Math Meets Verse

Counting, Decoding, & Rhythm

by Alice Pencavel

T&W teaching Alice Pencavel offers a lesson plan that lets students connect language and equation, demystifies difficult language with concrete numbers and rhythms, and fosters collaboration among students. In so doing, the lesson elicits a physical pleasure associated with Shakespeare.

Guiding Questions: 

  • What feelings arise from the music?
  • How fast/slow is it?
  • How might the tempo influence your feeling in reaction to it?
  • Can you detect an emphasis in the rhythm?


  • Play the opening of Gustav Holst’s Opus 32: IV, “Jupiter.”
  • Ask students to jot down some feelings that arise from the music. Single words or phrases are fine.
  • Share reactions and discuss possible reasons as to why the music might prompt the feeling it does. How might the rhythm, tempo, tone, and volume impact your emotional response? You may want to listen to the piece of music again, time allowing, paying specific attention to particular parts of the music; e.g., the rhythm. Tell students to clap along to the rhythm, putting it in their bodies, then stop the music. Clap at the same tempo, this time stressing every other beat. Or perhaps stand and stomp it out if people are fed up with sitting.
  • Tell students to return to the feelings they wrote down and sit with that word or words for a moment. They are now going to transform those words into a sentence or sentences with a total of ten syllables. Use the stressing of every other beat technique to help count syllables. For example: “This song makes me feel so afraid to sleep.” Have a few students share their sentences with the group.

Close Reading: 

  • Read the “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy from Hamlet by William Shakespeare once through, and then again, just the first ten lines.
  • Ask students: Does this evoke any feeling(s) as you hear the words aloud? Without looking into the meaning of the words quite yet, how do you think Hamlet might be feeling based on the rhythm of the language? How many syllables are there for each line? If we apply our alternate stressed syllable clapping technique to this language, what words do we notice are stressed? When does the rhythm go off? How might this clue us in to how Hamlet is feeling?


  • Students get in pairs. One person offers to be “A,” the other “B.” Together they will write a dialogue, passing a single sheet of shared paper between them. A writes for “A,” B writes for “B.”
  • Ask students to choose a feeling they wrote down in reaction to the music they heard as the starting-off point. Tell them to work with their partner to write a scene that fits the following equation:

A: 2 syllables.

B: 10 syllables.

A: 4 syllables.

B: 3 syllables.

A: 1 syllable.

B: 10 syllables.

A: 11 syllables.

The dialogue does not need to remain rooted in the initial word or feeling that prompts the exchange. The subject is welcome to change. But students should try to clarify for themselves the feeling state of each of their characters.


Pairs are encouraged to share their dialogues with the rest of the class, but switching who is reading what, so that “A” now reads as “B” and vice versa. How is it hearing your words in another’s voice?

Big Reveal:

This equation exchange is the opening lines of Hamlet! Pass out the opening scene of Hamlet for students to read and ask if they notice any similarities to their own dialogues.

Photo (top) via Vox

Alice Pencavel is a writer and teacher. Prior to joining Teachers & Writers in 2021, Ms. Pencavel worked as a Teaching Artist for multiple non-profits, including Arts Connection, SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young), Brooklyn Acting Lab, Stages on the Sound, Girls Write Now, and Teachers & Writers, among others. As a playwright, she has collaborated with Naked Angels, Lincoln Center Theater, MCC, Manhattan Repertory, Superhero Clubhouse, and the Kitchen Theater. She also worked in Customer Support with DonorsChoose, helping public school students receive educational materials. Having served as a Teaching Artist with Teachers & Writers, Ms. Pencavel has seen first hand the impact of bringing writing programs into schools, and is thrilled to offer her services in this new capacity. Ms. Pencavel holds a BFA in Acting from Ithaca College, and an MFA in Playwriting from the New School.