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.
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?”
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.