My Math Autobiography

What better way to start 2017 than to finally write my math autobiography! I am preparing to teach my first math methods course for pre-service teachers this coming semester, and I look forward to sharing this with my students and hearing theirs. Thanks, @TracyZager for the inspiration to finally nail this down.

My first memory of math in elementary school is from 3rd grade. It was January, and I had returned from winter break to a new school. The first thing I saw when I walked into the classroom on my first day was a bulletin board with a road on it. At equal intervals along the road were pit stops – “Land of 2s,” Land of 3s”, “Land of 4s”… all the way to the “Land of 12s”. Each student had colored their own car and as they mastered math facts, they moved along the road. The furthest car was in the “Land of 6s” and I immediately knew that leaving everyone in my dust on the multiplication road was going to shape my identity in my new class. I loved math because I was good at it, and this was how I was going to make my mark! I had moved to a large public school from a small private school where we had been memorizing math facts since 2nd grade, and over the next couple weeks, I opted to give up my recess or stay after school for any opportunity my teacher would give me to take a timed test to move my car along the road. Arriving in the “Land of 12s”, I made my mark as a “smart kid” and from then on in my K-12 math journey, I remember feeling an equal dose of pride and pressure.

When I was as freshman in Algebra, I felt that pressure as I had never felt it before: I failed my first test. My teacher, Mrs. Lee, was a total traditionalist – she lectured, we took notes, and there was a quiz or test every Friday. Her motto was, “Go for the A!” which on the surface seems like a positive message, but she used it for what I now perceive to be a damaging emphasis on grades. Regardless of how much effort a student gave or how much progress they made, her response to any grade other than an A was “Why didn’t you go for the A?” After hearing that from her on my failed chapter test, I totally sabotaged the rest of my semester. She didn’t praise effort or growth, so I decided to “show her” by earning a C (my only C of high school) on my report card. I had never hated math before, but I hated Algebra that year. Luckily, just as quickly as that negative experience had broken me down, I had a series of remarkable mathematics teachers that turned it back around – shout out to Mrs. Gillette in Geometry, Mr. Ervin in Algebra 2 and Mr. W (“Dub”) for Trigonometry & Pre-Calculus at Corona del Mar High School.

I know not all students have the chance to bounce back from negative math experiences, so both the ups and downs of my math education have shaped me as an educator. In my early years of teaching, I taught exactly as I had been taught – linearly, procedurally, algorithmic. That was what I knew and that was what the standards and my curriculum called for. It had worked for me in elementary school, and it was a rude awakening when it didn’t work for all of my 6th grade students. I was introduced to the idea of math journals in my third year of teaching, and it changed the way I interacted with math and my students. There was collaboration, conversation, and writing in math – yes, writing in math! However, I still struggled with supporting my students who didn’t know their basic math facts (a problem which I perceived at the time to be THE #1 barrier to student success). As I heard rumblings of new standards, I sought to find out everything I could about them and started looking for opportunities to engage my students in math in a different way. I learned how to use the dusty manipulatives on my shelves, continued my focus on writing in math and invited my students to justify their answers and challenge each other (I wrote a blog in 2012 about one of these lessons here). Learning and teaching math in a new way renewed my love of math which led me to my current position as an elementary math specialist and teacher educator. 

Making classroom mathematics discussions meaningful and supporting all students with visual representations in mathematics are my big areas of intrigue right now, but I pretty much geek out over ANY math topic. I continue to learn more every day about what works for students and what works for teachers, and I am fed by an amazing community of collaborators from around the world, from my colleagues at SCOE, especially my work wife @mavenofmath, to the #MTBoS on Twitter (follow me @MrsNewell22!). Thank you for reading my math autobiography. I look forward to learning more about each of you and your math journey.


  1. I'm so grateful to be your work wife. I have learned tons from you and so appreciate the work we do together to support the math community. I would like nothing more than to geek out about math with you for many years to come.

    Thank you for sharing your math story. Your math methodology students are so lucky to have you prepare them as math teachers. :-)


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