Posted December 17, 2018

Melanie Young is currently a teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Melanie was an NBA Math Hoops program educator from 2016–2018 in her previous role as a fifth and seventh grade math teacher at Southwark School, an ethnically diverse PreK-8 school with a student body of 850 students, over half of whom are English language learners. Melanie had a student selected for the NBA Math Hoops National Championship in each of her two years with the program. The first, Aye Aye, immigrated with her family from Burma just three years before being selected for the tournament. The following is an edited and condensed conversation with Learn Fresh Communications and Development Specialist Sumner Becker.


Where are you from and how long have you lived in Philadelphia?

I grew up in Philly, so I’m Philly born and raised. I stayed here for college and for a master’s degree, and I’m now teaching in Philly, which is awesome.

How did you first get involved with Math Hoops?

I was starting my first year teaching while finishing a master’s degree at University of Pennsylvania, and a friend connected me with Learn Fresh. She heard that I was teaching seventh grade math, and said she wanted to connect me with this program that she thought would be beneficial for my students. I said, “Oh I’d love that,” because students always show up lacking fluency in basic math facts, and it would allow me an opportunity to make math fun and engaging for students. During my first year teaching I started using it, started using it once a week with a group of students, and they loved it. Throughout the year their math fluency grew, and I had some students who were really engaged with learning. And then Aye Aye was asked to go to the National Championship in San Francisco, and oh my goodness—I was so excited to have a student go the first year in the program.

Tell me a little bit about Southwark School and the community there.

Southwark School is a Title I school in South Philadelphia. We have a large immigrant population, and because of that we also have a large ESL (English as a Second Language) program. The school is extremely diverse; there’s something ridiculous like 20 languages spoken at our school, and the students are from all over. There were large populations of African Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans—that’s because it’s nestled in South Philadelphia, which has always had a large immigrant population. And of course because of that, we have amazing values with the amount of diversity. But we also have the struggles that come with that: My first year teaching at Southwark, I was amazed by the students who had just come to the U.S. and were placed in my fifth and my seventh grade math classes—some of them had been in refugee camps before hand, so had very little formal education before they stepped into my school. As a teacher you’re always thinking, “How do I work with this? How do I lesson the gap?” Even in seventh grade, when you’re starting to think about deeper math concepts such as proportional reasoning, it’s still really important to teach the basic facts, because students are coming in on all different levels.

How did the Math Hoops program at Southwark School evolve over the course of your two years there?

Once Aye Aye won the championship [in 2017], there was a lot of interest in the program because the students in our school wanted to do the same exact thing, they wanted to have the same exact experience. So the second year I had more students involved when I played on Fridays and had a Math Hoops club. I got better at teaching the game, I got better at engaging more students. The second year we had Miguel Gregory, who also got to go to the Championship. That was awesome—I think that was a direct result of running the program for a second pass in a row, I kind of had experience beneath my belt and was able to coach Miguel and support him.

What kind of changes did you notice in your classes and with your students over the course of the Math Hoops season?

Obviously you see them—even if they don’t notice it—you see them getting better at the math. They begin to like math when they associate Math Hoops with it and when they enjoy the game, you see them getting excited about something in the classroom.

If you take Aye Aye and Miguel as examples: When Aye Aye came to the United States in fourth grade, she had a lot of catch-up work to do—not only in learning English—but also in math. And now the girl is on grade level in every single way, and she’s only been in the U.S. for three or four years! [At the beginning], she didn’t say math was her favorite subject—she never even knew that she liked math—she did math because she had to, because she was in class. But she really became a [complete] person. Now she’s in her first year of high school, and the last time I talked to her, she was in the Algebra Honors course.

Miguel’s the same way. Miguel did not like math; he was very open about not enjoying it, and he would tell me about the negative experiences that he had with timed tests and more traditional metrics of teaching math and math fluency. His mom would tell me stories about how he used to hate doing his homework, and how it was such a struggle. Now, he likes math more; he no longer hates math because of Math Hoops, which is really great to see.

So you see that shift in how a child perceives what it means to be a mathematician. I think another thing you begin to see is a lessening of math anxiety. I think lots of students are interested in math class, and when you see students laughing and having fun [while playing the game], there’s no anxiety present. When you can get rid of all the fear associated with math, you’re able to really open up students’ minds to actually engage with learning, rather than being afraid of just being in the classroom or getting the wrong answer.

There’s a social component too. Students are learning to follow rules and have sportsmanship, and be kind even though they lose or don’t make a shot. So you see those types of socio-emotional learning gains in the classroom as well.

How have the 76ers been involved in your experience with the program?

[After I attended the first year’s Regional Championship with the Sixers], I began as a teacher to develop a relationship with the Sixers Youth Foundation, and they started inviting us out to events. Once Aye Aye [was selected for] the National Championship, they gave her a huge send-off. They came to our school with their mascot and all the hype people, and they basically went on a tour around the city collecting clips of important officials saying “Aye Aye you got this!” and they put a video together with all of the clips for her to see. And we had this big amazing send-off to celebrate. It was really amazing.

For Miguel, they actually took him to the Sixers’ arena, and Gianni Steele, who’s a Camden resident, went to the National Championship with Miguel last year. They gave us a huge tour of the Sixers’ practice facility, they had a special cake for them and official 76ers swag that they gave them, and they also had the cheerleaders and the hype team there too.

So the Sixers have been really supportive. It’s fun to go out to different events. This past year Aye Aye was involved in a program called “A Walk In My Shoes” run by the Sixers Youth Foundation. Aye Aye was matched with a player-mentor, Rashawn Holmes (they just traded him this season). All last year, Aye Aye got to go to different events where he was present, and she was mentored by an actual Sixers’ player, hanging out with the Sixers; it’s a child’s dream for that to happen.

Tell me about the National Championship weekend when you went with Aye Aye.

First off, the only other time Aye Aye had been on a plane before was when she came to the United States. So it was really great when she had this opportunity. Her Dad came, and he doesn’t speak any English, so the entire time she was translating all the amazingness that’s happening. We got there, stayed on Stanford’s campus, and it was awesome for Aye Aye to get an opportunity to tour the college. I had dinner with her about a month ago, and she said “I still want to go to Stanford for college.”

The weekend was jam packed. We got a tour of Stanford. Tthey also went to San Francisco and saw the Bay. Tthey also got to visit Bleacher Report and they played in a Nerf event. They had the NBA youth program come and hang out with them. This entire time, Aye Aye was coming out of her shell, and it was just exciting to see her getting exposed to so many different things. I’m so happy for her, she’s amazing. Last school year, the Sixers invited us out to their Sixers Youth Foundation gala. It’s a huge gala, all the Sixers are there, all their sponsors buy tickets, coaches, etc. And in the middle of the event they had a hoop set up, and Aye Aye was not shy, she was bold, she was like, “I’ll play.” So she’s out there shooting hoops with the 76ers, and I’m like, “Oh my goodness.” So after a year, she’s totally gotten out of her shell and is willing to do things she wasn’t willing to do when she first entered my class.

At the end of the tournament—it was a surprise for us—they left Aye Aye with all this amazing swag. She got board games, paraphernalia, signed basketballs, autographs, pictures—oh my goodness. One of my favorite things was seeing her face when they opened up the door, and she ran and gave me a hug, and she’s like “Ms. Young!!” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is crazy!!” But it made these kids feel like superstars for the weekend—I mean they are—but it was amazing to see this. It’s worth all the extra hours to have moments like that.