Infectious Thinking: Chess

IMG_1618 2I was glancing around my classroom before I unplugged the Christmas lights and took off, yesterday, and I saw this: A chess board had been “put away” by being placed on the Red Bin. The Red Bin is the place where notes, money, messages, etc. for the office are placed first thing in the morning. They then get sent down to the office with our lunch count in the green envelope seen under the chess set.

IMG_5301We are just beginning our school chess club, this year. I accepted too many members, and don’t have enough of the nice big vinyl boards with 3 inch plastic pieces for everyone. (Christmas idea;) So, we have been using a mishmash of different sets. The one in the picture is magnetized, that’s why the pieces can stay in place.

What struck me about this pic is the concept of actually sending the board to the office! Did a student think that this was a message for the secretaries? Should we move a piece and share the board with another class? There is a buzz around the school of students becoming increasingly interested in this “thinkers game”. I have been working on populating a webpage from my classroom website with chess related information that could be helpful not only to the members of our club, but any beginning player. Mr. Vitale, my third grade teammate and partner in running the chess club, and I have made several videos to post on this website. My dream is for the whole school to become interested in playing chess. I wouldn’t be upset if other elementary schools caught this vision. Wouldn’t it be great for our district, state, country to learn, practice, and master thinking strategically, analytically, as well as creatively?

Mr. Vitale and I began a chess game this past week during lunch. We couldn’t finish it, so it remained set up in Mr. Vitale’s room. He couldn’t help but show and talk to his students about it. I took pictures and shared them with my class. By Friday, we were able to complete the game, but only after both of our classes worked on analyzing the following images to help with potential moves. It was fun, exciting, motivating, and infectious. By Friday, my students were sneaking onto Chesskid.com whenever they could. I found iPads with chess games begun, hiding under notebooks.

Here is an idea: Teachers sign up for the Chess Challenge. The magnetic board travels around the school, visiting learning spaces (not just classrooms). A chess enthusiast, either chess club member or one of my students or myself, can visit participants, if desired, to help with some chess instruction. (In other words, teachers shouldn’t feel like they have to be good at the game to participate.) A paper with notation will accompany the board. This will also be posted on the website for classes to keep up with the game, virtually. The color a class is responsible for will depend on which is moving at the time the game arrives at their doorstep. If it is Black’s move when Room 205 gets the board, then they are part of the black team. When a class captures a piece, they get to keep it until the end of the game. They can display it as a chess trophy. Much of the game is strategy, so rooms could even display thinking by posting writing or drawings of the ideas that prepared their move. Perhaps awards could accompany the moves that displayed creative, analytical thought.

My aim is to not only spread the love of chess, but inspire thinking, especially an affection for analytical reasoning. Lets get kids excited about using their cognitive abilities as much as they are pumped to tackle, shoot hoops, hit home runs, etc. The brain may not literally be a muscle, but it should definitely get exercised!

Sources:

Editorial Staff. (2013, October). Treat Your Brain Like a Muscle: Exercise It. Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.toyourhealth.com/mpacms/tyh/article.php?id=1885

Is The Brain A Muscle? (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.top-health-today.com/general-health/is-the-brain-a-muscle/

Chess, The Classy Equalizer

IMG_5301I couldn’t possibly be more excited to be starting a chess club at Willow Lane Elementary! This Tuesday is our first meeting. I had tossed around the idea of starting this club when I began teaching at Willow, 8 years ago. Instead, I began an after school club that published a school newspaper: Willow Lane News Update.

This experience was very rewarding. I learned a lot about iMovie, editing and publishing, plus Google Sites. I found a fantastic tool for online publishing; Smore.com. I don’t regret one minute of it.

The chess club will be a lot different because, while it can be addictive, it doesn’t hang over your head the way a publishing deadline, albeit self-imposed, might. It’s just a game. Or is it? –Check out these two battle for Room 207 2017-18 classroom champion after a week and a half tournament!

The idea for this blog began when I decided to pick up the Newbery Medal Winner that I’ve been slowly chewing, “Tales From Silver Lands” by Charles J. Finger (1924). Low and behold, what do I think of but chess… Of course! But, hear me out: A character from the second story (Yes, I am only on the 2nd tale!) exhibits a wonderful quality that chess shares: Equality.

