Equity has been one of BookNook’s core values since the very beginning of our journey. The phrase we use to define it is “We Are Our Community.” We talk about it that way both because we want our team to look like our users, but also as a reminder that when something we created becomes part of a child’s life, we by extension become a part of their community.
Recently we’ve asked ourselves some hard questions about the kind of community member we have been. Like many in the field of education, we come from a place of good intentions–our mission is to close the educational opportunity gap. On the surface, it’s easy to tell ourselves that what we are doing must obviously advance equity.
But the way we go about that work matters, and on deeper reflection we’ve come to realize that we have made choices with unintentional but very real equity consequences. We want to acknowledge that publicly and commit to taking concrete action to be a better member of the communities we serve.
The hard truth that surfaced is this: the way we structure our fees is not equitable. Like most edtech companies, we charge based on how many students are using our program. On the surface this seems logical, but when considering that the most common use of BookNook is intervention it means we are, in effect, charging the most to the schools and nonprofits who serve the most struggling students–populations that overwhelmingly skew towards children of color.
We also treat our Spanish Dual Language Learner and Summer programs as “add ons” at an extra cost, reasoning that not every school or nonprofit will want to use them, so not everyone should be charged for them. Again, the practical effect here is to charge higher prices to schools serving higher need communities.
So, starting this summer we are rolling out an equity-based pricing model. When setting out our fees for a school or nonprofit, will expressly and transparently take into account the relative privilege of that community. The higher the percentage of children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, the less we will charge. We will also include our Spanish Dual Language Learner and Summer programs as part of our base subscription, rather than charging extra for it.
We realize this will mean some of our partners will see an increase in what they are asked to pay to use BookNook, and that others will see a decrease. Considering the equity gaps that have been once again thrust painfully into the forefront of our national consciousness, we think that is exactly what should happen in the moment.
We’ve run the numbers on this (another of our values is “Data Rule Everything Around Me”), and we expect that the net effect with our current partners is that they will be charged less. We hope that some of those partners will decide to reinvest their savings to provide more reading supports to struggling students as part of their Covid Slide responses. But if they need to use those funds to provide other crucial services or to make up for budget cuts, that is more than understandable.
We realize that, like all actions taken individually, this alone is an insufficient response to the issues we as a nation must grapple with. So at BookNook we will continue to reflect on ways in which we can “be our community,” act on our values, and work with partners to do more for the schools, nonprofits, and students we serve.
We Are [Striving to be a Better Member of] Our Community.
Check out BookNook – an reading application that Teachers and Paras are using to read with their students remotely – offered at no cost during the COVID-19 Shutdowns
I grew up wanting to be a teacher. At an early age, I played ‘school’ with my chalkboard easel and ‘graded’ papers my brothers scribbled on. I wanted to be a teacher; I never had a backup plan. Fast forward to graduating from a prestigious education program, I finally was a teacher. I experienced it all. I taught all grade levels, K-12. I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the real ugly. I have so many stories I could probably write a book.
Years into my teaching career, I had to take a step back from the classroom due to my son’s mild health complications. I still wanted to somehow be a part of the ‘education world’ but needed more flexibility than what the classroom could provide. What seemed like a forever job search, I stumbled upon working remotely for an edtech startup. I was apprehensive and uncertain what this would entail; including working remotely.
Teachers like routine.
Teachers like structure.
I wasn’t sure how well I’d do in a work-from-home environment. But, I took the time that I needed to plan and lay out how my work-from-home life would be. This was a luxury that teachers who are now thrust into a remote situation do not have. I was able to prepare as much as I could. There was no warning for what educators are currently experiencing which makes it ten times more complex. There are so many unanswered questions that are overwhelming for all; from the superintendent down to the students. As a professional ‘overplanner’ and ‘worrier’, it is tough even for me to take this advice but we have to do our best to take it one day at a time.
