So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Knightly Devotions

This is my third year of teaching chess in our son’s grade school. Contrary to what I expected, it gets tougher every year. While I have some great ideas I have received from others who have run scholastic chess programs, they are only partially helpful. Many of those programs are aimed at competition, and we just aren’t there. In fact, I have learned there are at least three big obstacles to starting a scholastic chess club: the emotional maturity of the child, the level of chess knowledge they come with, and when they join during the school year.

First of all, let me say that our school chess club is based upon the idea that chess is a classic ability everyone should know, improving logic and problem solving skills and promoting sportsmanship. Subsequently, no one is ever turned away. This principle is largely responsible for this set of problems, so I realize I have made my own bed.

chessThat said, the administration agreed with me at the beginning of the year that primary school children in general would not have the ability to sit still and play chess. Therefore, a child has to be in fourth grade to join. Since the primary is in a separate wing of the school, being “beyond the double doors” has meaning akin to a rite of passage. Using this existing distinction to define the privilege of joining the chess club is accepted more easily. This is not a hard and fast filter; we admitted a second grader based on faculty recommendation and consultation. This boy has shown he already knows how the pieces move and he is focused. At the same time, a fourth grade girl who has been with us all year apparently has not yet learned how all the pieces move. There is some suspicion she is pretending to be confused to gain attention. Even some of the older students cannot remain quiet, and must be reminded they are disturbing other players’ thoughts. The noise and distraction get in the way of teaching, even for the mere ten to fifteen minutes I would like, just as they would in the classroom. Even when a lesson manages to slip in, the difference in maturity shows. Younger players are less likely to move center pawns out early, even when instructed repeatedly. It seems the younger children shy away from the kind of confrontation early center play can start.

Another obstacle is the variation in the children’s “chess maturity”. I currently have students that have never played the game before this year, and I have students that have been in the chess club all three years. Their needs are obviously different. My wife is the school librarian, and acts as the faculty advisor to the group. She is willing to take the new learners and teach them the moves. Our idea at the beginning of the year was that we could divide the group between us, with me teaching the next level of play. However, it has become apparent there are at least three groups that need attention. There are those learning the moves, those learning very basic concepts (control the center of the board, protect the king), and finally the students who are looking at somewhat more advanced ideas (doubled rooks, bad bishops). As this goes forward, I suspect there will be more differentiation.

Add to this the constant inflow of new students to the club, and we sometimes take two steps forward and one step back. It can be a bit frustrating, but I will firmly stand by the commitment to teach anyone who wants to learn, even teachers who show up! More volunteers would be great, but very few people can come in after school.

Most of the chess programs I have seen that are highlighted in the news, or who write about their success, are based on the idea that they will take students who are already chess players and take them to tournaments. There we see the best and brightest. We are far from that goal, though I would love to be able to do that, but my group of kids is just not there yet.

If you have any suggestions, please let me know. What qualifies me as a chess coach for the school is not any great ability to teach, and obviously (if you have been checking out my chess rating on the left) not any fantastic skill in chess. I am just the guy who said “yes”. I would love to hear thoughts on how to make it a better chess experience for all.

Roll on!

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