Throughout the 2019–20 school year, CommonLit has been piloting it’s free Full-Year English Language Arts curriculum in five NYC middle schools. This soon-to-be-released curriculum is available in both digital and print formats.
In this interview, you’ll hear from Ian McGhie, Principal of Pelham Gardens Middle School in The Bronx. Ian talks to CommonLit’s NYC-based Literacy Specialist, Rob Adams, about his decision to utilize CommonLit’s digital curriculum and his team’s transition to remote learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Rob Adams (CommonLit’s Literacy Specialist): Tell me about yourself and your school.
Ian McGhie (Principal, Pelham Gardens Middle School): My name is Ian McGhie and I am a first-year principal at Pelham Gardens Middle School. I was an Assistant Principal for three years prior and I supervised our English Language Arts (ELA) department during those years. In transitioning to becoming the principal this year, a few things that were really important to my vision included digital learning. This is what attracted me to CommonLit. I feel that the types of jobs that my students are going to have by the time they graduate college — if they decide to do that — are going to be jobs that haven’t been created yet or jobs that are 100% tech-based. It’s important that, in addition to the standard curriculum that we are expected to provide to students, we are definitely ensuring that they are proficient with technology and we are developing as critical thinkers. Digital learning was very important to me. In some ways, this whole shift to remote learning is supporting my cause.
Rob: You mentioned the 21st century technology skills and that those were a big reason as to why you decided to pilot the CommonLit curriculum. For administrators that might not have any familiarity with CommonLit’s digital tools, how might you explain what is offered?
Ian: With a traditional curriculum, students are only reading texts in print, making annotations in print, and answering questions in print. CommonLit allows students to read the texts digitally, annotate the texts digitally, and answer the questions digitally so teachers can get real-time feedback — this works as a form of formative assessment. Students can answer extended responses online as well. It’s been a transition because a lot of my students in the beginning said they would prefer to do it in print. Of course, people want to do what is most comfortable and most familiar to them. I had to tell my teachers to get students out of their comfort zone. Now, students are becoming far more proficient with digital annotations online. We’re using other digital platforms as well. Hopefully, in the next couple of years, a lot of the assessment will be digital as well as the instruction.
Speaking of assessment, we also use CommonLit’s Interim assessments. With these digital assessments, teachers get data back and we can do item analysis to further drive instruction. It’s been key in helping us use data to drive instruction — another one of my key shifts this year.
Rob: It’s interesting you mentioned the transition for students from print based materials. What was this transition like for your teachers?
Ian: When we first decided to pilot the CommonLit curriculum, it was only going to be with the sixth grade team. Rob, you came to do the kick-off training in August. I was present, along with our seventh grade ELA teacher and lead ELA teacher in the department. Both she and I were so impressed, as were the sixth grade teachers, we thought, You know what? Let’s try this out with seventh grade, as well.
Now, I may be fortunate. Many of my teachers have familiarity with using online programs. It is not completely foreign to them. For the most part, it has been smooth. Any questions that come up, they have gone to you and you are able to help us troubleshoot. Other schools may want to take it slow and start with a combination of print and online learning. You can gradually move fully to an online-based platform.
Rob: We are in a new territory now that schools are relying on virtual learning. Can you share more about the transition Pelham Gardens has made to distance learning, specifically with English?
Ian: In the last three days that we were in the building, teachers worked in grade teams to design the next couple of weeks of lessons. In our ELA department, specifically, many have been incorporating Google Classroom and the sixth and seventh grade classrooms have been using CommonLit. With my ELA team, the transition has been easier as opposed to other departments. The fact that they have already been using CommonLit has helped. Students and teachers have been following a daily schedule. During ELA time, teachers are live online and invite students into a Google Hangout so they can offer feedback and support. Many also record a video to share with students since many of them do not have unlimited access to devices or have responsibilities like watching younger siblings.
Rob: And, how are your teachers using CommonLit for virtual learning?
Ian: Teachers are trying to mirror the same thing that they would be doing in school online. They are using the same units, same texts. They are still teaching mini-lessons on strategies and skills. They are hosting virtual conversations about the texts. The same assignments that they would be doing through CommonLit in school, they are doing online. Many students are self-managing their time at home as many of our parents are essential workers. Because of this, teachers have been chunking the work differently, but they are still using all the same materials.
Rob: That’s fantastic, Ian. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you would add?
Ian: The fact that we were already using an online platform like CommonLit has made it so much easier for us to transition into remote learning. Thank you for that. I would highly recommend CommonLit to any other school whether it is for remote learning or for your in-school instruction.
Are you interested in learning more about CommonLit’s full-year curriculum?
If so, email Partnerships@CommonLit.org to learn more!