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Thirty Minutes With Eric Simons

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When I asked Eric Simons why he took a one-way flight to Palo Alto instead of going to college, he said, "I wasn't mature enough to learn for the sake of learning." And I thought, who ever is?

As teachers, we are tasked to engage, to excite, and to inspire our students. Because often what we have to teach them, as dictated by the standards movement, is not that interesting. I used to love Oedipus Rex, but if I had to drag one more senior through it, I would have gouged my own eyes out.

Most of us aren't confident enough to bail out of an undergraduate education, especially when we are told that college is The Way. And that's what I tell my students now - that College, with a capital C, is the only way out of poverty. But it was clear to me that Simons made the right decision when faced with a system that discourages creativity, entrepreneurship and iconoclastic intellect.

Full disclosure: as an East-Coast English teacher, my view of Silicon Valley start-ups has been completely mythologized by Steve Jobs: A Biography and The Social Network. And Simons fits this mold perfectly - young, charismatic, geekily attractive, risk-taking, endearing and hyper-articulate. He spoke about his fledgling company, ClassConnect, and its soon-to-be-released app, Claco, with the same conviction that I heard my Sunday preachers speak about the promise of Heaven, and the certainty of Hell. I took his enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism, but it required a serious, concentrated effort.

Much has been written about Simons' days squatting in the offices of AOL once his initial investment ran out, so I won't bother to rehash it. It's a gimmicky origin story that works well for him, but it's not what I found most interesting. It's that instead of an XBox for his thirteenth birthday, Simons asked for six books on programming. When Simons was frustrated by his high school classes, he worked to develop a website that allowed his class to communicate and study in a way that encouraged ownership of their learning. Instead of turning away from the problems in education, Simons turned his talents on them, and now hopes to make the lives of teachers infinitely easier. I hope that he's able to actually do this for the sake of the profession.

When I open up the Claco beta (which you can apply for), it takes about two clicks for me to open a middle-school social studies binder for an animated video of George Washington. "A lot of pictures of me make me look kind of serious and grumpy," George bemoans. A few more clicks take me to a detailed second-grade lesson plan on the brainstorming process, perfectly aligned with the new (and much-maligned) Common Core standards. It's all just starting out, but it shows promise, and it made me realize a part of my educational life didn't really have to be so hard, or so expensive.

Just as Jobs looked at the MP3 player and realized the pre-iPods were "shit," Simons has seen the archaic way educators share relevant resources. There are websites, most of them terribly designed, for lesson plans. Some charge exorbitant fees for study questions and crossword puzzles. But there's nothing right now that educators, in those last-minute panics or late-night, first-year-freakouts, can turn to as a reliable, dependable, free source for teaching material and content. Claco isn't all of these things yet, but it could be.

Here is the problem that I faced as a first-, and even as a third-year teacher. Let's say I have to teach literary criticism for Life of Pi. How do I start? Well, first, I Google it. I sift through links and lists of discussion questions. I read the SparkNotes and make assessments around them. And that's really about the extent of what's available to me. Then I come up with some ideas of my own, save them to my school network drive, and maybe share them with another colleague. Maybe, if they ask.

So imagine this instead. You're trying to teach about the Chicago teacher strike, and you can click on a binder where you can "snap" other teachers' lesson plans into it, then Skype with someone on the front lines. It takes moments, and the interface is uncluttered and clean (think the opposite of what Facebook is now). Not only do we need this, but we need it all in one place, because we don't have time to go Googling for it.

So although I'm not sure how successful Simons will ultimately be, I wish him and his team the best of luck. Educators need a place where we can share easily and effortlessly, and Simons has a shot at a long-term solution.

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