Acceleration Academies: Using Skittles and Coding to Reimagine What Math Class Should Look Like

Corps members team up and use Saturday “Acceleration Academies” to engage students in new and fun ways to master rigorous content.
Monday, April 3, 2017
Douglas Brady (Idaho '15) leads a Saturday "Math Madness" lesson for his 6th graders at East Valley Middle School.
Douglas Brady (Idaho '15) leads a Saturday "Math Madness" lesson for his 6th graders at East Valley Middle School.

Douglas Brady is a member of TFA – Idaho’s inaugural corps, which started teaching in 2015 shortly after the region’s launch. Doug moved to Idaho from Rochester, New York after graduating from the University of Rochester where he studied Economics. He currently teaches Math at East Valley Middle School in Nampa. 

In early March Doug partnered with a few fellow TFA teachers to design a four-hour Saturday “Acceleration Academy” focused on engaging students in fun, rigorous math activities.

Can you tell us more about Acceleration Academy?

In our second year as a region, we chose to customize our AmeriCorps day of service into events that directly impact our students and the communities in which we serve. As a 6th grade math teacher, I see students' mindset towards math as critical for middle school success. The goal of Math Madness (the name of Nampa's Acceleration Academy) was for everyone to have fun while learning rigorous, inquiry-based math. 

Students dove into a Skittles statistical investigation and an Hour of Code. Everyone left with solved problems, graphs and coding certificates. Because it was the first event of its kind, we hope to replicate and improve it for the future, possibly for different grade levels and subjects. 

What are some of the challenges faced by students that Acceleration Academies can help to address?

For both students and their parents, their experiences in math have been procedural and compliance based. "When you see this, do these steps and you'll get the right (and only) answer." Additionally, when students don't have early successes in math, or if they do solely because they followed nebulous and never-ending sets of procedure, they will likely grow to dislike the class. Their achievement will suffer. 

Instead, students need to analyze the structure behind why math concepts work. They need to tackle tasks that capture their attention. Math Madness provided the space to disrupt what math class looks and feels like. More events like it can change students' mindsets toward math and disrupt achievement gaps in the subject.

Douglas Brady (Idaho '15) and his students use Skittles to master statistical concepts during a Saturday "Math Madness" session.
Douglas Brady (Idaho '15) and his students use Skittles to master statistical concepts during a Saturday "Math Madness" session.

Did you find math to be a subject that was critical for your personal success? If so, how?

Math success in middle and high school broadened my college options and the subjects I could study. Math does not exist in a silo. The leaders of most academic fields apply math and statistics to their inquiry. Statistical analysis rounds out narratives and arguments, illuminating that what we observe in one place can be part of something much larger. 

As a teacher, I use data to inform instruction and communicate with students, parents and administrators. While I am still working on closing achievement gaps and pushing toward educational equity, math allows me to parse out misunderstandings, help students who are struggling, and identify larger trends that can inform my practice. 

Did you see any progress in your students approach to their regular curriculum after their participation in Math Madness? 

I have seen the students who attended Math Madness approach my class in a more exploratory manner since the event. They are more confident speaking up in class, approaching me if they have a question, or simply saying “hello” in the hallway. Approximately 25 percent of my students went, so that effect is spread across every one of my classes. 

They also keep asking me for Skittles. Kids like sugar in their math, I guess.

What does it mean for you to work with students outside of the classroom?

There is a special joy that springs from learning alongside students in any capacity. I find though that during the regular school day, a variety of distractions can make school a stressful experience for students. Saturday enrichment brings together teachers, students and parents outside of the structure of the school day. Our team of teachers guided students through their activities, but it was the students who eagerly chose to spend their Saturday extending their learning. This dynamic grounds our work as a collective effort and reaffirms for students our belief in the possibilities for their future.