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Create your own school curriculum

Teachers expand use of online sources to tailor lessons to their classes’ needs
Collaborative work: Grandview Elementary School teachers sit in on a professional development workshop on fluency. The Washington district’s homegrown curriculum is created by district coaches and consultants, along with teacher input.
Collaborative work: Grandview Elementary School teachers sit in on a professional development workshop on fluency. The Washington district’s homegrown curriculum is created by district coaches and consultants, along with teacher input.

When only 13 percent of sophomores at the Grandview School District in Washington passed the state math exams six years ago, administrators decided to develop their own curriculum.

For instance, leaders had concluded the textbooks they purchased didn’t adequately teach fractions and integers, leading to gaps in student learning. Grandview spent about $200,000 to hire English and math consultants to help the district’s instruction coaches write their own units. The goal was to better align instruction with students’ academic abilities.

The district updated the homegrown curriculum each year with feedback from teachers. Plus, as student ability improved each year, the educators created more rigorous assignments, such as comparative essays.

“The degree in which they were expected to perform increased,” says Wilma Kozai, who retired from her position as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. “There’s no doubt that it worked.”

As online resources and 1-to-1 initiatives become more easily accessible, schools are beginning to replace or supplement textbooks with their own material or resources created by educators elsewhere.

Some districts lean heavily on state-funded programs such as Engage NY, which provides free resources. Others have turned to sites such as TeachersPayTeachers, where educators sell curricular materials.

Surge in sharing

Located about three hours southeast of Seattle, the Grandview district began revamping its K12 math and English curriculum four years ago, pulling together information from books or articles it has permission to use.

And it has made a difference: Only 13 percent of sophomores were proficient four years ago. The passing rates improved each year, reaching 64 percent in 2014.

Mike Closner, Grandview’s executive director of teaching and learning, says teachers can more easily customize content when it has been created within the district. “As our kids have grown in their ability, we have been able to increase the depth,” he says.

Grandview now shares its curriculum with other districts as open educational resources, also known as OER. The district received OER grants from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, totaling $25,000 over two years. This pays staff to review materials to ensure they comply with copyright rules, including proper attribution and getting an author’s permission.

Doing so allows other districts to use such content without infringing copyright, and is part of the federal #GoOpen movement launched last year. Schools or states share materials through an open license, and encourage other district leaders to do the same.

More than 60 districts and 15 states have pledged to share content they have created. And, the education department set up Learning Registry, a digital catalog of over 100,000 open-license materials with contributions from a variety of federal resources and individual districts.

For-profit companies have also entered the arena of educator-created curricular materials, allowing teachers to publish and sell their lessons to other educators across the country.

Most notable is TeachersPayTeachers, which says it has four million active members and hosts a collection of two million lesson plans and other resources. And earlier this year, Amazon announced plans to launch Inspire, its own marketplace of curricular resources that will include contributions from educators.

‘A little more freedom’

When Principal Ron Farrow at Franklin Elementary School in Missouri introduced a new response-to-intervention process to improve student skills, teachers felt overwhelmed from the intensive workload of creating curriculum from scratch. Teachers at the K4 building in the Cape Girardeau Public Schools suggested using resources that they had seen on TeachersPayTeachers.

The online marketplace allows teachers to purchase or sell a host of original classroom material, including lesson plans, activities, games, Common Core resources and classroom decor.

The service is free to join, and materials are crowd-sourced with a four-point rating scale in areas such as quality, practicality, thoroughness and clarity. In addition, users can submit comments about the success of the material. Typically, the most popular resources rise to the top.

Now, Franklin teachers use these lessons regularly during 40-minute small group sessions in which students at similar levels work on a certain skill. For example, one teacher purchased a phonics game from TeachersPayTeachers that engaged her students in the subject.

TeachersPayTeachers resources have led to improvement. When first-graders worked on the reading skill of decoding words, proficiency in that specific skill increased from 76 to 85 percent in two weeks, Farrow says.

He reviews and approves each TeachersPayTeachers resource before purchase, and discusses the materials and their effectiveness with the school’s leadership team (which includes teachers from each grade level, an elective teacher and a special education teacher).

Costs have varied, from a $3.50 kit that includes “real-world” long-division problems about a movie theater, for example, to $10 tracking binders that provide charts where students can watch their own improvement.

Farrow budgeted $200 per grade level for teachers to use the site in the 2015-16 school year, or about $1,000 in sum total. That increased to $100 per teacher for the 2016-17 school year, totaling almost $1,500. “It really became a valuable resource,” Farrow says. “It was a good fit for what we wanted, and it gives teachers a little more freedom.”

Challenges and solutions

In 2014-15, seeking to save money, the small Upper Perkiomen School District in Pennsylvania started revamping the elementary math curriculum in lieu of purchasing new textbooks.

Teachers then worked in grade-level and subject committees to gather resources, starting with Pennsylvania Learns, a free online resource from the state education department.

But soon, the team hit a roadblock when it was unable to pull together the encompassing, step-by-step curriculum it had initially envisioned. Concerned that students would face gaps in their learning, administrators ended up buying a textbook.

“Because we were one of the first ones, there weren’t as many resources as we thought there would be,” says A.J. Juliani, Upper Perkiomen’s education and technology innovation specialist. “We had to backtrack.”

But the district has had other successes, including pulling together new material for an integrated science system course that is required for ninth-graders. It introduces students to biology, chemistry and physical science.

In the past, the Upper Perkiomen district purchased books and resources in all three subjects. To create their own materials, teachers relied heavily on the CK-12 Foundation, an online library of free textbooks, videos and lessons.

By creating its own curriculum, the district over the past two years saved at least $300,000 in textbook purchases, and redirected about $20,000 to other initiatives, including a 1-to-1 Chromebook initiative for all students.

The school is now one of six education department #GoOpen ambassadors that took early steps to implement and share open educational resources, and that have pledged to help mentor other districts.

Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer in Iowa.