The Joy of Sudoku

During my recent bout of COVID, I spent a great deal of time laying in bed, feeling rather exhausted and uninterested in doing much of anything but sleep. As many of us do when bedridden, I looked through my social media accounts, random apps, and Spotify playlists – anything to help pass the time. In doing so, I came across a Sudoku app that I had installed on my phone at some point, which has largely sat unforgotten until now. For the curious, my go-to Sudoku app is currently Logic Wiz. It is available on both Google Play and the Apple App Store.

For those that don’t know, Sudoku is a deceptively simple logic puzzle. The goal is to fill a 9×9 grid so that each row, column, and 3×3 subgrid contains all digits from 1 – 9. In doing so, the numbers can’t repeat within each subgrid or across a row or column. To my unassuming mind, it seemed like an easy way to pass the time. The puzzles come in a variety of difficulty levels and don’t seem particularly complex. Man, was I wrong.

While browsing YouTube, I discovered Robin the Sudoku Guy‘s channel. At the time of writing this post, he had uploaded 98 Sudoku tutorials. It seems that he’s doing quite well, as Robin also is 28 lessons deep into a kid-friendly version of his tutorials that he says are great for students, teachers, etc. Naturally, I was curious to learn more from this Sudoku sage. If anything, I just wanted to know how many tutorials could it possibly take to learn how to play Sudoku?

It turns out that Sudoku can be an incredibly complex matter.

Robin’s tutorials begin with more intuitive things that many of us might have picked up from playing Sudoku over the years: eyeballing the grid to see what numbers could go where, eliminating certain options, etc. That, however, is barely scratching the surface of Sudoku strategy. The more complex end of Sudoku strategy introduces concepts like X-wings, swordfish, and it honestly gets more insane from there. I really like how the Sudoku wiki breaks each of the 39 techniques down by level of difficulty.

Complex games and puzzles aren’t new to me by any means. Most folks know that there are hundreds of strategies that one could employ during a chess match at any given stage of the game. Some folks know that a 3×3 Rubik’s cube has 43 quintillion possible combinations. There’s something delightful about the simplicity of the digits 1-9 and a partially-filled grid that makes Sudoku such an enticing experience. There’s a lesson to be learned about the broader beauty of logic and math that we try so hard to instill in our students.

For now, I’m happy to have a go at the puzzles that others create. I might try setting my own one day, but I suspect that puzzle crafting can become even more of a tempting rabbit hole as solving the puzzles themselves. LaTeX naturally has a package for just about everything, including a sudoku package that can convert plain text into a Sudoku grid. For those who prefer a WYSIWYG option, F-puzzles is a website that came highly recommended on the Sudoku subreddit.

To connect this all back to teaching, something that I often think about as a special education teacher in an algebra classroom is doing my best to meet the needs of my mixed-ability students. Differentiation, scaffolds, and entry points are important to keep in mind, but my students will all ultimately take the same algebra Regents exam in June. I do believe that teaching logic and reasoning in math is just as important as the algebraic concepts themselves, and I hope that I can incorporate more Sudoku into my classroom routine as an occasional enrichment activity for students. I’m currently flushing out an idea for an enrichment menu that I can post in my classroom, and I look forward to seeing how it’s received by students and my co-teacher.

On a whim, I logged into the Hunter College library catalog to see if a quick search would turn up any interesting hits about Sudoku or logic puzzles in general. I came across an essay that was published by a medical student in a 2021 issue of The International Journal of Psychiatry.

In this essay, Vigliotti described her experiences getting to know Gary, a patient that she was assigned to during her third year medical school rotations. While Gary initially came off as quite the curmudgeon, Vigliotti gradually fostered a positive relationship with Gary after realizing that he enjoyed completed Sudoku puzzles. She shared a Sudoku book with Gary that was purchased at the hospital gift shop, a small gesture that led to more substantial and deeper conversations.

Oncology is worlds apart from teaching, but there’s something about the dynamic between Vigliotti and Gary that I think many teachers can relate to. We all want to connect with and develop a positive relationship with our students. Sometimes the smallest of gestures, like sharing a book of Sudoku puzzles, can be the spark that gets a student to open up or feel more comfortable in our schools and classrooms.

While my run-in with COVID was fairly uneventful, it did lead to me re-discovering Sudoku. Like Vigliotti and Gary, I hope that I too can share the joy of Sudoku with a students at my school. Perhaps one of them will end up competing in the World Sudoku Championships one day.

References

Vigliotti, A. A. (2021). The gift of sudoku. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine56(3), 161–165. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091217420985969

Winter Break Recharge

Parts of the fall semester can feel like an absolute slog. Some weeks flew by thanks to the occasional day off or early dismissal for town hall or parent-teacher conferences, while others seemed to move slower than molasses.

