- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—When textbooks aren’t cutting it or resources aren’t available, fifth- to 12th-grade teachers now have an online resource to turn to: CommonLit.

The creator of the nonprofit Web resource, Michelle Brown, began CommonLit during graduate school at Harvard University after her experience as a reading teacher in two different school districts. Originally from the Austin, Texas, area, Mrs. Brown is living in Scranton while her husband, Patrick Brown, a Scranton native, completes a clerkship.

In June, CommonLit won a Social Innovation Award grant from Teach for America, where Mrs. Brown’s teaching experience began.

“Struggling readers tend to not get the chance to have high-level intellectual discussions,” she said. “So the model of CommonLit allows kids at every reading level to engage with those important ideas.”

The website is a free resource not just for teachers but also college professors and parents.

“We have no barriers to access; that’s what we believe,” Mrs. Brown said.

Organized by theme, the site offers short stories, poems, news articles and other prose as well as discussion questions.

“An example would be fear,” said Mrs. Brown. “A question we’d ask students to discuss is, How does fear drive action? Or how can fear be used to manipulate?

“So even if you’re a low-skilled, struggling reader, you can still engage with that idea … at your level,” she said.

Another core value of CommonLit is that it remains an unscripted curriculum, meaning users can pick and choose what to use.

“We respect professional educators and believe that they can choose the best works for their students,” she said.

The inspiration for CommonLit came while Mrs. Brown was a member of the Teach for America 2009 Mississippi Delta Core. Teaching at a school in rural Mississippi, she found herself struggling to find free quality reading materials for students.

“It just took up so much of my planning time … I felt like I could never reach my full potential as a teacher,” she said.

But when she started teaching at a Massachusetts charter school, she found that quality curriculum enhanced the reading experience for struggling students.

“That is sort of what made me believe in the transformative power of a great and good quality text,” she said.

She started a student organization with around 15 other former reading teachers and graduate students while studying for her master’s degree at Harvard. That group became the launch team for CommonLit.

They conducted a pilot study of the program in Boston Public Schools that received good results. In October, while she was working from the Marywood University Entrepreneurial Learning Pad, CommonLit was launched.

There was very little publicity before the site went live, said Mrs. Brown. The team watched as users grew to “tens of thousands from all 50 states, and several thousands of users that are starting to pop up internationally.”

She’s reached out to area school districts, including Abington Heights, to let them know the resource was available.

“I thought it was absolutely wonderful,” said Vicki Jones, director of language arts services/ESL coordinator at Abington Heights. “It’s kind of the wave of the future. Teachers are always going out on the Web now to find resources to support curriculum.”

While the site is “laser focused on fifth- to 12th-grade literacy,” Mrs. Brown said she sees teachers from other areas, including chemistry and history instructors, using the site to supplement their curriculum. CommonLit has also been listed as a good resource for homeschooled students.

This summer, the team plans to grow the collection from 200 works to 500.

“That’s our goal by Sept. 1,” she said.

Contact the writer:

[email protected]hamrock.com, @kbolusTT on Twitter


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