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Creating Confident, Motivated Students

When students say they can’t do something, teacher Latoya Smith asks them to look in the classroom mirror. Positive messages adorn the mirror, and students pick three good things to say. If students are unkind to others, Smith asks them to say three good things about a fellow student.

“By late November, after Thanksgiving break, I don’t have to tell them, and they’ll start correcting themselves when they say something negative,” says Smith, an Advanced Placement® Biology teacher at Cedar Hill Early College Academy in Texas and NMSI’s March Teacher of the Month.

Latoya-Smith-Cedar-Hill-TOM-March-2020.jpgSmith guides students to have confidence in themselves and the course content. She seeks to make the class relatable to the changing interests and dynamics of students. While covering how cancer relates to mitosis, Smith gives room for students to talk about how family and friends are affected by the disease. “You have to go below the surface layer and get to know them and build them up,” she says.

Knowing students learn in different ways, Smith likes utilizing the hands-on activities she learned at NMSI trainings. One she’s found helpful is using Skittles for the chi-square test. Students discover whether the different candy colors are evenly distributed, or one color is more dominant than another. This leads to a conversation about how chi-square tests are used in genetic analysis.

“Math is fun when you’re eating candy,” Smith says. “A lot of students think biology is just biology, but no, there’s also math and chemistry.”

Incorporating real-world scenarios makes Smith’s AP® students excited to tell friends about what they’re learning. When they did root beer fermentation, students who weren’t in AP Biology wanted to join the class.

The Cedar Hill teacher discovered her passion for biology as a teenager participating in a medical explorers program. The group took field trips, including a memorable visit to a hospital, where they saw human cadavers.

Principal Nikisha Edwards says Smith is a role model for students. Many students enjoy talking to the AP Biology teacher for guidance on high school and life in general. “She is a brilliant black female scientist,” Edwards says. “With our school being 70% black, it is inspiring for young females to see educators who look like them.”

When Edwards goes to Smith’s class for a short observation, she stays for the entire class because of how well she explains her lessons. Edwards says students benefit from teachers like Smith because they “know they are cared for in addition to being held to a very high standard.”

With seven years of teaching experience, Smith first began teaching AP Biology this school year. She admits feeling nervous to take on this new challenge. Thanks to NMSI teacher trainings and classroom materials, along with speaking regularly with a NMSI coach, Smith says she has the support she needs.

“At first, I was reluctant to ask for help because I thought I’d be judged or criticized, but I swallowed my pride and reached out,” Smith says. “I always receive kind words and feedback.”

Finding NMSI’s College Readiness Program Summer Institute “really engaging,” Smith says she “can’t wait to go back to training this summer.”

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us how they’re making a difference in math, science, English and arts education.