Using Poetry to Explore Math

My current favorite book to teach math is Ten Times Better by Richard Michelson (Marshall Cavendish, 2000). This book of poems stars an interesting cast of animals who use poetry to dialog with one another about who is ten times better. There are so many wonderful things about this book! For one thing, it integrates several content areas—language arts, mathematics, and science. Most importantly, the book provides real life contexts for what happens to a number when we multiply it by ten and multiples of ten.

When I want to use children’s literature to teach math, I look for books with unforgettable characters, colorful language, and rich illustrations. The animals in Ten Times Better are not your typical animals —three-toed sloths, centipedes with thirty feet, four-tusked warthogs, frogs with forty warts, five-armed sea stars, goldfish that come in schools of fifty—you get the picture. The author uses dueling poetry to have each animal argue with another about who has a better attribute—who is ten times better (longer, faster, bigger) than the other. Here’s a camel arguing with a male sage grouse:

“The coolest number’s TWO. It’s true!

I have TWO eyes TWO ears—like you.

But I have extras that you lack,

TWO hairy bumps on my Bactrian back.”

“Two bumps? Too bad. Ladies and gentry


feathers spike out from my tail.

You can’t upstage a sage grouse male.”

In the back of the book, there is a section with information about all of the animals, including interesting facts that students can use for doing research, or for just finding out more about their favorite animals.

Here's a video recording of Ten Times Better being read aloud:

The Math

Ten Times Better offers many possibilities for thinking about and teaching mathematics.

Multiplicative Comparisons

In fourth grade for example, students learn about multiplicative compare problems, where 20=2x10 is interpreted as “20 is ten times as many as 2.”

Camel with 2 humps. Ten Times Better: Sage grouse male with 20 tail feathers.

20 is 10 times greater than 2

Mathematical Model of Multiplicative Comparison


Ten Times Better can also help children see that multiplication can be used when measuring things. And as they learn about multiplication when measuring, they get to learn some facts about animals. For example, did you know that a peacock’s feathers are ten times lighter than human skin? This is because their feathers are not living and don’t have blood vessels.


The book also has examples of rates. For example, did you know that a ten-inch centipede can run twenty inches in one second? Did you know that camels can drink ten times more water in one minute than you drink all day? Did you know that when sloths are being chased, they move ten times slower than most people run? You can have students dig more deeply into these rates, doing research to see if the comparisons are true, and then extend the rates through tables, graphs, and equations.

Springboard for Multiplication Activities

Ten Times Better can serve as a jumping off point for teaching children how to multiply whole numbers by ten and multiples of ten. There are some engaging math games that give students practice with this base ten concept and provide opportunities to think critically, make decisions, and use math skills for a purpose. Target 300 is one of my favorites and is a perfect companion to Ten Times Better. Here’s are the directions for the game:

Target 300 Instructions
Download DOCX • 13KB

More Poetry and Math Connections

There are so many opportunities to integrate math and poetry! I found the following site called, “We are Teachers,” and one of the topics focuses on using Shel Silverstein’s poems as a launch for doing mathematics Shel Silverstein Poems and Math. The article shares math activities for six different Silverstein poems.

Marvelous Math (Lee Bennett Hopkins, 2001) is a collection of poems from a variety of poets that provide a playful look at the ways in which mathematics is part of our daily lives. I’ve used the book to give students ideas about writing their own math poems. After listening to the book, students write and illustrate poems about all kinds of things including angles, congruence, trapezoids, squares, numbers, operations, and on and on.

Here’s a link to a reading of one of the poems titled, SOS.

Here’s a link to a reading of the poem, Imagine a World Without Mathematics

Using Poetry as a Way into Mathematics

Using poetry to launch and then teach math concepts is much more effective and enjoyable (dare I say TEN TIMES BETTER) than handing children a worksheet. Books like Tens Times Better have the power to capture students’ imaginations, pique their interests, and lay the groundwork for teaching about important math concepts. Using poetry gives children the chance to see math from multiple perspectives, and it sends the message that math is as much an art as it is a science.

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