The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 51 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

Listen to the audio version of this podcast.

This episode is sponsored by mysimpleshow.


As we work to improve our students’ reading skills, one thing teachers can’t ever seem to get enough of are high-quality texts. We need them for English language arts classes, naturally, but as more emphasis is placed on reading across the curriculum, teachers of social studies, science, and other subjects are also looking for good texts to give students practice in reading challenging material, developing a point of view or thesis about that text, and supporting their thesis with evidence from the text.

So when I heard about CommonLit, an online library of free, high-quality texts hand-picked for students in grades 5 through 12, I knew right away it was something I wanted to share with you. In this episode I’m going to talk to the person who built CommonLit from the ground up. She tells me what prompted her to get it started, then walks me through the platform to show me all the great features it offers. I’ll give you a quick preview: these are leveled texts that come from authentic sources and have text-based questions to accompany each one. You can search for the texts by grade level or theme, and CommonLit is adding new titles every single day.

Before I play the interview, a quick thank you to everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. Every review brings more listeners to the show, and I read and love every single one, so if you’ve been enjoying this podcast and you haven’t left a review yet, take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and tell me what you think.

I’d also like to thank the sponsor of this episode, mysimpleshow. Mysimpleshow is a great online tool that allows you to create your own animated videos for free. It’s so easy, and FAST: You just write your script, let mysimpleshow find images to match it, then fine-tune it until it’s done. It would be perfect for flipping your classroom or having students create their own videos. To learn more and try your first video, visit

Now let’s learn about all the fantastic free resources at CommonLit with their CEO, Michelle Brown.



GONZALEZ: Michelle Brown, welcome to the podcast.

BROWN: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

GONZALEZ: Thank you. This is Michelle Brown. She is the CEO and founder of Is it .com or .org?

BROWN: It’s .org, because we’re a non-profit.

GONZALEZ: Got it. So somebody pointed out your site to me that thought that a lot of teachers would really like to learn about it, and so I checked it out and I totally agreed, and so here we are. And we’re just going to explain to our readers what CommonLit is and how they can use it. So if you met somebody for the first time and they wanted to know what your website was, what would you tell them?

BROWN: Sure. So CommonLit is a free online tool where teachers can find and plan engaging lessons. So we have a free collection of news articles, poems, short stories, historical documents for fifth through 12th grade classrooms. These are print-ready resources that each come with this set of text dependent questions, suggestions for paired passages, a parent guide, related media resources. And starting in just a few weeks we’ll be launching some features to help teachers track student progress along those text-dependent questions.

GONZALEZ: So basically, what the foundation of the site is is a library of free reading passages that teachers can use in any lesson that they want to really.

BROWN: Right, yeah. I told people that we’re an ed-tech company, but we definitely did the “ed” before the “tech,” so we spent a full year and a half just on picking out quality reading materials, because we know how important text selection is for grade instruction.

Where the Texts Come From

GONZALEZ: And this is actually a problem that I hear a lot of teachers talk about. They’re always looking for high-quality reading passages, because developing reading proficiency is so important in kids of all ages. And really there’s a lot available for younger kids, but once you get into these upper grades, it’s a little bit harder to find good non-fiction. You do have fiction, but you’ve also got a lot of high-quality, non-fiction texts for people to use.

BROWN: Right. And so our model is we actually have a number of content partners who donate content to our collection. So, you know, one of our best partners is Science News for Students. So we have a collection of scientific articles that have been prepared, actually, by scientists but written for children. And then we do contract with a number of actual journalists to write some of our current events content. We have some articles from NPR, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. So we’re really focused on having kids read authentic texts, not just dinky passages and test prep workbooks that nobody likes to read.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, oh, I am totally with you on there. So that’s … I’m going to re-emphasize what you just said: These texts come from sort of professional writers for the most part. They’re either coming from NPR or they’re coming from Science for Kids…is that what you said, was Science for Kids?

BROWN: Science News for Students, right.

