CommonLit, an Online Library for English Teachers, Brings ELA Back to EdTech
Need an example of dramatic irony in a folktale appropriate for fifth graders? Take a trip to CommonLit’s online library.
CommonLit is a collection of over 400 short stories, poems, news articles, and primary texts on topics including social pressure, justice, free will, and resilience. The texts can be sorted by grade level, theme, genre, and even literary device and Common Core State Standards.
This literary resource for teachers is the brainchild of Michelle Brown, founder, and Sarah Mielbye, director of content development. In this interview, Hannah Nyren of EdTech Times talks with Mielbye about the inspiration behind the online library, how to use CommonLit in a variety of classroom environments, and the importance of designing technology for English teachers.
EdTech Times: Hello, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today I am speaking with…
Sarah Mielbye: Sarah Mielbye. I’m the director of content development for CommonLit.
EdTech Times: So tell me a little bit about what CommonLit does.
Sarah Mielbye: So CommonLit is a free literacy tool for fifth through twelfth grade teachers, primarily English teachers, but we do have a lot of social studies and science content as well. So what teachers do is they just go to our site, commonlit.org; they can look through our collection of hundreds of short reading passages.
We have both fiction and nonfiction, so that includes short stories, poems, news articles, informational texts, primary source documents—which is great if you’re a history teacher—some science articles, all kinds of stuff. And what we do for teachers is we organize it in a way that makes it really easy to identify exactly what they’re looking for.
So what a teacher can do is they can filter through our whole library by the grade level that they’re looking for; they can search by keyword, author, topic; they can filter by theme. So if they’re teaching a unit on identity or growing up, you can find any genre of text related to that in their grade level. They can also filter by genre, so if you are a seventh-grade English teacher looking for a great short story, it’ll help you find that.
I was a former seventh-grade English teacher, so my favorite tool is that you can also filter by literary device. You can find texts that are great for teaching symbolism, or figurative language, or diction, or even something like persuasive techniques, like rhetorical devices.
And then within our text, what we offer are a bunch of teaching resources. So obviously the students can read our texts, but we also provide vocabulary support, background information. There’s text-dependent questions, both short answer and multiple choice, aligned with the Common Core Standards.
We also give teachers paired passage suggestions, as well as related media, so you can find a video or an audio podcast or some other recording that will help students better grasp the text.
EdTech Times: Wow, that’s really cool. So can you give me an example of some of the content that’s…on CommonLit?
Sarah Mielbye: We have a pretty wide variety of content, so we have a lot of the classic stuff, like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson and a lot of the canonized works that teachers have been teaching for a really long time.
But then we also have some more modern stuff. We have stuff by Gary Soto, Rita Dove; we have contemporary poets and authors. As far as nonfiction, we have stuff that’s by real journalists from real newspapers. So yeah, it’s a pretty wide variety.
EdTech Times: So what was the inspiration behind the founding of this company, and who is the founder?
Sarah Mielbye: The founder is Michelle Brown. She and I both taught reading together at a school in Boston; we taught seventh grade. And we were really lucky to work at a school that had amazing veteran teachers and really rigorous, great curriculum that was engaging for kids.
And so that was really fortunate because we were able to make awesome gains with kids. Our kids grew years and years in their reading levels just within one school year with us.
But Michelle actually came from a classroom in Mississippi where they had nothing; it was a very rural area. And so she, during her first two years of teaching, you know, she didn’t even know what was out there. So when she came to our school in Boston, she was shocked at how many great resources there were out there.
So as she and I were working together, we were both like, “You know, it really isn’t fair that all schools don’t have access to amazing curriculum and resources and technology.” So what we decided to do was create something that any teacher in the US can use in a variety of different ways.
So if you work at a school that has one-to-one devices, cool. You can assign kids our text on their device; you can get real-time analytics feedback on how they’re doing on different standards and skills. But if you don’t, if you work in a school like Michelle taught at, you can just download a PDF and give that to your kids. It’s a lot easier to use for them.
We’re trying to create something that’s really flexible, really useful, really rigorous, really high-quality, and free.
EdTech Times: Cool, that sounds really fun. So how long has the product been around?
Sarah Mielbye: CommonLit was founded…let’s see, I think it was 2013. And so for the first year, almost two years, we just pretty much spent our entire time just building our collection of content, so that meant identifying really great short stories or poems or nonfiction texts that we knew that teachers would want to include in their curriculum.
And then obviously, we had to build other resources around it, so that was a lot of work. We are a little over two years old now, so we are finally reaching a point where we are becoming pretty popular in schools. So we are in about 40,000 schools per month all over the country.
And it’s spreading pretty organically; I think that’s probably because we’re free. Just word of mouth between teacher networks. So yeah, that’s pretty much how we got started.
EdTech Times: That’s really cool. What are you working on right now? What are you developing at this moment?
Sarah Mielbye: That’s a really good question. So this summer’s pretty huge for us. As part of the AT&T Aspire Accelerator, as well as the Fast Forward accelerator, we just got some pretty awesome funding to be able to build even more content. So we have about 411 text resources in our collection right now, and we’re going to more than double that over the summer.
EdTech Times: Wow, that’s a lot of work!
Sarah Mielbye: It is a lot of work. I’m pretty tired. So that’s what we’re doing on the content end.
And then on the tools and features end, we are developing out our student platform so that teachers will be able to assign students the text on their device, get data about student progress. Students can create accounts, explore the collection, and it’ll be a lot more data-driven and useful for the schools that are starting to get one-to-one devices in their classrooms.
And what else are we doing? We’re adding a bunch of new features; oh, we’re starting some school partnerships, so that’s exciting, helping different schools build out yearlong curriculum. That sort of thing.
EdTech Times: Nice, awesome! So what do you want to do in the next year? What do you think the progression will be?
Sarah Mielbye: So once we’re over this crazy summer, what we really want to do is get the word out because, you know, we are hitting a bunch of schools. But because we have all these cool new features, we want everyone to hear about us.
We’re going to do a big marketing push in the fall, hopefully get into a bunch of schools, partner with even more districts, and just spread the world. We really want to be a useful resource to all English teachers in the whole country, so we want them to find out about us.
EdTech Times: Well, that sounds really fun. It’s great to see a product that helps English teachers at this conference because it’s so STEM-oriented.
Sarah Mielbye: That’s so true. I know; every time we found an English teacher and showed them, they were just so excited about it. It was awesome!
EdTech Times: You can use technology for English too!
Sarah Mielbye: Yeah. I know. There’s so much…there’s so many resources out there for math and science and they’re really cool resources, but you can tell…I mean, the whole reason we created this is because it didn’t exist. At least, it didn’t exist for free, and also not with all the features that we knew English teachers wanted. So this is basically our dream literacy resource.
When we were in the classroom, we were like, “You know, it would be amazing if something existed where you could go to a website and find a perfect text, and it had all these features, but it wasn’t a scripted curriculum, it was something useful. And you could pick and choose what you wanted for your class.”
And that’s what we built, so we’re pretty excited about the product as it is now, but even more what we’re also building this summer.
EdTech Times: Wow, that sounds really cool; I’m excited to see what you all cook up next! All right, thank you.
Sarah Mielbye: Sure, thank you!
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.