“Student Engagement in the Age of COVID-19: Reimagining the Possibilities”  

“Student Engagement in the Age of COVID-19: Reimagining the Possibilities”  


By Dr. Tiffany L. Bridgewater, Head of Lower School & Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion-Louisville Collegiate School


The way we look at student and family engagement has changed during the past year. The unique challenges presented to schools due to COVID-19 have made it necessary to reimagine the way schools engage with students and families in K-12 education. This reimagination is particularly true for educators of school-age children who have had to rethink aspects of student engagement utilizing a hybrid (flexible) learning model. Many elementary schools have introduced technology to students much earlier than in previous years out of necessity to continue delivering academic content. Elementary schools have also considered new ways to address the social-emotional needs of students in a virtual world. How do schools continue to engage (academically and social-emotionally) with students in authentic ways that are transferable regardless of where the instruction is taking place? That is the single most consequential question teachers, administrators, and parents have asked themselves since the pandemic began one year ago.     


This is true for all schools, private and public. Many private schools can more easily modify the delivery of their instructional content/programming because they usually operate outside of large districts. Private schools often have a smaller population of students and staff to manage, while most public schools do not because they serve thousands of students and employ hundreds of staff in multiple locations. Many private schools also benefit from discretionary funding that can be used to support unforeseen changes in content/programming in order to maintain high-quality student instruction. Despite their differences, private schools, like their public school counterparts, have grappled with a diversity of learners from different backgrounds and economic resources who are all learning during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. 


Notwithstanding these challenges, many private and public schools have discovered student engagement in the age of COVID-19 isn’t impossible, but it does require a different, more flexible way of thinking about student engagement. While the methods used to increase student engagement have been utilized by teachers in classrooms for years, what is different is how teachers apply these tools based on the individual needs of each student and how each student is receiving instruction, in-person or remotely. Below are a few methods/strategies to consider:    


  1. Make students active participants in their learning. Putting students in the driver’s seat when it comes to their learning is the first step to good student engagement. First, design participation in the classroom that will allow students to connect with the teacher and their peers in-person and at home. Collaboration in the classroom, especially when hybrid instruction is necessary, is easier than ever before thanks to a variety of online resources – Zoom, Skype, Google Meet. These resources also make it easy to build and maintain student connections to help draw peers at home on the screen into discussions through pair shares, buddy reads, and classroom games. Students’ ability to learn and share with one another is limitless in the age of COVID-19. Giving students an active role in their learning is vital to student engagement and success.   


  1. Create predictability and consistency in every routine. Predictable and consistent routines are essential for students. Establishing routines that are predictable and consistent helps students understand what they need to accomplish. Even the most complicated school schedule (like a six-day rotation schedule) should provide students with a feeling of safety and security about what comes next in their academic day. Creating routines to help guide the ins and outs of the overall schedule provides students with the safety and security they need to fully engage in their learning. When students understand what comes next, building student engagement is easy to do.  


  1. Keep students moving through movement and play. Movement is also something that students desperately need at school and home. Throughout the academic day, provide movement breaks through play at recess and physical education classes. Create stretch breaks as a transition between content area classes. Likewise, extend your walk from your classroom to other parts of the building to keep students actively moving. When teachers and parents can incorporate lots of physical activity throughout the day through play, it not only helps to keep students engaged but it’s good for their overall health and well being. 


  1. Build-in check-in breaks. To keep students engaged, meet for briefer periods more frequently. Also, lean into asynchronous time. Use those screen-free opportunities to check-in with your students in small groups as well as individually. These check-ins allow teachers to gauge not only their academic performance but also where they are social-emotionally. When planning your breaks, build-in breaks directly into the lesson plan. Based on the age of the child, practice brain breaks before students grow fatigued or distracted. Also important when incorporating breaks into the day is to consider the transition from brain breaks back to direct instruction. Mindfulness activities using breathing exercises may be the easiest way to move from a brain break to work. These strategies are useful during in-person and remote-instruction to help maintain student engagement.    


  1. “Chunk” instruction to meet the individual needs of students. If you can only meet once a week, then make that time with students count. But whenever possible, chunk your student instruction three times a week for 30 minutes. Chunking instruction for upper elementary school students (grades 3-5) receiving recovery instruction may require three times a week for 40 minutes instead of once for one hour. Using break-out rooms via Zoom may be useful. This plan’s effectiveness depends on the content area and the student’s age. Therefore, make the necessary adjustments based on the individual needs of your learners. Chunking instruction is another way to meet the individual needs of students while simultaneously increasing student engagement.  


  1. Maximize screen-free activities. Create authentic screen-free activities throughout the day for students in the classroom and at home to limit zoom fatigue. When developing these plans, consider the platforms you are using. Platforms like Google Classroom and Seesaw allow teachers to plan explicit synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Screen-free activities give students the ability to explore their creativity and curiosity. Screen-free activities are also less structured and provide autonomy based on family schedules. Moreover, create discrete options for students to explore and build individual interests. Some ideas include: taking a nature walk, creating a quiet space for independent reading, strengthening math facts or vocabulary using flashcards or journaling. With careful planning and coordination with parents, students can do these sorts of activities in the classroom and at home.


