All About Search PlanIt, and the *Teacher!* Who Created It

Search PlanIt is a fantastic new teacher-led lesson plan search engine developed by a teacher. Now that piqued my interest right away -- I had to know more. Who is this person, how did he/she do it, and what is the story behind Search PlanIt ?

Curtis Cook was easy to find, and he graciously answered all of my questions. His story and the story behind Search PlanIt is a fascinating one!

Curtis Cook, creator of Search Planit

Curtis, please tell me a little about yourself.

I currently teach in the Lee's Summit School District.  I teach three hours of history at Lee's Summit High School (my alma mater), which is a public high school in Missouri.  I also teach the new Summit International Studies program at Summit Technology Academy.  I am very proud of the International Studies Program (SISA).  It has been recognized on a national level for its innovative method of focusing on international studies.  I designed the program, which is a long-term simulation where students act as intercultural consultants for local and international business partners.

Over my twelve years of teaching I have taught World History, American History, Comparative Government, percussion (more on that later!), and Economics (which is my college major).

“I became a teacher through a rather non-traditional route.”

I became a teacher through a rather non-traditional route.  I graduated as an economics major from the University of Missouri and embarked on a career at the local newspaper in my home town, where I was the circulation manager.  Eventually I advanced to other positions at the paper, including information technology manager.  But something was missing.

That was when I received a message from the band director at my old high school.  He needed someone to coach the drumline and wanted to know if I was interested.  I took the position and decided immediately that I loved working with high school students, and that I would be much happier in an atmosphere where my efforts were meaningful.

So I returned to college, not to teach music, but history - another passion of mine.  One year later I was hired as a full time teacher at Lee's Summit High School teaching history and coaching drumline.

Summit Technology Academy

After 10 years teaching at Lee's Summit High School, I learned of an international studies program that would be launching at Summit Technology Academy (STA).  STA is a technology-intensive high school that services students from 14 area school districts.  I devised a unique program and pitched it to the steering committee.  SISA (Summit International Studies Academy) was born the following year.  I gave up drumline and spent half of my days at STA.

Why did you create your own search engine? Do you have a tech background to do this? Is a tech background needed to create a search engine? Do you have to spend a lot of time maintaining it?

I've always loved technology even from my newspaper days when I created and maintained their first website.  (Pretty high-tech for 1995 Missouri!)

“You do not need to be a Jack-of-all-Trades.”

But I do not have a technology background in the traditional sense.  I am not a programmer or web developer.  But as I tell my students, it is more important that you can collaborate with people and create a team that has the technical skills that you lack.  You do not need to be a Jack-of-all-Trades.

As a tech-loving teacher, I had always used the Internet for lesson plans and research.  But the lesson plan sites were so full of ads and low-quality lessons.  I was usually frustrated with the amount of time that it took to find lesson plans.  And I knew that it should be easier than that.  There needed to be a way to make the technology work for teachers, not the other way around.

"Hey.  Wouldn't it be great if teachers could just pull out their iPhones at a meeting and find lesson plans that they could share with everybody else at the table?"
Then last August (2010) a few things happened.  I was reading some articles about the simplicity and effectiveness of the Apple operating system, along with some information about the inventor of the flip camera and his obsessive focus on simplicity.  The flip only does one thing, and it does it well.  Apple makes it easy to use their operating system.  I then read an article on the death of the World Wide Web and how mobile devices would be the future of the Internet. I have no idea why, but I put all that together and I said, "Hey.  Wouldn't it be great if teachers could just pull out their iPhones at a meeting and find lesson plans that they could share with everybody else at the table?"  Something simple that only did one thing: Find lesson plans on the Internet.

So, I talked to my wife, who is a graphic designer, and we set out to give our search engine an interface.  Once we had some pictures, I sent it to a buddy of mine who was in drumline with me at the University of Missouri.  He then reminded me of another guy on the line who was now a programmer.  Things were coming together!

So my wife, my buddy from Marching Mizzou, and I e-mailed back and forth to see if this thing was possible, and could we do it for a super-small amount of money.

Well we found an open-source search engine that could serve as the platform, discussed social sharing and teacher ratings.  We set up a small example which drew from sites I had on the Google Custom Search Engine I had created for my blog, Lesson Upgrades.

Then my friend had to drop out of the process for personal reasons.  But he had shown my wife and I that this thing could actually work.  We finally found a developer who set us up in an online collaboration portal with their programmers in Russia.

So almost a year later, Search PlanIt was born.  I now spend my time promoting and tweeting lesson plans and writing blog entries about lesson plans I find.

Search PlanIt

How long has the search engine been up? What has been the response so far? Is there a story behind the moniker?

“As far as the name and logo, it's based around the fact that we want to build a community. “

We started in mid-June of this year, so Search PlanIt is only a few weeks old!  But the response has been great.  I've had a pretty respectable amount of teachers tweet about it and find me on Facebook.  Even though it is summer, we get quite a few teachers form around the world already.  50% of our traffic is referral, and I love that!  It means that teachers find it useful and that we hit the nail on the head!

