Math Autobiographies

Dear Math:

I hate you.
— J

This year, I did the best getting-to-know-you activity I’ve ever done. I had my students write math autobiographies, telling me their personal history with math, warts and all. And two days into school, I know more about my students than I knew after 4 weeks last year.

I used to hate math, but since the problems got more challenging I have started to love it more
— E

Here’s how I did it: On the very first day of school, I took 5 minutes to introduce the idea of a math autobiography and ask students to brainstorm their own for homework. Then i read my own, which I’ve reprinted below.

Math always came easy to me. I think that’s because as a kid I used to love finding math patterns wherever I went. I would always like playing with shapes, finding out which ones went together and trying to figure out why. I would count the number of stairs in my house and the number of tiles in the ceiling of my elementary school classrooms. On long road trips I would occupy my mind by turning each number into a number based on its place in the alphabet, (A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on) and then adding all the numbers to try to find words that added to 100. I know how nerdy this sounds, but when I was a kid I thought everyone just played math games in their heads.

But math class was always very boring to me. It was my least favorite part of school. I memorized the algorithms my teachers taught and tried to finish my homework as quickly as humanly possible. Honestly, I don’t even remember my middle school math teachers’ names because I never had a single interesting day in their math classes.

But finally in 11th grade I started to see how math could be interesting. I had a teacher, Dr. LaCasse, who taught my calculus and physics classes the same year. He did a fantastic job of combining those subjects so that I could see how I could use calculus to model a situation in the real world, or predict the speed of a person who jumps out of a plane or the distance that a bowling ball would fly if you shot it out of a cannon. Finally, math was real to me.

My favorite topic was always geometry. I loved using a compass and a ruler to make shapes and beautiful designs. I think geometry is the subject that shows off how beautiful math can be. Also, I love logic games like Sudoku, and lots of geometry problems felt like mini logic puzzles for me to solve. Even calculus and physics involved drawing a lot of geometric models of things like pulleys and ramps, which I loved.

Since becoming a math teacher, my relationship with math has totally changed. I love talking about math and thinking about it. But I hate teaching by just giving kids steps to memorize. Instead, I want everyone in class to be thinking for themselves and finding their own solutions to problems, using the skills they learn in class. And my favorite part about math is that I still learn new strategies and ways to solve problems from my students. Every year, I see some student work that just blows my mind with how cool and creative it is. And I can’t wait to see what you guys are going to show me this year.
— Mr. Haines

The next day, I read a very different autobiography from my colleague, Mrs. G, who teaches Language Arts to all my students. Here is her essay.

I have a love/hate relationship with math. If I were to write a love letter to math, it would sound like this.
Dear Math,
You’re so cool. You’re so cool that I can’t figure you out. I know deep down that you are awesome, but you’re too far from reach. We can never truly be together.

When it came to working through math problems in school, I thought I was a great student. When it came to math homework, I followed directions. I checked my work. I worked the problems just like the examples we did in class. When we went over the problems the next day, I figured out why they’re called math PROBLEMS—because there was always a problem with the way I worked them.

The only math teacher that ever seemed to understand my love/hate relationship with math was Mrs. Llewellyn, my Algebra II teacher. She could see the way my brain followed the path to the wrong answer, then she would show me the yellow brick road. She would explain in words I understood how to correctly make it to Oz.

I don’t remember my least favorite math teacher’s name because she was that awful. I’ve tried to erase her from time and space. She always called on me to work problems at the board. The pressure made me so nervous that I would miss a step in solving the equation. Then she would make me stand at the board until I figured it out. Sometimes I never did, and it was really awkward. She also yelled all the time. “TWO NEGATIVES MAKE A POSITIVE!!!!!!!” I still don’t understand that whole concept. Two negatives should make something more negative. Am I right??

The only math that I kind of understood was geometry. To me, the shapes had rules that made sense. The angles were always the same. They didn’t change on you like those tricky negative signs. Also, geometry is where I learned about how letters can be used in math. And I love letters. With all the shapes and the letters, geometry is really more like English—the best subject ever.

I wish I knew how do work math quickly in my head, but I can’t. I still have to get out a calculator or use my fingers to count the 9s times tables. That’s probably really pathetic for a grown up, but I get so nervous that I’m going to mess that I just check myself with a calculator before I make a mistake and have to stand at the board until I fix it.
— Mrs. G

I love this essay because it feels honest to me, unlike so much of the motivational stuff that teachers say to students on the first days of school. After I read Mrs. G’s essay out loud, I told my students how much I appreciated her honesty. I told them that all I wanted was their honesty as well. If they love math, tell me why. If they hate it, tell me why. 

Then I gave out the prompt below. I didn’t ask for a specific length. I just asked everyone to address all six questions:

Instructions: You will write your math autobiography on a separate sheet of paper. In your autobiography, be sure to include the following:

Do you like math? Why or why not?
What sort of math student do you think you are? Why?
Who was your favorite math teacher? Why was that person your favorite?
Who was your least favorite math teacher? Why was that person your least favorite?
What math subjects do you like learning about and why do you like them?
What math subjects do you dislike and why?


Most kids wrote about 3/4 of a page, and I had to cut a lot of kids off after 20 minutes! I never expected so much engagement and enthusiasm from a getting-to-know-you activity.

I can do most math problems but I don’t understand them. I get all As and I do my homework. I just don’t understand math
— A

What Next?

I asked the kids to be honest, and man, they were. I have a few kids who really seem to love math, but most of my students have had a pretty negative math experience so far. Honestly, I felt a little bit like a trauma counselor reading these. I saw so many stories of teachers yelling at students or shaming them for making mistakes.

It’s like math for me is something in a B-flick horror movie. You think you got away but then you somehow trip for the third time.
— M

I went through each autobiography and made sure to underline and comment on at least one sentence or phrase. I handed the essays back today so that my students know that I read their work. I feel like I asked a lot of them, expecting them to open up to a stranger on the second day of school. I owe them at least a comment.

In third grade my teacher had a happy meter from 5 to 0. Whenever I messed up a problem she would bump me down a number.
— D

In fact, I wish I had time to write an essay back to each kid. I already feel more connected to my students than I usually do after one month of teaching. I have a wealth of personal stories that I can connect to each student in my room. I now feel even more committed to making my class a model of engaging, challenging mathematics and conversation.

Math is my favorite subject because to me it is more challenging than the other classes.
— E

I can't recommend these autobiographies highly enough. If you're wondering what to do on the first days of school, try this out. You might be surprised what your students write to you.

Below are a few more quotes from my students, which I also threaded throughout this post.


I’m really in between a weak and a medium student because every time I get confused I get headaches and give up.
— I
I like math, but I’m not sure that math likes me
— J
I always feel like I’m doing something wrong but I end up getting a good grade. It’s not a good feeling b/c I don’t know what I did right
— L
So am I good at math? Yes and no. So many hidden questions in that one question.
— M