High School Teacher Lesson Plans Go Open Source

Kelsey Sheehy

Educators can download free teaching materials and get paid to share their lessons.

For a high school French teacher looking for a creative approach to verb conjugation, new lesson plans are only a website away. The same is true for a biology teacher covering a unit on mammals, or a history teacher trying to spice up a lesson on the Gettysburg Address.

Educators are beginning to embrace the type of open source content championed by software programmers by sharing their expertise online: lesson plans, classroom activities, and homework assignments.

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One of the sites teachers are using is Share My Lesson, which offers more than 256,000 classroom resources for grades K-12, ranging from in-depth lesson plans to presentations and test prep--many of them uploaded by teachers, and all of them available for free. The National Archives, Project Gutenberg, and other organizations have also contributed content. Launched in late July by the American Federation of Teachers, the site already has more than 72,000 registered users accounting for more than half a million downloads.

"I wish I had this when I was teaching," says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, a national teachers union representing 1.5 million educators. "I used to get up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and think, 'I don't like what I'm teaching today,'" and then create a new lesson from scratch.

Rather than brainstorming new ideas in the early morning hours, or tweaking old lessons on the fly, teachers can search Share My Lesson for content categorized by grade, subject, and topic, Weingarten says. The site sorts lesson plans and teaching content by format, including audio, video, images, documents, and interactive content.

Giving educators a place to share content they created is important, because it shows teachers they are trusted and respected as experts, Weingarten says.

"It's not just the publishing companies who know what needs to be taught. It's the teachers who are closest to the kids," she says.

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Having classroom-tested resources at their fingertips can cut down on planning time, especially for new teachers, says Kalebra Williams, a French teacher at Cypress Bay High School in Florida.

"For me, I've had 13 years to build my curriculum ... I can use Share My Lesson to supplement it," Williams says. "But I can imagine for a new teacher, when you're just starting from bare bones, what a wealth of information [this is]."

As most states move toward the Common Core State Standards, both novice and seasoned teachers will need new lessons aligned with the standards' project-based learning approach, rather than memorization drills to prepare students for standardized tests.

"It's a fundamentally different way of teaching than No Child Left Behind," the AFT's Weingarten says, adding that many of the resources on Share My Lesson are Common Core-aligned.

With the new standards just around the corner--or already in place for many districts--the shift has some educators on edge, says Williams, the high school French teacher. Teachers know they need to change their lessons, but don't know what the new plans should look like, she says, noting that now they can go to Share My Lesson and get Common Core lesson plans vetted by the AFT.

"I'm teaching five different levels of a subject, and now every lesson has to be Common Core aligned ? It does seem daunting to change everything you're doing to meet this new standard," says Williams, who is taking a leave of absence from her teaching position to help AFT train teachers on how to use Share My Lesson. "It's a sigh of relief to know there's somewhere I can go."

While some educators are sharing their lessons for free via blogs or sites like Share My Lesson, others are selling worksheets and homework assignments online to supplement their teaching salaries.

Using sites such Teachers Pay Teachers and Udemy, educators can make a profit from their planning by uploading self-created classroom resources. Other educators can then pay to download the content, which can range from a $3 activity worksheet to $100 for a full physics lesson.

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While most educators support teachers being recognized for quality work, some aren't on board with the idea of teachers charging their colleagues for content.

"Teachers swapping ideas with one another, that's a great thing," Joseph McDonald, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development told the New York Times in 2009. "But somebody asking 75 cents for a word puzzle reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession."

Beyond causing potential conflicts with colleagues, charging for lesson plans could raise legal issues for teachers, warns the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union with 3 million members.

Content created by teachers for use in the classroom--including tests, quizzes, and homework problems--is considered "works for hire" under copyright laws, the NEA notes. This means they're property of the school unless stated otherwise in a teacher's contract--and teachers should check with administrators at their school or district before selling their lessons online.

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