There is an aging king who is seeking a son-in-law to take over the reign of his land. The beautiful, talented, wise princess has found no suitor to her liking. Men from every corner of land compete in sports and arts to win the woman’s affection. One day a man dressed in rags shows up. Every other suitor brought wonderful gifts for the princess and king. This man has nothing. But, when he competes in the contests, his carefully aimed arrow splits that of the best marksman’s. This ragged man does not just run faster than the deer-like champion. He flies like the wind. And, when it comes to singing, the man dressed in rags attracts the beautiful birds of the jungle, who cover him with wonderful wings. In other words, the man who seemingly had nothing, possessed the greatest talents, abilities, and attraction.

One of the amazing things about chess is that anyone can excel. It is a classy equalizer. No matter the age, gender, physical ability, or socio-economic status, chess is a vehicle anyone can drive.

It was the ability of the man dressed in rags to out match his opponents, rather than his looks, wealth, or status. The events that he competed in could have been practiced for nearly free, so that this character could have grown up running and singing. He might have made his own bow and arrows that he used to gather the food to stay alive. In the same way, chess can be taught to and played by all. It is a game that anyone can learn and grow to play well.

The 2018 World Chess Championship began this week. I was reading an article about Magnus Carlsen, five-time world champion, and was impressed by one of his life goals: “Make chess cool” (Kleinman, 2018). Carlsen has produced an app called “Play Magnus” in which chess enthusiasts can choose different ages of Magnus Carlsen to challenge. The idea is for players to gain bragging rights. This champion of chess is putting himself out there for kids to beat! “I defeated Magnus Carlsen!” is what he hopes to hear from kids who will spread the excitement to future potential pawn pushers. What a great ambition. And, the greatest equalizing part of it all is that the app is FREE!

Another popular and fantastic equalizing story is that of Phiona Mutesi, “Queen of Katwe.”  The true story of Phiona, who is from a village in Uganda where kids have to sleep in hammocks, high off the ground, so they don’t get washed away, out of their homes by surprise floods, among other things, was made famous by author Tim Crothers (2013). His book was made into a Disney movie in 2016 (Nair).

Frank Brady, the author of the one of the best-selling chess books in history, “Profile of a Prodigy,” wrote an article about an exhibition, “Into the Human Light: Uganda” (2016), for the US Chess Federation. In addition to all of Phiona’s hardships living in Uganda, Brady suggests that her plight was “sad”… until “She found chess.” Never mind economics, chess can raise the human spirit.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most influential organizations in helping me prepare to begin the new Willow Lane Chess Club: After School Activity

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ASAP works to equalize the opportunities for urban kids to be able to participate in the challenging, competitive, thinking, rewarding game of chess.

Partnership (ASAP) of Philadelphia. This past summer a friend, Julia Dweck, invited me to a Scrabble training that took place on the eleventh floor of a building in the heart of Philadelphia. I made the hour-plus drive to meet her there, and it was one of the better decisions I’d ever made! Come to find out the same organization that provides free training and supplies to educators interested in starting Scrabble clubs also promoted chess clubs. I greatly enjoyed my Scrabble training, and before leaving, found out about the chess program.

There is endless amounts of free apps, websites, curriculums, worksheets, etc. about chess online and at libraries. I downloaded a humongous manual on managing a chess club the summer before. It wasn’t until I revisited the ASAP office on Locust St. in Philadelphia, again in July, though, that I felt like I could actually do this. A handful of other future club leaders and myself were shown how to focus on deepening an understanding of each piece, rather than simply explaining the rules and letting kids have at it. Not only is this training completely free, but if I were an educator within the city limits, the organization would have provided me with supplies for free! In addition to the phenomenal training, ASAP also sponsors several free tournaments and other events throughout the year. The kids of Philadelphia are incredibly lucky to have this truly philanthropic organization. It is working to equalize the opportunities for urban kids to be able to participate in the challenging, competitive, thinking, rewarding game of chess.

