Fishtank (Remote) Teacher Spotlight: Alyssa Mayer

April 23, 2020


The Fishtank Teacher Spotlight series shares interviews with teachers who use Fishtank curriculum in their classrooms. Alyssa Mayer teaches 5th grade at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy in Champaign, Illinois. Like so many teachers across the country, she is currently teaching her class remotely while her school is closed, in accordance with the state’s stay-at-home order.


Fishtank: Tell us about your path into teaching. How long have you been teaching? What drew you to teaching? What keeps you teaching?

Alyssa: I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and at Booker T. Washington for the past 12, where I teach 5th grade to accelerated students. 

When I was in college, getting my undergraduate degree in math, I took a martial arts class. Once you reached a certain belt level, our teacher would have us teach the newer students. I discovered I really enjoyed it and from there I went into teaching.

Seeing kids learn is the best part of teaching for me, and right now that’s so hard. It feels like right now it’s a lot of the parts of teaching that I don’t love, so I’ll be glad when we get through this and get to see and interact with the kids face-to-face again.

How has the transition to remote learning been for you and your class?

It happened in a couple of stages for us. Our Spring Break started in the middle of March, and then the governor cancelled schools through March 30th. We had a week of “act of God” days that didn’t need to be made up, and then another week where the school district gave out some resources and gave us time to get things prepared. Officially, teachers didn’t have to start delivering individual curriculum until April 7th, so we’ve had a nice long ramp-up period. 

I’d already been using a program called Classcraft for the past several years. It’s a way to gamify the classroom, and in the paid version you can create quests, where kids can go through at their own pace. So I started posting lessons there on March 23rd, because I’d already had a lot of parents and kids contacting me about things to do. 

What does the day-to-day look like for your remote classroom now?

The remote learning plan for our district has elementary teachers providing 45 minutes of ELA, 45 minutes of math, and 25 minutes of other subjects, like music, art, PE, science & social studies, each day.

Fortunately, my kids used tech in almost every part of their school lives prior to this. From 2nd grade up, we’re a 1:1 school, and it has made a huge difference, since they’re already familiar with things like how to take a picture or screenshot and upload it. My students were also already using Classcraft, and it’s been really beneficial to be able to keep at least one thing the same for them.

All of our lessons are asynchronous right now, using the self-paced quest function in Classcraft. Initially, I was posting one lesson a day, but now that we’ve gone to official remote learning, we’ve been asked to post the week’s worth of lessons at one time. So at the beginning of this week, I did a flurry of getting everything ready to start doing that.

I have some kids who are asking me “when’s the next one going to come out” and I have other kids who are working through it a little more slowly. I’ve explicitly told parents that because these lessons will take the average student more than 45 minutes in a day, it’s absolutely fine to split it up. I just want them to keep on learning. If we don’t get through everything, that’s not a big deal. They’ll get it next year! This does mean, though, that I don’t have any two kids in the same place right now. I have a couple of kids clustered in math and a couple clustered in ELA, but for the most part I’m just responding to what they give me as it comes in.

Can you tell us more about how you make your lesson quests?

In January, I started using the Fishtank 6th grade math curriculum, since my class is accelerated 5th graders. Our district normally uses the College Preparatory Mathematics curriculum, but I had three 4th grade students who joined for the 2nd half of last year, so they had seen all of the CPM lessons already. I wanted to find another curriculum for this year that those students hadn’t seen yet, and that led me to the Fishtank lessons, which have worked really well for the whole class. 

For the self-paced quests, I’m posting a four-part lesson for each day. I post the Anchor Problem in Part 1, and have them post a picture of their work, or write to me about the work they did on the problem. I’ve actually added some reflection questions along the way that we would have journaled about in class if we were there. 

Then Part 2 has a video of me working through the Anchor Problem, so they can check their work. I use Screencastify and my touchscreen computer to make the videos. I just use my finger and write (sometimes messily!) on the screen to go through the problems. 

Part 3 is the practice problems, right from Fishtank. Recently, Classcraft began allowing Google Forms as part of their system, so you can create a Google Forms quiz that either lets the student move on or not. I’ve only set up one like that, but in the one I’ve set up, they have access to all of the questions and then I ask them to upload a picture of their work. And then in Part 4, I take screenshots of the answer key for each question and have them tell me in the form whether they got it correct or incorrect. I encourage the students to contact me if they have any questions. 

None of this is for grading purposes—it’s just so I can see, for instance, a bunch of people have gotten problem 5 wrong, I better gather them together and come up with a way to re-teach that.

What are the major differences and difficulties you’ve found with remote teaching so far?

In my classroom, the task of going over an Anchor Problem would usually involve each student working on the problem, and then talking with a small group or partner about it. I circulate and have kids on my list that I’m going to call up. Often the student who answers the first question then calls on the next person to talk about it. Then they all do another problem, with the focus really on them answering the questions themselves. So in this remote situation, it’s very different for them to watch me go through the problems on a video instead.

I think if I hadn’t started with the self-paced quests I might be using Zoom or something similar to try to get the kids together for discussion. I debate which way is best, but since I started with one way I’m not feeling like I should go back and change all of the rules on them again.

I informally pre-tested the class before our spring break, thinking that we would be going into Unit 6 [of the 6th grade curriculum] after, and found that most of the students would be really comfortable with the equations and (to a lesser extent) the inequalities. Now that we’re a little way into remote learning, I know that some kids haven’t been engaging because it’s difficult and they don’t have the support of the classroom. So now I have two quests: one with the Unit 6 content, and the other with a review, which just goes over questions related to work we’ve done before. Some of the students get to choose, and I suspect some will want to do both. Though I would prefer that they go outside!

Our district has already done a lot to make sure that Chromebooks, which normally stay at school, get in the hands of students who need them. This is one of the reasons why I want to keep it self-paced—I don’t want students to feel like they have to be on a certain pacing if they’re struggling with access to technology or any other issues at home.

Do you have any thoughts about planning for the fall and beyond?

We’ve already been thinking as a 5th grade team about how, although our initial time period of isolation is probably going to end over the summer, there might be a need for more of them over the next year or even the next couple of years. So we’re going to try to take the lessons that we’re learning now and move forward in ways that can help students manage the whole at-home learning situation, even when the environment at home—with sibling distractions or unstable internet or other challenges—might not be ideal.

Many thanks to Alyssa for sharing her experience with us! You can see her YouTube playlist of Anchor Problem videos here.

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