Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - Anthologies in Math and Science

When I was teaching kids on a daily basis, I began my lessons with a cartoon, a poem, or short excerpt from a book. It was a great way to "hook" kids into the ideas that would be presented while getting them interested in learning more. Cartoons from The Far Side were a staple, as were Calvin and Hobbes (there's a lot of bad science in those babies). I had a huge classroom library, so books weren't a problem. When we studied insects I read excerpts from James and the Giant Peach, and told students their job was to determine if certain statements were true. When we studied electricity I read an excerpt from Dear Mr. Henshaw where Leigh builds an alarm system (circuit!) into his lunch box. Poetry, however, was a bit harder to come by. Sure, there was a great deal of nature poetry by some classic poets, but poetry that touched kids seemed hard to find. Keep in mind that this was during the 80's, so if it wasn't Silverstein or Prelutsky, I couldn't find it in my library.

I carried my love of literature with me into graduate work, and even though it wasn't the topic of my Masters thesis or dissertation, I couldn't let it go. When I began to think seriously about it again in the late 90's, I found Lee Bennett Hopkins, a poet himself and the man behind a number of poetry anthologies on a huge range of topics. I was hooked. Two anthologies I wish had been available when I was teaching are Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems and Spectacular Science: A Book of Poems.

Both books open with poems by Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Here is an excerpt from each.
Marvelous Math
How fast does a New York taxi go?
What size is grandpa's attic?
How old is the oldest dinosaur?
The answer's in Mathematics!

What is Science?
What is science?
So many things.

The study of stars--
Saturn's rings.
The study of rocks--
geodes and stones--
dinosaur fossils,
old-chipped bones.

(Note: The book What is Science? is a different version of the poem first published in the anthology. The illustrations are lovely and make it a stand out title on its own.)
The 16 poems in Marvelous Math and 15 poems in Spectacular Science provide thoughtful invitations to ponder the nature of science and math and the work that scientists and mathematicians do. They are perfect lesson starters for a variety of topics. Spectacular Science contains poems on stars, wind, snowflakes, seeds, magnets, dinosaur bones and more. Marvelous Math contains poems on calculators, division, multiplication, fractions, time, and other topics.

I suppose one of the things I enjoy about using these poems is that they can send discussion in any number of directions. They also make great models for writing to learn activities. Finally, they allow teachers to make great connections to other books and poems. Here's an example. Are you ready? Just follow the bouncing ball and see how I get from a poem in Marvelous Math to Loreen Leedy's new book. Here is an excerpt from p.8.
from Take a Number
by Mary O'Neill

Imagine a world
Without mathematics:

No rulers or scales,
No inches or feet,
No dates or numbers
On house or street,
No prices or weights,
No determining heights,
No hours running through
Days and nights.

(Note: This was originally published in 1968 as the book Take a Number which introduced the basic concepts of mathematics in poetic form.)
We do live in a math world, even if math-phobics are reluctant to admit it. Enter Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka. It begins:
On Monday in math class, Mrs. Fibonacci says,
"You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem."
On Tuesday I start having problems.
Through the eyes of a child we see that getting dressed, eating breakfast, catching the school bus, eating in the cafeteria, English, P.E., geography and just about everything else is related to math. How are these "problems" solved? With math, of course!

For those students who still see math as a curse, it's helpful to think about the prompt at the beginning of Mary O'Neill's poem. What would a world without math look like? In her latest book, Missing Math: A Number Mystery, Loreen Leedy shows readers what happens when the numbers all over town suddenly vanish. Beyond the obvious delight some children will have when they recognize that math can't be done (for shame!), they will soon recognize the dire situation we face without numbers, when we can no longer play sports (no scores), watch television (no channels), elect officials (no votes), send mail (no addresses), nor do lots of other things. This book is an imaginative romp through a world devoid of numbers that makes readers really take stock of the value of numbers and math in their lives.

I've gone off on a math tangent, so let me get back to science. As I mentioned earlier, there are many good books that can be connected to these anthologies. Let me tell you about two more books that make excellent companions. The first is Scien-Trickery: Riddles in Science by J. Patrick Lewis, a book full of poems to be solved on a range of science topics. There are some wonderful pairs that can be made using Spectacular Science and Scien-Trickery, including the poem Magnet by Valerie Worth with the poem Push Me, Pull Me by J. Patrick Lewis, as well as the poem Under the Microscope by Lee Bennett Hopkins with the poem Buggety Buggety Boo! by J. Patrick Lewis.

The last book that I think belongs in this set of lesson starters is Jon Scieszka's Science Verse. It begins:
On Wednesday in science class, Mr. Newton says,
"You know, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the poetry of science in everything."
I listen closely. On Thursday, I start hearing the poetry. In fact, I start hearing everything as a science poem.
Mr. Newton has zapped me with a curse of SCIENCE VERSE.
Many of the poems in this collection parody poems by Joyce Kilmer, Lewis Carroll, Ann Taylor, Robert Frost and others, as well as nursery rhymes and childhood songs. Make sure you get a copy with the CD in the back, as the audio is a great deal of fun.

So, are you ready to start a lesson with poetry today? I sure hope so.


  1. Thanks for the incredible recommendations. Can't wait to get my own copies.

  2. Tricia,

    I don't know how you manage to write up all these excellent Poetry in the Classroom posts while teaching full-time.

  3. Me either, Elaine! I did go a bit overboard on this one, however. Basically, I'm taking a book or two home a night and doing a bit of writing. I finish it up in the morning while drinking my tea. It's turned into a lovely little routine, but it is tiring!

  4. I've been really enjoying these posts. When I read this one I thought, "I wish she'd been my teacher!"

  5. Thank you, Ruth! It was fun and we all learned a lot. I do miss it, sometimes.