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!
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!
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.
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?
This post is the second part in a series we are doing on Barriers and lessons learned on implementing Technology in Education. Check out part one here.
Overcoming Barriers: Emerging New Best Practices
As daunting as the barriers may seem, current EdTech research is finding several ways schools can remove or at least address them in order to achieve technology integration.
Involve Teachers in Decision-Making
First, developing a shared vision and technology integration plan can help overcome the leadership barrier (Hew and Brush). “Probably the most important issue to consider when formulating a shared vision regarding technology integration,” they write, “is to address the specific relationship between technology and particular curriculum content areas because a commitment to the curriculum is a critical scaffold for technology integration.” Notably, they recommend that “the vision should not be created by just the school leaders. Instead, “teachers, in particular, should be involved in the decision-making because teacher participation has been found to be one of the ingredients for successful wide-scale integration of technology in a school district.”
Strategic Placement of Resources
If there’s a scarcity of resources, schools can “introduce technology into one or two subject areas at a time to ensure that teachers and students in those areas have adequate technology” (Hew and Brush). Technology integration almost never happens all at once, and it’s often the rush to scale-up that leads to bigger problems.
Changing Attitudes and Beliefs
One clear benefit to teachers is a school leader who provides ongoing professional development, encourages experimentation and improvement, and grants freedom to take risks and make mistakes. It is “more important to focus on the features of professional development rather than its types” (Hew and Brush).
The most effective professional development does the following:
- Focuses on content (practical skills, specific knowledge)
- Gives teachers opportunities for “hands-on work”
- Is highly consistent with teachers’ needs
A New Vision of Assessment
Schools must find a balance between “considering how technology can be used to meet the current demands of standards-based accountability” and altogether reconsidering assessment approaches once technology is integrated into the curriculum. Teacher’s can’t abandon standardized testing entirely, but they shouldn’t have to invent whole new assessments to include technology. Computer adaptive testing, or tailored testing, is just one example of how the technology itself can help educators re-imagine assessment possibilities.
A Mentoring Approach
Theodore J. Kopcha advocates for a model of integration that uses “mentoring and communities of practice to support teachers as they develop skills, pedagogy and beliefs needed to integrate technology in a student-centered manner.” Mentoring, Kopcha writes, “has been found to overcome many of the common barriers to technology integration.”
For instance, mentors provide teachers with “just-in-time support while they integrate technology into lessons they are actually teaching.” Good mentoring begins with knowing teachers’ needs and setting goals collaboratively throughout the entire process of integration.
Technology as Part of School Policy
Veteran teachers Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher integrated technology into language arts classes, then began creating a technology policy to monitor its uses. Soon, the authors realized that most “technology policies focused on prohibition” rather than teaching students to use it constructively. So they created a school-wide courtesy policy that included expectations of technology courtesy, thereby fully integrating technology expectations into the whole school’s standards of behavior.
For as many barriers as schools face when integrating technology, there are equally numerous, as well as creative, solutions. All require deep collaboration, clear planning, and ongoing professional development and assessment. Technology integration is never quick or easy, but it can be successfully planned and implemented.
See the Source List for this article Here
Back in 1986, Ohio educator and school administrator Howard Merriman bemoaned “the challenges brought by the incursion of technology into the schools.” He was talking about electric typewriters and programmable televisions, but 40 years later, the problem for schools remains the same, even if today’s technology is vastly different. As current educators try to adopt new technology, they should find Merriman’s impulse familiar as they ask themselves how schools can ensure holistic integration across all grades, subjects and teachers.
What Is Technology Integration?
It’s more than teachers and students using computers, or simply putting course materials online. However, it doesn’t mean having students on computers all the time, either.