Why my students asked Obama to play chess with them

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

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.

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.

Every one of my students learned to play chess this year. What's more, they all began to think more clearly and often, and think before they acted. Achievers blossomed and borderline drop-outs are now making the honor roll and are seriously thinking about college and jobs that do not involve fries or result in an orange jumpsuit and leg irons.

Think of the potential. During a time when funds are running dry, if they've not already evaporated, and handwringing about how to turn children into thinkers seems to be growing, a chess movement in education could be just what we need to begin to revive education.

Many of my students face the threat of expulsion for not being able to pay their tuition. Other students have been accepted to college, but have failed to find any funding. This is absurd and sad.

But, thanks to chess, these children have become critical thinkers. Determined, they held a mini "war room" discussion. They decided that their best strategy to get out of this corner, and help others do the same, was to promote awareness, raise money, and to "go for the king." Their move? Challenge President Obama and the White House staff to play them and the students at O'Connell School in a game of chess – at The White House. This benefit they've concocted may seem like a bit of a stretch, but it's a risk worth taking.

Last week Rahm Emanuel received a long cardboard tube packed with their essays, letters of request, and one precious possession: a scholastic tournament set with "Mr. Prez" scrawled in Sharpie marker on the underside of a king.

Money raised for this benefit will go to a new fund for chess scholars providing scholarships any kid can have a chance at winning by playing chess in an HHCF-sponsored, Ryan Academy, or O'Connell School tournament. Hopefully this will also inspire individuals to donate to the schools or HHCF.

Students will work with the CEO of Hip Hop Chess to create a guide and DVD to be given to schools interested in how they can bring chess into the classroom, without expense to the school or taxpayer.

In six months these two pilot schools working with the HHCF have built self-esteem, raised standardized test scores, and reached those thought to be lost causes. It's possible for this success to reach children across the US.

It's riding on one spectacularly out-of-the-box strategy and a new administration that is being given the opportunity to help create change without an act of Congress.

Lisa Suhay writes from Norfolk, Va., and is the author of eight children's books.

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