Fishtank Teacher Spotlight: Allyson Smith

February 06, 2020


The Fishtank Teacher Spotlight series shares interviews with teachers who are using Fishtank curriculum in their classrooms. For the first spotlight in our series, we sat down with Allyson Smith, 10th grade English teacher and English department head at Argosy Collegiate Charter School, which serves 650 6th–11th grade students in Fall River, Massachusetts. Argosy Collegiate Charter is adapting Fishtank's ELA curriculum for their students.



Fishtank: Your school name, Argosy—is that someone’s last name?

Allyson: Actually Argosy is the name of a kind of merchant ship. We are located in Fall River, so in part it’s a nod to the history of the city and its role in textile manufacturing. But it’s also because an argosy ship carries precious cargo. The school represents the ship and the students represent the cargo. We have the responsibility to steer our ship with our precious cargo, to and through college.

F: How long have you been teaching?

A: I’ve been teaching for 10 years and this is my 6th year at Argosy. I came in as a founding teacher. 

F: So, when did you first encounter Fishtank?

A: When I became the English Department Head, I sat down with our Director of Curriculum and Instruction, or DCI, to research and identify a wide variety of great educational resources. We looked at some samples from traditional textbook companies, but we didn’t really find what we were looking for. Then our DCI was searching online and found Fishtank. It seemed promising, so she asked me to take a look at it to see if we could use some of the materials. So in the 2018-2019 school year, we started incorporating lessons from Fishtank into the curriculum I was curating for our teachers.

F: What has that process been like, curating the curriculum for your department?

A: As a charter school, we are held to the same curriculum standards and state assessments that any public school is held to. One of the greatest differences between districts and charters is that we, as in individual school, have the freedom to choose how we are going to teach the frameworks to reach all learners. Sometimes that means we use great, data-proven resources, or we supplement with those resources, and often times we create resources and curriculum from scratch. As we are in year six of a seven year, slow growth school model, we’re still building our curriculum and library of resources. Plus each year we revisit what we’ve already done to try to improve upon it. Last summer as I was writing and rewriting curriculum, I had already sketched out ideas in my head based on the texts we had chosen, and it was really cool to see that a lot of what I had in mind had already been put together on Fishtank—and they made it better! It was great to see that I was on the right track.

We’ve found that we really like looking at what fits with the Massachusetts standards, what our ideas are, what works for us as a school—knowing our students as we do, and what works for them. We don’t use every single Fishtank lesson; we will use parts of lessons or parts of the unit. Sometimes we will scaffold out and build some of the discussion questions into larger questions for essays or argumentative writing. Some of the discussion questions remain discussion questions, which then in turn prompt more questions from students. 

We really love the link between Fishtank and Common Lit. We have a significantly larger number of special education students and English language learners than the Fall River district. So knowing the needs of those students, we use a lot of multimodal learning: videos and movement and different kinds of learning activities, as opposed to the standard rote traditional reading and writing that happens in most English classrooms.



F: Is there a lesson that stands out in your memory as being particularly effective?

A: Yes! In our 8th grade, the students read To Kill a Mockingbird and I was observing the teacher who had asked for some help. She was using the Fishtank lesson that compares the courtroom scene in the film to the text. They did a close read of that particular section and then watched the video, which sparked a very rich, deep discussion when they realized how differently they’d read it versus how it was portrayed in the film. The teacher prompted them to think about how we have this “mind-movie” in our heads as we read the book, and how we can compare the imagery we read into the scene with the imagery we see on the screen. The students picked out similarities and differences, and then moved into an argumentative writing assignment to compare and contrast the book and the film. 

I was so blown away by what they came up with on their own and how they were so invested and engaged. Using those critical thinking skills to transfer from text to video, and being able to analyze film like a film critic would or a literature student would, I think really solidified for them that we can transfer these skills elsewhere. These skills even transfer over to history class when we’re watching videos and looking at pictures, to enhance our understanding of different cultures, people, and events. 



F: How do your teachers feel about working with the curriculum you’re creating?

A: In the schools I taught in previously, I was either handed a curriculum and they said, “here you go!” or I was just told which books we were teaching and nothing else. At Argosy, building the curriculum means getting to work collaboratively not only with the DCI, but with the other teachers as well. I always make sure to assign credit to “Fishtank” by putting that language at the bottom of the materials I adapt, so teachers will go to the website and look at the lessons to see the full sequence, how everything fits in. And sometimes they get their own awesome ideas from it. If they have an idea of something they’d like to do, we work together to see if we can incorporate it, or if something isn’t working, we assess how we can fix it for next year.

We appreciate the way that the Fishtank curriculum will take a pause from reading the core text some days to focus on the supplemental text. At both of our campuses, the middle and the high school, there is an intense focus on literacy, both reading and writing, so I appreciate these strategies, and I really have used them. I like that Fishtank suggests taking a pause between sections of the chapter or between chapters to look at a supplemental text and really dive into that before moving on. I thought that was a really smart move that I hadn’t thought of in my own teaching before. 

It’s been great to be able to offer more flexibility than the traditional textbook route, where you have to follow this strict order of, This is how these things work—you do this lesson in this order on this day. That really doesn’t allow for the time needed if the students didn’t understand, if they need a re-teach, if the school schedule interrupts, if we have a snow day. I like the flexibility of Fishtank that’s more, This is how many lessons it might take, your mileage may vary based on your kids. That’s important.

Our teachers love having the ability to be that flexible—that it’s not the prescribed, Here’s what your Do Now is, here’s what you should say with the Do Now, here’s where you should stand in the room. It’s more a sense of, If this works for your students, do it. If it doesn’t, if you need to re-teach this, great! Here’s another website to use, here’s another way to approach this, here are some questions you could ask, here are some assessments you could give. And then they have the freedom to work with it, see how they can adapt it, and still make it work.



Many thanks to Allyson for sharing her experience with us! 

If you would like to be featured in a future Fishtank Teacher Spotlight, send us a note at [email protected].