Friday, January 15, 2010

Teaching Chess in Oaxaca

First, a disclaimer: I'm no chess expert. In fact, I haven't played in over 30 years. Even then, I was mediocre to lousy. But I do understand how to play it, sort of.

Call me crazy, but I've decided to TRY to teach chess to the kids at the Estancia Infantil. You may recall this is the State government-run agency (DIF) program for street kids. This semester, we have a younger group--from about 6 or 7 to about 14. A couple of the older kids already know who to play and are pretty good. We've tried to enlist them in helping to teach the younger kids.

This idea got started when I read a study somewhere...don't remember where....that kids who learn chess do better in school. They develop forward thinking skills and planning (what's the next move going to be?). And they do better in math.

So the coordinator of our program, Janet, kindly went out and bought 2 hand-made wooden chess sets. And Eva, Martha, Bridget, and I boldly waded onto the field of battle, chess sets in hand, with the idea of teaching the kids chess. What was I thinking?

We started with taping off a chessboard on the cement floor of our classroom, with the thought of doing "human" chess. Each kid could be a chess piece, and thus learn the movements of the different pieces through kinesthetic learning (a terrific way to learn something, by the way). Awful idea! We had near fist-fights over who would be the knight, the bishop, the king, etc. And NO ONE wanted to be a pawn. Oh well, scratch that idea.

So yesterday, I brought along one of the chess sets and quietly placed it in the corner while we all (including the staff social worker) helped the kids with their homework. Poor Chucho! He's a little kid...I'd say about 6/7. He really can't or won't focus. His assignment was to write 10 words beginning with the letter "G." Martha & I tried to help. He simply wasn't interested. Or it could be he doesn't quite have a good grasp of his alphabet yet. But what he DID want to do was play chess! After a while, we gave up with the letter "G" assignment and decided to play chess, given that he had such a great interest in it.

What a surprise! He picked up the movements of each piece quickly. And most gratifying, you could actually "see" his thinking process. He'd say, "well, I COULD move the rook over to this square, but our opponent would take him on her next move." Wow! Thinking one move in advance. We used the phrases, "mala idea" (bad idea or bad move) and "en peligro" (in danger). Soon, Chucho was using those same phrases, "my bishop is 'en peligo' over there." With his rabid enthusiasm, we soon had a little group of onlookers. Who couldn't limited themselves to just watching, but often had to handle the pieces on the board in play....stack a pawn on top of a rook, etc. It makes for chaotic play, but what the heck....

A funny cultural note: in Mexico, they say instead of "capturing" the opponent's piece you "eat" the opponents piece. Makes for a juicier, video-game kind of action.