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A Spell Cast: The Magic of Word Game Collaboration
BENJAMIN DICKMAN, MATHEMATICS TEACHER AND MATH COACH

On April 21, 2020 the Scripps National Spelling Bee announced its cancellation for the first time since 1945. But, there is another Spelling Bee that continues to run smoothly even as so many students and educators have transitioned to remote learning contexts: The New York Times’ Spelling Bee puzzle.

Beginning in the fall and continuing even after transitioning to Remote Learning @ Hewitt this spring, a cast of collaborative spellers has emerged from various corners of The Hewitt School to tackle Spelling Bee’s word game challenges. Each day, a new Spelling Bee puzzle is posted online with the following properties:

  • The “hive” contains seven letters presented in six grey hexagons and one central yellow hexagon
  • The goal is to make as many words as possible using the central letter, and words must be at least four letters long
  • The puzzle contains at least one pangram — a one word that contains all seven of the letters 
  • Individual letters can be used multiple times in forming a single word
  • The puzzle provides a scoring breakdown that ranges from “beginner” to “genius”

Because Hewitt students and teachers have access to a shared New York Times account, those who log in and open Spelling Bee find themselves facing a list of all the words that members of the community have already found in that day’s puzzle. This has led to an evolving group of Hewitt spellers who share in the task of clearing out the entire word list for a day. When this is accomplished, the title of Queen Bee — a difficult feat that is not listed in the game’s official scoring breakdown — appears for the individual who enters the final word, thereby marking a successful day of spelling for all of the Hewitt collaborators.

One frequent player is English Department Chair Dr. Jonathan Sabol, who shares, “I love waking up to Spelling Bee. There’s something comforting about constructing words as I get ready to head out into the world. I’m not an expert at this game by any means, so I leave the more difficult or obscure words to the players who come later in the day.”

Another English teacher — with a dual role as Hewitt’s learning and innovation program associate — who occasionally joins in is Olivia Robbins, who remarks, “While the game is simple, it never ceases to be a delight to start the day with the mélange of words hidden in the puzzle’s seven letters. I really enjoy learning new words from the puzzle, but my favorite aspect of the game is how easy it is to collaborate; I’ve played Spelling Bee with my tenth grade advisees a few times, and we’ve had lots of fun working together to solve the puzzle.” 

Spelling Bee found its way into a number of Hewitt classes and advisories when we were together in the same physical space, and it has also allowed us to join forces despite the geographical challenges brought on by social distancing. The asynchronous nature of this game encourages members of the Hewitt community to connect on their own time in a manner that is playful, low-stakes, and often educational: words like OOLONG and ONTOLOGY suddenly constitute required knowledge if we are to succeed in our collaborative effort to find every single word on a particular day. Discussions about the intricacies of the game — how its word list is determined, strategies for word finding, and more — have found their way into back channels such as Google chats among faculty players, and email exchanges between faculty and students around the inclusion or exclusion of specific words along with their variant spellings.

Prior to our transition to remote learning, Spelling Bee had already made a couple of cameos in a senior elective course that I teach entitled Advanced Mathematical Problem Solving and Posing. The New York Times provides players with a breakdown of scores and their corresponding achievement levels, but stops short of listing the score associated with the Queen Bee ranking (i.e., the score for finding every word in a given day’s puzzle). In an instance of full class exploration, Hewitt students analyzed the scoring breakdowns for different rankings on a given day, and we realized that they correspond to rounded percentages of the total maximum score. With our newfound understanding, we managed to use Google’s spreadsheet tool, Sheets, to compute (within 1 point) the unlisted Queen Bee total from the rankings provided on any given day in Spelling Bee. (Our findings are summarized in a single spreadsheet, where the “QB” column refers to these Queen Bee totals.) Meanwhile, as an example of an individual student’s work, Spelling Bee also inspired senior Julia F. to formulate a game that she called Prime Bee as a potential #SidewalkMath problem (for more on this burgeoning mathematics movement, read Math Needs You! Posing Problems with Sidewalk Math by Sophie W., another member of the Class of 2020). 

Julia is among the frequent Hewitt collaborators on a quest to attain Queen Bee status and she is already an old hand when it comes to this particular game. Recounting her own history around Spelling Bee and how playing collaboratively has helped her develop a strategy for the game, Julia writes:

I started playing Spelling Bee in The New York Times Sunday magazine a few years ago without knowing that there was a daily, online version. At first, my sole goal was to find the word(s) that used all seven letters in the hive. I did not aim to find all of the words on a given day, partially because the print magazine has more restrictive guidelines (only words of five or more letters are accepted), which prevented me and my then middle-school-level vocabulary from moving through the ranks, but now I know it was mostly because I was doing it alone. Once I wrote out a list of all the words I could find in the morning, it was unlikely that my list would expand significantly by the end of the day. With the online, collaborative Spelling Bee, I make my initial contribution of words in the morning and then reload the page throughout the day to see if there are new entries. If there are new words, I try to use their prefixes, roots, and suffixes to generate more. Once I see that the majority of the words have already been found, I like to look at the alphabetized list of entries to see if any portions look skimpy.

Ultimately, we can see in this simply structured game an opportunity for members of the Hewitt community to unpack mathematics and engage with quantitative reasoning, to collaborate across disciplines (including English and mathematics) and roles (including educator and student), and to stay connected in our pursuit of common goals despite uncommon circumstances. In this vein, we close with a final thought from student solver Julia, who writes: “Playing Spelling Bee on the Hewitt account has made me a better, more strategic player and reassured me that some of the traditions I cherish most — especially the ones I hadn’t previously been pushed to acknowledge as traditions — are the easiest to preserve.”
 

A %22hive%22 of letters and a list of words constructed out of those letters

Each Spelling Bee game board includes a "hive" of letters (left) that players use to construct words (right)

The New York Times' Spelling Bee %22Queen Bee%22 logo

If players find every word in a particular Spelling Bee puzzle, they earn the coveted title of Queen Bee 
 

An example of Prime Bee, a mathematical take on the Spelling Bee word puzzle designed by a Hewitt senior

Hewitt senior Julia F. took inspiration from Spelling Bee for Prime Bee, a #SidewalkMath game she designed in her Advanced Mathematical Problem Solving and Posing Class

A spreadsheet analyzing Spelling Bee scoring breakdowns

Advanced Mathematical Problem Solving and Posing students analyzed Spelling Bee scoring breakdowns to predict the unlisted Queen Bee score for any given day