Poetry plus math equals fun

Reading poetry to learn math?

On a recent afternoon, students at Darlington Elementary School did just that as children's author Greg Tang used rhymes, puzzles and games aimed at making it easier to understand math.


"When you're in a fickle mood, pickles are the perfect food. Some are sour, some are sweet, either way they are good to eat. How many pickles in this bunch? Try subtracting in a crunch!" the Boston-based author read aloud during a presentations to about 130 students at the school.

The poem is included in Math Potatoes, one of seven math-related children's books written by Tang and published by Scholastic Press. Other titles include the New York Times best-seller Grapes of Math, Math For All Seasons, Math Appeal, and Math-terpieces.


"My goal is to make math fun," said Tang, 46, who also gives professional development seminars to teachers throughout the country. "I want to teach children analytical problem-solving methods that will make math easier for them."

Tang's visit was part of an author study undertaken by the students that consisted of reading the author's books and writing poems with a math theme. The writer's appearance fee of $1,600 was paid for by the school's PTA.

Coordinators Laura Hocker, the school's reading specialist, and Dawn Stickles, the librarian, wanted to use the author program -- started at the school last year -- to connect literature and math this year, she said.

"The students started a new math program this year, and it's the main focus at the school," Hocker said. "But also we wanted the students to learn about books from an author. We wanted them to learn things like how authors come up with their ideas and what a real author does to compile a book."

Preparation for Tang's visit began in the fall, said fourth-grader Lynn Bowman. The students decorated classroom doors, wrote math poems and made up riddles to mimic the ones Tang writes in his books, she said.

"I read his books a lot," said Lynn, 9, who was selected as one of a dozen children who had lunch and a discussion with the author at the end of the presentations. "Sometimes the puzzles are hard, but they are a lot of fun."

She found that Tang's approach made it easier for her to grasp tricky concepts.

"His way of doing math is a lot more fun," Lynn said. "I am going to try some of his math tricks the next time I'm struggling on a math test."


Tang, who grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., began writing the books for children having difficulty with math. His inspiration came while tutoring his daughter's first-grade class, he said.

"The kids in her class [in Belmont, Mass.] were all counting on their fingers," he said. "They were counting using dominoes. And counting is the worst way to do math. The kids were doing all the things a good math student doesn't do."

The writer wanted to create a program to teach children to develop analytical rather than concrete thinking skills when figuring out math problems, he said.

"The key is to teach students to do mental math," said Tang. "Learning what you can't see, forces you to be more abstract."

After making presentations to the pupils, Tang and a dozen children representing all grade levels gathered in the school's media center for lunch and a question-and-answer session.

Teachers also said they found Tang's presentation entertaining and engaging.


"He taught the students ways to perform easy tricks to work with all numbers, even big ones," said Patrick Ernst, a fifth-grade teacher.

There was ample evidence around the school that students had been working to explore a new approach to math. Third-grader Autumn Anderson took Tang to her classroom and showed him a door that had been decorated by the class. Voted best in the school, the door was adorned with math problems portrayed through pictures and poems.

"His way is the fun way to do math," Autumn said. "And easy math sounds good to me."