CommonLit, run by Michelle (Skinner) Brown ’09, aims to close the “literacy gap.”
By Hayley Ross ’17
In September, the United States Department of Education awarded more than $26 million in grants to develop and improve high-quality literacy programs in high-needs school. One of the largest awards went to a Butler alumna.
Michelle (Skinner) Brown ’09 will receive $3.9 million over two years to help fund and expand her company, CommonLit Inc., a completely free, online compilation of literary and teaching resources that was created to try to close the “secondary literacy gap.”
“Teachers, parents, anyone can go on the site and make measurable improvements,” Brown said. “That is the overall goal.”
Brown came to Butler from New Braunfels, Texas, to study classical ballet. She said she never stopped loving ballet. “I just decided that I didn’t want it to be my profession.”
“The late Dr. Marshall Gregory was the person in the Butler English Department who inspired me to change my major to English,” she said. “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 Butler, she joined Teach for America and taught at a school in the Mississippi Delta for two years. It was a highly impoverished and extremely rural, and it was there that she got the “teaching bug.”
“Ultimately, what I am doing now directly correlates to teaching there,” she said. “CommonLit was born out of my experience in the classroom.”
She left and began to teach in a charter school in Boston. She noticed the vast differences in teaching tools between the two schools, and it pushed her to go to Harvard for her Master’s in Education Policy and Management.
“It kind of made me angry that the resources that I had in Boston weren’t available to me in Mississippi,” Brown said.
The idea for CommonLit formed when she told her Harvard academic advisor, Ronald Ferguson, that her plan was to write a book on literary instruction.
“He told me that wasn’t enough,” she said. “He pushed me to have a bigger vision of what I could do.”
She started with the curriculum itself around three years ago, never dreaming of what it could accomplish. Today, CommonLit is reaching over 12,000 schools nationwide and gains more than 3,000 new users every day.
“By the end of the year I want to reach around 1 million students,” Brown said. “And we are definitely on track to exceed that number.”
CommonLit has professional high-performing teachers who 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.
“We have contact partners, non-profit, that give us permission to integrate their writing into our collection,” she said.
With the money from the federal grant, Brown said she wants to focus on hiring new people and making the website more visible—not only to places that don’t usually have access to these resources, but to people who may have a disability that makes the website hard to understand.
“We are going to focus on high poverty and rural schools,” she said. “We are also focusing on reading instruction. We are learning to make the site more accessible to those with reading issues, visual impairment, and those with English not as their first language.”