Teaching 9th grade has proven to be an incredibly rewarding experience, although certainly not without its challenges. Naturally, it’s a transition grade, and I like to think that I’ve done a decent job of helping my students acclimate to the expectations of high school. Some students are still figuring it out (that the school uniform is enforced, negative repercussions for failing to do work, etc.), and I hope that some of my students are able to figure these things out before the “fall” semester ends in late January for NYC public schools.

Aside from taking a day off for side effects from the bivalent COVID booster, I was able to make it through the first part of the year with almost 100% attendance. Per an MOA between the DOE and UFT, teachers get a total of 10 days for COVID-related absences, including vaccine side effects and for actually testing positive for the virus. From what I can tell, the MOA is virtually identically to its 2021-2022 iteration. The only difference I noticed in a quick skim is that the 10 day bank of absences includes days for testing positive and experiencing side effects, whereas last year’s MOA included 2 specified days for side effects.

As fortune would have it, I tested positive for COVID on one of the home tests distributed to students and staff by the DOE. The good news is that I won’t be missing any days of work due to the start of winter break. The lousy news is that this wasn’t how I thought I’d start my winter break. Thankfully, my symptoms are incredibly mild, limited to a small cough and what I’d estimate as a 95% loss of taste and smell. The irony is not lost on me that I tested positive for COVID on the same day that the DOE closed its Situation Room.

Even though my sense of smell and taste is virtually nonexistent at the moment, and I’ve been completely exhausted since testing positive, I’m going to do my best to enjoy the holiday and new year with loved ones. I’m doing to do something that I don’t think I’ve ever done before – completely put all work related things away for the next 6 days and enjoy my break. I’m sure everything will be just fine when I log back in on Saturday to prepare for the upcoming week.

One lesson I had to learn early on is that the work will always be there. There will always be a lesson to plan, student data to gather, etc. As appealing as an empty inbox or fully planned lessons a week in advance might seem, they’re not always realistic for a first-year special education teacher. I’m certainly not a time-management guru, but I think I’ve done reasonably good for juggling full-time teaching along with going to grad school and some union-related stuff on the side.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s been modest interest from folks who follow my blog – namely those are are substitute teachers or considering an alternate teaching certification program in the NYC DOE. About once a month, someone will send or message me a blog post of mine, and it feels good knowing that others find value in my humble perspective on these things.

For now, I’m going to go enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Thanks to everyone who has followed my little corner of the internet, and I hope to get into a more regular writing routine in the new year. Take care, and I hope that you have a joyful holiday season with your loved ones.

Hobby Creep and Blog Focus

Each summer, I seem to run into the same problem: I realize how many things I want to do with my free time. I quickly realize each time that it can be hard to juggle multiple hobbies/interests at a time.

Off the top of my head, several things that capture my interest (in no particular order) are: reading, blogging, learning computer programming, brushing up on my math skills, learning the electric bass, learning to play Irish whistle and recorder, learning the Highland pipes, and learning the uilleann pipes. Sure those last few items are all musical instruments, but they’re different enough from one another that I think they merit their own mention.

The issue is further compounded when I realize that I want to be good at a subset of these hobbies. I’d like to get involved with a competitive pipe band and compete on the competitive solo circuit through the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association. I’d like to hone my programming chops enough that I can contribute to some open source projects or create things that other teachers find helpful. Some days I mull over the idea of getting really involved with my local recorder players’ guild and finding a group to play medieval and Renaissance music with.

Whether they be artists, dancers, musicians, etc., I think other creative types will empathize with me, especially those who have full-time jobs that take us away from our creative endeavors. I didn’t go into teaching for the money or benefits, but one really nice perk of the teaching calendar is that I can use my summers to pursue my musical aspirations with much more freedom than than afforded to most other full-time occupations, many of which work year-round and don’t get nearly as many days off as teachers do.

Thinking about these creative pursuits also prompted me to think about this blog – what it is and what I want it to be. Initially I thought it would be strictly about things related to teaching and my thoughts about getting involved with the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing many titles within the NYC Dept. of Education.

The more I think about it, the more it feels right to leave this blog open-ended to include learning about various things that interest me, whether it be my growth as a teacher, or my foray into music or technology. I want this to be a blog and artifact about my own learning, and perhaps others may find value in that. There are some NYC DOE bloggers who I enjoy keeping up with, and I hope that others find similar value in this fledgling blog one day.

Sure it’s not conventional practice to lump multiple interests together under one blog, but I also have no interest in profiting from this platform. I don’t particularly care how well this blog does in terms of SEO or number of hits. It’s always been a reflective tool for my own use, and I always think it’s nice when other folks let me know that they enjoyed a post that I made.

I’m going to go read my book for a bit and pull out the pipes for some play time. I hope you have a pleasant day as well, interested reader.