GONZALEZ: Science News for Students, OK. And these are all basically being given to you with permission from … these are, like, creative commons or public domain pieces of writing?

BROWN: So the content itself has been donated by our partners. But the passages themselves, the questions that we write, the lessons themselves, those we license under Creative Commons non-commercial license, which means that teachers are free to print and distribute them. They can use them freely for educational use.

CommonLit’s Origins

GONZALEZ: OK, so let me ask you really quickly before we get into the site, because that’s what I really want to get into all of the features. But I’m just curious about your own background and what prompted you to create CommonLit.

BROWN: Sure, yeah. So CommonLit was really born out of my own frustrations in the classroom. For five years, I was a seventh-grade reading teacher, and I got my start first teaching in a high poverty school in rural Mississippi. And so I walked into a classroom on Day One with no teaching materials. For the next two years teaching there, I spent my nights and weekends just scrambling to find decent, free materials on the internet. And also just got really frustrated at the resource gap that I was seeing. There was this ed-tech revolution happening, but there was no world where, you know, my students would get access to some of that stuff. It was sort of this anger at the disparity and just thinking about ed-tech overall. It does have the potential to exacerbate some of these inequities when you put a price point on it. So that’s really why I came up with the idea, No. 1 that we needed quality resources, and No. 2 that these quality resources had to be free.

GONZALEZ: Very interesting. And it’s wonderful that you’ve been able to do that, because you’ve got these companies that are actually partnering with you. So they’ve got their own funding, and then they can donate stuff to CommonLit to help you build that library.

BROWN: Right, exactly. So the more traffic that we get, the more quality content we can get on our site. So our partners really like that we’re serving so many hundreds of thousands of kids across the U.S. with their quality content.

A Tour of the Site

GONZALEZ: Excellent. OK. So let’s take a look at the site. If I am a teacher and you know what your user base is, so walk us through the experience as a typical user.

BROWN: Sure, OK. So let’s say I’m a ninth-grade teacher teaching “The Great Gatsby.” So I would go to, and I would create a free account. And from there I could browse the library. And one of the best things about our site is that it’s very, very searchable, so I can search by common theme. So I could look for “power and greed.” A new theme that we’re coming out with this month is “isolation,” which is a theme that runs throughout “The Great Gatsby.” Or I can just go to the “Browse the collection” page. I can search by [UNCLEAR AUDIO AT 9:56], Common Core standard. We’ve tagged all of our passages by literary device. So if you have, you know, kids who are reading on many different levels sitting in the same classroom, and you still want to address the theme of the American dream, you can find passages, authentic passages, at different levels that still help kids build that essential background knowledge, so that then you can go back to reading “The Great Gatsby.”

GONZALEZ: OK. So I’m going to look at the themes right now, and I will go to … so “isolation” is one that you’re working on right now. How about “America”?


GONZALEZ: So if I click on “America,” then they’re automatically filtered, and so if I go to … I’m going to click on “the Great Depression,” just so that I don’t sit here and hem and haw forever. OK. So we’ve got a passage on the Great Depression. And one of the things I’m noticing right away is that I can change the font size, which is really nice. I can make it bigger if I need to. Also it looks like I can download a PDF of the document also if I wanted to print it.

BROWN: Yeah. So you can download a student copy, which does not include the answers, and it has spaces for students to write out their short answer. It’s all print-ready with our footnotes preformatted. Or you can print out a student copy, which is on the “Teacher guide” tab, and that includes the answers.

GONZALEZ: Got it. OK. So, first off, we’ve got the passage. You’ve included an illustration with every single passage, which is just nice. It just makes for a more pleasant reading experience. A little bit of information about the author, and then we’ve got the passage. One thing I’m noticing right away is that yes, there are numbers that are embedded, little footnote numbers that are embedded within the passage. So the first one is on the word “harrowing,” so when I click on that, a definition comes up for the word “harrowing.” You have footnotes for other things too, though. You include some background knowledge on certain things.

