California Reads

Educators know that reading is the foundation of learning, and must be highlighted year-round to make a lasting impression. CTA’s California Reads program offers teacher-recommended book selections for all grade levels, all year long. For the full 2017-18 list, see; #californiareads. Among the books on deck for fall:

Grand Canyon (grades 3-5), written and illustrated by Jason Chin, explores the natural wonder through the eyes of a father and daughter as they hike and discover life present and past. Die cuts, for example, show how a fossil today was a living creature long ago, perhaps in a completely different environment. The book contains a spectacular double gatefold, a detailed map and extensive back matter.



In The Hate U Give (grades 9-12) by Angie Thomas, teen Starr Carter moves between her poor neighborhood and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. She witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend Khalil, who is unarmed, by a police officer. In the aftermath, some say Khalil was a thug and drug dealer; others protest in the streets in his name. Starr is torn between her two worlds as she deals with speaking her truth while trying to stay alive herself.

NewsNotes6The hero of The Real Boy (grades 6-8), by Anne Ursu, doesn’t know where he came from; he just knows he’s different. Oscar has deep knowledge of magical herbs and their usage, and when children start falling ill, he and his friend Callie try to solve the mystery. They discover a dark secret that may answer Oscar’s questions about himself.



And They All Saw a Cat (pre-K, kindergarten), by Brendan Wenzel, shows youngsters the many lives of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see.



A Real Life-Saver

Last year, Richard McDowell got a call from a distraught teacher upstairs at Galileo High School in San Francisco: A substitute teacher had fallen on the walkway and was bleeding. Because McDowell runs the school’s Health Academy, which includes an emergency medical services class in its program, it’s not unusual for students and faculty to turn to him if they can’t reach the front office or find the nurse.

McDowell ran up, noticed the man had no pulse, and started doing hands-only CPR, considered as effective as mouth-to-mouth CPR in the first few minutes of sudden cardiac arrest. He continued to do compressions even after paramedics arrived. Ever the teacher, McDowell pointed out to his students that the device paramedics were inserting into the injured man’s mouth to keep his airway open was the exact same device they’d been covering in class.

On the annual American Heart Association lobby day: “Students get to see how government works, how citizens take action. They work on their leadership and communication skills.”

The man survived, and McDowell, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, was recognized in May by the city’s Department of Emergency Management for his life-saving effort.

“The irony is that the year before, my students and I traveled to Sacramento to convince lawmakers to support an American Heart Association [AHA] bill to include instruction in hands-only CPR in any required high school health course,” McDowell says. (The bill, AB 1719, passed and will go into effect next year.)

Every year for nearly 10 years, McDowell has brought up to 70 students by bus to the state Capitol to advocate for AHA policies. In June, he received the association’s Western States Affiliate 2017 Outstanding Advocacy Efforts Award, one of its top honors given to volunteers. “Hundreds of his students put a face to our issues, and are key to securing meetings with legislators,” notes the AHA release.

McDowell says the annual trip is “golden.” “Students get to see how government works, how citizens take action. They work on their leadership and communication skills.”

McDowell has been an educator and Galileo teacher for 20 years, starting the Health Academy in 2001 to “create a pipeline from school to work, or a postsecondary program or college.” Juniors and seniors learn about issues and careers in health science. The curriculum includes courses at City College of San Francisco and internships at California Pacific Medical Center.

McDowell has also been recognized by AHA for helping pilot a cooking nutrition class that brings in chefs to teach students how to make inexpensive, heart-healthy meals. The program has expanded to five other states and over 100 schools.

While his hands-on classroom contains everything from oxygen tanks to obstetric mannequins (to practice delivering babies), McDowell admits that his real-life life-saving feat had a big impact on his students. “It gave me cred for a couple of months.”

Digital Lesson-Sharing

Educators are known for their outsize capacity to give and share, and when it comes to lesson plans and curricula, teachers have generously shared with colleagues for centuries.

Sharing in the digital age means that myriad educators are now involved, and virtual marketplaces for Open Educational Resources (OER) — freely accessible, openly licensed text, media and other digital assets for classroom use — are springing up.

The promise of OER has been touted for some time. It taps into the collaborative brainpower, innovation and creativity of educators around the country and around the world. It ensures that teachers and students always have the most up-to-date and relevant content for little or no cost — which is particularly attractive to cash-strapped school districts. And OER can be customized and adapted to individual student populations and aligned to state standards.

OER can be found at various educational sites, including, where educators post their work for colleagues to use (often for a fee). In recent years, high-tech firms such as Amazon and digital education companies have joined the fray. The U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign supports states, school districts and educators in using OER to transform teaching and learning.

