New Heights Middle School is a NYC Public School, where the teachers have been expanding their implementation of Fishtank ELA and Math over the past three school years. We recently had the chance to talk with Danta Carter, 8th Grade ELA Teacher and ELA Department Lead, and Michael Wiebusch, Principal of New Heights Middle School.
A Commitment to Collaboration
We started our conversation by exploring what makes the New Heights Middle School community special.
"We have a very collaborative staff that work together to meet the needs of their scholars, both academic and social-emotional," says Mr. Wiebusch. "I love the way our school community strives to provide our scholars with the opportunity to have a voice in their learning—in the classroom, in activities outside of the classroom, during the summer program, and beyond."
Ms. Carter adds, "I appreciate how all the members of the community have a voice. Not only do the students have a voice, but the teachers have a voice as well. It feels good when you have an administration that listens to you and welcomes your ideas. And I think it's actually because of that that we've had the opportunity to work with Fishtank."
Finding Fishtank: Teacher Buy-In and Decision Making
At the beginning of the 2019–20 school year, Fishtank started popping up in conversations around New Heights. A member of the math team was exploring the resources for her classroom and told Ms. Carter that there were also ELA courses available. Ms. Carter picked out a unit to try with her co-teacher and as she found success with the materials, she started talking to others about the possibility of using Fishtank more widely.
At the same time, Mr. Wiebusch was a first-year principal working with his principal mentor and she mentioned Fishtank Math as a possible option to help increase the level of rigor in their math classrooms. He wasn't ready to make a curriculum shift right away, but put that suggestion on his list of resources to look into.
In spring of 2020, as New Heights moved to remote learning, Ms. Carter led the ELA team in trying out one or two units to see how students would respond to the curriculum. Seeing positive outcomes despite the challenges of remote schooling, by fall 2020 the ELA teachers were on board to start a full implementation.
In other schools, this kind of teacher-driven decision making might face headwinds. "If we didn't have the administration to really support it and say, 'Sure, let's look into this,' I don't think we would be using Fishtank right now," recalls Ms. Carter. "Mr. Wiebusch is really adamant about finding the right fit for our school, and I think that's how it should be in education. It should be about what is best for your school and not every school needs to use the same thing, because you have different groups of kids that are sitting in front of you every day."
"The conversations were really happening organically, which is something that goes back to how collaborative our teachers are," says Mr. Wiebusch. "I didn't have to put it on a calendar, let's have a curriculum meeting or who wants to be on the curriculum committee. From the start, this conversation was really happening through teacher-to-teacher talk."
Joyful, Rigorous Reading
"I appreciate any curriculum that's both diverse and rigorous. I think it's difficult to find a curriculum that has just enough rigor where you can still get students to meet the expectations," explains Ms. Carter. "The Fishtank curriculum is challenging, but I don't feel like it's so challenging that kids can't get there. And there is an abundance of resources built in that will allow a teacher to provide multiple entry points for their students."
Ms. Carter wasn't sure at first how her students would take to the texts, particularly given the serious historical topics of the 8th grade course, but she's found that her students are really enjoying the texts. "I've been teaching for 15 years and this is the first year that kids are really talking about the books. They are actually reading the books at home, or they're trying to catch up before class because they know that when they come in, we're going to do something with the text."
"There are a lot of texts in eighth grade—in two units there are four texts that they have to read, and they are reading them! The kids are really rising to the challenge of trying to understand these texts," Ms. Carter continues. "Fishtank is set up in a way that we can move through the text somewhat seamlessly. Even if you need to step back a little bit, you still can keep it moving and ensure that kids are understanding what's happening, and learning what they need to learn to meet the expectations of the grade."
Mr. Wiebusch chimes in, "I just see joy around the texts that the scholars are reading. I see scholars bringing their books to the cafeteria, and I hear them actively engaged, having discussions about what they're reading. They are genuinely excited about the texts in ELA."
Some of this engagement may be driven by the wide range of experiences captured in the narratives they are reading. "The scholars see themselves reflected in many of the texts, and they get excited. They're interested in the texts, and the teachers are able to teach the skills and standards using those texts," Mr. Wiebusch shares. "And—I think this just says so much—these students are on track to read more books this year than they have in our whole history at New Heights with any other curriculum we've used."
"The reading does make a difference," says Ms. Carter. "They're definitely reading more and you can see the growth in many of our students. Our ENL (English as a New Language) students are growing—they are really making some progress and answering questions just like everyone else, and I credit Fishtank for that, honestly."
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Shifting the Teaching Experience
"First and foremost, one of the most important elements of a curriculum for me as a school principal is to ensure that our teachers are honored as the experts that they are" says Mr. Wiebusch, pointing out how well Fishtank's core values line up with the autonomy and support he wants his teachers to feel in their work with both the ELA and math curriculum.
"Our teachers get to truly engage in the curriculum and knowing the materials, rather than simply being shipped a box of scripted curriculum that says teachers must do x, y, z on lesson one, day one, minute by minute," continues Mr. Wiebusch. "Instead, they have flexibility with the online platform to understand the concept they are teaching that day, and possible scholar misconceptions. And rather than assigning the 20 practice problems in the workbook, our teachers can pull a small problem set that allows scholars more opportunity to discuss and really dig deeper."
"I think, honestly, it makes teachers do more work in a good way," echoes Ms. Carter. "It makes them dig deeper to internalize the curriculum. With Fishtank, you read the book, do the unit launch, and you really unpack what those misconceptions might be ahead of time. Then you can figure out how to incorporate that into how you're going to teach the lessons or get the kids to understand the different standards."
"The fact that teachers are expected to engage in that work prior to teaching the unit with their scholars is so important," says Mr. Wiebusch. "Having the Fishtank Plus coupled with the professional learning really allowed many more of the teachers to understand the 'why' behind the importance of that work."
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The teachers at New Heights Middle School had already built up some experience with the curriculum before they embarked on the Fishtank Launch professional learning series for ELA and math in Winter 2022. "I think that having it at this moment in time was really beneficial for our school because we were actually in it, we're able to see it, we were able to plan our lessons based on what we learned, and really put it into practice," shared Ms. Carter. "Oftentimes when you go to PDs, everything is theoretical—this is what you can do and this is how it would look. But when you're putting it into practice and you can go back the next day or the next week and say okay I'm going to try this thing out, it has a different impact."
Mr. Wiebusch made the decision in late fall to explore PL options because, even though both ELA and math teacher teams had agreed to move into full adoption of Fishtank, he was seeing uneven implementation across different classrooms and gaps in teachers really knowing and understanding what was available. "That's when I had to just pause right there and say, 'What am I doing as the leader to support our teachers with this implementation?' I thought to myself now is the perfect time to build this relationship and a professional learning partnership."
"I think it was so important that the professional learning partnerships gave our teachers the chance to work alongside the individuals responsible for creating and updating the curriculum itself," continues Mr. Wiebusch. "It's a mindset shift when teachers move away from having scripted curriculum, and the PL with the Fishtank team allowed our teachers to really truly understand that at more than just the surface level."
"Our teachers also got to share their own thoughts about the curriculum in those sessions—I'm looking for more, what about including this, have you considered this—and hearing that the Fishtank team was receptive to that feedback makes me excited to continue our work with Fishtank."
We look forward to seeing how the New Heights Middle School team and student body continue to grow in their work with Fishtank ELA and Math. Thank you to Ms. Carter and Mr. Wiebusch 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.