I began teaching chess nine years ago. As I recall, that first class had about sixteen boys and two girls. I have taught separate Chess for Girls and Chess for Boys for about six years at Malcolm X, two at Berkeley Arts Magnet, and many more girls are playing (roughly equal numbers at MX, but parity may take a few more years at BAM). Each year I ask the girls if they would rather have one class with boys and each year they give that idea a strong thumbs down. There are advantages for both girls and boys in separating the classes. For girls: The literature on teaching girls-only math classes is mixed on whether girls end up scoring higher on standardized tests, but unambiguous in finding that they do gain in self-confidence, they ask more questions, they like math more. My observations in chess are similar: the girls, on the whole, aren’t winning as much as the boys in chess, but all the behavioral indicators are much more positive than when girls and boys had class together. “Culture” can seem like an amorphous force to deal with, but girls at both schools have heard stories of how girls are not supposed to play chess. A fifth grader at BAM told me that when she was in first grade, there was some sort of sign-up sheet posted on the wall for a chess class just for girls. She remembers that somebody scribbled, “Chess is for boys” on the sheet, and her recollection is that no one signed up except for her. The first year of Girls’ Chess here at Malcolm X, a parent I didn’t know once passed by our classes. He stopped in to laugh condescendingly, shake his head and say, “Girls can’t play chess. Why are you trying to teach them?” For boys: There is a different atmosphere in the boys’ classes: typically more boisterous, more physical, more competitive. I think that is fine, and I’m glad they can have a hour together doing intellectual labor (not sports) in which “boys can be boys,” without the mediation of girls’ presence. And together: This school year I invited the top eight students in the chess tournament to come to the chess class of the other gender. This gives the stronger students more stronger opponents to play with, and it has worked out fine so far.
Dear Parents of Boys’ Chess Students: Last week I posed a simple question to your boys, “What do you need to change for you to become a better chess player?” and was delighted by their surprisingly thoughtful answers. Two_suggestions are now part of our routine. One was about focusing — several wanted to be able to “focus better.” I told them that was a smart goal and described my high school chess tournaments, where there would be hundreds of students in a gymnasium together, all absolutely silent and focused. I asked them how long they thought they could play and focus in silence. Their predictions tended to be long: six hours, nine hours, etc. I suggested we start with twelve minutes of silent focusing and take it from there. It was a challenge, but they did it, and we have practiced this each week since. On Tuesday, we stayed silently focused for fifteen minutes straight. The second goal that came up was what is technically called “board vision,” the ability to see the perils and possibilities of the whole board. This is the opposite of “tunnel vision,” narrowly focusing on just one piece or area of the board. To address this, I had the boys switch to a new board after each move, so that they would see a new position each time and have to reassess the whole board. This had the added benefit of making several boys simultaneously share responsibility for each board, which meant a lot less ego invested in each game, freeing the boys up to think more abstractly about the positions. They liked both of these exercises, and rose to the occasion admirably. One student commented that the class was “very peaceful.”
[From a parent letter describing the second year of the Malcolm X Chess Tournament, two years ago.] — My vote for the best quote of the tournament, so far, is a fourth grade student, speaking of her last round of play: “My heart was pounding so much that I could feel my glasses moving up and down.” — I overheard one student telling a friend how big a deal it would mean to be second grade champion. Overall, people played much more seriously, especially third and fourth rounds. A few faculty told me about how the tournament was all the buzz in their classrooms, and we had more children spectators than last year. [It has kept growing, from 32 students the first year to 62 last year, the third.] — There were several notable upsets of a student winning who wasn’t “expected” to win. For better or worse, the students do come with their own hierarchies in how they see each other — “I am better than him, and he just beat that person, so I will be able to beat that person.” Sometimes it was hard on people who used this logic and still lost. The children are more even in ability than they realize. For example, none of the students who were grade level champions last year could hold on and repeat as champions this year. [From last year’s tournament.] There will be a couple new awards in the tournament this year, one for the most beautiful checkmate and one for a pair of students who together create a great game. Current contender for #1 is [a student] who had a very spare mate using bishop, knight, and pawn. Often students prefer to get two queens and bludgeon their opponent to death. His solution is much more elegant. Current contenders for #2 are a pair of students. When one didn’t understand the rule about pawn promotion, the other, instead of being frustrated or condescending, gave her a series of hints and made a game out of the situation. That attracted a few other students who also tried to help out; it was a very sweet scene.