In Fall of 2017, I transferred my position as library assistant to a high school in Arlington County, VA. Of the 2200 students attending this school, 80% are minority and 46% participate in the free and reduced price lunch program (APS, 2017). The school is a vibrant community of learners with a wide range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Teachers and administrators are committed to providing a wide-range of educational, social and cultural opportunities to our students.
In a previous elementary school position, I introduced an informal chess program three times per week to twenty fourth-grade students in an enrichment class. The librarians at my current high school learned about that class for elementary and invited me to share the game to students at the high school level. Our first aspirations to introduce chess were small. This paper is an update of what the idea has become.
Chess in the library
The students noticed the boards in the library during the first week of school. When one group of students showed interest in learning to play, I stopped my work and gave an impromptu lesson. They came back for more the next day, and then the next. I taught them basic theory of chess, stories about the first African American chess grandmaster, (Note 1.), and offered them freedom to play among themselves. Rather than make unwise choices, this group made the purposeful choice to stay in library after school to learn chess. Another group of chess players had been also requesting a chess club sponsor, and were glad to have the opportunity to play every day rather than be confined to a specific time and date format of traditional clubs.
The first group of students fell in love with the game, and began bringing their friends into the library to learn as the weeks progressed. Between my short lessons and collaborative learning between students at lunches and after school, we have approximately eighty active players throughout each school day, with an additional thirty onlookers waiting for boards to open up. I estimate that 120 different students play chess in the library over a school week. Based on the observation of my colleagues, some of these students had not been patrons of the library in prior school years. Last week I began teaching a more-formal introductory class in learning chess; the intended audience is girls who have shown to be intimidated by the boisterous play of male classmates.
We now have twelve chessboards set up in the library for play before school, at lunches and after school each day. Observing the high demand of boards, I could easily double this number of boards and not meet current student demand for playing time. Because I oversee the library space, the boards can remain on the tables throughout the day with minimal oversight by me.
I write this exploratory literature review to gain insight on chess as a teaching tool in public school libraries. The results of this review may lead to further personal research on the subject, or as an advocacy tool for expanding chess as a learning tool in Arlington County public school libraries.
An idea revisited
Using chess as a learning tool in library can meet goals of a 21st century librarian. Educational researchers in the past decade have advocated using the library as a hybrid learning space for STEM education (Subramanian, et. al. 2012). The authors write that “STEM careers are highly skewed by race, gender and income, favoring wealthier communities in comparison to less privileged populations” (Subramanian, et. al. 2012, p.164).
The 21st century idea of a hybrid learning environment is important, but not new. Libraries as early as those in 1860’s America had space dedicated for chess and gaming. These spaces were created to attract patrons, learn social mores and support the educational process (Nicholson, S. (2013, p. 334).
Libraries with adaptable spaces throughout the day and over time will serve the widest audience. A future-ready librarian will recognize that library space has multiple uses and can adapt easily to the flow of information, equipment and space that the patrons need and seek (FutureReady, 2017).
In this mindset, “That’s not the way it has been done before” is replaced with “How can we best meet the students’ needs today?” Without intent, an institutional mindset may be developed from having an inflexible library facility. When one can visualize change in a work environment, teachers, students and administrators can quickly adapt to the change.
Teaching and Learning
While learning chess can help build transferrable skills in math, history, science and music (Pagnotti & Russell, 2012), (Berkman, 2004), I have been emphasizing social and executive function skills to our students when we play. We talk about planning ahead and confidence building. In the past few weeks, I have seen these students teach new friends their newfound excitement for the game.
Social and executive function skills
Chess players use unwritten social cues during play. Although there are more rigid rules in tournaments, playing chess casually with friends allows a student to practice social cues used in varying social situations. Educational theorists describe the power of play in the learning process (Piaget, 1975), (Shelton, et. al., 2011).
Students on the autism spectrum may need specific instruction on social and executive function skills (Baron-Cohen, 1997). They may be behind their peers in learning social cues (Mazza, et. al. 2017). While playing games may help students learn, playing games deemed below their age level (the social level of their peers) may be embarrassing outside of the special education classroom.
In personal observation, students on the autism spectrum learn the structural rules of chess easily, but may struggle with unwritten social cues the game requires. I have had the privilege of teaching chess to students on the autism spectrum. A special education teacher has brought her students to library for several months to learn chess. These students were initially skeptical in their skills and resistant to learning the game. Once they recognized structure of the game matched their aptitude, their personal confidence in the game and classroom has soared. These students now eagerly await their next lesson, and I look forward to their library visits.
A surprise outcome of these lessons is that these students are now teaching neuro-typical classmates how to play chess during lunchtime. I see accomplishment on the faces of students with ASD as they share their newfound knowledge in a socially appropriate manner with classmates who may have avoided them previously. Chess allows these students to share their aptitude for statistical inference while simultaneously learning social skills from students outside their immediate social circles. While ethnic groups are still mostly separated during chess play, I am beginning to observe social interactions between groups that may not have intersected prior to the introduction of chess. This intersection of cultures will occur when a spot opens up on an unused board, which gets quickly filled by whomever wants to play next.
