Mathematics and Poetry: Problem Solving in Context

Article excerpt

Although many elementary school teachers routinely share poetry with their students to foster an appreciation of language and literature, poetry can also promote the learning of mathematics. Many poems - through rhythm, rhyme, story, and interesting word choices - evoke situations that engage children and can serve as a basis for mathematical problem solving.

Some ideas and activities designed to integrate poetry into the third-grade mathematics curriculum are presented in this article. The discussion demonstrates how a humorous poem sparked a great deal of lively talk about mathematics and involved third graders in estimating, devising and comparing problem-solving strategies, creating their own mathematical poems, and posing original problems based on their poems. Other poems have similar potential for strengthening students' interest and involvement in mathematics. Suggestions for selecting poetry to complement the mathematics curriculum are included, along with an annotated list of poems, called a "poemography," which is arranged by mathematics content.

Although these activities were implemented in a third-grade class, many of the ideas could be adapted for younger as well as older children on the basis of their interests and abilities. This approach begins with using poetry to generate ideas about mathematics. After sharing problem-solving strategies, children create their own poems using mathematical ideas. Children return to the mathematics as they share their original poems and pose and solve problems related to their friends' writing.

From Poetry to Mathematics

To begin, the classroom teacher read "Smart," "The Googies Are Coming," "Band-Aids," and "Overdues" by Shel Silverstein (1974, 1981). The poems were already familiar to many of the children, since they had been made available during sustained silent-reading time. Before making connections with mathematics, the teacher read the poems aloud to the children, enjoying the language, the sounds, and the thoughts expressed in the poems. She then posed the following question: "What do these poems have in common?" The children responded enthusiastically, noting that all the poems had numbers in them, all rhymed, and all were written by the same author.

To pursue the mathematics objectives for the class of estimating and solving problems with large numbers, the teacher decided to focus on Silverstein's poem "Overdues". Since the poem deals with a potentially large, but unspecified, amount of money owed as a library fine for an outlandishly overdue book, it set the stage for problem solving in a meaningful yet humorous context.


After several children volunteered to read "Overdues" aloud, the class read the poem together. Since the poem ends with a question, the teacher asked the class, "Well, what should he do?" Suggestions included keeping the book or returning it, which prompted the opportunity for discussing the responsibilities related to borrowing library books. The children described what they would do. Jackie responded, "Pay the fine and be broke." When the teacher inquired why she would be broke, Jackie said, "Because I'd have to pay a lot of money for forty-two years." This reason led naturally to key aspects of the lesson: estimating the fine for the overdue book, formulating and solving a problem related to the situation, comparing estimates and computed amounts, and extending the problem.


The teacher probed, "How much does an overdue book cost for one day at your library?" Eric said that his library charges $0.10 a day. Although other children had suggested various amounts, the class decided to use Eric's rate. The teacher then asked the children, "How much money do you think the character in the poem owes for the overdue book?"

As the children offered estimates of $4.20, $50, $1000, $1001, $600, and $400, the teacher recorded them on chart paper, which remained visible during the next phase of the activity. …