As schools navigate the unique challenges of hybrid learning during a pandemic, it is important to look at these challenges as opportunities to reimage the way we connect with students in-person or at home. No matter where instruction happens, student engagement must be a part of the lesson plan. Therefore, when: 

  1. Students are allowed to be involved in their learning 
  2. Students understand and can predict what comes next 
  3. Students are provided movement and brain breaks throughout the day 
  4. Teachers utilize the latest technology to chunk (differentiate) instruction; every student wins! 


Both private and public schools can make deep connections with students (especially our young learners) in the age of COVID-19 that keep all learners engaged and ready to learn. However, it requires a different, more flexible way of thinking about student engagement no matter where the learning takes place.

Dr. Tiffany L. Bridgewater is an experienced educator, diversity facilitator, and early childhood advocate. Tiffany’s commitment to the development of policies and procedures that support the academic and social-emotional needs of students of color is long-standing. Tiffany has served in various roles including classroom teacher, middle school advisor, dorm parent, diversity practitioner, admission outreach coordinator, and adjunct professor at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and Marymount University in Arlington, VA.


A graduate of Fisk University, Tiffany earned her B.A. in English, an M.A. in English & Humanities, an M.A. in Education both from Marymount University, and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Spalding University in Louisville, KY. Dr. Bridgewater is currently the Head of Lower School & Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Louisville Collegiate School in Louisville, KY.

Smart Strategies for Guided Reading, Remotely or In Person 

Smart Strategies for Guided Reading, Remotely or In Person 

Teachers who work with early readers know that these students need lots of encouragement, support, and feedback as their skills develop. A balanced literacy program includes opportunities for that type of engagement through quality whole group teaching, in small groups, and with individual reading support.  Small group literacy instruction is a crucial component of this balanced approach because it gives students a low risk environment to practice and apply new skills. 

Teaching small groups and guided reading isn’t as easy, though, for teachers who are teaching fully remote or hybrid.  On top of the challenge of supporting these emergent readers from a distance, the reading opportunity gap continues to widen because of the lack of access and the decrease in face-to-face interactions.

Being dedicated to helping your students build literacy skills means you have to take advantage of the time you do have with them.  Here are some tips on how you can get the most out of your small group instruction whether you are in person or remote.

  1. Have a routine.  A routine helps assure that students are building on prior skills and connecting those with new concepts.  Here’s an example.
      • Warm up 3-5 mins. Review prior skills.
      • Introduce students to new concepts through direct teaching and modeling
      • Support students while they apply the skill by trying it together
      • Provide encouragement and feedback while students try it on their own
      • Check for understanding and close. 
  2. Try different grouping strategies for guided reading groups. Work with small groups that are at the same instructional reading level, or pull students who need reinforcement of a particular strategy.  Pair students with their classmates in the classroom, or experiment with breakout rooms.  Whether you are in person or remote, use independent reading to build reading stamina.
  3. Balance your instruction.  Small groups shouldn’t concentrate only on introducing a new leveled reader.  This time is an opportunity to provide literacy intervention for a variety of skills including: 
      • Decoding
      • Acquiring new vocabulary
      • Understanding Science or Math through literature
      • Increasing Fluency
      • Building Comprehension
  4. Document what happens during your small groups.  Assess and track student progress and achievements. Using a tool like BookNook, you can build assessments into your routine and easily monitor progress overtime.  Keeping track of students interests can also help you know your students as readers and suggest books that you know will foster their love of reading.
  5. Find good digital text.  If you’re teaching remotely, you still need to choose good literature, but you also have to think a bit more practically about the books you use.  Ideally, you want to be able to display it easily while teaching and provide access for students afterward the lesson so they can build their fluency.  Also remember, any good library collection provides quality literature at a variety of levels and both nonfiction and fiction text.   

Small group time can be a powerful intervention for any reader.  These tips can help you get the most out of your teacher-led groups.  However, it isn’t just an opportunity for literacy instruction, it’s also an opportunity for you to build relationships with your students.  Take advantage of this smaller setting to give you and your students a break from a hectic schedule or Zoom calls.  Then tackle reading.

A Tale of Two Teachers

A Tale of Two Teachers

A Tale of Two Teachers: Meet the high school friends turned educators who devised a way to watch students learn in real-time, and are now part of the BookNook family.

A 9:00 pm truck stop in Seymour, Indiana isn’t the first place one would imagine as the birthplace of a transformative idea in education. But that’s exactly where Ryan Culbreth, middle school Language Arts teacher and co-founder of ReadEngage, found himself, pulled over late one evening in 2013, talking through the data sequence for a digital platform to help teachers watch how to help struggling readers in real time. 

Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, co-founders of ReadEngage

On the other end of the line was Clay Schepman, Social Studies teacher and co-founder of ReadEngage. Ryan and Clay met as teens when their mothers, both kindergarten teachers, carpooled to work together and eventually introduced their sons to each other. Fast forward, the two shared typical high school antics, earned teaching and Master’s degrees as college roommates, and eventually started families. But as educators, Ryan and Clay found themselves feeling something a lot of their fellow teachers felt – powerless. They had great confidence in their power to inspire and create a student’s interest in learning, but the power faded instantly once a student was on their own outside of the classroom. “I could teach reading strategies, but as soon my students had a book in their hands it was like I lost all power,“ said Ryan, “They were on their own to read and if they had any trouble, it was impossible to pinpoint where they were struggling or how I could set an instructional course to help them improve.”

What kept Clay and Ryan awake at night was an instructional gap amplified by the monumental shift to Common Core state standards which entailed teaching to benchmark and end-of-year summative assessments. Literacy featured greatly with the standards, but what Common Core lacked was a structure for formative assessment – a way to monitor student learning by providing ongoing feedback on how teachers should make adjustments to improve their teaching, which in turn would improve a student’s ability to learn. “It’s like being data rich, but information poor. Testing may provide a warehouse of data, but teachers can’t really see where the problem is,“ noted Ryan, “We wanted to invent a way to code-ify formative assessment, to keep building the skills that good readers do, naturally.”

So, the two teachers set out to build something based on a genuine need in their classrooms and a desire to create a scalable formative assessment tool as a key driver to both better teaching and better learning. But where to start for two data geeks who had never pitched anything before? The answer was a 10-hour drive to a tech startup weekend event in Washington D.C. There they met the team at NotionTheory, who specialized in designing software for minimum viable products (MVPs), which is tech-talk for products that have just enough features to test out with a small set of users to validate further investment and development.  

Over the course of two years, the ReadEngage platform was created with necessary patents in place and was now pilot-ready. The technology involves a text-based, dynamic, in-process visualization of student and group engagement that provides immediate evidence of student proficiency to inform instructional decisions. A quick 3-minute video demonstrates how the platform works. 

Avoiding any conflict of interest with introducing a new curriculum within their own school district, the initial pilot was taken to two classrooms at nearby Scottsburg Middle School. Clay took a day off to run the demonstration and the initial reaction was promising. Teachers commented about the “immediate real time feedback”, “ease of use and user-friendly colors”, plus “ability to share exercises with other teachers as a great tool for collaboration.”

Images courtesy of the Indiana Migrant Education Program (IMEP)

But the real test came the summer of 2016, when ReadEngage was awarded an eight-week grant to pilot their literacy platform with one of the most disenfranchised communities in the country – migrant farm workers. Funded through the Indiana Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program (IMEP), 1,200 children of farm-working families received daily literacy lessons directly from Ryan and Clay among other teachers, all there to provide standards-based curriculum at every needed grade level. The educators dedicated themselves to helping migratory children overcome educational disruption brought on by moving state to state for seasonal farm work. “Every day, our big RV would pull up right onto the tomato fields for Red Gold Ketchup,” described Ryan, “And all the kids would run to us, eager to start their lessons. We were so amazed because the middle and high schoolers spent a full day in the fields before beginning another full day of learning with us.”  

Images courtesy of the Indiana Migrant Education Program (IMEP)

The Indiana DOE equipped each participating student with an i-Pad which traveled with them as their families moved from Indiana, to Texas, to Florida for more farm work, returning to Indiana at the end of the season. According to Clay and Ryan, the families (who represent a diverse set of cultures, from Burmese to Latino) returned their borrowed devices in good condition and with much gratitude. Today, Ryan continues to work with the IMEP as a Language Arts consultant, and both count their work with migrant families as among the most rewarding experiences of their careers.

“We felt this was a real game-changer for literacy,” said Ryan, “We’re not just checking a box with assessments. This is true, formative assessment – talking with a student, especially those learning under extraordinarily difficult conditions, about where are you now, where did you get off track, where do we get you back on track and grow.”

Meeting Michael Lombardo, BookNook CEO, in 2018 was another milestone for Ryan and Clay. Whether it was fate that brought together these like-minded innovators, equally passionate about children’s literacy, or “dumb luck” as Ryan and Clay like to joke about all their good fortunes, the meeting cemented the idea that the pair had come up with truly transformative technology for watching readers learn in real time.

“I also had the great opportunity to work with migrant children while in college during a University of Michigan Alternative Spring Break,” said Michael, “And at our core, Ryan, Clay and I share the same philosophy about the critical need to support the most needy kids, and to address reading skill growth at school, at home, and in the community. By acquiring some of ReadEngage’s intellectual property, we are improving on a world-class tool that’s closing literacy gaps and changing lives.”

Ryan and Clay are proud teacher ambassadors and consultants for BookNook with a vision to help promote live reading interventions across similar state-wide or coalition-fueled initiatives modeled by their experience with the Migrant Education Program. They are also excited to help BookNook expand to a host of other institutions or agencies with equally critical literacy needs, like working with departments of corrections or other marginalized communities. 

We celebrate Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, two high school friends turned educators and tech innovators, and now, members of the BookNook family!