Posted Dec 18, 2018

Robin Seelye teaches fifth and sixth grade science and social studies at Doyle-Ryder Elementary in Flint, Michigan. She has run NBA Math Hoops programming for the past three years, and had a student attend the NBA Math Hoops National Championship each of the past two years. Asia Mays, a sixth grader at the time, attended the first National Championship in the Bay Area. Willie Smith, also a sixth grader at the time, attended last year’s National Championship in Detroit. The following are condensed excerpts from a conversation with Communications and Development Specialist Sumner Becker.


Tell me about the school and community that you teach in, and how you first got involved with NBA Math Hoops.

I teach at Doyle-Ryder Educational Center, a Pre-K through sixth grade elementary school in Flint, MI. We’re dealing a lot with the water crisis and students who are extremely below [grade] level. We have what’s called “Community Education” within our district [a program implemented by Crim Fitness Foundation that provides key services and community resources at schools across Flint], providing sports and afterschool activities for our students. [Doyle-Ryder Principal] Mr. Bush came to me three years ago and said to me, “Seelye, you said you’d use some class time to play this game, right?” So he sent somebody to teach me the game, and I went, oh my lord! This is going to be something students will enjoy doing, and it’s not going to be just ‘one more thing’ to do in the classroom. So I spent about two weeks teaching the basics of the game, and then I couldn’t get the students to stop playing.

I went to Mr. Bush and asked if we could make it an afterschool program, and he had the money to pay me for two nights per week. And then last year, he asked me to do it four nights a week, and I said, “Sure, why not?” This year, I’m doing four nights a week and if I were to do Friday nights, the kids would stay for Friday night. I have six students in my classroom right now that have 35 games under their belt. They won’t stop playing! According to their teachers, they’re getting better at their math facts. So that’s kind of how it evolved for me—from ‘one more thing to do in the classroom’ to ‘how do you get them to stop playing the game?’

Tell me about Asia Mays, your first student to go to the National Championship.

Asia started out as a tough player. She was mean—‘I have to win, I have to win, I have to win.’ I told her, “Sweetheart, if this is something you’re looking at, we’ve got to get sportsmanship points for you. Is it about winning, or is it about playing the game and getting better at math?” And that kind of clicked for her. She did a total 180 and became this mentor to the other students. She went to the point of saying to one team, “Stop using your timer and just play the game.” This was a group that didn’t really care about Regionals or Nationals or anything like that, they just were not good at math facts. She took it upon herself to say, just get rid of that shot clock and play to have fun.

She went from this [attitude of], ‘I’m going to win, you’re not going to stand in my way,’ to then helping other students. She took it under her little belt to become the poster child for ‘we’re just going to have fun with this game.’

How has the water crisis impacted your school?

We’re still dealing with issues. Our water last year at one point was supposedly the worst [of any school] in our district. They used to give us bottled water for kids, but last year they stopped providing bottles for us. [Now] we’ve gone to these five gallon jugs, and [the students] get little Dixie cone cups. I went out and purchased my own machine because all classrooms have water fountains in them, but you can’t use them, and there’s only one five gallon cooler on the floor. So if the children need a drink, they have to get the Dixie cup from the room, walk halfway around our floor, and then come back to your room. So I went out last year and said, this is ridiculous, that you’re providing us one five gallon cooler on our floor for all students. I went out and purchased my own so we had it in our room. Then I went out and bought a case of water, so we could refill our little 15 ounce bottles with cold water. The one on our floor doesn’t really get cold; when it’s circulating for [all the kids] that we have, it’s not going to stay cold. But with mine serving thirty kids throughout the day, the water stays cold.

Last year, we had no air conditioning in our building due to financial issues within the district. Our rooms sat around 90 degrees, and the poor kids had to walk two classrooms down, two classrooms over to get this little Dixie cup of water, then walk back in that 90 degree weather. I said, ‘This is just an investment that I have to deal with,’ and purchased the machine for our classroom.

