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Building a Reading Resource

(L-r) Taylor Percival and Michelle SkinnerIt was happenstance when seventh-grade reading teacher Michelle Skinner sat down next to Taylor Percival, also a seventh grade reading teacher, at the HGSE Orientation this fall, but the two instantly bonded over the challenges they faced as reading teachers in urban middle schools. Within minutes, they were brainstorming: Wouldn’t it be great if a resource existed to help middle school reading teachers find engaging texts that worked for a range of reading levels?

Within a few days they would begin working on a solution. And, within a semester, they had developed CommonLit, a nonprofit teacher resource that collects high-quality texts, sorted by reading level, and categorized by themes students love to discuss.

“We are starting a movement,” Skinner says of CommonLit. “The drill and kill approach isn’t working…. You read to find meaning.”

Skinner met with her adviser, Senior Lecturer Ronald Ferguson, who pushed her to think about what to do differently at HGSE, a few days after beginning here. She shared her dreams of creating a resource for reading teachers. Ferguson told her to come back the next day with a 10-minute pitch. She reached out to Percival, who she had only known for three days, to help.

During their years teaching reading, both Skinner and Percival struggled to reach their students – many whom read well below national reading averages. The challenge was finding appropriate texts that were engaging and up-to-date, and that worked for multiple literacy levels.

As a teacher, Percival, like Skinner, often left the classroom unsatisfied. “I’d show up with a lesson but the students were disengaged,” she admits, noting that she’d spend six hours every night trying to find appropriate and engaging texts for all the different levels of readers in her classroom. “The looks on their faces when you give them something that they know they can’t read, seeing what it does to their self-confidence is really hard, because they can all be successful, but they are all facing different issues.”

When they presented an early version of CommonLit to Ferguson, he told them to build it. Within a week they had brainstormed and outlined the nonprofit. They created a student group, which attracted the support of other students interested in the subject, and by January, they had partnered with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which is advising on ways to ensure open-access course materials for teachers on the internet.

“The problem is that if you don’t have the hardware or the financial resources, a large portion of teachers do not have access to materials,” Percival says.

The resource works simply to solve the problem. Teachers interested in finding a text to accompany reading lessons can visit the CommonLit website. Once there, the resource allows teachers to search for texts based on themes that are tied to whatever lesson they are teaching. Themes ranges from love to identity to morality to technology to social change and so on. Then, with just a click, the teacher can access prompts under each theme to engage students, and then with another click, access texts to further emphasize whatever lesson is being taught.

Skinner points out that a visit to CommonLit can help a teacher find common themes, questions to ask students, and accompanying texts to help engage, create conversation, and ultimately, create understanding.  “What’s worse than coming out of seventh grade and not grasping the [meaning of the] books?” she says.

Already the resource seems to be a hit. Recently the education podcast Talk with Teachers named Common Lit its “Resource of the Week” and wrote, “This is going to blow up soon in Ed circles.”

As CommonLit moves forward, Percival and Skinner hope to keep the momentum going. They work with a well-rounded team of people including fellow HGSE students Jessica Yarmosky, Lea Marmora, Lindsay Denman, James Hatzopoulos, Michael Dabrieo, Joshua Tappan, Elizabeth Devereux, Sarah Thompson, Audrey Harris, Hyunsun Cho, and Audrey Dau. While currently the resource only contains about 30 texts, they plan for this to grow to 1500 by the end of the year. In addition, they will also continue to pilot surveys and tests on the site to show how it can help with increasing student engagement.

So far, they are confident that it’s going to work.

“Sometimes it’s the simple solutions that are most effective” Percival says, noting that Common Lit is something that can really be used.

UPDATE, June 2015: Michelle Skinner Brown, Ed.M.'14, was announced as the winner of one of Teach For America's 2015 Social Innovation Awards. Read more.


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