Fishtank School Spotlight: P.J. Kennedy Elementary School

September 02, 2020

Two years ago, the teachers at P.J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston were fed up with their current ELA curriculum—it was too rigid and scripted, and the materials just weren’t engaging for their students. Their principal, Kristen Goncalves, heard about Fishtank and suggested that one 5th grade teacher pilot a unit. Right away, they saw student engagement spike, and within a year all 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classes were using Fishtank ELA curriculum, and seeing big gains in their interim assessment results. 

We sat down (virtually) to talk with Kristen Goncalves and two of the teachers who were the first to try Fishtank, Julianne Zalmat and Marybeth Hamwey. In our conversation, they share the difference that great texts make, how a flexible unscripted curriculum lets them do their best work, and their advice for other teachers and schools looking to make a change.

Getting to Know You

Fishtank: Tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to work at P.J. Kennedy.

Julianne Zalmat: I actually grew up two streets away from P.J. Kennedy. My mom has been a Boston Public School teacher for 34 years, and I always said I would never teach at BPS. But there was an opening at PJK and five years in, I would not change it for the world. It’s a small school, and it’s literally the best place to teach. I previously taught 3rd grade gen ed, and now I teach inclusion for 5th grade ELA.

Marybeth Hamwey: I’m a change of career type. I originally worked with juvenile sex offenders and was going to transition into working with adults, but instead started subbing with BPS. I was a long-term sub at P.J. Kennedy for a full semester and then waited 2½ more years for a permanent position to open up there. I teach 4th grade now and this is going on my 20th year as a teacher. PJK is just a great school, very family oriented—even the staff feels like a family—and I never want to go anywhere else. 

Kristen Goncalves: I’m entering my 5th year at P.J. Kennedy this year. I found my way into Boston Public Schools through my undergrad at Emmanuel College, and started out working at the Murphy School before moving to the Henderson Inclusion School. I never thought I would be a principal, but the opportunity arose to go to the Lynch Leadership Academy and from there I was placed at P.J. Kennedy. From the second I met everyone, I fell in love with the community, and I could not imagine myself anywhere else except for being the principal at the PJK with these amazing teachers.

Must-Haves in Curriculum

Fishtank: When you are assessing a new curriculum, what’s important for you?

JZ: For an ELA curriculum, text is the biggest component. If the students aren't invested in the text or they can't relate to it, it's basically useless for them and becomes useless for me.

MH: I agree 100%. Getting to read a whole novel just gives the students a feeling of accomplishment, reading from beginning to end. And the texts in Fishtank are really interesting. You could tell that they were chosen for a specific reason and well thought out.

KG: As a school, I want to make sure that whatever we're choosing is really relevant to who our students are, and that they see themselves within the texts. And not only see themselves, but that they see the world. We've had way too long of purely whitewashed curriculum, where at most there’s the token “diverse book”. We want every child to see a real reflection of the world, and not shy away from the relevant topics that are happening around us. I think Fishtank does a really good job of that.

I also have a personal preference as a teacher and a leader that I don’t want a scripted curriculum. I think scripted curriculum holds us in and actually takes away from the talent that teaching should be bringing to the table.

Piloting Fishtank

Fishtank: How did you get started with the Fishtank curriculum?

KG: I actually found out about the math curriculum first, on a tip from someone who used to work at Match. I realized there was an ELA component too, and right around the same time Julianne came to my office because she was fed up with our current ELA curriculum. 

JZ: It was definitely because I came to your office and cried, because I didn’t want to read Esperanza Rising ever again. Not that Esperanza Rising isn’t a good book, but the curriculum we were using stretched it out over several months, and was so rigid that if I couldn’t get the lesson’s pages done, I would have to add an extra day and it would take even longer. People would come to my room and say you're still reading that book? Yes, we’re on the potatoes. Let's just get through it...

KG: So I said, here’s something new you can try, and Julianne piloted the Return to Sender unit in the fall of 2018. The interim data for her class looked good and she really liked it, so then Mrs. Hamwey tried Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with her 4th grade class. And to end that school year, we had all of the 4th grade classes use the Shiloh unit. Everyone was onboard, so we went with Fishtank ELA in 3rd–5th grade for the 2019-2020 school year, and this year we’ll expand to 2nd and 6th grade as well.

A Spike in Student Engagement

Fishtank: How did the students react to the change in the curriculum?

KG: Right away I saw the whole tone change. The way the lessons went out—kids wanted the books. For me, it was just a different atmosphere in the classroom, and the results just skyrocketed with the kids. 

JZ: They have been really interested in texts because they are about things they’ve never been exposed to. This year we started right at the beginning of the year with Seedfolks and they’d never heard of people planting a garden. With The Breadwinner, none of the students had even heard of Afghanistan. And then on the other side, Return to Sender is much more about some of their life experiences. 

MH: I think the interest also came from the way writing was paired with the lessons, and that there were other activities you could do. There's just so much more to do within the books rather than just reading, answering questions, reading, answering questions. And the discussions coming out of it, oh my goodness, the discussion coming from especially the ELLs was just fantastic.

