3 Tips to Support Project-based Learning for Low-Income Students

Blog Series, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Teachers

“Please don’t give my son a bad grade because of me. We don’t have magazines or tape. I can get some though. Can he have longer?” This was the note I received in my first year of teaching, nearly twenty years ago, and it still haunts me to this day. These few words speak volumes, and that “teacher fail” led me to become a Ruby Payne’s Frameworks for Understanding Poverty trainer.

Her theories have been widely refuted, but I still trace my first awareness of equity to her work. And, though I too have come to disavow much of her research, I am struck by one of the major points of my training — Middle class teachers might not mean to, but they frequently undervalue the impact poverty has on a student’s ability to do as they are asked, particularly to comply when it comes to homework and projects.

The assignment that I had given required magazines and tape. In my naiveté, it had never occurred to me that people might not have these supplies on hand. Imagine now the 17 year old young man, standing before me, handing the note over to me sheepishly. He wanted to be successful in my class, enough so that he was tolerating this humbling, embarrassing moment. Yet, the first assignment I’d given him was making his success very difficult. That note, and that moment, shaped my philosophy of teaching and how I plan for equity in my classroom.

When teachers ask students to engage in complex projects to demonstrate their knowledge, we must create conditions that allow all students, no matter their socio-economic status, opportunity for success. This is a particularly timely topic in light of the increased pressure to improve student achievement. There is a growing number of people who believe that the focus on increasing rigor and assessments is misguided.

The Washington Post’s article, The Real 21st Century Problem in Public Education emphasizes that poverty, not a lack of rigor, is the real culprit sabotaging today’s schools:

“The 21st century has sharply increased the proportion of parents who are unemployed, whose jobs do not pay enough to provide basic food, shelter, clothing and health care for their children, and/or whose immigrant status limit their capacity to navigate the education system and restrict them to a shadow economy.”

Additionally, some “soft skills” like self-awareness, time management, self-confidence, and interpreting body language are different in students living in poverty, and these intangibles are crucial for 21st century jobs. Wharton MBA Lei Han, a career counselor, points out that “Most soft skills are not taught well in school and have to be learned on the job by trial and error.” Practitioners of PBL know that high passion, student-driven, question-based activities can empower students who may struggle in these areas; however, in order for these learning experiences to be beneficial for everyone, there must be equity for all students. The following are three tips to ensure equity in your project-based classroom.

Supplies must be readily available without a student having to request them

Eric Jensen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, is my favorite resource about poverty because it breaks down a multifaceted issue  to action plans. He also helps teachers to understand that “Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.” We must be aware of these challenges, and as an effective teacher and compassionate educator, and do all we can to eliminate additional challenges such as procuring supplies.

For example, if a student does not have the materials required for success, it is crucial that this is not prohibitive and lead to shaming. Instead of asking, “Does anyone need a folder?” or “If you didn’t get your highlighter, you can borrow one of mine,” Create an area of the classroom where supplies are placed for all students to use. I always stock the back table in my room with paper, highlighters, sticky notes, colored pencils, pens, pencils, folders, rulers, paper clips, glue, and several staplers. I point out this area at the beginning of the year simply by saying, “If you forget something, there’s plenty in the back.” I ask students to donate when they can to the class supply. I’ve watched students shop in the back of my room over the course of several days, and I breathe better knowing that there is one less stressor. Additionally, I like the culture of caring created with a collective ownership of materials.

There is not “next day” homework

Every year at Parent’s Night, this announcement is greeted with instant conversation. Parents begin comparing war stories of trying to get sons and daughters to sports, after-school jobs, and outside activities while also making sure their homework is done. These are the middle class parents. There’s another group though who often thank me privately—those who are struggling because they work long hours and are subsiding on a single income. They want what’s best for their child, but they are simply not present to facilitate homework, and the younger the student, the more unintended stress you are creating by sending homework to be done overnight.

Project-based learning obviously requires students to work outside of your classroom walls. However, allow students ample time to use study halls, stay after school to use the library, or use a weekend to complete tasks. What may be simple for affluent students, can require low-income students a complex list of steps to accomplish. For example, researching can be accomplished on iPhones for some, while it requires a trip to the library for others.

Build collaboration and work time into the schedule

One of the biggest knocks against a project-based learning classroom is the considerable amount of time it takes to “pull off” each unit, project, or learning experience. However, process is as important as product and the development of those soft skills happens in the collaborative phase of PBL. I give students many work days, and I feel very comfortable with that decision. It is too much to ask students to manage their opportunities to work together outside of school. Teachers may be tempted to say, “Get together to finish this over the weekend,” or “Can you print it at her house?” without a second thought. It is crucial that teachers make no presumptions regarding a student’s life outside of school. There are lots of reasons why both of those suggestions are not feasible for a low-income students, but the most important reason to avoid this type of thoughtless suggestion is the implication to the student that those are requirements for success.

Having to conceal poverty is one of the most difficult acts many students do every day in school. A project-based learning classroom is a special place by design, and close attention to equity is one of the ways a teacher can add even more value than simply the learning experience. If children feel safe in your classroom, know that you will help them do what they need to do to be successful, and treat everyone as equals—no matter their socio-economic status—the more likely you will be to bring out the best in all students.

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY. Follow Amber on Twitter, @MsAmberChandler.


Amy Williams /

This is such an important topic. Your idea to create “collective ownership of materials” is a good one, and I imagine that this contributes to a positive classroom environment.

Mirna Rivera /

I just want to thank you for this great article, I am doing my doctoral research about the implementation of PBL by using ICT in low income areas in developing countries.