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.
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.”
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.”
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!