Teachers Swap Recipes: Educators Use Web Sites and Social Networks to Share Lesson Plans

Article excerpt

In every school in America, in three-ring binders and file folders, sit lesson plans--the recipes that guide everyday teaching in the classroom. Like the secrets of talented cooks, the instructional plans of the best teachers have much to offer their creators' colleagues. But while the plans are increasingly digital, they are still not easily shared across classrooms, nor, especially, across districts or states. Even when these plans are accessible, they are often not organized in a way that makes them easy to use, understand, or customize.

Now, a host of new web sites, from A to Z Teacher Stuff to Lesson Planet to Lessonopoly, are trying to solve that problem and make it easier for teachers to share, find, and make better use of lesson plans and accompanying materials. One, Teachers Pay Teachers, a sort of Craigslist for educators, says it has paid more than $1 million in commissions to teachers, who have sold everything from classroom hand puppets to lesson plans on the Civil War. The site even hosts a "lesson plan on demand" auction, in which teachers advertise for, say, 4th-grade materials on Texas history and other teachers bid to fulfill the request.

But context matters. Teachers want to know whether something will work with their instructional style, in their classroom, and for their kids. Trust matters, too. While the sites offer ratings by users and rankings of the most popular items, these may not identify the highest-quality offerings. So how do novice teachers, who lack experience developing lessons and stand to benefit the most, know that a lesson plan will actually be effective? The answer may not lie in cyberspace, but in real communities.

One of the most promising new entrants to the growing online market of lesson plans is BetterLesson, a small Cambridge, Massachusetts, company started by former educators that has been called the "Facebook for teachers." Any teacher can join for free, manage her lesson plans, organize teaching materials, and share (or not) with her school, a wider professional learning community, or the entire world. As with Facebook, the site's technology and user interface are sharp, and users can easily register a positive reaction, in this case by clicking "Helpful." But more important, BetterLesson shares Facebook's initial focus on social networks and trusting relationships that already exist. While the site is currently open to any teacher, the company wants to leverage existing communities--school networks, alumni groups, and grade or subject affinity groups--that already share an identity and language around teaching.

BetterLesson's Intranet package targets existing school networks. One early adopter, Achievement First, the highly regarded network of public charter schools in Connecticut and New York, is tailoring BetterLesson to extend the work of its instructional coaches and teacher learning communities. A coach working with a teacher can share concrete examples from the lesson plans and videos of effective teachers. "Remember what we were talking about at our last professional development session?" she can say. "Well, this is what it looks like."

Since the examples are drawn from schools with similar cultures, expectations, and records of achievement, they are more likely to be trusted and used. …