By Eileen Blass USA Today
SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. — Quiet, please. The second- and third-graders at McGinn Elementary School are playing chess, which means they’re concentrating, which means they shouldn’t be interrupted.
It’s hard to believe these are the same kids who, just an hour earlier, could barely contain their glee when Fischer made a surprise visit to an assembly in the library. There were pictures, autographs, hugs.
Fischer, executive director of America’s Foundation for Chess, has become a celebrity among the elementary school set.
Kids know her as the Chess Lady, the tiara-wearing medieval queen who hosts the chess lessons they watch each week on DVD. Although chess has long been a staple of after-school programs, the foundation aspires to bring chess into more classrooms through First Move.
It’s not the first initiative to teach chess to elementary students. Since 1986, Chess-in-the-Schools has taught the game to low-income students in New York City Public Schools. No one keeps track of how many teachers use the board game as a teaching tool, though plenty of books are available to help them.
The foundation, based in Bellevue, Wash., aims to expand First Move nationally and beyond. Launched in the 2004-05 academic year in 11 Seattle-area schools, the program last year reached more than 50,000 students in nearly 2,000 classrooms across 27 states, mostly by word of mouth. In 2008, Idaho became the first state to encourage public schools statewide to use the game as part of their curricula in second and third grades, and Maryland’s Senate education committee this month considered a similar proposal for its public schools. First Move can be found in Antigua, Kenya, Canada and Mexico, and Fischer’s group has been in talks with the education ministries of Norway and Denmark.
Fischer (no relation to Bobby, the American who in 1972 famously beat the USSR’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship) says the weekly lessons, mapped to standards typical for second- and third-graders, serve multiple goals. They encourage students to strategize and solve problems, involve math skills that will come in handy when they study algebra, and introduce content related to medieval times. (Did you know that the queen, the most powerful piece on the chess board, gained strength in the game over time, as her role in real life grew more prominent?)
While First Move doesn’t claim to improve students’ test scores, some researchers have found chess can improve academic performance. A 1993 study, for example, found that a group of students in the New York program scored significantly higher on reading tests than a control group.
Chess also addresses social skills, which the Scotch Plains students seem to have picked up on very quickly.
Players always shake hands before the game “as a courtesy” and afterward as a way to say “good game,” says second-grader Zoe Wernsing, 8. It is “unsportsmanlike” to offer unwanted advice or commentary during a match, says second-grader Kieren Adams, 7. And though beating an opponent (especially a parent) is a worthy goal, “you learn more from a game you lose than a game you win,” says third-grader Athena Postlewait, 9.
Some educators say chess can be a confidence booster. “For some children this is a way to express their intelligence,” says author and University of Texas at Dallas senior lecturer Alexey Root, who since 2007 has taught online courses for aspiring and practicing teachers nationwide who want to use chess as a learning tool. “You see lines of force and manipulate things in your mind’s eye.”
Fischer, who hopes to add about 1,200 more classrooms this year, says the biggest obstacle isn’t lack of interest but lack of funding. Chess may have gotten a boost from former president Bill Clinton, who, in his 2007 book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, called the New York Chess-in-the-Schools program “a classic example of a very good idea with no chance of becoming a reality without private support.”
In Scotch Plains, that caught the attention of the owners of the Stage House Tavern, who liked the idea of supporting something that would involve schools, co-owner Tom Britt says. They approached the district anonymously, offering to fund First Move if educators approved its curriculum. The cost to put the program into 39 classrooms across all five of the district’s elementary schools was about $25,000.
Second-grade teacher Sondra Chernoff says teachers, some of whom had never played chess before, like the opportunity to build their repertoire of skills.
“We’re like the students — we’re learning like everybody else,” she says. And by the way, she adds, they’re also star-struck by the Chess Lady. “I think the teachers are more excited than the kids.”