Challenges in finding quality material

But while OER may be a boon to education, for many educators finding free, quality online curriculum requires tenacity, collaboration, increased staff development, and possibly new language in their collective bargaining agreements.

And that doesn’t even include wading through the thousands of choices of online learning and research materials out there.

Many say it’s the Wild West when it comes to selecting and vetting material.

“That’s exactly what it is,” says Oxnard Educators Association member Karen Sher, a seventh-grade teacher who is on special assignment as an instructional coach. “[OER] gives teachers more freedom, but it puts a lot on them in terms of research.”


Karen Sher

Sher became a specialist in the Library of Congress’s OER after attending its summer institute several years ago, and vouches for the primary sources it makes available to teachers. While the Library of Congress may not be as well known as other OER sources, it offers a wealth of resources for educators, according to Sher.

Sher asserts that regardless of the quality resources available online, “where the real magic happens is when teachers collaborate.”


Pia VanMeter

Pia VanMeter, co-chair of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee of CTA’s State Council of Education and high school science teacher, would agree. When her district rolled out an open source math curriculum, it was a disaster because there was not adequate staff development.

“Teachers were working on the curriculum while trying to teach the curriculum,” says the Riverside City Teachers Association member.

“Open source as an idea is great, but you need to critically look at it and make sure it is aligned to standards.”

Collaboration and staff development are key

The Cajon Valley Education Association (CVEA) has a joint curriculum committee with the Cajon Valley Unified School District to determine, among other curriculum decisions, the selection and uses of OER. The district is among those selected by the U.S. Department of Education as part of its #GoOpen initiative.

The committee’s work began two years ago when teachers started to question the superintendent’s “all in” campaign to include OER as part of its curriculum.


Christopher Prokop

“Our association began to ask, ‘What is that going to look like? Are we going to meet the requirements of Common Core? What about English learners? Who is going to create the curriculum?’” says CVEA President Christopher Prokop. “We became the adults in the room.”

Despite the early issues, teachers and the district are working together, and Prokop credits the district for wanting to “get off the textbook adoption merry-go-round” that is driven by big publishing companies. Teachers districtwide now have a modified Monday schedule that allows time for collaboration and staff development (including on OER) in teacher-driven meetings.

Know your OER objectives


Angela Der Ramos

Angela Der Ramos, Alisal Teachers Association, is a member of CTA’s Instructional Leadership Corps and provides professional development at conferences and in her district. She is a big proponent of OER, especially to rethink some of the curriculum or standards she is required to teach. Still, she maintains using OER must involve good pedagogy, and teachers must be articulate about what they are doing, “particularly when they are going against the norm.”

Der Ramos runs “This Side of the Chalkboard,” a Facebook page where teachers can share techniques, strategies and lessons in using OER.

The fifth-grade teacher believes the mission of education is to produce literate critical thinkers who are steeped in social justice and have learned they have the power to make positive change. With this in mind, her OER sites include Newsela, which she uses to highlight current human rights abuses, and Teaching Tolerance, an educational resource from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While Der Ramos particularly endorses teacher-generated material, she is hesitant to support the idea of “teachers paying teachers” for online content.

“I fault no teacher for trying to make money,” she says, “but my own philosophy is one of sharing.”


Where to Find OER

Finding and vetting high-quality, standards-aligned Open Educational Resources (OER) can be challenging. Here are some expert recommendations: — An established resource offering full lesson plans easily incorporated into classrooms. — An OER pioneer with a time-saving “Spotlight” search to help find specific elements. — This OER has an enormous range of assessments. — Provides both lesson plans and full courses that can be downloaded and used for free. — Another early OER resource that lets teachers easily share their own lessons.

Their Favorite Things

CTA members Angela Der Ramos and Karen Sher, and CTA staff consultant and edtech specialist Karen Taylor, have favorite sites for OER content as well as educator tips, i­­ncluding:



KQED Learning,

Library of Congress,


Pinterest, (search for curriculum and lesson plan)

Read Write Think,

Rock Your World,

Teaching Tolerance,

Zearn Math,

Let us know your favorite sites at

What to Consider With OER

  • Use reputable sources and make sure the content you choose is aligned with standards.
  • Select content you can easily adapt and customize for your students.
  • Factor in time to adapt and customize, and time for you to become familiar with the content.
  • If you’re sharing OER with colleagues, schoolwide or districtwide, make sure you have time to collaborate, prepare and learn together.