There are two types of people in the world: those who are good at math, and those who are not. This was the truth I grew up with, and from the time I was very small, I knew exactly where I stood along that line.
I am a math teacher, and I love it. So of course most people assume that I have always been good at math…but the truth is very, very different.
This is my story.
I was eight years old when I realized there was something terribly wrong with my brain.
I absolutely could not learn anything with numbers. None of it made sense. I would memorize a math rule and forget it an hour later. I couldn’t even remember dates in history class. Math was a foreign language that I could not learn, no matter how hard I tried.
I failed my first math class, pre-algebra, in seventh grade. In eighth grade I took it again, and I failed it again. I took it a third time as a freshman in high school and I got a D- in the class, still as confused as I’d been three years earlier.
I went from being one of the “smart kids” to feeling profoundly stupid. I could not do what everyone else could do. I loved science, but never even signed up for chemistry or biology classes because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do the math.
When I was 18 years old, all the kids in my class took a career aptitude survey. Mine listed things like pilot and archaeologist, but I completely ignored the results. Instead, I went down the list of all the possible professions and circled whichever ones required the least amount of math.
In the end, there were just five or six careers left for me to choose from, and I used that tiny list to choose my college major and my life’s work.
Being bad at math was my big, shameful secret. I was brilliant in my non-math jobs as a linguist, speech pathologist, and ESL instructor, but I couldn’t subtract without using my fingers, couldn’t figure out tip at a restaurant, had no clue how to figure out a 20% off sale price.
Then, one day, I picked up a library book that changed my life.*
It was a book about numbers. Each number, from one to ten, was explored in shapes, nature and art. Math was the connective tissue between nature and beauty. Patterns, not rules, were the framework behind how it all worked.
For the first time in my life, I could SEE math. It was like a light switch flipped on. If I could see pictures in my head, I could visualize how to do the math. When numbers became shapes, all those random math rules and formulas suddenly had meaning for me.
I had always just assumed I could not learn math, that I had a math-defective brain. I realized that I actually had a very mathematical mind when I could come at it visually. The problem wasn’t me; it was how I had been taught.
I was still terrible at math. The difference was that now I wanted to learn.
I went on Amazon and bought a geometry textbook. I would rush home from work so I could play with math. I would draw pictures and cut shapes out of paper, and every day I would have this big a-ha moment where everything clicked together. I was obsessed. It felt like falling in love.
In the next several months, I taught myself all the math I’d never understood in school. Math became like a game for me, like a giant puzzle. I didn’t memorize rules; I looked for patterns. I solved problems by seeing pictures in my head. I even found math patterns in flower petals.
I became a math evangelist, telling everyone about my experience and what I was learning. Parents started bringing me their girls with severe math anxiety–smart kids who couldn’t seem to learn math. My work was all trial and error back then, but I had one huge advantage: I had been that girl, and I knew what didn’t work.
I discovered that almost a third of women and girls in the U.S. think of themselves as bad at math. Our way of teaching math in school was clearly broken. This way of learning made so much sense–it was fun, it was easy to understand–so why wasn’t anyone sharing this with all those struggling kids?
If I could learn math, anyone could learn it. I just had to figure out how to teach it.
The first girl I worked with was called Payton. She was a fourth grader who counted on her fingers to add 4+2. She would study math for hours and forget everything in ten minutes.
We started at the beginning, first grade level, and drew pictures. She loved drawing and was brilliant at finding patterns. I could see her eyes light up as math finally made sense to her. She went home that day with the hugest grin on her face. By the end of the school year she had caught up to grade level and had become a kid who called herself “good at math”.
I saw this story happen over and over again, with dozens and then hundreds of kids. These were kids who were terrified of making a mistake, who burst into tears doing homework and who secretly worried that they were stupid. I would watch their eyes light up and their bodies relax with joy and relief that they could do this.
Over the next several years, I tried everything: games, math tricks, strategies, puzzles, manipulatives, drawing, math picture books, themed projects… There were endless possibilities for fun math, but what would make the biggest impact?
I was convinced that good math teaching would be challenging and fun, and would make sense to kids of all learning styles. I developed a system made up of powerful “sequences”–clusters of activities that helped kids learn math skills quickly and deeply through play.
The kids I work with today have an unusual and wonderful relationship to math.They know that “bad at math” isn’t actually a thing. For them math is fun–a tricky puzzle to solve. They know they can do it, and that there are many “right” ways to get the right answer.
*The book that started it all for me was called “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe“, by Michael Schneider.