CommonLit began developing and piloting CommonLit 360, its free full-year ELA curriculum, in 2018. In this interview, you’ll hear from Eric Collazo, the Principal of Washington Leadership Academy. His school has been piloting the curriculum for the past two school years. Eric talks to CommonLit’s Associate Director of Instruction, Matt Stephens, about how the new curriculum excites students, reduces teacher workload, and ensures academic rigor in all ELA classrooms.
Matt Stephens (Associate Director of Instruction, CommonLit): Tell me a little bit about your school. What makes it unique?
Eric Collazo (School Principal, Washington Leadership Academy): This is Washington Leadership Academy and we’re located in Washington D.C. The student population is predominantly African-American, and we have a high Special Education population — about 25% of students have an IEP. Right now we have 394 students total. WLA distinguishes itself by providing a four-year Computer Science education to students. We believe this cultivates young leaders who shape the world around them.
Matt: You’re the principal of the school. Tell me a little bit about the ways that you lead instruction at WLA.
Eric: I support all academics at WLA through my instructional coaching team. However, I directly coach the ELA department, so I collaborate with CommonLit to facilitate the professional development and instructional coaching for the ELA teachers.
Matt: Imagine an amazing English class. What are the pedagogical strategies that the teacher is using?
Eric: It’s great to see when kids get to dig deeper and begin to ask open-ended questions as they wrestle with the text. These classrooms “wow” me because you can see the students fully engaged with the text and grappling with essential questions as they apply the skills and content they learn to their own lives. That’s where you see real investment and a true sense of joy.
Matt: What do you think are some of the most important aspects of CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum?
Eric: One of the things that is helpful for any teacher is to spend less time worrying about what they are going to teach and the resources that they need to find, and instead have the chance to think more about how they’re going to teach that lesson.
As an instructional leader, it’s important to me that the curriculum is all grade-level material. So, there is less concern that students aren’t doing rigorous work. As a leader working with CommonLit, I don’t have to worry about helping teachers find good materials either, I can just focus on how they’re teaching, and how they are delivering the lessons in an effective way.
Matt: How do you think CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum raises the bar for all teachers?
Eric: The curriculum sets a standard. As I said before, it can be very hard to develop your own curriculum. CommonLit lets teachers see what a well planned-out thematic unit looks like. The texts are consistently on grade level and engaging. Teachers see that when students are exposed to high-quality texts throughout the school year they are going to grow.
Studies also show that within urban education and especially within communities of color, students are not exposed to grade level text often enough. It’s really important for us that our students are exposed to on-grade-level texts throughout the entirety of the school year.
Matt: How do you think CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum changes the way that teachers teach?
Eric: One of the great things about the curriculum is that it embeds things like Turn & Talks. It can be quite easy for teachers to take the lead and be the only ones speaking during class. But, it’s great how the CommonLit curriculum has built in time for students to discuss with one another and to share their thoughts with the class. It helps to shift gears and show that students can contribute ideas as active learners, while at the same time creating more robust conversations in whole group discussions.
Matt: How do you think it helps students prepare for the end of year assessment or college?
Eric: First of all, our state test is taken digitally. So, for us, it’s great that the curriculum is both on paper and digital because it helps to acclimate the students.
Also, since the curriculum is developed with standards in mind, it’s giving students authentic at-bats and practice to build their skills. So from the very beginning when they take their first assessments, we can use that as a gauge and constantly touch upon those standards as we continue the school year.
Matt: What do the teachers on your team say about the curriculum? Do they think it’s easy to use?
Eric: I think they find it really helpful that everything in the curriculum is already outlined for them. The teachers know that if they click a single button, they can download everything that they need for that entire unit; it’s right there and it’s easy to access.
The majority of my teachers are technically inclined and have found the curriculum to be easy to access, easy to use, and easy to navigate on CommonLit. But those that struggle with the tech piece, they found support, and they learned how to use it. What’s also great is that if you prefer, you can use the curriculum entirely on paper.
Matt: What have teachers said about the lessons?
Eric: Recently, we just talked about one text called “Going Steady.” The teachers loved it and the students were intrigued by its unique story. It was one of those texts that you probably wouldn’t even be able to find on your own. And it’s those kind of things that we look for. And then on the other hand, the curriculum also has more classic literature like Twelve Angry Men. However, CommonLit made it engaging and they let teachers approach it in flexible ways. We had one teacher who had the students be the jury as their classmates acted out the play. One of the things that CommonLit does well is pick texts that they know will be engaging for students.
Matt: Can you speak to a particular teacher for whom the CommonLit 360 Curriculum has made a strong positive impact?
Eric: There’s one ELA teacher that comes to mind right away. This is her first year in a General Education role at WLA. Since the curriculum is so well organized, outlined, and developed, she didn’t have to take on the new role and find herself concerned about making materials. Instead, she just had to focus on delivering good instruction and I think that has really made a difference for her. In fact, we’ve already seen that her class is getting some great results this school year.
Matt: What kind of data does the CommonLit 360 Curriculum produce? How do you use this data to inform decisions at the school?
Eric: On a daily basis, we see Exit Ticket data that teachers are able to use to see student performance, but we can also look at unit data and interim data as well that align to our state test. So overall, I would say that teachers have access to a plethora of data to dictate how they instruct and develop their plans for the week. And overall, they can get a good understanding of how much progress their students are making when they take one of CommonLit’s unit assessments or interim assessments.
Matt: As the principal, you get to observe and work with teachers pretty closely. How does CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum help you to be an effective coach?
Eric: I have access to the whole curriculum, so I know what should be taught and at what specific time. It helps me to be in sync with what is going on in classrooms. I’m also able to see what texts are being used and what standards the students are working on.
Matt: What do students think about the curriculum? Was there a lesson or unit that your students really loved? What stood out about it?
Eric: I think the students definitely feel like this curriculum is something new — in an interesting and different way. Students are unfortunately used to getting a copy of an article or worksheet. What’s great with CommonLit is that they see that there is intentionality behind how the program is built. They see that they can annotate on the platform or highlight evidence as they read. Having a digital platform has made it easier to engage students and make it feel relevant to them.
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