Over the course of this year’s program, we’ll be featuring weekly interviews with the founders of each tech nonprofit in our 2016 cohort. This past week we sat down with Michelle Brown, founder of CommonLit, a digital resource that equips educators with high-quality, standards-aligned literacy tools to help students in grades 5-12 make significant improvements in reading and writing. An alum of Teach for America, Michelle shares why there’s such a critical need for a product like CommonLit, the teaching experiences that inspired her mission, and lessons learned as a tech nonprofit founder.
What is CommonLit, and how does the product work?
CommonLit is a free digital tool that helps students in grades 5-12 make measurable gains in reading and writing. Teachers can go to CommonLit.org, create a free account, and access our free library of high-interest, standards-aligned lessons. What we’re developing now is a set of analytics tools that will enable teachers to track student progress toward student mastery of specific literacy skills. Our focus is on helping adolescents develop the higher-order reading and writing skills that are so essential for college—crafting original arguments, supporting claims with evidence, and making comparisons—to name a few.
What inspired you to launch CommonLit?
I launched CommonLit, the business, in the Fall of 2013 when I was a graduate student studying education policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But CommonLit was really born out of my experience in the classroom. I taught English in a high-poverty school in rural Mississippi from 2009-2011. As a first year teacher, I walked into an empty classroom with no teaching materials, and spent two years struggling in vain to access quality resources. It was shocking how difficult it was for me as an individual teacher to take action and obtain instructional resources. Many tools require your district to purchase them, and that could take a year (and that’s only if your district has the money). There are a lot of free materials out there, but those tend to be low quality. I was angered by this huge resource disparity, and that’s why it’s so important to me that CommonLit remains free for all teachers.
Can you tell me about any specific experiences that influenced your decision to launch CommonLit?
When I think about CommonLit, a specific student comes to mind. This 7th grader was very far behind in reading (over four years behind), and understandably, just wasn’t very excited about school in general. One day, this student was wandering down the hall during his lunch hour. He stopped and peered into my classroom where I was teaching an advanced high school level reading class. Instead of telling him to go back to lunch, I invited him to join the class discussion. We were talking about the way that the theme of fear plays out in The Diary of Anne Frank. The big question for the day was, “How does fear drive action?” I figured this student would soon lose interest and go back to lunch. Boy, was I wrong. Over the course of the next hour, he became more engaged in this advanced class than he had ever been in his remedial reading class. After class, he asked me if I could give him a book so that he could better understand the Holocaust so that he could come back next week—it was a complete turning point. The whole experience made me believe that we need to rethink the way we treat “low-skilled readers” in school. A low-skilled reader is not a low-skilled thinker. Everyone deserves the chance to read quality literature and discuss what they read with their peers. In short, kids are extraordinarily curious, and it’s our job to build a school environment that taps into this innate curiosity.
So, back to CommonLit. Pretty early on while I was in policy school, I came to the conclusion that I could do more good creating a tech tool than I could by trying to enact policy. I owe my advisor, Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a lot of credit for being the one to actually encourage/force me to start something. He gave me a week to come back to his office with a pitch deck. It was the kick in the pants that I needed to just start.
Is CommonLit focused on low-level students or do students need to have a certain level of literacy coming in?
One of the key aspects of CommonLit is that it is leveled. Students can come in at a range of different levels and make progress fast. So, it’s not just for struggling readers or advanced readers. It helps teachers personalize instruction so that they can better address the unique needs of individual students. It also makes it easy for teachers to give instant feedback on student writing, and group students so that they can work on a reading activity in a social way.
Can you talk more about the technology behind CommonLit? How has the integration of tech helped you grow the product?
I tell people that we did the “ed” before the “tech.” We spent a full year really focused on the curriculum itself, which is the core of our literacy model. The technology we are developing now is in the service of that curriculum and the instructional best practices it supports. In retrospect, doing the curriculum first was a really, really good move. Teachers love our tool primarily because our lessons are high-quality. Now, the features that we’re bringing online are making this curriculum 10x more useful, and are users are really stoked about it. Our next feature set will automate simple, time-consuming tasks (like grading), and leverage the power of data analytics to help teachers recognize trends in the data. Ultimately, we’re helping teachers teach in a more informed, data-powered way.
What has been your greatest challenge so far?
As a nonprofit tech company, we have two challenges. First, we have all the challenges of being a nonprofit organization. Second, we have all of the challenges of being a tech company. There aren’t that many tech nonprofit organizations, and because of that, it’s been difficult to find a community of support. Most of the time, we just have to make it up and learn by doing. I’m so grateful to be a part of Fast Forward this summer; we only just started the accelerator, but it’s been so helpful already.
What has been most rewarding about your journey as a tech nonprofit founder?
Pretty often, we get unsolicited feedback from our teachers emailing us simply to thank us for creating CommonLit. When I’m feeling stressed out, I read them again, and it reminds me of how many thousands of teachers are relying on CommonLit. Here’s one I got recently from a middle school teacher: “This site [gives] me essentially everything I need to be able to teach the standards to kids in a meaningful way.”
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned running CommonLit?
It’s been surprising (and inspiring) how much my team has been able to achieve in a short amount of time with few resources. We have a culture of setting very ambitious goals and deadlines. It can be stressful, but when we inevitably deliver (and on time), it’s a pretty awesome feeling. My experience of being a founder is a little like, “Wow, I’m more capable than I thought.”
How has CommonLit been effective so far?
Before we even launched the CommonLit website, we conducted an experiment in Boston classrooms in the Spring of 2014 with an offline version of the curriculum to test the efficacy of our design. Basically, what we saw was that just giving teachers access to CommonLit made instruction better. The outcome was that students who were exposed to CommonLit became more engaged in reading over time (compared to a group that didn’t have access to the resource). To measure this, we used a version of the Tripod survey, which is a nationally-normed tool used in the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study supported by Bill and Melinda Gates. The results were really exciting, and we ended up winning an entrepreneurship award from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. To learn more about our research, visit www.commonlit.org/research.
What’s your 5-year company vision?
We look a lot to the success of Khan Academy as a vision for how we see ourselves expanding globally to reach many, many people. Khan Academy has our same business model (creating flexible resources and giving them away for free), so it’s a big motivation that it has been so successful in the edtech space. I think that in the next five years, CommonLit will become institutionally adopted at the district and state level. I hope it will be a staple resource for 5th-12th grade reading teachers everywhere.