Monthly Archives: March 2010

But the H is worth so much!

Sonny’s Tips for Dealing with Unfortunate-ness on the Storied Fields of Education or Scrabble

In yesterday’s post, I tried to explain how Scrabble is a lot like teaching.


I’ve come up with a few tips for managing the crappy tiles that Scrabble and teaching can bring.  Here’s…


Tip 1: Even (Vowel) Flow

Sometimes, the crappy racks with nothing but vowels are our own doing.  There are 100 tiles in a fresh Scrabble bag.  42 are vowels (sometimes 44, if we’re counting the Ys, but we’re not).  Mathematically and strategically, about 3 of the 7 tiles on your rack should be vowels.


If you don’t plan for this, you’re gonna have a bad time.  Planning to keep your vowels and consonants fairly even isn’t too hard, though.  Let’s consider a rack (point values in parentheses):

A (1)  E (1)  C (3)  H (4)  I (1) P (3)  U (1)

Now, what would you do?  The most obvious word to play is CHIP.  It uses up all of those high-scorin’ words.  It’s worth 11 points.  Dandy.


But what does that play leave you with?  A E U and an even higher chance of pulling more vowels.   Bad planning, only thinking of the short-term, leads to unlucky racks.  Fortune favors the thoughtful.


A better move with the same rack would be APE.  It’s only worth 5 points, but it uses 2 vowels and leaves the high scoring (and often combine-able) C and H to fight another day.


PUCE or ACHE are maybe the best plays, being worth 8 or 9 points and using an even number of vowels and consonants.


So the teaching metaphor.  Yeah.  This happens in teaching, too.  We’ve gotta pace ourselves, balance the good and unpleasant, knowing that the useless, boring crap is bound to show up (the low scoring vowels of our lives, people).  We can’t cross our fingers for good luck when we know the bad times are coming.


Recently, I inundated myself with work.  For some reason, I assigned a personal essay, a packet of questions on The Odyssey, and a page-long writing response on their reading all within two weeks.


My problem: I was just playing too many consonants.  My kids were gonna learn, damn it!  They’re gonna relate this epic journey to their own lives!  They’re gonna track their understanding of the text, then use evidence from it to form an opinion!  Woo hoo!  I am the best teacher in the world…


but now I have to grade it all–“The Pile.”  The Pile is my hand full of vowels after I cashed in all the work I was having my kids do.  It’d be manageable, but then came the vowels that are my final yearbook deadline, and conference week, and so on.


My point: I knew these things were coming, just as I should know the chances of pulling some unfortunate letters out of the Scrabble bag.  I’ve gotta pace myself.  Plan ahead.  Play PUCE instead of CHIP.






I love Scrabble.  It’s a combination of word puzzle and quick math that satisfies my very even-brained thinking (my SAT verbal and math scores were nearly identical).  Also, Scrabble’s element of chance makes the game an analogy for life and teaching.

Sometimes, you just get a crappy rack–seven letters that you just can’t do much with.  Usually, it’s a propensity of vowels.  Few things make me angrier than drawing a Scrabble rack that looks less like words and more like a line from “Old McDonald Had a Farm” (EIEIO.  You still with me?  Good.)

But crappy racks happen.  Probability dictates that you’ll draw a handful of vowels to go along with that useless V every once in a while.  It’s inevitable.

I get crappy racks teaching, too.  I sometimes draw the kid with severe anger management issues.  I draw a few kids still (not) reading at a 5th grade level.  I draw a blanket of snow on the day my kids’ projects were supposed to be presented.  Last week, I drew a severe rainstorm that knocked out my yearbook staff’s computers on the day of their deadline.

The point, friends, is not to complain, though (although teachers do it better than anyone).  “I’d rather light a candle than curse your darkness.”   No, I’m thinking that, like Scrabble, there are ways to deal with those crummy racks of teaching.

I’ve got a few suggestions up my sleeve, and I think each might deserve its own post.  For now, I’ll just leave you with the clever title of my multi-part series:

Sonny’s Tips for Dealing with Unfortunate-ness on the Storied Fields of Education or Scrabble