August 12, 2010
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.