What's Inside: ELA Unit Launches

November 19, 2020

Updated March 9, 2022

When you are teaching a text you know by heart, and you can easily pull up the exact passage to reinforce a point that your student just made, teaching feels good. You can really get in the zone, prompting a student with just the right question, and guiding the class discussion expertly toward an essential understanding.

But what about when you're teaching a text that you aren't as familiar with? How do you most efficiently internalize the content so you are prepared for the real-time decision making required when you are in front of your class?

We designed Unit Launches as a comprehensive tool to help teachers do this preparation in a systematic way, with a combination of reading, reflection, and videos to help you dive deep into the unit you are about to teach. After completing a Unit Launch, you will be equipped to make strategic decisions about how to tailor the unit to your students' unique needs, while also ensuring key unit content and standards are met.

Unit Launches are one of the many features unlocked with a Fishtank Plus subscription for ELA courses, Kindergarten through 8th grade. In the rest of this post, we'll share how Unit Launches are organized and what you can expect to gain from each section.


1. Understanding the Text

As each of our units is centered on complex, authentic texts, Unit Launches start by looking at all of the facets of the text. We want to make sure you can gain a deep understanding of what makes the text worthy of study prior to teaching the unit, so the Understanding the Text section focuses on confirming key aspects of the text you may have already noticed, as well as highlighting those you may have missed.

We expect that you've read the core text before you begin the Unit Launch, but we provide a summary of characters, setting, and plot to help refresh your memory.

Next, we offer a video that explores the elements of complexity within the text. Here is an example of this video from our 3rd grade unit on My Name is Dyamonde Daniels.


After watching the video, you will have the chance to reflect on which elements of the text's complexity will be challenging for your students, and how you might plan to create the supports to help them access the text.

The final portion of Understanding the Text is an opportunity to think through your students' lived experiences and how that can affect the way they engage with the texts of the unit, with prompts like:

  • How will these texts serve as a mirror for your students (a reflection of identity and experience)? How will these texts serve as a window into the identities and experiences of others?
  • What knowledge and interest do my students bring with them? To what extent does this unit build upon students' preexisting knowledge and interests?
  • What additional voices or experiences might you layer into this unit to better reflect your student population?

No curriculum can fully provide for the expansive range of experiences and identities in our country, and by doing this thinking and action planning, you can work toward more culturally responsive instruction. In 6th–8th Grade ELA units, you will also be prompted to think about the author of the core text and how their perspective and historical context may have shaped their writing.


2. Essential Questions

Along with the text, the other foundational element of each Fishtank ELA unit is a set of Essential Questions. These are open-ended questions that focus on the key content and understandings of the unit. They ask students to do more critical, higher-order thinking in order to craft answers and provide justification and support for their responses. 

In the Unit Launch, we provide our answers to each Essential Question, along with examples from the text, as models for how you might guide your students. It's important to have a deep understanding of the Essential Questions prior to teaching the unit to ensure that you are directing students toward acquiring the right content.


The reflection prompts in this section continue the work of the previous section, asking you to think deeply about what students will learn in the unit. You'll consider questions like:

  • What do students learn about themselves, their community, or the world at large by exploring these Essential Questions?
  • What social-emotional skills do students build by exploring these Essential Questions?
  • How can you connect the knowledge learned through the Essential Questions to a student's unique context?
  • If applicable, how do these questions engage students in thinking about power and equity and the disruption of oppression?

You will also have the opportunity to consider how your identity and experiences may influence how you teach the content, with a goal of identifying any biases or gaps in knowledge you may have and planning for how you'll counteract any effect they may have on your instruction.


3. Key Standards

As students engage with the core texts of a unit and move through the tasks of the lessons, they gain proficiency in the grade-level Common Core State Standards. Analyzing the priority standards for a unit will allow you to understand what proficiency looks like and better provide feedback and support for your students.

For the key reading standards, we offer a short video in which we break down the standards into smaller key understandings, with the aim of building your understanding of what proficiency with the standard involves. Here is an example of this video from our 5th grade unit on One Crazy Summer.


For the key writing standards, you'll unpack the standards and relate them to focus areas at the sentence- or paragraph-level, or to narrative or informational writing. Then you'll explore the application of these focus areas with exemplar responses to Target Tasks from the unit. We ask you to reflect on how the exemplars demonstrate fluency with the writing standards and then offer our analyses for you to review.


4. Ensuring Proficiency

In the final section of the Unit Launch, you will have the opportunity to step into your students' shoes and determine what knowledge and understanding they will need to be successful in the unit assessment.

You will respond to the prompt for the unit's content assessment and then review a rubric that demonstrates what should be included in a skillful answer.


Finally, if your unit has a fluency assessment, you'll unpack the reading fluency demands of the text with an explainer video and then plan for how you will model, assess, and support your students' fluency development.


Unit Launches are a powerful tool to prepare yourself when you begin teaching a new text, or even one that you've taught before. By diving deeply and systematically into the material you want your students to excell at within the unit, you are equipping yourself to have the in-the-moment responses your students need, and find that delicious teaching flow more often.