Chess: A Story of Teaching and Learning

In my first teaching position in a middle school in rural Vermont, my team had a daily “exploratory” period scheduled. Teachers were responsible for supervising an activity that was supposed to allow students to explore an interest without the traditional limits of academic classes. One of the exploratory activities that I offered which proved to be very popular among the students was chess. We purchased a small collection of chess sets from the local discount store, and students signed up for my first session. At our first session, only students who knew how to play arrived, and they were surprised to discover that I did not know how to play. Within minutes, they were teaching the teacher. As I could not remember all of the rules, our first games were interrupted with my questions, their correcting, and their advice to reconsider moves. When I offered chess for a second time, students who had never played signed up.

In subsequent sessions, a diverse group of students arrived. Skilled players paired with other skilled players, skilled players paired with unskilled players and thus became mentors top peers, and in some games, students tutored me as I tutored other novices. Soon all of the students on the team who wanted to learn to play had learned. Together, the students in the first session of chess knew more than I did, and without being open to their instruction I would have remained ignorant of a game I still enjoy.

Interestingly, (and a part of the story that I had forgotten until I recently reread the journal I kept for my first few years of teaching) no students wanted to have a team tournament, everyone was content to share expertise and simply enjoy the game. In my journal I recorded the details.

No students signed up today when I listed “Crusader Chess Tournament” on my sign-up sheet. I asked  Jake about it, and he said, “we don’t care about a tournament, we just have fun playing, and we like showing others how to play.’”

Together, we learned to play chess in a social situation.