Cesar’s Way for Kids?

by admin on March 28, 2011

Anyone who can teach chess to kids has my utter, undivided admiration.

This year, for the second time, I am teaching a chess class for five weeks at a local kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school. I was pretty disappointed with how the class went last year, and didn’t expect that they would invite me back. However, they must be pretty desperate for after-school activities. To make a long story short, I was invited back and this year I specified that I only wanted to teach third through fifth grade, in the hope that I would get a slightly more mature group.

For the first two weeks, it was no better than last year — in fact, it was even worse. I had two kids in particular who never settled down and paid attention. It’s interesting to see that the kids test the teacher long before the teacher ever tests the kids. When I arrived at the classroom, one of them asked me, “Can I bring Roly Poly to class?” Then he opened his hand, and Roly Poly turned out to be a pill bug. I told him that Roly Poly would be happier outside.

I think that maybe I passed the test that time, but still I could never get the kids to focus on chess. I’d be talking about something, and one of them would raise his hand (or not) and say, “You look like you’re about 54 years old.”

What am I supposed to do? Ignore him? Commend him on his accuracy? It’s hard to avoid saying something — but in that moment (or even in the moment that the kid makes his obviously inappropriate comment) you lose your focus on chess. With young kids, once their focus is broken it’s hard to get it back.

The second class was even worse. I won’t tell the whole story, but suffice to say that there was a physical altercation between two of the students.

As I was leaving the school, feeling discouraged, a car drove up beside me and the people inside waved at me. It was the mother and two of the kids who go to the Aptos Library Chess Club. (Suddenly the library club was looking extremely genteel and civilized by comparison!) They both attend the school where I am teaching but they had not signed up for the class, and they were curious about who was in it. I mentioned a couple names, and one of them said, “Ohhh! He’s a stinker!” Funny thing is that the kid they thought was a stinker was actually, in my opinion, one of the best-behaved kids in class so far.

What I belatedly realized, from talking with the kids and the parents and the teachers, is that some of the kids in this class were known troublemakers. But the question was, what could we or I do about it? Fights in the classroom are completely unacceptable.

The third class, last Friday, was 100 percent better. It was as different from the first two classes as night and day. I’d say that we got in at least 20 minutes of good, productive instruction, and more than 30 minutes of chess play, without any of the nonsense from the first two classes. What made the difference?

First, the parent who organizes the after-school programs made a list of expected classroom behavior for me to read to the students. It read:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Keep your hands to yourself.
  3. Touch only your own chess pieces.
  4. Learn chess.
  5. Have fun!!!

I really like the way she worded this list. Note that there are no “Don’ts” anywhere on it. Not only that, the first item, “Be respectful,” started off a good discussion of what “respectful” meant and the ways in which they can respect me, each other, and the game.

Second, the mother of one of the more behaviorally challenged kids offered to sit in the classroom. She was out of sight, but nevertheless that boy was very aware that she was in the room, and all of a sudden he was no longer asking me about Roly Poly or telling me my age. (OK, that’s unfair, because it was another kid who made the age comment.)

Third, I did the lesson at the demonstration board before setting up any of the chess sets, and I made sure that they were all facing me. I think that was a problem in the first two weeks. I couldn’t really hold their attention because they were distracted by their own games, and half of them were sitting in chairs that were facing the wrong direction.

I think the main lesson, for me, was that the atmosphere in the classroom was stable before we started talking about chess. I’m borrowing that word from Cesar Millan, the famous “Dog Whisperer” from the National Geographic Channel TV show. In general, I don’t think that dog-training concepts apply to people (we’re primates, and we do things differently from dogs). However, one thing that Cesar says over and over in his show is, “This dog is unstable,” or “This dog is stable.” When the dog is freaking out, barking, not in control of himself, you will never be able to do anything with him. And I think that may be true with kids, too.

In the first two classes, I never had any control over the classroom. It was never stable. So any attempt to teach a lesson was futile. This time, thanks to the rules list and the invisible mom and the simple expedient of making sure that the kids were sitting down and facing me, we actually had an atmosphere where the kids could think about chess. And they did very well! It turned out that most of them really were interested in learning some chess.

If any of you have suggestions on how to create a calm and stable classroom, and how to prevent fighting or general “acting out,” I would be glad to hear them. This is (fortunately) not a situation I ever had to deal with when teaching college and university students.

P.S. I’m actually 52 years old, not 54.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brian Wall March 29, 2011 at 10:06 am

Things that happened when I taught Chess to kids –

I put one kid in the trash can for continual interruptions

I asked them if they wanted a simul or a food fight with pieces.

The prinicpal lectured us about noise because I was letting them run around like elephants to teach the Elephant Gambit.

I was collapsed with laughter as the kids ran into walls demonstrating the Drunken Penguin Opening ( Nh3 Rg1 )

Other teachers later told me what I did was basically illegal but I wanted it to be the kind of Chess Class I would enjoy if I was a kid.

So I’m the wrong guy to ask.

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