Monday, 2 August 2021

Unearthing a maths poem By Steve Way

Amongst other things – including writing! – I currently teach Spanish adults English via the internet. When we’ve been talking about their children preparing for university, they have been surprised to learn that the UK children begin to specialise from the age of 16 (indeed in reality often sooner) whereas in Spain all subjects are studied up until they do their entrance exam and then specialise when they get to university.

Given that there isn’t an obvious deficit either way in the end result, with Spanish graduates seemingly doing as well as UK graduates, I wonder whether there would be more options for some UK students to gain an broader rather than a deeper education up until the age of 18? More ‘Jack of All Trades’ than ‘Master of a Few’.

I say this as a bit of a rule breaker myself. Although maths and science subjects seemed the most obvious choice for me at 16, I didn’t want to give up studying English Literature - I dreamed of being a writer after all! – and so ended up doing so alongside maths and two sciences. To their credit the staff at the comprehensive I went to in Swindon tried to partly organise the sixth form timetable around me – as you can imagine science subjects were generally taught at the same time as arts/humanities subjects. They managed it perfectly in the first year but in a fascinating duality – that might have interested both quantum physicists and fantasy writers – I was supposed to be in a physics lesson at the same time as in an English lesson. (What was it that Hermione had in Harry Potter? I could have done with that!)

The rapid switching from studying physics to English was pretty mind-blowing (when this overlap occurred, I was always half way through a physics lesson and figured that zipping over to the English class was the best compromise) and emphasised something I noticed even at that relatively young age. It was the marked degree to which the thinking and outlook of my classmates studying science subjects was rapidly diverging from that of those studying arts subjects. I did often feel that I was existing in parallel worlds – none of my classmates in the English class were the same as those in my science classes.

I experienced a similar pronounced dichotomy in my first year at university. I’d registered to study biology but in our first year we were obliged to study two additional subjects. Whilst most of my fellow biologists studied other science subjects, I think I became the first – and as far as I know un until I left – only student to pick the combination of biology, psychology and theatre studies.

I loved it! Of course, there was a similar challenge with timetabling – after a two-hour theatre studies workshop I had to run down the length of the campus to get to a biology lecture! I was heartbroken that I couldn’t continue with a similar combination in my second and third years. I was forced to specialise.

Not surprisingly in that first year I once again mixed with two completely different groups of students, who thought in completely different ways. I also became aware as I completed my biology degree that if I wanted to continue my studies I would have to become even more of a specialist, which you can probably imagine didn’t appeal, and that there was no room for taking a broad approach and attempting to forge links and connections between the different branches of biology. I’d noticed for example that many of our lecturers – who’s fields differed greatly – often (briefly) noted intriguing effects of particular wavelengths of blue light on the diverse life-forms or functions they studied but there seemed no place for someone who might want to draw these observations together.

The catalyst that let to me wanting to explore my experience of this apparently British focus on specialism was rediscovering some maths-poems I’d written. Just before Covid struck my main computer broke down and I’ve only just been able to get it repaired. When I dug down into my reopened files I discovered ideas, poems and parts of poems that I’d completely forgotten about.

The enforced passage of time in which these pieces were buried enabled me to objectively realise which piece needed to stay buried – but also allowed me to appreciate some others that I’m really pleased with. It’s odd to think that I once had an idea that I now think might have been worth having – and which I might not ever have had again, since I’m so surprised by it now! It’s a bit like reading something you wrote a very long time ago and barely remember and feeling like you didn’t do such a bad a job after all!

I want to share a maths poem that was unearthed along with the others. In this case I knew about the first part of the poem, it’s even been published, but I had totally forgotten that I’d added two extra verses.

Now if you’re reading this on the ABBA blog, I know you’re more like to be in (to have been steered towards at an early age?) the arts/humanities camp but I hope you will enjoy it… could it even be a small rebellious step away from specialism! Even if you don’t it may be useful for any teenagers in your orbit who may be on a trajectory towards maths exams and battling with different graphs and would find an alternative way of considering them useful.

