Bridge Boston Charter School, which recently marked the 11th anniversary of its founding, began using Fishtank Math during the 2021–22 school year. They are participating in the Accelerating Mathematics Instruction program through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for adopting new high-quality core instructional mathematics materials.
This semester, we met with math specialist Diane CullenMoore, 3rd grade teacher Amanda Trecker, and 6th grade math teacher Claribel Aguilar to discuss their experience with Fishtank Math so far.
Initiating the Move to Fishtank
Bridge Boston started out using Singapore Math and then spent several years with Eureka Math before beginning to look for another program that would offer students a more streamlined approach to grade-level math concepts and support teachers as they built their own confidence with the math.
"With Eureka it always felt like there were five or six strategies taught for a single concept—so many ways, taught to such depth that 50% of the students didn't understand any of them really well," recalls Diane CullenMoore. She worried that students weren't developing the kind of trust or ownership of how the numbers worked that would serve them as they progressed.
More experienced teachers tried paring down the curriculum to focus on, say, the three most dependable strategies for most learners, but ultimately Bridge Boston wanted to find an option that took that pressure off of teachers.
Amanda Trecker was one of the teachers trying to make Eureka work by taking the lessons, problems, exit tickets, and assessments and "basically remaking them because everything was too wordy and overcomplicated in a way that wasn't good. It just felt unreasonable for 3rd grade." She went to Diane to say "I'm going to have to spend the summer rewriting this curriculum," and that's when she learned that Bridge Boston was considering a move to Fishtank for middle school math. "I actually demanded for 3rd grade to switch to Fishtank too, and I just love it so far."
Making Connections, Saving Time, and Lowering Teacher Anxiety
Claribel Aguilar, who teaches 6th grade math at Bridge Boston, uses her personal journey with math to encourage her students. "Had you asked me 15 years ago, I would never have imagined myself teaching math, but I actually love it. I tell the students a lot about my own struggles with math, and how hard it was for me. And that's why I take such care to explain topics, why they matter in the real world, and where you'll see them again."
Right away, Claribel has seen how the 6th grade progression and Fishtank materials are set up to support this approach. She describes a connection between the 6th grade unit on rational numbers and 8th grade content, when it comes to finding distances on the coordinate plane. "In our last unit, we learned about counting line segments and using absolute value. When I read some of the lesson descriptions, they told me that later on in 8th grade, students are going to learn the Pythagorean Theorem, and I'm very much that teacher that's like, 'Hey! This is why you need to know this, because later on this topic is going to come up again, and we're going to be looking at diagonal lines instead of looking at straight lines right now.' So I do appreciate that Fishtank takes time to tell educators why the kids need to know certain skills."
As the school year began, the Bridge Boston teachers went through Fishtank's Launch professional learning series, where they built familiarity with the Fishtank Math resources and unit prep and lesson internalization processes. They then focused in on how anchor tasks and problems can function within a lesson. "I think one big difference with Fishtank is that there's more opportunity for teachers to just start with the anchor problem," says Diane. "Teachers can have a bit of the old habit of wanting to teach a bunch first, so it was helpful to see a model for how they can start with a problem and tackle it together as a class."
Amanda is finding that with her strong content knowledge from years of teaching 3rd grade math and the time she saves on paring down the materials, she's been able to focus more on her instructional practice. "With less need to adapt things, it's allowed me to really dive in and make sure that I'm actually asking the right question on the right slide or having the right problem sets and must-do problems for my kids. It's going really well."
While their work with Fishtank Math is still relatively new, Diane adds that she senses that "for the teachers who are using it, their anxiety has gone down a notch. When they're also teaching an intervention block and they're running a social-emotional group and they're just doing a lot of different things, having to pare back a lesson or a module is really hard, especially if you don't know at the end, what's going to be most helpful for most students. So I think that most of them are really feeling a great relief using it, and I think they're seeing their kids are doing a pretty good job."
Improving Student Discourse and Unit Pacing
Bridge Boston has some goals around the kind of content and experiences students would have in math class this year, and right away Diane was able to see positive impacts in the move to Fishtank.
"For a while we've been trying to encourage teachers to use three-act math tasks, and having them built right in at the perfect time with the perfect task already chosen has been fantastic," Diane reports. "The kids have loved those."
Diane shares that they also wanted to increase student discourse across all subject areas. "One of our instructional goals this year was to see more student talk and less teacher talk in every lesson. And I do think that having the anchor problems be the heart of the lesson helps. When it's done the right way, we have noticed a good increase in student talk, even if it's talking to another student and not necessarily whole class discussion, but we have noticed a big difference."
The biggest difference Amanda is noticing is that for the first time, she and her students are on track to complete all of the units of 3rd grade. "I want to just shout from the rooftops about the way the units are organized," she says. "We started with addition and subtraction, which really connects so well with how 2nd grade ends. And then we went on to multiplication and division. It just makes so much sense that shapes is with perimeter. I love the way you put it all together. I'm going to get through all the units this year. I never would have done it with Eureka."
As math specialist, Diane is seeing similar results across all of the grade levels using Fishtank Math. "We've certainly noticed a difference in pacing. It is just clearer—it's clearer to teachers and it's clearer to students. I know that kids are getting through more units, which has been a big goal for us because we've noticed in our diagnostic assessments schoolwide that our students are lagging in geometry, measurement, and data, and of course in the past we've never gotten to those modules. If there is one that teachers are going to skip, that's the one. But the students are paying the price for it in functions and linear equations and all those things that really rely on basic geometry. So I'm hopeful that as they are able to complete all of the units, we'll see the effect in future years. Even if it doesn't happen this year for all of the grades, I do think next year it will."
We look forward to seeing how the whole Bridge Boston team and student body continue to grow in their work with Fishtank Math. Thank you to Diane, Amanda, and Claribel for sharing your experience with us.
If you are interested in learning more about how to bring Fishtank curriculum to your school, you can contact our school partnerships team to get the conversation started.