Cool Job of the Week: Puzzle Constructor

I recently had a chance to speak with Debbie Manber Kupfer, a freelance Puzzle Constructor who creates puzzles for Penny Press magazines and the Paws 4 Puzzles website. She told me a bit about the ins and outs of being a pro puzzler, including some of the best (and worst) parts of the job. Here’s what she had to say!

Among other things, Penny Press sponsors a monthly “Brain Boosters” contest – click to give this month’s puzzle a try.

Can you give us a brief explanation of your job?

I write all kinds of puzzles that are published in the various Penny Press titles that you can find in the newsstand or grocery store. My editor sends me requests on the kinds of puzzles she currently needs and I write them. There are word puzzles and logic puzzles of all kinds. There are some, like Frameworks and Double Trouble crosswords, that I create regularly, while others I only make occasionally. I also frequently write puzzles that require quotations and trivia and am always on the look out for a good quote, pun or interesting snippet.

In addition to the puzzles I send to Penny Press I also write custom puzzles for books, newsletters or presents and maintain my website, Paws 4 Puzzles.

What made you choose this job?

I’ve always loved puzzles ever since I was a child and rarely a day goes past when I don’t either solve or create one.

How long have you been working in this field?

20 years! I started off as a Puzzle Editor at Penny Press in Connecticut and then when I moved to St. Louis I continued working for them as a freelance constructor.

Did you need any specific college degree to get this job?

I have a BA degree and a background in editing. But the main thing you need for this work is a love of puzzles and words.

How would you describe a typical workday?

Send kiddo off to school. Make large mug of tea. Sit down with my current wishlist and decide which puzzle(s) I’m going to work on that day. Print out any grids I need and sometimes check my supply of puzzle books and test solve a similar puzzle, if this is not a regular puzzle I write all the time. Then I write the first puzzle – I usually start with the solutions, fitting them into the grid, and then write the clues. Then I test solve and for some tricky puzzles I’ll send the puzzle off to my trusty secret group on Facebook of puzzle enthusiasts who love to check my puzzles. Finally when they’re all done and typed up I email the finished puzzles to my editor at Penny Press.

What do you like most about your job?

I adore that I’m being paid for something I love and enjoy the flexibility of the work. I make my own hours, which was a godsend when the kids were small.

What do you like least about your job?

Occasionally I’ll get a request for a really boring kind of puzzle!

What personal qualities are most valuable for this kind of work?

Tenacity – sometimes you hit a really tough corner and you think that it’s impossible to fix, but you have to keep going in this line of work.

Any advice for students interested in this kind of work?

Solve, solve, solve – you can’t create puzzles until you understand how they work. Also, don’t give up if your puzzles are rejected at the beginning. Listen to the editors and follow their guidelines to the letter.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In addition to the puzzles I have in Penny Press magazines and on my website I also published a book of logic problems, Paws 4 Logic, together with my son Joey. The puzzles range from simple to diabolical, and the book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or directly from me at Paws 4 Puzzles.

You can learn more about Debbie and her puzzles on Facebook, Twitter, or her website, Paws 4 Puzzles.

Cool Job of the Week: Library Technician

Similar to a librarian – but different! – Library Technicians are some of the people that help make libraries work for their patrons.

I recently had a chance to speak with Saraline Grenier, Library Technician for the Bibliothèque publique de Pointe-Claire (that’s the Pointe-Claire Public Library, which is located in Québec – hence the français), about her job. Here’s what she had to say!

Can you give us a brief explanation of your job?

I order English books for adults and when they come in, I get to look at them! I get to look at them because I have to check if any pages are missing or printed in the wrong order and I have to make sure that the books don’t have any damage. I also catalogue French non-fiction books for adults and kids, and non-fiction DVDs. When I catalogue something, I have to look at it to see what it’s about so I can give it a Dewey number and subject headings. I also add other information so that people will know what type of item it is when they look at the record in our catalogue and information that will help people find the record in the first place.

What made you choose this field?