BROWN: Right. So we have human beings who are building our footnotes, and these are high-performing teachers who go through and look at these lessons. So we’re looking at what Tier 2 vocabulary words are really essential for students to have a basic understanding of the text. And then for other footnotes, what essential background information is critical for kids to understand.

GONZALEZ: Got it. Good. And those are pretty unobtrusive. I mean, the footnotes are at the bottom, and then you can see the numbers, you click on them, and then you just get a little pop-up box that explains that concept right there. And you’ve also numbered the paragraphs along the side, but you haven’t numbered every single one. You’ve just got the first one, the fifth one, the 10th one, and this is to help students identify where things are?

BROWN: That’s right. So we want to make our text interactive for students, so actually we just, very exciting, I’ll tell all of your listeners this first, through a partnership with Texthelp, we are also going to embed into the student side a text-to-speech capability, and a translation capability, a highlighting capability, so students can really interact with the text as they read.

GONZALEZ: Very nice. How long has the site been up and running?

BROWN: So we’ve been doing kind of like different feature launches. So in October of 2014 was when we first put the site online, and then we sort of watched our traffic grow from there.

GONZALEZ: So it’s still a pretty young site. It’s not even a full 2 years old yet, and so you’re continuing to add new features all the time.

BROWN: That’s right.

GONZALEZ: And I’m assuming the library also is continuing to grow?

BROWN: That’s right. We add about five to 10 lessons per day.

GONZALEZ: Oh wow. That’s fast. OK. So we’ve got the text here, and then to the right of the text there is a box that says “Questions,” and there’s two tabs: One says “Text dependent” and one says “Discussions.” So talk about this box.

BROWN: Sure. So as students read, they can answer our Common Core lined, text-dependent questions. So these are written in the style of the PARCC assessment, is how we wrote these. So these are tagged by standard. We have Part A, Part B questions. The idea is to hold kids accountable for what they read with those set of text-dependent questions. But then we also know students also need to be discussing what they read with peers, and especially for adolescents. That’s really how they get excited about a text. So we want them to be writing and discussing. So if you click to the right of “Text dependent” you can see our discussion questions, and these sort of go deeper into the major themes of the text and ask students to use their own experience to answer questions.

GONZALEZ: Got it. And so for this one, there are four discussion questions and it looks like five multiple choice … actually, not all multiple choice though, because the last one is like an essay question. And there are Common Core standards sort of written right there next to them. And it’s interesting, I just saw this, when I hover over the standard code, the actual standard appears in a pop-up box, so that’s a nice feature.

BROWN: Yeah.

New Features: Student Accounts and Progress Tracking

GONZALEZ: So how, with the current state of this site, because you told me before we started recording that there are going to be some new features, but with the current state of the site, how exactly do students interact? They can actually answer these questions right now on the site, right? There’s nothing to click.

BROWN: No. In about two weeks, so hopefully by the time this podcast airs, students will also be able to create accounts and be within a teacher’s class, and you’ll be able to assign these lessons through the platform so that students can answer the multiple choice, text-dependent questions and also the short answer, text-dependent questions.

GONZALEZ: They’ll be able to type their answers right there on the platform.


GONZALEZ: And those will be submitted to the teacher?

BROWN: Exactly. They’ll be submitted to the teacher to grade. So obviously we can auto-grade the multiple choice answers and we can show teachers in real-time the breakdown of how students answer these questions. So if you want to know that 20 percent of your class answered Choice A, you can have that information immediately. And then for the short answer questions, we’re building a really nice, easy scoring platform so that teachers can score the short answers on a zero- to four-point rubric.

GONZALEZ: Got it. And I think you may have actually told me too that there’s like an anchor answer that’s provided? Sort of what a good answer would look like?

BROWN: Exactly. So teachers can just always look back up at the exemplar as they’re scoring.

GONZALEZ: Excellent. So that feature, as we’re speaking right now, we’re talking in mid-August, but this is a new feature that’s going to be rolled out in early September, and this will probably not air until mid-September, so people should be able to go on right now and see that feature. And all of this that we’re talking about is all free. The student accounts are free …

BROWN: It’s all free.

