In Language Arts 1, we are focusing on the surprising art behind the science of language.

What’s the probability you can guess the 4-letter word I’m thinking of right now?

This was the triggering question for our most recent class in Language Arts 1, and our kids quickly came up with a mathematical formula for calculating the raw odds (which happen to be 26-4, or 1/456,976). But they also quickly concluded this wasn’t meant to be a math problem.

This being Language Arts, the question was really about the way language functions, testing whether we could use our existing knowledge of English to systemize our thinking. One student reminded us that each word needs at least one vowel, which cut our odds considerably. We imagined other rules that might similarly cut our odds, and then we thought more broadly about the frequency with which certain letters follow one another (such as Q and U, C and H, or S and T). Another student suggested we could safely eliminate some letters from contention, such as X or Z, because English does not use them as frequently.

I have always liked that Language Arts is as much an art as it is a science. Language has rules and systems, and letters have frequencies. When we apply them to what is otherwise a possibly random arrangement of letters, we can begin to understand why ideas can be replicated and communicated, even when we are up against such long odds. But I am fascinated, by training and inclination, by poetry and the transfigurative properties of unexpected pairs of words and of syntax. For me, Language Arts is ultimately more about the art of language.

All of this mathematical activity in class therefore introduced the main work of the day: to play three different word games. Those games were crosswords, Scrabble, and Bananagrams. Students assembled into three teams and played each game for 10 minutes, rotating through the stations and picking up wherever the previous team left off. (In the case of the crossword, we were creating one on a whiteboard, which ended up sprawling language in all directions.) Each game challenged students to configure letters into words, to see how the words intersect, and to build their vocabulary.

Along the way, we hit some interesting limits and invented some intelligent workarounds that both solved the dead ends and expanded the games. Students thought of a three-dimensional crossword to solve some of the constraints of a two-dimensional board; they started working collaboratively on Scrabble to get the best words on the board; and they combined their Bananagrams into one large crossword. Toward the end of the day, I introduced Snatch It, a game that combines Scrabble and Bananagrams, in which players reconfigure letters to form new words.

The lesson, at the end of the day, is that we can make meaning in the face of impossibility.

Against such long odds, against so many random assortments of letters, we still have vocabulary and meaning. Even larger than that, we saw something utterly staggering about language: if there are so many ways to string 26 letters into one simple word, it's incomprehensible that we can string together words to make a sentence, and sentences to make a story.     

And yet, here we are, reading these words. This year we'll read poetry by Dickinson, a story by Borges, a novel about the Holocaust, and a play by Shakespeare. We'll see that the question that got us started this past week wasn't really about math and it wasn't even about a problem. It was about what's possible in the midst of the improbable.

And in case you're wondering, the word I was thinking of was "read."

-- Zachary Sifuentes