Miami U math professor teaches high school students to analyze Shakespeare

Math Teacher April 2009

Math Teacher April 2009

The current issue of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCMT) Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 102, No. 8 April 2009 cover article by Michael Todd Edwards, is titled: “Who Was the Real William Shakespeare?: Connecting language arts and mathematics, students use data analysis and readability measures to identify the Bard”. (pp 580-585).

Michael Todd Edwards is an assistant professor of mathematics education in the Dept. of Teacher Education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His research interests include the use of graphing calculators and dynamic geometry software in the teaching and learning of mathematics.

In the introduction to his article, Edwards says:

This article presents an interdisciplinary project I have used with students to connect reading and mathematics instruction at the secondary school level. Using a data analysis approach, students examine Shakespearean sonnets in a course entitled Functions, Statistics and Trigonometry while simultaneously studying the same works form literary and historical points of view in an English literature course. As they learn the basics of testing statistical hypotheses, the students use statistics to determine the likelihood that William Shakespeare was actually the pen name of Edward de Vere, a long-standing hypothesis popular among linguists and historians and promulgated by recent works such as The Shakespeare Enigma (Dawkins 2004)

He continues:

As ninth and tenth graders study Shakespeare in language arts classes, they are given the article “Hunting for Good Will: Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?” (Satchell 2000). The author provides evidence supporting the view that William Shakespeare was actually a pseudonym of Edward de Vere (1550-1604) the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, a recognized poet and playwright of the time. Although the debate about Shakespeare’s identity has continued for centuries, until recently statistical analysis – including comparisons of deVere’s poems and those of Shakespeare – war simply beyond the grasp of most scholars. However, with the increased popularity of graphing calculators, statistical investigations of Shakespeare’s writing now lie within the reach of typical high school students.

Technology allows students a chance to engage in authentic research, here comparing literary works of various authors in a manner similar to Johnson (1994) and others. Specifically, students collect and analyze data collaboratively in an attempt to answer contemporary research questions regarding Shakespeare’s identity.

At the end of the article Edwards summarizes:

Although our investigations have not provided my students with evidence sufficient to conclude that William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the project has encouraged them to reconsider mathematics as a useful interesting field of study. Although my intention is not to reduce the work of Shakespeare (and others) to average word length and syllable count – the Bard’s skillful use of wit, irony, allusion, and personification as well as his artful elaboration of timeless themes set his work apart – the statistical study of Shakespeare’s writing has proved worthwhile for my students.

As my students analyze word length data with Microsoft Excel or their TI-84+ calculators, they use research methods similar to those university researchers use (Johnson 1994) and are often surprised to discover how accessible such techniques are. Moreover, my students have found the activities motivating because , as they construct histograms and box-and-whisker plots, they attempt to answer a question that has puzzled readers, scholars, and historians for generations: Who was the real William Shakespeare?

Although Edwards says the student’s investigations don’t show conclusively that Edward de Vere was Shakespeare, he does say: “Although the result does not tell us that Shakespeare and DeVere are the same person, it fails to provide us with evidence that would allow us safely to reject the hypothesis.”

Note: The author notes that the definition of chi-square is typeset incorrectly in the publication.

The author acknowledges his colleagues in the Dept. of Teacher Education and the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University for support and guidance in his interdisciplinary initiatives. He can be reached at:

His references include:
Reading Counts: Expanding the Role of Reading in Mathematics Classrooms, Borasi and Siegel, 2000
The Shakespeare Enigma, Peter Dawkins, 2004
Comparing Texts and Identifying Authors TEXT Technology 4, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 7-12

Mathematics Teacher is published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Edwards article appears in Mathematics Teacher Vol. 102, No. 8 April 2009.

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