The Research Behind CommonLit

GONZALEZ: So right now, this is … you all did some research prior to putting all of this stuff out. Talk to me a little bit about that.

BROWN: Sure, yeah. So like I said before, we did the “ed” before the “tech,” so we knew that any of the features that we would be building would only be as good as the curriculum itself and the best practices that it supports. So we spent, you know, a full year just thinking about looking at the research on English language learners, on differentiating instruction, on helping kids get to high levels where they’re ready for college. So the main thing that we found was around text selection, and just how important choosing a text for students is and making sure that that text is appropriately leveled and that the content is age appropriate. So we read a lot about how discouraging it can be for a seventh-grade student who might be reading on a fourth-grade level to get a passage that is written at a third-grade level but not developmentally appropriate for a seventh grader. So we spent a lot of time just finding those types of passages that, you know, struggling readers in middle and high school would still find engaging.

GONZALEZ: Got it. When you say “we,” who is it that’s curating the resources and writing the questions and sort of putting it all together? I’m assuming this is not all being done just by you.

BROWN: No, no. We are a team of six people, and so three of us are former reading teachers and three of us is our tech team.

GONZALEZ: Got it. That’s a nice balance, yeah. So you’ve got people that make it work right, but then a lot of people that are making sure that the quality is there.

BROWN: Yeah. So we spend, you know, a lot of time just thinking about the new texts that we’re going to add and making sure they’re up to our standard.

Other Features: Paired Texts, Related Media, Teacher and Parent Guides

GONZALEZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the other features that are on here, because I forgot to even explore these other tabs. So we have the text and we have the questions to go along with it. But then, along the top, there’s a tab that says, “Paired texts,” “Related media,” “Teacher guide,” and “Parent guide.” so let’s sort of walk through each one of those. What about the “Paired texts”?

BROWN: Sure. So we have hand-picked anywhere from two to five potential pairings that go with any of the texts on our site. And then if you read the description, you’ll see that there’s a suggestion for how or why this would make a good pairing. So it could be because it uses the same literary device. Like, we find two texts that have an unreliable narrator, so if you want to do a lesson just focused on that, you can have students dig deep into that literary device. Sometimes we pair them because they deal with the same topic. Sometimes they deal with the same major themes.

GONZALEZ: This is something I didn’t even realize. Now that you’re pointing this out to me, and that is wonderful attention to detail. I just thought that maybe in the backend you just sort of made connections between things and said, “If you’re interested in this, you might be also interested in this.” But now I’m realizing your descriptions are custom written for each pairing, explaining why this would be a good pair.

BROWN: This is not a robot doing it.


BROWN: These are teachers who are painstakingly going through the collection and finding good pairings.

GONZALEZ: That’s awesome. OK. And those other paired texts are also housed inside the library?

BROWN: That’s right.

GONZALEZ: They’re all there on the platform, OK. What about “Related media,” that’s another tab for this same Great Depression text?

BROWN: So, right. So we’ve also looked for short clips that would be appropriate for teachers to show in class. And we’ve found these in the same way. We went through and looked for, you know, short videos on YouTube that would help students build a central background knowledge. Maybe it’s a short interview with the author to kind of help students connect with the narrator’s voice or the author’s voice. And so we look for at least one to three per text that could be potentially viewed in class.

GONZALEZ: This is great, and so I can see one of the videos that you’ve embedded, and they’re embedded right here, they can be played right here on the platform, is the New Deal in three minutes. It’s just going to be an overview of the New Deal, and that’s going to give them a lot more background knowledge about what’s going on at that time period. It’s excellent. So then there’s a teacher guide.

BROWN: Right, so the teacher guide is where we write the exemplar short answer responses, what teachers should be looking for as they’re grading those short answers. If students have to find evidence in a short answer, we say they should be looking in paragraphs one and five, for example, so we get really specific with that. And then we also show the correct answer for the multiple choice questions as well.

