Alex Kane: Monkey Bar Math from an American Ninja Warrior

Alex Kane

The GGSE recently had the opportunity to catch up with Alex Kane (TEP 2007) who teaches 4th grade in the Davis Joint Unified School District. In the interview he discusses his innovative curriculum called Monkey Bar Math that links Math and P.E. The goal is to make lessons that develop conceptual understanding of math concepts through physical movement on playgrounds. Turns out Kane also qualified for the national finals of the show American Ninja Warrior, so he knows something about P.E.

GGSE: What drove you to be on American Ninja Warrior?

Kane: Honestly, American Ninja Warrior just looked like an incredibly fun challenge. I play as much I my kids do at playgrounds, swinging on monkey bars and climbing whatever is in sight. The American Ninja Warrior obstacles looked like the adult-size version, with the added bonus of a soft water landing! 

I went into it with the mentality of, “Hey, this is going to be fun. I’ll probably fall, but how cool is this?!” That ultimately paid off because it cut my stress level down, allowing me to be more flexible and focused on the obstacles. I competed in Season 6 and made it through the Venice Quarterfinals course and up the Warped Wall, then scored a fast enough time on the much-harder Venice finals course to qualify for the National Finals in Las Vegas, and ultimately made it to the second-to-last obstacle of stage 1 in Vegas. Three amazing obstacle courses. I still can’t believe I made it that far.

GGSE: Does that connect with your teaching, and how?

Kane: American Ninja Warrior changed quite a bit of my teaching. In the “warm up” area, I ended up talking with a whole bunch of other ninjas about how we might get through the various obstacles. Everyone had their own ideas, and most of our conversations focused in some way on the different physics or mathematics involved. The Quintuple Steps, are a good example. They are the 5 slanted platforms perched above a pool of water that start off most of the courses. To get through that obstacle smoothly requires an innate sense of geometry, acceleration, and friction, and every ninja has their own slightly different way of combining these factors. The realization that these top athletes actually have an intellectual approach to their physical feats made me very curious. If it works on that level, how might movement serve as a context for looking at different math concepts for my students?

Over the past few years I’ve been experimenting with this idea out on the playground, with everything from division to fractions, and my students love it. They get to swing and jump around, the math makes more sense to them because every number in a math problem is directly tied to their physical movements, and we get to spend more time outside as a class. I love it for all those same reasons, and because it essentially let’s me cover math and P.E. at the same time. 

I’ve started calling it Monkey Bar Math and I made a website for other teachers to join in the project: There are some great free lessons on there right now, and I hope to start selling more soon. I also plan to set up a collaboration system in which teachers can make a little money by helping to develop this fun resource that hopefully any teacher, anywhere could use. 

GGSE: What can get in the way of engaging math education?

Kane: Combine a book and a chair, and you’ve got a winning combination for boredom. Don’t get me wrong, we use textbooks in my class, but as a medium for practicing problems, not as a way to actually learn things.  Learning happens when kids are tackling hard real-world problems, immersed in meaningful tasks, and processing their thinking. When these factors are replaced by decontextualized rules and procedures, a whole lot of learning gets lost.

GGSE: How did your experience at TEP help prepare you for teaching?

Kane: Two of the biggest lessons I learned at TEP were how important it is to reflect on my teaching practice and the power of collaboration. Every teaching moment has layers of understanding and insight that can be uncovered by taking a minute to think back and reflect on what happened. All of my instructors at TEP, my master teachers, and especially my supervisor Dennis Naiman, constantly pushed me to reflect. Thank you!!

Collaboration was my second big TEP lesson, and it has been a professional growth topic of mine every year since then. At TEP, collaboration was the expectation, which set the groundwork perfectly for a successful teaching career. For the last three years I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of a fascinating Harvard-based research project called Agency by Design. We were curious about how student learning and MAKER-style activities interact, a question that inspired marvelous opportunities for collaboration and curriculum development between me and the other participating teachers. Most currently, Monkey Bar Math is allowing me to take my TEP collaboration lessons to the exciting new possibilities of global digital collaboration. My goal is to have these lessons usable by almost any teacher on any playground, which means I need the insight of our global teacher community. 

GGSE: You earned your degree in 2007--how have things changed since then in education?

Kane: The Common Core and brand new technologies are the biggest changes, but I’m even more excited about the increased focus on equity issues. Race and socio-economics have been hot topics for awhile, and now equity for (trans)gender, special ed, and high-achieving students has become a larger part of our school conversation. As architects of classroom communities filled with myriad people and perspectives, we teachers need to openly question personal and societal behaviors that might hurt or help different student groups. This is one more place where I hope the Monkey Bar Math project can make a difference.  Movement-based lessons fulfill the energy and health requirements of some of the less traditionally supported students. On top of that, by only needing a standard playground as the extra materials, any teacher, tutor, or homeschooling parent can access the lessons at practically any school or park.