CommonLit began developing and piloting CommonLit 360, its free full-year ELA curriculum, in 2018. In the spring of 2019, Blount County, Tennessee joined this curriculum pilot. In this interview, you’ll hear from Terri Bradshaw, the Secondary-Level Literacy Instructional Coach for Blount County Schools. She talks to CommonLit’s Director of School Partnerships about why she loves the CommonLit 360 Curriculum, how it helps teachers, and how it makes her a more effective literacy coach.
Rob Fleisher (Director of School Partnerships, CommonLit): Tell us a little bit about your school district.
Terri Bradshaw (Secondary-Level Literacy Instructional Coach, Blount County Schools): Blount County is located in a suburban — and also partially rural — part of Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville. We have about 10,000 students. I’d say the district is mostly middle class; we do have some schools that have about 75–80% of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. But, we also have some schools where that number is more like 40%.
Rob: Tell us a little bit about your role in your school district. As the secondary reading coach, what programs do you run and what are your main priorities?
Terri: I work primarily with the teachers and the principals on curriculum, instructional best practices and strategies. I also write the curriculum or look for strong curriculum to implement. When I first took the reading coach job three years ago, we had nothing; we were all over the place. Teachers had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Shifts in the standards already occurred, but the shifts in instruction hadn’t taken place in our classrooms. So, I primarily work to find strong materials, support them as they implement it, and help the principals become instructional leaders.
Rob: Talk a little bit about how your team used CommonLit in the past.
Terri: I first found out about CommonLit when I was beginning to build unit frameworks. I was working on finding high-quality texts and I came across CommonLit. Our textbooks had not been replaced since before the standards had shifted — they were probably bought back in 2000 or 2001. So, the text complexity level is lower than what it should be; our high school textbooks are more appropriate for middle school.
So, when I started working on the curriculum, the first thing that I wanted to tackle was incorporating complex texts. So, when I found CommonLit, I saw that the Lexile and suggested grade level is already there, in addition to all of the planning materials aligned with it. For many of our high schools and middle schools, CommonLit became our textbook.
Last year, we also needed a benchmark for the 10th grade. We were using another company for the middle schools and 9th grade, but we needed one for the 10th grade. We found out about your benchmarks and you offered those to us for a reasonable price. So, the schools made the decision to buy those assessments.
We were well pleased. We always liked the quality of the questions from CommonLit, so we knew the benchmarks would have high-quality questions. That turned out to be true.
Rob: Can you talk a little bit about why you and your team decided to partner with CommonLit to roll out its new curriculum?
Terri: The 10th grade teachers at one of our schools piloted one of the units you were developing last spring and they really liked the lessons and the pairing of the texts. They really wanted to use your materials. Then, we pulled in the 9th grade teachers at the school.
Then, I talked to the other high school in the district. They had heard about the results that the teachers at the other school were having — they saw a 10% increase in students who were on-track for mastery. Those teachers credited the new CommonLit units with helping them get those gains. They started with one unit, and then did another one. They just kept going. Whatever you guys had available, they used.
Rob: What appealed to you about the new curriculum that CommonLit was building?
Terri: Do you have about 2 or 3 hours?
One of the big shifts in ELA is the content knowledge. So, when I look at your units, I see the content building all the way through. It’s thematic, but there is also deeply embedded content, connecting the informational text to the literary text. So, I really like that and I really like how the vocabulary activities are text-dependent. The approach that you used to teach vocabulary was really similar to what I was already doing with my middle schools, so the format was really appealing. I also really liked the writing instruction and how it logically flows. I can go on forever — I really like the questioning in the reading lessons. We had been doing some of that type of questioning, but nothing like what you all created.
Rob: How easy has it been for teachers to use the curriculum?
Terri: You guys did a little bit of training with us, but I think it’s quite accessible. The teachers who are not quite as skilled can follow the curriculum fairly easily. The slide decks support them and the students. It’s very clear in the instructions.
Since I also work with the middle schools a lot, my time with the high schools is limited. But, since the instructions and the layout is very easy to use, they are able to make it work.
Rob: Can you speak to a particular teacher for whom the CommonLit 360 Curriculum has made a strong positive impact?
Terri: I was in a classroom yesterday that I thought, “Wow, she’s really come a long way.” The curriculum has helped her to think more deeply about the students’ responses and the quality of the questions. She’s now even adding extra questions that she’s developed that are really good. She was doing a lot of really good follow-up questioning and we were both really excited about the depth of student responses. She’s really improving.
Rob: How has CommonLit helped you to be a more effective reading coach?
Terri: In the past before we started to use the curriculum from CommonLit, the teachers were choosing texts that they liked to teach their students. Then, I would come in as the coach to observe. But, I didn’t have a common language or understanding of what they were even trying to do in the class, so it made it really hard for me to coach teachers when we didn’t have a common direction that we were going in. But, with CommonLit’s curriculum, we know exactly where people are going and how they are supposed to get there. The strategies are research-based. So, when I see teachers are struggling, I can coach them up on specific parts of the curriculum. It it gives me entry points in which to coach them instead of being in there and just being like “That went well … I think.”
Rob: How has CommonLit’s District Success team supported the implementation of CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum and assessments?
Terri: I can’t even begin to brag on them. If we have any issues, there is like a 2 minute turnaround. So, the support has been phenomenal. But, we don’t have too many technical issues.
Are you interested in bringing CommonLit’s curriculum to your district in SY 2021–22?
If so, email Partnerships@CommonLit.org to learn more!