Meet Robbie Earle, Scott Messinger and Marika Ross. They’re three former teachers who design technology to make educators’ lives easier. Earle and Messinger are the founders of the digital lesson planner Common Curriculum (Cc), and Marika is the newest member of the Cc development team. Together, they spend every day thinking about how they can improve lesson planning so that teachers can have a greater impact on their students.
The Cc team wants to share some of their tips and tricks with other teachers passionate about solving problems in education. On Monday, October 7, from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Cc is pairing up with Impact Hub Baltimore to host the Educators to Founders: Happy Hour and Panel as part of Baltimore Innovation Week 2019. On the panel, Earle will be joined by Jess Gartner of Allovue, Danna Thomas of Happy Teacher Revolution and Ashley Lee-Williams of Infinite Focus Schools — all former teachers now leading their own successful ventures.
Last summer, Cc hosted “Hack Your Lesson Planning,” the first in a series of events hosted at Impact Hub Baltimore to create a community of collaborative lesson planners.
Ahead of the event, Cc Director of Marketing Charlotte James sat down with Earle, Messinger and Ross to ask them about their experience transitioning out of the classroom.
What and where did you teach?
Robbie Earle: I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade social studies at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle and KASA College Prep in Baltimore City, MD.
Scott Messinger: 1st grade for three years and 4th/5th Math & Science for 1 year at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School.
Marika Ross: Montessori preschool and kindergarten.
What is one thing you miss about teaching?
RE: The feeling you get right after you nail a very complex and important lesson.
SM: I miss the joy of first graders. Six and seven0-year-olds have a wild eyed excitement about the world around them. They’re excited to learn and explore the world.
MR: I miss watching children develop skills that will launch them into learning for the rest of their lives. Watching a child successfully read for the first time is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
And one thing you don’t miss about teaching?
RE: I’ve always struggled with paper organization myself, so convincing 60-80 middle schoolers to keep their folders organized throughout the year was always a huge problem for me.
SM: I don’t miss having a set schedule. Working from home provides some wonderful flexibility that I’ve grown to appreciate.
MR: I don’t miss trying to get children to nap.
What inspired you to start Cc?
RE: My first year, I didn’t just teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade social studies. I taught science, too. There were only two other teachers in the district that had the same class load I did, and they were both first year teachers as well. Naturally, we tried to collaborate, but as time went on, it became clear that emailing dozens of lesson plans and handouts back and forth each week wasn’t a sustainable system. After a few months, instead of using each other’s lesson plans we just stopped. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I thought “I wonder how Andrew and Al are teaching this unit to their kids?”
I ended up barely getting through that year teaching six preps, and while I could have had help from two other teachers, the tools we used to collaborate were so clunky that we just ended up isolated. We ended up planning alone when we should have been planning together. I was a much worse teacher that year because of it. So, once Scott came to me with the idea of a lesson planner that would both help teachers get organized and help them plan together I almost felt morally compelled to help him do it. It’s been 7 years since then and I haven’t looked back.
SM: I couldn’t plan with other first grade teachers I knew. It was like we both were on tiny islands. I had specific, nuanced questions about what my friends were doing in their classrooms – I didn’t just want their resources, I wanted to know how long they spent on a particular skill, how they ordered the lessons in their units, what questions they asked on their formative assessments, what skills they retaught, etc. Resource sharing sites never came close to providing that level of detail because they seemed to think the only thing I wanted as a teacher was a handout. I didn’t want resources handed to me – I wanted to use my friends pacing and scaffolding to help me create better instruction for my students.
Later, I worked in the district office writing curriculum and leading professional developments for first grade math. At the time in Baltimore City Public Schools, writing curriculum didn’t mean putting together obtuse pacing guides or scattering standard codes on an oblique spreadsheet and proclaiming it helpful. Writing curriculum meant actually creating materials, crafting lesson plan seeds, drafting assessment questions, and constructing a pacing guide that gave both flexibility and guidance for teachers to fit all the skills in throughout the year.
To get our work into teacher’s hands, we’d manipulate a 200 page Word document with around 2000 links to files that resided on a file server. We’d also lead monthly professional development sessions exploring how to teach particular concepts. Analyzing the district benchmarks and talking to teachers at the PDs were helpful in knowing what worked and what didn’t, but it provided big picture data points that didn’t help us with the specifics. In my experience, great specifics create great instruction: how long to spend on a skill, which activities to use to teach it, what questions to ask to assess it, etc. If we didn’t have specific, granular data, we were flying blind in our work to revise an improve the curriculum.
While there’s little indication that making curriculum up as they go has ever bothered the big players (like Pearson) and their contractors (like Words & Numbers), it deeply bothered me. I wanted to have data on what teachers were doing so each year would lead to better materials, not just new ones.
In order to create that type of close, immediate feedback loop, I, as a curriculum writer, needed to know what teachers were planning day to day. And the only way to get that data was to create a tool they’d willingly use. The only way to get them to use a tool willingly is to make it far more useful than anything they were using before (paper and pencil, Google Docs, Microsoft Word).
In addition to help curriculum writers build a feedback loop with their teachers, the same tool would help teachers plan together. Such a tool would give new teachers something I never had in the classroom: a way to build on your friends and colleagues work. If teachers felt like they were on an island before, I hoped this could make them feel like they moved to a metropolis full of people to learn from.
It was from this genesis that Common Curriculum sprang.
What motivated you to transition from teaching to tech?
RE: I didn’t do it because I wanted to get into the tech industry. I did it because there was a problem that no other company had solved, and it really messed with me when I was a teacher, and here was another teacher who had the same problem saying that he wanted me to help him fix it. So I did.
SM: Everything from my above answer x2!
MR: I wanted to expand my skill set and be involved in the future of education. It was frustrating to watch all of the children using early “learning” apps that were more interested in promoting a
brand/character/product than actually conveying a concept. If technology is going
to be an inevitable part of education, I needed to learn more about tech – so I went
to code school.
What was the hardest part of the transition?
RE: Raising investment capital is a terrifying process for someone who’s used to the steady salary and job security of a public school teacher. Those first few years before we became profitable were quite rough, but every time a teacher would write to us and say something like, “Cc has changed the way I lesson plan,” I knew it was worth it.
SM: As a tenured city employee, there was tremendous stability in my job as a teacher. As an entrepreneur, there was none. I was fortunate to have been able to save money and took a one-day-a-week job at my school. Later, I took on consulting projects to help make ends meet before Cc paid the bills.
MR: Not working with children.
Where do you hope to see Cc in 5 years?
RE: I want Cc to be the place where teachers go to write lessons with their colleagues. Like, if a young teacher is having problems getting their lessons organized, I want the default response from their more experienced colleagues to be “hey, have you tried using Cc yet?”
SM: I’d love to see new teachers expecting that their friends are on Cc and checking in with them weekly and borrowing ideas and resources.
MR: Having perfected the lesson planning/routine side of things, moving on to becoming a curriculum repository where teachers can go find new ideas, feel inspired, and bring that back to their classroom.
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