I imagine these sites were created by well-meaning educators who wanted to harness the power of teachers sharing their ideas with others and provide compensation for those willing to do so. The idea is appealing to many teachers who work incredibly hard in their classrooms and deserve recognition. Even I was hooked into the promise of the site early on as I shared materials that I had created. But as I learned more about the materials that were posted, I was frustrated. They were pretty, yes, but not always based on sound literacy practices and were certainly not tailored to the needs of individual students. I realized that charging other teachers for these kinds of products was not something I could stand behind.
As a literacy teacher educator, I have a responsibility to advocate for teachers and their students. I build teacher expertise as the best form of literacy instruction and intervention and engage teachers in conversations that challenge their use of prepackaged materials for instruction. And I am not alone. Many others have written on this topic and generated lively discussion: Dr. Mary Howard’s Facebook post, Matt Gomez’s blog post, SpinEducation’s post and even cautionary guidance provided by the National Math TeachersCouncil. Inspired by these posts, I want to share how I have challenged teachers’ assumptions about sites such as these.
In the beginning of the semester during my literacy graduate classes, I ask teachers to share their favorite literacy activity with the class. They describe the activity and post a link to it. Inevitably, many of these activities are from paid teacher resource sites. Over the course of the semester, teachers learn about effective literacy instruction, develop their expertise on the sequence of skills development and explore principles of early literacy intervention. At the end of the semester, I ask them to return to their chosen activity and evaluate it based on their new learning. They are typically quite surprised at what they find: the activity typically looks pretty on the outside, but may not be based on best practices, it may teach early literacy skills in a sequence that actually makes it harder for students to learn and the font and embellishments may distract our most vulnerable learners away from the content we are trying to teach, among other revelations. It is typically an eye-opening activity for most. We share our results and conclude together that these activities, and the sites they are posted on, should be evaluated carefully before using them in the classroom, just like any other published curriculum. There may be good resources for teaching shared online, but we should privilege our own expertise and abilities to create instructional opportunities for students.
Rather than using technology to purchased prepackaged curriculum or teaching activities, we must use technology to carefully and thoughtfully grow our own professional learning network and collaborate with like-minded teachers who can fuel our goals and support our work. Let's arm teachers with knowledge of effective literacy instruction and support them as they develop their own expertise to create effective, authentic and responsive instruction for students. Join me on November 14th at the New York State Reading Association's Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY to explore how to use technology to boost your professional learning network and re-imagine literacy and literacy instruction for yourself and for your students.