This post originally appeared on the blog Core Inspiration by Laura Santos.

One of the most common questions teachers send me on Instagram is, “How do you find the time to teach your math curriculum, do Math Workshop, and do project based learning?” My answer is always the same as I explain these three parts of my math instruction are not separate entities; they are all done together during Math Workshop. Since this question is becoming more and more common, I wanted to take some time to explain in detail how I integrate project based learning into Math Workshop.

Many teachers have the misconception that project based learning is something you have to do on top of your regular instruction and Math Workshop routine. In fact, it can be something that enriches your regular instruction, and replaces some of the more routine tasks you may be doing during a particular unit. In my third grade classroom, PBL units replace rigorous problem solving task cards and technology assignments on Khan Academy.

Core Inspiration math workshop digital rotation slides with project based learning listed as activity options. PowerPoint rotation slides are shown on laptop next to Quadrilateral City project on desk.

In this post, I’m going to describe two ways you can integrate project based learning into your workshop block so students have the opportunity for deeper learning. Keep in mind, I do not use this approach for every single math unit. Two instances when I replace our regular Math Workshop routines with a project are:

1. Units where I feel feel the entire class would learn more from an enriching project (like our multiplication, data, and geometry units).

2. Units where I know some students are already performing at a mastery level and will need an enrichment experience to deepen their understanding (like our place value and telling time units).

Teal clip board with project based learning options. Whole class PBL units and individual enrichment PBL units for math listed.

Whole Class Enrichment Through Project Based Learning

During some math units, you will notice the skills to be taught are very straightforward, and would be more meaningful if immediately applied to a real-world scenario or project. Take for example the third grade geometry unit about the classification of quadrilaterals. Being able to categorize and classify different quadrilaterals is a fairly straightforward concept, but takes repeated practice and exposure to master.

Rather than drilling students with repeated attempts to memorize the attributes of these shapes, their time would be better spent describing the attribute of these shapes in some type of real-world context. This unit is a perfect opportunity for every student in your class to engage in a project based learning experience.

Quadrilateral City Project Based Learning Unit by Core Inspiration

Therefore, I assign every student in my class our Quadrilateral City project during our geometry unit in the spring. We still run Math Workshop every day during this unit, using the same structure of warm up, then mini lesson, followed by rotations, and closing with a share or reflection. The only thing that looks slightly different are the rotation options. Here’s a closer look.

Math Workshop Rotations During A Whole Class PBL Unit

After our spiral review warm up, and a mini lesson about geometry and quadrilaterals, student are sent off to begin their workshop rotations, which follow the weekly schedule pictured below. During a whole class PBL unit, the activities completed during these rotations differs a bit from our routine Math Workshop activities so students have ample time each day to make progress toward their project goals.

Core inspiration's math workshop schedule with three groups rotating through stations

PBL During the Meet the Teacher Rotation

Our Meet the Teacher rotation becomes a project help desk. I do not have any specific groups scheduled to see me for Meet the Teacher during our PBL units because I like the flexibility of calling students who need extra support to work with me each day. Most days, I make note of any small groups who seem to need help with the same part of our project so we can meet quickly to:

  • Address student questions
  • Model a particular project step
  • Reteach a skill that will help students make progress

On other days, I move around the room and meet one-on-one with students to support their unique project needs. This tracking sheet helps me keep track of who I’ve met with, what day we met, and what we discussed.

Core Inspiration Freebie. Math Project Based Learning Meet With The Teacher record sitting on table next to plant with pen.

PBL During the At Your Seat Rotation

During the At Your Seat rotation, students complete a very short exit slip-style assignment directly from our math curriculum, which aligns to our mini lesson for that day. After checking their work against an answer key, they dive into their project work for the day.

Since all students work at a slightly different pace, I like to write D.I.Y. Project Guides for each of our projects. These detailed guides act as a one-one-one teacher that walks individual students or partnerships through each step of the project using detailed written instructions and images. This approach to organizing project based learning enables my students to work at their own pace with a high level of independence. The balance between text and detailed images makes these guides accessible for the English language learners in my class, along with struggling readers.  

Core Inspiration project based learning guides laying on the desk with Place Value in the Wild project opened to an instruction page showing detailed visual and written instructions for students.

PBL During the Technology Rotation

When working on a PBL unit, I put our regular technology assignments on hold so students have an additional rotation to make progress on their project. Therefore, students spend the entire duration of their technology rotation working on their project.   

PBL During the Hands On Rotation

Students have the option to play hands-on games or continue to work on their project during the Hands-On rotation. For the most part, students are so engaged in their project that they opt to stay focused on that work. Other students who benefit from a change in activity have an outlet to switch it up and play a game for a bit.

Core Inspiration geometry math enrichment resources laid out for students to select. Games and project based learning options shown.

Enrichment For Advanced Learners Through Project Based Learning

During other math units, a have a handful of students who demonstrate mastery of all the unit concepts on their pre-assessment, while the majority of the class requires guided instruction and practice. Rather than having these advanced students relearn what they’ve already mastered, I set them up with a project based learning experience to enrich their understanding of these math concepts. Once again, the level of detail in the D.I.Y. Project Guides makes it possible for these students to work at a high level of independence so every student in class is having their learning needs met.   

Math Workshop Rotations for Individuals Working Through A PBL Unit

The workshop rotations for individuals working on a PBL unit is much more flexible. They have the option to work on their project for the entire duration of workshop during the mini lesson and rotations. If they prefer, they can engage in a more traditional approach to workshop where they join for the mini lesson, work on their project for the At Your Seat and Technology rotations, and have the option to play games or make progress on their project during the Hands On rotation.

This allows students to approach the math unit they’ve already mastered in a way that feels most comfortable to them. They are asked to submit their Math Workshop Weekly Schedule for PBL to me daily so they have some accountability and structure to their schedule during our math block.

Individual project based learning planning sheet to hold enrichment students accountable when working independently on a PBL unit.

I typically meet with a small group of students working on a PBL enrichment unit briefly twice a week to answer any questions they may have, and help them reflect on their goals and progress.    

Why I Don’t Do Project Based Learning for Every Single Unit

Although our PBL units always seem to be the most memorable for students, I do not recommend providing a project for every single math unit during the year. It is important for students to practice their math skills in a variety of ways. Having a balance between projects, performance tasks, word problems, technology practice, and learning through games will help your students develop into more well-rounded mathematicians.

All third grade geometry math workshop enrichment resources collected on table for display.

Ready for Your PBL Unit?

When planning your PBL units, think about the unique strengths and needs of your class. During which units do you want to have your entire class working on a project simultaneously? Which units will you likely need to provide an enrichment option for your advanced learners? I’d love to hear any questions you may have about the units you’re planning for your class this year in the comments below.

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Laura Santos [Core Inspiration by Laura Santos], is an elementary teacher in California. During her years as an educator, she has taught 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. She enjoys creating resources that help teachers create a self-directed learning environment that incorporates project-based learning and enrichment activities. Another passion is creating organized classroom spaces that promote productivity. To take a look at her classroom and instructional approach, visit her blog, Core Inspiration. You can also find her resources at her TpT store, Core Inspiration by Laura Santos. Connect with her on InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest.