Front Page Forums Chapter 01 Forum Math Autobiographies

This topic contains 41 replies, and was last updated by  Amie 1 week ago.

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  • #3998 Reply


    Christine Newell blogged about this:

    • This topic was modified 6 months, 2 weeks ago by  tzager.
  • #4146 Reply

    Tina Palmer

    Not sure if this is the spot to post this, Tracy. Here is link to my math autobiography.

    Tina Palmer

    • #4147 Reply


      Oh my goodness, Tina, what a courageous person you are! I was shaking with rage at the “D. As in dumb.” moment. OMG. I think it’s amazing that you worked your way back toward math education, led by your students. So beautiful and so brave. Thank you for sharing your story, from the bottom of my heart.


    • #4153 Reply

      Simon Gregg

      Horrible, how disrespectful those teachers were! And the unreflective nature of it too, the confidence that if a student gets a D in the test, it’s because they have a problem, rather than that there weren’t the right kind of lessons. There are a lot of people, as Tracy writes, who don’t get over that kind of thing.

    • #4158 Reply


      That is all so true, Simon.

  • #4149 Reply

    Simon Gregg
    • #4150 Reply


      Simon, this is so fascinating to read. Your story is so unusual in that it seems like you’ve always seen the difference between school maths and mathematics. I’m amazed at the ways you fed your own curiosity throughout. I dream of a world where kids find the beauty you found outside of class in their classes. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • #4154 Reply

      Simon Gregg

      I used to go to the local library too as a kid. I very rarely chose fiction. And the kind of kids’ maths books you get in the library, you know with pictures of toruses and klein bottles and hypercubes, and the number symbols they used in Egypt, that gives a very different kind of experience of what maths is – something more visual, conceptual, almost philosophical. There’s a need for more of that kind of thing in the classroom too!

  • #4152 Reply


    Here’s my (really, really long) story. More about my insecurities than true math autobiography, but seemed fitting-ish.

    I is for…

    • #4160 Reply


      Thanks for sharing, Casey. Your story is so personal and heart-wrenching, but I also know that you are able to support your students better because of your experiences. I love your student’s comment too! Your empathy for them will be a huge bonus in the long run. That said, that doesn’t mean you need to stay stuck in it. I wonder what it would do for you and your self-identity to take calculus somehow? Honestly, it’s pretty fun. 🙂



    • #4169 Reply

      Sarah Caban

      Casey and Tracy

      I never took Calculus.  There. I said it.  In fact, if I am going to be really honest:  I have actually lied and said that I have taken Calculus.  I had too. After all, how can I be a K-12 math coach if I never took Calculus?  Well, I am finally getting to a place where I can say that I can be a damn good math coach without ever having taken Calculus. How?  Well, for one thing, I  want to take Calculus. I want need  love live to learn.  In fact, had I taken Calculus when I was in high school, I am not sure I would have gotten anything out of it because it probably would have been “heavy on algorithms, but devoid of stories”.  Last year, I went to the NCSM annual conference with one of my favorite colleagues – she is a HS math teacher in our district – she teaches Calc. She used to be an engineer and switched careers. She is reflective and curious. On the plane ride, we did Calculus on cocktail napkins.  I love love love Robyn because she lets me ask questions, make mistakes, and be so vulnerable.  We laughed a lot.  I was able to make some sense of Calculus – but I still had a lot of questions.  Apparently it takes more than 5 hours to learn Calculus. 😉 This past January, I was at a professional development conference – without any of my colleagues – I took a risk and went by myself. Unfortunately, it was painful – wounds re-opened. I wrote about it here.  Ironically, the last problem we did before I left the conference was to find the area under the curve without using Calculus.  I did it!! I loved it.  I owned it.  I can do it again. I still have a lot of questions, but I made a lot of connections. I couldn’t wait to get back to Maine to tell Robyn. When I told her, she was so excited for me.  I do want to take a Calculus class, but I will most certainly be very picky about who I take it with because I am trying to “break the cycle” and I can’t afford to waste time with people who don’t support me in that quest.  Thanks Casey and Tracy for prompting me to continue the writing of my autobiography.

    • #4171 Reply


      I love this so much, Sarah:

      I can be a damn good math coach without ever having taken Calculus. How? Well, for one thing, I want to take Calculus.


    • #4172 Reply

      Simon Gregg

      I think we’re all on the same road here Sarah.  I tweeted about a quarter the cross, and Nat Banting tweeted

      Now I did “do” calculus (in a not very awe-inspiring way), I know what it does, but apart from that I can remember very little of how to do it. I looked up things on youtube, and examples on desmos, but couldn’t see how you would do it.

      I think the thing is wanting to learn, and to learn in a way that’s alive and responsive and reflects the wonder of the subject.

      But it must be like that for everyone. Even for professional mathematicians. None of them can know the whole subject. And since maths is still being explored there will be things not discovered yet, which no-one knows.

      I remember reading that the prolific mathematician Paul Erdős (mentioned in Ch 2) didn’t get the Monty Hall problem right. In fact lots of mathematicians got it wrong when they first met it. There’s not-knowing and fallibility all the way through.

      So to be a mathematician can’t be to have covered particular material, it must be a disposition towards mathematics and towards learning.

    • #4201 Reply

      Simon Gregg

      Listening to Francis Su’s talk, I hear this, from Isaac Newton (inventor of calculus): “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    • #4198 Reply

      Lana Pavlova

      Hi Sarah!

      Your comment made me think of my own school experiences and my current learning ones.

      I was actually a “good” math student in elementary, I enjoyed algebra in middle school…then with higher grades things gradually stopped making any sense. I remember the landslide of formulas and the feeling that there is no time to stop and think because then I’ll miss new dump of more formulas and theorems and rules that still make no sense.

      I never took trigonometry or any other pre-calculus topics. I never felt an urge to. Until my teaching experiences in teaching elementary lured me into some topics where I wanted to learn more. I bought a lot of books. I downloaded a lot of videos. I made my way through pre-calculus with considerable effort but at my own pace, making sense and enjoying myself. I did enroll into online calculus course; it is pretty…uninspiring. But I have my books, I stop to make sense cause I’m not in a hurry. Join in, it would be nice to have a studying buddy!

  • #4155 Reply

    Jamie Garner

    The ups and downs of my mathematical journey

    My Math Story

    • #4161 Reply


      Jamie, your story is amazing and typical at the same time. The ups and downs are so striking! Your at-home play and Mr. Kuhl were so positive, and then 3rd grade and the gender stereotypes you inherited were so negative. I think it’s amazing that you were able to build on the good and learn from the bad as you developed as a teacher. You broke the cycle! I particularly love the story about the cumulative files. I’m right there with you on that. Awesome that you give students fresh starts and an open mind, rather than keeping them trapped in their little boxes.

      Thank you for sharing your story!


  • #4157 Reply

    John Golden

    I wrote mine up as a blogpost. Mostly out of guilt that I’m going to be asking my students to do so. It does help me realize how fortunate I’ve been in so many ways in my math journey.

    • #4162 Reply


      Math got more and more boring as it went on into middle school, because there was so much repetition. I didn’t understand why we did the same ideas every year. The details were barely different, but the same ideas over and over.

      John, I remember feeling exactly the same way! I didn’t see a big difference between adding two two-digit numbers and adding two three-digit numbers, but somehow it was a new unit and a big deal. I wonder if we’re making any progress on this front?

      Thanks for sharing your memories!


  • #4166 Reply

    Christine Newell

    Thanks for posting my math autobiography, Tracy! Decided to post it myself to practice using the forum. 🙂

    • #4167 Reply

      Christine Newell

      Revising my thinking. Might help if I posted the link…  🙂

    • #4170 Reply


      You got to practice twice! 🙂

  • #4180 Reply

    Jennifer Fairbanks

    I blogged about my grandmother’s math class here:

  • #4182 Reply

    Robert Kaplinsky

    Thanks for this conversation Tracy.  Here’s my math autobiography:  Sadly, it seems fairly inline with some of the other experiences I read.

  • #4183 Reply

    Andrew Gael

    Here is the math autobiography I wrote a while ago for Justin Lanier’s sMOOC!

  • #4189 Reply


    On page 2 and in tears. I thought the memories, the names, the hurtful comments would never find me again. “Oh come on, you should know this.” “You should be done by now.” “I did not tell you to do it that way.” “Stop drawing on your paper.” “Do it like it says in the book.” “You cannot do math.” “She’s an idiot.” “Are you dumb?” “Where’s your brain?” As a learner, as a teacher, as a participant in a professional environment, I have struggled with the fear of what comment about my math ability is going to be slung at me next. I feel I am a math thinker, but thinking takes too much time. I learned that in elementary school. As a student, I was told, “Don’t think, just do, plug in the numbers.” As a young teacher, I was told to follow the curriculum and the teacher’s guide from pg 1-458. My job was threatened when I dared to listen to my students and change the path of our course. In the middle of my career I participated in a math session at a math educator conference. The presenter gave us problems to solve. I began thinking and drawing. The presenter walked around and collected participants’ work that she was going to share. I froze when she approached me. I was still working on the first problem of ten. “If you don’t know how to do the math, why are you here?” I slunk in my chair and apologized. In my mind, I was thinking. On my paper, I was drawing patterns. I was thinking about numbers and words to describe the patterns. But as before, I succumbed to that constant wound that keeps reopening and reiterating that I am not supposed to think, just do. I walked out of the session. As an older teacher, I have allowed myself to slowly let my thinking be visible. My students accept that I sometimes draw things out, in fact, they are starting to draw in their journals! I love learning. I am glad I found this book to help me along my learning journey. I want to become a better person, a better teacher. I am ready to read the next page.

    • #4191 Reply


      Goodness, Patricia. It is brave of you to share that story. My heart hurts for you. I am so glad that you walked out of that session, but I want to have some seriously stern words with that presenter. <angry face>

      From my perspective as a university-level mathematician, taking time to explore ideas with different representations, finding ways to explain our thinking, and making new connections, are all vital parts of working mathematically. And *all* mathematicians, at all stages of their learning journeys, have more to discover. That’s the beauty of the infinite landscape of mathematics. I look forward to hearing more about yours.

    • #4195 Reply


      Patricia, I cried when I read your message. I am so sorry about what adults did to you when you were a child. And, like Amie, I am absolutely furious at that presenter!!! The thing is, I know that if she had gently encouraged you to talk about your thinking and your patterns, she might have learned some new mathematics herself! The creative process you’re describing is thinking mathematically. You are a mathematical thinker. She missed her opportunity to learn from someone who was thinking instead of just doing, and she doesn’t even know it.

      I’m thrilled you’re here, beyond honored that this book is helping you on your journey, and so grateful that you posted. If you ever choose to come to another conference again to have some good experiences to replace that horrible one, please tell me. There’s no one else I’d rather sit next to and listen to, learn from, and support.


    • #4199 Reply

      Sarah Caban


      I am so sorry this happened to you.  I hope this person doesn’t approach their students with the same question, but I fear he/she probably does. He/she doesn’t need to say it out loud for the students to hear it.

      Your tenacity to overcome such a hurtful statement is quite impressive. You kept learning. Wow. I am in awe. You inspire me to keep learning.

      I am part of a collaborative K-12 group of incredible teachers.  We were meeting yesterday and reflecting on how important our group is and how we have cultivated trust. One of my peers said, “It takes a lot of time to value the way other people think mathematically. I want to get what other people are thinking, but it takes time. The time we spend practicing and modeling the way we want our kids to engage in math is so important. We need to say, “help me understand” more – to each other and our kids. ”  I wish more people felt this way. Clearly, you do and that is why the statements you described were so devastating, and yet, you persevered.  Awesome.  Thank you, Patricia.

  • #4190 Reply


    I don’t have a great place to park this so I hope you don’t mind me embedded some observations about my elementary math experience.

    First: Overall I had a happy if odd Mathematics experience. This was the period in time when I decided that I really enjoyed Math. I’m noticing that the positive and negative accounts above seem to be following gender splits. I’d like to think that there are also women who fell into the same camp as me or at least going forward that becomes more the case.

    I barely remember much of math in first and second grade. I’m sure we went over basic addition and multiplication tables.  I’m a fairly good memorizer so these didn’t present much problem for me. I also don’t have any memory of timed tests or homework  just occasional worksheets with sets of numerical problems on them. I’m fairly convinced that we  didn’t spend as much time on Math as occurs today where you’ll receive instruction once a day.

    In third grade in the last month of school as a preview, my teacher showed us the standard algorithm for division and multiplication over a few weeks.  In retrospect,  I suspect we probably didn’t reach our target for the year and she was cramming in the missing material. I remember just accepting the algorithms as fact. They seemed to make sense and again I didn’t need much repetition to master them.

    Then what was probably a life changing experience occurred. My parents transferred me to a magnet school for Math where they were trying out an experimental curriculum.   Instead of group instruction, this program was student directed.  There were a series of worksheets color coded by topic (fractions, decimals, percentages etc.) For each unit you’d work through the sheets at your own pace. There were occasional manipulatives to try out or films to watch on an individual screening booth. In essence, this was Khan Academy without the computer. As I remember the teacher visited individual students and helped out or gave a lesson if necessary.  For me this was ideal. Despite the worksheets often being repetitive, I went through 3 years of math  by the end of fifth grade and had exhausted the program.

