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.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”