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!
Ciara Joseph – People Ops at BookNook and Reading Guide Extraordinaire
I want to live a day in the life of a Reading Guide…
That’s what I found myself countlessly saying when I started my PeopleOps journey at BookNook. I heard great things about our application that was created to support children’s reading. I was shown how it was being used in local schools, but needed to see it all happen in the flesh. I had far too many questions. I was emailing and calling colleagues to find out more details about how our program worked, but still didn’t have a solid picture in my mind of what exactly a reading guide’s purpose was.
I wanted to live a day in the life of a reading guide. Just one day was all I thought I needed to gain a better understanding of what they actually did. That one day led to months of 45-minute sessions, genuine conversations, newfound respect for school officials, and a sad farewell.
My reading guide journey began in January. Buena Vista-Horace Mann needed a reading guide early mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Because we have a great employee volunteer program, I decided that this would be a great way for me to help out in our community. My manager agreed, and the next day I headed over to BVHM to shadow another reading guide.
The minute I entered the school I was reminded of my own elementary school.
It smelled the same, the people there looked familiar, the sounds of laughter and mix of English and Spanish filled the halls and school yard. I was taken aback by a feeling – or a thought – that this is where I’m intended to be. In this very same school, on this day, at this time, a voice in my head just said “This is where you’re meant to be.” I didn’t understand it, I thought maybe I was just overwhelmed with the happiness I felt from others at the school and was just happy to be somewhere that felt good. I met a few teachers that day along with the school coordinator and office administrators. Everyone greeted me as “Maestra” (Teacher). I remember feeling uneasy, because I hadn’t gained that level of respect yet. Also, I wasn’t actually a teacher, I was just an HR person volunteering at a school. But, I went along with it. I greeted other teachers in the same respectful manner and spoke to those I met about BookNook and our purpose at the school.
Serving as a reading guide came naturally to me. I’m an avid reader and was excited to see how our app tracked each student’s reading development. As a mom of a 10 year old, I was happy that I’d be reading with students that were around my daughter’s age. The students were all shy to meet me and had many questions about the previous reading guide and why they had missed sessions. I explained the circumstances and how I’d be reading with them until I hired someone for the position. Never did I think I’d get to spend the rest of the school year working with them. While the months passed, I unknowingly started to bond with the students during our reading sessions and that was something too that I didn’t foresee.
My early mornings started with my daughter and I commuting on BART from Oakland to San Francisco. The greatest thing about these mornings were that we’d have enough time to grab a cup of lavender tea and a danish from Cafe la Boheme right before school started for the both of us. If the weather was nice, we’d take our time walking down the streets of The Mission District and then up the hills of Noe Valley until it was time for us to part ways.
I was very enthusiastic on these mornings, to say the least. Knowing that I was in the same vicinity as my child, could walk her to school, then teach at a school in the same neighborhood I was raised in, ignited something in me. It somehow seemed to satisfy a thirst for something I never knew existed.
When arriving to BVHM, I’d sign in for the day, then checkout iPads from the school’s lab room. I’d then head to the assigned classroom I was to teach at that day. On Tuesdays, I had the pleasure of using Mr. Frank’s classroom. I now realize that I don’t even know the teachers by their last names. Another great thing about the school is most of the teachers go by first names and allow their students to address them as such. Cool teachers, very cool!
Mr. Frank reminded me of an older cousin. Very down to earth, passionate about teaching and making a difference in the community, funny, and full of life. I’d see him often outside of the classroom, walking the halls and chatting with staff or giving advice to past students of his while keeping a smile on his face and having a few laugh out loud moments. It was apparent to me that Mr. Frank was definitely someone the whole school knew and adored.
On Thursdays, I held reading sessions in the ever so popular, Mira’s classroom.
Mira, was the teacher that kids would come in before school just to see. The classroom was inviting. There was a special zen about Mira’s room that made me feel naturally at ease the minute I saw the succulents that covered the window panes and the cotton braided rug laid out on the floor. Student’s artwork filled the walls along with posters that made me think, “Wow, this teacher is Woke!” -Woke is an African American Vernacular English expression referring to an individual’s perceived or continued awareness regarding social and racial justice issues.
I noticed the attention to detail she put into classroom rules and daily lesson plans that also filled the room. I enjoyed seeing how she translated plans into Spanish and hearing how she spoke compassionately to parent’s in their native tongue.
