topic. The third checks to see if it is specific. The fourth person is the quality control leader.
  • Members #1-3 can put a star by each question that fits their criteria. So, member #1 looks at each question and puts a star by questions that are fact-based. Meanwhile, member #4 is available to help and observe. Then member #4 double-checks all the questions with three stars and circles or highlights it if it’s an actual research question.

Note that a struggling student might still be able to do the job of member #1 or 2 while a more advanced student can do #3. Meanwhile, the group member who typically dominates and achieves at a higher academic level learns to trust other members and wait and observe. However, they can still provide expertise as the quality control person who has the final say.

If you want to download the protocol described above, please fill out the following form and I’ll email it to you:

4. Honor each student’s expertise.

In the start-up world, they often talk about your “unfair advantage.” It’s your core hidden genius that might seem easy to you but is hard for everyone else. I think the same is true for us in our creative work. My unfair advantage is that I’m a fast reader and I easily connect ideas between multiple sources. Although I still sometimes feel insecure about my ability to draw, I suppose my other unfair advantage when teaching, speaking, or blogging, is my use of doodles and visuals. By contrast, my friend A.J. is an amazing systems thinker and his unfair advantage is being able to navigate complex systems easily while also being deeply empathetic toward people.

Students bring their unfair advantages to the classroom as well. However, it’s easy for teachers to miss these hidden talents with students who are either exceptional learners or English Language Learners. Too often, in school, we focus on what students can’t do and we miss out on what a student can do. I remember an ELL student I had who was shy and quiet but who could solve complex problems easily. Because of her language status, we almost missed her hidden genius. It took this one teacher, Nancy, to recommend her for gifted testing. Another time, I had a student who struggled with blogging and podcasting. But then, we did our Geek Out blogs and he began to share how much he knew about video games. Suddenly, he had a space where he could excel. True, blogging was still a struggle, but he was willing to engage in our blogging projects because it tapped into his passions and interests. This is why I love Genius Hour:

Genius Hour begins with a simple premise. Give your students 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards. With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey: They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditional academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep-sea creatures They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world. A word of caution: It’s not a free-for-all. The best Genius Hour projects have systems and structures that empower students to reach their full potential. Even so, there will be mistakes. You’ll have to experiment. But in the end, students are empowered to be self-directed learners, engaging in creativity and critical thinking. In other words, they own the learning.

As teachers, we can implement Genius Hour with all learners, regardless of their status. In the process, we send students the message that we value who they are and what they can bring to the table.

One of my favorite approaches to Genius Hour is the Geek Out Blog Project.

If you’d like to download the Geek Out Blog project, please fill out the form below and I’ll email it to you:

5. Partner with ELL and Special Education Teachers

This is the most obvious part but also the easiest to overlook. The best projects involve a partnership with ELL and Special Education teachers. It might involve taking a deeper dive into an IEP, 504 Plan, or ELL/ESOL documentation. But the idea is to seek out the expertise and advice from ELL and Special Education experts who can help you determine what accommodations you might need.

Some common ELL accommodations might be:

  • Front-loading vocabulary
  • Providing additional think time within group projects so that ELL students can process information
  • Providing translating help or partnering them with someone who is multilingual
  • Incorporating resources in their first language
  • Providing leveled sentence stems to help with discussions and writing
  • Providing mini-lessons on verb tense structures or providing verb tense formulas for complex texts within a project
  • Using visuals within the project to help facilitate language development
  • Incorporating technology tools such as the option to slow down videos or audio during the research components of a project (the x .5 or x .25)
  • Paying attention to a students’ affective filter and finding ways to reduce fear and anxiety they might experience during a project
  • Use structured listening/discussions within the project, including sample questions, scripts, and sentence stems

While the accommodations will vary even more with special education students (and you should always check the IEP), here are some examples:

  • Providing additional handouts to facilitate task-analysis and executive function
  • Pulling small groups for additional interventions
  • Differentiating the tasks within the groups so that each student can participate (see the example from interdependency)
  • Providing the necessary assistive technology
  • Teaching special education students how to access necessary tools and tutorials
  • Being flexible with deadlines and requirements around specific tasks

Ultimately, every student deserves access to meaningful PBL. However, it takes time and intentionality to make a PBL classroom truly inclusive. This is why it helps to partner with fellow teachers and collaborate on the unit planning process. It will never be perfect. There will always be room to grow and improve. But when we embody the ideal of “PBL for all,” we create a more inclusive PBL environment. By empowering all students in the present, we prepare all students for a lifetime of learning.

Curious About Project-Based Learning?

Are you thinking about getting started with project-based learning? If so, you might want to check out the PBL toolkit. It includes resources, a free eBook, and a sample project.

If you’re interested in learning more about PBL, fill out this form below and get the toolkit. You might also want to check out this PBL webinar or the PBL Master Course and use the coupon code Spencer to get 20% off.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Pam Hodgson says:

    Is it ok to use one of your videos in my class assignment about project based learning? It will only be shared with my professor and the 2 grad assistants. I can’t tell from your site if you are ok with videos being shared. Thanks!

  • Jana Elaine LaHood says:

    Is is ok to use your video on why every child deserves PBL in a training I am creating for early childhood professionals? Thanks!

  • Robyn Scarth says:

    Thanks for this exploration of using PBL with ELLs. I find it hard to follow my gut in teaching English sometimes because their acquisition of English feels so urgent and in PBL the learning is not always linear and easily measurable in the traditional ways. I feel empowered to continue on this journey of doing what excites my students and myself as we tackle projects that allow them to engage with the English language, our community and the world.

  • Joy says:

    Thanks for this blog!

  • Arlene Cahoy says:

    this is very interesting. i might use this idea to unload myself with class stuff.

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