Bielka Liriano ’13: Making a Difference with Math Education, Part 1


bielka photo 2017-04-17Bielka Liriano graduated from Wheelock College in 2013. She majored in Mathematics for Teaching and Elementary Education. She is currently a pre-school teacher at Horizons for Homeless Children in Boston. She recently sat down with Debra Borkovitz, co-chair of the Wheelcock College Math/Science department, who was Bielka’s faculty advisor.

In the first entry of this three-part series, Bielka talks about her longtime interest in math and why she chose Wheelock.

Read the full series.

Debbie Borkovitz: What math was like for you before college?

Bielka Liriano: I’ve always been intrigued when it comes to math because for me it’s always been more of a puzzle; I’m the kind of person that attempts to find the meaning in everything I experience, that came in handy when discovering the “why” behind math concepts. I’ve always found learning math enjoyable so,I knew that majoring in math would be something,not necessarily easy but, a pleasant challenge.

DB: Did you come to Wheelock intending to major in math?

BL: Not initially, I knew I wanted to be an educator when I was an intern in an Elementary school in East Boston my junior year of high school.  There I saw how much children were behind in math and  how much they didn’t seem actively engaged in the math activities.   What I was witnessing was confusion and very mechanical  behaviors, as if the children were not understanding what they were doing, but were good at following the standard procedure of solving the problems. It was both disheartening and motivating to witness.  It motivated me to make my best effort in  making math enjoyable for children. When I knew that I could not major solely in Elementary Ed. I naturally decided to major in math and have Elementary Ed. be the concentration. My goal is to guide children in developing a true understanding of the math concepts they are learning, avoid demonstrating “how its done” as much as possible, and radiate patience through the process to create a less stressful environment.     I feel like we expect too much from children. Often times adults ask children, “Why don’t you understand this? I’m telling you three plus three, you’re adding three more items or count them all… Why are you saying seven?” We are failing to be patient and understanding. We have to see that some children over-compensate when they’re counting,they won’t point to one item at a time and count accurately. They might point to one item, say one, then say two as they move their fingers from one item to the next, and say three when their finger lands on the second item, resulting in an answer with too large of a value.  Witnessing these negative interactions between math teachers and children also motivated me to  take the next step and create math more comprehensible and enjoyable for the youth, especially those in my community.

DB: So can you say more about your community?

BL: I grew up in the projects on South Street. Most of the tenants there, including my parents, did not have more than a high school diploma, at times no more than an Elementary or Middle school education. My parents did their best to support me with school work, but were limited because of their education. Potentially, if I had not understood the lessons taught at school, and was an only child then I would have fallen behind. I understand that not every family structure is the same, some children get NO help at home and then are scolded in school for not understanding or completing work. Additionally, public schools in urban areas such as Boston are underfunded, teachers often misunderstand and mistreat the population they are serving because they cannot relate to or are unaware of our struggle.  At a certain age, I became aware that our population was disadvantaged and discriminated against. This realization sparked  anxiety, a drive to get out of that environment, and eventually my desire to serve the youth in the city that lived in poverty or experienced some level of trauma.

The environment in my community has often felt unifying, yet marginalizing; secure, yet dangerous. I grew up experiencing oxymorons left and right. The experience motivated me to persevere not only for the reasons I mentioned, but because I have witnessed my mother struggle with getting services that should not be denied or a prolonged wait to anyone, like fixing a furnace or pipes, so that we can have warm water for winter baths.

DB: And how did your family feel about you going to Wheelock, going to college?

BL: Oh my god, they are so proud! My father would always tell me “If you come home pregnant, I’m kicking you out. Do not pay attention to boys until you graduate from college. They don’t deserve your time.” He brainwashed me and it worked! I knew I wanted to make my parents proud, I knew that I would make the best of our situation because my parents came here for a reason — so that our future generations could benefit from their sacrifices. My mom is from the Dominican Republic, so coming here, she wanted her children and grandchildren to have an education, to be able to make the best out of our lives financially and educationally. Her purpose was also to financially support her family back home..

DB: How did you pick Wheelock specifically? Did you consider other colleges?

BL: I did, I apply to others but I was thrilled with Wheelock because the teacher that exposed me to the internship in high school recommended Wheelock. And then, honestly the mission statement, you guys did well with that because it hooked me. I thought “improving the lives of children and families….this is where I need to be.”


In the next installment of Bielka’s interview, we will dive into her experience as a math major.