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Common Core Pioneer Linda Estes

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Common Core Pioneer: Linda Estes

Ninth grade math teacher Linda Estes believes math should engage students, learn how she's doing just that in her classroom at Delta High School in Tri-Cities.

Most Americans admit they hate or “don’t do” math, says Linda Estes. "We’re a nation of math-o-phobes. I believe the problem is the way we teach math, not that math is intrinsically hard to learn.”

Math should engage students, not bore them, says the ninth-grade teacher. “But almost every high school math class looks the same: the teacher is at the board, showing how to do a procedure, and the kids are at their desks, copying the procedure down. We are forcing kids to divorce math from meaning-making.”

Meaning-making is core to Estes’ teaching at Delta High School, a six-year-old school run by the Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland School Districts that integrates STEM learning into all content areas.

It’s clear her classes are not math-as-usual. Students sit in groups of four, reasoning out problems in individual ways – one adds, one multiplies, one draws circles, one uses a formula. They compare and challenge each other’s thinking as she continually moves table-to-table, probing, pushing, answering every question with another question.

“What is 6 divided by 1/3?” “Two.” “Why? What are we thinking? Tell me the story of 6 divided by 1/3.” When a student suggests she draw six pizzas on the whiteboard and divide them into thirds, lights go on. There are 18 pieces, not 2.

“Figuring out what doesn’t work can be as important as figuring out what does,” says Estes, challenging the class to explain where the answer “2” came from.

“We divided 6 by 3, not 1/3,” says a student. Another ah-ha, as a student suggests that 6 divided by 1/3 is the same as 6 x 3/1. Estes draws the equation on the board and explains how it functions. “So dividing fractions is the same as multiplying by the reciprocal? Why?”

Heads nod. They now know the rule, the mathematical language, and, most importantly, the reasoning behind it all, thanks to the teacher who comes to school each day ready to put the sense back in math. “She makes me think through the whole process instead of just thinking of an answer,” says one student.

Estes didn’t set out to be a math teacher; her dream was to coach volleyball. But after earning her master’s in education, she found the only teaching jobs were in math. “I went looking for different ways to teach it,” she says. “I saw very quickly that standing up and lecturing didn’t work – or only worked for 10 percent of the students.”

Parents were initially upset with her new teaching methods. “They said, ‘This is not what math class is supposed to look like,’” says Estes. But then they saw the results. The math scores were as high as or higher than anywhere in the Tri-Cities.

In fact, Delta consistently passes math End of Course exams at a rate generally 20-30 percent higher than state averages, reports Principal Jenny Rodriquez, who praises Estes’ classroom expertise. “It’s not enough to get the right answer in her class. You have to be able to explain it and apply the math concept in new situations. Her classroom is both rigorous and relevant, and students really appreciate her approach, which ensures they truly understand the math at hand.”

The deep level of mathematical thinking is central to Common Core math standards, which push teachers to teach the way research says they should, says Estes. But the standards came with no instructions. So the ninth-grade teacher went to work with her professional learning community to implement the standards in 2013. “We had to understand Common Core and then figure out how to structure our courses.”

Estes began writing her own curriculum and math books to better align learning with the standards. Being a booklover and storyteller, she adds flair to her creations. One of her books mashes up Star Trek and Dr. Seuss for lessons on exponential functions. The story stars Seuss’ Bartholomew Cubbins, who starts a wild animal farm with a single Tribble, one of the fluffy, purring aliens adored by Star Trek fans.

The Tribbles procreate like mad, and that’s where the mathematical fun begins.

The first Tribble, Myrtle, has two sterile babies a day. That’s easy enough for Estes’ students, who graph neat linear equations showing a steady, consistent growth as months and years pass. But Bartholomew begins adding new fertile Tribbles, some of whom are born pregnant, some with two babies at a time. Things get terribly out of hand.

“There are babies everywhere!” exclaims one student, as he works with others to figure out an exponential equation that can explain the Tribble explosion. The students use tiny pom-poms -- mini-Tribbles -- arranging them in different patterns that attempt to visually graph this population boom. Ms. Estes and her students move from table-to-table examining the different patterns. “What’s the advantage of this model? Does it work? Why?”

Why – that simple word of endless complication – keeps brains churning and conversations buzzing in this class. And the students thrive on it. “It’s fun in her class, which is not something you usually find in math classes. You’re actively taking a part in your own learning,” says one 15-year-old. “I like it more than any class I’ve taken,” she adds.

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