Posted Dec 03, 2018

Lisa Liss is a fifth grade teacher at Woodlake Elementary School in Sacramento, California. Her student was selected to attend the NBA Math Hoops National Championship in 2017, and she has been one of most committed educators since the program’s first year in the region. The following is a condensed and edited conversation with Communications and Development Specialist Sumner Becker.


Can you tell me a little about where you teach at and how you became involved with Math Hoops in the first place?

I teach fifth graders at Woodlake Elementary in Sacramento, California. My fifth graders are 100% high poverty, so they live in projects and homeless shelters and have a big transit life—some challenging situations. I’m always looking for things that are outside the box. When I first heard about Math Hoops, it was attractive because it was free and helped build basic skills—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. My kids really struggle with the basic skills, and they don’t want to practice. They don’t practice at home, they don’t even take their flashcards and practice them. When we started playing Math Hoops and they realized they have to know their math facts and work fast— then they started coming in at recess and practicing their multiplication facts; they come in before school and they practice; they do all that kind of stuff because they don’t want to lose.

How did you originally hear about the program?

It’s been about four years. Sacramento Bee [local newspaper] sent out emails to all the local teachers, said we have this new program that’s coming in, we’re working with the Sacramento Kings, and are there any teachers who are interested. Myself and I think two other teachers showed up for the training that day. I just thought it was a lot of fun; we started playing it, and they started telling us about the game, and [Learn Fresh CEO] Nick was there. It really sounded like something that I would get into and that I would be able to do with my kids. So I brought the games back to my classroom and the students were super excited about it. They love that it includes real basketball players, they love the statistics, they love the competition of it.

The sportsmanship is also a big factor for me: I have my kids in teams of three to four, and they each work at a table all year long. When I first started [teaching], we worked with IBM in Texas, and we asked them: “If there’s only one thing a teacher could learn to teach their kids each year, what would it be?” And they said, “teach them how to get along.” And so, because of that, I’ve always put my kids in teams—they have to work together, they have to get along with each other. And with Math Hoops, they have to get along with a partner and they have to play against two other people who they might not have ever played anything with, and that’s great.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen the Sacramento Kings Math Hoops program grow across the city?

It’s definitely expanded exponentially. When we first started, there were just a couple of teachers who showed up for the training. We all tried to spread the word. The first competition that we had, at what was Sleep Train Arena at that time—now it’s Golden One with the Sacramento Kings—I think I got to bring ten teams because there were only a few educators. So that was really fun. One of my teams won the whole thing that year for the region. The next year, there were a whole lot more teams at the competition, so I was only able to bring four teams. The following year I was only able to bring two teams, and they had probably 30 or 40 teams that year! So it keeps growing each year and that’s great, because there are too many other teachers in our area like me, who can’t afford to buy [things like this] for these kids.

Tell me a little bit more about the National Championship.

The National Championship was just phenomenal. My student who got to go—Emily, her mother was able to go with her too. And Math Hoops really treats us like number one! They took care of everything: they took care of the hotel, and transportation, and the food. The kids got to play games, play Nerf, and meet people from all over the country. The competition, the sportsmanship, the learning skills—it was just phenomenal. At the end, all of the kids got all sorts of prizes from all of the NBA teams. It was so exciting for her—she’s still talking about it two years later.

I’m hoping to get [a student to the National Championship] this year too. I have kids who’ll come in at recess and play this game, and come after school. I have Tuesday Math Hoops day, where kids stay after school and play the game and compete against each other, and they keep taking turns with other partners so they can learn how other people play too. We have a math night coming on November 15th, and the parents are going to play against their kids.

I like to play the game, and I don’t get a chance to do it as much during the day. A lot of the teachers [are hesitant to join]—like I said, we’re in a rough school, so it’s really tough to do everything that we have to do, plus to add [another program]. I’m hoping that other teachers will see how excited the kids are and how much they’re learning, so that maybe they’ll start playing it too. I always take my old games each year when they send me the new ones and give them to another teacher, and the kids always like it—it’s just a challenge to get the teachers to spend a little bit of time doing it.

What kind of changes have you noticed in your students since you started using the program?

They’re definitely starting to pick up their basic skills more, they practice them more, they’re trying to get faster, they challenge each other. I have one boy who’s in special education, and he learned all the multiplication facts this year and wants to challenge the other fifth grade class. So every day he’s like, “Can we practice multiplication against them, can we do it?”

They did a really good job about not skipping the girls too, because a lot of times the boys don’t want to have girls on their team, and [with Math Hoops] they all had no problem with picking (WNBA players). The girls also like it, and even though it’s sports related, they like to be competitive and they like to win. Everyone likes to win!

Do you have a most memorable NBA Math Hoops moment from the past four years?

Well it would probably be when Emily got the National Championship, because she was just so super excited. She started crying and called her parents right away. She called her grandma in Mexico and explained the situation, and that was very, very exciting.

I’ve also had a bunch of little ones. Like with a special education student—for him to be able to be the role model for the rest my class and teach them about it, for him to show them how good his skills are and how far he’s come—that’s phenomenal. You can’t do that anywhere else. I can’t worksheet him and flash card him to get him to learn this, but he wants to play the game. He’s excited about it and really learned his math facts. He’s top of my class with his multiplication facts now, and I don’t think that would happen without Math Hoops.

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