PS knowing that we either have a love or hate relationship with maths*, I’ve come across a few people who’ve found the idea of writing about maths or science creatively surprising. I invite you to consider, given my modest attempt to do so, what you might achieve in bringing these subjects to life in an original way!

* I used to privately tutor children and adults in maths. Without exception when first arriving to teach an adult they would declare, ‘I can’t do maths’. Two of them were accounts for large companies! (‘Well, what I do doesn’t count’) Another lovely lady became my wife – so I can easily recall her first words when we met!


Y equals mx plus C.

Y equals mx plus C,

How great can an equation be?


m is the gradient, you see,

I don’t know why, don’t ask me!

There’s no “m” in gradient I know…

But this was agreed years ago!

(You may think I’m old, grumpy and weak

But this maths was made up by a Greek!)


A gradient of one-in-four,

Means one up and four ‘long the floor.

The line rises from the left to the right,

Just as in the direction we write.

Minus gradients fall from the left side,

As downwardly negative they slide.

A gradient of minus three,

Is one along, three down – do you see?


The “intercept” it’s known as “C”,

Describing where on the y-axis it be.

So as I hope you will agree,

It’s located at zero, then C.*     


Y equals mx plus C,

How great can an equation be?

All straight lines fall into its realm,

So now you can plot all of them!


* (0,C)


Square graphs are different as you’ll see,

By rising exponentially.

If a number’s squared, (as you may know…)

Its value it does quickly grow.

As x goes up a little bit,

Y shoots up like a rocket!

Since negatives all square as plus,

Symmetrical graphs are made for us.


Cube graphs go quickly up and down,

As if wanting to both fly, then drown!

Cubes change much faster than do squares,

Like changing to a lift from stairs!

Three minuses in a cube do give,

A result that comes out negative.


‘Y equals mx plus C’ in an earlier form was published in Using stories to teach Maths Ages 9 to 11 (High Achievers Supplement) by Hopscotch Educational publishing ISBN 978-1-909860-00-1

If you enjoyed my poem you might enjoy others that I have recorded on YouTube under the title Steve Way Writer such as my poem about flat shapes.


The link is;

1 comment:

Andrew Preston said...

Not sure about these days, but traditionally, the Scottish education system offered a broader education than England.

In Scotland, in 1968, at 16, I gained 7 O Levels on a fairly wide range of subjects, though none were the arts. There were art classes, but the teacher would tell us what to do, point to where the materials were, and and then he'd adjourn to the store room to get on with some drinking. I learned nothing.

There was an amount of narrowing for the following year, but I still did Highers in Maths, English, History, and Physics. There was a slight complication in that a few months prior to the Highers, my parents told me that my father had taken up a new job in Somerset. I was absolutely aghast. I had zero desire to move to Somerset. I voiced my objections, so they went, and left me behind. Or to be more exact, I stayed behind in lodgings for a few months, took the Highers, then travelled to England.

When I arrived, my parents told me that I'd be going to what was then regarded as the best grammar school in Somerset, in Taunton. A 40 mile daily round trip by train. So my introduction to the Lower 6th Form was....

the A-Level curriculum. Mathematics. Applied Mathematics, Physics. I hated it. Maths is a subject that I never failed, either in school, or at university. It is, though a subject that I never had any great liking for, or attraction to.

I felt like I was being squeezed into a bottle that I didn't want to be in. I hated being at that school. I hated being in Somerset. I didn't like being referred to as 'Angus' by other pupils. The other side of the, er, equation, was that my contempt for .... cricket, the emphasis on the importance of the school tuck shop, the attention directed towards those deemed as candidates for Oxford/Cambridge...., was fairly obvious.

I did b all for 15 months, gained one 'A' Level ( yes, mathematics ) despite my worst efforts, and was thankful to then return to Scotland for university.