Analogy crosswords, for struggling spellers and others…

I remembered the other day that Mindware makes a book of analogy crosswords (several books, actually, at different levels of complexity).

Like anything else, these crosswords are no good when forced on unwilling doers, but for kids who have asked for help with spelling or those who enjoy tasks that bend the mind, inviting the formation of new neural connections, they’re quite effective and even enjoyable. (What makes them a relatively fun way to work on spelling is that they offer the hint of how many letters the word has, and occasional letters from other words.  For struggling spellers with agile minds (which is most of them, I find), the job of figuring out which letters are involved is rendered less arduous by that of figuring out which word it is in the first place.  Then the hint offered by the number of spaces and intersecting words acts as a bit of scaffolding.  It’s a little interim boost  – makes the task more manageable in the short term so it isn’t abandoned all together for being too much to handle.)

Here they are on amazon.  Sample pages at

Because they’re crosswords, you’ll have to forgive the makers for (what I would consider) an occasional… stretch… in the name of fitting an answer into both an analogy and a particular configuration of letters. It’s worth it, though.  Even the ones that seem slightly off invite useful mental gymnastics, in my opinion…

Invitations to read, write, spell

In much the same way a set of tiles on the fridge can quietly alleviate fraction woes, a set of Bananagrams* tiles can introduce a lightness to the realm of spelling, writing, and reading for kids who are timid about any or all.  There are many ways to use these and other letter tiles beyond the rules that come with the game.  (Bananagrams is like Scrabble, but without the turn-taking and the points.  It can be played competitively or not.  According to the rules of the competitive game, players work on their own crossword array while others work on theirs so it’s easy to level the playing field when players have highly divergent skill levels.)

Here are a few ways to use the tiles (all of which I’ve seen enjoyed by kids at one point or another):

• Arrange groups of letters in funny sayings or family in-jokes on a shelf or ledge somewhere.

• Leave notes written in tiles.

• Spell nonsense words or extremely long or short sentences.

When we use something like letter tiles as an instrument of connection between people, we offer kids an appealing invitation into the realm of words.  There’s no pressure to GET anything, just an example of what’s available in participating.  It’s the kind of invitation that’s possible for kids to accept on its own merit, independent of shame or fear of failure or, probably most salient of all, disappointing us.

*The tiles from an old Scrabble game can do the same trick, or any other game with letter tiles.  I will say, however, that the combination of the tactilely pleasant Bananagrams tiles and the zippered cloth banana that houses them has a certain allure.

Kids and their technology

We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  It’s about how technology makes use of human talent and generosity in ways that haven’t been possible in the past.  It’s a pretty significant departure from the technology-is-ruining-us, especially-the-kids rhetoric.  Here’s an interesting passage, which reminded me of the piece I linked to a few weeks ago about how kids are reading more than before, even while we agonize about the screen time:

“…young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption.  Even when they watch video online, seemingly pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world… Even when they are engaged in watching TV, in other words, many members of the networked population are engaged with one another, and this engagement correlates with behaviors other than passive consumption.”

And a few pages later:

“It’s also easy to assume that the world as it currently exists represents some sort of ideal expression of society, and that all deviations from this sacred tradition are both shocking and bad.”

It’s this assumption that has us tend to jump to conclusions about kids’ technology use.  We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”  Shirky’s suggesting that we look a little more closely.  This is not to say that just by virtue of being looked at more closely what kids are up to with their technology will seem more worthwhile.  It’s only to say that we don’t have the foggiest notion what kids do and don’t get out of what they’re doing.  It isn’t necessarily bad for them just because we didn’t have it when we were young.  And as Shirky suggests, it’s possible that it’s leading us to a place of even more social engagement, connection, and potential contribution than was possible when we were growing up.  Maybe more than has ever been possible.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, I highly recommend the book.  It’s unusual in that the thinking is dense, deep, innovative, but the writing makes it very accessible. You can also get a taste for the content from Shirky’s TED talk on the topic.

