Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Math Autobiography

I used to give this to students on the first day of class, and ask them to write one too. After enough years of this, their stories all began to blend together, so I stopped giving the assignment, though sometimes I still offer it for extra credit. It seems writing a math autobiography can be good therapy for people who've had bad experiences in past math classes.

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Extra Credit Assignment: Write your math autobiography. It needn't be as long as mine, but do go into some depth. Possible topics: good & bad experiences, how you feel about math, why, strengths/weaknesses, a math topic you enjoy, what helps you to learn math, … Must be typed. If you’d like, you can send it by email to svanhattum@ ...

Sue VanHattum’s Math Autobiography

I loved math when I was young. I remember playing school with my younger brothers, and teaching them math I'd just learned in school myself . My mom took us to the library every week, and I read every children's book on codes and ciphers in that library. So the first 'grown-up' book I ever took out of the library was on codes and ciphers.

Why did I like math so much? I think my family life was a bit chaotic, and math had an internal structure that I knew would always be consistent. And I didn't have to believe what someone said, I could know the right answer as well as the teacher did. I liked that.

In 9th grade, I was taking algebra, along with many of my friends. One day, most of them weren't in class. I asked at lunch, and found out the teacher had let them work independently, in a room off the math teachers' office. I knew I should be working with them, and told him so the next day. He said: "Well, you have trouble getting your homework done, I don't know if it would work." Maybe the intensity of my response is what convinced him to give me a chance. I made sure I got further than anyone else, and I loved working with friends, figuring it out for ourselves.

I went to the University of Michigan, and was put in an honors math class. Although I was excited about it and thought I felt confident, I had a dream that someone told me that there was a mistake, that girls weren't allowed in that class. (!) I worked on math about 4 hours a night, usually studying until 2am. Even with all that, I ended up with a very disappointing B-. I hadn't taken a trig course in high school, and everyone else in the class had taken both trig and calc already in high school.

The next term, I was less motivated and had lots of other distractions (falling in love was one of the many...), and I ended up failing. I took a year off school, and when I came back, I considered switching to another major. But nothing else called to me, and I was able to pass that class (with a B) when I retook it. So I slogged through a BA in math at U of M, but I left there feeling like I really didn't know much and didn't enjoy doing higher math.

When I began teaching (part-time) at the community college in Ann Arbor, I knew I'd found my true calling. To get a full-time position at college level, I'd need a masters degree. At that point I would have preferred a masters in computer science, but Eastern Michigan University didn't have that yet. So I took a deep breath and started in. I didn't expect to enjoy myself, but I was delightfully surprised. I liked almost all of my classes at EMU. My favorite courses were in logic. The math was fun again, once it was slowed down a bit, and my joy in it returned.

I liked it so much, I thought I'd get a PhD. I went to UCSD for that, and found it just as unpleasant as U of M, so I decided very quickly to quit. I moved to San Francisco and got work with a non-profit Internet provider doing tech support. It wasn't until 5 years later that I finally got back into teaching (and back to Michigan). I taught for 6 years at Muskegon Community College. I loved my work, but felt stifled in the town. [Actually, my main reason for leaving was that, as a lesbian, I was not able to adopt there, but I don't want to include that story in a first-day handout.] I applied for positions in Ann Arbor and in the Bay Area. I started here at Contra Costa College in 2001, and it feels like a perfect match. I think maybe it was meant to be.

I've had lots of fun these past few years, playing with the math while I look for ways to make it clearer for my students. I’ve also had the joy of watching my 6-year-old son learn number concepts.


  1. newly re-uploaded but older than dirt:

  2. I make my freshmen do them each year. Some produce grade by grade chronology.

    I ask them to summarize in two ways: what, for them, made a class (un?)successful, and choose one or two words to represent you mathematical life so far.

    The products tend to be fairly cute. Maybe because they are 13, and they come from a bunch of different districts, they don't really blur together.


  3. Hey Jonathan, thanks for coming over! I like your summarizing suggestions, I think I'll try that next time. I'll be on sabbatical next year, so I won't get to try it out 'til 2010. ;>

  4. sabbatical... Could go for a half year now, or roll the dice and hope the full-years are still available in 2011-12... Fingers crossed.

    The summary idea came from a colleague, who was actually a former student (took a pre-service class with me). She's off in Alaska now, teaching math, and, I would guess, assigning math autobiographies...


  5. Hi Sue. I like your blog and just posted a link to it on my Facebook page (Kim Fogel). I overheard you talking about it at the Contra Costa College math lab. I was once a certified mathphobe, but have just graduated from CCC with a certificate in Business-Accounting. Such a field would once have seemed impossible to me. I haven't had a chance to take your classes but enjoyed the workshops and Mathrelax CD. My mother loved math, and my daughter does too. I think my Dad is coming around. As for my spouse, well, you can't please everyone :-)

  6. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for writing! Good to know CCC was a good math experience for you. Your comment reminded me that I need to post here about my upcoming math salon.

  7. I really enjoyed reading your math autobiography. I often do something similar for parents on Open House Day, but, have not really engaged my students on this level. So, now I am contemplating. Thank you for the inspiration. :)

  8. I teach college students, and I'm guessing you teach high school. I would love to hear how it goes if you do anything like this. And my thanks to you, also. Namaste.


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