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Creating Confident Calculus Students

The student left question marks next to her answers, despite almost always having the correct response. She would say, “I don’t think I’m good enough in math.”

That was her junior year. Now a senior, thanks to regular encouragement from teacher Kara Henry, she is thriving in Advanced Placement® Calculus BC.

IMG_2827-(1).JPEG“She’s become a super star that other students look up to,” says Henry, who has taught the student at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for two years. “I really wanted to build her confidence and give her a positive place to make mistakes and know that’s OK.”

While hoping her students do well on the AP® exams, Henry, NMSI’s April Teacher of the Month, considers personal growth to be more important. “I see calculus as the avenue to develop the whole student and person,” Henry says, noting that time management and responsibility are more difficult skills to learn than calculus.

A safe space to learn and grow is a key focus in Henry’s classroom. Each lesson begins with interactive warm-ups, which encourages students to work with each other and ask questions they may have been hesitant to ask while solving problems alone.

“Every time I sit in Kara’s room, the atmosphere is so calm, soothing and supportive because Kara’s teaching style is just that,” says Anne Marzitello, Kempsville gifted resource teacher and NMSI school program director. “She takes the anxiety out of math and gives her students confidence to succeed.”

Kempsville Principal Melissa George agrees: “Calculus is not an easy subject, but (Henry) has a way to make you feel like no matter what is being presented, you can do it.”

Outside the classroom, Henry continues to support students by highlighting their accomplishments with the 
hashtag #CalculusChiefs on Twitter (the Chiefs is the school mascot). “So happy for you #CalculusChiefs Jalyn 
and Jonah!!” read a recent tweet from @KaraHenry_KHS, congratulating her students’ acceptance to Radford University. “It’s another way for them to know that I’m always rooting for them in anything they do,” Henry says.

Military Connection
While overcoming math anxiety is one way Henry helps her students, she also can empathize with their home life. Kempsville High serves students who have parents or guardians in active military service.  As a military spouse, Henry knows what it’s like to experience the separation and emotions of a loved one going on multiple deployments abroad.

The teacher’s husband has been stationed in one location for their entire relationship, but she understands that several students have moved frequently with different military assignments, which creates its own set of challenges.

By establishing relationships early and being aware of which students come from a military family, Henry can better understand how that may affect their academic life and beyond. “That way, when they encounter a challenging situation or something at home may be affecting their performance or disposition in class, that door is already open to having a conversation about how I might be able to help and support them through that time,” she says.

Henry tries to focus on being positive and productive when her husband is deployed, and she encourages students from military families to take the same approach. “Their social-emotional well-being is always more important than any grades or lessons,” the teacher says.

NMSI Training
To further her dedication to students, Henry participates in teacher trainings through the NMSI College Readiness Program. Now, she’s used almost all the NMSI materials to either integrate with or replace what she previously was using.

“Some teachers are closed off to trying new things, but I made the decision to be open minded to always improving and accepting help from others,” says Henry, who has taught calculus for 10 years.

Both the NMSI training and becoming an AP exam reader have helped the teacher better understand AP style questions and the kinds of challenges she needs to give her students to be successful on the exams.

One particularly helpful NMSI resource was an organizational chart for the three Value Theorems – a common area of confusion for students. Instead of having the students complete the chart with the correct descriptions, graphs and applications for each theorem, Henry took the completed chart and cut it into squares for the students to put back together as a puzzle, which required them to compare the theorems.

“I had many students comment that it was the first time they really understood the difference between the theorems,” Henry says. “We had a lot of light bulbs go off in class that day, and it was amazing.”

Another helpful tool from NMSI is the supportive community of teachers. Many AP Calculus teachers are the only ones at their schools. “You can feel so isolated, but the NMSI trainers made me feel comfortable reaching out and asking questions, and someone always got back to me,” Henry says. “Having a mentor or peer to struggle through the content along with you is really helpful.”

Leading by example, Henry models the skills her students will need to succeed in college and careers – a confident, hard-working and life-long learner.

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us what they are doing to a make real differences in math, science and English education for their students.