Last week, I took State Board of Education members on a road trip to Howe Public Schools in southeastern Oklahoma. I wanted the board to see the cutting edge digital technology being used by students, teachers and administrators in this small, rural school district. Howe is truly at the forefront of the most dynamic learning in the state.
In a science classroom, we saw girls huddled around a computer screen discussing ways to enhance their Prezi on the Bubonic plaque. A Prezi was described to me as a PowerPoint on steroids. It is intuitive, cloud-based technology. The thing that struck me most is these girls were mimicking the way you would expect to see professionals interacting before a big corporate presentation. They gathered data and used the technology to help them create an engaging and interactive report.
The kindergartners at Howe use iPads for phonemic awareness and to play word games to help develop literacy skills. They don’t even realize they're learning. They think they’re having fun.
In other rooms, teachers discussed the use of Edmodo, an interactive learning tool that allows students to upload homework and teachers to grade and return it. The technology also allows students to collaborate with peers thousands of miles from their rural district.
The students in Howe have led virtual field trips to learn about the “Hanging Judge,” Isaac Parker, in Fort Smith, Ark. They had the opportunity to teach a remote lesson while visiting George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. The remote presentation was relayed to the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Washington, D.C. The students stayed in the cottages at Mount Vernon, using a portable satellite dish they purchased through a grant to relay their lesson. This same satellite dish has enabled live broadcasts of Howe state championship basketball games back to their home arena.
With their knowledge and effective use of current and emerging technologies, Howe students are going to be the leading entrepreneurs of the future. If we’re lucky and we can keep up, we might one day be hired by these kids.
One of the most remarkable things about Howe is they didn’t use any funding source that was not available to anyone else in the state. They have the same issues facing educators everywhere – low-income families, teacher recruitment, remote access, limited resources. Supt. Scott Parks drives the district’s school bus. Many of the school buildings are made out of metal.
The one thing Parks has in abundance, however, is vision. He knew he wanted to open the world to his students and engage them in all levels of active learning.
He said he started pursuing small grants; that led to larger grants. Then he made a priority list. At one point during Thursday’s tour, the board members and I had to traverse an area between buildings. Supt. Parks pointed out we were walking on mud because sidewalk money went to technology instead.
It’s those kinds of choices that have his students busting out of the walls of this remote Oklahoma school district and visiting places all over the nation and virtually all over the globe. It’s a vision that is drawing others. In the last 10 years since the first laptops were purchased for each of the school’s students, the district has grown from 280 to about 530 students.
All schools in Oklahoma can achieve this same level of innovation, but it is going to take vision and the staying power to fund it. Preparing students for life and work in the 21st Century is worth it.