Not a Math Person

Not a Math Person?

Do you hear this, in one form or another, from your students?  Or, do you think that about yourself?  If so, I suggest you read the following – Living Proof: Stories of Resilience Along the Mathematical Journey which is a free download from the Mathematical Association of America.

 The book dispels the myth of ‘math people’.  The book is divided into 4 sections; stories of those people who suddenly find mathematical concepts obvious after years of long hard struggle, stories of those who suffered discouragement, stories of those who ‘used’ unconventional strategies for achieving mathematical success and, finally, stories of those who were affected by serendipity and luck in their mathematical achievements.

In the Foreward, the authors begin “Playing the violin is hard, hitting a baseball is hard, and learning a second language is hard. What seems to make mathematics different from playing the violin or learning Chinese is that the struggle to play violin doesn’t make people feel defeated and dumb. Somehow, when we encounter difficulties in mathematics, our natural tendency is to retreat, to think it’s too hard, we’re not smart enough, or we’re not ‘math people.’  We allow ourselves to be defeated by the difficulty.”

The book’s short 40 or so ‘autobiographies’ will, hopefully, inspire students of math and teachers of math to persist.

Again, my colleague and co-author Aleks, described a similar strategy as one of the 4 aspects of culturally relevant teaching in the October 2019 blog post ‘Four aspects of culturally relevant teaching

Together, learning and studying growth mindset and the stories of people who have successfully struggled with mathematics can inspire you and your students.

By the way, there are many children’s books associated with people doing mathematics (rather than focusing on the mathematics).  Here are three I’ve read and recommended to friends.

The first that comes to mind is The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by  Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham (Illustrations).  Erdos is not a well-known name outside of mathematical circles, but he was a prolific mathematician and deserving of much more notoriety.

Then, there’s The Girl with a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by  Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley (Illustrations).  As a little girl she did not know how sexism and racial inequality would challenge her dreams, even keeping her greatest career accomplishment a secret for decades. Through it all, the gifted mathematician persisted–finally gaining her well-deserved title in history: a pioneer who changed the course of ship design forever.

My third and final recommendation is Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of Unshakable Mathematician Sophie Germain by Cheryl Bardoe, and Barbara McClintock.  This story, of a girl whose parents took away her candles so she couldn’t study math as well as sending her work under a male pen name to avoid detection, is one of perseverance.  By the way, I teach a History of Math class once a year, and Sophie Germain always ranks as a favorite mathematician among my graduate students.

Have you used any of these in your classroom? Are math stories part of your teaching strategy? We look forward to your comments.

Would you like more posts like this or something else? Tell us what would be most helpful right now or for the upcoming winter ‘break’.

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Have a question for the authors? Email us at or tweet us @ProfessorAleksV and @GeorgeLitman1


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