Tag Archives: secret codes

Puzzles, Codes, and… online classes

At the moment, I’m up to my ears in secret codes, brain teasers, riddles, and logic puzzles. Seriously! I’m in the midst of planning one of the classes that we’re offering for middle schoolers over at Simplify Homeschool.

Part of me is nervous about all the balls we have up in the air right now. We’re still podcasting, still helping clients, and we have a high school humanities core that’s about three quarters finished and currently being beta tested by Mushroom and BalletBoy (I’ll post most about that soon, but BalletBoy gives it a thumbs up and Mushroom grumbles about it, though that can be said about his  reaction to nearly everything except attending theater performances these days). But now we’re also starting these online classes! It’s a big undertaking. Our class page just went live, so you can actually sign up now (or share, please share for us!). I think I’m actually most excited about keeping my feet a little bit in with the middle school world. Middle schoolers are the best people.

But more about those codes and puzzles!

The book I’m using for the class is a young reader’s edition of an adult book. I love young reader’s editions because they bring content that’s almost within young people’s reach to within their grasp. This one is The Code Book by Simon Singh. The one with the blue cover is the young reader’s edition. As I go, I have also had the Murderous Maths book Codes: How to Make Them and Break Them by Kjartan Poskitt sitting at the table with me as well as the Murderous Maths book that covers permutations and combinations, Do You Feel Lucky, also by Kjartan Poskitt. If you don’t know Murderous Maths, they’re so fun and whimsical. While they look like books for younger kids (and can be appreciated by them sometimes), the math is mostly at a middle school level. The other two books I’ve been looking at that are excellent are Top Secret by Paul Janeczko and a cheapie Dover book called Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing that’s by the esteemed Martin Gardiner.

The math of the codes is really fun. I feel like we don’t do enough math of counting and probability with students, and this is closely tied to that.

However, I have to admit that my real passion when it comes to puzzles is word puzzles, not math ones. I love a good crossword. I love puzzles like the trivia puzzles on the NPR show Ask Me Another even more. Or the sorts of mystery puzzles that are in Art Fraud Detective or The Great Art Scandal by Anna Nilsen. I thought about using those mystery books for the class, or the wonderful art mystery series for upper elementary and middle school that begins with Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. But instead, I decided there’s really no other book series for puzzles than Eric Berlin’s Winston Breen mysteries. Each book is packed full of puzzles, most of them the sort of witty word puzzles with anagrams and so forth that I love. Eric Berlin also runs an amazing puzzle service that’s free called Puzzle Your Kids, that you should absolutely sign your kids up for if you have any interest.

This is all just to say… teaching is fun. Hopefully teaching online will be fun. And if nothing else, I got to dig through a lot of great resources, which is almost always my favorite thing to do.

More Secret Codes

Okay, I promise, my last gushing review of Brave Writer’s new Partnership Writing, but we really did have such fun doing the first project about secret codes.

I checked out several secret code books from the library.  For the most part, they were all the same, just from different eras and with slight variations.  We found Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing by Paul B. Janeczko to be the most useful.  I liked that there were anecdotes from history about secret codes, several of which we read aloud.  We also found some good extensions for the project in here for once we finished all the suggested avenues in Partnership Writing.

We did two that I thought were worth sharing.  First, I left the kids a message in cipher for them to find in the morning, along with several clues on how to solve it.  It told them where to find special strawberry muffins.  Since this was basically a cryptoquote, I left the book open to a page with this information about the most common letters, short words, double letters and so forth in English.  It took them a long time, but they did decipher it.  I was really proud of their persistence.  And while it was a tough activity and not for every kid at this stage of writing, I thought it involved a lot of good language thinking.  Enough that we might try it again with another baked good and a new hiding place at some point.

secretcodes3

Next, after doing a book cipher that was suggested in Partnership Writing, we took it to another level by writing the plain text ourselves.  Mushroom and BalletBoy each came up with a message to hide in a letter.  They wrote the letters and scattered the words for the secret message inside them.  I helped them edit for spelling, then we typed them up.  Then, they carefully cut out a special key for reading the letter.  When you lay the key on top of the letter, it reveals the secret message with carefully cut out holes.

secretcodes

To create the key, I printed two copies of the letter in a nice, large type.  The first one was set aside.  The second one was taped to a sheet of blank paper that would become the key.  We used an x-acto knife to cut out the words of the message from the letter.  When we separated the letter copy from the blank paper, the blank paper became the key and the cut up letter went to the recycle bin.

secretcodes2

We never do anything quite the way it’s proscribed, so we didn’t follow the routine in Partnership Writing to the letter.  However, we had a blast.  We’ll take a week or so off and just continue our routine of dictations, poetry teas, narrations, and reading then dive into the next project.

Secret Codes

Some of you probably know that a new Brave Writer product just came out called Partnership Writing.  We got it and dove right in.  It’s on sale until the end of June, at which point the price goes up a bit, so if you’re considering it, then I say go ahead.

It’s intended for kids age 9-10, but I found that my still 8 year-olds are the perfect stage for the projects.  The first half of the book covers some familiar ground to anyone who has already read The Writer’s Jungle.  It explains narrations, poetry teas, movie times and other Brave Writer lifestyle ideas.  The second half lays out ten writing projects.  Some of them involve very light writing, like this first one, but others are more involved.  All of them are creative and fun.

We had just finished a letter writing project, so we were ready for something new and started up on the secret codes project right away and have done several activities with it.  This also allowed us to pull out a fun resource we hadn’t used in a long time: Secret Code cards from Usborne.  These are really fun and have dozens of different types of secret codes for kids to decipher that range from easy to very difficult.

coding
BalletBoy writes a treasure hunt in secret code.

So far, our favorite part of the secret codes project has been making a treasure hunt in a cipher.  Here’s one of those activities that’s made for twins, as BalletBoy and Mushroom made hunts for each other.  Clue treasure hunts have been a learning staple of our household for a long time.  When the boys were small, we used them as a way to practice reading, then as they got older and could write them, we used them as a way of practicing writing.  We moved from reading clues like, “tub” and “hat” to clues like “look inside the coldest place in the house.”  Doing a hunt in a secret code was a new twist though.

Mushroom decodes the treasure hunt.
Mushroom decodes the treasure hunt.

We’re looking forward to tackling the rest of these projects as well.  Earlier in the year, I had said the writing project was the Brave Writer piece that was the most uneven for us.  We got much better about it by using opportunities like letter writing, local essay contests, and stories the kids have started as our projects, but I’m glad to have a set of easy, fun projects for us to do.