Like many people in this field, I wanted to work in a library because I love books.

How long have you been working in this field?

About four years. I did a work placement while I was in school and came back to work after I graduated.

Did you need to obtain any specific degree to get this job?

Yes, I obtained a DEC in Information and Library services.

Photo credit: Jerry Bunkers, “Black woman in law library”

Describe a typical workday.

I try not to do the same task all day, and since I do a couple of different things, this is easy to do. Maybe one day I’ll order books in the morning and catalogue in the afternoon. On another day I might catalogue all day, but I’ll do a pile of adults’ books and then a pile of children’s books.

What do you like most about your job?

I like cataloging the cookbooks and the travel guides. I also really like cataloging DVDs because DVDs have a lot of genre subject headings and I looooove genre subject headings.

What do you like least about your job?

I see about a hundred books a week that I want to read and I don’t have time to read a hundred books a week.

What kinds of personal qualities are most valuable in your position?

You need the ability to notice small details.

Any advice for kids who want to become library technicians?

Stay in school and don’t do drugs.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention, that I haven’t asked you about?

A lot of people think that I mean “librarian” when I say that I’m a library technician, but there are some differences. Librarians have Masters’ degrees and interact with the public more. They make the decisions, such as what programming will be offered and which books to buy. Library technicians do more behind-the-scenes stuff and aren’t often seen by patrons. They order the books, DVDs, etc. that the librarians have selected and catalogue them. Afterwards these items go to the material preparation staff to be covered, stickered, etc. They then go out to the circulation desk where the circulation desk will put them away, call patrons who have holds on them, etc. The circulation staff are usually the last ones at the library to see the books before they go missing.

To learn more about becoming a Library Technician in the U.S., check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook’s entry on Library Technicians & Assistants.

Cool Job of the Week: Homeschool Teacher

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.

I recently had a chance to ask her a few questions about homeschooling, and what made her decide to take up this important – but unpaid – position. Here’s what she had to say!

How many kids do you have who are currently being homeschooled, and have they always been homeschooled?

I have five children. The oldest is 19, next oldest is 17, next oldest is 15, next is 13 and youngest is 11. This year, my second daughter is a graduating senior. Next fall, my two oldest daughters will both be in college, so I’ll be homeschooling three kids. I’ve always homeschooled. Our “first” year was when our oldest was 4 — in 2002.

What made you decide to homeschool your children?

I decided to homeschool while I was a college student, long before I had a serious relationship or plans to marry. I met my first homeschooling family in 1989 and they showed me all the fun things they were doing. I was completely intrigued. I’ve always loved to learn and I was never satisfied with teaching methods that were presented to me. I caught a vision of homeschooling my family at age 21. I made homeschooling such a high priority that I brought it up in the first conversation I had with my future husband. I wasn’t interested in him if he didn’t want to share my vision.

What are the requirements for homeschooling in your state (for instance, did you need to acquire any teaching certifications, are there specific curricula that you need to follow or tests that need to be passed each year for the kids to show progress, etc.)?

The state of Massachusetts is one of the most homeschooling-friendly in the nation. Each local district decides what is “required” for each homeschooling family. In our case, we send in a plan each summer that describes what objectives and materials we are going to use. But it’s a plan, not a manifesto.

Homeschooling is rarely checked on by local government. For most families — that’s a good thing — we’re free to do whatever we want. As a result, my children have been able to meet individualized educational objectives and not feel the restriction of “grade level.” (For example, my 11-year-old is going to take 9th grade chemistry next year.) Then once the year is over, I summarize what we’ve accomplished, giving a “grade” for the effort and mastery level each child has for each subject.

I have the option to have them tested but I’ve never taken it. I know my children well enough to know their strengths and weaknesses and I feel like a test would put undue strain on them. However, I did make an exception for my 15-year-old son who, as a high school freshman, happily took a practice SAT test and placed in the 90th percentile.

