Why chess for special education students?
I have been honored to be asked to present at the spring conference of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics in Massachusetts on March 19, 2016. My talk is
Chess: I’m Me; You’re You; Let’s Play
Description: Compulsory fun by playing chess reveals strengths in all math-challenged students, whether they have diagnosed conditions or are just normally shy. From grid reading to strategic thinking, chess expands minds and brings students together in head-to-head friendly competition. Chess mastery is not necessary for the teacher to have. You just need a willingness to see where those 64 squares will lead your students.
How did I get into this?
As a high school music student at Interlochen Arts Academy, I knew a lot of high-achieving math students. The connection between math and music seemed to “play” out in the number of music majors going to the Michigan math competition each year. (I tried the test and was not asked to participate at the state level!) Math talk and the inevitable storytelling of long northern winters created a school rumor that if you really wanted to know math and music, you should play chess. This game, it was said, was the actual bridge between them.
I didn’t take up chess. But the magical imagery stayed with me. A few years ago, a mid-career change turned me into a special education math teacher. Hmm… dare I try chess? So, of course, I went to a musician friend. Who, of course, had six chess boards to lend me.
Here’s what I’ve found:
Every student finds something interesting AND something challenging in chess.
When students play chess, they know that they are playing a game with history. They like participating in this ancient world.
Students who don’t consider themselves good enough at anything to compete with others find their Inner Achiever.
Their Inner Achiever likes to win.
Their Inner Achiever learns to lose.
Students come to school ready to play anyone in class, not just their own friends.
Students start anticipating their own and their opponents’ moves. They also like anticipating moves when they watch classmates’ games.
Math becomes visual, strategic, and fun.
Think chess is just for honors kids? Watch a low-achieving student get better than you. I have found that any student might become the best player in the class. Academic grades are not an indicator, nor is emotional stability. The kids you think will not have the patience or the cognition to increase their skills are the kids who will humble you.
There is magic to chess. I still don’t know if it bridges math and music, but it does connect kids to their best and most passionate selves. And from there, I can teach them math.
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