Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I'm a crossword puzzle person. I grew up watching my mom doing the N.Y. Times crossword every day. For her it was like handwriting practice. She'd start in the upper left and work her way down and across, pausing only occasionally. I started doing the Times puzzles regularly in 1994 when I began teaching at a high school where there was a sort of subtle competition among the English teachers to be the first person to drop into someone else's room and casually drop the paper folded to the completed puzzle on the desk of another teacher before starting an apparently innocent conversation. I started doing the Monday puzzles and gradually worked my way up through the rest of the week. The local paper runs the Times puzzles every day (and about six weeks behind), so I've kept after it. Now I'm usually able to go through them pretty much on my own up through Thursday, which is generally a puzzle with an odd theme. The one pictured here, for example, is a very literal rendition of the exhortation to "think outside the box." Friday's puzzle is hard; and Saturday's puzzle, as David Sedaris has put it, "requires the kind of mind that can bend spoons." Saturday morning usually gets off to a start with me reading the paper, turning to the Saturday puzzle, reading all the clues and not knowing any of the answers, and then going over to Google enough of them to give me a toehold.

The Sunday puzzle is actually pretty easy, it's just bigger; and always has a theme you have to figure out. For example, this Sunday puzzle was based around the idea of and on/off switch. In each of the ten or twelve cells in the puzzle where there was a switch, the letters in that cell reading across are O-F-F, and the letters reading down are O-N.)

I still don't know why exactly I find as much satisfaction in finishing a crossword puzzle as I do. It's pretty much a useless skill. Its primary requirement is a kind of pigheaded refusal to go give up. Doing crossword puzzles has also convinced me, in ways no psych textbook ever did, of the power of the subconscious mind. I can't tell you how many times I have put down a crossword puzzle that had stymied me a third of the way or half way through, and then come back half an hour later to find that all the answers I could not get are sitting right there in the front of my mind, lined up like obedient little soldiers, ready to march out into the grid. I've learned to trust the same process when it comes to writing. I'll often start something and then intentionally just walk away and come back to it later, to find that suddenly the writing is easier. So there's that argument for crosswords: it's a workout for the subconscious.

And, I suppose, crossword discipline has prepared me in some oblique way for at least some of the more mundane aspects of my job as department head. Today, for example, I spent most of today doing book orders online through our distributor: 20 or so classes times three to ten books per class times three semesters—fall, spring, summer school. The selection of each individual title involves a number of steps: go to the selections page, type in the title, hit the search button, select the correct version of the book from among the ones shown, select a semester, click to be taken to the page where that semester's courses are listed, check the box for the course to which you want to add this title, indicate the number of teacher copies you need, scroll down to the bottom of the page, hit the "add title" button, and then return to the selections page to add the next title. Nothing to it, the first fifty or sixty times you go through the sequence. After that it starts to get pretty old. But I kept at it, one piece at a time, and eventually, ta da!, I finished it.

And as if that weren't enough, today I also finalized, after about a month of work, scheduling for next year's teachers. Again, a kind of puzzle: x number of teachers (predetermined by the principal using a mathematical formula based on signups) y number of courses, z number of students signed up for each course. I have to figure out how many sections of each course we're going to run, and assign teachers to each of those sections, keeping in mind their own preferences, the need to limit the number of preps for each teacher, the total student load for each teacher, and the ideal student load for each course. Now that I have the plan in place, I'll spend most of this weekend filling out the forms—one for each teacher, one for each course each semester breaking down who is teaching how many sections of each course—that will shape the creation of the master schedule and assign each class, at random, to a certain room. We have just about enough room space to house each class; there's not many empty rooms left over.

Once the master schedule comes back somewhere near the end of the year, and each course has been assigned a teacher and a random set of rooms, I have to spend three or four days doing "room hang," which involves going in by hand and redistributing those classes and those teachers in such a way that all the rooms are used maximally, classes generally meet in the same room, at least some of the teachers have most of their classes in one room, and no teacher has to spend all day running from one room to another. Some classes meet four days out of six, some three. That creates holes, and most of those holes need to be filled. Sometimes you can stagger the course assignments so that a class that meets 10:30 on A, C, and E day alternates with another course that meets in the same room at 10:30 on B, D, and F. That's an efficient use of room space. Sometimes the only way to schedule a class that meets four times a week is to have one of the meetings in a different room; in which case you'd like that room to be nearby, or at least in the same building. (I've got a class this semester than meets A, B, and E day in one room, but F day across the hall.) The worst case scenario, which comes up at least two or three times every year, is when you get near the end and the only rooms you have available for a particular class are in four different buildings on four different days. At which point you sometimes have to go back and start rescheduling whole blocks of time, or else start nibbling away at classes you already had set up, moving one class here and one class there in order to free up a block of time in one room.

For me, the trick to be able to get through it all with some degree of sanity intact is to think of it as a kind of puzzle and give myself enough time to be able to pick it up, put it down, pick it up again, and eventually get it all sorted out.


Mark said...

That is a particularly clean description of the process. I may continue your train of thought with something about "The Sedoku of School Administration." Let me know if you wish to claim proprietary rights.

George Farrell said...

A "sort of subtle competition" you say? I stopped the puzzles years ago but remember them as a bit more cut throat...."What flaw in your character accounts for that lack of knowledge?" ... puzzles done with fountain pens..."Oh? You're not done yet?"