Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Why my students asked Obama to play chess with them

It could help keep them and students like them in school.

By / March 20, 2009

Norfolk, Va.

Six months of chess in the classroom as a learning platform transformed 40 of my students, many of whom are labeled "underachievers," from victims into victors – at no cost to the taxpayer or school. Now that success is at risk because of the ailing economy.

Skip to next paragraph

Too often "private school" is automatically associated with well-heeled students and a posh environment. In reality, many tiny private schools exist to serve students who have been left behind by harsh, large public school classes due to a wide variety of issues ranging from sheer sensitive brilliance to serious family issues. Like many public schools these private schools often struggle to meet the needs of their students.

Our small private school, for example, is little more than four walls; no computers in the classrooms and blue-collar families working multiple jobs to educate their children. Our children come from single-parent families and many students work after school to pay their own tuition. It's the same story at hundreds of schools across the nation.

I teach five totally different classes each day: American government, English composition, British literature, journalism, and creative writing while earning less than $16,000 a year before taxes. I obviously love this job at Ryan Academy High School and find the challenge of pushing students to learn important, to say the least.

While schools nationwide cool their fiscal jets and big businesses retool their corporate jets, teachers everywhere are learning to make educational bricks without straw. To connect with the unique minds in my classes, I had to step out of the box and onto the chess board.

And it worked.

My students successfully solicited free chess sets and learning materials from: The Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF), The US Chess Trust, the Josh Waitzkin Foundation, The House of Staunton, and the Virginia Scholastic Chess Association. Intel may even be sending a laptop so students can play online for chess scholarships.

The only other classroom using Hip-Hop Chess – which stresses unity, life strategy, and nonviolence in the classroom – for daily teaching, is John J. O'Connell High School in San Francisco. Both have seen students transform from underachievers (in some cases juvenile delinquents) to students eager to learn and think.