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Common Core Pioneer Desiree Hall

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STEM in Action: Common Core + Next Gen Pioneers

Fifth grade teacher Des Hall is tackling challenging new math standards in her classroom in a number of creative ways to ensure that all of her students succeed.

Desiree (Des) Hall zips between classroom tables, pressing her fifth-graders to think hard, put heads together with neighbors, explore different approaches to math problems, and, when they come up with a solution, to “Show me the evidence!"

Some students show her sets of blocks, arranged by ones and tens and hundreds. Some use pictures or diagrams. Some write classic algorithmic equations: .93 x 100. The high-energy, high-impact teacher, skilled at adapting instruction for diverse learners, doesn’t care what tools they use. She just wants everyone in Room 18 to succeed, whether they’re performing at first-grade or sixth-grade math levels.

“She has so many different ways to show you how to do something. And she is always thinking of something new,” says one of her students at Bremerton’s West Hills STEM Academy. Three years ago the historically low-performing, high-poverty school changed its name and its focus, re-emerging as the state’s first elementary school dedicated to Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics learning.

The new work is challenging, based on rigorous new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (Common Core) and Next Generation Science Standards. Under Common Core math, fifth-graders have to learn things they never had to learn before, like decimals and place value, and multiplying and dividing fractions. Plus, they’re doing things they never had to do before: it’s no longer enough to just come up with an answer; they have to explain how they got it. That’s a real brain workout.

“The new standards have taken things up several notches,” says Hall, a National Board Certified teacher whose 21st-century classroom contains banks of computers and kid-friendly iPod Touches, with tables that fold up to make way for messy project work. “The old math standards did not push kids into problem-solving, and these really push students to think deeply about mathematics. My students are not always ready for that.”

For support, they rely not only on Mrs. Hall, but also on each other. Collaboration is celebrated in this lively classroom, which hums with back-and-forth mathematical chatter. “Part of my job is to see who doesn’t understand this problem and who does and have them partner up,” says Hall, a dynamic educator with a warm, hearty laugh and a thing for the Muppets.
To help her assess individual understanding, she uses un-graded snapshot quizzes that give her instant feedback on students. “She is keenly in touch with their needs,” says principal Lisa Heaman, who describes Hall as a teacher leader, team player, innovator, and a do-er with “stick-to-it-ness.”
That persistence is something Hall also fosters in students. She has a quote by Victor Hugo tacked to the wall:  “Perseverance, secret of all triumphs.” It’s a message she pounds home daily. “Most of my students struggle with giving up in math. The idea that you can improve, that you can keep going – that’s a valuable thing to have,” says Hall.
Grappling with high-order word problems and tricky fractions is a world apart from holding up a hand and having 6-year-olds count your fingers – something Hall did for a decade as a top-of-her-class kindergarten teacher. Everything changed two years ago when Heaman approached her with an offer to jump from kindergarten to fifth-grade and teach a new STEM curriculum integrating science, technology, English, and mathematics in applied, hands-on learning.
It was a “scary” move for Hall, who struggled with math throughout childhood and into college, where she took remedial math twice. “I was terrible!” she says. But the possibilities of switching up excited her. “In kindergarten you can do a bit of STEM, but in the fifth grade you can really dive into it. It’s so rich.”
In a school with consistently low math scores, Hall had her work cut out for her. When she did a pre-assessment on adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators, only 8 percent of her students could do it 80 percent of the time. Within the year, more than half her class was performing at the 80 percent level.
Hall, who works in tight synch with her two fifth-grade teaching colleagues, credits a number of factors in the ongoing progress. One is the intense focus on math in fifth-grade: students begin the day in an hour-long “Math Camp,” with differentiated groups working on separate lessons. Another hour-long afternoon block focuses directly on core math, with group lessons adapted from the rigorous Eureka curriculum. That is followed by a STEM block that puts mathematical thinking into action with hands-on projects.
Hall is a maestro at making mathematics real and engaging to students. Her students build aerodynamic paper planes and measure the distance they cover, converting answers into metrics. They figure out money problems using oversized dollar bills. They go to the Home Depot website to figure out how Hall can remodel her bathroom on a budget of $2,000.
They become young geo-engineers, assessing soil erosion and other measurable site variables to build a cable bridge across a flood-prone river. Their tools: plastic buckets of dirt, bamboo skewers, string, washers representing human weight, and a growing body of mathematical ideas to put into use.
Hall knows first-hand that project work boosts mathematical understanding. It did for her, turning her from math-o-phobe into math-o-phile. “Math finally clicked for me in a physics course in my college teaching program. We played all day: instead of talking about force inertia, we did it. I finally started understanding mathematics. And that is what we are doing here now.”
Is it effective? Just ask the fifth-graders in Room 18. “She’s awesome!” says one student. “She makes math fun!”
“Yeah,” adds a friend. “And she never gives you the answer.”

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