At heart, Jeanne Wall is a performer.
Wall put on a fast-paced act for an intimate audience Wednesday: a group of kindergarten students at Kimball Hill Elementary School in Rolling Meadows.
She sang. She danced. She introduced the youngsters to Mr. McGreely, a puppet at the end of her hand, clad in a red flannel shirt and green hat.
Behind the giggles and clapping, Wall taught lessons usually reserved for the older kids.
"That's kind of some abstract stuff," the Virgina woman said after explaining hexagons to 5-year-olds.
Wall tours schools across the country, mixing the arts with concepts of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
She works with the educational arm of Wolf Trap, a sprawling performing arts venue near Washington, D.C. Backed by a federal grant, the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts started deploying what they call "teaching artists" in 2010 to get students interested in STEM. Their mission came out of concerns that American students lagged behind their peers in other countries in areas of math and science.
At Kimball Hill, Wall will lead kindergarten classes for one week through a program funded by global security company Northrop Grumman. She also gave parents a look into her storytelling and puppetry, so they continue the STEM learning at home.
On Tuesday, Wall walked students through problem-solving and patterns. After she posed a question, one student correctly answered "photosynthesis," without stumbling over the tongue-twister.
"They can use the bigger vocabulary at a kindergarten age," Kimball Hill Principal Tracey Wrobel said. "And the teachers are learning some great strategies. After this week is over, they can take these strategies and incorporate them into lessons throughout the day."
Sometimes Wall meets teachers resistant to her unconventional style. "They generally come around and really see this as a useful approach in the classroom," she said.
The approach means using creativity and imagination to solve problems. It also means there can be several solutions.
"You're developing habits of mind, basically," she said. "Then they can carry that on into the future with a creative method of problem-solving where there's no such thing as failure except if you don't go back and try again."