Most educators agree that well-planned lessons are a classroom essential. But some teachers don't know how to shape lessons. Others may not understand the subject they teach well enough to dream up creative ways of presenting it.
That's why, in recent years, more teachers have turned to the Internet to pool expertise and to sample lesson plans tried and tested by other teachers.
There are today about 10,000 websites that offer access to as many as 300,000 lesson plans. Many of these are free-to-all collaborative efforts that allow teachers to share their work with any who may be interested.
Others, however, are sophisticated for-profit businesses, offering packages that include extras like suggestions for related classroom activities, tests, and notes for Power Point slides.
The selection of lesson plans found on the Internet is remarkably broad. At lessonplanspage.com, 2,500 free lessons are available - including plans for gym, music, and computer classes.
At the discoveryschool.com site, users have only to select a grade and a subject matter to access lesson plans on everything from ancient history to the weather.
Edhelper.com offers logic puzzles and themed lessons treating topics like the national elections and the explorations of Lewis and Clark.
Some sites, however, are better than others - and too much information is sometimes as bad as none at all, say some teachers.
Combing through thousands of lessons is time-consuming, says Rob Lucas, who's starting his second year as a sixth-grade social studies teacher in Rocky Mount, N.C. He calls most of the online lessons "mediocre."
So to help teachers share their classroom expertise, Mr. Lucas, a Teach for America instructor, created a collaborative website called a "wiki" at teacherslounge.editme.com.
There is no charge for the service. Registered users can post lesson plans, links, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations.
No technical expertise is required. Wiki users also can modify other participants' posts. It's a high-tech version of the Japanese practice of continually improving lessons, known as "polishing the stone," says Lucas.
Charles Zaremba, however, took a different approach. Drawing on three decades of classroom experience, he refined his biology lessons, and drew more than a million visitors to his Mr. Biology site. Today, however, he sells his course through Teaching Point, based in Jacksonville, Fla.
The company markets soup-to-nuts courses with a syllabus, daily lesson plans, teacher's guide, activities, and labs, and notes for overheads or PowerPoint slides, workbooks, and tests. Teacher-authors get 20 percent royalties.
Teaching Point offers 60 courses now, with 60 more in development; by 2005-06, there could be material for 200 different courses, covering prekindergarten through high school classes.
Materials are linked to standards in four big states - California, New York, Florida, and Texas - and to standards written by national groups such as the National Council of Teachers of English.
The courses are pitched at schools hiring new teachers or teachers who are new to their subject matter.
Some of the online material can help with both academic courses and extracurricular activities.
English teachers with no journalism training, for example, are often drafted to teach journalism and advise the school newspaper and yearbook. Dianne Smith, a veteran journalism teacher in Houston, created For Journalism Teachers Only in 1998. It started as "an online file cabinet for handouts and quizzes for my journalism students," Ms. Smith says. Other teachers contributed lessons and links. Now Smith hopes to earn royalties from the journalism course she wrote for Teaching Point.
While many inexperienced teachers rely on the teacher's guides included with textbooks, that isn't always practical, says teacher Chad Husting.
"If you try to do a pacing guide, you'll see it takes 288 days to teach all the stuff in the book," Mr. Husting says. His Teaching Point chemistry course is paced for the 180-day school year.
After earning a master's in organic chemistry, Husting jumped into teaching - with no training but a great mentor. Now a 13-year veteran, he teaches chemistry in Cincinnati and hopes to pass along his knowledge and experience.
He sees his lesson plans as jumping-off points for new teachers.
"This is a starting guide for teachers to get them through the first year," he says. By midyear, his course is less prescriptive, encouraging teachers to develop their own style.
The company markets its products as tools designed to help meet even the most basic needs in the teaching profession. "Our materials assume you know nothing about the subject," says Doug Matthews, CEO of Teaching Point. "It's the missing link between what textbooks provide and what teachers need."