Here are a few tips I’d suggest to all my educator friends struggling with finding their balance working remotely during the COVID-19 school closures:
Communicate. One of the biggest complaints from remote workers is lack of communication. Now more than ever, it is important to communicate with students and their families. Make sure messages are clear and precise. We don’t want to bombard but want to be effective. Don’t forget to communicate often with your coworkers. Having remote meetings and check-ins can help with the loneliness of being at home. It is okay to say, “I want to make sure I’m understanding this..” when receiving messages and always ask questions if things are unclear. If you are set up for success, your students will be too.
Stay Organized. Working remotely has its organizational challenges; especially when most educators were thrusted into the unknown of teaching from home. Create your own workspace (not just the dining room table). Create folders in your email to keep track of items and use learning tools provided by your district (if applicable). Build out your day to day schedule and share with students/families. Leave time for ‘office hours’ or ‘connect hour’ for students/families to meet with you if they have questions or concerns. Keep a list of things you need to get done. (I use sticky notes..lots and lots of sticky notes!)
Keep routine and keep it simple. Depending on your school, build out your calendar (or even your very own bell schedule by setting a timer on your phone). By providing the structure of a ‘normal’ school day, it will help students get back into routine. Keep tasks to students simple and give clear instructions. Don’t give them ‘independent, busy work’ or tasks that are too difficult for them with limited tools at home.
Remain Positive and Focus on wellbeing of all. I am a huge proponent of social emotional learning not just for students but for adults as well. It is crucial during these times to make sure you are scheduling time to take care of yourself. There is no commute to work (bright side!) so take that time to go for a walk, treat yourself to that ‘social distancing snack’. It is unbelievably challenging to remain optimistic (I mean it is a pandemic for crying out loud) but students will pick up on your spirit; even over a Zoom call! Take care of yourself so you can continue to take care of your students!
Maslow before Bloom has been happening all over as most school districts prepare to shift gears back toward learning. These tough times will pass but in the meantime, do your best to create a remote learning environment that includes flexibility, responsiveness, and compassion. And when you do return to those familiar hallways and empty classrooms; you’ll be even more prepared to take on any obstacle that gets in your way; all while settling back into your routine.
Hannah Imoru is a former K-12 educator with a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education and a Master’s degree in Educational Leadership. She also has a certificate in Social Emotional Learning. Hannah currently serves on the Partnerships team at BookNook; an edtech platform reinventing small group literacy learning.
It’s 8:30am in Memphis, TN, and BookNook employee Ben Koshland is about to join a Zoom video conference meeting with his team members. It’s a daily call, and since it’s early, he joins it from home – his team doesn’t mind the cat wandering in the background. Besides, they are joining in from Oakland, CA, Atlanta, GA, Portland, ME, and Detroit, MI and they have their own animals to deal with from their home offices. They talk for 17 minutes about their upcoming days and the over 180 sites that they work with across the country helping kids learn how to read.
Ben Koshland, BookNook Memphis Program Manager
At around 9:30am, Ben jumps into his white Subaru and makes the 8 minute drive to the headquarters of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, a University of Tennessee academic hospital bustling with patients, and housing up to 617 patients every night. Just down the street from the nationally-known St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur benefits from a strong healthcare community in the Mid-South city of Memphis. Ben steps into the elevator of the administrative building for Methodist Healthcare and punches the number 7. As he steps out and waves to Ms. Bev, the always-kind and smiling receptionist, he badges into the floor – the executive suite of the healthcare system. He passes Albert Mosley in the hall, the Chief Mission Integration Officer, and an ordained United Methodist Minister, and talks quickly about how the BookNook implementation is going at a site in North Memphis, and steps into his windowless office.
After lunch with Stacy Smith, director of the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health Equity, Ben fields calls from several of the 12 faith-based sites that have implemented BookNook. A device is broken at a church near the airport. Schools are doing assessments for kids at a faith-based refugee program. A large church nearby needs some data. They’re about to get a rush of over 400 kids collectively and BookNook’s servers are about to light up with kids learning.
And rightfully so. For the 600+ kids that have used BookNook in Memphis over the past 12 months, they’ve seen a 40% increase in reading growth.