The censorship question

In case you haven’t heard or read about what’s going on with internet copyright legislation, have a look at Clay Shirky’s TED talk.  Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I think you’ll find the questions and the historical context interesting.  Especially as it bears on learning and access.  Here’s the link.


The backlog of things to post/comment on is looming large, so here are a bunch of posts in one with not much comment.  Otherwise, stuff gets away from me…

From McSweeney’s, a piece about how kids are reading more than before.  Yes, MORE!

I’ve been meaning to read Blake Boles’ College Without High School, but I haven’t yet, so I’m not yet qualified to write about the book.  I will say that I find the Table of Contents useful in its own right, so I feel qualified to recommend that much.  Once I’ve read it, I’ll be back to say more.

From, an interview with author Diana Senechal about kids’ need for solitude.  I did read this one, and while it bothers me (as many such conversations do) for its attempt to figure out what’s going to work for “kids” as though it’s one thing, I’m glad to hear the call for making more space for young people to actually think. Senechal advocates for being generally more thoughtful about how we teach what we teach.

And one anecdote.  Yesterday, I was doing some fraction work with an 11 year-old.  He loves math, and hasn’t learned it the old-fashioned way.  He figured out about adding and subtracting intuitively, watching the world go by, and he prefers doing his computation in his head in the course of various problem solving efforts to anything that involves shuffling numbers around on paper.  But he also likes to know how other people are doing their math, so from time to time we show him – what algorithms they’re using, what kind of terminology, etc.  The thing is, every time we do it, I’m reminded of how silly much of it is, and how much better it could be.  Yesterday we were multiplying fractions and I heard him say under his breath as he was figuring his way through something “it’s going to be a big-on-top answer.”  He didn’t say it so I could hear it.  He knows that’s not what it’s called.

I couldn’t help wondering, again, how much more fun and pleasant things might be if kids could make up their own names for things as they were getting acquainted with numbers.  Not to mention that it’d be much easier for them to communicate with each other about them.  Also not to mention that, in the case of the big-on-top fractions, there’d be opportunity for less value judgement; who’s really to say that a big numerator is any less proper than a big denominator?

Love and utility

I often hear parents say “I want my child to love reading – I want her to find the same joy in it that I do.”  I also hear “He has to be able to read – to get by in the world!  He’ll need reading for everything!” And then there are the inspiring declarations that fly around in the education world, about raising lifelong readers, teaching all children to love books, etc.  We think that this is what it takes to get kids reading.  Make a big scene about it; instill (insist on) a love of it.

But not everyone loves reading. And when we’re too attached to getting kids to love things we love, we often undermine our own intentions with respect to getting them to learn what we think it will be helpful for them to know.  With something as potentially useful as reading, it’s a good idea to disentangle our wish that children might hold it as precious as some of us do from our wish that they know how to do it.  If we didn’t despair when a child finished a book and shrugged – “Yeah, it was OK.  Can I go outside now?” – when reading was just another thing to do, something useful but not necessarily that enticing or enthralling, we wouldn’t face as much resistance to it. And many kids would take to it more quickly and easily.  They wouldn’t have to try to pretend to like something they don’t.  They wouldn’t have to worry about disappointing us.  They could just learn how to do the thing, for whatever they might be able to use it for.

And, of course, the more space we give kids to have their own relationships with something like reading, the more possible it becomes for them to be inspired to love it in its own right, for their own reasons.

See also Alan Jacobs’ piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed…

Both, and; Milo

Two either-or traditions in education – that one must identify with one discipline over another, and must choose between learning for practical reasons and learning for its “own sake” – can really undermine progress toward the secure livelihood and fulfilled life most people want for their children.  

In Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, Gopnik writes that author Norton Juster’s story of young Milo’s journey was an argument “for the love of knowledge, against narrow specialization… for learning, against usefulness.” Continue reading