Curriculum Planning

How Math Autobiographies Build Student Confidence

Incorporating a writing task into lessons can help students reflect on their work and see their skills in a new light.

July 8, 2024
martin-dm / iStock

As educators, we understand the crucial role of fostering confidence and a strong math identity in our students. We aim for each student to feel empowered and to see themselves as capable mathematicians every day. One effective way to nurture this mindset is by encouraging students to write a math autobiography. This reflective exercise invites them to consider their entire mathematical journey, which helps build confidence and reinforce the belief that they are inherently skilled at math.

Writing a math autobiography allows students to connect with each other through their mathematical experiences, identify their learning preferences (though those may change), and set future goals. It also highlights the times when they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone and found joy in the challenges they faced. Take a fifth grader, who discovered that “the more challenging math got, the more I loved it.” This realization helped her embrace challenges, because she knew she could enjoy them. 

Similarly, another fifth grader reflected on his experience learning math during the pandemic. He found that virtual learning strengthened his perseverance, and he realized the power of his own resilience. By integrating reading, writing, and talking, this project guides students to develop a mathematical mindset. 

Would Students Describe Themselves as Mathematicians? 

Most students wouldn’t know how to respond, but we know mathematicians each have their own unique and beautiful math history. We can guide students by helping them find what they enjoy as a mathematician, how they hope to be perceived as a mathematician, and what concepts they’re passionate about. In our experience, students uncovered their math identity by using mentor texts and emotion graphs.

Mentor texts provide a mathematician’s perspective while allowing students to reflect on their own math journey. We chose to share mentor texts centered around the theme of perseverance. When we read Nothing Stopped Sophie, by Cheryl Bardoe, a fourth-grade mathematician stated, ”I forget that every person has trouble with math sometimes.” 

We used emotion graphs to help students share their stories and experiences, which allowed them to realize what has shaped their mindset. This visual brainstorming task was the foundation for their math autobiography. As students thought about their math feelings throughout the years, memories flooded into their heads. 

For our upper elementary students, we decided to use three different emojis on the y axis (happy, indifferent, and sad). The x axis listed the time period of their life. Most students had a “before school” category and then listed each grade level individually. 

Planning on Paper and Identifying Relatable Themes 

With these connections made, students were ready to plan their math autobiographies. Each student got six sticky notes to jot ideas related to their own history. When students read biographies, they look for certain elements (dates, challenges or obstacles, achievements, memorable moments, firsts and lasts, and connections or relationships).

They consider their own math history with each of these lenses, which gives them a collection of ideas to get writing. When students place each sticky note on a sheet of plain white paper, they’re able to view all of their ideas at one time and begin to plan their own autobiography. As they write, they can return to their sticky notes over and over again, weaving in each component. Students might plan ahead by adding a star to certain ideas that they want to include. They might also use check marks to keep track of what they’ve included so far. 

In addition, having the sheet with these sticky notes at student workspaces will help teachers engage in writing conferences to help students get started when they’re stuck (and also help students rehearse ideas with partners before writing).

As students began writing, we noticed that each one crafted their own theme. One student reflected on his confidence in math when he wrote, “When I was in kindergarten, that’s when math started to play a role in my life” and “I realized it was not good to be overconfident in my math skills.”

Another student highlighted her perseverance in her math autobiography, saying, “I knew after trying and working hard, I could do it!” A student chose to focus his writing around connecting mathematics to world experiences when he wrote, “Math, I found, was everywhere—in Sesame Street, on cereal boxes, and in chess, my favorite board game—and so I grew as a mathematician.”

Instructional Strategies That Empower Mathematicians

Having the texts out while students are writing is key. Students quickly pointed out that the mentor texts they were reading had illustrations and pictures, so they included pictures in their own math autobiographies. Students wrote captions to convey the theme of their photographs. 

When describing a candy photo he had pasted on his autobiography, a fifth grader wrote, “Mathematicians sort objects. On Halloween, me and my friends gave ‘values’ to every candy to make trading easier.” Mathematicians became motivated to teach others through their own math story. As a result, they became more confident in their math identity.

Showcase Student Projects in Different Ways 

Some students created storybooks, others designed scrapbook pages, and still others wrote by hand, typed, or recorded their voice. Projects included real photographs, graphs, and math symbols in their design. A gallery walk displayed the math autobiographies so that everyone could move around to see the projects. 

In a follow-up discussion, consider asking students: 

  • What’s the same about your work and someone else’s work? What is different? 
  • What kind of mathematicians are we? Can you finish this statement, “We’re the kind of mathematicians who…”?
  • What can we do with math? How would you finish this sentence, “With math, we can…”? (Do this a few times in different ways.) 

Embedding this writing project into any math classroom can help build confidence in students and promote reflection. Elementary mathematicians will craft a successful autobiography when they have time to reflect on their feelings around math, brainstorm memorable moments, and connect with other mathematicians. 

Reflecting on their current feelings about their identity, the more they reflect, the more they’ll grow in and outside of the classroom.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Math
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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