How did this partnership of Technology, Churches and Faith-Based Institutions, and Healthcare come about to help kids with their reading? Three people, Gary Shorb, Executive Director of the Urban Child Institute and former longtime CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Stacy Smith, at Methodist Healthcare, and Michael Lombardo, CEO/Founder of BookNook, had an unlikely meeting 18 months ago that would change the outlook for these kids in Memphis forever. An innovative technology company would adapt its model. A forward-looking healthcare organization would see the data that reading ability in children affects long-term health. And a foundation would support this unlikely partnership out of deep care for the children of a city where 53% of students read below a basic level.
Several years ago, a study presented at the American Public Health Association showed a troubling trend: the highest correlated predictor of Teenage Pregnancy was if the teen could read by the end of third grade. This upended the world of education, who’s reading scores have not significantly improved for the past 10 years. Something had to be done, and soon! Many states passed “third grade reading laws” which had either a carrot or a stick for students who were not proficient by the end of third grade. But reading scores barely improved. Many academics debate the reasons why this is happening, but one thing is clear: it’s not for lack of effort by teachers across the United States.
However, school is only a part of the hours that children have each day. And, when that bell rings at 3pm, most parents are still working. Enter the importance of after school programs. And in Memphis, a city with the highest number of churches per capita, the faith community has stepped up in a big way to help care for students between the hours that they get out of school and their parents arrive home from work. Federal data shows the importance of afterschool programming, and this has led to an increase in the funding – specifically with “21st Century Grants” that are given to states to administrate. But the need for afterschool programming far outstrips the funding, so churches across the city of Memphis are taking the health of children in their community seriously by donating time, money, and resources towards their afterschool programs.
Some of these programs are small – like Rev. Tondala Hayward’s at Longstreet United Methodist Church in South Memphis. This church near the headquarters of FedEx and the Memphis Airport, and hosts anywhere from 10-15 students each day after school. Rev. Hayward started this program because, as a former teacher, she saw the need in her community.
Others are large. Refugee Empowerment Program in Central Memphis is run by the always-honest Cam Blackmon. Cam plays host to over 100 children of refugees every single day, because she and her staff provide services to the refugees as well.
But these afterschool programs lack the financial resources to have certified teachers come and help their kids. While they’re doing amazing work with kids and inbound academic needs, like homework help, they cannot afford to fund a more proactive academic program that pushes kids to increase their reading ability every day.
BookNook creates a fun an engaging environment for kids while teaching them how to read.
Enter BookNook. This innovative technology product was built specifically for busy teachers (read: every teacher) and non-educators. It takes away the prep time and scaffolds the curriculum for both students and adults so that anyone can help a student learn how to read.
BookNook, though vastly cheaper than hiring a full time educator, still costs money. So, thanks to the generous support of the Urban Child Institute, these faith-based institutions get BookNook, and Ben’s time, for no cost.
But BookNook, as a small company across many states, doesn’t have the resources to connect with multiple afterschool programs and tell them about the program, as well as help them develop after school programs if they do not already have one. Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, however, already has a strong relationship with churches across the mid-south through its Faith Health initiative.
Run by Stacy Smith, the Faith Health Initiative activates lay members of churches across the area to promote and encourage preventative health in a church setting. This drastically decreases costs of healthcare over time to the individuals receiving the preventative healthcare. And since Methodist Healthcare is a provider of free healthcare to many thousands of people, it is a great way to encourage overall health of the community.
It was a natural progression to promote this new program to the over 100 churches Stacy Smith works with through the Faith Health Initiative. Since Methodist Healthcare is working to promote healthy living for adults in churches, pushing the leading predictor of healthy living later in life seemed liked an easy addition.
When Ben and Stacy started promoting BookNook, they thought it would be an uphill battle. A new technology program coming to town? They were wrong. In the first few months of the grant, they were already oversubscribed. Word was getting out and more programs wanted in. BookNook and Methodist both took on a few extra programs, even though they weren’t being paid for out of the grant.
Then, after the first summer with the program, the results were due. Would it have worked? Was all of this effort and cost going to be worth it? The results were better than could have been predicted. Through an outside evaluation, BookNook showed that 95% of students who used BookNook during the summer stayed the same or increased their reading ability. This is in contrast to most students who lose 2-3 months’ worth of ability throughout the summer.
