Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Lessons of Phyz Advantages - Crosswords

CROSSWORD PUZZLES EDITION · [video question sets edition here]

Crossword puzzles in an academic core or AP lab class? Yes!
Crossword puzzles are a simple exercise in matching clues to words. Except the word, itself, is not given. The number of letters is given. And as the grid is filled in, letters of the words become apparent. By the time students ere sitting in the high school science class, they know how to work crossword puzzles without any instruction.

Does the puzzle engage students in the highest reaches of Bloom's taxonomy? No. But that's okay. Lower level retrieval has a place in the curriculum, too. And sometimes, spelling could benefit from this kind of reenforcement. In any case, students are involved in academic vocabulary.

My AP students would tear into crossword puzzles with no promise of a reward. They couldn't resist the challenge. Among grade-level Physics students, the ones who seemed most engaged in the crossword puzzles tended to be the students who were otherwise least engaged in the course as a whole. Compared to challenging conceptual questions or mathematical problems, knocking out answers on the crossword seemed much more manageable. 

And then there were the words that were not on the chapter's vocabulary list. For my original Physics crossword series, I leaned into a list of "100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know" I found on the Internet. My English-teaching colleagues always appreciated this. Some even offered a few terms that weren't on the Internet's list.

For subsequent series (AP Physics, Chemistry, etc.), I loosened up a bit. Taylor Swift references? K-pop? Star Wars? Why not? Each puzzle's description on TPT includes the complete word list. There you can see that I did work Metallica, Megadeth, and Judas Priest into the chemistry crossword about metals. Because of course I did. Meco snuck into that puzzle, too. But that's a story of other galactic funk.

Filling the grid in The Age of Search
I use a crossword creator program (Puzzle Maker for Mac by Hokua Software LLC) to produce a puzzle grid that includes all (or virtually all) the core terms I'm hoping to get into a puzzle. The program builds several grids and allows me to choose. Computers are good at constructing a grid with lots of crossed words. Still though, it spends a few minutes concocting the options. That initial puzzle, with about 50 terms on a 28 x 28 grid, has too much empty space for my liking.

I'm no Will Shortz. (There's only one Will Shortz and he's a national treasure.) But I do feel a compulsion to fill in that grid with additional words. With an initial puzzle already built, the words I add have to fit specific places on the grid. Second letter E and fifth letter L, and so on.

There are web pages designed to find words that match the criteria. Sometimes the criteria are too tough: no matches. Sometimes they're too easy: 672 matches. This is the process that consumes the bulk of the puzzle-building time.

I usually begin scoping out the puzzle to see if I can add planet names. Or terms from previous chapters. Or math. When the going gets tough (near the end) and only two-letter "words" will do, state abbreviations and chemical symbols come in handy. As do Roman numerals, to be honest.

Sometimes a three-letter term is needed to bridge a gap. Government agencies are useful there. And some of the word-clue combos are essentially giveaways: three-letter term for Universal Serial Bus. Is it still instructive? Not everybody knows what USB or URL stands for. So there's that. Initialism are handy. Acronyms are nice, too: SCUBA and LASER come to mind. (Not everybody knows initialisms and acronyms are different things.)

In the end, I usually and up with a puzzle that has more than a hundred words that cross in over 150 places. Compare that to all the other puzzles you see for use in the classroom. Honestly: any of them! They might have two dozen words that cross in three dozen places. But they'll nearly always have enough open space to grow crops in. That was understandable in the 1970s. But now we have computers and the Internet. Machines are great at coming up with busy grids and words that will fill the spaces.

Would AI come up with a better puzzle? Maybe. I'm sure it could fill more of the 28 x 28 grid than I do. But would the words be appropriate for high school science students? Would those gap-filler words be matched to the intended audience? I haven't tried any AI crossword puzzle generators.

I design puzzles that take time to solve completely. Collaboration may be helpful. The Internet knows the answer to each individual clue (I think). But it's going to take a while, no matter how you solve it.

Fun use case: give a puzzle to students with no Internet access and see how it goes. Let them collaborate. I'm confident that a room full of high school science students could solve any of my puzzles. Eventually.

More standard use case: give the next unit's puzzle to students as they turn in unit tests with time to spare. My unit tests tended to be short enough that average students would have time left in the hour. They had to work quietly on something. My crosswords were a nice way to spend this minutes. And even though they weren't yet familiar with the next unit's academic vocabulary, half the terms in the crossword were terms they might already know. And the exercise gave them a preview of the new words to be learned soon.

Print or Online: Whatever Works for You
I used crossword puzzles in class in The Before Times, so I printed and photocopied them. When lockdowns hit, the importance of online options became apparent. The Before Times aren't coming back, so my crossword puzzles are printable and uploadable for use online. To implement the online option, you need to upload the HTML folder to your server space, then share the resulting web address (URL) with students. I uploaded a few to my own server space so you can see how they play online. They work well on laptops and tablets; not so well on phones.

Word List And Partially Solved Options
Each puzzle includes a Word List text file and PDF that can be printed and photocopied or shared electronically. Additionally, I included PDFs of "partially solved" puzzles. Grade-level puzzles include student documents with 10% and 20% of the letters filled in in advance. For AP Physics, the pre-solves are 5% and 10%.

Me? I didn't give students the word list or partially solved puzzles. But the options are there for you. Your students; your call!

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