Finding great teaching resources without being overwhelmed

As a fifth grade teacher, I used to spend hours hunting for math materials and exercises. If I had to teach my math class a standard skill, like adding fractions with different denominators, I would flip through thick binders of exercises, maybe printing up a few. Then I’d search online, where I’d inevitably find an avalanche of teaching resources, including loads of useless resources. It took hours to winnow the mathematical wheat from the chaff.

Like most elementary teachers I know, I’m responsible for teaching all subject areas. That means more lesson prep work to prepare for each class. The work to prepare high-quality lessons day-in and day-out for all classes have only grown more challenging in recent years, particularly in English (ELA) and math. Most teachers nationwide now teach to Common Core standards.

In Connecticut, where I teach in a public grade school, we’ve had Common Core since 2011. This gives teachers a daunting to-do list for their math classes. For each standard, whether forming algebraic expressions or classifying two-dimensional shapes, we must find reliable teaching resources. To check out each offering, and vet its viability, a teacher often goes through the search results one by one. It’s a painstaking process, especially for a single subject that takes only one period of the crowded day.

That’s why I have been hunting for online tools that can do the heavy lifting for me of finding reliable, high-quality teaching resources. I know a lot of teachers could use them. According to a Rand Corp. study, 95 percent of elementary teachers hunt online for teaching resources and lesson plans. This drags down learning because the more time teachers spend scrounging for resources, the less time they have to dedicate to teaching–and to each of their students.

In many ways, these new online services are curators: They organize the teaching resources so that I can quickly find reliable exercises and quizzes. One of the most useful is IBM’s free Teacher Advisor With Watson. It uses machine learning to find relevant teaching resources for each math concept. These resources add focus to my math classes–and now that I’m not clicking through page after page of Google results, I have more prep time for all the other subjects to be covered in the school day.

Newsela, an instructional content platform founded in 2013, is also great for relevant ELA resources.

The pre-assessment tools on these educational platforms help a teacher measure the skills a student has mastered, and see where their holes are. It’s vital to generate this intelligence, the sooner the better. After all, a student’s A+ last quarter is ancient history if there’s a basic concept she’s missing now.

Once we have pre-assessment results, it’s easier to organize the students into workgroups. Teacher Advisor is especially helpful at quickly suggesting pre-requisite resources to pull into my 5th-grade math classes based on the gaps in knowledge they might have. If five students need to brush up on a skill that is crucial for success on the unit we’re about to start, they can work on pre-requisite content from Teacher Advisor together, while other groups tackle different challenges.

Another common issue with math education in particular is back-sliding. By fall, kids have forgotten some of what they learned the previous spring. With new tools, you can trace the education backward, find the skills they’ve lost, or never had, and quickly find the material they need to review.

Other online services curate material for other subjects. ReadWorks, for example, provides resources to support a standards-based language arts curriculum. Another site to try is Common Core Sheets which has math, language arts, social studies, and science resources.

I’ve spread the word around my school, and my colleagues are adapting more online tools, some faster than others.

Different teachers, naturally, have different approaches and needs. But for those who spend hours every school night hunting on search engines for math exercises, assessments, and quizzes, there’s help online–provided you know where to look.