Chess and school achievement
Students struggling to perform academically also benefit from learning chess (Hong & William, 2007). For these students, I teach the board as a reflection of a social perception of the world, as developed within the 2,000-year history of the game. These students appreciate the underlying narrative of chess pieces rather than the mechanical movement of the piece. The pawns, I say, are the working class – if they proceed diligently at a specific pace, and look after one another, they have the potential to promote to advance their status. The back rank (queen, bishops, knights, rooks) that sits within the castle already have membership into the royal society, which is why they can’t promote to a higher level when reaching the opposing players back rank. Chess slang such as “walk the dog, skewer, swindle, pin, luft, gambits and forks” are among valid chess manipulations these students enjoy learning. I also teach that each piece is looking after one another, just as we [as an informal social group of chess players] need to look after one another outside of the game.
Whether I teach the mechanical skills of the game, or in narrative form, the result is the same- students who enjoy playing the game no matter from which direction they began. I tell all students that chess is an easy game to learn, but takes a lifetime to master. This concept helps them overcome the perception that chess is just a “brainy game for rich kids.” I have observed students with low academic success to-date have develop latent skills on the chess board.
I have also observed an increase in confidence and positive peer decision making skills during introduction of chess to the library. Positive peer pressure can aid improved decision making skills (Shin, J., Seo, E. Hwang, H. 2016).
While the administration and librarians at our school have offered generous latitude and flexible space in this project, it is the students who have helped evolve the program in a few short months. Because students have access to the library up to twenty hours per week, they can bring their friends in to learn and play at whatever time works with both student’s busy schedules (Braun, L. 2012). This latitude in open-play time and space has enabled the few dozen students I originally taught to share the game with their friends, who have passed the game on to a larger group of students. In collaborative learning, peers take on various roles within a group to learn together. Each individual utilizes their own prior learning to enrich the learning of the group. As the original groups I taught have expanded, they are now going outside of their own peer group to start a game, coach and teach one another. Unknown to us at the start, the trust built within this framework and open play format has allowed this program to become somewhat self-sufficient over a few short months. As an example, students waiting for an opponent will clean up neighboring boards for players who had to leave quickly, knowing the favor will be returned by others in the future. This show of altruism shows an ability to care for a larger community beyond one’s own immediate needs.
Freeman Hrabowski, President of University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, notes that learning chess is a foundation of success in engineering careers where collaborative learning is a cornerstone of academic success (Lapinski, 2002). An African American himself, he encourages minority students to get excited about the educational process by learning chess. Noting that minority students are a small population of engineering students, the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus has established a scholarship fund specifically for chess players (Lapinski, 2002).
Chess and electronics
When I began teaching chess in elementary school, I was hesitant to introduce chess apps and online versions of the games to students (Note 2). I learned to do so, however, when students wanted to play on weekends or when we lacked enough boards for everyone to play. After showing the apps to high school students, I thought they would not be back again to play in person in the library. This fear was unfounded. Students still arrive faithfully each day after playing online or through the Mac Book app. Rather than replace live chess with electronic versions, they are advancing their chess skills with these apps and bringing their new skills to practice live with friends.
One long time high school teacher observed our rowdy group of chess players after school. She commented that she was happy they were simply communicating with one another, rather than being glued to their phones. Before her observation, I had not considered that playing chess after school would also mean these students were not engaging in other activities, some of which may be more harmful to their personal health than electronic use. I appreciate her observation, and look forward to additional insights of other educators as this experiment continues.
Because chance or outside influence is not involved in playing chess, it may be the only time of a student’s day in which they are in complete control of their own decisions and activity. When I share this fact about chess to students, they begin to recognize the value of this time and the opportunity they have been presented. There is very little “messing around” time when sitting in front of the board, as they see other students eagerly awaiting their own turns.
Chess is a game in which the story is rewritten anew each time it is played. The game players become the storytellers (Nicholson, 2008). While the library contains many fixed written stories to reflect upon, an active chess group within the space gives voice to new storytellers on a daily basis. Viewed this way, students become the active producer of their own stories rather than the consumer of another’s work.
A love for chess can be taught in a variety of ways for different students. These students approach the board with different back stories that can be blended as they meet in front of a common board. Logical thinking developed through chess can help in other subjects. While we [teachers] may appreciate the educational benefits outlined above, students need only understand the following message – “We respect you as individuals and trust your ability to meet the challenges of this game.”
Chess imitates life (Gunes & Tugrul, 2017). The chess game has three key points: A beginning, mid- and end game. The game can be won or lost in the first moves. One can recover from a mid-game blunder if he can bring all his personal reserves together to refocus in a different direction. We can teach the power of personal decisions to students as we talk through choices on the chess board. The beginning, mid- and end game narrative can help students understand the importance of life-changing decisions, or simply give direction to a looming homework assignment.
A girl who learns chess will carry this game with her for a lifetime. She can sit in front of any chess board anywhere in the world knowing that the rules are the same for everyone. She can play another person without shared language, physical ability, age or skin color. There is a bond between chess players that is stronger than race or social status. By playing this game, she can gain social access to any socio-economic group in college and beyond. All opponents on the chess board are equal. To me, chess offers the only truly level playing field.
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A Grandmaster is the highest achievement level of International Chess. Our students now follow Maurice Ashley, the first black international chess grandmaster as if he is a sports star. Mr. Ashley speaks of how learning chess as a child lifted him out of an impoverished childhood in Jamaica. http://mauriceashley.com/ Mr. Ashley’s personal story resonates with many of the male students in our school.
When teaching chess at the elementary level, the IT and I at our school analyzed various chess applications before adding it to student iPads. We needed to find an app that would not introduce malware into the system, as well as prevented online play. I have shown the default chess app available to high school students on their Mac Books, but many are now also watching actual famous chess game replays on Youtube.