    I knew at this point that the next milestone was Algebra even if I didn’t know what that entailed. And then life changed again. For sixth grade I transferred to a different elementary magnet school that focused on creative writing. My teacher who was actually fabulous at teaching writing really didn’t like Mathematics.  We basically completely skipped doing any math for the entire year.  Overall I had a lot of fun but I still remember occasional pangs of regret at the  fact that Algebra was not possible.

    So I’m not sure what the lesson of all this is but it probably still influences my view of what should happen or not with my own kids.


    • #4196 Reply


      Ben, I think you’re absolutely right. No matter whether you had positive or negative experiences, they do influence your teaching. For example, I could see the amount of repetition some students need coming as a surprise to you, because that’s different from how it was for you. What I’m saying is reflecting on your experiences is worthwhile and I’m glad you’re doing it!


  • #4202 Reply

    Julie Wright

    Here’s mine:

    I feel comparatively lucky, and even then I got bumped off the math track a couple of times.

  • #4213 Reply

    Julie Reulbach

    I published an abbreviated version of my math autobiography on my blog a while back because it partly explains why I became a math teacher.

  • #4217 Reply

    Karen Collins

    9th grade Algebra 1 teacher gave me a great gift by being a sexist pig & being disappointed that I (a girl) was the only person to raise my hand in response to “Who’s thinking about a career in math?”  His response:  “Oh” with a big sigh.  It was 1978, but still.

    So, then I had to prove him wrong, and I have!  But, have gotten so much push back from the way I teach high school mathematics.  I have to know why things work & how they all connect together, so I encourage my students to investigate & explore, so they can find out, too.  I get heat from parents, students, colleagues, but never from an administrator, thank God, in the 4 schools where I have worked.  Takes about 3 weeks to win over the students & parents with my style.  After a couple years at each school, I usually win over most of my colleagues.  I just refuse to subject my students to the same boring & grueling process of note-taking & lectures that I was subjected to in hogh school AND at the university level.

    The most appalling thing I have experienced in my teaching career was during an interview for Teacher-of-the-Year.  When describing an investigation I designed for my AP Calculus students, a person from the community, that was on the panel, essentially said how dare I expect my students to figure out how things work and equated it to me dropping them off in the middle of nowhere without a map.  No matter how patiently I tried to explain the richness of this investigation & the value in the journey, with me as a guide, of course, she ranted on & on, until the committee was embarrassed & I was fed up.  I packed up my materials & left amidst apologetic looks from the other committee members.  Each year, I get nominated by someone at my school, but I have explained to my administrator why I will not willingly go through that nonsense again.

    Amazing what negative motivation does for my determination! 😜


  • #4218 Reply

    David K Butler

    I’ve been trying and failing to write a maths autobiography, but while I was trying to write it I remembered that a few years ago I wrote something about one aspect of my maths journey: the freedom to enjoy maths. It’s called Elsa’s Freedom.

  • #4580 Reply

    David K Butler

    I’ve written a couple more reflections on my mathematical experiences in the past. One on my experiences with maths and money and one on my earliest memories of maths and play

  • #4593 Reply


    Thanks to everyone who has written up their stories so far. I really appreciated reading all of them, and feel like we all learn a lot from such accounts.

    I’ve written up my autobiography here:

    View story at

    • #4634 Reply


      Denis, I love this reflection and am so glad you’re getting so much out of the book and other people’s contributions. How wonderful that you and desmos found each other, and that you’re now able to take the time to discovering meaning and beauty and connections in the mathematics you were rushed through.

      I think many of the feelings you describe are more common than we know. That feeling of being a fraud, for example, is something I’m sure many readers can relate to.

      Thank you for writing about it all so beautifully! I hope you’ll continue to share your thinking as you read.


    • #4644 Reply


      Thanks for the kind words, Tracy!

      I take it as high praise coming from you, and will try to write more as I continue reading.

  • #4645 Reply

    David Mathys

    As an elementary student,I enjoyed the idea of math but hated the idea of doing 20-30 math problems if instead knewn how to do the assignment.  Combined with my father’ s belief that their was only one way to do any math problem. This led to a distaste for math that led through high school with the exception of geometry with Mrs. Jacobs.  She made math interesting again but that feeling quickly faded by the end of high school.  Math was a necessary evil in college but I never loved a math class.

    Now as a 5th grade teacher, I work hard for my students to see the relevance and joy of math.  My goal is for my students to leave my class with the idea that in math there is more than one way to solve a problem and to see the joy that math can bring when you allow them to be creative.

  • #4659 Reply


    I finally got around to writing a (long) maths autobiography. It’s here:

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