JZ: When we introduced The Breadwinner, we incorporated videos of kids in Afghanistan, they saw pictures, did map searches, I pulled quotes from the book and we tried to figure out what we thought that the book was going to be about. I think the ability to introduce kids to more activities using the book, as opposed to just responding to the book is a great thing. And it's because the curriculum lends itself to that. It doesn't say Day 1 you must do XYZ.

MH: For Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the students drew a map of Minli meeting the different characters as a small group activity, and then wrote about what lesson she learned from those characters. I used the vocabulary resources from Fishtank Plus early in the unit too, and when they saw the words in the book they were so excited to make that connection. 

KG: I remember seeing our 40-year veteran 3rd grade teacher (who was not too pleased to have yet another new ELA curriculum) before a lesson on The Twits. She said there is no way my kids are going to use the word “retaliation” today. And I said, I guarantee you they will use the word before the end of the lesson, and you're not going to even have to do that much scaffolding if you just read the book with them. 

It turned out that the students loved the whole idea of retaliation, using the word and the argument behind it, and just all of the antics of The Twits. And at the same time, they were using the academic language. At the end of the lesson, she was like, I know you're going to say you told me so…

One of the things I love about this curriculum is that the expectations are set high. The bar is high, and yes, there's some scaffolding that needs to be done, but the kids rise to that occasion. Many other programs I’ve seen are designed to go low, or to be the median, and we keep kids there when our expectations are there.

And by the end of the year, the 3rd grade team reported the kids had far more independence and more stamina with both reading and writing. So that's a win.

ELA Interim 2 Comparison - Meets Expectations

Interim assessment results from January 2020, following one semester of 3rd–5th grade Fishtank ELA adoption.

Prepping with Fishtank

Fishtank: Has using the Fishtank curriculum changed the way you and your colleagues lesson prep?

KG: This last year the teachers who were used to a more scripted curriculum did feel it was a bit of challenge, because they are used to the script providing the engagement tools and the strategies, and it can be a challenge to start coming up with those elements independently.

JZ: I like the fact that the curriculum doesn’t tell me what to do. I like the idea of being able to choose my own path. Some teachers don't like the option of coming up with things on their own or they just have a hard time seeing how they’re going to get to a particular focus question. And sometimes I have that difficulty too. 

But with Fishtank there’s less of a frustration period for me. With our old curriculum, I would read the lesson of the day, which was like 77 pages long, and I would have no idea what I was supposed to get to. That's the part I like: this is where you're going. I have an end point and if I get there, fantastic! I have succeeded for the day. Give me a gold star.

I also feel like there's less prep. You have to read, you have to pick out vocab (especially with my kids, because they are ELLs), but there's not a lot of prep. You just have an end point and you need to figure out how you’re going to get there.

KG: I think as a teacher, you've been trained that to prep a lesson, your materials are in order. X, Y and Z are in line, the children are going to know how to get their pencils and how to take out their worksheet, answer numbers 36 through 42 and that's what they're doing today. 

But with Fishtank, it’s more intellectual prep rather than prepping materials and organizing photocopies. It's all about asking how am I going to best engage this child, what is the strategy that we're going to use to make sure that we're reaching them, what discourse, what protocol. 

You know, Julianne said, “there's not really a lot of prep but first I'm going to read the book, then I need to pick out the vocabulary, then I'm going to do this thinking…” but that is prep! It's just a much different way than how public education overall says what preparation of a lesson is.

JZ: I think the hard part is to realize that the focus question does not necessarily mean somebody needs to write a 5 paragraph essay to answer it. How ever you can get them to understand what they need to know is what will work best for your clas. A lot of my kids couldn't do the writing so they drew. But the point was still there. They still understood what they needed to understand.

KG: But they didn’t just draw! They compared and contrasted, they debated—the level of engagement blew me away. 

MB: We haven’t touched upon math yet, but I also used the math curriculum this year, after  doing EngageNY for a couple years. We started the first unit on place value, and right away I loved how you guys just slimmed it down and cut out all the fat. It really makes it so much more manageable as a teacher.

Words of Advice

Fishtank: Do you have any advice for teachers or schools thinking about trying the Fishtank curriculum?

KG: First, I would say go slow to move fast. Try out one unit first rather than doing the big mandate right away.

And then, as a leader, encourage teachers to get creative with the curriculum. Keep with it, trust it, try at least one of the units, and trust the process. I think a lot of the time, it’s out of fear of failure—not wanting to try, say, a discussion lesson, thinking that kids aren’t going to be able to produce the language. As a leader, try to find an early adopter who will trust the unit process and see how much they can get out of it.

MH: And as teacher, trust yourself to be vulnerable and try creative things, rather than just being told what to do. Take it where your class wants to go and where you want to take your class.

KG: I mean, just trust the kids, trust the process, and trust yourself. 

MH: I think if you keep going, you will be amazed with what your students come up with. 


Many thanks to Julianne, Marybeth and Kristen for sharing their experiences with us!

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