Heather Castaneda-Ponce is a seasoned educator and social studies teacher based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She teaches at Mack Middle in Clark County, a Title I school where 100% of students receive free or reduced lunch, and 23% are English Language Learners (ELLs).
Heather, who possess a Master's in Educational Technology, has been a long-time proponent of project-based learning (PBL) as a tool to prepare students for success later in life.
Her administrator recommended Project Pals to her after attending a training, highlighting our Analytics tools that address concerns with collaborative learning and set our platform apart.
Heather recognized our potential and immediately began to implement Project Pals across her classes, becoming one of our earliest adopters and impressing us with her projects ever since.
The rest, as they say, is history!
We previously featured a teacher profile on Heather early in 2020, highlighting her success in implementing project-based learning with Project Pals to over 400 students in under 2 weeks.
However, with all that's happened since then, we wanted to know how Project Pals performed during the pandemic, and what insights she can share going into her third year on the platform.
An Interview with Heather Castaneda-Ponce
We caught up with Heather this week to reflect on her experience with Project Pals after several years of use, including navigating difficulties like distance learning and student accountability.
1. How does Project Pals fit into your methodology and philosophy?
Project Pals fits into my Project Based learning methodology. I have done project based learning way before it was the push in education. When I first was introduced to Project Pals, I thought WOW this actually could make my life a lot easier. It was a seamless transition for me because I was accustomed to doing projects with my kids. Letting them explore things that interested them but still fit within the standards that I teach as a history teacher.
2. How have your students responded to PBL on Project Pals?
In the beginning of this journey, this is our third year, kids pushed back some. They were not accustomed to the interface and using Project Pals. They wanted to use the familiar Google Slides etc. Yet, the more we have dived in the more and more kids have bought into using it. This year the kids have embraced it with few complaints. They are using analytics keeping each other honest and enjoying working together.
3. What’s something you’ve been able to achieve with Project Pals that you couldn’t have done before?
One of the things that has made Project Pals nice is the analytics. Before I could guess what happened during group work, or who wasn’t holding up their side of a project. Usually, I was right on, but this allows for me to quickly see evidence of what I am assuming is happening. I get to sit down with groups prior to grading and asking those hard questions. Did you contribute? Why does it say you did all of the work? What happened with leaning on others and everyone taking ownership?
4. How has Project Pals affected your experience with distance learning?
Last year, we were fully distance and continued to use Project Pals. Our kids jumped right into it. It was nice because it allowed them to work on a project together. They may have been apart, but they were given the opportunity to still collaborate. My kids were not happy about breakout rooms but whenever we did a Project Pals they were all asking for a breakout room. It made me happy because they were talking and working together.
5. Project Pals recently added a school templates feature based on feedback from our users. How would you improve Project Pals?
One improvement that I would like to see is an intro to Project Pals template for students to just “play” with the application before jumping into a project with content. A project where they learn how to insert pictures, text etc. In the beginning of the year, we do a lot of how to use things and expectations with our students setting them up for success throughout the year. It would be nice if there was an easy template set up where students could practice using Project Pals without having to also worry about content related to their class.
I would also like to see some built-in rubrics for templates that can be easily adapted to fit your goals for your students' projects.
6. What are some projects your students completed that you love?
One of my favorite projects with my students is our Personal Budget Project. Students do work alone on this but they pretend that they have their dream career. They start off by researching their ideal career, college choices based on their career and what they can expect to be paid. They then build a budget off of that.
Students investigate future colleges and careers in the Personal Budget project
The students are always amazed at how much it costs to be an adult. I have several kids go home and thank their parents for what they do for them. They have to stay within their budget and are only given so much to spend in categories such as living, transportation, food etc.
A student budgets for other expenses like streaming services and recreational activities
Another project that we did our first year was about diseases in history. This was prior to the breakout of Covid19.
A group of students explore key elements of polio as part of Diseases in History
It was amazing how four months later we were shut down and my kids were emailing reminding me how things were handled during the Spanish flu, Cholera outbreak etc. We have continued to do that project because we feel that it is vital for them to learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes today.
Note: You can also view the full archived student polio project here.
That concludes our interview with Heather, and we look forward to sharing more teacher and student spotlights soon!
Interested in hearing more from Heather about her experience using Project Pals for PBL? Check out her full testimonial from a Project Pals webinar in July 2020:
This article is part of our Highlighting Our Amazing Educators series, which shares interviews and testimonials from our top teachers. Interested in reading more? Read the latest post with Deborah Almond from South Africa, who uses Project Pals to supercharge her tutoring service.