I’m not sure what educational issues we’ve seen, because there’s no proof the issue is [connected] to the water. Reading articles, they’re saying that there are links to it, but I can’t be 100 percent sure [that there’s a connection]. We try to celebrate any kind of positive media that says, ‘Hey look at what our students are doing!’—we do the best that we can to celebrate those positives because there’s so much out there negative about Flint. Look at Asia, the student who started off as a rough player, turned it around and became this mentor for other students. The same thing for Willie—he really just wanted to play this game and forget about everything else. So that’s where we stand with the water issue: we’re still serving it in little Dixie cups for the students.

Is there a time horizon for when Flint will have water that’s viable?

It depends on where you live, and whether pipes have been replaced by the city. If your home’s pipes are still bad, it comes down to who owns the house—there are lots of legalities that come into play [regarding] who’s going to change those pipes. I live in a small town outside of Flint, so I wasn’t affected by the water issue; I can still drink my water, I can shower in my water. Some of the [pipes in] students’ [homes], like Willie’s, have been replaced, and they didn’t have any issues once they replaced the pipes at street level up to his house; there was no lead tested in their water.

Last year, Troy High School donated cases and cases of water. John P. Kee, a gospel artist, donated a semi-truck full of water to our families. The kids were taken care of at school, but the state had stopped providing water for families. So our principal messaged John P. Kee on Facebook. John responded, and put on a big concert to raise money for our school to help with the air conditioning and to provide the semi-truck full of water.

As an educator who’s now been involved with the program for several years, where do you see Math Hoops as a program going, either in your school or in the community as a whole?

Within our school, it’s becoming more and more widespread. In the past, it’s only been my classroom. This year, I was able to get it out into four classrooms on a regular basis, because I get both fifth grades and both sixth grades through my room. Last Wednesday, we had 30 students in my room playing Math Hoops. So they want to play the game, they want to get prizes, they want to do something after school.

I remember last year when we played Math Hoops on a Friday afternoon, and that’s all we did for math. One of the students raised her hand and said, “We didn’t do any math today Ms. Seelye!” And I said, “Really? Let’s count how many problems there are on this board right here—twenty. And you did it twice, so that’s forty. Times four—you did 160 math problems!! Plus you looked at percentages, plus you looked at graphing for your free throws. Did we really not do any math?!” And it was like this light bulb for the whole class going off, like “Oh, this was math.” There was excitement. I said, “Do not go home and tell your parents you didn’t do any math today, because you did 160 problems in math and all these things.”

Do you have a most memorable program moment from the past couple years.

I’m going to go back to Nationals from two years ago. Our first group of kids really bonded. All the kids became friends, and we saw them exchanging emails and Instagram things, and that was great to see. [Oour students] don’t get out of Flint! Our students are so, ‘This is where I live, this is where I breathe, I don’t see anything extra.’ So to get on an airplane and fly across the country, and then meet students from all over the country, and then make it to the finals and to come down to the final spin to tie it up—we didn’t make that final spin, but I don’t think that you could have asked for anything more for a student.

To have that opportunity to attend the STEM activities that Stanford provided, to interact with each other—they’ll never have that again. Listening to Asia, she actually stopped by about two weeks ago—“do you still have Math Hoops happening here?” [She switched schools], and tried to get it into Carman-Ainsworth, which is another district in Flint, and she couldn’t get her math teacher to go to the training. She tried and tried. She had talked to one principal when she first got enrolled at Carman, he had said they would go, and then a new principal came in, and he didn’t send anybody. She kind of got upset because she wanted to go and defend the title.

But they brought Asia and Daivion [the other representative from the Pistons’ program in 2017] back this year to present the trophies [at the National Championship]. And that was exciting for her to come back to see the new group of students. Another one of those experiences—where would you get that again if not for Math Hoops? And as an educator, I’m all about experiences for kids. What can you provide for them to get them out of their little city to see what the world is? What’s in their neighboring areas? Meeting other kids from around your state to play this same game—[that’s] another experience that we can’t replicate as educators; only through Math Hoops can we have that. So my most memorable moment is that whole weekend in the Bay Area.

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