Though I didn’t get much free time to chit chat with both teachers during reading sessions, I was happy to have had a few good short conversations with them before and after sessions. They both spoke openly about their love for teaching and how rewarding their role was at BVHM. They spoke highly of their students and special events going on at the school. They were all around very welcoming and complete advocates for the youth. Seeing how they spoke to students and how they treated them and their family reassured me that I was in the right place.
My students were split into two groups. My first group started at 8:00am and I was joined by two fourth grade boys. Those two boys were usually my caffeine shots in the morning. They came in with so much character, and Tuesdays served as the informative, “tell me what’s been up” days. We’d share stories before reading, going around a small table, sharing what we did over the weekend or what’s been going on during the week. Our conversations would go from English to Spanish and I’d find myself resorting to English everytime I forgot how to say a certain word in Spanish. Each time, they’d help put me right back on track! Later in the school year we were joined by two more students who added a nice dynamic to our early reading sessions. My second group would join me at 8:45am and was a nice mix of students from different grades. They too kept me on my toes with stories we’d share and them letting me know what new fads were in, or what popular video games I should be playing.
I was surprised to see how natural reading was for them. I was happy to see them take the lead and volunteer to read first, stop to help another reader, or offer words of encouragement to their classmates. They came in each morning eager to read, eager to learn, and eager to teach and learn from one another. We spoke openly after reading sessions and shared our true thoughts on the material we read and the overall layout of the application. The students were never shy to tell me what they enjoyed or disliked about the program and I was happy to know they were comfortable doing so. While reading, we focused often on expression and comprehension. Students who at one point were reading almost robotically slowly started to express the true nature of the sentences they were reading. They started to sit higher in their chairs. Sharpening their voices, clearing their throat before it was their turn. Some even took on voice impersonations and narrated as if they were performing a show for all to see. This too brought a sense of joy to me, to see kids on their own acting while learning and gaining a new level of confidence while doing that. When we worked on comprehension, we focused on explaining the story in our own words and then pulling pieces from one another’s perspective of the story. We answered questions together and talked about parts we may have not understood, then would go back and reread the page together for more clarity.
Through the months I was able to closely monitor each student’s reading and leveling results. I was happy to see that all of my students were making progress and reading at higher levels than when they started. The reward I felt in being there just twice a week has been huge and has greatly impacted me. I’ve gained a better understanding of the importance of not only reading, but having a reading guide available when needed. It’s taught me the true importance of having teachers in classrooms, teacher’s aides to help when needed, and volunteers that can step in when teachers are out stretched. Though I was only at BVHM for five months, I left feeling like part of the faculty there. The students and staff left an everlasting impression on me and as the school year ends, I’ll be sad to no longer be there.
Yet, I’m hopeful for the future and looking forward to crossing paths with everyone there again and hope to be able to volunteer there some time soon.
About a year ago, we announced BookNook’s first fundraising round. A group of dual-bottom line investors, led by Reach Capital, bet on a company with a very rough alpha product, a handful of pilot schools, and a vision that technology could be used to make engaged, collaborative learning happen for small groups of students.
Ten months later, we are thrilled to announce the completion of our seed fundraising with an additional infusion of $2 million, jointly led by Better Ventures and the Urban Innovation Fund that included new funding from our existing VC investors and new investors Kapor Capital, Redhouse Education, and Edovate Capital.
Early stage startups are in many ways thought experiments—you set out to test a set of hypotheses about how your technology can help people and expect to learn a lot along the way. If you’re doing things right, you spend a lot of time listening, keeping an open mind, and embracing your failures when you hear about what isn’t working.
So what did we learn in the past year? And what are we doing about it?
Hypothesis #1: Small Groups, Big Results
What we hoped to prove: Our biggest bet—and what makes us different from everyone else in the digital reading space—is our focus on small groups as the unit of instruction. Along with our advisor David Pearson, we believe that something special happens when students work together in groups of 4 or fewer—and there is a lot of research to back that up. (more…)
These past few weeks at BookNook HQ in Oakland, we’ve been in the midst of our own Olympics. And no, we’re not talking about the March Reading Madness we’re working on with all of the schools using BookNook. We’ve been working hard with Olympic athlete, Kristi Yamaguchi.
In 1992, Kristi Yamaguchi won Gold in Women’s Singles at the winter olympics for the US Ice Skating team. Since that amazing performance, Kristi has worked tirelessly towards improving literacy skill and achievement for students. Enter BookNook, which is in the hands of thousands of students across 14 states. After speaking with Kristi about BookNook’s vision of improving achievement for students across the country in all types of educational settings as well as help students achieve their dreams by encouraging academic success, she agreed to have her books featured alongside BookNook’s already growing library of engaging texts for students.