Seeing the success, Urban Child renewed the grant for Methodist Healthcare and BookNook for the coming year, meaning that the organizations can continue pushing for long-term impact in the city of Memphis. That over time, healthcare costs should go down, and that the opportunity for students, regardless of their zip code, is bright.
Cue the responses. Teachers say we need to spend more on education. (Which is true: most states still aren’t back to pre-recession levels of spending.) Charter schools say we need more choices for parents to opt of failing district-run schools. And leaders of nonprofits supporting education update their powerpoint decks with the latest grim numbers to show why their program needs more funding.
But this year is different. This year we didn’t just fail to make meaningful progress in 4th grade reading, we actually went backwards. And not just a little. The 2019 NAEP shows the same level of achievement nationally as 2009.
To put it another way: despite billions of public and philanthropic dollars spent, despite dozens of nonprofits launching or growing to serve more students, despite all the rigorous research published showing the effectiveness of different programs, despite 17 states adopting legislation specifically targeting 4th grade reading proficiency, nationally we’re no better off than we were 10 years ago.
Why good work doesn’t add up to population level impact
I am reminded of my first meeting with Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, when I was leading a national nonprofit partnering with more than a dozen OUSD schools on reading. There are all these programs, she told me, and they all say they are getting great results, so then why aren’t my city-wide scores improving?
The answer to this riddle is scale. My nonprofit was working with about 20% of the elementary schools in Oakland at the time, and within those schools we were working with maybe 10% of students in grades K-4, which meant we were reaching just 2% of the students who needed us.
And since even very good programs aren’t 100% effective and since the reading gains driven by these programs aren’t enough to get every student served all the way to proficiency, the true impact coefficient of all that work was ultimately probably a fraction of a percent on a citywide basis. Even aggregating the work done by 5 or 10 organizations it’s hard to see how you could meaningfully move the needle without serving a much, much bigger segment of the student body.
We owe it to students to think about scale
If there is only one takeaway from this seeming lost decade of efforts to improve 4th grade reading proficiency, it’s this: we all need to be thinking more about scale.
Programs that get great results for 500 or even 5,000 students should be a part of the equation only if there is a clear pathway to reaching hundreds of thousands of students. If a program costs thousands of dollars per student to deliver, I don’t care how amazing the results are–there is no way to scale that across millions of struggling readers.
There’s nothing wrong with starting small with when designing and testing new programs, but rather than going after linear growth by trying to double impact by doubling dollars spent, we should be thinking about how we can quadruple impact with the same dollars spent. Leaders should be regularly asking themselves how program innovation can help them expand their reach to more students.
We also need to much more directly confront the systems change elements of the work. As our advisor Shawn Joseph, former Superintendent of the Metro Nashville school district, has said many times “we can’t remediate our way to excellence.” We have to directly address core classroom instruction, which means grappling with how teachers are prepared for their jobs, what materials they have at their disposal for teaching, and how they are supported and developed over time.
Systems change needs to happen outside the classroom too. Principals and administrators need to be equipped to be literacy leaders, to make good decisions about what programs and materials are deployed to which students and communities. Most importantly, administrators need to move with much greater urgency and agility in addressing students’ needs. While it’s important that we are deliberate in how taxpayer dollars are spent, multi-year adoption cycles are out of step with the pace of innovation. Imagine if smartphone or laptop makers only released new models every five years!
The bottom line is that we’re not falling short on reading because of a lack of good ideas for how to address proficiency gaps, we’re falling short because we’re not focusing our energy on systems change and scalable innovations that can move the needle for very large numbers of students. As long as we’re trying to remediate our way out of the problem in a piecemeal manner, we’re going to see the early reading opportunity gap persist.
Curriculum adoption is one of the most important processes that a School District goes through. The process is lengthy, costly and does not happen often, yet it directly affects the teaching and learning of everyone in the District. While it is mandated by the state for every classroom to have adopted curriculum, implementation and buy in from the teachers can make or break usage. It is vital that the process that districts go through is thorough, research based and is supported by stakeholders.
