Beast Academy, a math curriculum that will eventually cover grades two through five, stands out from all other math programs because it is presented in a comic book format. Cartoon characters—staff and students at Beast Academy—are introduced at the beginning of each book, and the same characters are used throughout the series.
Grades three through four are available now. The first two books for grade five (A and B) are also available. The rest of fifth grade is due in 2017 and second grade will follow in 2017-2018.
Contrary to what you might expect, this is a comprehensive math curriculum that is more challenging than curriculum from many other publishers for these levels. While the comic book lessons are colorful and entertaining they also do a solid job of teaching concepts and skills. Reasoning and problem-solving strategies are taught throughout the courses and practiced through games and workbook activities.
Since the full-color comic book presentation takes up more space than traditionally-taught lessons, each course has four “textbooks” called Math Guides. So, for example, the third grade course has Math Guide 3A, Math Guide 3B, Math Guide 3C, and Math Guide 3D. An index at the back of each Math Guide makes it easy for students to find a particular topic they might need to review.
Each Math Guide is divided into three large chapters with each chapter covering a broad topical area. With four Math Guides per course, this results in 12 chapters per course. Chapter topics for third grade level are shapes, skip-counting, area and perimeter, multiplication, perfect squares, the distributive property, variables, division, measurement, fractions, estimation, and area. (Yes, area is repeated.) Fourth grade topics are shapes, multiplication, exponents, counting, division, logic, factors, fractions (addition and subtraction), integers, fractions (multiplication and division), decimals, and probability.
While these topics might sound too simple, consider that “shapes” taught in fourth grade includes definitions, measuring angles (including how to use a protractor), parallel and perpendicular lines, and symmetry. Students learn a substantial amount of geometry in this chapter.
The publisher notes in the FAQs that the first chapter on shapes in Math Guide 3A (and Math Practice 3A) is very difficult for many students. They suggest that in this case, you might skip over that chapter, returning to it at a later date.
Beast Academy aligns loosely with the Common Core State Standards. It spends more time on key concepts as well as mathematical thinking and conceptual understanding than is called for in the standards. Some skills are taught a year or more earlier than in Common Core, and just a few standards such as a third grade standard on graphing and a fourth grade standard on line plots are missing.
Free downloadable Pre-assessments with solutions can be used to determine whether or not a student is ready for each Math Guide.
Each Math Guide has a corresponding Math Practice book. Math Practice books are printed in black and white. They include a few cartoon illustrations, primarily using cartoon characters to summarize key concepts or direct students to pages in the Math Guide where that concept was taught. The Math Practice books serve principally as the source of lots of practice in solving problems. While there are a few pages with arrays of problems to solve, most pages in the Math Practice books have word problems, visual problems, puzzles and creative thinking problems. Along the way, they also have instructions for an occasional game or hands-on activity.
Difficult problems are marked with a star and the most difficult problems have two stars. Hints are provided at the back of the book before the answer key for all starred problems. The answer key in each Math Practice book takes up a substantial number of pages since it presents fairly complete solutions and/or explanations. Parents who want more of the same type of problems for their children to solve can download free printable worksheets from the publisher’s website.
The FAQs at the Beast Academy website include one explanation that will help you understand why the curriculum includes so many difficult problems, including the ones for which students might need hints. It says:
Most real problems in math, science, or life can’t be solved with a simple, cookie-cutter solution. Instead, real problems usually require applying knowledge in a novel way. We include many challenging problems in Beast Academy because we believe they help kids become flexible, logical thinkers who persevere in the face of challenge. Students also learn math at a much deeper level when they solve difficult problems, since they have to think for themselves rather than mimicking prescribed procedures.
As an added benefit, difficult problems make math much more interesting and fun! Most kids find unraveling one challenging puzzle far more satisfying than mechanically completing pages of simple problems.
Students might want to read straight through each Math Guide, then go back and tackle the practice problems, and this is fine. There’s plenty of help in the Practice Guides to make this work.
The comic book presentation means that students can read through a large part of each chapter independently, taking time to enjoy the visuals along with the lessons. However, these are not really independent study courses. Up front, parents should help children become familiar with the way the course works. Also, occasional “stop signs” on pages direct students to try something, answer a question, make a prediction, or otherwise interact with the lesson, and parents might need to be involved at these points. In addition, the games and hands-on activities generally need some sort of parental assistance and/or another player. When it comes time to check student work, parents should go over the practice pages referring to the answer key. There are often alternate problem solving strategies or other helpful notes in the answer keys that parents might explain to students. Still, the courses don’t require lesson preparation time, and as students become familiar with the courses, I expect they will do more on their own.
Math Guides are not consumable. Since they are printed on sturdy paper, they should last through at least a few students. If you are teaching more than one child, they might take turns with each Math Guide if that is practical. Math Practice books are consumable, so each student completing the course will need his or her own Math Practice books.
The only things missing from these courses are cumulative reviews and assessments for the end of each course. However, you might not need them. If you really want a final exam, you might simply copy some of the problems students have already solved from previous books and create your own cumulative assessment.
Note that a number of errors made their way past the editing process for these books, so be sure to print out the “Errata” page and make corrections in your books before students get confused.
Beast Academy offers a very interesting option for those who want math courses more rigorous than the Common Core. At the same time many students will like the format so much that they might not even realize how challenging the courses might be.