Ron Marinucci: Math Boot Camp

Ron Marinucci: Math Boot Camp

Recent studies are beginning to confirm what many runners and exercise enthusiasts have long suspected. Aerobic exercise improves learning. It’s not always clear how this occurs, but the evidence is mounting.

Aerobic exercise increases the levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” which promotes brain cell growth. For students, especially overweight ones, studies show that forty minutes of daily exercise enhances their ability to avoid distractions, that is, to be attentive and focus on learning. Physically fit children show superior thought- and perception-processing skills. Schools that have increased play time through more recess and/or physical education classes report improved academic success. Another study showed thirteen weeks of aerobic activity correlated favorably with better math skills.

Experiments also demonstrate what runners have also known—exercise must be fun. Tests on laboratory mice (ethically, it’s probably pretty tough to run these same experiments on kids!) reveal that there are no benefits to the brain if they are compelled to exercise. But when they voluntarily turn to their little treadmills, the mice show enhanced thinking and reactive skills.

Runners also know that running improves frames of mind, moods. And it seems logical that being in better moods makes it easier for students to focus on their school work.

Whether Tom Michalski considered all this or not, he knows that running helps his students do math. Michalski teaches sixth-grade math at Novi Meadows Elementary School in Novi. In March 2010, he began The Math Boot Camp.

“At the time,” he related, “my math class was made up of 22 of the lowest performing students in sixth grade. I didn’t know any ‘magic way’ to catch these students up to their peers other than spending more time on the subject. As a result, I offered to stay after school twice a week to help them. Unfortunately, my offer only drew the same nine or ten kids each time. I wanted more of my 22 students involved.”

The same determination that has helped him to complete more than a dozen marathons also helped with a solution. “As an avid runner, I often talked about my races with my students. For them, running a mile in gym class was torture. They couldn’t imagine my stories of 26.2 mile marathons. I decided to challenge them to a 5K race, as well as challenge them to improve their math skills. The Michalski Math Boot Camp was born! All 22 of my students participated, meeting twice a week. We split the time each session between running and math.”

He continued, “The first year in 2010, only students in my class were allowed to participate. Last year was a little different. In 2011, I taught 56 math students, only half of whom were ‘lower performing.’ Of those 56, I believe 47 participated [in Math Boot Camp]. In addition, I invited the students from 2010 to run with us. Five or six of them came back for a second year.”

The Boot Campers meet before and after school, on Mondays from 3:00 to 4:30 PM and Thursdays from 7:15 to 8:00 AM. “The time is split,” Michalski repeated, “between reviewing math and training for the 5K. Our training will begin the first week of March.” That training culminates in the Run Fit 5K in Novi, an evening race, this year on May 2. “The training and math time take place at our school, Novi Meadows Elementary.”

He explained, “Our running is based on the Jeff Galloway ‘walk break’ philosophy. It’s how I first trained for marathons…and it’s worked for every student in the Math Boot Camp! The math learning varies from week to week, depending on what kids need that day. It’s a little of everything.”

In addition to each of the troops finishing the Run Fit 5K, after the race last year Michalski noted, “They’ve done well [in math]. They increased their scores and the average of the class showed more than a year’s growth.” It was also good to see, each of the past two years, early finishers go back out on the course to run with their not-quite-so-fast classmates. The boot campers are learning about more than math and running.

The Math Boot Camp continues to grow. From 22 to 53, “This year we should have well over 100 students,” Michalski surmised. “In addition to current students, I have former ones from 2010 and 2011 as well.”

Two other Novi Meadows teachers, Trisha Wellock and Karen Duthie, “have asked to participate in the Boot Camp” this year. In 2010, Michalski’s teaching teammate, Cary Grimm, finished the Run Fit 5K with his students. The enthusiasm is contagious. “My wife has run the race,” Michalski said excitedly. “My mom has run the race.” Sometimes running with the troops are the principal, district superintendent and assistant superintendent, and even some school board members. “The Boot Camp has turned into a pretty popular event!”

“Parents have been thrilled.” Some have relayed to Michalski “on numerous occasions what a great program it is. Not only does it get the students involved with math, it has even helped families live a healthier lifestyle. Many students have reported that they now run other races with their parents. Some former students even tell tales of having to keep Mom or Dad on their training regimen.”

“I think running and math have a lot in common,” Michalski philosophized. “To be successful in math or running you need discipline and perseverance. There are days when training for a race that running is the last thing you want to do, but you must in order to be ready for the race. The same can be said for math. There are some days when a student just doesn’t feel like working, but he or she must work through these down times in order to be successful. That’s the difference between being good and being great in math or running.”

The results are there for students to see, especially in running. Training clearly demonstrates to them the value and effectiveness of practice. These same kids who struggled at first to run a couple hundred yards complete a 5K after two months of training. To finish the 5K, they must practice; to do math, they must practice.

Two troopers reflected on that after the 2011 Run Fit. Krista Abner-Bennett, still excited after her finish, said, “It’s fun to sometimes learn how to push yourself.” Winning his age-group by more than four minutes, Scott Whyte added, “It [the 5K] was really fun” and, after only an instant’s hesitation, admitted, “[the math] is fun, too.”

For Michalski, “The Boot Camp is without a doubt the most special thing I’ve done in my teaching career. Only when a student is willing to work for something can he or she see that they can accomplish great things. That’s what the Boot Camp has done. It’s been an avenue that students have sued to accomplish something they once thought was out of reach.”

“The feeling of pride that I get each year when I see my students cross the finish line is second to none,” he enthused. “The pure joy of watching them accomplish something they thought was impossible makes all the hours worthwhile. I’ve completed over a dozen marathons. I enjoy my own running. But the joy I get from helping my students reach their goals far outweighs the joy I get by crossing the finish line myself.”