My work in education has primarily been as a teacher in a two-school school district. While there wasn’t a single curriculum director like bigger districts have, there was a lot of opportunity for teachers to be leaders, so I jumped at the opportunity to lead the curriculum adoption for a new Math curriculum in my district, which I loved
How did it Work Our process began as a whole staff. We brainstormed what key components we as teachers wanted in curriculum. We also looked at strengths and needs for our students based on our state assessments. We studied where our students excelled and where we needed more support in helping them learn concepts.
In our little two-school district we had 6-8 teachers per grade level. Each grade level selected two teachers to serve on our adoption committee. We are lucky that in California, the process for selecting state-approved curriculum is rigorous. Only programs that meet several key guidelines are selected to be considered “approved” and are allowed to be adopted by districts. Additionally, the state sets guidelines for adoption, purchase and implementation. This gave us a framework to develop our timelines.
Our committee reps took the guidelines that we as a staff had developed and attended the County Adoption Fair. This is when representatives from each publishing company shows off their curriculum. As a committee, we narrowed our pilot choices down to two different curriculums. The curriculums selected were very different from each other. One was more of a traditional sequence while the other spiraled and challenged students to deeper thinking.
As a committee we developed an evaluation instrument to use as teachers moved through the programs. This included evaluating the curriculum, assessments, getting student feedback and getting parent feedback. We also looked at how the curriculum supported special populations, re-taught and extended standards and provided different modes for learning. We really tried to look at the program as a whole and how it fit in with the needs that our staff identified at the beginning of the process.
Each teacher piloted the programs for 4-6 weeks. Our intent was for each teacher to implement two different chapters from each program so they could see how the curriculum developed over time and give feedback on more than one standard area. This was also great for getting buy-in from the teachers – they were able to use the curriculum in the wild and feel like they were a part of the process.
After two months of piloting, we came back together as a committee to evaluate the programs. We used a post-it chart where positives about each program were displayed in different colors. After the reflection process, it was clear by looking at the colors displayed on the charts which program stood out for our staff as the program our district wanted to implement. We presented our findings to the Board of Education. Upon their approval, the curriculum was adopted and the materials were ordered. Teachers would implement the program the following school year.
The adoption process we went through involved multiple stakeholders (administration, teachers, students and parents). It involved using an evaluation tool to help process the positives and negatives of each program. Our process was done over time in a deliberate and paced fashion. Most importantly, our process was based on the specific needs of our students in our district.
What did I learn In reflecting on the process that we followed in adopting our math curriculum, two key components stand out as “take-aways”…Include stakeholders and take time in the process.
It is imperative to include all stakeholders, including students and parents. It is easy to focus on the feedback from classroom teachers, but there are others that may offer a different perspective. Getting feedback from special education teachers, art teachers, paraprofessionals and other specialists will allow for the curriculum to be looked at through other lenses. Additionally, parents and students are essential in the process, as they are the ones directly working with the curriculum.
Time. There is never enough time. Schools are maxed out on time. However, time is what is needed in a curriculum adoption. It is one of the biggest decisions made by districts and it directly affects every single person within a district. Taking the time to develop a process, implement the curriculum and reflect on the curriculum is needed in order to make a sound and educated decision. Don’t rush the process. Start the process early in the adoption cycle so you can ensure that there is plenty of time to evaluate the curriculum.
Curriculum is the cornerstone of teaching and learning. The process should be meaningful and intentional. It should also be fun! As a district we learned a lot about how our teachers teach. We also learned a lot about how our students learn and what they need, because, ultimately, the students’ needs are at the center of any adoption!
Megan Cusimano is a former teacher in the Bay Area. She also writes curriculum for BookNook
Recently there was an article that was passed around at BookNook about the Six Unforgivable Sins of Teacher Professional Development. One stood out to me – Trying to Flash Credentials You Don’t Really Have – basically saying “I was a teacher too.” The reason it stood out to me is that I can never say it – even though I train teachers a lot, I was never actually a teacher.