GONZALEZ: I can see this being especially helpful if a teacher is assigning lots of different passages to lots of different students and just doesn’t have the time necessarily to carefully read every passage. This is kind of a shortcut to being able to grade that stuff and assess the student understanding really quickly.

BROWN: Exactly, or if you need resources for a pullout group or something, you can just have them right there.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Very nice. And then there’s a parent guide, which was a really nice surprise, so tell me about that.

BROWN: Yeah, so we know how important it is, in terms of building literacy, what the research says is that parents can make a huge difference for their kids at home by just knowing what kids are reading and by asking, you know, their students questions when they get home. So what you’re looking at right now is just Version 1.0 of our parent tools that teachers can then share that link with families, you know, through email that just says, “Here’s what your child is reading in school today. Here’s a video you can watch at home. And here’s some guiding questions that you can use. What did you learn about … “ and then it autofills some essential questions.

GONZALEZ: It’s really nice, and I noticed that when I was first exploring the site, I had not yet created my account, and so I noticed that I could see this page without having an account. So parents don’t have to create an account in order to view this page, and that’s really nice.

BROWN: Nope.

GONZALEZ: And this is just … this is really wonderful, because especially starting around fifth grade is when it’s like getting water from a stone to try to find out what your kids are doing in school, and they don’t seem to want to dredge up the energy to talk about what they did. So this really would be a wonderful resource for parents to have some idea what your kids are doing.

BROWN: Yeah, yeah. If you’re a parent out there, and you’ve ever had the experience of saying, “What did you learn in school today?” And you get that, “I don’t know.”

GONZALEZ: Yes, exactly. I’ve got three kids. It’s exactly the same answer every time.


GONZALEZ: Yeah. Oh, this is fantastic. So can you tell me a little bit about what your existing users are telling you? What experiences are teachers having with it already?

BROWN: We love getting feedback, and we get feedback from our users basically every day. Most of it is just like, “Thank you so much for creating this,” with some information about how they’re using it. We get a lot of requests for going down to the younger grades. We do have plans in the next year or two to go to third and fourth grade.

GONZALEZ: That would be nice.

BROWN: And then go lower from there. We do have a lot of requests for translating these for teachers who are in an ESL classroom. So we’re thinking about ways to support those teachers. And then we’re also building full unit plans. So in December of 2017 we’ll be launching 50 unit plan guides.


BROWN: So right now we’re sending these out to our teacher advisory board, so we have about 25 teachers right now in schools based across the U.S. who are testing out our new features before they launch. So we’re getting some great, great ideas for things we should build and also feedback on our current features to figure out how to make them better.

GONZALEZ: That’s awesome. It sounds like you’re doing such a thorough job. I know sometimes, I have my own online presence, sometimes you just want to throw something out there, and it takes some discipline to do things the right way, so that you have a product that you’re proud of.

BROWN: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: That should give teachers a lot of confidence in you.

BROWN: Yeah. We’re hoping that this will be a big year for us. So we think of it as kind of like our debut.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well I’m really excited to send teachers over to you, and I think this is going to be listened to for … people who listen to my stuff actively, it will be early in the school year, so this should help a lot of people in 2016-17. But I also have people who listen, they’ll discover my podcast in another year, and those people will be able to jump on those unit plans right away. So yeah. Is there anything else that you wanted to add or let people know about the site?

BROWN: Yeah, I just want to let everyone know. We do have an active Pinterest board where we’re posting some of our early suggestions for novel guides. So if you go to our board, you’ll see a list of potential paired passages for books like “The Lord of the Flies” or “Wonder” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and really popularly taught, commonly taught books, where we’ve identified some paired passages. So if you’re looking to follow us, we’re active on Pinterest and Twitter and also Facebook.

GONZALEZ: Excellent. OK. And I’ll make sure that in my own show notes, I’ll give people a link to that Pinterest board too, so they can find it. From your site, it looks like they can get to your Twitter and Facebook accounts, so they will be all set.

BROWN: Great. That’s awesome.

GONZALEZ: OK, thank you so much, Michelle.

BROWN: Thank you so much.

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