Project Based Learning within a Co-teaching Environment

*The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding a P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Kelly Thieken

The life of a special education teacher can often be described as a solitary adventure.  Due to the constraints of schedules and needs of students, shared planning time with our colleagues is usually difficult to build into our day.  We miss out on having a team of teachers where one can brainstorm and discuss the nuts and bolts of effective teaching and learning.  We miss out on the dynamic process of sharing ideas and witnessing the power of multiple perspectives and experiences.  This week marks an exciting moment in my tenure as a special education teacher, not only do I have the opportunity to launch a Project Based Learning (PBL) unit, but I get to do this with the collaboration of a general education co-teaching partner.  Today’s topic will cover three take-aways that have highlighted this experience.

Begin with the Destination

Creating an authentic PBL unit for students can be a daunting task.   As educators, we tend to be perfectionists and when we have the reigns of something so exciting and far reaching as project based learning, it can be overwhelming.  As we tackled our first PBL unit, we found that beginning with our destination in mind, allowed us to breakdown our road trip into learning objectives and strategic lessons.  We created a skeleton timeline and with our driving question as our focus, we then conceptualized our entire learning unit.   It was a hands-on process with heaps of conversation that referenced our unique group of learners, content objectives, and our own experiences of what has worked and failed in the classroom.  When you are cognizant of the “end,” you are able to really use your imagination and resources to organize a unit, while also letting go and knowing that your students might take different paths to reach the final destination.

Be the Expert

Co-teaching is a wonderful blend of subject-area expertise and specialized instruction.  We know that all students have special needs, whether or not they have been identified as a student requiring special education. Co-teaching allows all students to receive the perks of having two experts in the classroom at one time.  There are many models of co-teaching and each have a place in the classroom depending on the needs of students and the objectives of a lesson.   For the purpose of today’s topic, I will concentrate on co-teaching as it relates to PBL.

While planning a co-teaching PBL unit, it is important to recognize the strengths of your partner and yourself.  In our co-teaching team, my partner is a not only passionate about English, she also has extensive training and background in this content area.   As we planned our PBL unit on stereotypes and The Outsiders, we relied on her knowledge of common core standards and methods of delivering ELA content.  On the other hand, as we dug into the objectives, this was where my insight on specialized instruction entered our planning.  For example, as we considered informational reading on the subject of stereotypes, we were able to use our student data on lexile levels to create a lesson that appropriately challenged each student, while focusing on whole group learning targets. Creating a teaming environment that allows both of us to shine in our respective areas of expertise benefits all students within the classroom.

Take Your Time

Developing a co-teaching relationship takes time.  Creating an effective project based learning unit also takes time.  It is important for individuals to recognize that building something great requires commitment and dedication.  If it didn’t make us sweat and cry a little, the end result  wouldn’t be worth it in the long run.  My advice to educators tackling PBL within a co-teaching environment is to be open and flexible.  Listen to your partner, share responsibility, and create a unified vision for your lessons and teaching relationship.


A veteran educator of 15 years who is passionate about learning and student achievement.  Thieken has taught in both the general and special education classroom with an affinity for middle school students.

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