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Sources:

After School Activities Partnerships. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2018, from http://www.phillyasap.org/index.php/chess/aboutchess 

Brady, F., Dr. (2016, October 22). Exhibition Review: Into the Human Light: Uganda. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://new.uschess.org/news/exhibition-review-into-the-human-light-uganda/

Crothers, T. (2013, March 12). Game of her life. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from http://www.espn.com/espn/news/story?page=Mag15gameofherlife

Finger, C. J. (1924). Tales From Silver Lands. New York: Doubleday. [3rd Newbery Medal Award Winner]

Kleinman, D. (2018, November 9). From Chessboard To Boardroom: Magnus Carlsen’s Winning Regimen. Retrieved November 10, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielkleinman/2018/11/09/from-chess-board-to-board-room-magnus-carlsens-winning-regimen/?utm_source=TWITTER&utm_medium=social&utm_content=1888317888&utm_campaign=sprinklrSportsMoneyTwitter#34984ebb78dc

Nair, M. (Director). (2016). Queen of Katwe[Video file]. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.amazon.com/Queen-Katwe-Theatrical-Version-Oyelowo/dp/B01LYVID8R/ref=tmm_aiv_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Weimann, M. (2018, July 19). “From Paralyzing Parameters to Powerful Potential; The Classy Pawn”. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from https://thecaptainofclass.com/2018/07/19/from-paralyzing-parameters-to-powerful-potential-the-classy-pawn/

Weimann, M. (n.d.). Willow Lane News Update. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://sites.google.com/eastpennsd.org/willowlanenews/home

“From Paralyzing Parameters to Powerful Potential; The Classy Pawn”

Being a pawn in someone’s game is not positive, but why? We’ve all heard the analogy used, but what does it mean?IMG_8434

This evening I attended the second of three two-hour training sessions in Philadelphia, preparing me to coach a chess club this coming year. I sat directly across from a manIMG_2885 who could teach a plant to play competitive chess. He cleared the chess board of half its pieces. Yesterday, we learned all about how to help kids comprehend the use of every chess piece, save one. This one covered two entire ranks* of the board before me.

IMG_8777“No other piece has more rules governing it than the pawn,” Steve Shutt told the table of teachers. As people produced parameters for the pawn (we came up with eight), I pondered the symbolism of the weakest piece being the most restricted. My first thought was that the rules protected the pawn. My blog title was going to be, “Protecting the Weak is Classy”. I found it curious that the symbol of something being meaningless enough to thoughtlessly use up without recourse would have the most regulations. A practical parallel might be that a ruler must regard certain stipulations in order to “pawn off” a person, and perhaps these were installed to safeguard the weak. That would be classy.

Alas, although the chess player has laws governing the use of the most prolific piece, IMG_8776these rules do NOT protect the weakest member of the team. On the contrary, it is the rules that make it weak. The pawn is not allowed to retreat; It can’t move backward. While other pieces can simply land on a space, capturing the piece occupying the square, a pawn is not allowed to attack straight on; It must attack diagonally. This restricts its movement, so that the pawn cannot move forward when something is blocking it. Pawns get stuck all over the board, forced to wait for the pieces in front of them to be captured or moved. Ironically, the ONE unique power of the pawn, its ability to move two squares forward for its first move, can even be stripped away through en passant!

There is good news for our symbolic pawn, however. As I mused about the plight of the pawn on the way home from my chess training, I was speaking with a fellow chess enthusiast and new friend, Alex Pappas. He pointed out that the pawn is the only piece that has the power to change. If the pawn reaches the opposite side of the chess board, it can change into any piece it wishes. Most players choose a queen, the most powerful piece, but the pawn is not restricted to changing into a queen. Finally, the pawn is liberated from all restrictions. IMG_8709

In the game of life, a person wielding power would do well to realize the potential of his/her pawns. A hidden talent could be a pawn. Perhaps the career path you have chosen does not permit you to be as artistic as you would like. Your creativity is blocked everywhere you try to use it. Keep pushing forward, and maybe your natural talent or personal passion will be honored in the end, providing you with power and opening exciting doors. IMG_8774

This is one of the most attractive things about America. Someone can grow up surrounded by peers who want to cut you off (diagonally), yet persist to rise above the tide, weaving in and out of adversity, to finally be crowned with riches and power. There are parameters that fence you in, but there isn’t anything tying you down. I’ll leave you with this: While climbing up is classy, holding others back or down is not…