George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

This is a great example of how good ideas travel. Other schools can learn from your approach--using summer as lower-risk time to get comfortable with PBL, get everyone experiencing success, and building from there. Look forward to hearing what happens next with PBL at Grand View!
Thanks for sharing.

wmchamberlain's picture

Tammy, I enjoyed working through a small part of the process with your students. It is great that this project based community learning is catching on. I can't imagine how much better this year's projects will be after you all have a year under your belt.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I was one of the people responding to Tammy's request; and I'm so glad I did. What a pleasure it was to interact with my assigned team. And, as should always happen if we allow it to happen, I learned about tools such as Posterous not previously known to me. What a superb job, Tammy did and what a great school and town!

David Jackson's picture
David Jackson
Partner, Innovation Unit UK

Thanks for sharing - and supporting the expansion of the work. I write this having just completed two one-day PBL workshops with Studio Schools in the UK, all of which are committed to developing great PBL designs through collaborative teacher planning norms.

In case it is of value to readers, we (the Innovation Unit) recently published "Work that Matters: A Teacher's Guide to Project Based Learning" in partnership with High Tech High. It can be accessed here:'s%20Guide%20to%20Project-based%20Learning.pdf

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi David,
Thanks for your comment, and also for sharing the link to your teacher's guide to PBL. "Work that Matters" is a fantastic resource.

Danielle 61320's picture
Danielle 61320
Math Teacher, New York

I was happy to stumble upon this article! The students at Howe Schools seem to had an enjoyable and life long meaningful experince. I graduated high school from a smaller school in central NY, where I just finished a long term sub assignment. Since graduating only a short five years ago, there have been MANY changes to the school, the administration, the teachers, and the student learning atmosphere. I hope and wish to see a project based learning assignment as this take place. I am constantly hearing students in all classes asking, "why is this important", or "when will I ever need to us this?" A school wide community project similar to this could really get all subject areas involved and show students real world applcations to what they are learning. Furthermore, I truly believe it would get teachers and students excited about learning once again!

Great work to Howe school teachers, students, and staff!

Neville McFarlane's picture
Neville McFarlane
Math Teacher , high school , Atlanta , Georgia

This project has given me some great insights that can use to get my students actively engaged in a Solar Powered Water Fountain project with my 9 graders. We are making connections with Math and Solar Photovoltaics Technology and the idea of "Green technologies". I am a firm believer in project-based learning and it is an excellent tool that help students develop 21st century skills

Neville McFarlane's picture
Neville McFarlane
Math Teacher , high school , Atlanta , Georgia

This project has given me some great insights that can use to get my students actively engaged in a Solar Powered Water Fountain project with my 9 graders. We are making connections with Math and Solar Photovoltaics Technology and the idea of "Green technologies". I am a firm believer in project-based learning and it is an excellent tool that help students develop 21st century skills

Lana Hallal's picture

Excellent work. Thank you for also sharing the link to "What matters". My school believes in PBL as well, and we are always looking for inspiring projects to present as an example for bothe teachers and students. In our next Proffessional Development oportunity, I am going to share the Project Lion Pride with my school community.
Thank you!

Matt M's picture
Matt M
Director of Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Educational Enthusist, Tech Lover and Life Long Learner -Michigan

My H.S. in Kalamazoo, MI is very interested in this project. Do you have templates or student proposal media that you can share with us to jump start our project? Big thanks and well done getting students involved with 21st century learning!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.