“Writing a lesson is hard, creative work and doing it right is very time consuming,” says Stephen Churchville, the founder and creator of LessonWriter, an online solution for teachers to help them write better lessons faster. When reading is involved, a lot of effort goes to repetitive tasks like identifying vocabulary and parts-of-speech, finding explanations and examples for grammar and word roots and stems, formatting pages, etc., according to Stephen. “Those essential but non-creative tasks are to teachers what melting butter and washing pots are to cooks,” he explains, “So I made LessonWriter to free teachers from those tasks and give them more time to be creative, like microwave ovens and dishwashers do in the kitchen.” What else LessonWRITER can do to help teachers is the subject of this interview. Enjoy!
Victor: What does the name mean?
Stephen: We wanted a name that addressed the essence of what our service does, and that is write lessons. There’s been some criticism, that the name is too literal or limiting—but I think most people get an idea of what we do as soon as they hear the name.
Victor: What is it? Who created it?
Stephen: LessonWriter is a website that provides free services to help teachers prepare and manage their lesson plans in keeping with “best practices” in literacy, differentiation, and critical thinking.
I created the first versions, and after I shared the programs with other teachers they started making requests and suggestions. Jennifer Applebaum, a fellow teacher and curriculum developer, has been a participant since the beginning and came up with some popular features like the graphic organizers and teacher lesson plan.
Babi Pal joined very early on and guides a lot of the web design, and he and Ben Evenson-Phair work on the site’s back-end programming and databases. Another team member, Thomas Empl from Austria, was a big help with the linguistic programming.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products and services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Stephen: Before LessonWriter, the choice was between doing all the work yourself or using canned materials.
There are some terrific companies providing content-area literacy curricula and delivering leveled-content for differently-abled students, and we have learned a lot from them, but they are all canned materials selected by a committee in another state that has never met your students and did not know what today’s news would be when they wrote the materials, so we see a big advantage in the teachers ability to choose the content that motivates her students like today’s news.
With LessonWriter, teachers get the advantages of traditional materials (sequence of skills instruction, standard presentation, glossaries, etc.) and the creative, motivational, and pedagogical advantages of choosing content specifically for their students.
And LessonWriter’s TEAM features encourage teacher collaboration, so that ESL, literacy, and special ed teachers can participate in content-area lesson planning.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Stephen: Since LessonWriter was developed part-time over many years, we have been able to test and refine and get feedback on every step. If we were a traditional company, LessonWriter would have had to be finished by a deadline and pushed out the door before it was ready.
I started developing the original programs in the fall of 2002 or winter of 2003. I was teaching ESL at the time, and so focused on vocabulary, pronunciation,grammar and linguistic oddities like idioms and phrasal verbs. As I shared the programs with teachers in other subjects, they requested features like graphic organizers, more question types, lesson plans, images, and customizable dictionaries. Other ideas were implemented only to be thrown out after testing because they were too difficult to use, not universal enough in their application, or were just unpopular.
After the formal launch of our free services in 2008, we started getting a lot more feedback from teachers all over the world.
Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?
Stephen: Our company is in New York City, and the services are available on our website LessonWriter.com So far, our trainings have been held in New York City and New Milford, N.J., but we love to travel and are planning our expansion into other cities.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Stephen: Everything we have for individual teachers is completely free, and tens of thousands of teachers around the world use our services without cost or obligation.
For schools, we offer our TEAM services for $1299 per year, and we give a one-year subscription for free when a school buys our BASIC professional development training.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Stephen: Not for? My first answer was gym teachers, but then I remembered that they are often assigned health classes! There is (or should be!) some reading every subject and class, and LessonWriter has a contribution to make whenever students struggle with literacy and comprehension. LessonWriter’s biggest contribution is to help all teachers teach reading in their content area.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Stephen: Teachers and administrators know that they are taking on impossible tasks and they do it anyway.
For example, no one really believes a teacher can plan five different lessons, each with accommodations for several differentiation groups, in a single prep period or evening. They all know it is not possible to challenge gifted students and support challenged students simultaneously every day in every class. Yet they wake up everyday and set to out to do just that, which is pretty heroic.
By helping teachers create lessons and lesson plans that address those challenges in a fraction of the time, LessonWriter gives teachers a fighting chance.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating LessonWriter?
Stephen: I was lucky enough to go to the Stowe School, a very small alternative high school in Vermont, and had the chance to work one-on-one with teachers to select books and agree upon assignments and assessments. Reading what you want, guided by a competent and interested teacher holding you to rigorous standards, is pretty exciting.
That sort of individualization is a challenge in large schools, but with LessonWriter teachers really can allow students to choose content and then tailor activities to each student’s needs.
Later, while student teaching in New York City, I was challenged and frustrated by students with low literacy skills. I remember my mentor Fern Lowenfels said that whatever our subject, we are all ultimately reading teachers.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Stephen: Let’s face it, no one is happy with education in America, and dissatisfaction with the status quo drives demand for new solutions. Today, people look to technology for solutions, so for people in educational technology, the future is going to be a blast.
From a social point of view the near-term future is less exciting. Debates about testing and teacher accountablity will continue to serve as straw men, distracting us from addressing larger social issues. What social issues? Well, we have many examples of successful schools, so ask the question “Why not do what they do?”. The answers are the political and economic compromises we’ve made, and have nothing to do with pedagogy or how to teach most children.
Perfect pedagogical practice is only part of the battle. Lessonwriter supports teachers in doing their jobs well, and when we know that the educational efforts are sound,the issues that must be addressed outside the classroom become clearer.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of LessonWriter? What makes you say that?
Stephen: As teachers, we always emphasize skills and methods to students to help them become more aware learners. In the same way that teachers offer students systems for checking a math problem or self-assessing an essay, LessonWriter provides not only the tools but the meta-cognitive process for being a more aware planner and educator.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com