Looking Forward: Priorities for the 2021–22 School Year

May 19, 2021
Anne Lyneis and Jami Therrien Wells

As the 2020–21 school year wraps up, it is important to think about how we prepare for next year in a way that shows students that:

  • We see the strengths they bring into the classroom.
  • We know they are coming off of a uniquely challenging year of school.
  • Their learning is not “lost”.
  • They can and will be challenged to maintain high academic standards. 
  • Together we can set and achieve ambitious goals.
  • We believe in them.

We know that there are many decisions still to be made and plenty of unknowns about the 2021–22 school year, but there are also a few key priorities that we think should be at the forefront as we all prepare for the coming year.


Focus on Positive, Forward Thinking  

Approaching the upcoming school year with a positive, forward-thinking mindset is an essential part of ensuring equitable learning for all students. Mindsets shape the relationships we build with students, the content that goes in front of students, and the type of support we give students. If we believe students are coming to us with lots of strengths, we will treat them differently than if we think they are entering our buildings with deficits.  

To foster positive mindsets, it is crucial to prioritize building strong relationships with students. Students learn best when they have a trusting relationship with an adult, and they feel comfortable asking for help and making mistakes. To build these trusting relationships, students need to know that their teachers believe in them, that their teachers are focusing on their strengths, and that their teachers aren’t viewing them with a deficit mindset. Students will be absorbing what we say and what we do when we return to school next year, and we need to ensure that our actions show that we care and that we deeply believe in their potential.


Use a High-Quality Curriculum 

The instructional materials we put in front of students show them what we value. To ensure that all students are getting access to the right content, it is crucial that schools are using high-quality curriculum materials. Using high-quality materials ensures that content is on grade level, that all standards are taught at the right level of rigor across the school year, that assessments are meaningful, and that there is coherence between units, both vertically and horizontally. And using a high-quality curriculum ensures that students are getting the right content, at the right time, with the right support. 

A high-quality curriculum is also incredibly important for teachers. Teachers have a lot on their plates, and we often expect them to do it all. When teachers have great content at their fingertips, they are able to focus on the work that only they can do: building relationships with students and differentiating and customizing the content to ensure that all students are successful, instead of focusing on creating their own materials. 

Fishtank Learning is one option for teachers to find high-quality ELA and math curriculum. To check if the curriculum your school is using is high quality, you can explore the curriculum reviews published by EdReports.


Prioritize Grade-Level Content

From the beginning of the school year, the majority of instructional time should focus on rigorous, grade-level work. Students in 7th grade should start the year with 7th grade content, not 6th grade content. Review and re-teaching should only be incorporated when necessary, using a just-in-time approach. This ensures that students have the knowledge they need when they need it and will use it, rather than teaching students knowledge just in case they will need it. This means that some standards and content from the previous year may not be covered right away, but that’s okay. It’s more important to start with grade-level content and then make a plan for when to incorporate the knowledge students may have missed. 

When planning for the year, it’s also important to acknowledge that not all grade-level content needs to be treated the same, particularly in math. In order to make space for just-in-time support, more time may be needed for particular units and concepts at various times in the year. Rather than covering all grade-level content to the same superficial level, it is important to identify which content needs to be prioritized and taught to an appropriate depth versus which content can be combined, cut, or taught to awareness level. Later this spring, we will be sharing updated scope and sequence adjustment guides for our 3rd–8th grade math courses to help schools and teachers make strategic adjustments to their unit planning. 

In ELA, this means putting grade-level texts in front of all students from day one. By building strong relationships with students in the first few weeks of schools,  teachers will learn more about their students as readers and be able to determine what types of support students will need to access grade-level texts. For example, some students may need additional fluency practice, other students may need targeted language support, and some may need additional background knowledge to access the texts. This support can be added directly into lessons without changing the rigor or demands of the text or the task.


Determine What Data to Collect and How to Use It 

In order to provide students with the right just-in-time support, it’s important to make a plan for the type of data that will be collected and how it will be used. A student’s learning needs cannot be identified by a single test, and we caution against over-relying on summative data points. Learning needs will always require judgment, multiple perspectives or data-points, and, when possible, student voice. 

In a math classroom, this means using pre-unit assessments and pre-unit student reflections to help identify which content students may need to review for an upcoming unit. It also means thinking beyond content standards and identifying other areas where students have demonstrated success, such as applying various strategies, ways of reasoning through problems, conceptual understanding, and mathematical practices. Perhaps a student struggles with adding and subtracting rational numbers, but this student has a solid understanding of the extended number line. Leveraging this strength and providing a number line to this student can support them in solving multi-step equations with positive and negative numbers.

In the ELA classroom, we caution against relying solely on benchmark tests that identify a student’s reading level. Reading is multi-faceted and one test does not produce a well-rounded picture of what a student is capable of. Instead, we recommend teachers gather formative data during the first unit to identify student strengths and areas for growth. Based on formative data, teachers can add the right just-in-time support.


Plan for Curriculum-Embedded Professional Development 

Finally, to ensure that teachers are set up for success, professional development should be directly connected to the curriculum and content that teachers are using. Professional learning should focus on helping teachers understand the core content of the units they are teaching, and how to differentiate the content to meet students' varying needs. If teachers do not have a deep understanding of the content, it is much harder to provide just-in-time support to students.

Within the Fishtank curriculum, we have created Unit Launches, which are part of our solution for helping teachers build this deep understanding. These on-demand professional learning modules guide teachers through a structured exploration of the unit content and ask them to reflect on what instructional choices they will need to make for their classroom. They can be especially powerful when used by a group of teachers preparing together, within or across grade levels.

In our ELA courses, Unit Launches ask teachers to analyze the complexities of the unit texts, articulate the key knowledge and understandings students will build across the unit, analyze how students will interact with grade-level standards, and reflect on ways to make the curriculum relevant and responsive to their unique students and schools.

In Fishtank Math Unit Launches, teachers examine the standards and big ideas of a unit and how they show up in the progression, assessments, and problem-solving tasks of the unit. Additionally, Unit Launches support teachers in broadening the scope of their understanding beyond their own grade level, specifically working to understand what students learned in prior grades and how it informs current grade-level work. 

When learning the content of a new unit, teachers need to know and understand what students did in the previous grade in order to decide which supports to include. For example, for teachers to support their students with 7th grade expressions next year, they’ll need to understand what 6th grade expressions work involved, and it will further benefit them to know how students worked with properties of operations in elementary grades. Whether teachers use resources like our Unit Launches or not, they need to be given the time and resources to clarify these connections to prior and future grade-level content, and how to use those connections in their own grade level.


Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more resources and detailed guidance for how teachers using the Fishtank curriculum can best meet and support the needs of students as we enter the 2021-22 school year. Stay tuned!


Anne Lyneis is the Managing Director of ELA curriculum, and the author of the Fishtank ELA curriculum for grades K–5. She began her career in education through Teach for America South Louisiana where she fell in love with teaching. She taught elementary school for 8 years in both public and charter schools in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts before joining the Fishtank team. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s degree in school leadership from Louisiana State University. 

Jami Therrien Wells is the Managing Director of Mathematics curriculum at Fishtank Learning, and the author of the middle school Fishtank Math curriculum. She began her career at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, where she served for 10 years teaching 8th grade math and 5th grade special education. Prior to joining Fishtank, Jami also worked at the Achievement Network as the managing director of the math assessment team. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Rochester, and a Master’s degree in teaching from Tufts University.