MA '94, Elementary Education
Since receiving her MA in elementary education in 1994 from the Department of Teaching and Learning, Jennifer DiBrienza has made it her mission to examine how children learn and improve how they are taught math. "I've always been fascinated by math," she says, "because people use it constantly in their everyday lives." DiBrienza also received a BA in psychology in 1993 from NYU’s College of Arts and Science. Currently, she's attending Stanford University full time, pursing a PhD in mathematics education. In her spare time she serves on NYU's alumni board of directors, where she organizes the network and reunion committees for the San Francisco Bay area.
You obviously have a strong connection to NYU. How do you remember your time there?
I had some wonderful child development courses at NYU – both in the College of Arts and Science and the School of Culture, Education, and Human Development – which really helped me clarify my present interests concerning elementary education. NYU was also very good about their student teaching placements. I was placed in two great public school classrooms with cooperating, accessible teachers. Until then, I had no concept of what it would be like to teach in a public school in New York City. It was wonderful to get in there and have that experience while studying what I loved.
Why elementary education?
I always knew I wanted to work with children. When I was growing up I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician. I think kids are fascinating, funny, entertaining, smart. I love being around them and learning from them. Also, I'd always been interested in mathematics, and I wanted to figure out why most people in this country are math-phobic. It seemed to me the problem begins at the elementary school level. A lot of elementary education teachers learned math solely by rules and formulas – and they then teach math this way, which isn't productive for many students. By middle school and high school kids can be really lost. I focused on elementary education because I wanted to understand what goes on when kids are first introduced to math.
What did you do between the time you received your master's in 1994 and the time you entered the doctoral program at Stanford last fall?
I was a classroom teacher at PS 116, an elementary school on East 33rd Street in Manhattan. I taught kindergarten through second grade. It was an invaluable experience. I arrived at a time when the District had begun to re-investigate its thinking about math education. Many elementary teachers are fans of literacy over math and the District embarked on some wonderful research to remedy this. My time there became "action research" and formed the basis of my current thinking about mathematics in elementary education.
Have you given thought to what you'd like to do once you receive your PhD?
I'd like to go back into the public school system and work in teacher training. I'd also be interested in getting into policy, which would mean sitting on a state or federal board of education, or a commission that is creating standards for schools. Many policy people aren't educators, and they often don't have the knowledge or background to make well-informed decisions. I'd also love to teach at the university level. Whatever position I take, I hope to continue to support a transition to a better way of teaching children math.