LSU Lab teacher to receive prestigious award

While friends and family celebrate Mardi Gras in sunny Louisiana, Donna Lamonte is spending this weekend in the below-freezing temperatures of the nation’s capital to collect one of the nation’s most prestigious teaching awards.

On Tuesday night, Fat Tuesday, she will officially receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She is one of two Louisiana teachers being honored at the ceremony; the other is Amanda Warren, a fourth-grade teacher at Lake Harbor Middle School in Mandeville.

Lamonte has waited a long time for this — “it took forever,” she said, but she’s glad the day has finally come.

“Teaching doesn’t get recognized so much. More attention is paid to what you’re doing wrong. So it’s great to be able to say, ‘Hey, I got something right,’ ” she said.

Lamonte was nominated in 2012 by a colleague at her school, the LSU Lab School in Baton Rouge, where she has worked for 25 years and for the past three years has taught first grade. To participate, Lamonte did a 45-minute video of her class learning math, wrote a 10-page reflection paper and submitted a lengthy résumé.

“It was almost as much work as National Board certification,” Lamonte said, referring to the laborious process conducted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; Lamonte recently had her National Board certification renewed for 10 more years.

The 2012 winners are normally selected in the following spring, but this year, the announcement was much delayed.

“I learned in December, two days before Christmas,” she said. “It was a great early Christmas present.”

Another present arrived soon after in the form of $10,000 deposited in her bank account.

“I’d love to say I have a lot of high-minded things I’m going to spend it on, but I got one child in college and another going next year,” Lamonte said.

On Wednesday, Lamonte showed off the lesson she videotaped for the award.

It involves having students “decompose numbers” as large as 200, and she has the students do it about 15 minutes every day. It seems deceptively easy until you realize the children are just in first grade, a grade where, traditionally, students are learning the rudiments of much smaller numbers.

The children sit cross-legged on the floor with small dry erase boards in their laps. Lamonte has students break down larger numbers into factors of 10, and these students are masters at it.

“I tell them, ‘10 will get you anywhere,’ ” she said.

Lamonte has a small bag filled with every number from 1 to 200. She’ll pull a number out and develop a question aimed at getting to that number. At one point, she asks what 203 minus 10 equals.

“In 200, you have 20 10s,” she explained helpfully. “If you take one away, you get 19 10s.”

Her math corner also has several helpful visuals. One display has slots for the numbers 100 to 200, but only 100 to about 115 are identified. She’ll then point to a blank space and have students figure out what number should fill that space.

In another exercise, she pointed to a slot at the bottom of the number chart.

Jake McCann guessed the right answer, 195. Lamonte asked him to explain his answer.

“I know it’s in the fifth row, and it’s in the 90 row, so it’s 195,” said McCann, 7.

“It’s not a row,” Lamonte corrected pointing to the vertical strip where numbers that end in “five” go. “It’s a column.”

Explaining how you got the right answer is not always easy.

“I don’t know where I am, but I know where I’m going,” said Eli Bruni, 7, as he tries to explain his answer.

Lamonte said she came to her daily decomposing number lesson on her own three years ago when she decided to return to the classroom. She started off her career as a reading specialist, but in her second go-around as a classroom teacher, she had to tackle the new Common Core educational standards that have been adopted by 45 states, including Louisiana. She decided she’d work on her math instruction.

One Common Core standard called for first-graders to be able to break down numbers into factors of 10. But why stop with small numbers? Why not have the students use the same principles to break down even larger numbers?

Lamonte’s lesson has caught on. She has shown her peers how to do the lesson at Mayfair Lab, a sister school that’s run by the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Katherine Hogue, a fifth-year senior at LSU and Lamonte’s student teacher, is a convert and is showing it to others.

“My roommate is now doing it,” Hogue said.

Lamonte said she refuses to dumb things down for her students.

“Kids are little more prepared these days,” she said. “We need to push them.”

And the children who don’t get it right away, she’ll keep after them until they do.

“We just don’t let them fail, “ she said. “I don’t let them give up.”