Mind And Body
Brown, who teaches at Boston's Washington Irving Middle School, bolsters mind and body by mixing traditional math instruction with bodybuilding and nutrition lessons. Each day, for 45 minutes, his students work out, weigh in, and wrestle with math problems. "Exermath,'' as his class is called, has been taught by the veteran math teacher and amateur bodybuilder since 1985, and it has proved to be an effective way not only to teach math but also to build muscles and self-esteem.
"Math and exercise go together-- the physical and the mental. There's no doubt about it,'' Brown says. "We've got kids who are fat, kids who are thin, kids with a low self-image. This is something they can do that will help them with their whole body and mind.''
Brown, who has a trademark on the Exermath name and is currently trying to copyright the curriculum, teaches the class three times a day-- once before and after school as an extracurricular activity and once during the school day for course credit. Although students cannot take Exermath in place of the regular curricular math class, much of the material covered reinforces that of regular class.
"For instance, when you do a certain exercise you have to know how many weights to use and how to add them up and how many repetitions to do,'' says 8th grader Sharonda Lesley. "We do a lot of math.''
"Exermath has really helped me in math,'' 7th grader Hoang Nguyen says, adding that he used to get B's in the subject but is now getting all A's.
"Every two months we get new exercises; we really cover the whole body. But I like doing the math part best,'' he says.
Brown conceived of Exermath in 1979 after reading an article in a bodybuilding magazine about the relationship between numbers and weightlifting. "I said to myself, 'Gee, what if a whole course could be done where you tie in everything: mathematics, exercise, and nutrition?'' he says. In 1984, he decided it was time to give his idea a try, so he offered the class as a before-school activity.
Each class session is divided into two parts. During the first, Brown and his 15 or so students discuss a math lesson. "For example, a circumference,'' Brown says. "That's explained for five or 10 minutes. Then we get up out of our chairs, we get our rulers, notebooks, clipboards, and we measure the weights. Then we go back to the classroom area, and they calculate what they're asked to calculate. It's 'hands on.' They learn how to use instruments and rulers.''
Other lessons have included figuring target heart rates by using algebraic formulas and even learning to take blood pressure measurements.
In the second part of the class, the students work out to music--"the up-to-date kind that kids like,'' Brown says, including Janet Jackson, Motley Crue, and Sheena Easton. Brown develops a personalized fitness plan for each student depending on his or her needs. After the workout, the students can refresh themselves at the wet bar in the back of the classroom, where Brown regularly whips up protein shakes and fruit drinks and explains the importance of proper nutrition.
Brown started small--with just eight students and his own weights. The program expanded in 1985 when Brown applied for and received a grant from the John Hancock Financial Services Co., through the Hancock Endowment for Academics, Recreation, and Teaching. The so-called HEART grants are offered to Boston's public middle schools to fund academic and intramural sports programs.
With the grant, Brown was able to offer more classes and purchase new equipment. "Nothing exotic, no Nautilus,'' says Brown.
Exermath has proved to be not only popular with the students at Washington Irving but also an effective way to improve their math grades. During the 1988-89 school year, for example, the collective grade average of Exermath 8th graders jumped 11 percent-- from 73.2 to 81.2--nearly double the gain made by their non-Exermath peers.
Exermath also seems to help the students physically and socially. Brown tells of one success story, a boy who started his class in the 6th grade as an overweight troublemaker. "This kid was 160 or 170 pounds, and he was a problem,'' Brown says. "He would run out of class, walk down the corridors, and yell. But he stuck with the program and ended up losing a few pounds. Before he took Exermath, he didn't really have any friends, and now he even has a girlfriend. He has become my number-one spokesperson. He gave a great talk to the new kids coming in. It was a great turnaround.'' The class "has different effects on different kids,'' Brown says. "If they need math help, you help them more in math. If it's cardio- vascular, you jog them a little more.''
School principal Richard Maloney was one of Exermath's earliest boosters. "My goal is to put Mr. Brown in [Exermath] full time,'' Maloney says. "This is the program that down the road in years to come will still be here and still be working.''
As long as Exermath continues, Brown believes both grades and weights will continue to get a lift. "It goes back to that simple statement: sound mind, sound body,'' he says. "I knew if you could tie the mind in with the body you could make more out of each. There's a synergy there that is greater than the individual parts.''