Math instructor Eva Sagan wrote and performed a mathematics-based spoof of a classic Billy Joel song for a national teachers organization. 
Photo by Chloe Arndt

MU Math Professor Channels Inner Billy Joel

Erin Hickle

Manchester University mathematics instructor Eva Sagan channeled her inner Billy Joel to create a parody music video inspired by the Indiana Mathematics Curriculum Standards. The song was created for a contest sponsored by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM).

The NCTM was founded in 1920 and is the world’s largest mathematics education organization. Its mission statement is to advocate for high-quality mathematics teaching and learning for all students. The organization provides a community and resources for members to engage and listen to in order to improve teaching styles and learning of mathematics. Sagan is a member of the NCTM, along with having a membership to the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), an organization primarily for those who teach mathematics at the college level.

To commemorate their centennial in Chicago this spring, the NCTM is sponsoring a math-themed songwriting competition. The NCTM is challenging teachers to create a catchy, math-themed song (three-minutes maximum) to be judged and possibly chosen to air during the Centennial celebration in Chicago, April 1–4.

Only the top five videos with the most votes will be aired and awarded prizes. First place will get one complimentary registration to the NCTM Centennial Annual Meeting and Exposition in Chicago. Second place will be awarded a $250 gift card, third place will be awarded a $200 gift card, fourth place will be awarded a $150 gift card, and fifth place will be awarded a $100 gift card. Voting for the contest ended on Feb. 1, 2020.

Sagan’s inspiration for her song was drawn from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” She changed the title to say “We Didn’t Write the Standards,” as her focus is on the standards and curriculum in the state of Indiana. The chorus of her song goes, “We didn’t write the standards. / They were always there ’cause math is everywhere. / We didn’t write the standards. / So we need to delve to teach grades K through 12.” The rest of the song can be found on YouTube.

Prior to hearing about the competition, Sagan had already created many parodies using “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as her base. Joel wrote the original song to focus on historical events occurring in 1949, the year he was born, through 1989, the year the song was released. Sagan had similarly written about 25 song parodies about events and had given these songs to family and friends as gifts. So once she heard about the contest, she decided to use it again but focus on the Indiana Mathematics Curriculum Standards instead. “This involved going through the entire Curriculum Standards book and writing down every single mathematical term educators are required to teach their students, finding terms that rhymed, and putting together words so each line had the correct number of beats,” Sagan said. “It took a long time, but I had a blast putting it together.”

Not only has Sagan had some fun creating many parodies with the song, but this time around she got to enlist the help of her 16-year-old son, Jared, who knows how to shoot and edit videos. The mother-son duo sat down and brainstormed about the video and how they wanted it to look. They decided on a spoof. In the original video for the original song, Billy Joel is dressed in black, wearing sunglasses and sitting in front of a long table while singing his song. Near the end, he stands up and knocks the table over while continuing to sing the rest of the song.

In mid-December 2019, Sagan and her son shot their spoof video in their basement. They were careful to include details, such as the sunglasses, math textbooks and a 2000 Chicago Marathon poster since the conference will be in Chicago. “We were laughing, sharing ideas, and just having a great time,” Sagan said. “Afterwards, he worked on the editing process for about two or three days and always ran his work by me so I could see what he did and listen to his suggestions. There is nobody else I would have done something like this besides my son.”

After the votes were tallied, Sagan’s video received a total of 265 votes. This put her song in twelfth place in the competition. A total of 59 songs were entered with the top two videos having anywhere from 2,000 votes to 4,100. “I was thrilled by the positive response, encouragement, and compliments I received to the song and the video as well,” Sagan said. “Everyone was so supportive and that meant a great deal to me!”

Indeed, Sagan has no regrets. “Entering this competition was a big personal risk for me because I am by nature a rather private, introverted, and introspective person,” she said. “It is not easy for me to put myself out there in such a public manner, but I ended up having such a great time writing the song and then collaborating with my son. That in itself was what made this experience so worthwhile.”