Homeschooling parents, at least in Massachusetts, are the authority over their children’s education. The local district can ask for things like portfolios, test scores or progress reports, but I only give what I feel they need to have. A year ago, I did need my local superintendent to vouch for my oldest daughter — proving that she had met all the state requirements for high school graduation. The local community college just needed someone besides Mom to give her the okay. The superintendent was very gracious, pulled up our files and raved about how thorough our annual reports were. “Anything you need, you tell us,” was her message. My local district and I have a respectful relationship. I’m blessed. Not every homeschooling family can say that. Incidentally, I do have a degree in elementary education, but this is not required by any state in the U.S.

How do you divide your time between teaching and “mom time” and your writing career? How easy or difficult is it to switch roles?

We’ve been homeschooling a long, long time. And each year, I make choices with our time that will meet everyone’s needs, including mine. Generally, we’ve focused on homeschooling in the morning and I’ve done my own stuff in the afternoon. Right now my younger three kids do a great deal of independent work — so this year we spent an hour at the table each morning discussing the Bible, literature, history, poetry and Latin. Then, separately, they go off and study math, art, science, logic or writing, depending on their specific passions.

A homeschool day goes by faster than a regular school day because you are at your own pace, you don’t have interruptions as much, you don’t even have a “day.” My boys like to get up long before the rest of the family does and work on their graphic design, programming, or physics projects while the house is quiet. This doesn’t look like school, but it is. I don’t really switch roles. I do ask people to respect my writing time, but even that is an educational moment because my children need to learn boundaries.

What do you like MOST about homeschooling?

What do I like most about homeschooling? I can’t fully describe here how much joy it brings me. I love experiencing life with my kids. I love it that they find their passions and get excited about specific topics. Just minutes ago, my 11-year-old burst into my office to tell me how much she loves Life of Pi, a book I recommended to her. My oldest son was almost in tears describing how he used his programming skills to make waves and could see the connection between his Algebra 2 lessons and the curves on the screen. My 13-year-old son is carrying around The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with a smile on his face. Honestly, I could give you hundreds of examples like this. I am the one who taught these kids to read, and I am the one who gets to hear them reference poetry in their daily conversations, or have them recognize Latin phrases, or call out fallacies in bad arguments.

What has been the most fun lately is having Lesley University and Gordon College swing their doors wide open for my homeschooled daughters. Both of these girls were given merit scholarships. One daughter’s art portfolio was instantly accepted at Portfolio Day by the head of animation at Lesley. My other daughter’s leadership skills were awarded a Gross Fellowship at Gordon. My hard work is paying off and nothing, nothing, nothing has ever been a richer joy for me. I set out to create a joyful, engaging environment of learning back in 2002 and I succeeded. My kids are ready for college and they are going to thrive there.

What do you like LEAST about homeschooling?

What do I like least about it? I have only a few things I dislike:

  • I wish overdue library book fines were tax deductible.
  • Nothing drives me crazier than an overly-emotional, defiant 11-year-old who can’t concentrate properly on her short math lesson.
  • I wish it were easier to find other homeschooling families. We know many, but it’s still hard to maintain relationships with them.
  • I wish the connotations of homeschooling were different — in many cases families like mine are looked at as weird and nerdy. Often that’s accurate.
  • If there’s anything I really hate it’s that I have more years behind me than I do ahead of me. At most, I have seven years of homeschooling left. I write these words with tears; it’s no fair asking these questions of a mom whose daughter is graduating in a week.

Would you say being a homeschool teacher is a career, or just part of the job of raising kids?

Homeschooling is certainly not a career move. I didn’t sign up for it to receive anything, but to give everything. Without sounding sappy, this is a lifetime project of love. I wouldn’t do this for anyone else’s children (but if a parent was willing to pay me $30K a year, I’d negotiate terms). I can’t separate me as the homeschooling teacher and me as the mother, just like I can’t separate my kids from their academic interests. Homeschooling is setting out to discover the world as a family — it’s a great part of being a parent.

Learn more about Katharine and her army of 10 Minute Novelists at