the teacherati

A place for educators to steal their colleagues' best ideas

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The BetterLesson profile for sixth-grade Roxbury Prep Charter School teacher and BetterLesson celebrity Jason Armstrong

The most popular member of a new social network is neither Lady Gaga nor Ashton Kutcher, though Kutcher is a fan of the website.

The distinction goes to Jason Armstrong, a sixth-grade teacher in Roxbury, Mass., who has more than 6,500 total views and more than 1,100 downloads on a new website for teachers called BetterLesson.

BetterLesson’s circle of about 7,000 teachers are downloading Armstrong’s math lessons, grouped into six units: whole numbers, decimals, fractions, percents, geometry, and a year-ender called extensions and review. They can also download his quizzes and tests and become his “colleague” (the equivalent of a Facebook friend).

Armstrong’s former colleague and roommate, Alex Grodd, created the site — which Kutcher recently promoted in a Tweet, a stroke of generosity devised by a BetterLesson staffer. Grodd first came up with the idea for the site when he joined Teach for America in 2004.

Assigned to teach third grade science during his summer institute training at a Houston elementary school, Grodd went online to hunt for ideas. Surely one of the other hundreds of third grade science teachers in the world had come up with a smart way to explain his assigned topic, the solar system. Why should he have to reinvent the pedagogical wheel? The last remotely relevant class he’d taken was Harvard’s notoriously science-light “Natural Disasters.”

Hours of Googling later, Grodd came up with nothing. “This was 2004, it wasn’t, like, 1994,” Grodd told me today. “The Internet had been around for a while.”

BetterLesson is not the first attempt to solve the problem of teacher isolation, but it’s already catching on more quickly than many efforts. Those 7,000 users are up from just 200 in June 2009, when the site launched to a small group, and Grodd won backing from NewSchools Venture Fund, the philanthropically financed new-idea incubator.

Fueling the site’s success so far is its effort to learn from other attempts to bring teachers and their ideas together that have not caught on. These range from internal teacher-sharing sites launched by groups like the New York City Department of Education to public sites like Curriki, a Wikipedia for lesson-making.

Unlike New York City’s ARIS, BetterLesson is accessible to any teacher in the world who signs up. Unlike Curriki, BetterLesson’s curricula are structured intuitively — not as isolated documents but with an architecture to  distinguish units from lessons and a separate place for related documents like worksheets to hand out or a video to upload. Teachers can also tag lessons with relevant state standards that they meet.

The site also blends content-sharing with the social advantages of networks of real schools; teachers form networks and add “colleagues,” and the result — the site hopes — is that the teachers with the best lesson get their just reward.

Armstrong, for instance, regularly gets his students to produce top-notch sixth-grade test scores, and his teaching is recognized in Uncommon Schools director Doug Lemov’s book, “Teach Like a Champion.”

A quick browsing through the site today indicates its users are relatively active despite the summer holiday. Armstrong’s last activity, for instance: August 1. He added a colleague: another sixth grade math teacher, from D.C.

magnetic fields

Three Indianapolis schools recognized for diversity, but local efforts to integrate are still underway

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
School 27

Three Indianapolis public schools can claim a new title: 2017 National Magnet School of Distinction.

The prize, given annually by a national group promoting the themed schools, recognizes schools that boost student achievement, promote diversity, and have strong community ties. Among this year’s 244 winners nationally are Center for Inquiry Schools 2, 27, and 84, all part of the Indianapolis Public Schools district.

“Being recognized as a Magnet School of Distinction provides just one affirmation to the collective CFI School family that their philosophy, tireless work ethic, community support, and relentless journey to provide students with the absolute best inquiry based education is paying dividends to their students, to IPS, and to the larger community,” said Greg Newlin, the district’s academic improvement officer, in a statement.

The three schools use the International Baccalaureate curriculum. And their students are more likely to be white and more affluent than at the average district school. The schools’ demographics vary widely: School 27 is well integrated, with about 39 percent white students and 41 percent black students. In contrast, School 84 is nearly 83 percent white this year in a district where students of color make up 80 percent of enrollment.

That could soon change. After a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star exposed how rules about magnet school admission gave the most privileged families in the district an edge at sought-after schools, the school board last year voted to adopt policies designed help more low-income students win admission to magnet schools. The new policies could reshape who enters the schools this fall.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to reintegrate,” IPS board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The award to the Indianapolis schools is the second tier that Magnet Schools of America hands out. Schools that have especially strong academic performance can earn a different title: schools of excellence.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.