# Math Autobiographies

One of my favorite math assignments is an idea I’ve taken from Dave Wang, an phenomenal math teacher who mentored me during my first few years of teaching.

Dave used to ask all of his students to write a Mathematical Autobiography—1000 words telling the story of who you are as a student of mathematics, recounting the important moments and experiences that have shaped your mathematical development.

Here’s the complete assignment, borrowed verbatim from Dave:

Your mathematical autobiography

Your autobiography is your life story — a first person account of who you are as a person and the events and experiences that have helped shape you.

Your mathematical autobiography is the story of who you are as a mathematician and a student of mathematics. In it, you relate the events and experiences that have shaped your mathematical development.

Your assignment is to write your mathematical autobiography. It should be at least 1000 words long, which is approximately two single spaced word-processed pages, but it’s fine if yours is longer. If yours is shorter, that probably means that you haven’t thought hard enough about what to include (in addition to not fulfilling the requirements of the assignment.)

I encourage you to type your autobiography, and to include photographs and artwork to complement it.

Your autobiography does NOT need to be comprehensive. It should NOT contain every single detail that you can remember about your math education. (“In first grade, I had Mrs. Smith. She was mean. In the second grade, I had Mrs. Jones. I liked her because she gave me candy every day.”) Instead, focus on the people and experiences that had significant impacts on you.

Mr. Burk has provided you with a copy of his mathematical autobiography as an example. It also provides some interesting dirt from his past.

Finally, you should consider this autobiography unfinished. You will be adding to it as the year progresses.

Here is the first draft of my mathematical autobiography:

I love this assignment, but I also want to push it further. I want my Algebra II students to think of themselves continuing to actively write their mathematical autobiographies through their work in my class, but most importantly, through their daily encounters with math in the world around them beyond our classroom.

I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I think I very well might ask them to add to their autobiographies from time to time, and I’m also considering some sort of portfolio/blogging component to the class. I’m very open to your suggestions for how to accomplish this goal.

This was very inspiring because I have had a lot of ups and downs with math over the past ten years. On the first day of homeschool, I had my sister make a presentation of everything she knew about math on a whiteboard. She resisted at first but then got into it and was proud of what she showed me.

I can see a lot of high school students begrudging this assignment but it seems like it would help them a lot because it would force them to take a step back and look at their failures and recognize their successes. If I were assigning this paper/presentation I would introduce it by saying that learning math is tough but it is no tougher than writing a good essay or having a quality discussion on history. Then I’d say that if you want to get good at math, and everyone can, then you have to get good at meta-math. And, that this is the first step in not just being able to answer problems but mastering the most powerful language in the world.

Smoke, fireworks and Van Halen music might add some flare but I’d check with your neighboring classrooms before you start blasting 80’s music.

But what about the students who are good at math, can do clear proofs, but freeze when asked to write something autobiographical? I might have as a student, and I know my son would.

This won’t be graded. So those students will be fine. It’s simply an opportunity for students to reflect on their work and get feedback from the teacher. That’s the beauty of standards based grading. Not everything needs to be graded.

“This won’t be graded” sounds like the answer to a different concern. I was a conscientious student who tried to do everything that was asked of me—telling me something would not be graded would not have stopped me from trying to do it (though I would have wondered why it was requested), nor would it have stopped me from getting frustrated at a request to do something difficult that I couldn’t see the point of.

Not all kids like writing about themselves, nor do they all find it easy. My son is a very private person, and does not want to tell strangers about himself. He found the journalling requests of English teachers to be torture, and would have deeply resented being asked to do something similar in a math class, which he saw as a refuge.

My son was very glad that he didn’t have to do the “Math Academy”, which is the highest track for freshman at the local public high school. (He had already had Algebra 2, and students couldn’t join the 2nd year of Math Academy as freshmen.) The reason he was glad was that the Math Academy spent a lot of time doing group work and writing papers, and not all that much time doing math. It was a great program for the humanities kids who were also pretty good at math, but not so much for the math/science kids who were not so fond of writing papers and who picked up the math faster than the rest of the group.

My son is an extreme case (we ended up home schooling him and getting him educational therapy for his writers’ block), but there are many others for whom this assignment would be a painful one. Be very, very sure that it is worth the pain, or provide an alternative assignment where a student could present some mathematical concept without having to be autobiographical.

My son would have enjoyed doing a presentation freshman year on some math he knew, like complex numbers or vectors, which would have told you as much or more about his math background as the autobiographical essay you want, but which would have not produced the pain that being asked to write something autobiographical would.

Thanks. This is a interesting perspective and certainly something to think about. I’d like to think that the small classes I teach and relationships I build with students are strong enough to help students overcome any difficulties with this assignment and adapt it to something they will find manageable. At the same time, I think the metacognitive benefits of beginning to think of oneself as a mathematician, and reflecting on one’s progress in this journey are significant and quite worthy.

Hi John,

First off, I REALLY like the idea of including pictures. It seems like a great way to emphasize the personal nature of the project.

Second, I think it’s valuable for students to read a story like this where the inspirational characters (Pierce and Geng) are not formal teachers. It sends a very positive message about who can do mathematics (anyone!); I know it’s said a lot that we have to emphasize that students can create their own mathematical work, not just receive mathematical knowledge, but this story backs that up in a concrete way and it seems more productive for a student to read a story like this than a story by a teacher about other teachers.

Your essay gives a wonderful sense of your math career so far, John.

The way that teaching changes what we appreciate about math and see in it seems like a big idea to me. I think it’s been totally true of me. That makes me wonder about mismatches that may occur between teachers’ values and those of their students. What can we do to make sure we don’t have a disconnect?

The path you’ve traced out in your essay appears pretty smooth, and so I’m curious to know about some rockier encounters with math that you may have had along the way.

And finally, I’ll share that I feel like I had similar crazy/creative experiences as I put together college applications. I still have digital copies of some of those essays, and I can only shake my head and smile at some of them—thank goodness I grew out of some of those ways of talking!

John: Thanks for sharing! So cool to read about your first calculator (I think I had a similar one) and about your students solving problems and sharing their work. The teacher I worked with last year had all of his students write math autobiographies and I felt like I learned a lot from them. I like the idea of students adding to them as the year goes on. Did you ever get the students involved in blogging? (Or Twitter?)