The Tools and the Trust that Teachers Deserve

March 10, 2022

Much of what you'll find in the Fishtank curriculum is a direct result of our team's experience as classroom teachers and school leaders. Each of us has worked in schools that used overly scripted curricula, and schools that provided no curricula at all. We've seen what both options mean for teachers and students, and we wanted to offer a different kind of resource.

Our work at Fishtank Learning is grounded in several core values, including "We trust teachers." By this, we mean that we believe teachers are in the best position to understand the unique context of their schools and the needs of their students.

So we set out to create a curriculum that gives all students the opportunity to successfully access grade-level content, while also ensuring that teachers—and their knowledge of instruction, content, and their students—are leveraged appropriately. We wanted to offer materials that really engage teachers' intellectual curiosity and desire to continue learning and growing. We knew that if teachers didn't feel empowered and invigorated by the curriculum, that disengagement could easily carry through to their classrooms.

As we conceptualized what would and would not be included in the design of our ELA curriculum, we thought through all of the decisions teachers make within an ELA lesson. These decisions include how the text will be consumed, what knowledge students will build, which standards will be prioritized, what student materials will look like, what questions or misconceptions may arise, how the lesson connects to assessments, and so many more.

We came to see that to make confident decisions rooted in the needs of their students, teachers need to develop a deep understanding of the texts, content knowledge, standards, and tasks they would be working with.

Other ELA curricula solve for this by exhaustively scripting every moment of every lesson. Having experienced this format firsthand, we knew how stifling that approach can be, and how much time is wasted trying to excavate through dozens of pages of script to clarify what students should be learning.

We chose instead to craft our resources in a way that provides teachers with ample opportunities and multi-faceted support to deeply internalize and intellectually prepare to teach the content.

As teachers engage with the content in this way, they are able to take ownership of the materials and feel confident making the right decisions with the curriculum. In this structure, teachers aren't required to make decisions about what to teach, but rather get to invest their decision-making energy into how to teach a particular lesson, based on what they know about their students. This division of labor also gives teachers the space to ensure that the delivery of the curriculum is culturally responsive and relevant for the population of students in their classroom.

This approach is supported by the research findings synthesized in "The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning" that indicates "working with well-designed educative curriculum materials can transform the teaching experience. … Instead of redesigning lessons, [teachers] spend their time preparing to use high-quality instructional materials nimbly, freeing up energy to foster relationships with students and push them to meet rigorous standards."

With Fishtank ELA, teachers have access to multiple layers of support to ensure that the curriculum is truly educative, focusing on the highest leverage areas so that teachers are intellectually prepared to teach a unit. We believe that these structures can support all teachers—including novice teachers—in making the right instructional decisions for their students.

There are three major elements of the Fishtank ELA design that support teachers in their preparation: Fishtank ELA Launch Professional Learning, Unit Launches, and Teacher Tools.


Fishtank ELA Launch Professional Learning

To give teachers a solid foundation in their work with Fishtank ELA, we offer a professional learning series that allows them to dive deeply into the fundamentals of understanding and using the curriculum.

The value of curriculum-based professional learning is becoming more widely acknowledged. The authors of the Elements report point to a study that found that, "when teachers participated in curriculum-based professional learning, their students' test scores improved by 9 percent of a standard deviation — about the same effect caused by replacing an average teacher with a top performer or reducing class size by 15 percent. When students' teachers used new curriculum but not did receive professional learning support, the impact was smaller, at 6 percent of a standard deviation."

Rivet Education vets professional learning providers in their Professional Learning Partner Guide, where Fishtank Learning is among the latest round of providers to be approved through their rigorous review process.

In the five-session arc of the Launch PL, teachers dig into the unique design of Fishtank ELA and they gain direct experience with an intellectual preparation process that is integral to their work with the curriculum.

In the launch sessions, teachers explore:

  • The research behind Fishtank ELA and how the core tenets are developed across units
  • How to identify features of text complexity and how to provide students the support they need to succeed
  • Different reading structures and what the curriculum can look like in action
  • How to use Fishtank ELA resources to intellectually prepare at the unit and lesson level

The overall goal is to equip teachers to teach units with integrity. We see integrity as the mid-point on a spectrum between flexibility and fidelity. Heavily-scripted curricula demand fidelity, delivering the script precisely as written and pushing forward with aggressive pacing, even if students could use more time to solidify a new understanding or skill.

For us, teaching a unit with integrity means:

  • Honoring the essential components, learning goals, and assessments
  • Internalizing the lesson goals
  • Maintaining high expectations for tasks and texts, and not changing the rigor of assignments
  • Providing just-in-time support to students to access the text or task
  • Using a variety of data points to guide decisions

Effective intellectual preparation ultimately helps teachers internalize the content well enough to uphold the integrity of the unit design and bring the lessons to life for their students.


Unit Launches

In the Launch PL, teachers learn how to leverage Fishtank Unit Launches, which are self-paced, unit-specific learning modules that give structure to teachers' personal intellectual preparation process. Unit Launches can be used individually or in the context of a team meeting or PLC.

Through videos, reading, and opportunities for reflection, teachers can systematically work through the core components of a unit and build their content knowledge.

Each Unit Launch contains sections that cover:

  • Understanding the Text, which helps teachers analyze elements of complexity within the core text(s), identify specific supports that students may need to access the texts successfully, and examine the cultural relevance of these texts for students.
  • Unit Essential Content, which helps teachers investigate the essential questions and content knowledge that students will explore during the unit, and gives teachers an opportunity to reflect on how their identities and experiences may influence how they teach the content.
  • Key Reading and Writing Standards, which helps teachers unpack how students will interact with grade-level standards as they build understanding of unit texts and content.
  • Ensuring Proficiency, which helps teachers develop a vision for student understanding of unit goals.

You can take a closer look at what's inside ELA Unit Launches, including samples of video content and walk-throughs of each section.


Teacher Tools

Fishtank ELA Teacher Tools are a robust library of resources on instructional routines and strategies, as well as templates, rubrics, graphic organizers, and many more tools to support use of Fishtank ELA in the classroom. The Teacher Tools provide resources that can be used as part of professional learning, in coaching meetings, or as resources for individual teachers.

We acknowledge that all teachers come to Fishtank ELA with varying levels of experience and instructional expertise. Some teachers may already know how to run a close read, or what a particular instructional routine looks like, but some teachers may need additional guidance. Classroom footage and detailed outlines of different reading and writing lesson structures can help teachers envision how they will facilitate the lesson in their own classrooms.

Overall, these tools are designed to support teachers in building their teaching craft as they also develop their content knowledge.


These three types of resources are all designed to honor the expertise that teachers bring to their work, and help them expand their knowledge and skill sets. We trust that—given the tools to internalize the content and support their students—teachers will engage deeply in the preparation process and leverage their own knowledge, style, and spirit in the ways they bring the material to life.

Coming next month: We'll explore how the intellectual preparation process extends into daily lessons and the way we approach supports for all students.

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