When Michelle (Skinner) Brown ’09 created CommonLit, Inc. she saw it as just a teacher website.
That was in 2014. Today, with the help of a $3.9 million grant from the United States Department of Education and another $3.5 million grant from Google, the online reading program for grades 3-12 is reaching over 8.3 million users, and averaging 21,000 new users every day.
In fact, Brown says, “CommonLit has grown so big that it’s rare that I meet an English teacher today who hasn’t heard of it. It’s pretty crazy.”
Brown created CommonLit to be a completely free, online compilation of literary and teaching resources. Professional, high-performing teachers create all of the lessons on the site, which include new articles, poems, short stories, and historical documents. The works themselves are donated by authors and publishers that support CommonLit’s mission of improving literacy for vulnerable populations.
The path to its creation was not a traditional one, however.
Brown came to Butler University from New Braunfels, Texas to study classical ballet. However, one of her professors, Dr. Marshall Gregory, inspired her to change her major to English.
“His classes made me believe in the power of literature to change people’s minds. In fact, Dr. G ended up writing my letter of recommendation for Teach for America, which is what brought me to the education sector.”
After graduating from Butler, Brown taught for two years at a school in a highly impoverished and extremely rural part of the Mississippi Delta. It was there that she got the “teaching bug.”
“Ultimately, what I am doing now directly correlates to teaching there,” she says. “CommonLit was born out of my experience in the classroom.”
Brown followed up her time in Mississippi with a Master’s in Education Policy and Management from Harvard University. It was upon completion of this program that CommonLit was born.
In the five years since its inception, the nonprofit has done so well, in part, because of something Brown calls “best practices.”
“Our theory of action is that if we give teachers high-quality resources and help change teacher practices, we can nudge them toward practices that support students who are struggling in reading,” Brown says. “We pick a handful of best practices that have been shown, through research, to move the needle in reading achievement—particularly for students who are struggling.”
For example, a best practice would be for a student who is an English language learner to explicitly be learning high-leverage words—words that you might see over and over again, no matter what class you’re in throughout the school day. This ensures students have strong foundational knowledge from which to build.
“Reading and writing is a predictor of life’s outcomes, of student earnings,” she says. “It really is the ticket to the middle class. Our mission is to close that gap.”
With the new multimillion-dollar grant, the company will aim to close the gap internationally as well, starting with a pilot in Mexico.
“We are actually writing original Spanish content, getting really great local stories, and building a curriculum that is more localized for Mexico,” Brown says. “Then we are trying to see over the next two years how we can build student achievement there.”
CommonLit currently has a three-person team in Mexico City that is working with the Ministry of Education as well as other partners who are local to the region and understand the unique context there.
“Literature and text selection are so localized and very cultural and are how people are socialized in their country,” Brown says.
“We aren’t just saying we are making a CommonLit for the U.S. and then lumping the rest of the world together. We’re thinking ‘what’s our global strategy,’ and thinking country by country.”
The under-resourced schools her team is working with in Mexico City just recently gained access to computers and broadband internet. Through its latest grant, CommonLit will be working on offline solutions as well.
“Our mission is to serve students who are in low-income areas and who are underserved,” she says. “And in international context, that usually means they don’t have consistent access to internet. So, that is something we will be pursuing in 2019 and 2020: How can we make an interactive version of CommonLit that actually works offline.”
CommonLit has grown exponentially and impressively over the past two years, but Brown says it’s the individual stories that have the most impact. She shares the story of a high school teacher in New York whose student had recently immigrated to the United States. In order to graduate with a high school diploma, he had to pass his New York State Regents exams— but he spoke no English.
“This teacher used CommonLit basically every day with him in English and Spanish, and the result was that he exceeded the average on the English exam at the end of the year,” Brown says. “He used the Spanish and English resources and started to understand the structure of the text and it was a total success… It’s moments like that when you realize that you’re really making a big impact.”