But, my team and I train somewhere around 500-1000 educators and education leaders a year. We’re becoming experts at implementing software at schools all across the country. And while most of our implementations go amazing, we see a few themes when they don’t go so well.
Because we believe in technology and the power it can have to help educators and students, we want to share with you the biggest ways we see technology fail in schools – and then we’ll talk about ways to prevent this from happening so that the technology your school just purchased gets great use!
IT Problems I must say, IT gets a bad rap. Their job is to keep everything secure and humming along. So, every time you introduce something new into their arsenal, they have to make sure that it fits with everything in your current tech stack. And, they’re not bad at doing this – the average large district has over 700 technology applications in use! IT works hard to get this up and running and compliant.
But, to get all of this done, one of the first things that school leaders need to do with new technology is tell IT. File a ticket, remind them, email them, call them – all of these things are needed to get the application ready for use on day one. This is often an afterthought – because educators are excited about getting the technology to help their students.
To solve this, send an email or file a ticket as soon as you buy the software. Don’t wait to even schedule the PD, get the ticket in the system right away. If the company that you bought the software is really awesome (like BookNook #shamelessplug), then they’ll even follow up with IT for you and tell you what to say. This way, you can be in the process of getting all the checks done and installation taken care of so you have ample time to test before the big launch day.
No Carrots, No Sticks (Hint: Don’t use sticks) Teachers have a lot on their plate. Like, a lot. A lot a lot. We all know this, yet they still get more placed on their plate each year. And it’s tough! So, when brand new technology is rolled out, it can be very hard for them to think about adding it into their daily or weekly flow, even if the data behind the technology shows meaningful progress for students.
People (not just teachers, but everyone) need a reason to change their flow. There needs to be either an incentive (a carrot) for using or a consequence (a stick) for not using the application. We’re a much bigger fan of carrots than sticks here at BookNook – just look at our game Feed the Animals – where you have to feed the rabbit carrots.
One of the things that we do is contests – they’re relatively easy to run, but they’re focused on getting teachers to read with their kids. We love those kinds of contests. Building and District leadership can do this too – for example, setting the culture of using 2 minutes at the beginning of staff meetings to recognize teachers who are implementing new programs well. Give out a few gift cards for the best users. Celebrate them! They’re helping students out anyways, so they should be celebrated! And these don’t have to be expensive. But a little appreciation and public complimenting can go a long way.
Lack of Teacher Buy In This is probably the most “well, duh” issue, but it’s often still overlooked. If teachers aren’t bought in that this will help their day, or help their students, then they are not going to implement technology. We find this is one of the largest misses by School Administration in getting teachers to use the software that you’ve just purchased for your school.
The best way to combat this is to start early. Tell your teachers that you’re going to try something early on. If it’s going to be live in the new year, let them know before they go away for the summer. If you’re starting after winter break, let them know the change is coming in November. Get everything ready early so that you can ease teachers into the new software.
But don’t stop there! You have to show the benefits. Get as much material from the company producing the software (they should have this for you) and show your teachers what the data shows, why they should be using the software, how it will make their life and/or day easier or benefit your students.
Finally, you should find one champion within your staff to be the person to lead on the new technology. We find that one teacher who can talk about the benefits of new technology among their peers goes a long way inside the building. They can be an internal promoter for your other teachers, and show how they’re using the technology to their and/or their students’ benefits. Finding this person early is going to be key, because you’ll have to sell them on being the advocate and also showing them the benefits of using this awesome new technology.
Finding Success Look for people who are supposed to help you find success with any company that you choose to buy technology from. Ask hard questions about the support you will receive and how much engagement you get with the company after you’ve made the purchase. Here’s a list of example questions that you should ask while you’re purchasing technology about how you’ll be supported in implementing this technology:
How do you support me in making sure there is adoption across my staff?
How long is the training for my staff and do you have retrainings?
What kind of support do you provide for technical issues?
How do you recommend we track success with your product?
Making sure that technology has gone through IT, has promoters within your staff, and has a culture of being incentivized are all ways to make sure that technology is implemented in your school and ensure that you get the maximum return on investment in your purchase.
So my question is, for a non-teacher, how did I do?