Adding Humanity to Math Class

This post was written by Peter DeCraene, 2020-22 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

For many students, mathematics feels like a dusty, heavy rock that they need to carry for a time and drop as soon as possible. The joy of exploration and discovery can be squashed by the weighty need to know facts and procedures. I have found that helping students articulate their feelings and thinking about mathematics nurtures that joy, and acknowledging the feelings that math can become heavy eases students’ worries about the subject.

Including some poetry in math classes can help increase the joy and soothe the worry. A good poem to use is the first poem in Poetry 180, a project created by Billy Collins, 2001-2003 United States Poet Laureate.

Start by reading the poem aloud, and ask the students to record their reactions in any way they choose, such as sketching an image or jotting the words that stand out. After the reading, provide a written copy of the poem. Perhaps some students will read the poem aloud a second or third time.

Then, rather than subject the poem to the beating Collins describes, ask the students if there is anything they find interesting or exciting that tends to have the excitement wrung from it by school, media, or culture. How might they adapt Collins’ poem for the new topic? As an example, I would suggest that we can replace the word “poem” with “math problem” and it still makes sense to me. (I might also change the three lines about waterskiing to a metaphor about parasailing, but I may be overthinking it.)

Based on “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins:

I ask them to take a math problem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide…


I want them to parasail

over the surface of a problem

thrilling at the rush of wind and splash landing.


Ask students to revise “Introduction to Poetry,” or write a new poem, about a subject they enjoy that is often misunderstood by others. Invite them to share their work with the class, if they are comfortable doing so. In reading each other’s work, the students have the chance to learn about each other and about an unfamiliar or misunderstood topic. And, in the process, bring more of their humanity to math class.

To learn more about Poetry 180, listen to this recording of a program co-sponsored by the Library and the National Council of Teachers of English.

If you try this, or a variation of this idea, please let us know how your students respond!