Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Whole-School Project Builds Pride

The power of project-based learning.

July 13, 2012

In rural Howe, Oklahoma, home to about 700 people, the school has long been the heart of the community. Students from pre-K through high school all congregate on the same campus. Now, thanks to the creative efforts of high school students and their teachers, the campus will be getting a facelift that should make local pride shine even brighter.

Project Lion Pride was a schoolwide immersion in project-based learning that engaged every student and teacher at Howe High during 10 weeks this spring. Although most students were new to PBL, they stepped up to the challenge of answering this highly relevant driving question: How can we make our school better? On the line was an offer of $1,000 to implement the top idea presented to a panel of judges.

Behind the scenes, the entire staff of 13 teachers invested months of preparation to make the project a success. Tammy Parks (@TParks on Twitter), district technology coordinator and also the high school broadcast journalism teacher, says it was her "crazy idea" to attempt a schoolwide project. "PBL is where we want to go," she explains, "to make sure our students are thinking creatively and critically." That's going to be increasingly important with the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

Howe Public Schools is already a 1:1 laptop district that integrates technology effectively. Two years ago, teachers took part in professional development to learn more about PBL. Except for some isolated classroom projects, however, the shift away from more traditional instruction has been slow to happen. "Teachers had a lot of buy-in to PBL but were hesitant to try it on their own. A schoolwide project seemed like a great way to say, we're all in this together. If we planned it as a team, we could all go down the road together, moving forward with our understanding of PBL," Parks says. "This would help teachers get more comfortable and show kids what projects could look like in the classroom setting." It helped that teachers had two hours for collaborative professional development every other week to devote to planning.

Five Key Factors

When it was time to introduce students to Project Lion Pride, teachers made sure to focus on the "essential elements" of effective PBL, as identified by the Buck Institute for Education. Among the factors that helped make this project a success were:

#1. Entry event to hook student interest: For a schoolwide assembly in February, high school students were ushered into an historic auditorium on campus that had recently been renovated. For most students, this was their first chance to see the restored space that has traditionally been a community gathering place. Waiting on stage were two alumni who reminisced about their high school memories and explained why they take such pride in being Howe High graduates. Then, students were sent off on a scavenger hunt to find the places on campus that make them feel proud. Using flip cameras that the school provided or their own mobile devices, students captured still shots and video, which they uploaded to a Posterous site. By the next day, Parks had turned their footage into a video that students watched. Then they were presented with this challenge: You've shown us what the school looks like to you now. If you had $1,000 to spend, how could you make it even better?

#2. Team culture: Teachers were intentional about assigning students to project teams. Each team included a mix of students from grades 9-12. Teachers avoided putting siblings or close friends on the same team. "We wanted teams to be well-balanced," Parks says. "Many of the students didn't even know each other at first." Teachers helped them get acquainted by planning an introductory activity that involved picking a team name and making a team banner. That helped students get acquainted and thinking about their shared goals. Over time, students learned to appreciate each other's differences. "They learned to understand each other's learning styles," Parks says. Special-needs students became valued team members. "This is led to a climate change at our school. It's been a wonderful benefit of the project."

#3. Outside expertise: To prepare their proposals, students needed to track down information from knowledgeable adults. "This was new to students. Most of them have never been in situations before where they had to work with adults to ask for donations or negotiate prices," Parks says. Yet they quickly warmed up to the task. She recalls watching one boy who was carefully reviewing an email to a local business owner. "He was so intentional about the wording and spelling. He wanted everything to be right. It was the first time he had ever sent a formal letter." During the project, candidates for an opening in the principal's office happened to be touring campus. They were surprised to see students in the hallways during class time, talking on their cell phones. "They asked our superintendent what was going on. He said, 'Let's find out,' and walked up to a student to ask what he was doing," Parks relates. The student explained that he was setting up a meeting with a county commissioner. "It was remarkable to see them jump right in -- no fear," she adds.

#4. Authentic assessment: Project Lion Pride concluded with a judging session where student teams pitched their proposals to a panel of judges. (Watch videos form the presentations here.) This authentic assessment brought out the best in students. In fact, judges were so impressed by students' school-improvement ideas that they found extra money to fund not just one but two projects. One proposal will correct a drainage problem that turns the school parking lot into a lake during rainy weather. Students consulted with engineers and secured in-kind donations from paving and gravel companies as part of their research. Another project will repair an historic school sign and restore a rock wall at the school entrance that was built by Works Progress Administration artisans. It was the brainchild of a team called "Project Tidy Up," which made a compelling argument about the benefits of small steps to make a big difference.

#5. Power of networks: Tapping her professional network, Parks solicited a global mentor for each project team. Many are people she has never met face-to-face but knows through their online presence. "They're all highly respected educators who are heavily invested in PBL," Parks says. Mentors provided students with additional feedback, encouragement, and ideas from beyond their small community. "Our kids took to heart what their mentors had to say," Parks adds, and students used technology in authentic ways to connect with them.

Word of Project Lion Pride has now spread far beyond Howe, Oklahoma. Parks has presented the project to state education officials as an example of how to use PBL to meet Common Core State Standards. She has already heard from other schools that are following Howe's lead and implementing similar schoolwide projects.

At Howe Public Schools, teachers and students have new enthusiasm for learning through projects. "It's been transformational," Parks says. "The wheels are already turning for what we'll do next year."

Has your school taken creative steps to introduce PBL to students and teachers? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Assessment
  • Place-Based Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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