As far as the name and logo, it's based around the fact that we want to build a community.  My wife and I came up with the name while driving around in our car.  She was still excited about it the next day and told me that we could do all sorts of things to promote this community of teachers using the planit play on words. We talked about saying things like “Here on Search PlanIt  teachers’ opinions matter”.  It just felt like we could use the planet metaphor for our Search PlanIt  community.  

I chose the saffron and blue color schemes specifically.  Saffron is a highly regarded color in India which was a substantial source of traffic on my old search engine.  And blue is seen as a trustworthy color here in the States.

When we were done I sent it out to as many teacher friends as I could think of.  We then tweaked things that they were nice enough to address as concerns.

I notice your site says you have 300+ searchable sites. That is amaaazing! Could you tell me why and how you chose the sites? Is there a variety? Any noteworthy ones?

Basically I put some of the big sites in, and then dug down about 20 pages into a Google search.  I wanted to give teachers stuff they would never find on Google, but was good.

“My favorite sites are the teacher-posted ones.”

My favorite sites are the teacher-posted ones.  We have sites from school districts, home schooling sites, and a lot of ELL sites.  I know that music teachers often feel left out of the process, so I included a number of music lesson plan sites for my former colleagues too!

I think the best example of how these sites create an awesome set of results is through one of my first Internet searches.

I am a big fan of Andrew Carnegie, and I always used his name to test my search engines.  But on Search PlanIt, I found something new -- a lesson plan by the U.S. Parks Department focusing on Carnegie's love of libraries and his multiple library donations.  What a cool angle that I never would have thought of, made possible by Search PlanIt.  I'm hoping that many teachers will have a similar story.

One of the most interesting angles about your story is that a practicing teacher "took the bull by the horns" so to speak, and created something that is incredibly helpful for other teachers. What is your philosophy about teaching and sharing with others?

“I think that teaching is just sharing.”

Thank you - I love that "bull by the horns".  I think that teaching is just sharing.  There's that philosophy that we really don't think of original ideas and can never "own" knowledge.  Knowledge exists out there in the universe and we just stumble on to it. We just find it through reading and exploring.  I am not the center of knowledge.  I can only share the very small amount that I have found myself.  But what I should be sharing are methods for finding that knowledge and using it to find more knowledge.  So kids should share and collaborate, and teachers should help them on their journey.  

But I know that teachers face severe limits in the classroom.  When you have 35 bodies in a room that services over 200 kids a day, sometimes you have to punt.  But teachers are incredible  professionals who have improvised ways of meeting those challenges. And that's where Search PlanIt  comes in.  

Teachers can look at what other teachers are doing in the classroom.  But it needs to be practical in the circumstance in which teachers live.  I've read through all sorts of lesson plans that were obviously written by someone who has an office and a phone.  I know they don't work in my world, and their lesson plans won't work in my world.  

So, with Search PlanIt I can give those lessons a rating.  A real rating from a real teacher.  It's just like you got it in a conversation across the hall.

And you know what's cool about our rating system?  It actually affects the results so that teachers won't have to trudge through ineffective lesson plans to find the good ones.  If the lesson plan stinks, I give it a one-star rating and it gets buried at the bottom.  I've done that to all sorts of lesson plans.  I may find that one site charges for their worksheets and I messed up and included it in the original urls.  So I just give it a one-star so that no one has to see it.

And that kind of control is in everybody's hands that uses Search PlanIt.  I call it your lesson plan search engine and I mean it.  Some of my friends said I should have things panel-reviewed.  But I don't want that and I resent that sort of elitism.  I want teachers to have the control.  That's what Search PlanIt is about.

“And, one of the coolest things about this search engine, in my opinion, is the ability to share with one click.  As with everything on the site, my goal is to make it easy.”

And, one of the coolest things about this search engine, in my opinion, is the ability to share with one click.  As with everything on the site, my goal is to make it easy.  And I know that teachers share things all the time.  So why not make it easy to e-mail some lesson plans to your department?  

Let's say you are at an in-service on differentiated instruction and you are teamed up with your American History colleagues, which just happened to me.  I looked up some civil rights lesson plans on Search PlanIt and tweeted them so that everyone could see them.  One teacher didn't use Twitter, so I just e-mailed it to her with one click.  It's just that easy.  

That's what I am the most proud of.  This search engine works for teachers.  I LOVE it.  I Know that it works and I know that teachers will use it.  And I feel vindicated because a full 25% of our traffic is return visitors already!

Any final thoughts?

I just want to say that I encourage everyone to "take the bull by the horns".  I learned a lot of that message from reading Dan Pink.  The future is different than our past.  We need to approach it differently.  We need to tell our kids if they have an idea, it can happen.  I mean think about it.  I am a small-town boy from the Midwest.  But I have teachers from all over the world using my search engine.  It was just an idea one year ago.  And thanks to my wife and my friends, I was able to collaborate with experts halfway across the world and make my idea a reality.  It's great stuff!


Curtis! You are making a huge difference for teachers all over the world. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story -- you’re an inspiration to us all.